Blog 23. Looking Good and Being Right

Complex systems are collections of many actors interacting by nonlinear rules.  In this post, we’ll examine Looking Good and Being Right as two of those rules of interaction among the persons and institutions in the complex system that is society.

To alter the behavior of a complex system, it is more effective to change a rule of interaction among the actors than to attempt controlling an unwanted systemic behavior directly.   As we noted before, traffic jams on a highway may be better controlled by changing speed limits according to traffic density, rather than by adding more police cars to the river of vehicles on the pavement.

Although I didn’t say so explicitly, integrity (being what you say you are) is a subtle, unwritten rule of interaction among individuals and institutions, the actors in society.  We want integrity, we expect it, we respond to it, but often it isn’t there. The absence of integrity causes political and social stress, corruption.

Two other concepts also form subtle rules of personal and institutional interaction.  We’ll call them Looking Good and Being Right.

Looking Good.

We’re a social species.  Each of us wants to present a good appearance to other people. However, if creating an appearance usurps a person’s effort, then he’s Looking Good.  As an example, when I see a driver in the morning rush hour traffic, combing her hair and applying makeup in the rear view mirror, I surmise she’s Looking Good. She’s also dangerous.  An extreme example of Looking Good might occur among members of a motorcycle gang (or among rebellious teenagers), where looking bad to the society is Looking Good to the peer group.

Looking Good may become an unconscious habit if never critically examined. Institutions take on the characteristics of their top managers, and institutions have “Looking Good” behavior, too.  As with the driver and her makeup, the Looking Good is done to become attractive, but it may also generate wreckage. Each political party acquires an image, sometimes without critical evaluation.  Are the political images you see attractive or beneficial for the society?  Or do they generate wreckage?

Note that, as with the driver or the motorcycle gang, considerable effort may be invested in Looking Good, to the point where the effort is carried on automatically regardless of the costs, the benefits, or the disasters.  Is most advertising informative, convincing, and beneficial, or is it merely Looking Good?

Being Right

It’s natural to seek and to use the correct information.  But when a person dominates, behaving as though he has superior information, presuming facts in order to exert control, that’s Being Right.  If Being Right brings power and privilege, it might also enable a person to be Looking Good.  Except when Being Right looks bad.  As when a presumptuous guest at a formal dinner announces that the dessert looks like dead fish.

When I was in China, the dessert WAS a dead fish.  Whether or not it is polite, Being Right may sometimes be undeniable, as when the fish is actually on the table, but saying so may or may not make you look good.  The point: Being Right depends on the culture as well as on the information content.  Among scientists you’ll look good if you announce why the universe has dark energy, but don’t try that in a sports bar while watching Monday night football with Dallas fans.

Note that persons and institutions sometimes attempt Being Right by Making Others Wrong (information irrelevant).  This is true of current politics, especially in congress.  BR-MOW demonstrates the actor’s lack of integrity.  It’s a source of politician and lawyer jokes.

So what’s important about LG and BR?

We all do it and our institutions do it, at least a little.  When Looking Good and Being Right become widespread, unconscious, unexamined, enacted without awareness, a thing not talked about—that’s when it may spawn undesirable social effects.  Remember, if you can’t talk about it you are powerless to change it.

Example: Suppose there is a privileged high culture and an underprivileged low culture (there is).  Suppose the low culture regards work, thrift, education, obedience, and responsibility not as values, but as pompous methods by which the high culture is Being Right.  Then these presumably admirable qualities become a Looking Bad in the eyes of the low culture, generating enduring poverty, crime, and stress within the entire society.

Disparity in privilege based on gender, race, or social class is a systemic form of Being Right.  Being Right by group membership encourages Looking Good, a combination that can create a self-perpetuating feedback that maintains the disparity.  In a corporation or in a society, if Looking Good and Being Right comprise the route to privilege and power, there’s something wrong.