The Anti-Concreteness Meme
This is a quick outline of a meme that is rampant in the realm of civics and politics; understanding it and being able to identify it in yourself and others will help make you an effective political builder. And we need those to do the hard work of fixing NYC’s inability to build things.
The anti-concreteness meme is the rhetorical tendency, so hard-baked by habit that it becomes deliberate at a certain point, to avoid knowing about anything exactly. It is avoiding actual facts in favor of speculation and impression, the privileging of patinas over profundity. It is the overuse of “yada yada” instead of necessary explanation or detail.1
It’s not the same thing as bullshitting, although on a Venn diagram the two mostly overlap.
And it’s generally corrosive, not just to the individual, but society as a whole. Every human achievement, from the constitutional convention to the moon landing, has required mastery of concrete detail anchored in reality. Undercutting detail undercuts our capacity to accomplish, generally.
So why is it widespread? What allows the meme to not only infect people, but become a chronic condition?
There are a lot of reasons, but here are six common ones, and they’re often concomitant:
- Expediency: if you want to jump into a conversation for any reason or perceived reward, but don’t have the time to do proper diligence on the remarks you want to make, you might toss the diligence and make the remarks anyway. This means avoiding detail, often because you don’t have it in the first place.
- Laziness: actually investigating things, integrating knowledge into a sophisticated view, and being patient with the learning process takes time and focused energy. And sometimes people don’t like being patient or working hard. Many things are erroneously regarded as easy in most social circles, but are in fact quite hard.
- Status: you can accrue social status for repeating commonly held beliefs, but a lot of these beliefs don’t stand up to scrutiny, so you have to avoid concreteness; often you don’t have to defend these beliefs rigorously, because the anti-concreteness meme is so widespread and people self-select into bubbles. Or, differently, you could accrue status for speaking beautifully, but not substantively (see this tweet.)
- Tactics: avoiding detail can be a powerful rhetorical tactic, especially if your opponent is unprepared to counter it. If you never say anything specific, no exact position can be attributed to you, and no argument can be lobbed directly at you. You’re a moving target, rather than a static one.
- The emperor has no clothes: for many reasons, a whole group (up to a whole society) can be incentivized to not explicitly state the obvious, or get anywhere near it. Perhaps because acknowledging the concrete situation would result in doing the unpleasant work of remedy, or require changes in habit (from vice to virtue).2
- Cowardice: if you don’t stake out a deliberate position, you can pretend that you get along with everyone. If you avoid finding out anyone else’s concrete opinions (if they have them), you avoid having to live up to them. (Also see this tweet.)
Regardless of the reasons for avoiding concrete reality, the anti-concreteness meme has some disastrous effects:
- False confidence: you trick yourself into thinking that you know more than you do about a subject or idea, and you mistake a strenuously vague opinion for the braced opinion of an exercised intellect. After you’ve held an anti-concrete idea long enough, your brain often just accepts it without a fight. Your map will diverge more and more from the territory, and divergence at all cost and in every instance will become your cartographic mode of operation.3
- Your mental muscles atrophy into runny porridge: the process of learning and mastering concrete thought requires the continued application of effort, just like training your physical form. And just like training your physical form, you get mentally stronger the more you do it. But if you stop, you lose those intellectual muscles. Even worse: you forget what it even feels like to be intellectually strong, or how to go about actually learning something deeply and effectively, and you stop trying. A good point of reference: reading three to five good books on any one subject, and engaging with them deeply, is a sign of mental strength and subject mastery. If the Five Books project seems like too much work for you, you have forgotten (if you ever knew) how to engage deeply with ideas.4
- Clarity and concreteness become your enemies: if your social position is built on status accrued from holding non-concrete positions, you will be threatened by someone who wants you to concretize them. If your rhetorical style only works when your interlocutor can’t successfully demand exactness, you’ll be flatfooted when they can. The extent to which the anti-concreteness meme has suffused your life will be the extent to which you avoid knowing anything explicitly, and the extent to which you will avoid engaging with those who do.
- You can’t do things: accomplishing certain things requires a concrete approach to the world, and dealing with whatever facts arise. You can’t build a functioning rocket that lands itself back on Earth with a non-concrete approach. But you also can’t live your life in certain ways, think clearly, or do many other things effectively.
- You worship Ra: “Ra is a specific kind of glitch in intuition, which can roughly be summarized as the drive to idealize vagueness and despise clarity.”5
Some disambiguation on what I don’t mean by “the anti-concreteness meme”:
- Anti-concreteness should not be confused for legitimate uses of summary and elision. Sometimes summaries are needed, and you can go deeper at a later point. But you should be able to go deeper, and not be threatened by the prospect. The problem creeps in when your “summary” is all there is.
- “Just asking questions” is a bad-faith rhetorical move that turns inflammatory or unreasoned statements into questions to avoid accountability. Unfortunately, it very superficially resembles the process of asking for legitimate detail. Some people who are fully infected with the anti-concreteness meme dismiss all reasoned pursuits of concreteness for “just asking questions.”
Finally, although all fields suffer from the anti-concreteness meme, politics is especially aggrieved, because:
- It is already assailed by the anti-politics meme, which causes people to use politics exclusively as an adjective for “something bad that is occurring.”
- People treat it as a sport, making up good guys and bad guys who cause everything directly, rather than a field of complicated and complex cause and consequence. The distance between the reality of politics/government/law and the oversimplified things people make up allows for gods of the gaps to emerge, and people will attribute everything to them, rather than natural phenomena that can be explained with some work.
How to out-compete the anti-concreteness meme is beyond the scope of this essay, but it can be done, and it’s not the hardest thing in the world. It’s more fun to be concrete once you get used to it, because being concrete allows you to do and know actual things!
Thank you to Joe for reading and providing comments.
I’m surprised I’ve written this much and only gotten in one Seinfeld reference. ↩
Thank you to Priya for reminding me of The Emperor’s New Clothes. ↩
See here for a deeper dive into the idea that “The Map Is Not the Territory.” ↩
Politics is hit hard here; most people do not appreciate it as a sophisticated field that takes a lot of work to master. But the bar of minimum viable knowledge to be an effective political builder is high. ↩
In her essay “Ra,” Sarah Constantin creates an excellent myth about a god of vagueness. It’s one of my favorite essays, and I highly recommend giving it a read. ↩