False dichotomy as filter and focus
When someone asks you to choose between two options that don’t really cut up the space of possibilities properly, they’re telling you something. What they’re trying to tell you depends on the situation, and how you interpret this depends a lot on your relationship.
Scott Alexander has often pointed out that saying things that plenty of people would disagree with serves two important functions:
- It increases memetic spread by getting other people to respond to you.
- It shows the people who agree with you that you’re very far on their side, not just in middling territory.
Indeed—saying things that are wrong unless interpreted correctly is pretty much the most common kind of filter people use to give only a subset of people access to a given message. That’s why in fantasy stories such as Redwall riddles are constructed so that only the right people will be able to unravel them.
The technology behind this is fundamentally social: we think about the people who we want to hear us, and then imagine the kinds of things they know that other’s don’t. What’s amazing about this technology is often it doesn’t require you to understand what you mean yet.
I would argue that’s what’s going on in the tweet above: @DarbraDawn is trying to tease out motivations and representations from her own heart, but instead of going over what she knows and doesn’t know in expanded, inaccesible, and less reader-friendly ways, she simply asks a question that she knows will get people deconstructing the hierarchy that didn’t make sense in the first place. In doing this, she’s able to ask people for what she really wanted: a discussion about “what’s going?” but with more finesse and accurate scoping that asking “what’s going on with X?” directly would allow for.
When @chopstickfury01 notes that the mutual exclusivity assumption @DarbraDawn was implying doesn’t hold, she readily agrees—but it’s not the like the conversation stops there. Instead, all of the other respondents, who pick at what “deserve high status” means and where it might come from are the ones doing the work @DarbraDawn asked for in the communal sense-making space.
In this way, @chopstickfury01 serves as a somewhat perfect example of explicitly flagging that the thing to be responded to is not the question as stated.
It is these implicit social languages where most discussion actually happens. When we try to study communication we often find ourselves arguing about the literal—which occludes the 99% mass of dark matter comunication that is our actual subject matter.
There are many ways to poke at it, but a good first trick if you want to go looking: when people say something they know you’ll know doesn’t make sense, explicitly write down what they’re actually telling or asking you. As patterns emerge, notice that there are different “dialects”, cultures, and communities of these implicit languages—finding a good way of referring to them is a good place to start.