Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Aggressive Nature of Curiosity and Acceptance

Curiosity and Acceptance seem like qualities we'd encourage in for example children. Virtues worthy of capitalization, no matter your education in english grammar. You want little kids to be curious, ask questions, explore the world. You want children to be accepting, to not be intolerant of difference, to appreciate diversity, to empathize with other points of view etc.

Of course, you don't want kids to learn to simply accept the status quo, particularly injustice. Hence it might seem like a good pairing with curiosity. To question, to explore and then accept what is there.

Why then would I say my own adult penchant for curiosity and acceptance are my two most aggressive traits? This is I should say, self diagnosed based on my experience of the interpersonal interactions that have resulted in the most felt ill-will directed back at me. If that's a bit word salady for you A) relax because it's about to get worse. B) it could also be stated more generally as 'this is what I tend to be doing when I piss someone off or upset them.'

And yeah I get second opinions, my curiosity drives me time to time to solicit negative feedback from people close to me whom I trust not to pull their punches. So I know I have other qualities people dislike that they would vote I address way up the priority list from curiosity and acceptance.

Now where to unpack why I think these traits in me are aggressive? So many points of entry.

I guess I'd draw on Gordon Livingston M.D. a clinical psychologist that wrote books titled 'Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart' and 'How To Love' among others, but somewhere between those two he (I'm paraphrasing) makes a statement to the effect that psychotherapy is in part the process of allowing people to realize 'we are not who we think we are, we are not who we say we are, we are what we do.'

At least that's how I'd poach his phraseology. But the reason I bring it up is because among the general population of industrialised nations in the modern world, a minority of people undergo psychotherapy at all, and a minority of them persist with it. This, while allowing that some people might naturally be inclined to the position 'we are what we do' makes plausible that there are large camps of people that believe either they are who they think they are, and people who believe they are who they say they are.

It get's more convoluted when I think about it. Because all three camps are to some extent, an opinion meaning if you believe you are what you do, then who you think you are is someone who is defined by their actions, so the distance between being who you think you are and being what you do becomes 0 if you think you are what you do.

See, I said it would get worse. Furthermore, if I ask someone which camp they are in, and they sit and think about it, then tell me 'we are what we do' the trouble with this self report, is that somebody who thinks they are who they say they are can say 'we are what we do.' and that's who they believe themselves to be because that's who they said they are, and that's who they think they are.

So just to end this confusing wordplay, which was not for nothing, you enter the wisdom of 'don't listen to what people say, watch what they do.'

And if it isn't already apparent, I'm in the 'we are what we do' camp. For a number of reasons, the big one is that behavior can be seen. The next is that behavior is what we have to contend with. And for good measure it's that we never actually receive people's intentions, instead we receive the effects.

Now of course intentions matter, apparently a pet dog can read when master steps on her paw by accident (without ill intention) and when master deliberately gives it a smack on the butt for attempting to eat the chicken carcass off the kitchen bench where humans prepare food. The unintended action might be more painful, but less indicative of master's character and values than the less painful bottom smack. The importance of trying to accurately infer the intentions of behavior is because of it's predictive value, the dog can learn that trying to snatch food off the bench on the sly will reliably produce punishment, where falling asleep on the ground where the master walks is not reliably going to produce painful paw stepping. I'm about as good at learning as a dog.

Alas, the world is full of people who believe the 'real' them lies within, some homunculus pulling levers from within that is inscrutible to the outside observer. Which is to say, there are people who believe that it is illegitimate to infer who they are from what they do.

One of the benefits of the Trump Presidency is we have such a prominent high profile example that brazenly demonstrates this disconnect between self-image and behavior. I would infer, based on his behavior, that Trump is in probably the smallest camp of people who believe they are who they say they are. So you have a man that says 'Nobody respects women more than me.' and then we have numerous testimony to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other sexist behavior including his own leaked testimony and a substantial volume of tweets written by him where he demonstrates no respect for people who are women.

So handy example examined, another thing it highlights is the prevalence of double standards that really makes sense on this front. Most people regardless of what camp they are in, whether they believe they are who they think they are, deep down inside, or whether they generally believe they are whoever they profess themselves to be, or whether they believe like me they are what they do; I would guesstimate most often believe everyone else is what they do.

The exception being high context cultures, like Japan that have the concepts of tatamae and honne, translating literally to 'stands before' or 'facade' and 'truth'. In Japan tatamae is given precedence, everyone generally behaves as if what people say they are officially is the truth. Curiously though, implicit in the very word 'honne' is that is what people really are. I'm not sure though, under what circumstances the chief bureaucrat from the Ministry of Finance arguably the most powerful individual in Japan, stops deferring to the Prime Minister and the reverse power relationship is actually acknowledged...

Anyway, digression aside it says the question should never really be posed as 'are we' so much as 'are you' who you think you are etc.

Anyway, back to curiosity and acceptance. Which first?

Well I guess I'm feeling acceptance. Because to some extent I'm fairly confident it is a fairly universally human desire to be accepted for who we are. This is unconditional love.

Now if I believe we are what we do, and using a Golden rule, accept people for who they are as demonstrated by how they behave, maybe you can start seeing how acceptance becomes suddenly quite aggressive.

Because if someone believes themselves to be either who they profess themselves to be, suddenly accepting them for their actions including the disconnect between what they preach and what they practice is to accept them as a hypocrite. Furthermore, if someone believes themselves to, for example, really be a good person deep down inside and they just struggle to manifest it in their behavior and you accept who their behavior says they are, say someone who routinely lashes out at their partner is accepted to be an abuser, and not the person who deeply loves that partner they believe themselves to be.

Maybe I should have started with curiosity. Because both people who believe themselves to be who they think they are (which might also be usefully thought of, as people believing who they tell themselves they are) and people who think they are who they say they are, don't generally like to have this belief questioned.

I really thought this would be much simpler to explain, and hopefully my point is becoming transparent. Maybe it can be summarized as: Curiosity and Acceptance become acts of aggression when there's a disparity between beliefs about the true self.

So let's just take one example, that I fear multiple people might relate to and suspect I'm talking about them and I can only say in my defense (plausible denial) that it's actually such a common example in my life that it's what a psychologist writing a book filled with case studies would call a 'composite' I shall call my composite 'Eugene'

I meet Eugene and he tells me he's 'not a cheater' he tells me this because he is currently preoccupied with his recent act of romantic infidelity. 'I'm not the kind of person who cheats. I thought I loved Ysabelle, but then I met Imelda. We had an instant connection, like I've never experienced before.'

Now acceptance is acceptance is acceptance, it kind of always works the same way. Albeit there is some confusion as to whether it is a passive or active verb. I'm inclined that acceptance is a positive act, though have some sympathies to those who believe when someone passively accepts a status quo, why they would feel it a passive action. My counterargument though is that while it may be reflexive or even coerced by being a 'lesser evil' choosing to do nothing is still an affirmative positive action.

Curiosity on the other hand can be a blunt heavy cudgel or a life saving scalpel and everything in between. It can also manifest in multiple dimensions and pay-off at different times.

So in the case of Eugene, even before I ask a single question of him, my curiosity may already have been offending his sense of self by having previously interrogated just what 'kind of person' cheats, and smack him in the face with a cudgel by informing him my understanding is that he's exactly the kind of person who cheats.

Wacking him once with psychological phenomena like exceptional thinking, then again with the illusion of superiority, then once more with the statistics on happily married people cheating, and so and so on until he is an oozing pulp of resentment.

Or with enough skill, something I believe to be a skill set called 'compassionate inquiry' my curiosity could theoretically manifest as some kind of keyhole surgery unobtrusively and painlessly, perhaps even enjoyably isolating and removing the cognitive dissonance causing Eugene pain.

And this is the thing, the sticking point. It can seem so counterintuitive that what we do is who we are, because you kind wind up in situations where during a conversation you look down at your feet and notice your lead foot is pointing away from the conversation partner and to the door. From this observation, you can actually glean a piece of information about yourself that you weren't consciously aware of - you can't wait to get out of this conversation.

I enjoy learning about myself this way, because a large part of who I am operates at a level below my conscious thought. What I do can yield information that obliges me to update who I say I am, and who I think I am. Conversely, a change in my mental behavior, ie. a change in my belief similarly carries an obligation to update both who I report myself to be, and how I behave. And to complete the trifecta, if I declare I am something, then it obliges me to be good to my word, and also justify my proclamation cognitively.

This is the power of privileging behavior. The gaps shrink. There is less opportunity for hypocrisy and double standards. It is in  my experience, a great way to live. Conversely my curiosity has lead me to accept that most often, people who subscribe by deed to a belief that they are what they say they are, or think they are most often hold that belief in order to avoid painful confrontations with themselves.

Perhaps the most cliched example is the addicts proclamation 'I can quit whenever I want, I just don't want to.' and the AA's first step 'admitting you have a problem.'

I am an aggressive confrontational person. But I would hope the impression I haven't fostered is that I do that due to a lack of emotional self-regulation, or anger management, or through psychopathy. To me it's more like coming across two people in a fight and intervening, except most often it is somebody beating themselves up. I would like to calmly talk sense into the person, but often owing to my own incompetence my good intentions manifest in me aggressively engaging the assailant.

And most often I fail, the person doubles down on avoiding their pain by beating the fearful part of themselves into submission and I walk away resented. Eugene resents that I have accepted he's the kind of person that cheats, when he hasn't himself. The addict resents that I have accepted their addiction when they haven't themselves.

Sunrise, sunset. The thing is, failing is painful for me, but it's how I learn about myself. It may be a case where the Golden Rule backfires. Treat others not as I wish to be treated, but treat others as they wish to be treated?

Maybe there's benign cases where someone emotionally and or psychologically tortured by their own inner demons will harm nobody else if left to be, but it will become problematic when applying that standard to Narcissists and Psychopaths and other personality disorders, where other's pay the price for their self-deception or straight up deception.

Anyway I'm calling this done. I'll keep trying to work on my skillz.

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