Tuesday, March 22, 2011

conversations are hard

In my experience, the conversations that work best are not logically causal. They do not entail structures in which person A builds on (or questions) something person A said. Rather, they involve free-associating around a fuzzy, shared idea:

A: Books like "The Blah Effect" don't work well, because the author is trying to mix fiction and non-fiction in a clunky way that serves neither genre.

B: Interesting comment! It reminds me of an essay I once read about experiments in non-fiction. Here's a link...

A: Cool! And you might be interest in....

Those sorts of conversations can be great fun (for many people), and everyone can learn from them -- AND they work without anyone defining terms -- but they have serious limitations. The conversations I'm most interested are more like this:

A: Books like "The Blah Effect" don't work well, because the author is trying to mix fiction and non-fiction in a clunky way that serves neither genre.

B: I disagree. Fiction works best when it has a dose of non-fiction it it, because...

Assuming A and B aren't just shooting-the-shit (assuming they really want to attempt to come to some sort of new understanding about their topic), they already have a problem. What do they mean by "fiction" and "non-fiction"? What does A mean by it and does B mean something different or the same thing?

If this is going to turn into a free-association discussion, pinning down the definitions doesn't matter, but it matters deeply if it's going to be a "causal" discussion. And, if it is, there's really no point in A and B continuing if they can't agree on definitions or at least understand each-other's definitions.

What tends to happen, IF A clarifies, is that we get into this sort of mess:

A: What I mean by "fiction" is a story containing a traditional plot and characters. It can be based on real-life events or people, but it will always bow to the needs of traditional narrative if there's a conflict between that and "what actually happened."

B: That's not fiction! That doesn't include experimental novels that don't have plots.

Now, A wants to discuss fiction as HE defined it, but B won't accept the label "fiction" being attached to A's definition. In my experience, though I stupidly attempt it again and again, this doesn't work:

A: Okay, I accept that my definition of fiction doesn't work for all ways the word is commonly used. But just for this discussion, when I say "fiction," can we take it to mean stories with traditional narratives. If we use a broader definition, it's going to be really hard to talk about this.

B: No, because "fiction" doesn't mean what you're saying it means!

B's thinking here is deeply alien to me. If someone wants to say, "For the duration of this conversation, can we take the word 'dog' to mean 'cat'?", I have no problem. Probably, this is because I'm a programmer, so I have years of experience detaching labels from what they point to. (Or maybe this is a chicken-egg things. Maybe I became a programmer because I have the skill of detaching labels from what they point to.)

(As it happens, I came across an interesting quote today. This will only resonate with you if you've done some programming. Skip past it if you haven't:

"Once upon a time, I used to be a TA (Teaching Assistant) for a web development class at University. When I met with my students in the computer lab, I quickly found that there were two kinds of computer science students: those that could understand the concept of a 'variable' and those that could not. No matter how I tried to explain variables, it seemed that some students simply could not wrap their minds around it.

"I always felt that their failure of understanding was my failure as a teacher. As such, I was tremendously excited when I read Haverbeke's explanation of variables in programming (pg 16):

"'You should imagine variables as tentacles, rather than boxes. They do not contain values; they grasp them - two variables can refer to the same value. Only the values that the program still has a hold on can be accessed by it. When you need to remember something, you grow a tentacle to hold on to it, or you reattach one of your existing tentacles to a new value.'"


I don't really even get what's going on in B's head. It's like he thinks that if he temporarily agrees to use the word "fiction" in A's way, he has somehow changed something in the real world -- like he'll never be able to go back to using his own definition. Or maybe he thinks labels are somehow attached to the concepts they point to: you can't peel a tattoo off a person's arm without damaging his arm...

But whether I get it or not, it's a fact: it's a fact that there are many Bs out there, and they just can't accept temporary definitions. And, as many people have noted, the problem gets worse with analogies:

A: my marriage is "Romeo and Juliet"! My wife and I love each other, but other people keep creating problems that keep us apart.

B: what? You and your wife aren't ANYTHING like Romeo and Juliet! They were teenagers who lived in Italy. You're middle-aged people who live in New York!

(Or, worse...

B: you're comparing your REAL marriage to a relationship between fictional characters?!?)

What the analogy problem and the temporary-definition problem have in common is mapping. Many people seem deeply suspicious of mapping one thing onto another -- or they're just bad at doing it.

I have mostly just given up on analogies, though it's hard for me to always remember to give them up, because they work so well for me. They are natural to me. And I've learned so much from other-people's analogies.

When it comes to definitions, I've tried getting around the problem by using new terms:

B: That's not fiction! That doesn't include experimental novels that don't have plots

A: You're right. Okay, well I'm going to talk about something I call ... "narratives." Forget "fiction." We don't agree on what that is. Do you have any strong association with the word "narratives"?

B: Not really ... something about plots.

A: Okay. Great. So I'm saying -- for this conversation, anyway -- that a "narrative" is a traditional, plot-based story...

I've tried this before, and to be honest, have found it to be about as successful as anything else -- which is to say "not very."

You get into a problem which is that if you use a pre-existing word, the original issue happens all over again, this time with the new word:

B: No! That's not what narrative means!

And if you use a made-up word, people's eyes glaze over:

A: Fine. I'm going to make up a word: "Pleg." In this discussion, a "pleg" is a story with a traditional, plot-based narrative.

B: PLEG? That's absurd. There's no such word.

There are a couple of throw-your-hands-up-into-the-air responses here, and I hate both of them. One is to say, "Well, B is just an idiot." I disagree with this, though I have to admit, I sometimes feel like it's true when I let my frustration get the better of me. B may be bad at traditional, syllogistic, logical thinking, but there are many, many other types of thinking.

The other response is, "Well, we just can't have this kind of conversation. We really should stick to the free-association ones, since those are what work best." Maybe that is true, but I "can't go there." I don't really enjoy those conversations all that much, I suck at them, and I LOVE "causal" conversations. I live for them! I keep thinking there has to be a a way to make them work -- or at least to improve them. But I haven't figured out how yet.

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