Thinking Of Things, Season 1, Episode 9:

A false sense of insecurity
The free prisoner’s dilemma 

We perceive the world, and we perceive what is in the world. We separate objects from objects, and we ascribe them value. We create salient landscapes. And then we sort. We categorise, we make lists, and we understand. 

Here is an example of a taxonomy, a list which orders and sorts something: 

Three parts to understanding:
1. Definition. The ability to separate stuff from other stuff and to assign them emotional value or meaning. (See Episode 2)
2. Taxonomy. The sorting of things into categories. (See e.g. this list.)
3. Intuition. To feel as if something is understood, and thus have it become an intuition, gut feeling and “common sense”. (See Episode 4).

And a feeling of understanding emerges.

Many are the things that can be categorised according to a taxonomy. For example, Carl Von Linnaeus (1707-1778) was very successful in organising the plants and animals of the world according to his system, and giving them Latin names. Even without knowing anything about the underlying principles of the classification, such as genetics and Darwinian evolution, the sorting still imbued a sense of the world making a little bit more sense.1

And we think we understand something, intuitively, and the categories we have created become cemented within. And the categories become the world, essential for its understanding, and whatever does not fit into the categories of our achieved world view elicits a sense of impurity.

In fact, Linnaeus’ sorting was so successful that his contemporaries and ilk tried to apply a similar ordering to almost anything, including the chemical elements, this time without succeeding. A sign of a taxonomy not succeeding is that ever more categories have to be invented to organise the knowledge. Instead it turned out that the periodic table of elements was the correct taxonomy (or at least a useful one) for chemistry, which was later explained by electrons and protons. 2

People taxonomy

People can also be sorted. It is hard to know whether or not the taxonomy one applies on people is the correct (or at least useful) one or not, since the difference between e.g. chemical elements and people is that the latter wants to be sorted and categorised, and work very hard to fit into the categories we put each other into.

Why do we do that? Let us start from the beginning. We have ancestry on this planet reaching a few hundred million years back (a ten-thousandth out of which as humans). And at some point in the evolution of us, there was culture.

Evolution is a slow process where traits take many hundreds of generations to manifest and mitigate through a species. It was only with the dawn of culture that something learnt in a lifetime could be mitigated directly to the next generation. Over time a pre-human emerged with this ability so well developed that whole landscapes of salience could be transferred from one generation to the next. Objects got demarcated from objects, and given an emotional value. Individuals got demarcated from individuals, and given roles in their societies, and these roles also have emotional value attached to them; cultural hierarchies were formed.3

A person’s evolution

Here is a list of stages of human development:

List of 4 stages of human development:
1. Egocentric childhood
2. Insecure adolescence
3. Culture savvy adulthood
4. Maturity into personhood

Humans are social creatures, and humans are cultural creatures. We have a strong instinct to learn and conform into a culture. But what is the driving force for conforming? Why are we so insecure as adolescents? And why do we become culture savvy adults (if we do)?

Here is a definition:

Insecurity is the social equivalent of fear of the dark.4

As we saw in the previous episode5, being excluded is perceived and felt the same as physical pain. That is how insecurity can become such a strong driving force, we are insecure in order to avoid being socially hurt6.

Biology works in roundabout ways. If we ate because we needed energy for our metabolism, we would always eat healthy if possible. Since that is not why we eat, what we eat is not necessarily what is best for us. We eat to avoid feeling hungry. The same goes for social conduct. We conform to roles in our culture, to identities, not because it creates the best possible culture for all of us, but because that is how it came to be that culture is progressing: We conform to our culture to avoid feeling pain. And pain is avoided by being normal.

Just a normal culture

Here is another definition:

The original meaning of the word ‘culture’, to grow or to culture, is also a part of this definition. Newcomers to a culture become cultured into participants (they conform), but also, to some degree, they culture the culture. A culture is therefore vulnerable to newcomers (most of which are so by the virtue of being born). Therefore, for a culture to be conserved, a strong mechanism for conformity is needed. Insecurity provides that mechanism.

A jokeAn old fish comes upon a couple of younger fish. She calls out to them “Good morning fellows, how is the water today?”. The young fish just stare at her, and she swims on muttering about today’s youth. When she is gone, one of the young fish asks the other “what is water?”

Randall Munroe: “An ‘American tradition’ is anything that happened to a baby boomer twice.” A culture is vulnerable to newcomers, such as baby-boomers. Original comic:

The insecurity of being normal

Insecurity is Social. It may feel as if it is personal, that I am insecure, but it is a socially experienced and maintained emotion, for the whole purpose of the emotion is a social one: It is to perpetuate a culture through the generations and to make those newcomers into the culture conform to the same, and do so quickly.

When we are children, we learn from our parental figures. These are our idols, they know everything, whatever we ask, they know the answer. We get a lot of our insights on how the world is, and are not necessarily concerned whether a different world than the one which is presented to us is possible. We are uncritical. At this stage we are starting to inherit our parental figures’ salience landscapes–their culture. We learn much about what is what, the definitions and taxonomies of the culture. It is only to a much lesser degree that we learn the emotional content, or the meaning, of the sorting. We learn what is what, and that it is important that it is so, but not why. And as children, everything is just so, we are perturbed if things differ from what we have learnt them to be. Since a child does not yet try to conform (much) to a culture (she merely imitates without the perceived meaning attached to her behaviour), it is no surprise that it is a child who calls out the emperor and his new clothes (or lack thereof).7

Then we start school, and we get new teachers in our lives–our peers. We learn how to behave and what to say in order to avoid humiliation and ridicule, and in order to gain social status. We learn the why of what is what, we learn with whom to empathise and with whom to not. The insecurity felt during adolescence forces us to conform to our culture. It forces us to become culture savvy, so that we no longer must feel the pain. For some of us, adolescence was a smooth and relatively pain-free process, for some of us it was an excruciating period.8 For some of us, it never ended.

Hjalmar Söderberg: “One wants to be loved, in lack thereof admired, in lack thereof feared, in lack thereof loathed and despised. One wants to instil some sort of emotion in people. The soul trembles before emptiness and desires contact at any price.”9

Then, when savviness is achieved, we make sure only to move within the borders of the social norms our culture (or subcultures) put up for us. Otherwise we get socially punished, by painful means such as embarrassment, losing of face, ridicule, or exclusion from the group. We are judged by the group, but more than that: we have learnt to judge ourselves and others.10 There is an ocean of insecurity between being self-conscious and self-aware.

To be culture savvy is to belong, to belong to a group, to a culture, to a sub-culture, to a pack. To be culture savvy is to stay inside the boundaries of your group, lest it hurts.To be culture savvy is to find one’s comfort zone. To be culture savvy is to be scared of fucking up.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: All is in a man’s hands and he lets it all slip from cowardice, that’s an axiom. It would be interesting to know what it is men are most afraid of. Taking a new step, uttering a new word is what they fear most.”11

Once a succesful strategy for avoiding social pain has been found, then some cannot have enough of whatever behaviour took them into that comfort zone. A new step and the utterance of a new word is then in the same direction that lead away from the pain in the first place. In many cultures, moderation is a virtue, and such excesses are deemed shameful.

But merely being culture savvy, to find the role destined for us by our culture, is not much of an aspiration. It is to only aspire to be nothing more than a bit of filth12, instead of trying to claim the immeasurability of personhood. And that is the last13 stage of human development: to overcome the mere identities of our culture and not to be a bit of filth, but to claim personhood.

However, overcoming your cultural designation does not happen in a vacuum, it is strongly dependent on our culture, and our place within it. To become is to transform, and to transform is to shed who we were. It does not mean that we are not carrying who we were within who we become; for without who we were we wouldn’t be who we are. As the rainbow retains the memory of rain without itself being the rain, do we retain the memory of our former selves without being them.

But what does it mean to be culture savvy, and how exactly is it achieved? Let’s go to jail to find out.

Next page: The free prisoner



Page 1: “People Taxonomy”, “A Person’s Evolution”, “Just a Normal Culture”, “The Insecurity of being Normal”
Page 2: “The Free Prisoner”, “On Violence”, “Non-violence is also violent”
Page 3: “Identity Politics and the World Ordering”
Page 4: “Contagion”, “Some Final Points”

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  • mcarefully

    There is so much in this entry!, I’m sorry I missed its publication earlier.

    In the early sections, in several of the places where you mention ascribing value (/meaning), you modify it with the attribute, ’emotional’ (as distinct from intellectual, spiritual, social, material, etc). Is that because you see most/all value attribution that humans do as a process as at base emotional in nature, even if there may be other layers on top?

    I like very much your comments about violence as well as your acknowledgment of the liberation of the guard. One concrete example of this struck me very strongly in the ‘extras’ material on a dvd release of the film Favela Rising, where it presented a teach-back aspect of the cultural program in which the youth of the favela, having learned musical instrumentation and dance, etc, would then have opportunities to teach/mentor the local police who patrolled the favelas in learning those skills/arts. To me, this was immensely powerful, perhaps the most revolutionarily powerful aspect of the whole story/program, even though it was somewhat of a footnote due to presentational format.

    “…to be a free prisoner” (around footnote 21). — but this is not _really_ the goal, right? Are you presenting ‘free prisoner’ as distinct from liberated (/no-longer) prisoner here? Is the freedom in ‘free prisoner’ the posing sort or the true sort? If it is the posing sort, then does that undermine what follows about the pursuit/construction of indentity-free spaces(/subcultures)?
    >2>OK, you come back to this too,,, in your preview to Next Episode.. 🙂

    What about other aspects of identity that we carry around with us as internalized (expressed or un) projections? eg, ‘I am a person invested in social justice’ as a defining aspect of identity. Might these also be sand-trappy? In recent years I have come to believe that they are, that they are very hard to eliminate as one attempts to know oneself, reconcile self-world relationships, and/or ‘just live’.
    >1>Ah, OK, I see you come back to this ~footnote 31..

    re: foonote 24 and stereotype threat, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi is a good book on this subject (and accessible, in terms of not being overly academic or dense, for sharing widely).

    As a lesser note, interesting how funny words are. Your very legitimate use of the term ‘insecurity’ throughout this writing communicates well and accessibly, and yet has a sort of inverse relationship to the call for an embracing of insecurity (of a different, virtually opposite character) in eg Watts’ Wisdom of Insecurity. insecurity as manifestation of fear and diminished/ing self-projected/internalized social value VS insecurity as manifestation of openness to (or recognition of) unknowability.

    • ToT

      McCarefully, wow, you are a good reader, I’m happy to have you come here! 🙂 And your comment contains a lot!

      On whether ascribing meaning to something is emotional foremost, as distinct to other attributes:
      Yes, I do think that the when a lump of non-descript stuff becomes a category in our mind, the process is not intellectual; it is when the stuff gains an emotional connection that a category can be formed. This is seen already in children who are very upset if they learn that a category they know is also something else.

      It is a very interesting and apt example from Favela Rising, thank you!

      On the free prisoner: yes, maybe that could have been made clearer before the preview of the next episode. I don’t think the free prisoner as being free, merely as someone who has made herself content in her own prison. The ‘free prisoner’ and the ‘culture savvy adult’ are very similar concepts in this respect…

      On Self-identity: I agree, they are a bit sand-trappy. With a self-identity with tend to reduce some aspects of ourselves into some kind of perceived “truth”. But as with all identities, with an openess that there not being a truth when it comes to these matters, they can still find their use. E.g. it could be a way to focus and transform different parts of yourself, by solidifying some aspects into an identity for a while, this opens up space and energy for transforming other aspects.

      Whistling Vivaldi: I’ll look for it!

      On the word insecurity: Hmmm… I haven’t read Watt’s book… I guess that I also promote an embrace of insecurity, since I think we need to acknowledge and become aware of our insecurities in order to take responsibility for our personhood. I suggest analysing daydreams as a method towards the end of the last post. It has proved useful for me, I don’t know how universal it could be. Is Watt’s view similar? From the blurb of the book it seems that it may be, but it is not quite clear.

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  • Axel Cholewa


    I know I’m late for this discussion, but man, this is a difficult article. I’m working o a summary in my own words, but by now I have only summarized everything up to “The free prisoner”.

    You find the summary here:

    I’m open for comments or corrections by everyone 🙂


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  • ToT

    Social contagion measured:
    The article says peculiarly little about how positive behaviour is spread, but seems to imply that the same applies for positive and negative social conduct.