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Amending the rules

March 17, 2010

Generally (not universally; of which more later) speaking, society takes the following as axiomatic:

1) The more experience someone has of something, the more they know about it.

2) Personal experience is more valuable than third-party information.

3) The more thought someone puts into a decision, the more valid that decision is.

They’re generally taken as so axiomatic, in fact, that formulating them as statements seems kind of pointless. But I think that stating them plainly is a valuable tool here, because getting these sorts of assumptions out into the open allows them to be examined more closely. Which, naturally, I’m now going to do.

All the examples given are from my point of view as an overeducated liberal-feminist-socialist-atheist-hippie-pinko-commie-whatever looking at the modern, middle-class, largely liberal-minded British society I hang around in; but I’d say that the laws themselves are pretty universal.

Number 1 is probably the least problematic of the three, as it applies in nearly all situations. It seems transparently obvious, for example, that someone who’s climbed Everest is better qualified to talk about climbing Everest than someone who hasn’t. At a more domestic level, I get to pontificate about some aspects of child-rearing because I’ve done them (hello, eldest-siblinghood!) but not about the actual experience of giving birth, because I definitely have not done that. And so on. 99% of the time, it’s common sense to take the word of someone who knows about X over that of someone who doesn’t.

Number 2 is a corollary to number 1, and also holds true a lot of the time. For example, if somebody’s consistently been an asshole to you, you’re going to act on that experience and avoid them rather than on the third-party opinion that says they’re A-OK. The problematic aspect of this axiom shows up, however, in the form of anti-intellectualism. Going “Hey, there’s snow in my garden so I guess the world can’t be warming up!” is privileging personal experience over third-party information; however, here, the people providing the third-party information almost certainly know a lot more than you do about this particular subject.

Number 3 reflects the value we generally place on thinking over not thinking. As a culture, we tend to respect the relationships of people who’ve got to know one another, talked about things, probably lived together, then got married a lot more than the marriages of people who got drunkenly hitched on a night out. We accord people who get planned-out, ‘meaningful’ tattoos more respect than the people who get impulsive generic flash. We respect religious people who’ve clearly thought deeply about their faith more than people who just slide into the same religious routine their parents did. Saving up is privileged over impulse-buying, systematic revision over last-minute cramming, and so on and so forth.

The reason that number 3 is so ubiquitous is because planning does significantly reduce your chances of messing up, and so privileging careful thought is a survival instinct as much as anything. However, it’s worth adding the caveat here that the dichotomy doesn’t work both ways: careful thought is nearly universally coded good, but not-thinking is not always coded bad. (Impulsiveness that goes right – the surprise proposal, the bet on an unlikely victor, the daring play – is regarded as heroic, romantic, and brave.)

So, to recap, the ideas are absolutely pervasive in society that 1) people who’ve done it know better, 2) actual experience beats third-party theorising, and 3) that carefully planned decisions are more respect-worthy than thoughtless ones. And except in a few specific situations, such as the anti-intellectualism one (where Rule 1 should trump Rule 2, but generally doesn’t) there’s nothing wrong with them.

The cracks in our social structure start to show, however, when you start applying these basic, self-evident rules to people on the margins.

‘People on the margins’, though, is a big and rather impersonal phrase, and so I’m going to start constructing imaginary people, because I like constructing imaginary people, and I also find that even something so small as putting a name to a story can help the audience imagine a person, rather than an abstract bundle of social ills.

Dinah is thirty years old. She works in a library. She has a dog and a cat. She is in a relationship with another librarian. She is middle-class, 1/8 Irish, and transsexual.

The Rules would say that Dinah knows more about libraries than non-librarians (1); that she knows more about being transsexual than do textbooks about transsexuality (2); and that her certainty that she is female is as valid (if not more valid), than a cis woman’s certainty, because transitioning is a huge decision, and, thanks to the law, never an impulsive one (3).

Real life, sadly, would probably lead to Dinah’s skill at her job being questioned (despite 1), random strangers spouting facts claiming to understand her medical and/or psychological needs and conditions better than she does (despite 2), and her identity as female questioned or outright denied (despite 3).

Let’s take another example.

Daniel is 17 and about to leave high school. He’s been happiest grubbing around in engines since he was old enough to take his toy cars apart and put them back together. Both his parents are history PhDs, and they have no other children.

The Rules say that Dan probably knows more about cars than his parents (1); that he’d better off as a mechanic, whatever his A-Level results say (2); and that a decision to be a mechanic, based on years of happy tinkering, would be perfectly reasonable (3).

Real life? I’ve known people in this sort of situation (see this post) who were pushed into the same field as their parents, or another suitable Real Academic Subject, rather than being allowed to do what they actually wanted to do, resulting in miserable and failing students, disappointed parents, and family trouble. One of them is currently failing his second parentally-approved degree.

One more:

Cecily is a young Christian lesbian. She is sunny around other people and happy to socialise. She also suffers from a chronic illness, but can manage it with the right medication.

The Rules say: Cecily knows more about being a gay Christian than people who aren’t (1); her personal experience of her illness and treatment is more accurate than third-party observations (2); and that her decisions to convert, come out, and seek treatment were not taken lightly (3).

Real life would likely have people claiming that she can’t be a real Christian whilst gay/can’t really be queer if Christian, that she can’t possibly really be ill if she’s still capable of standing/raising a smile in any circumstances, and that when she says “I’m in pain and need help”, it gets interpreted either as “No you aren’t” or “Stop trying to score drugs/waste our time.”

There are obviously many, many more people, imaginary and real, who are in the same kind of situation – where the basic, decent rules of trust and word-taking are being ignored or violated. There are many more reasons why people might be in that situation; there are as many marginalised identities as there are characteristics, pretty much, and I’ve only touched on a very very few of them, without even trying to represent the people in the crossovers. (It’s entirely possible, to reuse the examples above, that someone could be trans, a minor, gay, and have a disability. And I hate to think how they would be treated.)

The Rules function fine just by themselves. The three of them, allowing for a couple of potential difficulties (like the anti-intellectualism, which can be avoided by assuming that Rule 1 – defer to people who may know more than you – can sometimes trump Rule 2) provide what’s actually a pretty fair (it seems to me) framework for assessing the accuracy of people’s information and the stability of their decisions. They basically boil down to trust people, and trust people who think.

However, as the examples make unpleasantly clear, there exists in practice a fourth rule, articulated even less frequently than the others, which is this:

4) Privilege constitutes experience.

This mindset is the only thing that explains the violation of the other rules regularly inflicted on the un-privileged. The feminist blogosphere has the term mansplaining, which is what happens when a man decides that his mere male status constitutes a qualification to explain things. (There are recorded instances of men trying to mansplain menstruation, of all the things, to a female audience. It is frankly unlikely any dude understands the vagaries of my period better than I do. Yet it has been tried.) Mansplanation is one of the consequences of Rule 4.

But there are so many others. Whitesplanation is another term I’ve seen, which should be pretty much self-explanatory. You could coin even more.

Richsplanation: for all my impeccable lefty credentials, no, I don’t actually know the plight of the workers better than they do. Thinsplanation. Cissplanation. Educationsplanation, when the person with the PhD assumes they know more about cars than the mechanic does because of their magic diploma. (PSA: Degrees generally qualify you in one subject only.)

Hetsplanation. Ablesplanation. Vegsplanation/Meatsplanation. (Veggies vs. meat-eaters seems to be one of the few cases where representatives of both sides can be found lecturing the other.)

Agesplanation, again one of the few that goes in both directions: we have a tendency to treat both children and the elderly as inherently overruleable by those in the prime of life.

Godsplanation, otherwise known as evangelism. Someone put it absolutely wonderfully in the comments to this thread: “Why should what you believe be more important to [me] than what [I] believe?”

There are probably many, many more that I’ve missed, and for those I am sorry. They – all of them, every last one – come out of Rule 4.

I hope that by setting the rules out in the open, demonstrating them and what they do, that I can be better aware of them as rules we’ve constructed rather than simply a function of how the world works. I also hope to be able to be a lot more aware of the phantom presence of Rule 4, and to try and purge its influence from my life and conversation.

To be honest, this post was mostly for me, to help work out some stuff I’d been thinking about and pin down the conclusions. Also, to document it, so I can come back to it and castigate myself if I clock I’ve been doing some ‘splaining. But I hope that it’s also been at least a little interesting for anyone reading, and offer my abject apologies if I’ve caused offence, whether by my phrasing, the construction of my imaginary people, my frenzy of word-coinages, or anything else. Please, please tell me if so.

And finally, to the title of the post.


The Rules, As Amended

1) The more someone has done/studied something, the more they likely know about it.

2) Personal experience is a more valuable guide than third-party information, except where negated by Rule 1.

3) The more thought someone puts into a decision, the more likely that decision is to be correct, valid, and worthy of respect.

4) Privilege is not experience. Experience is experience.

One Comment leave one →
  1. sophia b permalink
    March 22, 2010 5:52 am

    As for the first two rules, i’d tend to phrase that as ‘if theres no objective standard to measure something by you have to trust peoples stated opinions (recognising that there are a wide variety of these that may have certain trends)’. So if you have someone saying that atheists have empty lives either i want to see your happiness meter or you’re just gonna have to believe me when i say i love my life.

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