The Present is Where I'm Standing

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When we disagree about complex issues we should (but often don’t) expect differing interpretations and multiple solutions because of the sheer size of the problem. When considering immigration for instance, even if you agree on an ideological position (open borders / more rigorous background checks) there’s still room for disagreement as to how to get there and what that would actually look like. Two people could share the same goal (strengthen the American economy for instance) but hold opposing positions. There are however others disagreements, like the poll above, that seem so simple it’s surprising as to how we could’ve not all answered the same way. Time is measurable, agreed upon and collectively navigated. How is it possible that a simple question could cause such an even split?

First off there is no right answer. Monday and Friday are both correct. The word “forward” is intentionally ambiguous and the ambiguity is resolved by how we conceptualize time, which in this case, comes down to two differing metaphoric frames. The first is what I’ll be referring to as the egocentric frame (No offense intended). In this frame where we are standing is “the present”. Events are objects that, as they get closer, move toward us. So we say things like, “Christmas is getting closer. Christmas is here. Christmas is behind us.” In this way, when an appointment is moved forward, it’s moved closer to us, closer to the present, thus the appointment is moved forward to Monday. For people who answered Friday, where we are standing is also the present, but time is conceived of as an environment that we are moving through. In this conceptualization when something is moved forward, it's moved away from us, further into the future, thus when the appointment is rescheduled, it’s moved to "Friday".

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There is a connection here to illusions because in each of the above examples you see it “one way” by default, but of course there are two different equally correct ways of perceiving. Sometimes after it’s explained, or if you work hard enough, you can see the “other side”, the old/young woman for example. Other illusions, such as the infamous Blue/Gold dress, are impervious to our hard work and we’re cut off from being able to see it any other way. (I see gold and cannot possibly see it as blue).

The metaphoric conceptualization of time sits somewhere in the middle because some people are able to see it the other way, though the ambiguity of language does provide quite a bit of cover as to which concept you’re using. For instance “Christmas is getting closer” could work with either metaphor. In the egocentric version, it could mean that “the object of Christmas is moving closer to you” and in the other frame it could mean that you are moving through time closer to Christmas.

I do regret not asking a follow up question in which I would’ve polled whether people naturally give directions cardinally (north/south/east/west) or egocentrically (left, right) because I think there’s a correlation between how people would solve both problems.. People who take the egocentric view use themselves as the orientational center and so I would imagine they may be more likely to use themselves that way for directional problems as well, while people who use cardinal directions may be more likely to see time as the environment they’re moving through.

So, what appears to be a simple question actually has quite a bit of depth and complexity to consider. Not only do most people not realize they are framing an issue in a way that makes them blind to what the other side is seeing, but the difference of opinion immediately came with signs of antagonism:

“It appears that half of the respondents are morons.”
“Something is wrong with all those Monday people.”
”Sounds like a vague and convoluted way of putting it to me.”

as well as signs of in-group solidarity:

“Yeah, I’m team Friday all the way...”
”Apparently 2 days don’t count according to Monday people.”
”Monday people 😒. I’m more annoyed every time I think of them”

Even after I explained the framing issue to some, they were unwilling (or unable) to believe that they weren’t right and continued to see the other side as wrong. However, this being an online exchange, you have to take into account the nature of discourse and the particular ways that people behave in the context of social media, which seems to range from: (being jokey and saying anything for a laugh) to (taking things way to seriously).

So why does all this matter? I would hope that considering the problem of framing gives us a little more humility when we approach disagreements in large scale cultural issues where there are compounded metaphorical frames that are significantly more complex than the single one we are dealing with here. The frames we use to think abstractly are incredibly handy at resolving ambiguity, and they’re useful in helping us navigate the world, but they also can “bind and blind us” to use a Jonathan Haidt quote. In resolving an abstraction one way we not only seem to value our expertise at answering the problem correctly but ascribe an identity to how we answered it as well, which makes changing our mind, seeing the other side and breaking the illusion a particularly hard problem to solve.

Notice here though that I just framed the issue as “a problem” which then requires “a solution”. This is a particular frame that may not be very useful in this context because there isn’t going to be a single answer such as there is for an algebra equation. More likely what’s required is for us to get slightly better at being able to recognize the frames we are using, to consciously see them and realize their limitations, their strengthens and the things they make us blind to. This will not “solve” the problem, but knowing about metaphorical frames and being contentious (but not neurotic) about recognizing them should make us better navigators, not just in relation to time and space, dates and appointments, but to a whole host of other much more complex social realities as well.