Values and Affirmation

The proponents of MBTI consistently refer to Feeler priorities as ``values'' and distinguish that from Thinker priorities. I think the distinction is misplaced and betrays a subtle "we-they" prejudice: "(We) Feelers have values and are valuable; (they) Thinkers have no value(s) and are therefore subhuman." If it were obvious, the Feelers who put out such disaffirmation would see they are violating their own values, and desist. The word "value" refers to worth, an objective standard for comparing things. Both Thinkers and Feelers have values, qualities they value most in making decisions about their own plans and activities, but the highest values are different between them. Both Feelers and Thinkers apply their own respective values in praising or criticizing other people for living up to those priorities, or else failing to do so.

Feelers tend to criticize Thinkers for being uncaring, while Thinkers tend to criticize Feelers for hypocrisy. It's not that the Thinkers don't care about people, but they value truth and justice over affirmation. Everybody really wants truth to prevail -- especially when lies result in harm to themselves -- and pretty much everybody want courtesy to prevail -- especially when rudeness or hostility is directed at themselves.

The conflict comes when the truth is disaffirming. People often need to know that they are part of the problem, so they can act to correct their participation in it. However, it is unpleasant to receive such criticism, and Feelers empathize with that unpleasantness. Thinkers, on the other hand, consider the truth more important than the fleeting discomfort. This is the fundamental difference between Thinkers and Feelers. Thinkers value the truth over affirmation, and Feelers value affirmation over the truth.

Everybody needs to be affirmed, but some people don't want it at the expense of truth. Everybody needs the truth, but some people don't want it at the expense of affirmation. That is the fundamental difference between Thinkers and Feelers.

These two values have important social consequences.

The Feelers assert, with significant credibility, that ``people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.'' Telling somebody an uncomfortable truth tends to alienate them, putting them into a defensive posture in which accepting that truth becomes much more difficult. On the other hand, giving them only affirmation deprives them of the information they need to make corrective changes in their actions and plans. Small doses of facts or direction given in a context of large quantities of affirmation seems to work well in a workplace and in learning situations like the public schools. It also works well in health-care environments for encouraging reluctant patients to comply with a prescribed therapy. Thus Feelers make better nurses and educators and middle managers. The gender distribution of the labor marketplace reflects that reality.

Technology and the (hard) sciences, on the other hand, are about truth. Affirmation is irrelevant and generally counter-productive. The scientific method thrives on disaffirming the presuppositions of the status quo, and trying out new disruptive ideas. Technology works the same way, but focuses on new products rather than the laws of nature. Many of these new ideas don't work, but enough do succeed to make our culture the most prosperous in all of history. As a result, the vast majority of scientists and technologists are Thinkers. Again the labor marketplace reflects the reality of the work being done there.

There is a secondary social consequence of this particular distinction. Science drives technology, and technology drives the creation of wealth in this country and generally in the world. Wealth in turn drives the power structure. This gives the Thinkers an unfortunate but significant boost in public stature over Feelers. Thinkers can afford to disaffirm the Feelers, because it is the Thinkers in the position of power, not the Feelers. The Thinkers themselves are less concerned with affirmation, but the Feelers mostly don't understand that, so they continue to lavish affirmation on the Thinkers in a subtle form of obeisance and homage. Thus the Thinkers receive affirmation from working, from doing what they do best.

Except in the arts and in the churches. Successful artists and preachers tend to be Feelers. Later chapters will explore the implications in the churches, where preachers especially survive best by affirming their congregation, because religion in this country is a voluntary, leisure-time activity. Disaffirm the congregants and they go away (and stop donating). I suspect popular artists have the same economic motivation. When their art affirms the customer, the customer buys. If not, the artists must find some other way to pay their bills. Thomas Kinkade sold thousands of prints every year, because they give the viewers ``warm fuzzy'' feelings of nostalgia and comfort. Offensive artists like Serrano and Mapplethorpe need the support of rich collectors and government funds.

Movies are a widely patronized art form. Their economic success is highly dependent on the tastes and whims of the public. Thinkers occasionally turn to the cinema for entertainment and relaxation, but they get a bigger affirmation from doing things that contribute to society. There are a few movies that glorify science (for the Thinker audience), but a much larger proportion of them paint the scientists and the industrialists as villains, a perception shared by the Feeler artists and their Feeler audiences.

Precise Semantics vs Affect

One profound effect of the Thinker/Feeler divide is in the nature of communication. The Thinker wants to communicate facts (truth), while the Feeler wants to communicate affirmation (affect). The nature of communication happens to be my professional specialty.

My PhD is in ``Computer and Information Science'' with a specialization in Computational Linguistics. Professional linguists working with natural languages understand the term to mean ``using a computer incidentally to doing linguistics'' -- perhaps as a word processor or (more recently) for doing phonetic analysis on recorded sounds. Computer professionals understand the term as applying the deep linguistic theories first expressed by linguist Noam Chomsky toward developing a mathematical theory of translation, which we then use to build computer programs for translating one highly artificial language (like C++) into another even more artificial language (the binary ones and zeros the computer understands) without losing the exact meaning (semantics) of what was written in that language. That preservation of meaning is essential if computer programs are to work properly, and computer programmers everywhere become sensitized to the need for it, or their software fails and they must seek other employment. Almost needless to say, except that nobody understands the underlying reasons, computer technology is dominated by Thinkers, resulting in a market-driven gender gap that frustrates everybody. Computer professionals often see their technologies as a metaphor for all of life -- indeed the same principles are operative, although much less precisely.

Natural language translation (my focus for most of the last three decades) is primarily about preserving in a different language the semantics (meaning) of what was said in the original language. The process can be divided into two components: understanding the original message, then restating that message in the other language. To do that, we must be proficient at understanding what people mean by what they say, and we must be proficient at constructing messages that mean what we want them to mean. The first task is rather harder to program in a computer than the second, but that's not my point here. Instead I want to focus on the fact that both operations must be successful for communication to take place. The speaker must correctly express the message in an accepted language (the second skill), and the listener must correctly extract the original meaning from the words and grammar of that language (the first skill).

This is what I mean by ``precise semantics'', and it assumes that there is such a thing as an intended message, and that the words and grammar of the language can adequately and relatively unambiguously express that message, so that parsing the sentences in the language (which is the inverse operation as forming them) will yield a single message. That is generally not true in natural languages, so humans become adept also at disambiguating the different possible senses based on the context. This is much harder for computers, but people are quite good at it. The function of ``precise semantics'' is to minimize the multiplicity of senses, and thus also the opportunities for choosing some sense other than was intended.

Normative professions like law and engineering and computer programming -- and in conservative Christian contexts, theology -- require precise semantics. Many court cases are decided on the success or failure of precise semantics in laws and contracts. Bridges and buildings fall down and airplanes crash because of the failure of precise semantics in engineering specifications. Bad Things probably also happen with the breakdown of precise semantics in Biblical theology, but it's harder to see the effects this side of eternity.

Although technically just another message, affect (affirmation or disaffirmation) is often found opposed to precise semantics in this way: the message intended or received is deemed to be not what the words and grammar carry, but only whether the recipient is affirmed or disaffirmed. For this purpose most languages -- including English -- have a variety of terms of polar affect but identical (referent) meaning. There are also grammatical constructs with the same effect, that is, polarized affect.

Examples of polarized affect in English: ``garbage collector'' vs ``sanitary engineer'' and ``No way!'' vs ``Yeah, right.'' The second example is particularly instructive because (at least in the dialect I am familiar with) they both convey affect and (idiomatic) factual sense opposite to that expressed by the words and grammar. In the first example the positive-affect version is used to re-interpret the lexical meaning of the words.

These are important distinctions. An engineer is typically a college-educated professional, who is licensed by the state to perform calculations and operations that require training and responsibility, whereas a garbage collector needs no such license nor training. The education and the responsibility confer positive affect on the bearer, which in the mind of the Feeler overcomes the negative affect associated with collecting garbage. Similarly, ``No way!'' is an expression of approving (positive affect) surprise, despite that the words grammatically convey total disbelief; similarly, the sarcasm in ``Yeah, right'' expresses both disbelief and disapproval. Sarcasm is inherently contrary to fact, and therefore implicitly untruthful (but seldom taken that way).

The Thinker cares about truth, so he is inclined to try to believe (or construct, as the case may be) the words and grammar for what they are (true values), and ignore the affective values. The Feeler cares more about affect, and therefore is inclined to try to believe (or construct) affective values, and ignore the words and grammar. This would result in far more miscommunication than normally occurs in the USA only because Feelers control the educational establishment, and every Thinker has these affective values drummed into their heads in school from early childhood. The title of Robert Fulghum's bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten expresses this Feeler theme, no need to read the book.

Thinkers in America may not like it, but they are forced to live in a foreign land and speak that foreign (affective) language most of the time. In other cultures, and at other times in our culture, where and when the Thinkers were and are in control of the educational establishment, it's the Feelers who must learn to cope with the foreign language. Feminist linguist Suzette Haden Elgin authored a whole series of books around the title theme Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense (read any one of them), which essentially builds on the distinction between semantics and affect, although as a member of her identified victim class, she prefers to describe the situation differently.

``Do I Look Fat?''

The gender discrepancy between Feelers (mostly women) and Thinkers (mostly men) gives rise to interesting opportunities for miscommunication. Both parties are typically clueless about the problem. The woman craves affirmation, but the guy just wants to know what facts require his attention. She tries to affirm her husband by asking how things went at work, but he sees no factual need for her to know those details, so he has nothing to say. What she wants to hear is affirmation, him asking about her day. The facts are irrelevant, but the fact that he cares constitutes affirmation. Thinker guys can analyze the distress signals, and if they do, they might figure out that they need to be affirming and ``caring'' about their wives, but it's a complex syllogism, and not many guys navigate those shoals successfully.

The classic miscommunication usually comes when they are getting ready to go out for the evening. The wife wants to be affirmed, not only by her husband, but also by everybody else out there. So she chooses attire that presents her in the best light. She has been taught to do this from childhood (that's the main function of Barbie dolls), and it successfully got her man. So she is not really asking for information when she asks, ``Do I look fat in this dress?'' She knows how she looks in it better than any guy ever possibly could -- except maybe a professional, like a fashion designer (but those guys are Feelers, not Thinkers). What she is asking for is affirmation, ``Wave your hands around dearie, I can't see you in that dress.'' I had a friend in that situation, and (as a Thinker) he didn't want to lie to his wife, so he persuaded himself that she looks better with the extra weight (``more curves,'' he told me), and from a strictly factual perspective, she was probably healthier and a better mother to his children not being a bean pole. But the culture teaches her differently.

Furthermore, she is looking for a second-order form of affirmation, that is, self-sacrifice. My friend tried to give her ``truthful affirmation'' without violating his own values, but her question is intended to invite him to abandon his own values to affirm hers. So I call this ``the Delilah question'' because its sole purpose is to destroy who he is. She wanted him to lie to her. Now if she really understood the Thinker/Feeler distinction, she would know that her demand was in fact disaffirming him, and would therefore not make it because doing so violates her own values. But that requires analyzing the problem as a Thinker, which she is not. If my friend had spent more of his years with her giving her truthful affirmations, she might not be craving it so much as to want this kind of self-sacrifice, but he was late coming into the realization of what she needed from him. I was even older than he is when I figured out how this works. Nobody teaches this stuff, not in the schools, and especially not in the churches. My parents were as clueless as I was.

It would be much better if part of the counsel given to young couples seeking marriage explained the Thinker/Feeler divide and how each can work with the other to affirm truthfully what God made them to be, but the pastors doing such counsel are all Feelers, and they are as clueless as everybody else. Furthermore, because the pastors themselves are married to Feeler wives, they don't even see the distinction, except at a distance (Thinker husbands who avoid church but are married to Feeler wives who come, or else Thinker/Thinker couples who never darken the door of any Feeler church). More on this in later chapters.

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Rev. 2024 March 14