Behavior ≠ Meaning

CATEGORY: Everyone knows this but doesn’t KNOW this.

People do and say various things they don’t mean.

Maybe some people are trying to deceive others. Students in class nod to show the teacher they know when in fact they do not: they lie with their behavior.

Maybe someone said something that came out the wrong way…”I didn’t mean it.” A teacher is mad and calls the kid a name. Later the teacher apologizes.

Yet everyone (including myself) ignores this fact. I see someone without a mask in public and think, they don’t believe in the pandemic. They must be a real jerk. They probably watch Fox News. They must love Trump. I’ll bet they’re an anti vaxxer, too!

These personal failures to acknowledge that behavior meaning are detrimental. It’s the old, you make an ass out of you and of me. But individual actions that deny behavior meaning are far from the most pernicious.

We have entire algorithms of artificial intelligence that shape our world built on behavior divorced from meaning. Reading this post is probably not going to change your algorithms in any significant way. But the time your computer or smart phone screen remains still on certain images (whether you’re looking at them or not) will shape what you see next. You click and participate in a vast network of businesses upon businesses vying for your attention and your dollars. We are all a part of big data.

These houses of cards, from Google to Facebook to colleges to you name it, are collecting and categorizing behaviors (divorced from their meaning) and using those behaviors to reward and punish, incentivize and dissuade, to lure and repel. 

We are all enmeshed in these houses of cards, whether we act on the idea that behavior meaning or not. I like to think that I know that behavior doesn’t give meaning. But the idea that it does is ubiquitous and that idea can push out what I “know.” And I suppose if you’re reading this that you’ve noticed things like Amazon buying Whole Foods or schools opening Instagram accounts.

Schools could be places where human interaction is based more on care than outward, observable behavior. The danger of assuming that behavior gives meaning becomes obvious in the student who is punished for “disrespect” or “insubordination.” These types of rule violations are the most implicated in the preschool to prison pipeline. Black children in particular are “adultified,” treated as if they are fully responsible for their actions. Racism rears its ugliest head in situations involving discretion.

Up the next rung of the ladder, teachers are evaluated negatively by their superiors if they don’t have a smile on their faces. I don’t really have a problem with a teacher fake smiling at my son. I do it regularly. But I know that sour, crabby people are also good teachers. Some of the best teachers I have had. Who didn’t have effective, frowning teachers? The frowners might not get tenure.

This blog post does not have a happy resolution on what to do about this. It is an overwhelming problem. Its roots are deep, yet it manifests a house of cards. Does knocking it over help people learn? Does a reckoning force an understanding? At least temporarily? I don’t know.


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