Repost: Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding

This post is concerned with the micro, meso, and macro levels of existential semiotics and communicative thought, and how those levels affect human understanding.

  • Micro levels are very small units of thought or communication. These can be words, phrases, gestures, etc. and the “psychological morphemes” that accompany them. A psychological morpheme is the smallest unit of an emotional or psychological response.
  • Meso levels lie between macro and micro levels. Longer discourse, a sense that people have personalities or egos, and the basic ideas of any culture appear at this level.
  • Macro levels are the larger abstract levels that sort of stand above the other two levels. Macro levels might include religious or scientific beliefs, political ideologies, long-term personal goals or strategies.

Most people most of the time socialize on the meso level, often with support from shared macro level beliefs or aims. For most people, the broad outlines of most emotions are defined and conditioned at the meso level. This is the level where the nuts and bolts of convention are found. This is the level that tosses the beach balls of conversation back and forth across the dinner table and that defines those balls. The meso level defines our subculture and how well or badly we conform to it. The meso level is necessary for much of social life and sort of fun, though it is by definition not very detailed or profound. It is something most people can agree on and work with fairly easily for an hour or two at a time.

Many people define themselves mainly on the meso level and judge others by their understanding of this level. Many subcultures become stifling or cloying because meso definitions are crude and tend to leave out the rich subjectivity of individuals. Macro definitions are not all that different from meso ones except that they tend to define group feelings more than meso definitions. Groups band together based on macro level assumptions about ideologies, science, religion, art, style, location, ethnicity, etc.

Since most people are unable to fully access micro levels of communication the rich subjectivity of the individual mind is rarely, if ever, communicated at all and almost never communicated well.

In other fields, micro levels are all important. For example, the invention of the microscope completely changed the way humans see and understand their world. All that was added by the microscope was greater resolution and detail in the visual sphere. From that arose germ theory, material sciences, modern biology, modern medicine, and much more.

Micro levels of communication are basic to how we understand ourselves and others. Poor micro communication skills consign us to communication that occurs only at meso or macro levels. This is a problem because meso and macro levels do not have sufficient detail and also because meso and macro levels become the only tools we have to decide what is going on. When we are forced to account for micro details with the crude tools of meso thought, we will make many mistakes. Eventually we become like the long-term cigarette-smoker whose (micro) alveoli have collapsed, destroying full use of the lungs.

Without the details of the microscope, people for millennia happily drank germ infested water. Without a way to resolve micro levels of communication, people today, as in the past, happily ingest multitudes of micro error—errors that make them ill.

Micro communication errors make us sick because we make many serious mistakes on this level and also because our minds are fully capable of comprehending the sort of detail we can find at the micro level. We speak and listen on many interpersonal levels like crude beasts when we are capable of very delicate and refined understanding.

FIML or a technique similar to it provides a method for grasping micro details. Doing FIML for a long time is like spending a long time using a microscope or telescope. You will start to see everything differently. Detailed micro analysis of interpersonal communication changes our understanding of micro communication and also both the meso and macro levels of existential semiotics and communicative thought. Microscopes allowed us to see germs in water and also to understand that some of those germs can kill us.

More on TV

Cultivation theory:

In its most basic form, cultivation theory suggests that exposure to television, over time, subtly “cultivates” viewers’ perceptions of reality. Gerbner and Gross say: “television is a medium of the socialization of most people into standardized roles and behaviors. Its function is in a word, enculturation”

Institutional process analysis:

This investigates how the flow of media messages is produced and managed, how decisions are made, and how media organizations function. Ultimately, it asked: What are the processes, pressures, and constraints that influence and underline the production of mass-media content?

A good example of institutional process analysis:

According to the Jewish Journal, Kohan’s “refusal to limit herself in her show’s creative content has made moral ambiguity a Weeds trademark. No topic is too grim, no character too depraved.” In giving her the scope to explore these depraved characters, and to mine them for humor and ask questions, Kohan claimed that Weeds allowed her to get in touch with her Jewish identity, noting that, “For me, the essence of my Judaism is to ask questions — ask why, ask more. And in a way, the show allows me to follow that path of Judaism.” (Source)

Obviously, the people who produce TV shows have a significant influence over the effects of those shows on audiences. TV is worth thinking about because, as cultivation theory states, it is a dominant factor in the process of enculturation for all who watch it, and especially for those who watch it without analyzing its effects.


Today’s public negotiation over the “meaning” of the Confederate flag is a good example of how the ambiguous commons works in public life.

Obama weighing in with his single definition of the flag (it’s “racist”) illustrates how power influences how definitions are made on the ambiguous commons.

TV, with the power of station owners to control the message, works on the ambiguous commons sort of in the same way as Obama in the above example. Of course, TV as a medium is more complex and carries many more messages, but the comparison is still valid because TV promotes some messages while ignoring or downplaying others.

Here are some good photos on the power of TV: Idiot Box. Notice the kids’ eyes, which indicate passive trance states that are accepting information without questioning it.

In some ways one can say that TV is a bad medium because there is far more airtime than there are quality shows to fill it. The other reason one can call it bad—even though the medium itself cannot have any intentions—is it can easily be controlled by powerful people and groups that do have intentions.

The public ambiguous commons is greatly controlled by presidents and other talking heads on TV. If you watch Jon Stewart, chances are you agree with almost everything he says even when the subject is a new one that you have given no thought to.

If the general idea of a public ambiguous commons makes sense, and if it is understood how people (and presidents) negotiate “meaning” on the ambiguous commons, then I hope it will also be clear that we humans as individuals and in small groups are negotiating shared meanings all the time.

Negotiating meaning (by arguing, cajoling, ignoring, using emotional displays or reason, etc.) is one of the main things we humans do when we communicate. It is for this reason that very stable social groups can be so boring. No one wants to rock the boat by saying anything that makes anything seem more ambiguous or confusing.

It is also for this reason that narcissists and abusers insist on their interpretations, their meanings, over anyone else’s. Pretty much wherever you find an individual or group that will brook no dissent and/or that gets angry when there is dissent or even the simple appearance of a different idea, you can be all but certain you are dealing with a narcissistic bully trying to maintain (or gain) control of the ambiguous commons.

Creation of meaning and human behavior

Humans create meaning because they have to.

Virtually all humans need meaning and a sense that their minds are organized or unified by meaning. The macro-meanings of religion, science, and politics are obvious examples of the sorts of “organized” or “unified” meaning people want and need.

Gangs are another type of organized meaning that unify the minds of their members.

An exceptionally cruel example of the importance of meaning can be seen in the recent story of a young man who was killed for wearing red shoes—gang colors—in the wrong neighborhood (Teen shot after refusing to give up shoes).

This story illustrates how small a bit of meaning can be and yet still elicit violent reactions.

Most people don’t do stuff like that but most people can be and often are as petty if not as violent. In so-called “polite” society a poorly expressed opinion or a deviant political stance can lead to ostracism.

People go nuts over tiny misunderstandings because practically anything can threaten their sense of meaningful unity or organization. In this vein, notice how many people are attracted to institutions that define them. Define their beliefs, values, thoughts, vocabularies, semiotics, even their hairdos and clothes.

In FIML practice, partners also often deal with small bits of meaning. But rather than fight over them or accept them as definitions of anything, partners analyze them and work to understand how those bits of meaning are functioning, what they are doing. A FIML analysis is a process that works toward shared understanding rather than a static—even a programmed—response that is often instinctual, if not violent.

If you take meaning for granted—your uniform, candidate, religion, ethnicity—you will be owned and used by it or by the people who created it, often before you were born. In contrast, if you analyze meaning you will own it and be able to use it freely and as you choose.

While riding in the car, I spoke with my partner about the ideas expressed above. She thought for a moment and said, “You know how if a parasite kills its host quickly it is a sign that it is a recently evolved parasite?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, isn’t what you’re saying similar? Those hunks of cultural meaning have been around for centuries. They are like successful parasites that condition the behaviors of millions of people at a time.”

“Nice,” I said.

“FIML is recent and it may not survive because it is hard to pass on to others. It’s not a parasite, though. It frees us from the parasitism of convention. It doesn’t allow us to get locked in.”

Some good news on free speech

American first amendment rights are fundamental to our system. It is good to read that Purdue University has taken measures to ensure their protection:

“A university violates its special mission if it fails to protect free and open debate. No one can expect his views to be free from vigorous challenge, but all must feel completely safe in speaking out,” he said in a university news release.

The ambiguous commons and human culture

In a post some months ago, I introduced the idea of an “ambiguous commons,” a region of shared public meaning that is both central to any and all cultures and inherently vague.

I think it is fair to say that virtually all human communication takes place in and around an “ambiguous commons,” a common area of meaning that can be variously interpreted and is liable to always be ambiguous. (Source same as above)

All cultural meaning arises through the communicative interactions of the members of that culture.

The ambiguous commons is defined  by (and provides definition to) a dynamic push-and-push-back of the members of the community. This is a never-ending dynamic, even a struggle, that members of the community engage in as long as they live.

There is rarely, if ever, any clear resolution of meaning because common meaning is constantly changing due to the dynamic forces of many communicants.

I am speaking less about big ideas (though it is much the same for them) as the smaller ideas of individuals who interact with other individuals. Your sense of my responsibilities may be different from mine, thus causing a push-and-push-back to occur between us should we require a definition of responsibility in any given situation.

The same can be said for any other cultural value, sign, or concept. My notion of justice will be different from yours in some situations, as will your sense of fairness be different from mine.

Since it is frequently difficult for people to resolve differing interpretations of the ambiguous commons, emotions or status claims often come into play. The emotions that arise in commons disputes can be remarkably childish or primitive, and the same can be said of status jockeying.

Strongly asserted primitive emotions, not clarity of thought or reason, frequently will win the game of defining whatever the issue is. (This also shows that for people, human communicative semiotics are primary percepta and that humans tend to react to them through the “natural” “instincts” of fear, violence, warmth, aggression, congregation, etc.)

For example, if person A says that person B is arrogant, person B is somewhat obligated to respond. B might accept the accusation and apologize or B might push back, either defensively or aggressively. If B declines to do anything, it is a sign that B has left the commons and no longer shares or wants to share that aspect of the commons with person A.

In the abstract, both A and B may use the word “responsibility” in similar ways and appear to mean the same thing. When the rubber meets the road, however, and A disapproves of B’s sense of responsibility in a particular situation, a squabble over their shared common meaning often will ensue.

Either party may attempt to enlist others to their side and so on.

When people do FIML practice, since their capacity for apprehending shared meaning is much better than those who do not, disputes in and around the ambiguous commons will be much less common. Differences will still arise, but they will be much easier to settle since emotional pushing-and-pushing-back is no longer needed to arrive at shared definitions and interpretations.

FIML is not fundamentally about speaking in (fake) nice tones and having (limited) good manners or manifesting (stock) respect. FIML is about removing ambiguity from the meanings shared by partners. FIML partners have still been raised in cultures that function through ambiguous commons, but between themselves there is much less ambiguity and much less need to assert a position by emotional force.


“Antiracism” is part of a PC phalanx of ideas that permit no dissent and thus are effectively totalitarian. Besides being stupid and wrong totalitarianism and political correctness are boring. The excerpt below is from an essay on this subject by Peter Frost. His essay is well-worth reading in full to get a sense of how widely held sociopolitical beliefs can become narrow and close-minded, effectively stifling discussion and rational thought rather than promoting it.

…Words like “racism,” “social Darwinism,” and “hereditarianism” create the impression that a single monolithic ideology prevailed before the triumph of antiracism. Actually, the truth was almost the reverse. There was initially a wide spectrum of beliefs, as is normally the case before one belief pushes out its rivals and imposes its vision of reality. Antiracism triumphed because it was more ideological than its rivals; it possessed a unity of purpose that enabled it to neutralize one potential opponent after another. Often, the latter were unaware of this adversarial relationship and assumed they were dealing with a friendly ally. (Source)

Pamela Geller on Garland shooting and free speech

Holy warriors and Jewish Jihad: Diaspora Jews in the IDF

The video and the article linked below it provide two angles on religious war. Buddhists have fought wars, but generally the wars have not been fought for Buddhism, though Central Asian aggression in China did happen and it did result in many more Buddhists and Buddhist temples in China. I don’t know what to think of Pam Geller but I do support free speech and greatly oppose “hate speech” laws, which fundamentally punish thought crimes. Obviously, I don’t always agree with everything I post. I do like controversy and perspectives that are different from mainstream. Both of the linked pieces give insight into non-mainstream thinking. ABN

Microaggression and FIML

I have been seeing a lot of stuff about microaggression recently.

The term interests me because FIML is all about micro impressions.

When done with a caring partner, FIML is designed to correct mistaken impressions or interpretations that often derive from micro impressions and/or manifest as micro expressions.

Anyone who has done FIML for more than a few months surely must be aware that we create wrong impressions of even our most trusted partners frequently.

A wrong impression often snowballs, leading to a wrong interpretation that after festering can be much harder to correct than the original micro impression.

So between friends, and especially FIML partners, the perception of micro aggression can and should be noticed and dealt with immediately or as soon as possible. It is basic to FIML practice that even a single uncorrected wrong impression can lead to serious divisions between people.

In this sense, I heartily accept the idea of microaggression being a thing. In fact, I believe it is such a thing that it happens all the time, especially if you mean micro mis-impressions and not just microaggression.

But the term microaggression means something different from the above, though the central concepts are related. Wikipedia has this short definition of microaggression:

…the use of known social norms of behavior and/or expression that, while without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination.

The main difference is “without conscious choice of the user.” FIML is all about being conscious. Both parties being conscious.

If I perceive something in your speech, demeanor, or behavior that makes me think that maybe you are disrespecting me or mad at me or or suspicious of me or something like that, then if you are my FIML partner I am basically required to ask you about it if there is time.

In FIML, the asking is done without prejudgement. I simply ask “what was in your mind when you made that expression or said those words or did that thing.” Your answer must be honest. If you don’t trust your partner to be honest, you can’t do FIML (though you can start trying and see if either or both of you changes).

If your partner answers honestly and you do not perceive an iota of what you thought was in their mind, that part of the event is finished. If when the person spoke or acted they had no nothing about doing what you thought they might be doing, you are done with it. You no longer have any right to further impute your thing onto them.

You can if you want, and this is encouraged, continue to discuss the matter. For example, you might say: “From your response, I can tell that you were not disrespecting me and I am delighted to find that out. That’s a huge relief for me because I have spent much of my life reacting to people who do that as if they were disrespecting me. It’s weird to hear that I am wrong in this case and it makes me wonder if I have been wrong in other cases.”

Then the two of you can discuss that. I know one person who frequently reacts to educated northeast American accents as being “imperious” or “arrogant” when they are not. (Don’t get me started on all the many phrases and attitudes in culture that wrongly limit speech and thus culture itself—“condescending,” “know-it-all,” “argumentative,” “imperious,” etc.)

So, if two friends are having problems between themselves with microaggression, they are prime candidates for FIML practice. Of course, any two friends who are having any problems with micro impressions (all friends all the time) are prime candidates for FIML. (You cannot but have these problems.)

But microaggression as the word is being used today is not something FIML can deal with directly because it is

…the use of known social norms of behavior and/or expression that, while without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination.

The important words here are “known social norms,” “without conscious choice” leading to “discrimination.”

I don’t know how to unpack that. From a FIML point of view, my guess is behaviors that could potentially be identified as “microaggression” according to that definition would be in the range of dozens per day per every person in the world. Maybe more.

An example many readers will remember is Michelle Obama reacting to a customer in Target asking her to hand them something they could not reach.

I tell this story – I mean, even as the first lady – during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf.

If even the president’s wife can get something so ordinary so wrong, you can see the scope of the problem. In the same interview, the president himself mentioned being “mistaken for a waiter.”

Both later downplayed their comments because they had to. Microaggression is an inherently super-ambiguous term open to a multitude of interpretations every time it is used.

In FIML, we find that micro-mistakes are real and dangerous. They are not ignored but addressed immediately because they can be so serious. Relevantly, in my experience with FIML a great many micro-impressions that I form are simply dead wrong. Most of them are wrong. I can’t enter that as evidence because the world does not have enough FIML practitioners for me to do a study on it. However, I do suspect that a great many micro-impressions of or impressions of microaggression are wrong.

Many of us laughed or thought it was ridiculous for Michelle Obama to bristle at having a short person ask her for help because we all have been on one side or the other of an exchange like that and thought nothing of it. I have been mistaken for a store employee or construction worker more than once and never thought anything of it, except maybe to feel slightly flattered that someone thought I looked like I knew what I was doing.

Another problem with the notion of politicizing microaggression (because that is what the term is about) is whose microaggression against whom?

I have strabismus, lazy eye. Even though the condition has been surgically corrected, I still cannot maintain a direct friendly gaze for long periods of time. This means that many people are led to misinterpreting my micro expressions (I start to look down) as me being bored, tired, or not friendly when all that is happening is my eye is so tired it starts to blur and needs to look away.

I know this from years of experience and because some people tell me what they are thinking. One in twenty or twenty-five people have strabismus. Add in other eye conditions with similar problems and you will get much higher percentages. Add hearing problems, attention-deficit problems, autism problems, and so on and you can include most people in the world having difficulties with micro-expressions and how they are being interpreted by others.

If someone from a different culture or race or neighborhood interprets my strabismus as microaggression (boredom with them or condescension toward them rather than simple fatigue), they will get it all wrong. And there is little or nothing I can do about it.

I even tell people about strabismus sometimes. I explain what it does. They say they understand, but very few of them really do. Only very close friends or people who have similar eye problems understand well enough that it stops being an issue with them.

Moreover, strabismus and other eye problems can lead to problems with facial recognition. So the person in the store that asked Michelle Obama for help may have also had facial recognition problems. I have that problem, too, and I seriously doubt that I would recognize Michelle Obama if I saw her in Target.

So, sorry, I don’t have any really good answer to how to understand microaggression or deal with it. On a personal level with friends or FIML partners, micro-impressions are what we want to work with as much as we can. On a societal level, you can hardly do anything about it. A super-smart person might be able to become aware of a good many of the difficulties faced by people in the world, but even that person will miss many of them or misinterpret what they perceive even if they “know” the right thing to do.

At the abstract heart of the problem there is probably a measurement or resolution problem. Simply stated, no person can ever possibly do perfect microanalyses all the time in all situations with all people. Far from it. Thus, it is a sort of “reverse microaggression” to demand or expect that they can or will or should.

I suppose we can and should become more aware of how complex people are and how difficult it is to know even one other person well, or even to know yourself well. But nothing that I can think of will ever relieve us of the difficulty of dealing with the immense number of micro-impressions we all give and receive every minute of every day.

Psychedelics, human rights, and Buddhism

People have used psychedelics in spiritual practice for at least 5700 years, pre-dating all major organised religions. (Source: Protecting the human rights of people who use psychedelics)

My guess is early Buddhists used psychedelics as these substances were clearly available at that time and well before. A careful reading of the fifth precept indicates to me that the Buddha is talking only about alcohol, either fermented or distilled, and not psychedelics. I am not advocating the use of illegal psychedelics, but rather agreeing with the author of the linked quote that they have a long and respected place in religious practice and are not nearly as dangerous as is generally assumed among lawmakers. I also agree that it is not the business of government to legislate plants or tell people what they can or cannot put into their bodies, especially when far more good than harm arises from many of these substances.

Film as cartoon

If I had a magic wand and could wave it to make people—all people everywhere—see film as cartoon and only cartoon, I would do it.

I mean all film everywhere and really making people see it as cartoon, as animation. Actors and sets would no longer appear “real,” but as cartoons.

This would make the persuasive power of news media and politicians (they would appear as cartoons, too) much weaker. We would still be able to hear what they say, and think about it, but we would be far less susceptible to the cinematic tricks that allow their messages to bypass thought because those tricks would not work as well in cartoons.

I see so many friends relating emotionally to film and TV characters as if they were real people it is dismaying. In fact, many people don’t just relate to them as if they were real people, they relate to them as if they were better than real people, kinder than, funnier than, more appealing than real people.

The power of mass media to disseminate ideas is good, but the power of these media to disseminate shallow illusion is really bad. Instead of talking extensively with family and friends and looking to their communities for culture and education, people are far more often seduced and fatally persuaded by telegenic personalities who invariably are reading scripst and peddling the ideas of those who stand behind the scenes.

Perfume and sheer clothing is nice, but be wary of confusing a prostitute’s sexual appeal with reality.

What we can and cannot access

  • There is external speaking/listening that we can access
  • There is external speaking/listening that we cannot access
  • There is internal speaking/listening that we can access
  • There is internal speaking/listening that we cannot access

It is generally accepted that humans can comprehend things more than they can speak about them. That is, we can work with or get more information from listening than we can actively speak about. We have much greater access to what we receive (hear, read) than what we can output (speak, write).

For example, even though I am not a professional historian, I will be able to listen to a lecture about the Civil War and understand all or most of what I am hearing, but after the lecture I will only be able to output or speak about some parts of it. Another example is second language learners who are virtually always able to comprehend more than they can say. Another example is we can watch someone do something as they explain it, say cook a complex recipe, and understand what they are doing and saying but not be able to do it or explain it ourselves.

These are examples of external speech that we can access through hearing but cannot access as well through speaking. I can understand what you are saying but am not able to explain it to someone else.

An example of external speech that we cannot access through hearing is a very difficult lecture or book on a subject we know nothing about, say higher math or chemistry. Another example might be explaining to an old person how to use a computer if they have never used one before. Even as they try to grasp it, you can see they don’t really understand it well at all.

A more interesting example of external speech that we cannot access well might be the speech of someone who is willing to speak more openly about subjective states than we are. We can hear what they are saying but may not fully comprehend it because we don’t have a model for it. What they are saying may sound weird or inappropriate or even threatening when the truth is they are simply more used to hearing about subjective states and thus more able to speak about them.

These last points are crucial. We can only listen to and deeply comprehend things we have already heard about before. We don’t need to have all the details but we do need to have some sort of general concept of what the person is saying. In this same vein, we can only speak deeply about things we have already heard about, whether through external speech or internal speech. We can listen to others, or read their work (external speech), and from that learn how to communicate their ideas to others. Or we can listen to ourselves, to our internal speech, and from that learn how to communicate our ideas to others.

If a person has no experience—neither external nor internal—with listening to speech about subjective states, they will not be able to speak about their own subjective states and may hardly realize they even have subjective states. If they hear a little external speech about subjective states and do a little internal speaking about them, they will only be able to grasp subjective states to roughly that degree.

In an earlier post (Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding), I discussed how most people in the world do not have access to micro levels of understanding of themselves or others. This lack of access to both listening and speaking about micro semiotics forces almost everyone everywhere to confine their speaking and listening to meso and macro levels.

We get our meso and macro levels from TV, media, religion, education, general psychology, etc. But no matter how erudite you are in those media and styles of understanding, you will almost certainly still be highly deficient in micro semiotics. That is, you will not have wide access to or understanding of your own subjectivity because you cannot access micro levels and speak about them. To say nothing of understanding the subjectivity of others.