This time I’m going to tie up a few strands of thought into a neat little speculative bow.
Last month I wrote I Hate the Plate, and it started like this:
My wife told me she has a “stress bucket”. When new tasks come in the bucket gets gradually filled up, and when she crosses them off her list it gets emptied. As long as the bucket doesn’t overflow she’s fine, but if it does, due to sick kids or things going pear-shaped at work, she loses her shit — snaps at the rest of us, can’t sleep, cries, and/or eats too much very dark chocolate.
I tell you this because once she phrased it like she did I realized it’s not how stress works for me. I don’t have a stress bucket, I have a stress plate. As long as there’s anything on it I have to get rid of it before I can feel restful, at all.
I don’t know why I have a plate because having a bucket just seems better. She has a greater processing capacity than me, as evidenced by her being, apparently, much less affected by the constant administration of tasks that comes with being an adult. Despite the neverending deluge she says she’s fundamentally happy with our situation, and I struggle to say the same.
When you have a stress bucket you’re ok with having outstanding tasks or obligations — things that need to be attended to, basically — as long as they don’t become so overwhelming that you can’t keep up. With a plate you’re not fine with any such at all. For example, we have different philosophies towards tidying up. She’s fine with leaving stuff lying around for a while to put away later, while I insist things must be taken care of immediately. If you decide to have a tangerine, for the love of God throw the peel inte the trash right away. To me, things lying around for any amount of time are “open tickets” that create stress by just existing. This has led to several heated arguments between us. Yes, with a plate you need to tie up all loose ends, finish all tickets, and close all cases before you can feel at ease, and in the long run, mentally healthy.
I also said that it’s not the magnitude of tasks so much as the number of them that matters to me. It feels like the effort required to keep track increases much faster than the number of things to keep in mind. Two things take four times as much effort as one, three takes nine, four sixteen, and so on. When I can focus on only one thing it doesn’t particularly matter how big or effortful it is. It’s not anxiety-inducing at all to, say, lay new flooring at home or mow the lawn, no matter how long it takes and how much I sweat. As long as I can focus on the thing in front of me without having to keep mental “channels” to the rest of time and space open, I’m far from lazy.
From Plate again:
I’ll do stuff like that for eight hours straight and come away from it refreshed as if after a good night’s sleep. But ask me to do a thing while I’m in the middle of doing another thing and I’ll struggle to not bite your face off.
One of my best days last year (not a great year for fun, admittedly) was all about building a windbreak for our wooden deck. A full day of light work with my hands, listening to relaxing trivia podcasts, and I felt no need to even take a break. But if she asks me to pack “all the stuff we need” to go to the beach for the day and I’m 40% of the way towards hyperventilating from the sudden stress spike.
I’m just the same way at work. When I have a single and clearly circumscribed task I’m pretty content. If I have to juggle more than one project, or deal with a more open-ended one when I can’t neatly separate what is from what isn’t part of the task — and thus can’t “close off” everything that hasn’t got to be considered — satisfaction drops like a stone. When I have several open-ended tasks going on at the same time I have to remind myself that it’s a bad idea to drink on a weekday afternoon.
What I’m trying to say is that it seems to be a feature of my psychology that I have to severely limit, ideally at zero, the number of open tickets I have in my mind. Everything to be considered has to be right there, on the table in front of me, and I must know there’s nothing else. Then I’m able to relax and dig into it.
But this post is called Platist Politics, so where’s the politics?
Well, politics are about relationships between people in a society, so how you relate to others likely has bearing on your preferred politics. And think about what other people actually are: fellow beings with interests, needs, wants, and desires which, unless you’re a sociopath, you recognize deserves consideration.
In other words, other people have to be attended to.
My next self-quotation is a footnote from Variations on the Tilted Political Compass from last december that discusses the trait personality psychologists call agreeableness. First, here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
Agreeableness is a personality trait manifesting itself in individual behavioral characteristics that are perceived as kind, sympathetic, cooperative, warm, and considerate. In contemporary personality psychology, agreeableness is one of the five major dimensions of personality structure, reflecting individual differences in cooperation and social harmony.
People who score high on this dimension are empathetic and altruistic, while a low agreeableness score relates to selfish behavior and a lack of empathy. Those who score very low on agreeableness show signs of dark triad behavior such as manipulation and competing with others rather than cooperating.
And here’s what I said in Variations:
I’ve never liked the agreeableness construct because it doesn’t make sense to me personally. It combines being highly empathetic, interested in people and sensitive to others’ needs with disliking conflict, confrontation and aggression. Those aren’t the same at all for me. I’m not particularly empathetic, and actively, continuously considering others’ needs and wants is, I’ve noticed, for some reason highly cognitively and emotionally taxing (and I consider blanket demands to do so to be a fundamentally aggressive imposition). At the same time I value kindness, courtesy, and respect a lot and judge aggression and meanness harshly (but silently). Those are just very different things.
My behavior towards others is not a function of “live” intuitive empathy for the most part (that’s reserved for a small set of people I have close personal relationships with, and it’s draining even then). It’s more of an inner moral code or idea of personal virtue — a precompiled, internal, idealized image of how a good person behaves — rather than an in-the-moment, on-the-fly sensitivity to what behaviors other people want and expect from me.
I just find it seriously effortful, tiring, and anxiety-inducing to constantly think of what other people want and how they feel. It means that I have to keep several concerns active in my mind at once, and that feels very similar to how I experience outstanding tasks.
Now given that my mind works this way it’s no surprise I prefer an ethical code based on rules and principles, and not on empathy or some fuzzy ideal of self-sacrifice without clear limits. An extension of that is, I suppose, a conviction that if you want something from somebody it’s your responsibility to ask; you should not expect others to anticipate your needs. To demand things like that means making unreasonable and unjustified claims on somebody else’s scarce mental resources.
To be clear I’m not saying I don’t care about what other people are feeling, it’s just that it’s typically reactive and not proactive (unless we’re literally talking about my family, but even that is tiring, no matter how rewarding in other ways). It also doesn’t mean that I don’t abhor harming people. I wouldn’t hurt a fly. Or, ok, I would in fact hurt a fly, but I do feel a little bad when I swat one.
Let me also say that I’m not trying to argue for or justify anything right now. I’m just noticing that this is how I feel.
When you extend this disposition to politics you get an intense dislike of, for lack of a better word, collectivism — the idea that we, by default, have a bunch of broad, implicit, and unarticulated obligations to our fellow citizens and society as a whole. The mere existence of such potentialities triggers the stress response. What you do tend to like is the concept of rights. Political and moral rights are specifically “no questions asked”; they’re designed to cut off any other, vaguely defined and delineated set of concerns you need to weigh back and forth before you know whether or not you can do something. Rights short-circuit all that: if you’ve got the right to do something, that’s all you’re need to know and think about.
That brings us to my third self-quotation, from the first tilted political compass post. There I had two axes separating the political left from the right and one of them was how much you prefer decoupled or coupled society:
In decoupled society the default relationship between two people is that of no obligations whatsoever (special circumstances like friendship or family bonds don’t count since we’re talking about the macro scale). The only obligations are to respect explicitly stated rights and agreements. No expectations beyond that are valid (for example, between employers and employees). Social problems can and should be adressed with formal means: contracts, property rights, tort law. Political decouplers like money and the market as institutions because they quantify and decontextualize social obligations.
In coupled society what it means to be a good person or what may be required of you at any point is open-ended. There are not clear boundaries between people and you are expected to take others’ or society’s interests into account as much as your own. Anything you do that plausibly affects anyone or anything outside yourself is everybody’s business; duties are not fully specified and can never be completely discharged or fulfilled. Social problems can and should be adressed by everyone taking on themselves to be more self-sacrificing and focus less on what rights they have to do what they want. Political couplers dislike money and the market for the same reasons decouplers like it.
In part two I explained it a little further in response to a few who confused coupled society with valuing social bonds in general:
You have social bonds to some people like family and friends, which means you owe them to think of them in three full dimensions, to feel their pain, to come to their aid, and to not just respect their interests but make them your own on a deep, emotional level. If you treat them instrumentally, transactionally or in a blind, rule-based way you’ll damage the relationship.
The “coupled” view I’m referring to is the ideal that we treat everyone around us as if they were friends and family. It’s unattainable in practice but still something we’re supposed to try to do if asked, and in any case not explicitly reject. It means that a competitive, transaction-based market society where it’s acceptable to model unseen strangers as objects — as means and not ends that you interact with indirectly through a law-contracts-and-currency interface, instead of fully-fledged fellow human beings you interact with through caring relationships — is on some level deeply wrong. Given this, we get a moral-political vision that is what I described: there’s no clear end to our obligations to think of others. This description of utopian communities is what I mean by seriously extreme coupling.
Decoupling is an explicit rejection of this overwhelming implied duty in the form of demarcation. You have open-ended obligations towards people you have personal relationships with and clearly defined obligations like “respect rights and agreements” toward others, but not open-ended obligations to people in general than can be invoked and/or expanded at any time. “Nobody owes you anything” is a decoupler’s response to perceived overentitlement. It is typically not meant to refer to family and friends.
Now, it’s nice when somebody says exactly what you think they mean so you don’t have to reconstruct it. Noted socialist Freddie DeBoer, in his book The Cult of Smart, says this:
As a socialist, my interest lies in expanding the degree to which the community takes responsibility for each of its members, in deepening our societal commitment to ensuring the wellbeing of everyone.
Yeah, that. That’s it. That’s what I’m talking about.
I don’t deny that it sounds “nice”, and I recognize that the far end of decoupled society is not ideal. I’m certainly not an extremist. It’s obvious to me though, that I start at the decoupled end intuitively and then moderate towards the center, and not the other way around. What I mean by that is while I accept that exceptions in the coupled direction is often justified, they need to be specifically argued for and justified every time. It is not and must not be the default. And here I think I have different, even opposite intuitions from many others (like Freddie).
I think back to an episode at work where I was collaborating with a nonprofit customer dedicated to combating a specific societal problem. At one point we were all discussing where the responsbility for this problem lied, and we concluded that none of the candidate actors really were — it wasn’t on anyone’s plate (sic). My immediate thought (which I didn’t say out loud) was “yes, this isn’t anybody responsibility in particular, so it’s nobody’s responsibility, which makes it difficult to adress” and I was ready to go from there. However, at the exact same time one of them said “right, it’s nobody’s responsbility in particular, which makes it everybody’s responsibility“. I highly doubt me and this person votes the same way.
You might say that the “coupled society intuition” corresponds to the classic maxim “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”, while the “decoupled society intuition” corresponds to its inverse: “if you’re not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution”.
I might go even further and say that some seem to have an intuition that Society is somehow a superorganism that has agency and responsibilities. Society —and Society is shorthand for “everybody”— is then responsible for everything that goes on inside it. There isn’t any particular distinction made between action or inaction, or between “doing something” and just “allowing it to happen”. Everything that happens in Society is something that Society “does”. It counts as an action and is therefore the subject of responsibility — Society’s (i.e. everyone’s).
The opposite intuition sees society very differently. It’s not an agent that does things but more an arena like the natural world where social outcomes aren’t so much done but simply happen, according to something like natural processes. Things that occur in nature are not considered “actions” and are not the natural object of moral evaluation, and “people acting according to their natural individual rights and incentives” is thought of like “the laws of physics playing out” in this view. Moralizing these happenings and intervening in the system’s working is thus not natural, no the default, and has to be specially justified each time.
This dichotomy isn’t new political philosophy by any means, I just feel that nothing I’ve heard so far has explained this particularly well in terms of intuitions.
To summarize this post’s message in one sentence: based on the infallible scientific method of introspection, I’ve come to suspect there’s a connection between having a “platist” stress response to tasks and preferring a decoupled, libertarian-like intuitive politics because an obligation to actively consider other people’s interests at all times is experienced as mentally overbearing and oppressive in the same way drowning in to-do:s is.
Now wait here a moment. Isn’t that just selfishness? Aren’t you just describing being a selfish person?
Maybe? I guess that’s ultimately subjective. “Selfish” means “too selfish” or “unacceptably selfish” in actual use, and where that line is drawn is a matter of some debate. If you want, you may consider this an exploration of the phenomenology of selfishness. What does it feel like and how is it justified to oneself?
If we were to accept that label it does make me wonder what it feels like to be an unselfish person in this sense. Do they not mind having to do this all the time, because they have stress buckets instead of plates (it’s true that my wife the “bucketer” is much more naturally concerned about others than I am)? Or are “unselfish platists” unselfish in a deeper way, and simply accept that they must endure this kind of stress and anxiety because it’s the right thing to do? That’s pretty hardcore. Or do they not experience having to perform tasks and having to take others’ interests into account similarly at all?
I’m really not sure.
• • •
We also think differently when going on holiday; she’s fine with renting an apartment and cooking our own food, while I want to stay in a hotel and eat out every meal. To me you’re not really on holiday if you have to cook and clean, at all.
To use a computer metaphor it’s like my mind runs out of memory as soon as I have more than one thing outside myself to think about and have to use swap space, which slows everything down by like an order of magnitude.
A comment said that political coupling/decoupling likely reduces to the agreeableness trait and I don’t entirely disagree. Although I think being very disagreeable and conflict-prone isn’t the same as preferring decoupled society, which is formal and distanced but not hostile.