29 May 2023

Short books for an inquisitive young fella

I do not simply endorse everything in these books — not by a long shot — but they are the kind of provocations which were powerful for me when I was a young bloke

  • Kieth Johnstone, Impro
  • James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
  • George Leonard, Mastery
  • Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising
  • Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body
  • Alan Watts, The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
  • Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit
  • Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
  • John Whiteside Parsons, Freedom is a Two Edged Sword
  • George Orwell, Why I Write
  • David Deida, Instant Enlightenment
  • John Stewart Mill, On Liberty
  • Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps

17 May 2023

Nonviolent Communication, abuse, social justice, and ... communication

The Nonviolent Communication toolset is powerful and useful in many situations. I think everyone can benefit from learing its fundamentals. I have benefitted immensely from exposure to it when I was very young.

And I think everyone needs to understand its limitations. I recommend the Real Social Skills essay Nonviolent Communication can hurt people as a helpful examination of this problem.

That approach is useful in situations in which people basically want to treat each other well but have trouble doing so because they don’t understand one another’s needs and feelings. In every other type of situation, the ideology and methodology of Nonviolent Communication can make things much worse.

I would expand on the description of where NVC serves well to say that all parties in the conversation must have a commitment to working in good faith toward a resolution which serves everyone, and must feel deep confidence that everyone in the conversation shares that commitment.

Those conditions do not apply in relationships with abuse. Lee Shevek <@ButchAnarchy> explains the abuse pattern:

If your conflicts with someone close to you (partner, family member, friend, etc.) regularly result in you feeling confused about the nature of the conflict, you may be in an abusive relationship. Seriously, it’s not spoken about as often as it should be but if your conflicts with someone are regularly leaving you confused / keep you confused throughout the conflict, it is very likely by design.

Your confusion is not, contrary to the other person’s assertions, a result of your own weakness. It is that you are engaging with someone in the assumption of good faith when there is, in reality, no good faith present, and doing so is a wildly confusing experience. You engage in conflict with the assumption that the person you’re in conflict with is raising whatever concern they have raised in good faith because that is the basis upon which mutual relationship is formed. But that is not the basis of abusive ones.

Abusers engage in conflict (and create conflict) in order to dominate and to win, and they do not recognize fair terms of engagement. While you’re still engaging in the assumption of good faith, their only actual goal is to undermine you and gain your submission.

It was exceptionally hard for me to come to a point of understanding my past relationship as abusive specifically because me ex’s particular form of abuse was all about covert manipulation and subtle attacks on my trust in my own perceptions. So while I often felt extremely hurt, anxious, fearful, etc. the overarching emotion I had in our conflicts was intense confusion because I assumed she approached our conflicts with the same mindset I did: to collaborate and come to a mutual decision. I assumed also that her random criticisms, the conflicts she initiated that seemed to aping up from nowhere and spin in circles until I was too fatigued to hold my own ground anymore, etc. where about the subject matter at hand, when they were really just tools of control.

For clarity: occasional confusion and misunderstanding is a part of all relationships. But it should be occasional, and it should also be able to be cleared up via communication and explanation. If it is a consistent feature of your conflicts with someone, it is a big red flag.

Another essay from Real Social Skills, NVC can be emotionally violent, focuses on such systematically abusive people weaponizing NVC patterns.

This abusive partner’s honest expression of his feelings is actually part of how he is abusing his partner. NVC has no way of recognizing the ways in which expression of genuinely felt emotions can be abusive. It also has no recognized way for someone to legitimately say “no, this is not a conversation I want to engage in” or “no, I don’t consider that feeling something I need to respond to or take into consideration.”

Part of what it would take for NVC to stop being an abusive culture it to recognize that NVC-style dialogue and emotional intimacy require consent every single time people interact that way.

I wish I had comparably lucid descriptions of how NVC breaks down with social injustices. I have some incomplete understanding from my own experience.

NVC teaches avoidance of language offering “objective” judgement in favor of describing one’s subjective experience. (I-statements!) But speaking this way from a privileged position in a world which overwhelmingly values the feelings of the privileged over the experiences of the oppressedsocial injustice implicitly centers the perspective of privilege. We must diligently avoid this on the merits. And as it generally offends the heck out of people in a marginalized position when they hear it, degrading the conversation.

Consider a white person using the NVC template and saying to a Black interlocutor, “When you told me that my actions were racist, I felt very uncomfortable.” Even if that white speaker does not hold Black people responsible to ensure their emotional comfort, or to ensure the ease of white people in general — even if the Black listener has direct experience demonstrating this commitment by the white speaker — in a world which insists on white comfort every turn, the painful inference is unavoidable. In a position of privilege one must actively counter the expectation that the oppressed must be deferential to the concerns of the privileged. NVC’s grounding in a presumption of goodwill cannot address this need.

NVC’s method of empathetic listening — asking about an interlocutor’s experience, listening, then reflecting back one’s understanding of what they say — can fail badly coming from a position of privilege. I have been in conversations in which I have tried to say that I support the legitimacy of a marginalized person’s anger, saying back my understanding of what the anger was about, and asking that person to tell me more to improve my understanding ... and had it read as arrogating my right to decide whether the anger was legitimate, demanding details of the circumstances before I would consider it justified to my satisfaction, which I understand because denying both of those is a familiar pattern I am sure my interlocutor had experienced in countless other interactions. Our conversations cannot set aside the context of a world which makes unreasonable demands on the marginalized. Pervasive injustices makes an uncharitiable reading of privileged speech and thought natural, even a necessity for survival in a hostile world.

Jeeyon Shim adds a sharp observation about NVC as a style of communication:

It’s also painful to see NVC used in contexts that add racial codeswitching as an element, too. I think of NVC as a very, very white way of speaking, and all that implies.

One very clear cut example is in conversations where not every participant might speak English as a first language. I’ve witnessed this firsthand because my dumb ass, excited by hearing about the technique for the first time from very, very white friends, tried it on my mom. One day I was like, “When you say I need to bring home better grades, I feel like you are exerting parental pressure on me to fulfill unrealistic performance standards.”

She literally said to me, deadpan in English, “Jeeyon, did you forget how to speak English?”

Obviously she is very funny and that was a very fucking funny joke, but also how many times has that gone in a way where people got really hurt? How does NVC perpetuate white standards of behavior and protocol that, ahem, for people of color are often unrealistic performance standards?

Because of early training in nonviolent communication, am working to break my habit of reflexively turning to its patterns in fraught conversations. I have bitter experience from how it breaks down in social justice conversations. I confess that this comes with a frustration that social justice advocacy culture has not developed a stronger set of protocols for people in privilege to engage responsibly and effectively in hard conversations, much less a practice with the the crisp, teachable quality which NVC has.

We rightly point to an obligation to step carefully when we stand in a privileged position. Much of the discussion around that addresses a long list of land mines to Not Step On, and I think much of that right and necessary. And we need more positive practices, more clarifying principles.

Too often I find myself in moments of confusion. Should I keep my big yap shut? Or is that leaving the work to the marginalized? Should keep my emotions out of this particular point, to avoid an implied demand for caretaking? Or will that land as intellectualizing painful experiences when I should engage from the heart?

How should the privileged act in good faith with people who have every reason to presume bad faith? The liberal-as-in-Isaiah-Berlin tradition does not offer good answers. This requires principles, commitment, and skills. And while the privileged have the greater obligation to change and invest energy in correcting these breakdowns, I presume that a better protocol for the privileged would have to interlock with a matching protocol for the marginalized. I do not have good resources to turn to in cultivating them.

I hope that such practices are possible. I am struck that Charles Lambdin’s essay Listening Creatively: Killing Giants and Catching Shapeshifters addresses related problems in talking about facilitating workplace collaborations where it can be very tricky to cultivate goodwill and equally difficult to spot and respond to hostility.

The second Protean game Sanford calls “The Bird in the Bushes.” This has to do with veiled remarks. Here, someone makes a comment, and you sense an undercurrent, an added, implied meaning. It is like you hear something in a nearby bush that flutters and chirps. You assume it’s a bird, but to really know … you would have to go look in the bush.


Learning to look “in the bush” is, to me, one of the most powerful metaphors in Sanford’s book. It is far more helpful than the oft-repeated nugget of corporate wisdom that you should just “assume positive intent.” Though well-meaning, this advice is naïve. It ignores both the reality of corporate politics and frankly human nature. The fact is that colleagues do not always have your best interest at heart and sometimes do not want you to succeed. Further, at times you must work with toxic people. Another common piece of advice is to “trust your gut.” Well, often you cannot do both. When your gut tells you there is a “bird in the bushes,” to just “assume good intent” is to pretend otherwise.

I want to get much better at this. I want all of us to get much better at this.

15 May 2023

Blockchain in 10 minutes

I wrote this for Twitter and since that may implode at any moment, here is my clear, simple, no-BS explanation of Bitcoin and blockchain for civilians.

I promise not to explain any math. You do not need it.

The basic thing

Think about the Visa card people. When you use your card to take some of your money and give it to that Etsy account to buy a cool Whatever, Visa records the change in a database in a secret cave somewhere:

  • –$25 you
  • +$25 them

You have to trust the honesty of Visa. In theory they could give money to their friends in the database, which is bad for obvious (and not-so-obvious) reasons. Ultimately, the government checks to make sure.

OK, let’s say you are a libertarian goldbug. You want government entirely out of the money business. But how? Someone has to make sure the ledger of Who Has How Much Money is honest, right?

Bitcoin solves this using a new technology called a “blockchain”. It means that no, we do not need to trust the people who maintain the database with the list of who has how many Bitcoins, the way we have to trust the Visa people. The blockchain uses multiple synchronized databases checked against each other. They prevent cheating with the same basic cryptographic math which already makes it possible to safely send data like your credit card number over the internet.

Blockchain technology can maintain a trustworthy ledger of any shared information, not just Bitcoin, without needing a trusted agent to maintain the database. It seems like this must be useful for something, right?

A lot of nerds who understand the math are working on potential applications. Many are goofy. Many are scams. Many — like Bitcoin — are based on trying to create a scarce commodity so that early players win at a gold rush. And a few are … intriguing. It may be that none of these pan out. If one does, it could be huge.

That’s it.

Must a blockchain wreck the Earth?

Bitcoin uses an approach to the necessary math called “proof-of-work”. This makes computers sweat hard, which uses a lot of energy. And a lot of our legacy electrical generators put carbon in the air, contributing to climate change. The energy cost of Bitcoin is not just high; it increases with every transaction, making it unsustainable as a widely-used currency. (This is one reason why I am not a millionaire now. I knew early on about Bitcoin and expected that it would get big — though I had no idea how big — and concluded that investing in it was not ethical.)

In theory, blockchain tech does not necessarily have to work in such a compute-intensive (and thus energy-intensive) way. There are alternatives to proof-of-work, like proof-of-stake, which should use far less energy. But proof-of-work has a big head start, alternatives have not yet proved themselves, and many existing blockchain applications — notably including Bitcoin — cannot migrate away from it.

NFTs: non-fungible tokens

Bitcoin is designed as an artificial commodity which shares many of the characteristics of gold. It is fungible: one Bitcoin is the same as another, just as any ounce of gold is equivalent to another. But one could create a ledger listing unique things: non-fungible tokens with unique IDs.

In theory, one could use an NFT blockchain to assign a unique ID to any set of unique things: say, a database which knows who owns each Vermeer painting. For now, most NFT ledgers have no enforcement mechanism at all, so “owning” an NFT has as no more significance than the hokey certificate I have from a registry saying that there is a star named after me. Many scammy NFT systems do not even attempt to point to physical things, just invented commodities like ugly digital images.

Blockchain enthusiasts imagine that someday we will use NFTs to keep track of every thing in the world. No more arguments about whose soda that is in the fridge, who holds the title to that abandoned lot on the edge of town, et cetera; the database will know all.

A word about geeky politics

One can recognize in blockchain technology an idea familiar from decades of idealistic and naïve tech geek politics. Consider John Perry Barlow’s breathless 1996 Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace:

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. [⋯] Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

I do not think I need to explain how that is not quite working out the way that Barlow and countless other tech nerds imagined.

Tech nerds have a longstanding tendency to assume that de-centralized technology structures inherently produce democratic, egalitarian, liberatory social consequences, protecting individual rights and freedom. An instructive 1995 essay, The Californian Ideology, explores and criticizes that assumption and others from the culture and cultural politics and politics politics of “tech”. and other assumptions.

On superficial reading, the writings of the Californian ideologists are an amusing cocktail of Bay Area cultural wackiness and in-depth analysis of the latest developments in the hi-tech arts, entertainment and media industries. Their politics appear to be impeccably libertarian - they want information technologies to be used to create a new ‘Jeffersonian democracy’ in cyberspace in its certainties, the Californian ideology offers a fatalistic vision of the natural and inevitable triumph of the hi-tech free market.

But history teaches otherwise. Aside from the example of Barlow’s failed dream of an internet without prejudice, or the way that Bitcoin created — by design! — its own inequality concentrating wealth in the hands of early enthusiasts, decentralized designs tend to not work even on the technical level.

11 May 2023

ROI & faustian bargains in design

Erica Hall says:

The “ROI of UX” is a thought terminating cliché.

The working assumption that business interests and user interests are inherently aligned (they are often not) prevents designers from doing the work that would be more likely to bring those interests into alignment.

Amen. I think user experience designers do need to be smart about about the relationship between user needs and business interests, but simply accepting creation of that alignment as part of designers’ mandate is a dangerous idea.

I like to describe UX design as offering a kind of benign faustian bargain.

Hey, Corporate Organization, I will figure out some things which will serve users well. Surely you can find a way to make money from that.

Which is okay-ish to a first approximation. But. There are subtleties.

It is irresponsible and ineffective for UXDs to simply throw cool product & service ideas over the wall to The Corporation to figure out how to make them viable business ideas. UXDs have a distinct role of user advocacy, but that is not wholly separate from the business. Doing the work properly requires deep engagement in the business without simply becoming a servant of the business only. Hall underlines this distinction between informed engagement and simple-minded service in pointing to how creating profitable-but-bad user experiences is, unhappily, what many digital designers do with their day:

The historical ROI of being shitty to people is quite impressive.

If UX designers simply understand our role entirely as a way to Deliver Business Value, we become not user advocates but user manipulators. I reject the tech industry, public, and even many members of the profession seeing our work that way.

As various folks underlined in replies to Hall’s Twitter post, the question of “return-on-investment of design” is a pernicious instrument of people holding corporate power who resist design disrupting their comfort. We ask for many proofs of ROI in business but do not ask that the professions of management or executives or IT or countless other org roles justify their existence as professions this way. A Twitter thread by my old boss Alan Cooper raises this point …

Where is it written in stone that designers need to know business? Why don’t business people have to learn about design?

There are a lot of fine businesses out there, but there is a distinct shortage of well-designed products. I’m saying that the critical ingredient in successful products isn’t middle management but rather design.

And when I talk about good design, I’m not talking about white space and the color wheel, I’m talking about knowing what motivates the user and then giving it to them.

Isn’t that, in fact, what a good business does? They find their user community, figure out what they are trying to accomplish and why, and then give it to them. That’s design, not business.

Remember when Apple kicked out Jobs and hired all those great business people? That didn’t really work out for them. When Jobs finally came back, he made the user the most important thing, and they succeeded.

Look at a company like Nest. Running a thermostat company is not a great challenge. Designing a thermostat that changes the entire thermostat business is. The critical ingredient is user-centered design, not business.

All this talk about designers needing to know business is a lot of crap perpetuated by people who have learned that business is much easier than design is.

To paraphrase an old comic book, Design will get you through times of no business, better than business will get you through times of no design.

I too would ask why we hear so many demands that “designers have to understand the business" but few that "businesspeople have to understand design”.

… and I want to frame that a little differently. I too would ask why we hear so many demands that “designers have to understand the business” but few that “businesspeople have to understand design”. Everyone in a business organization needs to operate in a way that is generally aware of the concerns of the business, but it is striking that there are special calls for designers in particular to deeply understand the business.

Designers must admit that part of the issue is that there are some “designers” who do work which is almost willfully unconnected to the needs of the businesses they serve. They are a disgrace to the design profession and all too common, poisoning the water for all of us. When a client tells me that they are keen to get “actionable” design, often it means that they have experienced irresponsibly useless “design” work. (And of course now they are stingy with time and money, having sunk both into work they could not use.)

But that plea for “actionable” design which “understands the business” can also reflect narrow-mindedness: “I want a design which does not disrupt my business model, development process, or marketing. And make sure it is easy to implement.”

So ... don’t innovate. Great.

The most business-savvy design work I have ever done has not always gone over well. “Why are you talking about the business model?!?” Well, my user research showed you were planning to sell the wrong service; I designed the right thing, and the business model was part of it.

Considering how well I understand the business of my clients, and how poorly the business people I work with understand what I do, I share Cooper’s resentment driving him to say that the business really needs to work to better understand design more than vice versa.

“Design needs to understand business” reflects the absence of true product management, which is why I sometimes say that strengthening PM is one of the best things we can do for the profession of UXD and the UX of the systems we create. Yes, UX designers need to understand the business, technical, and marketing context of their work, but I disagree profoundly with the common contention that aligning UX design work with business objectives is UX designers’ responsibility. Creating that alignment is the function of product management. PM aligns all of the product team members with the biz goals (and each others’ efforts).

That gives UXDs at least the potential for a clean place to stand, acting as a full-throated advocate for users and people at large in the systems we work on. You may have heard of a company headquartered in Cupertino, California which tries to follow this model and even without always doing it well has won the biggest market capitalization of any corporation in the world.

But the ground is difficult. Hall reminds us:

Anyone who calls themself a designer, particularly a UX designer, has to confront the fact that what is good for business/investors and what is good for humans—even the rarefied tranche of the population that gets elevated consideration as "users"—is divergent and trending worse.
Mauricio Mejía asks:
Has it ever been convergent?
Answering this (to what extent do business interests/capitalism and human welfare ever converge) requires way more than a tweet. The fundamental premise of UX design is that the goals can converge.

Financialization in particular splits use value from exchange value.

Hall expands on the bind financialized market capitalism creates for ethical design:

A design education is incomplete unless it provides the tools to determine to what extent the needs, objectives, and incentives for an organization are in alignment with those of its audience, customers, users, partners, employees, etc. The entire field of UX needs to be rethought from the perspective that perceived/actual value to the user and perceived/actual value to the business are often very deeply at odds.

Power analysis is a critical part of this. Value to people with the most power in a system is not always financial, even if the system is nominally a business.

[Gestures around]

So, the idea that you can just make a case for user-centered design in terms of ROI is naïve.

If you’re in a public company, it’s about whatever makes the market happy—often the narrative more than the fundamentals (see: layoffs) at least in the short term.

If you’re in a private company, it depends on the goals of the owners.

Welcome to the worst case scenario.

I hope the UX design profession can find a way through.

04 May 2023

Credit cards as a fae bargain

Dreading Twitterpocalypse, I am transcribing this thread by Avery Alder

Here is how credit cards work:

Imagine stumbling into a fairy ring that belongs to the fairy mafia. An enchanting being appears, smile wide enough to reveal rows of sharp and glistening teeth, and it remarks, “Why, traveler, you look positively destitute! I have just the thing!”

It turns its palms up, revealing fistfuls of gold coins. Gold coins falling to the moss below. Gold coins all around you.

“Borrow whatever you’d like! Just bring it back by the next full moon, alright, my sweet?”

That’s when you notice its necklace of withered human fingers.

You take a handful of gold coins, because you really do need the money. As long as you pay this strange creature back before the next full moon, nothing bad will come of it.

Now, obviously the fairy is trying to trick you. You know that! But you’re confident you can outwit it.

You borrow what you need, and you return it to that magical forest place before the moon fills. All is well. Better than well! The fairy grows fond of you, leaving you larger and larger piles of gold to borrow.

Other fairies begin to make offerings to you as you walk the woods.

One month, life is particularly cruel to you. You can’t pay back the gold you borrowed.

On the night of the full moon, the being appears. “Don’t worry, my sweet. I am merciful. Just give me what you have today, and pay the rest by next moon.” It strokes its gruesome necklace.

“I’m sorry,” you say. “I’ll earn the money. I’ll pay back the debt!”

“Don’t worry at all, precious darling! All in due time. Things have a way of working themselves out.” And then, before disappearing in a puff of smoke, whispered under its breath: “that’s the first finger.”

The fairy keeps leaving you bigger piles of gold. The temptation grows stronger. Eventually, you come to think of it as your gold.

You borrow too much sometimes, and can’t pay it back. “Two fingers,” it whispers without sound. Then three. It keeps letting you take more money.

One day, you realize that regardless of whether you make good on your debts, you can’t stop borrowing more gold. Not only because you’ve built your life around it, but also because if you ever stopped borrowing it would make the fairies very angry. Not just this one. All of them.

You look around you at the world. Your fellow villagers have all fallen under the sway of the fairies. Borrowed fairy gold runs your whole town. People only do business with others if they are known to be in the favour of the fairies. Every day, more hands with missing fingers.

The savvy villager knows just what to do: borrow small amounts of gold regularly, to attract the attention and good graces of the fairies, and always repay it in full before the next moon, knowing it is not their gold. Get charmed and keep their fingers.

Few villagers are savvy.

Anyways, “sinister temptations from the fairy mafia, who will love you dearly if you play their game right” is the framework that helps me make my best credit decisions. Maybe it will be helpful to someone else out there too.

03 May 2023

Paradox of tolerance

Capturing commentaries on the liberal Paradox Of Tolerance for convenience.

Punk antifascism

A Twitter classic by Michael B. Tager <@IamRageSparkle>:

I was at a shitty crustpunk bar once getting an after-work beer. One of those shitholes where the bartenders clearly hate you.

So the bartender and I were ignoring one another when someone sits next to me and he immediately says, “no. get out.”

And the dude next to me says, “hey i’m not doing anything, i’m a paying customer.”

and the bartender reaches under the counter for a bat or something and says, “out. now.” and the dude leaves, kind of yelling. And he was dressed in a punk uniform, I noticed

Anyway, I asked what that was about and the bartender was like, “you didn’t see his vest but it was all nazi shit. Iron crosses and stuff. You get to recognize them.”

And i was like, ohok and he continues. “you have to nip it in the bud immediately. These guys come in and it’s always a nice, polite one. And you serve them because you don’t want to cause a scene. And then they become a regular and after awhile they bring a friend. And that dude is cool too.

And then THEY bring friends and the friends bring friends and they stop being cool and then you realize, oh shit, this is a Nazi bar now. And it’s too late because they’re entrenched and if you try to kick them out, they cause a PROBLEM. So you have to shut them down.”

And i was like, “oh damn.”

and he said “yeah, you have to ignore their reasonable arguments because their end goal is to be terrible, awful people.”

And then he went back to ignoring me. But I haven’t forgotten that at all.

This thread took off unexpectedly. Support your local antifa and black lives matter people. You know who they are.

Tolerance as social contract

Tumblr commentary by mittensmorgul:

The Paradox of Tolerance disappears if you look at tolerance, not as a moral standard, but as a social contract.

If someone does not abide by the terms of the contract, then they are not covered by it.

In other words: The intolerant are not following the rules of the social contract of mutual tolerance.

Since they have broken the terms of the contract, they are no longer covered by the contract, and their intolerance should NOT be tolerated.

Inspired by Tolerance is not a moral precept by Yonatan Zunger

And commasameleon:

Sorry as someone who teaches rhetoric this is a wonderful response to the Paradox of Tolerance. I cannot tell you how many times my students have had debates about this. This is the response. This does indeed fix it. I cannot wait to tell this to my classes now. Philosophically and rhetorically this completely resolved the Paradox of Tolerance and I am floored by its simplicity and angry I never saw it before.

Zunger’s essay

Tolerance is not a moral precept

The title of this essay should disturb you. We have been brought up to believe that tolerating other people is one of the things you do if you’re a nice person — whether we learned this in kindergarten or from Biblical maxims like “love your neighbor as yourself” and “do unto others.”

But if you have ever tried to live your life this way, you will have seen it fail: “Why won’t you tolerate my intolerance?” This comes in all sorts of forms: accepting a person’s actively antisocial behavior because it’s just part of being an accepting group of friends; being told that prejudice against Nazis is the same as prejudice against Black people; watching people try to give “equal time” to a religious (or irreligious) group whose guiding principle is that everyone must join them or else.

Every one of these examples should raise your suspicions that something isn’t right; that tolerance be damned, one of these things is not like the other. But if you were raised with an intense version of “tolerance is a moral requirement,” then you may feel that this is a thought you should fight off.

It isn’t.

Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty. Tolerance is a social norm because it allows different people to live side-by-side without being at each other’s throats. It means that we accept that people may be different from us, in their customs, in their behavior, in their dress, in their sex lives, and that if this doesn’t directly affect our lives, it is none of our business. But the model of a peace treaty differs from the model of a moral precept in one simple way: the protection of a peace treaty only extends to those willing to abide by its terms. It is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.

When viewed through this lens, the problems above have clear answers. The antisocial member of the group, who harms other people in the group on a regular basis, need not be accepted; the purpose of your group’s acceptance is to let people feel that they have a home, and someone who actively tries to thwart this is incompatible with the broader purpose of that acceptance. Prejudice against Nazis is not the same as prejudice against Blacks, because one is based on people’s stated opposition to their neighbors’ lives and safety, the other on a characteristic that has nothing to do with whether they’ll live in peace with you or not. Freedom of religion means that people have the right to have their own beliefs, but you have that same right; you are under no duty to tolerate an attempt to impose someone else’s religious laws on you.

This is a variation on the old saw that “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” We often forget (or ignore) that no right is absolute, because one person’s rights can conflict with another’s. This is why freedom of speech doesn’t protect extortion, and the right to bear arms doesn’t license armed robbery. Nor is this limited to rights involving the state; people can interfere with each other’s rights with no government involved, as when people use harassment to suppress other people’s speech. While both sides of that example say they are “exercising their free speech,” one of them is using their speech to prevent the other’s: these are not equivalent. The balance of rights has the structure of a peace treaty.

Unlike absolute moral precepts, treaties have remedies for breach. If one side has breached another’s rights, the injured party is no longer bound to respect the treaty rights of their assailant — and their response is not an identical violation of the rules, even if it looks superficially similar to the original breach. “Mommy, Timmy hit me back!” holds no more ethical weight among adults than it does among children.

After a breach, the moral rules which apply are not the rules of peace, but the rules of broken peace, and the rules of war. We might ask, is the response proportional? Is it necessary? Does it serve the larger purpose of restoring the peace? But we do not take an invaded country to task for defending its borders.

Take the example of a group silencing another using harassment. Many responses may be appropriate. Returning harassment in turn, for example, is likely to be proportional, although it is rarely effective — harassment usually occurs in a situation where the sides do not have equal power to harm each other in that way. On the other hand, acting to restrict the harassers’ ability to continue in the future — even at the expense of limiting their right to speak — may be both proportional and effective. But lining the aggressors up against a wall and shooting them would not only be disproportionate, it would be unlikely to restore the peace.

No side, after all, will ever accept a peace in which their most basic needs are not satisfied — their safety, and their power to ensure that safety, most of all. The desire for justice is a desire that we each have such mechanisms to protect ourselves, while still remaining in the context of peace: that the rule of law, for example, will provide us remedy for breaches without having to entirely abandon all peace. Any “peace” which does not satisfy this basic requirement, one which creates an existential threat to one side or the other, can never hold.

If we interpreted tolerance as a moral absolute, or if our rules of conduct were entirely blind to the situation and to previous actions, then we would regard any measures taken against an aggressor as just as bad as the original aggression. But through the lens of a peace treaty, these measures have a different moral standing: they are tools which can restore the peace.

The model of a peace treaty highlights another challenge which tolerance always faces: peace is not always possible, because sometimes people’s interests are fundamentally incompatible. Setting aside the obvious example of “I think you and your family should be dead!” (even though that example may be far more common than we wish), there are many cases where such fundamental incompatibility can arise despite good faith on all sides.

Imagine, for example, that you had good reason to believe that a monster was on its way to attack your town, slaughtering everyone in its path. You and your fellow townsfolk would be wise to arm yourselves and set up a defensive perimeter. If the danger were clear and present, the monster visible on the horizon, you would rightly see anyone who didn’t participate without a good reason as a no-good freeloader.

Some failures to participate are more dangerous than others. If any noise might attract the monster’s attention, then dancing and reveling of any sort must be forbidden; you put not only yourself at risk, but everybody around you. If it’s a horror-movie monster, attracted by premarital sex, then this might be restricted as well. And what if some kinds of people pose a danger to the town by their very existence? Is it worth the town’s life to let them stay? A town in enough danger might make a moral choice to exile, or even sacrifice, some of its members.

But now imagine that half the town has good reason to fear this monster — credible reports from people they trust, centuries of documentation from other towns — while the other half has equally good reason to believe that these reports are fables. One side believes, in good faith, that these strict rules are all that protect the town from a horrible fate; the other, that these rules harm, punish, exile, or even kill them for no legitimate reason at all, other than the power of the first side. So long as there is real uncertainty about the monster, each side has good reason to view the other as an existential threat.

This hypothetical is, of course, no hypothetical. For anyone who believes in a god who will torment unbelievers, the “monster” is divine wrath. This is even more true if sin — which attracts this wrath — can spread like a contagion through an entire community. If everything you have ever learned tells you that this is a real and present danger, and that certain members of the community — members of another religion, perhaps, or people of the wrong sexual orientation— are jeopardizing everyone’s safety, then a fundamental, existential conflict is inevitable.

Many of you are probably reading this and saying that in this case, one side is right and the other is wrong, and the clear resolution is for one side to stop harming fellow members of the community. If one side were doing what it was doing in bad faith, that might be the answer — but the point here is that if both sides were acting in perfect faith, for either side to concede would be a death sentence. In a situation like this, there can be no peace treaty; only war or separation.

Since separation is often just as unacceptable as surrender— one side essentially needing to flee and give up everything they have in the world, from their homes and their jobs to their social ties — it is rarely a meaningful solution. It does not conform to the requirements of real peace. (This is why “white separatism” is, in practice, just a rebranding of white supremacy; white separatists never seem to suggest that they should be the ones who should leave their homes and lives behind.)

As with any peace treaty, we must consider toleration in the broader context of the war which is its alternative, and we must recognize that peace is not always a possibility.

But let me offer a small measure of hope. Among the worst wars of tolerance were the religious wars which tore through Europe between 1524 and 1648. These wars were predicated on precisely the sort of incompatibility described above, with Protestants and Catholics each seeing the other as existential threats. As states aligned with each side, the penalty for disagreement became exile or death, a condition no one could accept.

But even after six generations of fighting, and tens of millions of dead, these wars came to an end. The Peace of Westphalia, the series of treaties which ended them, was built on two radical tenets: that each ruler had the right to choose the religion of their state, and that Christians living in principalities where their faith was not the established faith still had the right to practice their religion. A decision was made, in essence, to accept the risk of the monster rather than the reality of the war.

The Peace of Westphalia was the political foundation for the concept of secularism: that religious matters are so uncertain that the state should not have the power to mandate them. It remains one of the classic peace treaties between fundamentally incompatible groups. It was also, in turn, the basis for the concept of religious freedom brought by European settlers to North America; the American Bill of Rights is its direct descendant.

What this teaches us is that tolerance, viewed as a moral absolute, amounts to renouncing the right to self-protection; but viewed as a peace treaty, it can be the basis of a stable society. Its protections extend only to those who would uphold it in turn. To withdraw those protections from those who would destroy it does not violate its moral principles; it is fundamental to them, because without this enforcement, the treaty would collapse. It is appropriate, even ethical, to answer force with proportional force, when that force is required to restore a just peace. We seek peace because on the whole it is far better than war; but as history has taught us, not every peace is better than the war it prevents.

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

— Patrick Henry, speech to the 2nd Virginia Convention, March 23, 1775