Negative Feedback and Simulacra

Part 1: Examples

There’s a thing I want to talk about but it’s pretty nebulous so I’m going to start with examples. Feel free to skip ahead to part 2 if you prefer.

Example 1: Hot sauce

In this r/AmITheAsshole post, a person tries some food their their girlfriend cooked, likes it, but tries another bite with hot sauce. Girlfriend says this “…insults her cooking and insinuates that she doesn’t know how to cook”. 

As objective people not in this fight, we can notice that her cooking is exactly as good as it is whether or not he adds hot sauce. Adding hot sauce reveals information (maybe about him, maybe about the food), but cannot change the facts on the ground. Yet she is treating him like he retroactively made her cooking worse in a way that somehow reflects on her, or made a deliberate attempt to hurt her.


Example 2: Giving a CD back to the library

Back when I would get books on CD I would sometimes forget the last one in my drive or car. Since I didn’t use CDs that often, I would find the last CD sometimes months later. To solve this, I would drop the CD in the library book return slot, which, uh, no longer looks like a good solution to me, in part because of the time I did this in front of a friend and she questioned it. Not rudely or anything, just “are you sure that’s safe? Couldn’t the CD snap if something lands wrong?.” I got pretty angry about this, but couldn’t actually deny she had a point, so settled for thinking that if she had violated a friend code by not pretending my action was harmless. I was not dumb enough to say this out loud, but I radiated the vibe and she dropped it.


Example 3: Elizabeth fails to fit in at martial arts 

A long time ago I went to a martial arts studio. The general classes (as opposed to specialized classes like grappling) were preceded by an optional 45 minute warm up class. Missing the warm up was fine, even if you took a class before and after. Showing up 10 minutes before the general class and doing your own warm ups on the adjacent mats was fine too. What was not fine was doing the specialized class, doing your own warm ups on adjacent maps for the full 45 minutes while the instructor led regular warm ups, and then rejoining for the general class. That was “very insulting to the instructor”.

This was a problem for me because the regular warm ups hurt, in ways that clearly meant they were bad for me (and this is at a place I regularly let people hit me in the head). Theoretically I could have asked the instructor to give me something different, but that is not free and the replacements wouldn’t have been any better, which is not surprising because no one there had the slightest qualification to do personal training or physical therapy. So basically the school wanted me to pretend I was in a world where they were competent to create exercise routines, more competent than I despite having no feedback from my body, and considered not pretending disrespectful to the person leading warm ups.

Like the hot sauce example, the warm ups were as good as they were regardless of my participation – and they knew that, because they didn’t demand I participate. But me doing my own warm ups broke the illusion of competence they were trying to maintain.


Example 4: Imaginary Self-Help Guru

I listened to an interview where the guest was a former self-help guru who had recently shut down his school. Well, I say listened, but I’ve only done the first 25% so far. For that reason this should be viewed less as “this specific real person believes these specific things” and more like  “a character Elizabeth made up in her head inspired by things a real person said…” and. For that reason, I won’t be using his name or linking to the podcast.

Anyways, the actual person talked about how being a leader put a target on his back and his followers were never happy.  There are indeed a lot of burdens of leadership that are worthy of empathy, but there was an… entitled… vibe to the complaint. Like his work as a leader gave him a right to a life free of criticism.

If I was going to steel- man him, I’d say that there are lots of demands people place on leaders that they shouldn’t, such as “Stop reminding me of my abusive father” or “I’m sad that trade offs exist, fix it”. But I got a vibe that the imaginary guru was going farther than that; he felt like he was entitled to have his advice work, and people telling him it didn’t was taking that away from him, which made it an attack.


Example 5: Do I owe MAPLE space for their response?

A friend of mine (who has some skin in the meditation game) said things I interpreted as feeling very strongly that:

  1. My post on MAPLE was important and great and should be widely shared.
  2. I owed MAPLE an opportunity to read my post ahead of time and give me a response to publish alongside it (although I could have declined to publish it if I felt it was sufficiently bad).

Their argument, as I understood it at the time, was that even if I linked to a response MAPLE made later, N days worth of people would have read the post and not the response, and that was unfair.

I think this is sometimes correct- I took an example out of this post even though it required substantial rewrites, because I checked in with the people in question, found they had a different view, and that I didn’t feel sure enough of mine to defend it (full disclosure: I also have more social and financial ties to the group in question than I do to MAPLE).

I had in fact already reached out to my original contact there to let him know the post was coming and would be negative, and he passed my comment on to the head of the monastery. I didn’t offer to let him see it or respond, but he had an opportunity to ask (what he did suggest is a post in and of itself). This wasn’t enough for my friend- what if my contact was misrepresenting me to the head, or vice versa? I had an obligation to reach out directly to the head (which I had no way of doing beyond the info@ e-mail on their website) and explicitly offer him a pre-read and to read his response.

[Note: I’m compressing timelines a little. Some of this argument and clarification came in arguments about the principle of the matter after I had already published the post. I did share this with my friend, and changed some things based on their requests. On others I decided to leave it as my impression at the time we argued, on the theory that “if I didn’t understand it after 10 hours of arguing, the chances this correction actually improves my accuracy are slim”. I showed them a near-final draft and they were happy with it]

I thought about this very seriously. I even tentatively agreed (to my friend) that I would do it. But I sat with it for a day, and it just didn’t feel right. What I eventually identified as the problem was this: MAPLE wasn’t going to be appending my criticism to any of their promotional material. I would be shocked if they linked to me at all. And even if they did it wouldn’t be the equivalent, because my friend was insisting that I proactively seek out their response, where they had never sought out mine, or to the best of my knowledge any of their critics. As far as I know they’ve never included anything negative in their public facing material, despite at least one person making criticism extremely available to them. 

If my friend were being consistent (which is not a synonym for “good”) they would insist that MAPLE seek out people’s feedback and post a representative sample somewhere, at a minimum. The good news is: my friend says they’re going to do that next time they’re in touch. What they describe wanting MAPLE to create sounds acceptable to me. Hurray! Balance is restored to The Force! Except… assuming it does happen, why was my post necessary to kickstart this conversation?  My friend could have noticed the absence of critical content on MAPLE’s website at any time. The fact that negative reports trigger a reflex to look for a response and positive self-reports do not is itself a product of treating negative reports as overt antagonism and positive reports as neutral information.

[If MAPLE does link to my experience in a findable way on their website, I will append whatever they want to my post (clearly marked as coming from them). If they share a link on Twitter or something else transient, I will do the same] 


Part 2: Simulacrum

My friend Ben Hoffman talks about simulacra a lot, with this rough definition:

1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.

2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity – people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there’s a lion over somewhere where I know there’s food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.

3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren’t even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. “There’s food over there” is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or “aboutness.” For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.

4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you’re trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

If that doesn’t make sense, try this anonymous comment on the post

Level 1: “There’s a lion across the river.” = There’s a lion across the river.
Level 2: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.
Level 3: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.
Level 4: “There’s a lion across the river.” = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

In all five of my examples, people were given information (I like this better with hot sauce, you might break the library’s CD, these exercises hurt me and you are not qualified to fix it, your advice did not fix my problem, I had a miserable time at your retreat), and treated it as a social attack. This is most obvious in the first four, where someone literally says some version of “I feel under attack”, but is equally true in the last one, even though the enforcer was different than the ~victim and was attempting merely to tax criticism, not suppress it entirely. All five have the effect that there is either more conflict or less information in the world.


Part 3: But…

When I started thinking about this, I wanted a button I could push to make everyone go to level one all the time. It’s not clear that that’s actually a good idea, but even if it was, there is no button, and choosing/pretending to cut off your awareness of higher levels in order to maintain moral purity does you no good. If you refuse to conceive of why someone would tell you things other than to give you information, you leave yourself open to “I’m only telling you this to make you better” abuse. If you refuse to believe that people would lie except out of ignorance, you’ll trust when you shouldn’t. If you refuse to notice how people are communicating with others, you will be blindsided when they coordinate on levels you don’t see. 

But beating them at their own game doesn’t work either, because the enemy was never them, it was the game, which you are still playing. You can’t socially maneuver your way into a less political world. In particular, it’s a recent development that I would have noticed my friend’s unilateral demand for fairness as in fact tilted towards MAPLE. In a world where no one notices things like that, positive reviews of programs become overrepresented.

I don’t have a solution to this.  The best I can do right now is try to feed systems where level one is valued and higher levels are discussed openly.  “How do I find those?” you might ask. I don’t know. If you do, my email address is elizabeth – at – this domain name and I’d love to hear from you. You can also book a time to talk to me for an hour. What I have are a handful of 1:1 relationships where we have spent years building trust to get to the point where “I think you’re being a coward” is treated as genuine information, not a social threat, and mostly the other person has made the first move. 

The pieces of advice I do have are:

  1. If someone says they want honest feedback, err on the side of giving it to them. They are probably lying, but that’s their problem (unless they’re in a position to make it yours, in which case think harder about this).
  2. Figure out what you need to feel secure as someone confirms your worst fears about yourself and ask for it, even if it’s weird, even if it seems like an impossibly big ask. People you are compatible with will want to build towards that (not everyone who doesn’t is abusive or even operating in bad faith- but if you can’t start negotiations on this I’d be very surprised if you’re compatible).
  3. Be prepared for some sacrifices, especially in the congeniality department. People who are good at honesty under a climate that punishes it are not going to come out unscathed.

6 thoughts on “Negative Feedback and Simulacra”

  1. I notice that several of your examples have one additional thing in common, beyond “information is treated as a social attack”:

    A: Fuck you for saying I’m not good at optimizing

    I think that this suggests a distinct norm from the one you propose. In addition to working hard to value Level 1, it would be healthy to have the norm “it’s not an insult to decline a gift” (where decline can mean adjust or criticize, and the gift can be conceptual or metaphorical, etc).

    1. Oh dammit, text in brackets disappears. What I meant to show was:

      A: [optimizes thing]
      B: [adjusts thing or suggests adjustment or says it doesn’t work for them]
      A: Fuck you for saying I’m not good at optimizing the thing

      I do love the absurdity of the original now, though.

  2. I think I like this post and I think I understand what you are trying to say.
    Let me give you my own example and see if you think it squares with what you are trying to say:
    I’m a reporter which means my job is to ask people questions. I response I frequently get to my questions is: “What I think you are asking is…” blah blah.
    It’s frustrating, because the question I’m really asking as is whatever I’m asking, wherever it goes. There’s no gotcha.

    It’s hard because the less words you say in a question, the less you frame it. Framing closes down possible directions but it also makes it easier for folks to impose their own frames that may or may not actually be helfpul. A frame is kind of worse if they interpolate it, but then again if you address it ahead of times it doesn’t work.

    So I guess I’m saying is: is saying that the text of the question is really the question an example of level one and saying “what I think you’re asking is” an example of level 2?

    1. Let me talk about my own reaction to this comment: I immediately viewed it as a level-2 request for people to give you more accurate information, without considering the cost to themselves. I wanted to talk about how reporters frequently lie to their interviewees and the interview ends up net-negative for them.

      Not knowing the specifics, my guess would be that “What I think you’re asking?” Is an attempt to bring the conversation back to level 1, when they perceive you to be at level 2 or higher.

      1. This is really interesting (!) because of how these two ways of interpreting the situation each seem to represent common real-life occurrences.

        embraceambiguity’s interpretation lined up more with my own, probably because my wife is a journalist who has told me many stories about the people she has interviewed and how she has to be like a dog with a bone to get answers to the question she is asking despite the interviewee’s dissembling (FWIW, she is also one of the most honest people I know and cares deeply about the value of truth and objectivity in reporting).

        With this in mind, I had to read Aceso’s comment a few times before it made sense to me. I can definitely imagine interviewer/interviewee interactions in which they interviewer is actively trying to “trap” or “gotcha” the guest, or get a hot quote they can make a click-bait headline with (the first example that comes to mind is Cathy Newman’s interview with Jordan Peterson).

Comments are closed.