Monthly Archive: August 2017

Doubt and caveats and their role in trust building

A number of years ago, I was fired off a consulting gig.
Anybody who is a consultant knows that this is always a possibility. Consultants are hired guns, and can be un-hired, sometimes on a whim.
I tend to think that, to use an old sports coach joke, there are two types of consultants; those who have been fired, and those who will be fired.
The manner in which I was fired from this assignment (no, I did not get fired from my employer – the client simply rejected me) was a story in itself, mainly because of the bizarre way in which it was communicated.
However, one of the reasons that was given to me was that I was “too non-committal”. Apparently this was because, when asked if my team could do something that had not been previously agreed, I would say “let me evaluate that and I will get back to you”. To me, this was commonsense. I had a full plate of transition for a Testing tower. If I had said Yes to everything, I would have been an integrity-challenged fool.
The problem was that many of the people working on this transition from in-house IT to a service provider (my employer) were from India, and their cultural instinct was to say Yes to anything they were asked to do. So, the client would go to another group, and ask “Can you do X?” and the Indian delivery teams would say “yes of course”. Then they would go away and try to work out exactly what it was they had said Yes to (I kid you not. Myself and a work colleague actually overheard them around a coffee machine trying to decide what they had just said Yes to after one meeting. Amusing and frightening at the same time).
So, according to the client, I was not helpful, because I was non-committal.
I was reminded of this when reading this essay about how doubt build trust. To me, the basic idea is somewhat obvious. Especially when you consider the historical contempt that people profess to hold for “yes men”. However, many people say Yes to loaded or leading questions when they should demur or ask for time to reflect. I routinely say “let me think about that for a moment” when asked questions. If people think that makes me slow, or dim-witted, well, I guess they can think that while I go on my merry way.

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Monday Round-up – 7th August

1. The idea of social platforms as Public utilities
There has been much discussion and suggestion that leading social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, by virtue of their large public membership, are public utilities.
This comment at Popehat’s blog explains fairly eloquently why this is probably not a correct way of thinking.

2. Anti-intellectual dog-whistles
Ed Brayton explains here how the slogans “common sense” and “cosmopolitan” have been used for some time to frame a worldview that despises intellectuals and intellectual analysis.
The word “cosmopolitan” also has a more sinister past, in that it has been used by Fascist governments in the past to demonize opponents.

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Empathy and sympathy – the differences

We live in a strange world where it is increasingly difficult to be pragmatic and thoughtful without one or another group of people excoriating your worldview.
I have been accused directly (leaving aside the juveniles who prefer to substitute “libtard” for anything resembling an argument) of being arrogant, lacking empathy, and being too sympathetic to nasty people on multiple occasions in the recent past.
Accusing somebody of “arrogance” is what is known as tone trolling. It is a complaint about perceived style, not substance. If people want to discuss something with me, they need to stick to substance. If they want to make it about my “arrogance”, I’m not playing. That simply allows them to retreat into dismissal based on emotion. It reveals them as unserious.
The “lacking empathy” and “being too sympathetic” allegations are much more interesting. To me, they are actually rooted in a misconception of the meaning of the words empathy and sympathy, which are not interchangeable.
Let’s take the example of a person who is a hardcore alcoholic, unable to control their intake of that substance. They may have been through multiple failed attempts at rehab, but they are unable to stop uncontrolled ingestion of alcohol, and their life is slowly spiralling downwards, out of control. Outside observers can see nothing good in their future, absent a change in behavior.
I have a lot of empathy for those kinds of people. They are trapped in a dangerous place, and their lives are not in the slightest bit positive or fun. This must be horrible.
However, my sympathy for many of them is limited, since in many cases they have been given multiple chances to change their behavior, usually at family or public expense, and they have somehow been unable or unwilling to take those chances and make something of them. To recycle an old saying, they have visited the Last Chance Saloon more than once.
Unlimited sympathy often results in excessive tolerance. This in turn results in people who are behaving badly being enabled to continue their bad behaviors.
To use another example, a friend of my ex-wife was married to a bully. His bullying behavior was learned from his father, who was an abusive, bullying family patriarch. The main reason why he was the abusive bullying patriarch was that the rest of the family walked on eggshells around him at family events, unwilling to confront his bad behavior by challenging him to stop behaving like an asshole. As he saw it, his behavior was OK because nobody was complaining about it.
Empathy and sympathy are not the same concepts. Beware that conflation, since it can be used by people at both binary ends of an issue to justify their own positions by attacking yours claiming that you either have too much empathy/sympathy, or not enough. When you hear or read that kind of messaging, turn on your bullshit detector.

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The fallacious “you lack empathy because you have no experience” argument

In the last month, I have been informed in two separate discussions of the following:

1. I would change my stated opinions on abortion if only I talked with a woman who has had an abortion

2. I would modify my stated opinions on law enforcement if I went on a police beat or did some training about police work

The implication in both of these contexts is that because I have never had an abortion, or worked as a police officer, my views on both of these topics are deficient and can be ignored. I suspect the people making these points both believed that I lack empathy with the other side’s viewpoints.
I call bullshit on this.
We form views and opinions all of the time on subjects about which we have no practical experience. It doesn’t automatically make our opinions worthless. What really matters is whether viewpoints and opinions are based on the processing of facts and information in a way that allows us to not only justify those viewpoints to ourselves (which can be rather easy due to confirmation bias) but also to others.
Both (1) and (2) above are intellectually lazy forms of retreat from good-faith argument. They are a form of shut-down rhetoric. They substitute “you don’t know what you are talking about” for reasoned discourse.
In both of these cases, the people trying these rhetorical devices also fail to realize that, being the sort of careful person that I am, I actually do have some knowledge on both topics derived from talking to people from a different viewpoint. I have talked with two women in the UK who had abortions. I was married to a woman in the UK whose father and middle son were both serving police officers. I talked to them extensively about the day to day reality of law enforcement in the UK.
So, when you try to steer a conversation with me by accusing me (in a roundabout way) of lacking empathy by virtue of lack of knowledge of people with different viewpoints, you’re signalling that you are less interested in a good-faith discussion than you are in shutting down the interaction and escaping back into the security of your own worldview.

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The “do you support XXX?” fallacious meme…again

I found yet another binary “do you support law enforcement? If not, unfriend me now” meme on my Facebook wall the other day.
The glib answer is “I support law enforcement”.
However, that is not what the meme is inviting. The meme is a dog-whistle to demand uncritical respect, fealty and deference.
If you want a discussion about law enforcement, great, let’s have one. A discussion that does not start from the premise that law enforcement is all bad, nor start from the idea that law enforcement is perfect and above any criticism. If you just want me to uncritically agree with a binary statement based on reflexive deference, no. I am not playing that game.
If you want to interpret that response as me not supporting law enforcement, you’re the one with the reasoning and critical thinking problem, not me.

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The decline of public confidence in the media…

…is examined in this Guardian article.
For me, living in the USA and seeing many of the same things occurring here, the money quote is this:

…All these threads of suspicion and system failure came together in the horror of Grenfell, which brought its own bad news for supporters of traditional media. If Brexit, Trump and Corbyn were failures of national media then this was a failure of local journalism – to investigate municipal mismanagement and prevent such disasters from happening in the first place. “The local press has experienced a devastating collapse over the last decade,” says Ponsford. “There are whole boroughs of London that don’t have any journalists covering them at all. Kensington and Chelsea would have had a dozen journalists based in that borough 25 years ago. There’s no one there now. That can only mean that the councils there are not being scrutinised.”
“The best journalism happens at a local level, there’s no doubt about it,” says Ted Jeory, whose Trial By Jeory blog and column in the East London Advertiser exposed the Tower Hamlets corruption scandal that saw Lutfur Rahman removed as mayor and banned from standing for office. “But morale is very poor and there’s a cultural shift in national papers at news editor level. You used to start on a local paper, learn how to knock on doors and be tenacious. Now, people are being recruited at national level and sometimes becoming news editors without having done any of that local stuff.”

The old system of journalism was that people entered journalism at local level. Some them, over time, moved up from local to regional and then national media. This model is now broken, with the internet, which drives the cost of publication down to almost zero, allowing any person with a passion or animus to set up a YouTube channel or Facebook page and begin posting all manner of information, with a total absence of vetting, editing or fact-checking.
Emily Bell summarizes the problem quite neatly:

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The framing of male sports team members as perpetual adolescents

To me, it is not in the least bit surprising that members of professional sports teams are, in many cases, not well-rounded adults.
They are often venerated at an early age, while still in school (the Jock culture is alive and well), and thrust into the public eye at a point in their lives when they are both inexperienced and vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, hubris often becomes embedded in their behavior as a result. This hubris is pandered to by the alarming tendency of sports teams and colleges to prevent accountability for bad actions from falling on the sports team members. High-priced lawyers are often employed in US college sports to make awkward allegations “disappear”. The team must not be implicated. Several colleges have been exposed over the years for engaging in cover-ups of bad behavior, both by sports team members, and also by coaches and leaders.
However, in many sports, especially in the UK, the coaches and managers of sports teams unwittingly perpetuate the idea that the team is composed of adolescents, by their constant referral to “the boys”, or “the lads” in interviews and discussions. This reveals a worldview that fails to treat sports team members as adults, lowering expectations of behavior across a wide front.
The phrase “boys will be boys”, a classic rationalization of bad behavior, then becomes an integral part of the worldview and conversation, usually in an attempt to head off criticism for bad behavior.
The overall effect of these kinds of self-serving rationalizations is to reinforce the conviction in many athletes that they are Special and that the Normal Rules of Life need not apply to them.

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