One of the abilities that humans generally take for granted is pattern matching—the ability to see how things fit together. And of course, part of this must necessarily be the ability to see what sticks out. This is what “salient” means: to stick out, to draw one’s attention.
I’m sitting in Starbucks as I write this, waiting for my Spawn to finish an activity and hoping the caffeine I’m drinking will wake my brain up a little. There are a bunch of colored ribbons hanging from the counter, each apparently representing an affliction or another. The only two that I can make out are green for bipolar disorder and red for addiction. I assume the others are for other forms of mental illness. But I couldn’t help but wonder: is there one for me?
Of course there isn’t. How could there be? My weaknesses, strengths, maladies, and talents are only found in me. The same is true for anyone else. This isn’t the beginning of some treatise on the arbitrariness of psychiatric diagnoses; they couldn’t be otherwise given our understanding of how our brains work, and God help us when and if we have the knowledge to be more precise.
I know representation matters, so this isn’t really about that, either. Or at least not directly. But I have to admit that my initial emotional reaction was something akin to frustration, a “why do I not fall into some cognizable category?” In other words, what about me? To be clear, I recognize this feeling for what it is, but the human animal is a self-centered creature.
But I do have to wonder if (or to what extent) recognizing some means excluding others. This is a common canard used by so-called men’s rights activists (a term that has unfortunately been co-opted by less than savory people for the most part); anytime a women’s issue is brought up, they ask “what about men?” and then explain how men face the same/similar/worse problem. I’m not defending this practice, but it’s worth thinking about what it means.
Some of this, of course, can be chocked up to the strange race to the bottom we find ourselves in. We can only legitimize our own struggles if they’re bad “enough,” which usually means showing that they’re the literal worst or close to it. It seems to me to be a kind of self-perpetuating cycle; saying “yeah but I have it worse” is a way to delegitimize someone else’s complaints, no matter how valid they may be. So there does seem to be a perceived (rightly) need to get out in front of that. But the problem is that the focus has become proving severity over anything else. More importantly, it shows just how little empathy is a thing, at least (or especially) online.
Anyway, thinking about whether there’s a ribbon for me at my local Starbucks has brought to mind the question of where we draw the line(s) period. I don’t necessarily mean psychiatric diagnoses, since those are well-known to be arbitrary (and the psychological/psychiatric community would be the first to acknowledge this). They’re generally a case of certain traits gone to an extreme, with where the cutoff for “extreme” ends up being wherever your doctor decides it is. This is really the only way to do it at this stage.
But that doesn’t mean these don’t still have power. I know I felt strangely better once I was diagnosed with some things, because it legitimized what I’d been struggling with for most of my life. Having, for example, ADHD means that it’s not just that I don’t focus well, there’s a host of other issues that comes with it. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a way for me to acknowledge to myself that the difficulties I have aren’t just a lack of willpower or whatever. It’s the same thing with dysthymia, which I also have—my brain just doesn’t handle the mood part of living the same way as a neurotypical person.
Here too there’s a question of where to draw the line. I can’t control the underlying symptoms or illness, but I do have control over what I do about it. We’re still trying to find the right medication regimen for me, but at least I’m trying to deal with it and get to a better place. I also don’t want to get to a point where everything bad that I do or feel is the result of my illness; in my case, at least, these conditions aren’t a blanket get-out-of-jail-free card. So it’s about knowing what I can control and what I can’t, which is not something we as a species have figured out very well even in the most normal of us (whatever that means).
One of the areas in which I’m easily overwhelmed is, as the title suggests, salience. To take a prosaic example, I am terrible at finding something if I don’t already know where it is. My eyes will just slip right off it even if it’s so close that, as my Dad says, “if it were a snake it would’a bit ya.” For whatever reason, the part of my brain responsible for making things stand out just doesn’t work. This is also why I hated open-ended assignments in school. Give me a topic and I can figure out something to say about it no problem, but say “write about whatever you want” and I’m completely stuck. How do I decide what stands out enough to write about when everything sticks out to the same degree? If everything seems equally important, can any of it really matter?
I have this same struggle anytime I have to make a decision (or see the product of one) that involves assigning importance to some members of a group, whether they be people, objects, or concepts, but not others. I shouldn’t say all the time, I suppose, as some people are unquestionably more important to me than others, but that’s the exception. And even then, it starts to get difficult to pick from among those I love in terms of value, as I suspect it is for most people.
This is why seeing the ribbons on the Starbucks counter throws me into kind of a mental loop. I have no real criteria for saying that some mental illnesses warrant recognition and some don’t, even if it’s something as simple as “our counter is only but so long” or “we only have so many ribbons.” I recognize that we have to draw the line somewhere, and that we shouldn’t let an inability to recognize all who deserve it mean we don’t recognize anyone. This is probably one of those things I just have to accept that I’m not good at, and maybe have to go so far as abstaining from judgment altogether when other people make these kinds of choices.
I feel the same way about trigger warnings, for example. By recognizing some kinds of trauma but not others, do we risk making some people feel excluded? If so, is that a price we’re okay with paying? I don’t know how you weigh something like that, but God knows our society likes to try. We all have things that can provoke unpleasant feelings or memories, and so I do wonder at the wisdom of singling some out as somehow more deserving of recognition. Is it fair to say that some traumas are worse than others? I’m sure there’s plenty of individual variation, but I wonder if it’s actually worth the risk. But this is also exactly the kind of decision that I’m lousy at, which is why I don’t have a “policy” or whatever you want to call it on this subject. I have questions (and hope that I’m not just asking them), but no real framework for answering any of them. Any answer is bound to be arbitrary one way or the other, since it involves quantitatively comparing the immeasurable. This just means there’s not really a wrong answer, in my opinion, rather than supporting one side or the other. But again, take even this with a grain of salt, since I’m pathologically unable to make this kind of judgment.
It’s a strange position to be in, admittedly. But I’m coming more and more to realize how often we feel compelled to answer a question that is unanswerable. It’s the politician’s fallacy, as explained by the sitcom Yes, Minister: “Something must be done. This is something, therefore we must do it.” I think online discourse is especially guilty of this, and that it in turn bleeds back into the “real world” kind.
There’s just something about that text input box that demands we put some words in there, and something about the “reply” button that demands we click it. Where having a take costs nothing, why shouldn’t we inject what we think? Overall this is all well and good, but as I said, I think it can often lead to a compulsion to just throw something out there. This is especially true when saying something more measured doesn’t get the engagement that a firm opinion does. I saw this, for example, when the protests in Cuba broke out last month; speculation was rampant on social media (from what I could see, at least), despite no one actually having any idea what was going on. But again, saying “let’s wait and see” doesn’t bring those clicks or retweets, so anyone who does say that can’t stand out from the crowd of people who don’t.
This is one of the things that keeps me on the periphery of the rationalism community. One of its greatest strengths is that rationalists actually value saying “I don’t know,” even if they fall into the trap of trying to measure the immeasurable too often for my tastes. They also value admitting to mistakes, something that is all too rare in our broader culture.
Anyway, I wish I could figure out what the answer is, how we can discourage wild speculation and rumor taking flight. It simply takes waiting, but both the economics of online publishing and of social media (measured in ad dollars and dopamine, respectively) are pushing very hard in the opposite direction. It’s simply a case of what we demand: we want to feel like the world is a legible, intelligible place, and acknowledging that we don’t know isn’t just unsatisfying, but it can sometimes be scary too. There’s nothing stopping us from throwing out the first thing that comes into our heads, and with so little feedback and self-reflection, it’s easy to feel like we’re on top of things even when we’re anything but. Add in a little Dunning-Krueger for spice, and you have quite a dish. Ultimately we get the kind of culture we ask for, and it’s a lot harder to go back to a more thoughtful model than it is to throw ourselves headlong over the side.
Even experts can be guilty of this, or at least of not making it clear (how can you in 240 characters?) that they’re speculating rather than basing their opinion on any specific information. Unless you show your work, so to speak, there’s no way to know how definite a prediction is unless you’re reading one of those exceedingly rare writers who attach actual certainty levels to their predictions (something else the rest of us could learn from the rationalists). Even this assumes, of course, that experts predict the future more reliably than anyone else, which certainly remains to be seen in a lot of cases. This leads to another problem with the ease of speculation, in that there’s no real disincentive to do it, since no one will remember if you were wrong anyway.
There’s another way this question of salience can come up, and that’s in my choosing to write in a semi-public way. I say “semi-public” since I write under a pseudonym which isn’t known to anyone in my personal life. But while this may help with some of the vulnerability, it doesn’t eliminate it entirely. So the question then becomes: how much do I want to stand out? Would I actually be happier with a massive readership? I wonder.
It also influences what I write about. Do I want to try to do “takes” as are so common on social media? Do I want to be willfully contrarian? I admit the latter is often compelling; it’s easy to feel like the only way I can show that I’m smart is by “seeing through” some common narrative or another. But being contrarian for its own sake never leads anywhere, and certainly doesn’t result in my having anything interesting to say. So as much as I would love to show off, there’s just nothing there in terms of actually having interesting things to say.
I wonder too if there’s not a self-esteem issue there. In other words, do I perhaps not trust the “real” me to be interesting enough to stand out in the way I want? After all, I don’t find myself to be particularly interesting, but then I’m always in my own head, so I wouldn’t. Validation from others is certainly one way to stand out, or to recognize that I do (which is the more difficult of the two). If I’m honest, using a pseudonym is also partially an attempt to create some kind of mystique for myself, even if I’m unlikely to ever have people trying to dox me. But it’s not all self-aggrandizement, of course, as it does help me be more honest about myself and what’s in my head. Plus, who knows, maybe one day I really will have some kind of controversial take, in which case I’ll be glad for it.
One final question on this issue, and this is my biggest source of struggle. When I have free time, what do I do with it? I find that I often don’t have any particular leading in one direction or another, since this is another way that my brain struggles to make things stand out from the background. If I’m faced with the option of doing x, y, or z, how do I pick when x = y = z? It’s easy enough to prioritize when I have some kind of deadline, but I have no idea what to do when I don’t. It’s the same reason I used to hate open-ended assignments in school: when you can pick anything, how do you make one topic stand out from all the others?
If you asked me what my thought process was for this blog, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell you. I have a whole folder on my computer called “ungerminated,” which is full of posts I’ve started but that never went anywhere. I don’t generally know where my brain will take me when I start writing. Instead, I just have to hope that whatever it is that’s popped into my head will lead to something. But this also means sitting down to write almost every day, and being okay with a pretty low ratio of posts that I start to ones that you could call finished. I’m a firm believer that we have to give space for creativity to find us rather than forcing it, so that’s all I can do.
For the issue of my free time generally, this is less applicable. I haven’t quite gotten to the point of flipping a coin, as I think it’s more a case of looking for something specific that I’m unaware of rather than all options really being equal. I guess it’s back to the self-reflection swamp.