Fair Witness

One of my all-time favorite books is Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein.  In this book there is the concept of a professional "Fair Witness", a person who is trained to observe events and report exactly- and only- what they actually witness.  For example, at one point in the book a Fair Witness is asked what color a house is, and she replies "It's white on this side." (emphasis mine) It is then explained that she does not make the assumption that the rest of the house is white.  She does not give extrapolation or opinion- only observed fact.

I absolutely fell in love with this concept as a younger person, because it made so much sense to me.  It resonated with me, and with the way my brain works.  I know that I annoy the hell out of most people with my oft-repeated motto, "Precision of language is important!" but it is.  Precision matters.

But most people do not want precision.  They want broad, easy strokes.  And this can make life very awkward for me, indeed.  At times during my childhood it made it downright miserable- other children can be cruel to peers who are different, and using polysyllabic words at a young age certainly marked me as different.  But even more than that, certain adults don't know how to deal with children who are as smart- or smarter- than they are, and some of those adults react by attempting to put said children "in their place".  The world can be terribly lonely when you are surrounded by peers and "superiors" who are all telling you that the way you're acting- the way you are- is showing off and mean and wrong.

But that's another blog entry entirely.

The point is, I have a history of saying things that alienate people, all because I tend to forget that the average person doesn't care about precision in their day-to-day interactions.  They only care that you hit the proper steps of social ritual.  And although I've gotten better about it, I still occasionally fail to switch out of logical-Vulcan mode.

I failed today.

A friend of mine asked me,

"Am I a good person?"

And instead of responding like a normal person would, by saying, "Of course you're a good person!" and thereby giving them the reassurance they were searching for, I said, thoughtfully,

"Well, I  don't know."  I went on to explain that I wasn't sure anyone could ever know whether or not another person was good, that the most I could do was comment on the behaviors I'd observed, and that they seemed like the person in question was probably a good person.  But I couldn't know.  And while I'm saying these things, my mind is whirling with thoughts like, "What is good?  I don't even know that I'm a good person- I'm more likely a neutral person who occasionally does good things," (any time I take those, "What's your Alignment?" quizzes I get "true neutral", if that tells you anything).

And then, suddenly, I realize that my friend is looking at me.  Looking at me in that, "You just failed a test of basic social niceties" way.  And then they sort of try to brush the whole thing off, but can tell that actually I've really hurt their feelings.  And I feel awful, because I absolutely didn't mean to hurt their feelings, and if they had phrased the question just slightly differently, ("Do you think I'm a good person?" or "Am I a bad person?") I could have answered appropriately, but oh no- whatever part of my psyche that cannot let go of literal-ism is flailing around screaming that if I don't know what the definition of something is, I cannot categorize things using said "something".

But then?  Then I start to feel angry.  Because why the hell do people have to take things personally when they aren't personal?  Why do people have to be so sloppy with language?  And why can't people just ask for what they actually want, rather than making me have to guess at their stupid normal emotions and react "appropriately"?

But then I realize that I'm just going into defensive mode, myself, getting angry to mask the discomfort of having unintentionally hurt my friend.  So I shake it off, apologize, and try to explain myself- but the brusque way they're speaking indicates that they don't really get it.  In fact I'm pretty sure they're still thinking that I think they're a jerk.


Oh well.  Tomorrow is another day.

(In all fairness, sometimes I'm just plain self-centered/oblivious.  It's a pretty major personal failing, and I'm working on it.  I've been working on it for over a decade.  Theoretically someday I'll get better about it.  Hopefully.)


  1. Oof, that sucks. I'm so sorry for you (and for your friend). I don't think you were self-centered though -- I think this is a good point to be kind to yourself on. It's just that you were each speaking out of different, deeply felt needs. And obviously you're perfectly capable of perceiving what she was looking for; you're just frustrated that people can be so much work. You're... not wrong about that. (Trust me: you're a good person!) =D

    This was such a thought-provoking reflection on the problem though, that I hope you don't mind if I complicate it a bit further. I do agree that precision absolutely matters -- without it as a guiding principle, the world devolves into subjective mayhem! -- but I think it's a mistake to contrast a literal approach with painting the world in broad, easy strokes. I'd submit that literal-mindedness can itself be one expression of the essentially human desire for things to be simpler; namely (and I think we all have at least a bit of this) for discourse and perception to be idealized and rationalized.

    The difficulty is, of course, that even the way people see literal things -- even the side of a house or, say, a blue and gold dress -- is highly individual. So when you go all the way to the other end of the spectrum and talk about metaphysical things like good and bad, trying to be literal completely breaks down (it's pretty understandable the question sent the rational part of your brain into a tailspin). Such things are so deeply shaped by our experiences, our self-awareness, our level of exposure to different ideas from our own, etc.

    The catch I think is that human interaction is as much an emotional experience (as another part of your brain was realizing at the same time) as a rational one. Obviously there's a basically utilitarian side as well, but we are all emotional beings -- even the rational part of you was upset and frustrated with the exchange, with realizing you were effectively speaking different languages.

    We all want to be understood, and to understand, so it's a pretty reasonable ideal to want language to be completely accurate (ours; theirs) but unfortunately that's not how we actually use. Even with the best intentions our words get loaded and shaded with everything from our own life histories to how our day is going so far -- and of course so are everyone else's, which means interpretation (ours; theirs) is a huge part of the process. (For instance: having been brought up in a fairly sensitive, passive-aggressive family I absolutely love the people in my life who say exactly what they're thinking. That doesn't mean I don't sometimes have knee-jerk responses to them as if they may have meant something else, just because of how I've been conditioned. Even the most precise language can run afoul of such invisible tripwires with which our whole society is laced.)

    So what I'm saying is neither that precision isn't important, certainly, or that the whole project of human communication is doomed and we should just give up and nuke it from orbit. Obviously a big part of the gap I'm exposing is where empathy comes in -- getting to know people as individuals, recognizing what they mean regardless of what they say, etc. But I think an essential aid to empathy is, while we hold precision in one hand, to hold ambiguity in the other. Ambiguity often gets a bad rap, but it can be a humbling (even scary) concept to grapple with, and I think it is intrinsic to the human experience: there isn't always one right answer; people (ourselves included) are emotionally complex and frequently paradoxical; and all dictionaries aside, the same words can mean a lot of different things.

    Also, people are a lot of work. So it's essential for all of us to have people to retreat to who speak our language, more or less, and can be relied upon to take the things that come out of our mouths in the most loving possible way. =)

    1. We had more talks about it and are totally cool now. It's actually led into more (and more interesting) discussions, and I think they finally, FINALLY believe me when I say that me mentioning to people that I'm "gifted" (in the neurological sense) is not me bragging- it is me legitimately trying to warn to them that my mind is wired a little differently.

      But yes, people ARE a lot of work. Which is probably why I like cats. And Nathan. Who is people, but a very cat-like people.

  2. <3 Thank god for cat-like people!

  3. (And I'm sure you can't tell that I wrestle a lot with ambiguity -- in people, in words, etc -- to the point that it's what motivates most of my writing in some way or another. But I still don't know why I had to write a whole blog post at you in the comments... sorry about that. =/ My only defense is that I'm pretty sure I was procrastinating on doing some other writing.)