Through fortunate circumstance I happen to be on Dr. Michael Eades’ email newsletter and this week’s (the second of the year) hit me right in between the ears. As a result I felt compelled to share it here. Eades and his wife Mary Dan are probably most famous for the book “Protein Power” and their strong advocacy of low carb diets, as well as scholarship on the paleopathology in support of that hypothesis.
But Mike is also a restless and curious mind and his newsletters run a gamut of topics. The most recent one included a piece from Paul Graham called “The Four Quadrants of Conformism” and I think it might render obsolete all of those “Left-Right” and “Nolan” diagrams that are supposed to explain politics. Indeed, I think it probably better explains politics (without having anything to do with politics) than anything I’ve ever seen.
Just for background and a starting point, I’ve included what I’ll call the “usual” or “traditional” chart purporting to show how politics in the US is divided, along with the “We’re so smahhht” libertarian, Nolan chart.
But anyone who’s followed politics finds that on any particular issue – like, say, for example, immigration or abortion – these charts tell us nothing. In fact, they may even cause more confusion than they add clarity. And then Paul Graham dropped this formulation in July 2020.
One of the most revealing ways to classify people is by the degree and aggressiveness of their conformism. Imagine a Cartesian coordinate system whose horizontal axis runs from conventional-minded on the left to independent-minded on the right, and whose vertical axis runs from passive at the bottom to aggressive at the top. The resulting four quadrants define four types of people. Starting in the upper left and going counter-clockwise: aggressively conventional-minded, passively conventional-minded, passively independent-minded, and aggressively independent-minded.”
For those who like the charts, Dr. Eades did the service of turning Graham’s formulation into a graphic.
Graham also asserts what may be the most bold point right up front:
I think that you’ll find all four types in most societies, and that which quadrant people fall into depends more on their own personality than the beliefs prevalent in their society.
The most compelling part of his argument is next and it hit a bullseye with me.
Young children offer some of the best evidence for both points. Anyone who’s been to primary school has seen the four types, and the fact that school rules are so arbitrary is strong evidence that the quadrant people fall into depends more on them than the rules.
The kids in the upper left quadrant, the aggressively conventional-minded ones, are the tattletales. They believe not only that rules must be obeyed, but that those who disobey them must be punished.
The kids in the lower left quadrant, the passively conventional-minded, are the sheep. They’re careful to obey the rules, but when other kids break them, their impulse is to worry that those kids will be punished, not to ensure that they will.
The kids in the lower right quadrant, the passively independent-minded, are the dreamy ones. They don’t care much about rules and probably aren’t 100% sure what the rules even are.
And the kids in the upper right quadrant, the aggressively independent-minded, are the naughty ones. When they see a rule, their first impulse is to question it. Merely being told what to do makes them inclined to do the opposite.
When measuring conformism, of course, you have to say with respect to what, and this changes as kids get older. For younger kids it’s the rules set by adults. But as kids get older, the source of rules becomes their peers. So a pack of teenagers who all flout school rules in the same way are not independent-minded; rather the opposite.
Oooh, boy. That last part kinda stings, but it’s like good humor: you can measure how good it is by either how hard you laugh or how much it makes you wince.
Graham’s essay goes on to deliver the coup de gras – and what I think is the greatest insight into the current state of political discourse in the country.
Princeton professor Robert George recently wrote:
I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.
He’s too polite to say so, but of course they wouldn’t. And indeed, our default assumption should not merely be that his students would, on average, have behaved the same way people did at the time, but that the ones who are aggressively conventional-minded today would have been aggressively conventional-minded then too. In other words, that they’d not only not have fought against slavery, but that they’d have been among its staunchest defenders.
There ya go, Wokesters, Pow! Right in the Virtue Signaller.
Of course, the people who most need to understand this will be the people (1) least likely to be able to read and comprehend it, and (b) most likely to scream their defiance that THEY would EVER have held such “icky” beliefs. In other words, people who lack both self-awareness and honesty (and those are probably not unrelated).
Of course this formulation undoubtedly includes overlap among the categories, but it’s not hard to find where you are generally – and then think about the snitches from your elementary school days. One of my favorite lines by my old boss was this: “Did you ever notice that all of the people who work in HR seem to be the same kids who volunteered to be hall monitors in school?” An aggressively independent-minded type, he was on to Graham’s formulation years ago. It’s also interesting because with just a little thought you can plot a various childhood archetypes into the respective quadrants with ease.
Graham also adds two critical points about the top two quadrants. First:
I’m biased, I admit, but it seems to me that aggressively conventional-minded people are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the trouble in the world, and that a lot of the customs we’ve evolved since the Enlightenment have been designed to protect the rest of us from them. In particular, the retirement of the concept of heresy and its replacement by the principle of freely debating all sorts of different ideas, even ones that are currently considered unacceptable, without any punishment for those who try them out to see if they work.
This ties in beautifully and explains what I’ve written here previously on both public education and culture – specifically, how we got the Salem Witch Trials and why the men who were a part of it were all the “Toppe Men” of their day. They weren’t outliers or non-conformists – anything but.
And the second critical point, which regards the aggressively independent-minded:
Why do the independent-minded need to be protected, though? Because they have all the new ideas. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be right. You have to be right when everyone else is wrong. Conventional-minded people can’t do that. For similar reasons, all successful startup CEOs are not merely independent-minded, but aggressively so. So it’s no coincidence that societies prosper only to the extent that they have customs for keeping the conventional-minded at bay.
I won’t go any further because it would just be a wholesale copy and paste of both Graham’s and Dr. Eades’ work, but I thought it worth sharing here in a virtual space filled with (what seems to me, anyway) a majority of “aggressively independent-minded” people. And it certainly helps explain to me why libertarians and freedom-lovers generally can’t find doctrinal comity – and why the phrase “like herding cats” exists. It’s because we’re dealing with people in a quadrant that is already “high and to the right” and the folks on the furthest reaches of that have trouble even with those in the same quadrant if they happen to be closer to the center than further out on the fringes.
Submitted for your consideration and comment. (And in under 1500 words, bitches.)*
*And with pictures.