Author Archives: david

Open to Interpretation

Let me tell you some stories.


You are walking through the countryside, and meet a shepherd tending to his sheep. You strike up an idle conversation, in the course of which you ask him how many sheep he has. “Oh, quite a few” he replies. Asking further, you learn that he has more sheep than his brother, but they both have fewer than their father did, and that the largest flock in the area belongs to their cousin who has more than them both combined. What you don’t learn is how many sheep that is.

After further discussion it emerges that there is a simple reason for this: The shepherd is innumerate. He has never learned to count. So the reason he is not answering your question is not that he doesn’t want to, it’s that he does not have the concepts which would allow him to understand the question as you mean it, let alone to answer it.

You offer to teach him, and he accepts, and you spend some time teaching him a Yan Tan Tethera based system. It gets late, and he offers to let you stay the night, and as the sheep are put away in their enclosure for the night you help him count them, and in the morning he counts them as they leave. The two numbers are the same, a fact that seems natural to you but comes as something of a surprise to him.

After this, the farmer’s world has changed. Very little has changed about objective reality – “just” some new knowledge in one man’s head – but to him the world has a fundamentally different character. Things in the world have a property they lacked before: quantity.

This does not just let the farmer answer questions like “How many sheep do you have?”, it lets him answer questions like “Have you lost any sheep?” more easily, and it lets him answer questions like “Do you have enough food for your sheep over winter?”. Questions that were perfectly legible but difficult to answer now become possible to solve with his new concepts.


A boy was raised in a strict religious environment. As he comes of age, he starts to feel different from the other boys his age: They are becoming interested in girls and he is… not. The girls he knows seem fine, but they hold no special attraction to him. He is, however, much more interested in watching the other boys, and does not understand why this doesn’t seem to be a widely shared interest…

At this point the story diverges as one of three different things happen.

In the first branch of the boy’s history he confides in a close friend at school, someone from a different background. The friend in question shrugs as if it’s no big deal and says “Maybe you’re gay?” and goes on to explain that some people are straight, and thus mostly attracted to people of the opposite gender, some people are gay, and thus mostly attracted to people of the same gender as them, and some people are bi, and are regularly attracted to people of a variety of genders and it’s perfectly normal to be one of these.

At this point the boy’s world is changed. He has a word that describes what he is, and this lets him find out more, and connect to other gay people. He keeps his sexuality a secret from his family, knowing from talking to others that they will not approve, but eventually moves away from them, and after several relationships of varying lengths finds a man who he marries. They live happily ever after.

In another life he had no friend he could talk to about this, and so talked to his priest. This seemed to him a reasonable choice – the priest was a kind and good man to those who fit within his worldview. This kind and good man explained to the boy in his compassionate, fatherly, voice that his desires were a perversion, sent by Satan to tempt him, and that god would forever despise him if he gave into them and became a true pervert. As such, it was his duty to resist temptation and to pray to god for strength.

The boy nodded solemnly, and went home to pray. Eventually through his increased devotion, and his desire to resist temptation, he joins the priesthood. His life is not an unhappy one, but he always feels there is something missing.

In the third version of his life, the boy tells no-one. He is clear that he is different, and does not feel that his difference is wrong, but he knows how his community will react and hides it from them. Eventually he marries a woman, who he does not love, and they have children together, who he does, but his marriage is made miserable by the sense of wrongness he has of it, and while his life is not without happiness it contains significantly more misery.


A student came to me with a maths problem that they were stuck on. I showed them how to look at it, and then they solved it. I taught them nothing new in doing so, but I guided them through applying the tools they already knew until the problem made sense.


A friend comes to you. They have had a fight with another friend, and want to talk about it. You listen thoughtfully, validate their feelings, and ask them questions about their experience.

You have not taught them anything new, but at the end they feel like they understand the situation better than they did before, and are happier for it.


There was a woman. She was a looter, and will be charged as such.

That is to say, when the flood came and she was trapped in the city, she broke into a vacant store in order to steal food for her children.

The man who murdered her husband when they were running to escape the rising waters was of course an upright citizen defending his property.


There was a woman. She was very good at her job. She was also black. The white men who she worked with did not believe she was good at her job. They never made any overt reference to her gender, or her race, but they were constantly asking questions about her work that they would only rarely have asked eachother and minimizing her achievements.

She complains to HR, and they explain to her that everyone gets these sorts of questions and that is her responsibility as an individual employee to showcase the quality of her work. She attempts to explain about systemic racism and the aggregate effect of the different levels of demands placed on her as a black woman, but the person from HR holds to a theory of individual action and refuses to acknowledge this complaint as valid. Accusations of racism are dismissed: Race has never been brought up by the coworkers, and they’re not bad people, therefore they can’t be racist.

Later, stories circulate the office about how she is paranoid and making up conspiracies against her in order to be the center of attention.


There was a child. They were lazy, and never did their chores, or their homework.

They felt immsense shame over this. They knew they should do these things, but they couldn’t. They started, and were distracted by something else, or they intended to and they forgot, or they tried to but felt such overwhelming anxiety at the idea that they couldn’t even start.

Which is to say, they were lazy and then made excuses for that laziness.

When they grew up some more, they learned about ADHD, and considered that they might have it. They got a diagnosis, and medication, and a lot of their “laziness” improved. It didn’t make like perfect, but it made it manageable.

They still feel a great deal of shame about how lazy they are, even though they know that it’s ADHD.


You go to a friendly coworker, and explain how you are being sexually harrassed: Another colleague is visiting on you all sorts of unwanted sexual attention, and does not stop despite your asking him to.

Your friend asks you why you cannot just take it as a compliment, and the conversation takes a very different turn than you were hoping. You eventually manage to explain the problem to him and teach him enough feminism 101, and in the end he seems to understand and acknowledges that your experience is bad, but by then it is clear that he needs to learn a lot more before it is possible for him to help you out.


I travelled to America recently. When I did, my sleep was disrupted. I couldn’t understand why. They told me that it was because of jet lag – the time was different here because of the rotation of the earth and when the sun rises at different points of it.

This explanation was obviously nonsense. The world is flat after all, so how could the sun rise at different times in different places?


All of these are stories about interpretation. Many of them have other significant ethical features, but they all have a core that is about how we interpret the world.

The world exists, and we inhabit it, but we also interpret it, turning our rich experience of reality into concepts that we can relate to and understand. When we see a sheep, we experience it as a sheep. When we see a flock of ten sheep, the concept “ten” is something we experience as a property of the sheep, even though it exists only in our heads.

Interpretations can be tied to theories, and those theories can be right or wrong: The earth is not flat, so any interpretation of facts that I base on it being so will likely result in wrong conclusions. Thus interpretation is constrained by reality, but it is not determined by it: A situation can be interpreted in many different and mutually incompatible ways, but not all ways are compatible with the world we live in.

Which of these interpretations we choose is not value neutral. The same person may be lazy or have ADHD, may be gay or a pervert. The choice between these two is not solely one of verifiable facts (although there are factual differences), but one of the values and subjective experience: What is considered right and wrong, how the world seems to those involved.

These interpretations have consequences. An interpretation transforms your world, which may uplift you or may cause you shame. It might cause you to exonerate someone you shouldn’t, or condemn someone you should. It might let you solve problems you otherwise could not, or it might prevent you from solving problems by hiding the truth from you.

Interpretation is not just about concepts, it’s a social act. I can help you interpret a situation even if I never tell you anything new. You can share your interpretation of a situation with me, which I can then either accept or reject.

By accepting and building on each other’s interpretations, and by working together to interpret more richly and deeply than we can on our own, we create a shared understanding of the world.

A theory-driven, value-laden, shared understanding of the world, with significant consequences for those we share the world with.

When building anything social, the question we must always ask is this: Who gets to participate, and are they all treated as equals?

Although I talked about “our” shared interpretation of the world, there is no single “us”: There are many groups of people, some disjoint, some overlapping, each sharing interpretations, and different groups may interpret the same events very differently.

Even within a group, not all of a person’s interpretation will be shared: Trying to explain racism or sexism, or your needs as a person with ADHD, to your colleagues will ofen quickly put the lie to the the idea that your company has a single shared way of looking at the world.

How do we ensure that we interpret the world in a way that works for everyone?

References and Further Reading

Although I have not explicitly used any of their terminology, this is primarily a post about epistemic injustice, a concept coined by Miranda Fricker in her book of the same name. My favourite piece on the work is Kristie Dotson’s paper “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression”, which is a response to Fricker’s work but also stands well on its own as an introductory piece. The types of epistemic injustice talked about in this post are mostly “hermeneutical” and “contributory”, but also contain other aspects of the ethics of interpretation that I don’t think fit cleanly into either of these (some of which are not even obviously epistemic injustice issues: The looting example is not about the injustice done to them in their capacity as knowers, it is about the injustice done to them by other people’s ways of knowing).

To a lesser extent, my presentation also draws on Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell” (especially the example of why “looting” is a problematic category), and Will Buckingham’s “Finding our Sea-Legs”, for making me think more about the impact of the stories we tell – both an instance of interpreting the world in its own right, and the basis of the structure of this blog post.

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Advice to new speakers

Public speaking is a great skill, and one that I strongly recommend people develop. The ability to get up in front of a crowd and speak to them is surprisingly useful in its own right, and besides teaches you a lot about communication and confidence.

Public speaking is also terrifying for new speakers, and as a result they often try to play it safe. This is entirely reasonable – when you are nervous, making your environment safer is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, new speakers are often wrong about what makes a talk safer.

Here is what you as a new speaker should do to actually make your talk safe:

  1. Under no circumstances read your talk from a written version of it. This includes reading your slides.
  2. Pick as short a time slot as you can find. Lightning talks are ideal. Twenty minute slots are fine. Under no circumstances give your first talk in an hour long slot.
  3. Practice talking about that topic repeatedly, refining your talk and slides until you are 100% confident that you can fit it in the time slot.
  4. Wear a watch on stage so you can keep track of time.
  5. Pick a niche topic that you find very interesting and that it’s unlikely many people know much about.
  6. Don’t take questions.

In contrast many new speakers pick an easy topic, read from their notes, and overrun their time slots. These are about the only things you can do as a new speaker to lose audience sympathy1. They can tell if your speaking skills aren’t polished, but they won’t care much – everyone either has been a new speaker or hasn’t yet given a talk and is very impressed that you are. If you keep them interested and don’t inconvenience them, the talk is a success.

In my post on satisficing I listed the following as the success criteria for giving a talk:

  1. It has to make sense.
  2. It has to fit its time slot.
  3. It has to convey something interesting.

I should add a fourth one for new speakers: It shouldn’t stress you out too much to give it. The above advice is designed to make it as easy as possible for you to satisfy all of these requirements.

I’ll now elaborate a bit more on how it does this.

No Reading Your Talk

The reason you should not read from a prepared version is that it will make your talk extremely hard to follow. It’s not impossible to give a good reading, but it is a legitimately very hard task, and you almost certainly don’t have the skill set to do it.

Doing this well requires two skills:

  1. Having a natural voice while reading out loud.
  2. Writing speech that sounds natural.

Most people are not very good at either of these.

Reading out a prepared speech will usually cause you to speak in a flat monotone, with minimal variation in pitch and speed, no pauses, and extremely restricted body language. This is almost impossible for a listener to understand, because all of those things are major cues that we use to understood spoken words.

Avoiding this is harder still if your prewritten talk is not actually well written for being spoken, which it probably isn’t. Writing is more measured, and tends to be more formal and stilted when read out loud. Most writing would be improved by making it suitable to be read out loud, but you don’t want to make your public speaking dependent on improving your writing skills.

In contrast, if you design your talk to be spoken from the start, you will avoid both of these pitfalls automatically: You already know how to speak, and you can lean hard on that and refine it further.

This doesn’t mean you speak without planning – rehearsing your talk is very important – but it does mean that your talk will be partly spontaneous and will not be the same each time you give it. That’s fine, that’s how talks work.

You can of course prepare cue cards if you’re worried about losing track of your talk, and you can read out anything you need to quote. I don’t personally do this, but if it’s something you find helpful then it’s a very different proposition to reading out your whole talk.

You can also write out a version of your talk if you would find it helpful for getting your thoughts together and planning it out. I do this occasionally. The important thing about doing this though is that you write it out and then don’t use it – the process of writing it is what was important. You are not giving the talk by reading it, or even attempting to memorise the wording you used in it.

Practicing Time Management

Time management for talks is a hard skill and I would like to give you an easy way out of it as a new speaker, but I can’t.

Unfortunately, it’s also a vital skill set: You are obliged to fit your time slot, and you will make things worse for everyone if you do not. As long as you fit in your time slot, everything else is forgiveable, but overrunning at best inconveniences everyone and at worst significantly disrupts the schedule, and you will make the organisers mad at you.

As you get more experienced as a speaker you will (if you pay attention) get better at judging time of talks and it will become more automatic, but in the beginning there is no substitute for practicing your talk.

The specific advice I gave for time management was:

  1. Pick a short time slot.
  2. Practice your talk until you are 100% confident that it fits the time slot.
  3. Wear a watch on stage so you can keep track of time.

All of this is designed to make your life as easy as possible while getting good at this vital skill.

Short time slots are much easier to get right, because it’s easy to pad or cut a minute or so, but if your timing is off you will tend to drift in a systematic way over the course of your talk. If you’re 5% off on a 20 minute talk then you have a minute to correct for. If you’re 5% off on an hour long talk, you have three minutes to correct for. This may not sound like much, but rushing through the conclusion of your talk in the last thirty seconds when you thought you had three minutes left is incredibly stressful, and the conclusion of the talk is the bit people will remember most.

Wearing a watch on stage also helps you keep track of timing so you can adjust on the fly – if you notice halfway through your time slot that you’re not quite yet halfway through your prepared material, you can adjust by speeding up a bit, cutting digressions, etc.

Pick A Niche Subject

It is possible to do an interesting talk about something fairly commonplace and widespread, and it’s possible to do interesting and useful tutorial talks, but it’s quite hard, and my recommendation is to wait on it until you’re more comfortable speaking. Even today I tend towards niche subjects, because it guarantees an easy win.

If people come out of your talk having learned something interesting and new, you won at speaking. If your subject is something interesting and niche, this is practically guaranteed because by definition a niche subject is something that not many people know about.

There are a bunch of ways to find good niches:

  • Do a talk about something you’ve personally experienced – e.g. interesting debugging war stories.
  • Dig into the details of something commonplace to a much greater degree than most people know about. e.g. talk about an aspect of language internals, how some sort of software works.
  • Pick a weird interest of yours, or something that you’ve learned in the course of a specialised job.
  • Talk about something from another field you’re in and how it relates to the conference subject (or don’t bother to relate it if the conference has a relaxed policy on talk subjects!)
  • Talk about a skill you wish were more widespread – e.g. communication and writing skills.

It’s a little hard to give specific advice about this because everyone is different in what niches they know and like, and what they’d feel comfortable talking about, but my recommendation would be to write down a long list of things you could maybe give talks about (aim for quantity not quality: Don’t worry too much about whether it’s a good idea until you’re actually ready to submit it to a CfP!) and then shop some around friends and coworkers to see what they think: The ideal reaction is a faintly puzzled “Huh. Yeah, I guess that would be a good subject for a talk.”

Don’t Take Questions

At some point in your talk (probably the end), say something along the lines of “I will not be taking questions at this time, but if you want to talk to me about this I’ll be around for the rest of the conference”. If you don’t feel confident saying it, that’s fine, ask your session chair to say it for you.

It’s a bit of a power move, so it makes sense to get help, but it’s one that is absolutely the right thing to do for most talks, and by doing it for your talk you encourage others to do the same for theirs.

The reason for doing this is twofold: Firstly, answering questions on the spot is hard and stressful, so why do it if you don’t need to? Secondly, most people are bad at asking speakers good questions, so the Q&A session is generally low value and is safe to ditch.

Note that you will probably not be able to pull this one off at an academic conference. It’s genuinely fine at most industry ones.

Relax

Public speaking is hard, and it’s OK to be stressed about it – it’s practically expected. Do whatever you need to do to make your life easier. Try to stay calm on stage if you can, but don’t worry about feeling nervous if you can’t.

Ultimately, the audience is on your side, and nothing too bad will happen even if things go wrong.

Your goal as a first time speaker is to give a pretty good talk, and to become a second time speaker, and a third, and a fourth, and so on. Take any affordances you find helpful to get to that. Those can be the ones in this post, or they can be anything else that works for you.

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Vocabulary Building: Satisficing

Epistemic Status: Not the best explanation of this it could be, but a good enough explanation.


This post is a bit of an experiment, in that it exists mostly to teach you a word I find useful (in accordance with the one weird word rule), and explain why it’s a useful word to have.

The word (as you might guess from the title) is satisficing. Satisficing is the strategy of trying to find a solution to a problem that is good enough, without worrying about whether the solution is the best.

The word comes from a portmanteau (mixing) of the words satisfy and suffice. It sounds a bit funny, so is probably not the best word that could have been chosen for the concept, but it’s the one that managed to get traction so it’s probably a good enough word for it.

Satisficing is defined in contrast to optimising, where you are seeking to find the best solution. You can think of them both in terms of the following brute force solutions: An optimiser tries every solution and at the end picks the one that is best, a satisficer tries every solution until it finds one that is good enough and then immediately stops and uses that.

It may seem that optimising is obviously better than satisficing, because optimising gives you the best answer and satisficing merely gives you an OK answer, but in fact there are many circumstances under which one should prefer to satisfice.

The two main advantages of satisficing over optimising are:

  1. It’s much less work.
  2. You can usually satisfice for multiple things, but you can rarely optimise for multiple things.

The first part is fairly straightforward: Any optimising process for finding the best solution can be turned into a satisficing one by just stopping early as soon as it finds a good enough solution, so satisficing has to be less work than optimising, because it skips a lot of the process of finding the best solution and verifying that it is the best.

The 80/20 rule (80% of the benefit comes from 20% of the work) is a rule of thumb based on this: If you set your threshold for good enough at 80%, then by satisficing instead of optimising you can save 80% of the work.

Another example of satisficing solutions is coin flipping to make trivial decisions. If the difference between two choices is small, you might as well just pick arbitrarily if the work of deciding is going to be more than benefit of picking right.

The low cost of satisficing is important, but the fact that it combines well is perhaps more interesting.

The big problem with optimising is that it results in solutions that are fragile – almost any change you make to them will mean they are no longer the best solution. This means that attempting to optimise for one thing will usually prevent you from optimising for another thing, unless the two are very tightly related.

To see this in practice, say you want to minimize the cost of some widget. In order to squeeze every last penny out of the production process you end up making a lot of decisions in support of this, and the result is you are now very constrained. You have almost no wiggle room. Suppose you now want to also maximize quality – almost every change you can make to your hyper-optimised solution will make it more expensive because you spent so much effort optimising it, so by trying to improve quality at all (let alone optimise for quality) you now end up exceeding your optimised cost.

In contrast if you set yourself a budget and a quality threshold, these two might be in tension but they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. You can’t necessarily satisfy every combination of them (there’s a reason for the scope/cost/time project management triangle), but by giving yourself more slack you have a wider range of solutions, so it is at least possible to find reasonable combinations that you can satisfy all of.

You can also use some combination of goals to try to optimise for multiple targets: e.g. deciding you’re willing to pay 10p per unit quality, so now you’re optimising for quality – cost / 10. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do if your optimisation problem is one that is sufficiently well defined that you can hand it to a computer (and you are prepared to tinker with your weightings a bit until you’ve found a solution you like – itself a form of satisficing!). The result will not simultaneously optimise for all the scores, but it will generally be pretty good at all of them because it expresses how willing you are to trade off different scores against each other.

Another example of having multiple competing goals is compromise and cooperation. If you have two people trying to achieve their own outcomes, it’s rare that you will be able to achieve agreement about the best outcome, but commonly there is some shared outcome that is good enough for everyone. Getting the group to agree to that might not always be easy, but at least the satisficing solution exists at all!

These two benefits of satisficing often play well together, because the fact that satisficing can be cheap means you can play around with a number of different combinations by repeatedly tweaking your requirements. This can be a useful exploratory process for finding out what you actually want out of the situation.

An example where I often deploy this in practice is public speaking. The basic constraints to satisfy for a talk are:

  1. It has to make sense.
  2. It has to fit its time slot.
  3. It has to convey something interesting.

As long as a talk satisfies those requirements, it’s good enough and I’d be happy to give it, but I tend not stop there. For example each time I give a talk I try to improve my slide game a bit over the previous talk (slides are one of my weak spots – a visual designer I’m not). Once I’ve practiced it, I spot things that are weaknesses and try to improve on them. After a couple of iterations, I’ve found a talk where I think it’s good enough. So satisficing doesn’t have to mean you stop looking for better solutions and improving over time, because what counts as “good enough” is under your control.

In general, I find satisficing is a much less stressful strategy for many things like talks, blog posts, papers, etc. Attempting to optimise creates a constant feeling that nothing I do will ever be good enough because it could always be better, but explicitly aiming for satisficing means that I can be happy with good enough and work to improve my baseline of good enough over time.

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Being an example to others

Note: I realised I missed my old conversational style of writing, so I decided to resume it on occasion, including for this post. I will not be using it for heavier posts but I thought it would be nice to be able to code switch.


You know that thing you do where you hold yourself to standards which you would never dream of holding other people to?

(If you don’t know that thing, this post may be less useful for you, but it is a trait that is very common among people I know, so I’m confident that this post has an audience)

Anyway, that works much less well than you think it does, and you should probably consider walking it back a bit.

The basic problem with this is that people model their behaviour on those around them. If you are seen holding yourself to a standard, people around you will observe this and follow suit, even if you tell them not to, so by holding yourself to that standard you are implicitly holding other people to it, even if you don’t want to. This is especially true if you are prominent in a community, but it’s true for everyone.

So I suggest the following standard for good behaviour: Behaviour is good if not only if it is good in and of itself, but if it contributes to a culture of good behaviour1.

Behaviour that is good in and of itself but which creates a bad culture should be looked on with extreme caution.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “I hold myself to standards that I wouldn’t hold anyone else to”? Does it sound like the speaker is being kind to themself, or does it sound like they are probably beating themself up over something that really they should just chill out a bit over?

In my experience it is very much the latter scenario, and if you find yourself doing that I would like to encourage you to try to stop holding yourself to that standard.

A particularly pernicious example of this is people not prioritising their own needs. Prioritising others’ needs over your own feels good and virtuous – you are sacrificing yourself for others, which many people think of as practically the definition of virtue.

The problem is that in doing so you are contributing to an environment in which nobody is prioritising their own needs. When you work yourself to exhaustion, you are not just working yourself to exhaustion you are teaching other people to do the same.

Conversely, behaviour that is neutral and/or mildly selfish on its own merits may in fact be very good if it creates a culture in which everyone feels like they have permission to do the same.

To continue the example of needs: by asserting and respecting your own needs you are giving everyone around you permission to do so. What would you want a friend who is looking exhausted and run down to do? You’d like them to take a break, right?

The problem is that if they take a break without feeling that it is OK to take a break, they will mostly just feel guilty about that. That might still be better than not taking a break, but it’s not a pleasant experience.

What this means is that if you want your friends to take a break, you need to create a culture in which taking a break is seen as OK. In order to do this, you need to take a break yourself!

I find this notion of permission very powerful as a route out of guilt over “selfish” behaviours: you want the best for others, so you want to give them permission to seek it out for themselves, but this requires a culture where that is acceptable, and that requires you to exemplify the behaviour you want to see in others, so by granting it to others you in turn must grant yourself permission to seek the best for yourself.

For many of us, empathy for others is easier than empathy for ourselves, but by looking at the problem through this lens of cultures of behaviour, extending empathy to others requires us to extend it to ourselves. You can think of this as a kind of reversal of the golden rule: Do for yourself as you wish others would do for themself.

Some examples where I regularly use this in practice:

  • I ask “stupid” questions – on the one hand I don’t want to be the person who is wasting everyone else’s time, on the other hand I do want everyone who is confused to be able to ask questions to resolve that confusion. By asking questions myself, everyone else also feels more able to do so.
  • When I am at a social event and everyone is having a good time but also I am very tired and want to go to bed, I say “Thank you for a lovely time, but I am very tired and want to go to bed. Good night, everyone”. At this point half a dozen other people go “Actually, me too” and also go to bed, because they’ve been waiting for permission to prioritise their own tiredness.
  • When something is making me uncomfortable, I say that I am made uncomfortable by it. I could try to tough it out, but I wouldn’t want others to tough it out, so by stating that I am uncomfortable everyone else who is also uncomfortable is more able to say the same, both now and in future.
  • When there is something I would like to happen, I tell people that, so that other people also feel able to ask for the things they like. (In truth, this is the one I find the hardest, but it’s important).

This is also a good place for positive use of privilege: Some of these (especially the asking stupid questions one) are much lower cost for me to do because I’m a moderately high status white guy.

I can’t promise this will magically fix all the guilt that you experience over being kind to yourself, but I’ve found it to be an excellent start.

Ideally of course you should be kind to yourself because you are a person and people deserve nice things, but in the mean time you should also be kind to yourself because the ones around you who you care about are also people, and you need to show them that people deserve nice things.

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Gendering

Epistemic Status: Somewhat speculative, mostly descriptive.


What is gender?

That is an excellent question, but it seems to be a very hard one to answer well. Instead I’m going to ignore it. This post should work for most “reasonable” notions of gender.

Instead this is a post about how categorising people into genders affects how we conceptualise them, and how this leads to the creation of gender norms that we then enforce.

I’ll mostly be focusing on binary genders (male and female) in this post, but I’m not making any assumption that those are the only ones, only that they feed heavily into how we reason about gender.

Gendering

Given a group, we tend to form inferences based on group membership. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – if someone is from France, we tend to assume they speak French. When someone votes for a particular party, we tend to assume they support many of that party’s polices (or at least reject other parties’ policies more).

Unfortunately what starts as a set of perfectly reasonable inferences often then plays out very badly in practice – reasonable inferences get exaggerated, and feed in to how we construct the social norms we enforce, often harming the people we stereotyped.

We do this in particular with genders. If a trait is particularly prominent in people we gender a particular way, we form stereotypes around it, and the trait itself becomes gendered.

For example, consider strength. It is simply true that men are typically stronger than women. That’s not to say that any given man is taller or stronger than any given woman (many men are short and/or weak), but looking at group averages the link between gender and height and strength is fairly clear.

We then reverse this stereotype. If it’s true that men are typically stronger, then it’s true that if someone is stronger then they are more likely to be a man. Thus strength becomes gendered – the trait becomes used as a marker of masculinity.

In and of itself this is a perfectly reasonable inference procedure. It’s literally true that if someone is stronger they are more likely to be a man. The problem is that we now erase the underlying data and simply treat strength as intrinsically manly, labelling strength as more masculine even once you have surpassed the typical strength of a man.

These social expectations then lead to enforcement. Men are shamed for being weak and women are shamed for having visible muscles because they look too manly. What started with a reasonable inference about differences between groups has turned into a social norm where everyone is forced to construct their gender to exaggerate the differences.

This enforcement in turn means that the group differences are larger than those we started with – if most people are expending effort to seem more masculine or feminine, the observed difference between them on that gendered trait will be larger than they would be in the absence of enforcement.

Thus we engage in a sort of “gender inflation”, where we take our initial notions of gender and expand them out into a kind of social halo around our original gender categorisation. This inflated gender manifests both in our social expectations and in the actual data we observe.

Small genderings become large

Because of this gender inflation, it is extremely normal to have gendering for traits which is more or less invented out of thin air, because a small gendering occurs which we then inflate it into a large one.

These small genderings can come up in all sorts of ways, but the easiest way is just chance. Culture is formed mostly out of memetic evolution (that is, people copy behaviours from others, and retain behaviours that in some sense work well), and as a result is highly contingent – often the reason why people behave in a particular way is the result of some random variation years back. There’s no intrinsic difference that leads to, say, the distinction between English and French, we just made different choices generations back which have been built on over time.

This contingency of culture can often lead to genderings because of some degree of homosociality – the tendency to prefer same-sex friendships (which sometimes may be strongly enforced by culture). The result is that there are opportunities for different contingent developments to occur between men and women, and that difference then becomes gendered, and gender inflation exaggerates those differences.

Genderings can also just be made up of course. There’s a long history of men theorising major gendered differences where none exist, and often that theorising is all that’s needed to create a runaway gender inflation where that difference becomes real solely because it is enforced. Because access to power is gendered, it is often easy to reshape gendering in ways that serve power.

What to do about it?

If gendering was purely descriptive and there were widespread acceptance that the posession of masculine or feminine traits didn’t necessarily imply much about other masculine or feminie traits, that would be one thing, but unfortunately it goes further than that in at least two ways:

  • People treat gender as predictive. If you have some gendered traits, you are expected to also have other gendered traits. This isn’t intrinsically incorrect, but leads to significant access problems where your gendered traits may open or close certain doors. I’ve e.g. written about this previously in the context of interviewing.
  • People enforce gendering. If you are perceived as a particular gender, you will be punished for not conforming to expectations of that gender. This actually doesn’t work well for anyone, because so many traits get gendered that even if we tick the right boxes on most of them it’s very unlikely we tick the right boxes on all of them. This is similar to some of the issues I talked about in On Not Quite Fitting.

As a result of these two factors, gendering tends to feed in to a lot of systems of control, where we reward people for gendering themselves “correctly” (by adhering to a consistent set of gendered traits) and punish them for mixed gendering.

Figuring out how to solve all of these issues is a rather big task, and I don’t propose to do that in this blog post.

I’ve previously described my utopian position as somewhat gender abolitionist. I no longer think that’s a good idea, because fundamenally regardless of whether we regard people as having genders, we will still regard many traits as gendered because of underlying biological differences, and I think most of the dynamics described above will continue to hold.

I think the current increasingly diverse range of non-binary genders we recognise is very helpful, both for letting people find the “points in gender space” that work for them, and allowing us to have a richer understanding of gender and gendered traits, but I don’t yet know what that richer understanding looks like.

My more modest short run suggestions are:

  • Gender inflation seems like a big deal, and I don’t think the extent of it is widely appreciated or understood. Be aware of its effects and try to damp them down rather than enforce it.
  • This feels like it shouldn’t need saying if you’ve read this far, but stop enforcing gendered traits. If someone exhibits a mix of masculine and feminine traits, that is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do, regardless of whether that’s because they have a non-binary gender or are just breaking out of stereotypes within their binary gender.
  • In “Rewriting the Rules”, Meg-John Barker suggests that once you get to know someone as an individual you have much higher quality sources of information about their traits than relying on their gender as predictive. I strongly endorse this.
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