Friday, August 02, 2013

Identifying Standards - Defense Against the Fog

Useful Standards Stand Alone Solid and Unchanging

Standard rule how I think about myself and others.  Thoughts such as, "I really should do X." or "I really should not say Y." are directive ideas built on standards of behavior.  With others, thoughts such as, "She should have had more empathy." or "He eats really loudly." are evaluations based on standards.  Standards are so powerful in our minds that they deserve careful consideration.

An ill defined or even contradictory standard can lead us to mental anguish, frustration, fear, and anger.  A false standard can also encourage us to to be blind to destructive and manipulative influences in our lives.  In the worst case a false standard can result in our own self abuse from which we are very unlikely to escape.  

In this post I look into what standards are, why they hold so much power, how they can be used against you, and how to immunize yourself against their misuse.

Standards are Critical

I was struck today by how critical standards are in evaluations.  I am surrounded by evaluations all the time.  They are made by others, they are made by me, they course through my head like giant waves.  Standards allow our evaluations to be elevated from mere subjective opinion to the status of undeniable truth.

Our opinions are trapped forever in our heads.  We can describe them to others, but we can never logically demand that others conform with them.  As humans we live in the external world which is tangible, predicable, and logical.  The logic and empiricism of our world can never be escaped.  (If I were to attempt to prove consistency and stability was not universal, I would need to assume universality to even begin the proof!)

As beings bound to this physical world, we can only ever meet each other in reality.  It is this binding that is of utmost interest to all of us.  If we are able to anchor our thoughts to an item in the real world, they take on the binding power of reality to which we are all subjected.  We bind our evaluations to the real world through standards.  Standards derive their importance from the assumption that they stand alone as objective comparitors.

Standards are Consistent

I may have a basic standard in my head that says, "Yellow is the color of a banana."  If I get buy in from others, we can use this as a standard.  We may agree that a school bus meets this standard to be called yellow.  We may also agree that strawberries  do not meet this standard.  With this standard in use, yellow is not an opinion, it is now an external fixed evaluation in the world that is independent of the person making the evaluation.

Standards only work as long as all participants in a communication believe the standard to be consistent.  If one day I get agreement that yellow is the color of a banana, and then later I try to get agreement that yellow is the color of a radish, the standard may be seen to be inconsistent.  If a standard is inconsistent  our brains find it very hard to assume it aligns with reality, and in turn will not lend that moving standard credence.

Standards Can Be Manipulated

Challenges arise when a given standard is professed to be consistent but in action is inconsistent.  The only way this can be sustainable is to hide the inconsistency of the standard.  The easiest way to hide inconsistency it to simply omit the definition of the standard.  If I never actually define yellow as the color of a banana, then I can name any object yellow and never be proven to be wrong.  The next step is to get acceptance of the undefined standard.

If the inconsistent standard is ever revealed as being truly undefined, it would fall in an instant.  The way to avoid this revelation is to heavily imply that the standard is obvious and train persons that it is embarrassing to even ask about the standard's definition.  One can also imply that the standard comes from a source of great authority, tradition, and wisdom.  In this way it may be insulting, offensive, or idiotic to attempt to seek the definition of the standard.

It is fortunate that it is very easy to identify if a standard is consistent or an unreachable fog.  All one has to do is be curious about the world and humble of what one doe not know.  When one hears an evaluation, instead of accepting the standard without thought, why not ask:
  • What do you mean by that standard?  Can you define it?
It takes a huge amount of humility to ask for definition.  It also takes a lot of trust.  By asking for the definition  you are assuming that a rational definition exists, and that the person will share it.  I have found this is usually not the case.  If indeed, you are needing to ask for a definition  it is most likely it is because a fixed definition does not exist.

Even more disheartening is that well defined standards are very useful, so if a definition were readily available it would be provided quickly.  If a definition of a standard is not readily apparent, then there is likely a benefit to having that standard shrouded in fog.  The most common reason to keep a standard foggy is so that it can only be used by the originating party.  It can not be turned back against the original person because a foggy standard is a sword with no handle.

My Personal Challenges with Standards

I have been hurt by inconsistent standard use my whole life.  I have been hurt by others with slippery standards, and in turn I have used them in my own self-attack.  Typical dangerous standards I have encountered have been around social behavior, body image, finances, honesty, trust, respect, and forgiveness.  Here are some examples:

I once was told, "I know you were hurt by what she said, but you really should try to be more aware of her feelings so you don't set her off."  In this case the person set up a standard: "In relationships one should evaluate how one's actions will affect the emotions of another and act to avoid generating pain."  This is a foggy standard.  It is foggy because the standard only works in one direction.  The other person did not meet the standard of because her actions did not account for my feelings either.  If the standard was true, then both people would be equally at fault, or equally victims.  In either case, the original evaluation would not be rational.

In another case I was told, "You really should not demand that people meet minimum requirements to be in a relationship with you.  That is brutal and domineering."  The standard set up was: "It is unjust to hold someone to a minimum requirement in a relationship."  In applying this standard to me, the other person was expressly breaking the standard.  They were demanding that I should meet the minimum standard of not enforcing minimum standards.

I use foggy standards on myself all the time, "All the time you are burning reading Facebook is such a waste."  This only works as a judgement if it is not questioned.  How do I know what is a waste?  Against what do I compare to know I am wasting time?  On what basis was that standard chosen as the most valid way of determining waste?

The Power of Standards

Like any powerful tool, standards can be dangerous when wielded by careless or malicious minds.  If they are left shrouded in the fogs of assumption, standards can be the root of misunderstanding and conflict.  They can drive wedges between ourselves and our peers, pealing away our empathy and humility.  They can lead to dehumanization as we begin to focus more and more on an assumed judgment, letting the reality of the other person slip away in to the same fog hiding the standard.  Standards that are fogged purposefully can be the most dangerous of all.  In these cases standards can become Trojan horses, hiding hypocrisy and manipulation in the guise of friendship and support.

Even with these dangers, we can not abandon standards.  Standards allow us to map our fluid thoughts against hard reality.  They provide anchors to keep us secure opinions in sometimes stormy mental seas.  They help us evaluate our own actions and the behavior of those around us.  If consistently used, standards help us become more balanced, relaxed, and self confident in our knowledge of both ourselves and our world.  Standards allow us to earn trust, respect, and love.

I hope this post has offered you some insight into the power of standards, why they are so necessary, how they can be dangerous, and what you can do to protect yourself from their misuse.  Be sure to share any stories you may have about standards which may have been helpful or problematic in your life.

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