“Hey, do you mind if I steal one of those cookies?” “I brought them to share.”
Denial of agency
I feel compelled to correct people when they jokingly ask permission to “steal” something. At first I assumed this was just due to some general pedantic impulse, but recently I’ve been noticing that this particular usage annoys me more than other casual semantic misusages. My current hypothesis is that this particular phrasing bothers me because it implicitly denies my agency.
Often I will have more of something on hand than I personally need, specifically because I anticipate that other people might need or want it too. I care about being the sort of person who thinks ahead like that, and I care about this thoughtfulness being understood and acknowledged. When a friend pretends that they’re stealing, they’re crafting a narrative where their good fortune happens by accident, that I just happened to have a thing they wanted, that they seized a random opportunity. It denies me the right to feel proud of having anticipated my friend’s probable needs, and to have the rightness of that pride acknowledged.
I felt a similar irritation in other circumstances where no one actively denied my agency, but people simply assumed that I wouldn’t have put work in:Continue reading →
In my post on counterfactual hugging and vampire friendship, I started to develop the idea of one type of friend as an optimizing process who takes initiative to further your interests even when you’re not around to notice or prompt them.
A real life example:
I have a friend who learned when she was a child that oleander trees are very poisonous. (You can apparently get sick just from bruising the leaves and then touching your mouth.) She immediately started trying to warn people whenever she saw them interacting with an oleander tree, or at risk of doing so (because it was in their yard). She still feels the urge to do this. I didn’t see anything I could or should do about this, but I made sure to include this in my model of her, because it’s a thing she feels strongly about. When I think of oleander trees, I now automatically think of her wanting to warn people. A few weeks ago we were going for a walk and another friend pointed out a flowering tree across the street. I said that I thought they were boring because they were white flowers, and the first friend said, “No, they’re terrifying! That’s an oleander tree!” Immediately, I walked across the street to look at the tree, so that I could learn what an oleander tree looks like, so that in the future I could warn others about oleander trees, should the opportunity arise.
I still think this kind of friendship is beautiful and worth aspiring towards, with one’s closest friends. But I’ve been having a problem with this kind of friendship: whenever I’m medium-good friends with someone, I feel a tension, like I need to know whether they’re headed towards the category of a permanent ally, almost another self, or whether they’re just a casual acquaintance. For years, I’ve known that this binary view was insufficiently nuanced, but I had no good theory to replace it. Until now.
I used to think that resisting temptation was the way to be strong, or a sign of strength. People of strong will could get what they wanted only by mastering their basic drives. Intent only mattered if it could overpower desire. But the problem with resisting temptation is that you don’t get what you’re tempted by. You don’t get what you want. If you’re good enough at resisting temptation, you may not even remember that you want it.