DRMacIver's Notebook

Everybody is looking for permission

Everybody is looking for permission

A lens I started looking at the social world through a while back is permission. Specifically, that everybody is looking for it, and that many situations, relationships, and activities can be thought of in terms of what permission they give you.

A common, practical, example of this is asking stupid questions in meetings: Often everybody is confused, but nobody feels they have permission to ask, so once somebody is prepared to break the silence everyone is more able to (although a friend has expressed concern that asking stupid questions has instead become high status as people have learned this).

Another example that has been very relevant recently is giving people permission to freak out about COVID-19. I think at this point everyone has officially been given that permission, so it's no longer quite so useful (that may be more local / political. Certainly some people aren't freaking out about it, and I suspect some of their friends still need permission), but there was a period of a few weeks where it was a bit more controversial to do so and people were fairly actively saying "Look, this is a thing I am worried about, it's OK to be worried about it".

In general, everyone is a bit worried about being weird, and despite these worries being widespread, a mix of everyone being weird in different ways and pluralistic ignorance (the majority privately reject a norm that the majority publicly enforce), and needs permission to break out of the norms that society has imposed on them.

The problem is that permission often needs to be a lot stronger than just providing an example, or telling someone it's OK. They don't necessarily believe you, or even if they do believe you they've internalised societal norms too much. Frequently mere verbal permission will be met with active opposition.

Again, pluralistic ignorance is a good example of this: Suppose most straight people are just not that fussed about heterosexuality (I think this is actually pretty likely, but if you disagree pretend it's a thought experiment). It's not that they're gay, or even that they're particularly bi, but they're open to the idea in principle and don't really see what all the fuss is about. However, if there are very strong norms enforcing it, these more-or-less-heterosexual straight people will probably enforce those norms harder for fear of being caught on the wrong end of them. So you can't just straightforwardly give them permission, you need some way of committing to it. If they've sufficiently internalised the norms, it might not even be possible to give them permission, because the thing withholding permission is their own shame and the only person who can give them that permission is themself.

I think a lot of circumstances end up implicitly granting permission by making the action "playing the game". For example, people behave very differently when drunk, but a lot of this isn't actually because alcohol, it's because the fact that you're drunk gives you permission to behave like a drunk person. You see this with things like stag parties, hen does, etc. where people are given permission by the format to behave like complete asses in ways they normally wouldn't do.

I think this is also why a lot of "mandatory fun" fails: There is a certain sort of permission that you need to behave like a person in a fun situation, and often mandatory fun skips the "foreplay" element that is needed to provide that permission, so people end up in a situation where people are being expected to behave in a way that they do not feel they have permission to.