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Why Radical Moderation?
Every coin has two sides....
I walked across campus yesterday, distracted as usual by a bunch of urgent work projects and hurrying because it was cold. As I entered my building, I noticed a student walking slowly toward me, looking intently at something behind me. He was wearing headphones, so I sort of assumed he was just zoned out or concentrating on something internally and didn’t pay much attention.
When I got into my office I noticed, from my window, the student still standing there staring. He had now been joined by another person, also looking off into the distance. At that point, I adjusted my focus to look at what they were looking at and noticed an entire herd of deer, peacefully grazing smack in the center of campus.
I had somehow managed to walk by no less than seven large white-tailed deer in my distracted haste. These are not really small animals, so it interested me that I had managed to miss them entirely as I walked within a few hundred feet of them. I spent a little time marveling at their beauty from my (warm) office and then thought a little bit about why this incident mattered for how I think about radical moderation.
The Two Sides of Influence
To make that connection, we have to go even further back, to my reading Robert Cialdini’s classic text Influence in grad school. I still remember one of the stories from that book (or it might have been our discussion about it in class), where Cialdini challenges us to stand in the middle of campus and look and point upward. Chances are good you’ll soon find other people looking upward too, trying to figure out what you’re looking at. Cialdini used this as an example of social contagion, among other things, and uses it to illustrate how easily humans influence each other’s behavior.
When I was a young and brash grad student, this tendency seemed like nothing more than herd mentality and an example of the kind of thing we can and should avoid. After all, we should be our own autonomous free-thinking self-creating agents, right!?!?! Reading Nietszche shortly after didn’t help anything, given Nietszche’s strong opinions on sheep generally.
As I got older and more moderate and mellowed out a bit, I realized that all this “herd” mentality is really just a function of our complicated nature as social animals. Like every part of our complex human nature, herd mentality and deep social connection are two sides of the same coin.
Our sociality can be either a gift or a curse, depending on how we use it and in what contexts. Our sociality does, of course, often breed social contagion of the worst kind, including brutality and riots and stampedes at concerts.
But our sociality also breeds social contagion of the best kind: the compounding power of human social creativity, which includes art, language, technology, and social institutions, the creation of stable norms that allow us to predict what others will do, the sharing of traditions and culture and music and food and all the other things humans mimic and copy and imitate from one to the other.
Sympathy, which is what Adam Smith would have called what we’re talking about here, is in fact simply an imperfect but incredible mechanism by which people infect each other with feelings and ideas.
It’s Not a Random Coin Flip
When we look to other humans for ideas and inspiration, we’re largely dependent for the outcome on what kind of human those humans are in the first place. Being influenced by the best that humanity has to offer is a very good thing. Being influenced by the worst is, obviously, not.
Context matters too. Being glued to social media because you’re suffering from a massive case of #FOMO or because you need constant feedback from others in the form of “likes” will prevent you from making progress on your own goals and discerning your own opinions about the things that matter in your own life.
But being completely insensitive to social cues, other people’s interests and disinterests, and not giving a damn about anyone’s opinion no matter who that person is is a recipe for isolation or much worse.
As I’ve found as I’ve wrestled with my own use of social media, it’s an incredible tool for connectivity and meaning at the same time that it can be a tool of division and drama. Just like a hammer, most human things - our nature and our language and our tools included - depend for their goodness or badness almost entirely on who is wielding them and what the incentives for wielding them are.
In all these cases though, human agency matters. I don’t wake up every morning wondering whether I land on my antisocial or my pro-social side today. And I don’t walk in to work every morning wondering if I’m walking into a minor civil war. The reason for this is that humans get to choose. Never wholly and never completely, but we do have agency over how we wield our messy social nature in both our individual lives and in our social institutions.
More to Come (and Back to Those Deer…)
There’s a lot more to unpack here in later posts, including connections to my thinking on social individualism, the tradeoffs involved in human nature itself, how to think about human cognitive biases - both their positives and their negatives - as well as how these two sides of every human coin relate to the project of radical moderation itself.
But part of the reason radical moderation is an important concept in the first place is precisely because all human traits, the tendency to be influenced by other people among them, have two sides.
There’s a prosocial side that supports human flourishing and an antisocial side that, in the wrong contexts or with the wrong incentives or in the wrong kinds of resource environments, creates serious harm. Radical moderation then, is largely the task of seeking a space where we can take human nature in all its complexity and - as much as possible - use it to reap human flourishing while avoiding unnecessary human suffering. Tall order!
Getting back to those deer, the very minor radically moderate lesson I learned this morning is that if you ignore what other people are doing entirely, you’ll miss some really cool things at the same time. This doesn’t mean we need to fall victim to constant #FOMO or incessant meddling, but it does mean being alert, particularly in the analog world where it matters most, to the things other people are noticing and that other people care about. You might find some fun surprises where you weren’t even looking.
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