Recently John Scalzi wrote about the problem of being a fictional person.1 This stuck with me because (1) I have had a high enough level of Internet Micro-Fame that I’ve experienced this, and (2) I both agree and disagree with his conclusions.
We make sense of the world by building predictive models and seeing how well those conform to reality. Just as we do this with masses and pulleys, or with subatomic particles, we do this with people. I have never met John Scalzi; everything I know of him is through his blog or secondhand through other people who have met him. As such, my model of him is likely correct in some ways completely unlike him in others. In his terms, he is a fictional person to me.
Where my disagreement starts is with the notion that there is distinction between people who know the real you and those who have only this fictional construct in their heads. No one knows the real you, even if they have met you; we all have only “imaginary people” in our heads.2 Some people do have more data to work with when they’re constructing their models of certain people. My wife probably has a more accurate model of me, in predictive terms, than most of the people reading this blog do.3 The extent to which people “know us” falls onto a continuum, rather than being a strong dichotomy. Blog readers who have talked to me for five minutes at a convention fall somewhere between my wife and the pure readers on this spectrum. So I don’t quite buy the notion that we’re “real” to some people but “fictional” to others, though I agree that some people have wildly inaccurate models.
My bigger concern is about this notion of responsibility. John, paraphrasing Theresa Nielsen Hayden, says, “I am not responsible for actions of the imaginary version of me you have inside your head.” It important to realize that we use these models not only to make predictions but also to filter future data we get. Data that doesn’t conform to our models are often discarded. What I think he’s saying here is that if your inaccurate model of me causes you to disregard data that would help you build a better one, that’s not my fault. If you cling to your faulty notions of who I am, there’s not much I can do about it.
I don’t believe, however, that we can completely disavow responsibility for the models that people build of us. After all, we are the source of the data. Now when the amount of data is small, the model that gets constructed is, as John puts, “more about them than it is about you.” But if those models fall onto a continuum, where does your responsibility start or end?
What resonates most strongly with me is an idea from Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations: “Take responsibility for your emotional wake.” She writes:
Everything each of us says leaves an emotional wake. Positive or negative. Our individual wakes are larger than we know. An emotional wake is what you remember after I’m gone. What you feel. The aftermath, aftertaste, or afterglow.
The things that we do and say ripple outwards from ourselves, like the aftermath of a stone cast into a pond. The further away from the stone we get, the more those ripples are distorted, or reflected “as in a glass, dimly.” They are still the results ourselves and our actions.4 One of the keys to getting real in a conversations, she writes, is to recognize and own the ripples you create.
Can I really hold you accountable for emotional wake you leave? Can I force you take responsibility for what people think you are like? Probably not. Like many moral discussions, for me this comes down a case where the notion of obligations is insufficient to explain the idea of virtue.5 I may not be obligated to take responsibly for my emotional wake, but the world will certainly be a better place if I do.
1 This was a commentary on and response to Elizabeth Bear’s post about what she calls the auctorial construct.
2 It’s not just other people; your sense of self is just such a construct. Just as culture can be thought of as the set of stories a group tells themselves about themselves, personality can be thought of as the set of stories we tell ourself about ourself.
3 Sorry, my friends.
4 And when enough people have models of us that contradict our own model of ourselves, maybe it’s we who are mistaken about who we really are.
5 And yes, I am a virtue ethicist, which is why I tend to find positions like libertarianism morally vacuous.