(an analysis of E. Price’s recent article on students’ invisible mental barriers)
[Content note: This post is me gushing out a number of thoughts directly treating an article that I saw only in the last few days, but discussing issues that I’ve pondered intimately for a long time. A lot of mental illness/disability and ableism stuff.]
After last year’s sequence of lengthy blog entries on the whole high-agency vs. low-agency dichotomy, I wasn’t intending to write any more on that for a good long time. I really wasn’t. Although I could imagine some subjects that touch on that stuff that I hoped to write about in the farther future, I was figuring on 2018 being more or less a determinism/agency-discussion-free year on Hawks and Handsaws.
Then just the other day, I came into contact with this article on Medium entitled “Laziness Does Not Exist” (with subtitle “But unseen barriers do.”), which struck a nerve with me as it quite straightforwardly talked about a number of, well, those particular issues. And I decided that, instead of filing the article away to pull out at some Designated Time For More High-vs.-Low-Agency Posts, I should write down my thoughts and feelings now while they’re running fresh through my mind.
So here we go. Although I’ll be quoting a number of phrases and sentences from the article, I recommend first reading it in full; it’s fairly short and a very easy read.
I’ll start by stating what should be completely obvious in the context of my sequence of posts on assuming high agency versus assuming low agency (which wrapped up here). This article is, very directly, blatantly, and purely, a call for a worldview involving assumptions of low agency. In fact, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to go as far as to say that the author clearly has what I’ve called “low-agency goggles” jammed on and is asking the rest of us to put low-agency goggles on as well. This is pretty unambiguously spelled out, in fact. Therefore, since the article does treat a particular kind of real-life situation that comes up quite a lot both for students and for many in certain professions (including mine), it makes an excellent prompt for me to write about low-agency-ism from a less abstract position.
First aside: a glance at the profile of the author, E. Price, plus the quick description at the bottom of recommended fellow writer Kim Longhofer, leaves little doubt as to which major (socio)political tribe this content is coming from, and it is the one that I said naturally aligns with the low-agency/deterministic mindset.
Second aside: along with the words directly, blatantly, and purely I wrote two paragraphs up, perhaps I should also have included consistently. The writer mostly appears to have crafted a very self-consistent model of the low-agency-tinted world, one of the most self-consistent I’ve seen, and I applaud them for that. I’m mainly alluding to this the paragraph which ends with:
[S]ince most professors are people who succeeded academically with ease, they have trouble taking the perspective of someone with executive functioning struggles, sensory overloads, depression, self-harm histories, addictions, or eating disorders. I can see the external factors that lead to these problems. Just as I know that “lazy” behavior is not an active choice, I know that judgmental, elitist attitudes are typically borne of out situational ignorance.
Price is quite willing to grant rather determinism-flavored explanations for the actions of unaccommodating university instructors as well as for their students who are having a hard time. This is also reflected in the final (admittedly rather condescending) words of the article:
Maybe you weren’t always able to look at human behavior this way. That’s okay. Now you are. Give it a try.
I admire this commitment to recognizing the adverse factors behind everyone’s choices, including those of the adversaries of the group whose rights they’re defending. But I’m not quite sure how much consistency I should give Price credit for here, given that they also describe the rigid policies of their colleague as “morally repugnant” and “infuriating”. The argument behind Price’s main thesis roughly goes (1) failures to do things often arise from circumstances beyond their control, and (2) in these cases, it naturally follows that we should not react with judgment. And Price’s judgment of the unaccommodating professor certainly seems to contradict proposition (2).
I have no trouble seeing ways this could possibly be salvaged, however. For instance, maybe the main point of the article isn’t assertion (2) as I stated it, but rather, in these cases, it naturally follows that their actions are worth of our accommodations wherever making accommodations might do more good than harm. That makes for a very practical and reasonable-sounding thesis, although the emotional thrust of the article certainly follows the no-judgment proposition I first suggested.
Secondly, we could interpret Price’s arguments as an appeal to what I call the Principle of Empathy, rather than to pure low-agency-ism. As I stressed the above-linked essay, the point of exercising empathy is to understand rather than to excuse. But then, for each newly-understood behavior, there is a nontrivial question of determining how “excusing” or otherwise to be in this situation. Price clearly doesn’t see more rigid instructors’ inclinations as excuse-worthy, even if they can be explained by background circumstances. But Price does seem to wave their hands over the jump from understanding the background circumstances of certain failing students to taking their sides, seeing them as heroes, and essentially excusing their failures. So there still seems to be somewhat of an inconsistency here.
But this is not the main thrust of the article, so it’s mostly a digression.
Being someone who tends to lean low-agency in my model of human behavior, I think especially compared to a lot of the established culture, I really like a lot of the points made in the article. Let me jot down what I think are some of the best quotes.
It’s really helpful to respond to a person’s ineffective behavior with curiosity rather than judgment.
Few people who haven’t been homeless think this way. They want to moralize the decisions of poor people, perhaps to comfort themselves about the injustices of the world. For many, it’s easier to think homeless people are, in part, responsiblefor their suffering than it is to acknowledge the situational factors.
Needing or benefiting from such things doesn’t make a person lazy. It just means they have needs. The more we embrace that, the more we can help people thrive.
I’ve heard how they [the author’s colleagues] talk about under-performing students. There’s often rage and resentment in their words and tone — why won’t this student take my class seriously? Why won’t they make me feel important, interesting, smart?
Yes, I wholeheartedly endorse making curiosity one’s default initial reaction to ineffective behavior — this mindset is a natural companion to my whole pro-empathy thing — and yes, I agree that an awful lot of people an awful lot of the time default to judgment instead. In other writing I’ve already touched on my observations of what seems to be a near-universal callous attitude towards the homeless which appears to be present to a mild extent even among the most low-agency-ist people I know. It’s certainly no deep mystery why those of us who have never been homeless will be naturally adapted to incline towards the “judgment” reaction and away from the “curiosity” reaction there. I think there are other nuances to consider with the homelessness situation, but the author’s take there essentially fits with mine.
I can also speak to the plausibility of Price’s report on typical university instructor attitudes towards struggling students in their experience. Now is a good time to mention that I was once a university instructor (and probably will be again one of these years). My department was mathematics, which is pretty far from psychology, but my impression of the dynamic surrounding student difficulties is strikingly similar to Price’s. My fellow instructors, on the whole, tended to be respectful, patient, and devoted when it came to students who were clearly “trying hard” in the most obvious sense but struggling with the material. But it was a whole other story with students who didn’t come to class, didn’t appear to take a stab at homework assignments, or asked for exceptions for various class requirements using excuses involving personal issues. To be fair, our typical section sizes were around 50 students each and we were often teaching 3 sections per semester, which foists certain time constraints on us when dealing with individual student concerns, but the default attitude was still in the vein of “Life is hard, but being a successful student means accepting certain responsibilities, deal with it.” We were also warned against a common tendency among young instructors to take certain infractions too personally (“I can’t believe she cheated on my quiz, WHY WOULD SHE DO THIS TO ME!?!”); yet, I believe there was a distinct egocentrism in our reactions to disappointing students quite similar to the “Why won’t they make me feel important, interesting, smart?” quote above. I myself recall grumbling about “kids these days” (that is, students several years younger than me) and how they didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were doing things in class like sleeping or reading a book unrelated to the course.
So I have no trouble agreeing that in the sphere where university teachers interact with university students, where most of the established power is, there most of the “react by default with judgment rather than attempts to understand” mindset lies also. And this is not right.
Now let me quote the phrases that point towards my main problem with articles like these, starting from the top of the page and working my way towards the bottom.
Laziness Does Not Exist
Okay okay, thinkpiece titles tend to be maximized for being provocative. But the author wastes no time in making a point of making absolutely clear that they literally believe that assertion, word for word.
I don’t think laziness was ever at fault. Ever. In fact, I don’t believe that laziness exists.
There are always barriers.
If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context. It’s that simple.
There is always an explanation. There are always barriers. Just because you can’t see them, or don’t view them as legitimate, doesn’t mean they’re not there.
To be honest, it was harder to find these brief quotes than I’d assumed it would be, because the article is written in quite a carefully incisive manner that doesn’t leave much room for statements that are obviously ridiculous. And even some of the bits I have quoted can be interpreted charitably enough that, well, they’re not exactly wrong. I mean, there are always explanations for even the most bizarre behavior, technically speaking, and in fact my whole stance on striving for empathy suggests that I see this as more than just a technicality.
But somehow, bald statements like the above-quoted ones, in the context of the rest of the essay and the position it’s trying to persuade us of, point to the essay’s most immediate flaw: the terms it uses are much too absolute.
And with the title and initial claim of the nonexistence of laziness, the writer goes gloves-off with hammering in their absolutist view at the risk of sounding, I have to say, pretty ludicrous.
Now I also gave my essay a title that was only one notch below that of the article we’re talking about on the provocativity scale, and only because I phrased mine as a question: does laziness exist? I shall now relieve the reader of their suspense over the answer to this query by asserting that… yes. Yes, laziness most definitely exists.
Why do I say this so confidently? I could try for a justification involving people that I’ve known with well beyond the level of exposure that an instructor typically has to one of their students, who during a certain period in a certain area appeared to exhibit genuine laziness. Of course you could argue that it’s theoretically possible that that college roommate of mine — the one who chose super easy classes and partied all the time with a wide group of friends and then half-heartedly crammed with a friend the night before every exam with store-bought sets of flashcards he left strewn all over the floor — maybe I just couldn’t tell that he was suffering from depression or some other condition that made him feel apathetic about school but enthusiastic about his social life. All I could argue that it’s also theoretically possible that he really felt apathetic about school because of actual beliefs he legitimately held about the unimportance of school.
But never mind that. I believe in the existence of laziness because it’s a state of mind that I’ve personally experienced. In fact, I’m willing to bet that everyone I know will attest to having experienced it from time to time. Laziness is a state of belief that the amount of effort required to do a particular kind of work is not worth the benefits that would likely come of it.
Now those who think like Price would probably highlight my use of the phrase “amount of effort required” and say that see, this is exactly what they mean: laziness is just an illusory property of those for whom the amount of effort required is much higher than for the average person. I guess my response to that would be to suggest that maybe some people require the average amount of effort for some job but evaluate “benefits that would likely come of it” in a different-from-average, and wrong (often due to bias), way.
For me, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that this mental state afflicts people of privileged backgrounds especially easily, as such people are more likely to be accustomed to having tedious things already done for them than those who grew up in less fortunate circumstances. Given the tribe that Price and their friend Kim Longhofer obviously belong to, I wonder what they would think of the affirmation, “Privileged people are more likely to take a reluctant attitude towards working at tedious pursuits because they’re used to having things handed to them on a silver platter.” Here we are certainly taking a stab at understanding particular behaviors, but we aren’t absolving the objects of our understanding of blame by denying that they’re being lazy. It brings me back to my earlier point about Price attributing “judgmental, elitist attitudes” (manifested as callousness towards students) to “situational ignorance”. Would Price go on to endorse something like Callousness Does Not Exist (But Unseen Ignorance Does)?
Anyway, I’m not making any claim as to how prevalent this thing called “laziness” is. But it seems like common sense that such a thing does exist at some significant prevalence.
Perhaps instead of billing this essay as a revisit to my sequence of posts about high-agency versus low-agency thinking, I should have presented it as a revisit to my writing on the importance of welcoming gadflies (pesky little brainbugs bringing us suggestions we don’t want to consider). Because that’s what this is really about, in my mind. Or rather, it’s primarily about complete adherence to low-agency-ism, but one way of describing how this is a fallacy is to diagnose it as a failure to let in certain uncomfortable gadfly-borne ideas and evaluate them on their own merits.
What are these nagging speculations? On the practical side, an obvious one is that for many instructors, it’s probably not feasible to provide so many accommodations (as I said, my colleagues and I were usually teaching 150 students each semester, and I can tell you, a pretty good number of them requested such accommodations). This is a boring objection and one that the author of the article might even allow but can be excused for leaving out on account of not wanting to clog up a persuasive essay with mundane qualifications. So let’s move on to a more substantive suggestion: what if in some cases, even ones where we acknowledge hidden barriers, it’s better to calibrate our expectations of students as though those barriers didn’t exist?
I really think there’s something to this possibility which the article, of course, doesn’t acknowledge at all. For me to go fully into it would mean diving back into the free will debate in full abstractness, but let me just say that I believe in a certain qualification to the article’s absolute-sounding statements like “They’re already doing the best they can.” (That sentence was referring to homeless people, but let’s assign “struggling students” to be the subject instead.) Well maybe that’s true, even on the level of purely mental functioning that is needed for bettering one’s performance. But their capacity for making certain choices is constantly influenced by certain choices that we make (a point with which Price obviously agrees, but wait for it…), and maybe sometimes — I’m not saying very much of the time, just sometimes — a hard-nosed “tough love” approach will make “the best they can” better.
This reminds me of something I wrote on my other blog in the midst of disputing economist Bryan Caplan’s concept of “having the power to do otherwise”. Keep in mind that in that context, I was arguing against what I saw as almost pure high-agency-ism in the views of one of its modern champions, Bryan Caplan.
I was thinking of this earlier today when I was in the audience of a talk that took place after lunch and fighting hard to stay awake. I knew from experience with this kind of struggle that as soon as the right kind of sensory stimulus took place (e.g. the talk ending, or someone in the audience interrupting with a question, or a small unexpected noise in the background), my brainwaves would immediately be aroused from whatever rhythm corresponds to being on the edge of sleep. Even while fighting to keep my eyes open, I was marveling at how direct and automatic such a physical event would be, how even while I felt I had some level of control over my wakefulness, even very mild external stimuli would have far stronger effects on it that I just couldn’t simulate out of my own desire. And I knew from experience that merely pretending that some such external stimulus were happening was not going to do the trick and physically arouse me. I did succeed in staying awake just barely, but the fact that some outside event (such as having a gun pointed at me by someone whispering, “If you fall asleep, I’ll make sure you never wake up again”) would have roused me to full alertness doesn’t mean it was “in my power” to reach full alertness in the absence of such an event.
In other words, were there a policy among seminar speakers to punctuate their talks with frequent sharp admonishments to individual audience members visibly on the cusp of nodding off (I’ve certainly known teachers who are skilled at this!), then most of the time we would all have gained the ability to remain wide awake during seminars.
Price claims that their accommodating approach towards students who open up to them about trauma, mental illnesses, and disorders increases rather than decreases those students’ potential — “with some accommodations, they blossomed academically” — and I believe Price. I still tend to assume that this is the potential-maximizing approach most of the time. I’m just not so sure about all of the time.
But there’s a third possible objection, the biggest one of all, brought to the periphery of our minds by a gigantic, ugly, buzzing gadfly that a lot of activists, such as Price, seem determined to ignore.
It is entirely possible to misevaluate the scope and nature of one’s own barriers against success, and we humans all have an innate tendency towards evaluating them too highly. Students who find class requirements challenging have every reason in the world to fall prey to this fallacy.
That’s not even mentioning the students who have good reason, from the point of view of self-interest, to knowingly invent or exaggerate their barriers. I’m not saying that’s a very common thing, just that it’s a thing. But for every self-servingly manipulative student out there, I’m willing to bet there are a dozen others who are over-diagnosing themselves in ways that absolve them of a crushing sense of guilt over not doing better but also lead to them throwing up their hands and feeling powerless to do anything but demand that instructors acknowledge and compensate them for their disabilities. And this doesn’t just apply to the student/instructor situation we’re harping on today; it’s potentially a major component of any low-agency-ist cause.
Let me say it again, in perhaps blunter terms: The universal human temptation to attribute one’s failures to barriers, invisible or otherwise, is incredibly, incredibly seductive, and it’s sometimes going to lead to wrong conclusions.
This is a dangerous idea, and now is one of those moments where I’m relieved not to be one of those bloggers with a huge audience hanging on their every word. Although what I’m gesturing towards is a universal component of humanity, for a lot of people, the pendulum is clearly swinging the other way most of the time so that they feel inhibited from seeing their own barriers and sink into scrupulosity spirals and general self-loathing. It could be quite harmful for those people to take my above words to heart, just as it also leads to harm when those with power over them do (I’d even say it’s incredibly, incredibly seductive for those power-holders to hold this idea as paramount!).
But gadfly speculations are, by their very nature, dangerous ideas. Ultimately, we do no service to anyone if we insist on being blind to them on a society-wide scale.
Well, clearly I must feel some personal stake in this, given how many words I’ve spent on writing about it.
Dr. Price and I don’t know each other, but I expect that if Price saw the history of my attitudes and actions as a university math instructor, they would consider me one of the good ones. I had a lot of students come to me using physical and mental health problems (not always documented) and general personal emotional issues as excuses for things; my default was almost always towards compassion and believing them; and I found ways to accommodate their difficulties most of the time while gritting my teeth every time I felt unable to. As I’ve said, this was not the general norm among instructors in my department, and I came under criticism from time to time when colleagues found out about my unusually generous actions. Sometimes, in retrospect, I could see that they were right, such as in a farsical situation at the end of my very first semester teaching where I wound up bending over backwards to arrange a special make-up for a make-up exam to a student who was acting quite entitled, and yes, lazy. For other times, I’m pretty sure I was right to stick to my principles of generosity, even when the course coordinator called me up with the concern that I was letting a student claiming terrible migraines take advantage of me. (He hadn’t known me very long, but he was already expressing concerns about how I seemed like the kind of person who lets himself get taken advantage of, which I do have to take seriously as it’s a criticism I’ve heard in other contexts.)
All the while I feel nagging doubts and see each individual student situation as a judgment call even though my default instinct is towards compassion. Because students could be trying to take advantage of me. Their problems could result in part from lazy attitudes, or from an overestimation of their hidden barriers, or it even might be the case that a more tough-love approach is more conducive to helping them develop coping skills with problems they legitimately have. And the more pieces there are like Price’s out there, the more emboldened students will be in taking such paths. I already have a history of erring too much on the side of accepting the claims of low agency in my non-professional life, much to my detriment. Given that I’m already aware of this personal tendency, who’s to say that unswervingly following Price’s philosophy won’t result in my also occasionally being walked on by students who otherwise might have learned to meet the demands of college with greater dedication and less helplessness?
I remember distinctly that back around 2015 or so, there was a post spreading around Tumblr that concerned executive dysfunction, which unfortunately after some effort I haven’t been able to find (if anyone is able to track it down for me, I’ll edit it in). In fact, I think this post was what introduced me in the first place to the concept of executive dysfunction, a term that I quickly realized was very useful in explaining some of the irrational tendencies I’d noticed in myself and in some of my friends. But the main points of that post were (1) to lay down the claim that since executive function is not widely understood or recognized by university authorities, the cards are overwhelmingly stacked against students who are unable to fulfill class requirements because of executive dysfunction; (2) to explain that since the deck is stacked against these students, some underhanded tactics are justified; and (3) to provide a list of tips for students which generally involved mild-to-moderate dishonesty and manipulation tactics. I no longer remember what most of these tips were, just that some were substantially disruptive from the point of view of an instructor, and I felt sort of chilled and shaken wondering if some of my students might feel justified in pulling such stunts on me. Because there’s probably a decent enough chance that some future students of mine could be reading that post or a manifesto something like it and then nodding and saying to themselves, “Yeah, I had trouble concentrating on that assignment and it’s hard for me to find the willpower to do schoolwork a lot of the time, I guess my degree of executive dysfunction is high enough that the only way to give myself a fair shot is to try some of these things!” Because the prospect of being able to view their difficulties in that light really is seductive.
I’m really glad that ideas like the ones suggested in the article are out there, because they very badly need to be taken seriously. Much of established society really is biased against low-agency explanations for things, in large part due to a selection affect determining those who make it to places of power, as the article itself points out. I believe the notion that the deck is stacked against those with invisible barriers is correct, on the whole.
But not all cultural influence comes from those with institutional power in a given organization. University students have voices, and they use them, and those voices do hold a good bit of sway in the larger conversations. And right now, I see a fairly well-defined subculture that has been gradually emerging and is only strengthening, composed primarily of those of student age (still mostly millennials for the moment, but soon a younger generation may take over) who espouse certain kinds of values. And to my view, pure, unfettered low-agency-ism appears to lie right at the core of this set of values — internet/campus Social Justice culture is only one branch of it; exploration of gender issues is an adjoining branch; and the mental illness awareness/activism branch appears if anything stronger than either. And this body of thoughts, beliefs, and activism does seem to exert a fairly strong pull on the higher-up academic establishment among several other powerful sectors of society. Articles like Price’s are intelligently and meaningfully written enough that they might open the eyes of those outside those bubbles to injustices that really need to be treated, and I very much hope they do. But when such articles also refuse to acknowledge any potential qualification and instead base their theses around propositions which on the face of them look as patently absurd as Laziness Does Not Exist, then they’re running a certain risk: instead of reaching those who are most inconvenienced by such insights, they will only alienate that side while further radicalizing their own tribe’s activism. We clearly need to have a dialog between groups on multiple sides of the issues discussed by Price, but I’m not sure that Price’s writing was calibrated ideally for allowing that to happen.
There’s a fine line between speaking out passionately about some ideology and pushing that ideology in such absolute terms that not many people will be convinced who aren’t already largely on board. The latter contributes to a sort of game where each of two opposing sides only stokes up conviction and resentment and adherence to more extreme stances, making it harder and harder for the sides to come together and listen to each other so that the conflict can have a chance of being resolved. That, as much as anything else, is enough motive for me to believe we should all make a habit of not shunning gadflies.