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Conscious decoupling

Some people consider ideas on their own terms; for others they are inextricable from context


Many of the best stories begin with the virtuoso tweeter Professor Richard Dawkins. In 2020 he declared to his several million followers that “of course” eugenics would work. “It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs, and roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans?”

He was quick to follow up with a clarification (“for those determined to miss the point”): “I deplore the idea of a eugenic policy. I simply said deploring it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work”. But the toothpaste would not go back into the tube. Dawkins’s tweets attracted large volumes of criticism and ridicule: “This is racist trash, Richard,” read a representative response from another Oxford University professor.

This exchange introduced me to the concept of “decoupling”. To “decouple” is to consider an idea purely on its own terms, independent from related ideas with which it might often be associated.

High-decoupling friends might profoundly disagree, but be able to discuss the issue comfortably under a mutual assumption of goodwill.

So-called “high decouplers”, explained science writer Tom Chivers, are people who “are comfortable separating and isolating ideas”; in this case, separating the proposal that eugenics could be possible from the proposal that it is justified. “Low decouplers”, on the other hand, “see ideas as inextricable from their contexts”. For a low decoupler, what Dawkins wrote cannot be taken at face value: his statement is in far too close proximity to others which are deeply unsavoury.

This divide is also illustrated by data scientist David Shor, who was fired from a US political consultancy after sharing a classic piece of social science research suggesting that violent protest can be counter- productive in achieving change. Shor’s tweet, while making only a factual statement on the merits of protest in general, took place in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.

To some, the statement “violent protests are ineffective” seems to have been closely “coupled” to others he did not explicitly make: that the BLM protestors were violent or that their grievances were illegitimate. It was here, in what he was taken to have implicitly stated, that Shor’s crime lay.

But it’s not only in public life that this distinction is relevant. I think the difference between high and low decouplers matters for interpersonal relationships, too. Recently a friend suggested to me that what our extended social circle has in common is that it consists mostly of relatively high decouplers.

On the one hand, socialising with high decouplers can mean hearing things expressed with a bluntness that many would consider offensive. And high decouplers can easily get themselves into hot water when they imprudently assume, as Dawkins may have done, that everyone else shares their approach.

The social upside, though, is very significant. High-decoupling friends might profoundly disagree with me on certain questions — under what circumstances should abortion be permitted? Should a gender recognition certificate entitle a person to be treated as the opposite sex? — but be able to discuss the issue comfortably under a mutual assumption of goodwill.

Starting a family today requires more resistance to inertia than it once did

After university, where the social scene can feel both isolating and stifling for those who hold views that go against the grain of the student body, this makes a refreshing change. Conversations between high decouplers allow participants to better refine their own views, and depart from the “party line” on controversial issues.

For instance, a high decoupler might believe that women and men should have the same opportunities in life — but have no difficulty admitting that the sexes show innate differences in personality and interests. A low decoupler with similar views, meanwhile, might be unwilling to make the same concession, seeing the factual belief about sex differences as enmeshed with a moral belief of female inferiority.

Decoupling means the outline of a person’s expressed views can fit more precisely around their true opinions, just as a gerrymandered election district fits snugly around a bloc of voters; rather than a straight dividing line where beliefs cannot be entertained if they carry a taint of “the other side”.

Separately, it has been pointed out that I have a social group that is remarkably “settled down”: many friends around my age are recently married and have already started families or hope to do so very soon. I am in my late twenties, so while this is not shockingly young, it is still younger than the average Brit today, who, if they get married and have children, can expect not to do so until their early to mid 30s.

I don’t think my friends are more baby-crazy than average; instead, I suspect that this “high rate of coupling” may be another thing attributable to high decoupling. Someone who can “decouple” the logical argument in favour of a committed relationship from fears of rejection or of not finding the ultimate perfect partner may be more likely to pursue such a relationship with a high level of intentionality.

Starting a family today requires more resistance to inertia than it once did. Many have suggested that the future belongs to the highly religious, as they’re the ones who will continue having large families despite this. Maybe so. But I wonder if a little bit of it belongs to high decouplers, too.

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