I made my first actual trip to the gym today. I joined a little before Christmas, but hadn’t had the time to really get into it until the urge hit in the early afternoon. Interesting mix of people — some older folks trying to stay in shape, some younger guys trying to bulk up, and a lot of people on the treadmills. Including me: Those things are phenomenal, with full-screen touch-sensitive displays and the whole works. Impressive place.
Anyway, as I was jogging away on the machine, my mind wandered to thoughts about social reality. Yes, surrounded by hot chicks jiggling away on stationary machines, I was thinking philosophy. I am a nerd, albeit an unusually healthy one. Nevertheless ….
A few years ago, I read John Searle’s book, The Construction of Social Reality. Although I grasped his main argument at the time, the impact of it hasn’t really hit me until recently. The book can best be summarized by (believe it or not) its back-cover blurb: “… Searle examines the structure of social reality (or those portions of the world that are facts only by human agreement …), and contrasts it to a brute reality that is independent of human agreement. Searle shows that brute reality provides the indisputable foundation for all social reality, and that social reality, while very real, is maintained by nothing more than custom and habit.”
Well and good. What this means is that much of what we take for granted as objectively true is “true” only insofar as we all agree to think it so. We believe, for example, that there are facts about money, or marriage, or art — but these facts have no basis in a world without humans. What good does it do to say that a penny is 1/100 of a dollar, if there were no people around to use currency?
It’s interesting to see how a localized social reality, e.g. in the home or office, can shift simply as a matter of public perception. I am witnessing just such a scenario play out over the last few weeks. A generally accepted understanding about a particular person’s role within a group has shifted dramatically merely because a few key players have allowed themselves to form a different opinion about that person’s contribution to the overall effort. Although nothing specific changed, and there were no incidents to prompt a paradigm shift, the change in the center of gravity of the group meant that the person in question went from insider to outcast in short order. And once the prevailing winds turned, the others acted as if the new paradigm had been true all along.
Whether it’s the living room or the conference room, I think we too often take for granted that so much of what we believe to be “true” is merely a matter of convention. As my friend Emilie so eloquently noted, people don’t take kindly to the black sheep in the flock. When the conventional wisdom changes the social reality of any group of people, the folks clad in dark-colored wool can only rarely use reason and logic to advocate for change, since logic — that is, the art of argument — is essentially the manipulation of fact and not fact itself. Or: If a “social fact” becomes the conventional wisdom, then reason alone is disadvantaged against it.
[All of this commends the written works of Robert Greene. I have read The 48 Laws of Power and am finished with 31 of The 33 Strategies of War. Next up is The Art of Seduction. Each of these is written in a dispassionate, almost amoral, tone unapologetically infused with power dynamics — the very essence of the popular misconception of Machiavelli’s works — and a lack of appreciation for the literary devices pervading Greene’s work can be seen in the derogatory reviews his books sometimes receive. Yet once you peek behind the curtain, the reader encounters some rather interesting insights into managing interpersonal relationships (seduction), group dynamics (war), and personal ambition (power).]
Taking Searle’s epistemological argument to a small-group scenario prompts ethical questions about the appropriate methods of social interaction. We like to think that being honest, rational, and direct with people is the best policy. Best, because most noble and most effective in the long run. But is this necessarily true?
If the perceptions of a group ascend to the level of social fact, then logic alone is largely incapable of changing it. Absent logic, only indirect appeals to emotion have the power to shift perception in most people. Granted that there are rational people who will respond well to well-reasoned arguments, it seems the case that most people remain affixed to their social facts and will only change them when the conventional wisdom shifts (we see this herd mentality with the punditocracy, for example). So if reason doesn’t work, must we resort to emotional manipulation?
I realize that this is not a binary proposition. Yet the logic of it does suggest that “good boy” behavior is only truly effective for those who can afford to use it. For the rest of us, other means of ensuring success may be more strongly indicated.
At any rate, this has been a fun topic to ponder, and I’m not finished with it yet.