Socio-Authoritarian Reasoning

Most of the blocks on our creativity are due to memes whose primary function is to smooth social interaction. In social contexts, they can help people get along with one another and prevent them from stepping on one another’s toes, but in the context of reasoning can be obstacles to progress. Many of us spend a lot of time and energy learning how to fit in, not hurt others’ feelings, or not be seen as a weirdo without recognizing that the habits we learn in order to accomplish these goals are obstacles to problem solving outside of a social context. I call this socio-authoritarian reasoning because it is reliance on social authorities instead of taking epistemic or moral responsibility for one’s thoughts or actions.

Learned helplessness is a prime example of how social learning interferes with other learning. A child attempts to do something on their own, but fails. A parent steps in and does the task for them instead of providing encouragement or keeping out of the way of the child learning on their own. So instead of learning how to solve the problem on their own, they learn how to signal to more capable people that they are inept. People who have learned this strategy end up hopelessly lost when they have to solve a problem on their own away from teachers or parents.

Another problem is equating criticism or error with personal insult. If making a mistake is viewed as something that shows one is stupid or inept, pointing out errors in held ideas will be seen as personal insults. One will prefer to conform as closely as possible than to attempt to create new ideas which could be seen as errors and cause them to lose social favor. This focus on the self is also problematic because it can be difficult to refute theories about one’s “essential” self because of the almost metaphysical nature of these theories. An idea or even behavior may be criticized and abandoned easily, but it is often much more difficult to shake a negative self-conception since one can always reinterpret one’s actions as having ulterior motives. It can be difficult to escape or be helped to escape this self-centrism because of the fact that the necessary criticism may itself be perceived as personal insult.

Turning one’s focus from judgments about selves to criticisms of ideas can therefore have tremendous impact. It is much easier to acknowledge that one holds an evil idea than to acknowledge that one is evil. It is also truer in that every person is universal, so all facts about them, including whether or not they are good or bad, are contingent on ideas held. A theory’s truth or falsity, morality or immorality remains unchanged and is therefore a better object for criticism.

Turning the above problem around, many people hesitate to criticize the ideas of others in order to avoid hurting their feelings. Doing this is either paternalistic to the other person or limiting oneself for the considerations of another’s feelings. If the person would not react negatively, you have kept information from them for no reason. You may have done so in part for your own benefit for fear of being unable to deal with another’s feelings. If the other person actually will react badly, it is not right to subject yourself to the dictates of their feelings, no more than it is right for you to subject others to the dictates of yours.

The education system plays a large part in encouraging socio-authoritarian reasoning. Playing, working through problems on one’s own, and developing one’s own sense of what is true and what isn’t without dependence on any authority is important in helping develop the ability to reason independently. Our current education system teaches children to learn to decode what the teacher wants and to provide whatever that is as efficiently as possible. Instead of taking the time and energy to learn concepts that could apply outside of a classroom, children are incentivized to memorize facts or to learn what the teacher likes or doesn’t like. Many of the most creative people are those who have spent less time in classrooms and more times in nature, pursuing some art, or messing around on computers. One learns in these pursuits that there are facts with an existence independent from whatever any individual thinks or proclaims.

Being a creative and effective teacher is difficult, and so many, to some extent, resort to methods that require simply following a script on their part and rote memorization on the part of the students. Instead of finding ways to get students interested in the same problems the teacher is interested in and evaluating attempted solutions, she evaluates the student’s ability to read her mind. It’s often the case that a teacher asks a question only to reject various answers because they are not the answers the teacher was looking for, not because they are inadequate solutions to a given problem. Think of what it looks like when you are asking a genuine question. If you ask “why is the sky blue?” and someone offers solutions, you will either criticize the solution for failing to answer your question, accept their solution, or attempt to learn more about what they mean. When a teacher asks a question they often respond with “that’s not quite what I was looking for” or respond that an answer was a good try, only to reject it without much or any argument.

Being forced to spend time with other children can also contribute to teaching social instead of independent reasoning. Children may choose to play whatever game most other children are playing, or what the cool kids are playing, or what the bully won’t beat them up for instead of engaging with their own interests. Whatever actual game they are playing, the meta-game is understanding and catering to the desires of other children. It is, of course, not always the case that playing with other children is bad, even on the playground. But the kind of play that is beneficial is that in which it is necessary to actively create and recreate the game being played so that it keeps participants interested. This is the kind of situation children are often in when they play in a neighborhood park, where they are always free to go home if the game is boring or the other children act cruelly.

What are some motivations for socio-authoritarian reasoning? First, it can be a relief to to place blame on someone else for the good or bad results of whatever you do. If you are just doing what you are told, you may be able to convince yourself that you are not responsible for what happens as a result of your action. It can even be the case that when following orders is actively bad for a given person, it is more comfortable to stay in the position of having relinquished responsibility instead of taking responsibility for the bad things that are happening to oneself. It is often easier to accept a bad thing than to leap into the unknown.

Second, almost no one is in a position of great power. There are almost always only ever a few people in any given situation or context who have most of the prestiege, power of persuasion, influence, political power, or sheer capacity for domination. People with this power can make things difficult for most people, and so most people try to avoid their ire by appeasing or accomodating them.

Perhaps the most obvious solution to the above problems is to care less about what other people think of you. Another possible solution is to rely on formal etiquette in governing social reactions. Etiquette is a body of knowledge that has, similar to law, developed over thousands of years to help resolve some of the problems people have in interacting with one another. An advantage of a focus on etiquette is that it removes some of the ambiguity from social situations. Following rules of etiquette will help you avoid stepping on people’s toes without proscribing everything that might cause someone else to be uncomfortable. No set of rules of etiquette is perfect of course, but they may provide a starting point for developing a personal code.

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