Of Crows and Courtesy

Monday, October 30, 2017

From an Inc. column about curbing rude behavior by confronting it comes the following quote from advice columnist Amy Alkon regarding why loutishness is disturbingly common. Alkon holds that it's because our cities and towns have become too large:

When you know people, you behave differently than if you didn't. You couldn't be rude because you'd be voted off the island. So our brains are slow for the times we live in. We're around strangers all the time, but contrast that to living in a small town. If you robbed a bank, your mom would know about it before you took off in the getaway car. [link omitted]
My first reaction to this -- as someone who tries to be polite and knows plenty of city dwellers who are -- was: What? It also seemed for a moment that Alkon was contradicting herself in some way: If our minds are too primitive to function easily save in small communities, how could we even rise to the task of considering a theory regarding such a fact?

But then, upon remembering a point Ayn once made (in Chapter 7 of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology), I realized that Alkon actually has a good point, one that might shed some light on the state of modern society. Rand's point is as follows:
The story of the following experiment was told in a university classroom by a professor of psychology. I cannot vouch for the validity of the specific numerical conclusions drawn from it, since I could not check it first-hand. But I shall cite it here, because it is the most illuminating way to illustrate a certain fundamental aspect of consciousness -- of any consciousness, animal or human.

The experiment was conducted to ascertain the extent of the ability of birds to deal with numbers. A hidden observer watched the behavior of a flock of crows gathered in a clearing of the woods. When a man came into the clearing and went on into the woods, the crows hid in the tree tops and would not come out until he returned and left the way he had come. When three men went into the woods and only two returned, the crows would not come out: they waited until the third one had left. But when five men went into the woods and only four returned, the crows came out of hiding. Apparently, their power of discrimination did not extend beyond three units -- and their perceptual-mathematical ability consisted of a sequence such as: one-two-three-many.

Whether this particular experiment is accurate or not, the truth of the principle it illustrates can be ascertained introspectively: if we omit all conceptual knowledge, including the ability to count in terms of numbers, and attempt to see how many units (or existents of a given kind) we can discriminate, remember and deal with by purely perceptual means (e.g., visually or auditorially, but without counting), we will discover that the range of man's perceptual ability may be greater, but not much greater, than that of the crow: we may grasp and hold five or six units at most.

This fact is the best demonstration of the cognitive role of concepts.

Since consciousness is a specific faculty, it has a specific nature or identity and, therefore, its range is limited: it cannot perceive everything at once; since awareness, on all its levels, requires an active process, it cannot do everything at once. Whether the units with which one deals are percepts or concepts, the range of what man can hold in the focus of his conscious awareness at any given moment, is limited. The essence, therefore, of man's incomparable cognitive power is the ability to reduce a vast amount of information to a minimal number of units -- which is the task performed by his conceptual faculty. And the principle of unit-economy is one of that faculty's essential guiding principles. [italics in original] (pp. 62-63)
How does this apply to etiquette? 150 is, after all, a much larger number than six or seven. I think the answer is that it applies indirectly. That number seems like it might be close to the number of people most of us normally become familiar with, or bump into regularly-enough that even a primitive internal tally-sheet of interactions could tell someone it would be beneficial to help them, or at least that these people would be best able to haunt him for bad behavior. Ditto for getting a feel for what these friends, family, and acquaintances might expect/what they'll let him get away with.

But beyond that, and maybe cases of exceptional memory aside, how does one deal with more people -- or total strangers? Can we generalize what other people like and dislike? Can we conceptualize how, generally, we should regard and treat other people? Just as we need a code of ethics to guide our actions past obvious needs, like eating and breathing, so we need etiquete, a systematic way of dealing with other people in a non-political context.

In other words, we can't escape the necessity of dealing with the problem conceptually, and based on how we think about the world generally. A person who does this, and has concluded that other people represent potential friends and business partners, or can even simply be pleasant to spend a few moments with, will conclude that treating them well is the correct default. As for the kind of short-range, boorish behaviors Suzanne Lucas mentioned in her column, they may well be free of adverse immediate consequences, but will, if habitual, also almost certainly cut off a supply of value, in the form of the good will and company of decent people. In other words, a thinking person will realize that he has good cause to be courteous based on principles he draws from his thinking and past social experience that generalize well beyond the hundred or so people he's familiar with.

So Alkon is right, but perhaps could have gone a bit further: Courtesy seems to be on the wane in modern society, but it is a symptom of much bigger problem. Yes, ignorance of the principles of etiquette is common, but, far worse, concrete-bound, short-range thinking is apparently becoming quite common in the advanced societies that need solid, conceptual thinking the most. So, good for Suzanne Lucas for confronting her local barbarians: This tactic can make life pleasant for the rest of us by instructing the merely ignorant, or by reminding the thoughtless that there can be consequences for their actions. It is up to the thoughtful to consider how to promote more of their way of thinking within society.

-- CAV


Kyle Haight said...

Coincidentally I was thinking about etiquette the other day. There's a need for an article (or book) on the rational basis of etiquette -- something examining the principles by which a rational, value-pursing person should guide social interaction in a free society. The way etiquette was presented in the past was often intrinsicist. You should act in X way because that's polite. Why is X the polite way? It just is. The fact that some of the concrete rules of etiquette actually are arbitrary, in a sense, doesn't help. (Why put the fork on the left instead of the right?)

Because etiquette was upheld on a largely intrinsicist foundation, as our culture turned increasingly towards subjectivism the commitment to polite behavior eroded and got replaced with acting on one's feelings/not hurting the feelings of others. Yet another area where the intrinsic/subjective dichotomy needs to be resolved by an identification and defense of an objective approach.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

On the flip side, sometimes 'confronting rudeness' is a tactic of the Left used when someone sticks up for their rights, autonomy, or just disinterest in their cause du jour. It can be used for virtue signaling and to express disdain for a human unit not in the Left's official victim hierarchy.

Back in 2006, I was at a sporting event in Calgary AB. The competition had run long and there was only one train left that was scheduled to go from the arena back to the town centre where most of the hotels are.

So there was quite a press toward getting onto those cars and in the bustle I saw this elderly lady in her late 80s getting buffeted by all the movement.

I'm not very tall (but quite solidly built) and she was about halfway up my chest in height and rather frail to boot. So I moved through the crowd and stood behind her to buffer her from the press of the crowd.

She smiled her thanks and I smiled back when I became aware of someone screaming invective. At me, as it turns out. For pushing that old woman around. For being rude. And apparently, for being a white male. (Indulging in patriarchy, dontcha know!)

The source of this noise was an attractive blonde haired blue eyed woman of apparent college age. She had her coterie of sycophants about her, echoing and amplifying her denunciation.

I got straight to the point. I raised my voice and said, "Shut UP!" Which had the desired effect. I doubt if daddy's lil princess had ever had anyone shut her down, and probably could have benefited from a regular course of the treatment. "Why don't we ask her - indicating the elderly lady - if I was pushing her around."

"Oh no dear, you've been very kind. Thank you!"

While that stopped the screaming, they continued to mutter amongst themselves with just enough volume to make sure that I could hear.

At the time, I just put it down to general boorishness of a spoiled little twit who was at the top of her social circle. I've come to realize that what I interacted with was an early iteration of the spoiled, man-hating, Social Justice Cry Bullies that the Canadian universities were putting out.

I hope that she may get the life-relationships that her character so richly deserves.

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Intrincisism -- because it offers no explanation, as you note -- is indeed worse than no defense at all of etiquette. The ethics of altruism pitches in since that's where most people come from, and aside from "give up whatever you like or care about", it is silent on how to act, and so offering no positive incentive to be polite. Those who act hypocritically to survive end up figuring out courtesy the same way some victims of whole word figure out how to read, or accept it ritualistically, or default to the primitive mindset Alkon alludes to.


Good for you. When you mentioned the virtue-signalling asses of the left, I thought, "Sure, but let them encounter someone of certitude rooted in actually knowing what is right," and then immediately supplied a good example. At least any intelligent onlookers learned something.


Gus Van Horn said...


... and then you immediately supplied...

Jennifer Snow said...

Because most people are taught politeness with an altruistic justification, too, a lot of people seem to think that being a jerk is synonymous with standing up for yourself, and if you object to their boorishness, you're "politically correct".

I've always been hyper-sensitive to people being rude and intrusive and one of the hardest things for me to learn (and I still struggle with it almost every day) is how to react to someone who ISN'T GETTING THE HINT when I'm broadcasting "go away" without biting their head off. I escalate far to quickly from "mm-hmm, that's nice" to "GET THE F*** AWAY FROM ME".

Gus Van Horn said...


The inability to take hints is issue I see come up often enough at both Ask a Manager and Captain Awkward that I'll recommend both here. (I know you're not necessarily asking for advice on this, but I suspect anyone interested in this thread might.) Both are good on the points of when and how to be more direct with people who are clueless or disrespectful of personal boundaries.

The PC accusation must be really annoying, given that the political correctness is an assault on etiquette (among other things), and you get the displeasure of being gratuitously associated with it.


Gus Van Horn said...

Correction: ... thread might find them interesting.) ...