On blankfaces

For years, I’ve had a private term I’ve used with my family. To give a few examples of its use:

No, I never applied for that grant. I spent two hours struggling to log in to a web portal designed by the world’s top blankfaces until I finally gave up in despair.

No, I paid for that whole lecture trip out of pocket; I never got the reimbursement they promised. Their blankface administrator just kept sending me back the form, demanding more and more convoluted bank details, until I finally got the hint and dropped it.

No, my daughter Lily isn’t allowed in the swimming pool there. She easily passed their swim test last year, but this year the blankface lifeguard made up a new rule on the spot that she needs to retake the test, so Lily took it again and passed even more easily, but then the lifeguard said she didn’t like the stroke Lily used, so she failed her and didn’t let her retake it. I complained to their blankface athletic director, who launched an ‘investigation.’ The outcome of the ‘investigation’ was that, regardless of the ground truth about how well Lily can swim, their blankface lifeguard said she’s not allowed in the pool, so being blankfaces themselves, they’re going to stand with the lifeguard.

Yeah, the kids spend the entire day indoors, breathing each other’s stale, unventilated air, then they finally go outside and they aren’t allowed on the playground equipment, because of the covid risk from them touching it. Even though we’ve known for more than a year that covid is an airborne disease. Everyone I’ve talked there agrees that I have a point, but they say their hands are tied. I haven’t yet located the blankface who actually made this decision and stands by it.

What exactly is a blankface? He or she is often a mid-level bureaucrat, but not every bureaucrat is a blankface, and not every blankface is a bureaucrat. A blankface is anyone who enjoys wielding the power entrusted in them to make others miserable by acting like a cog in a broken machine, rather than like a human being with courage, judgment, and responsibility for their actions. A blankface meets every appeal to facts, logic, and plain compassion with the same repetition of rules and regulations and the same blank stare—a blank stare that, more often than not, conceals a contemptuous smile.

The longer I live, the more I see blankfacedness as one of the fundamental evils of the human condition. Yes, it contains large elements of stupidity, incuriosity, malevolence, and bureaucratic indifference, but it’s not reducible to any of those. After enough experience, the first two questions you ask about any organization are:

1. Who are the blankfaces here?
2. Who are the people I can talk with to get around the blankfaces?

As far as I can tell, blankfacedness cuts straight across conventional political ideology, gender, and race. (Age, too, except that I’ve never once encountered a blankfaced child.) Brilliance and creativity do seem to offer some protection against blankfacedness—possibly because the smarter you are, the harder it is to justify idiotic rules to yourself—but even there, the protection is far from complete.

Twenty years ago, all the conformists in my age cohort were obsessed with the Harry Potter books and movies—holding parties where they wore wizard costumes, etc. I decided that the Harry Potter phenomenon was a sort of collective insanity: from what I could tell, the stories seemed like startlingly puerile and unoriginal mass-marketed wish-fulfillment fantasies.

Today, those same conformists in my age cohort are more likely to condemn the Harry Potter series as Problematically white, male, and cisnormative, and J. K. Rowling herself as a monstrous bigot whose acquaintances’ acquaintances should be shunned. Naturally, then, there was nothing for me to do but finally read the series! My 8-year-old daughter Lily and I have been partner-reading it for half a year; we’re just finishing book 5. (After we’ve finished the series, we might start on Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality … which, I confess, I’ve also never read.)

From book 5, I learned something extremely interesting. The most despicable villain in the Harry Potter universe is not Lord Voldemort, who’s mostly just a faraway cipher and abstract embodiment of pure evil, no more hateable than an earthquake. Rather, it’s Dolores Jane Umbridge, the toadlike Ministry of Magic bureaucrat who takes over Hogwarts school, forces out Dumbledore as headmaster, and terrorizes the students with increasingly draconian “Educational Decrees.” Umbridge’s decrees are mostly aimed at punishing Harry Potter and his friends, who’ve embarrassed the Ministry by telling everyone the truth that Voldemort has returned and by readying themselves to fight him, thereby defying the Ministry’s head-in-the-sand policy.

Anyway, I’ll say this for Harry Potter: Rowling’s portrayal of Umbridge is so spot-on and merciless that, for anyone who knows the series, I could simply define a blankface to be anyone sufficiently Umbridge-like.

This week I also finished reading The Premonition, the thrilling account of the runup to covid by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Big Short, Moneyball, etc). Lewis tells the stories of a few individuals scattered across US health and government bureaucracies who figured out over the past 20 years that the US was breathtakingly unprepared for a pandemic, and who struggled against official indifference, mostly unsuccessfully, to try to fix that. As covid hit the US in early 2020, these same individuals frantically tried to pull the fire alarms, even as the Trump White House, the CDC, and state bureaucrats all did everything in their power to block and sideline them. We all know the results.

It’s no surprise that, in Lewis’s telling, Trump and his goons come in for world-historic blame: however terrible you thought they were, they were worse. It seems that John Bolton, in particular, gleefully took an ax to everything the two previous administrations had done to try to prepare the federal government for pandemics—after Tom Bossert, the one guy in Trump’s inner circle who’d actually taken pandemic preparation seriously, was forced out for contradicting Trump about Russia and Ukraine.

But the left isn’t spared either. The most compelling character in The Premonition is Charity Dean, who escaped from the Christian fundamentalist sect in which she was raised to put herself through medical school and become a crusading public-health officer for Santa Barbara County. Lewis relates with relish how, again and again, Dean startled the bureaucrats around her by taking matters into her own hands in her war against pathogens—e.g., slicing into a cadaver herself to take samples when the people whose job it was wouldn’t do it.

In 2019, Dean moved to Sacramento to become California’s next chief public health officer, but then Governor Gavin Newsom blocked her expected promotion, instead recruiting someone from the outside named Sonia Angell, who had no infectious disease experience but to whom Dean would have to report. Lewis reports the following as the reason:

“It was an optics problem,” says a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services. “Charity was too young, too blond, too Barbie. They wanted a person of color.” Sonia Angell identified as Latina.

After it became obvious that the White House and the CDC were both asleep at the wheel, the competent experts’ Plan B was to get California to set a national standard, one that would shame all the other states into acting, by telling the truth about covid and by aggressively testing, tracing, and isolating. And here comes the tragedy: Charity Dean spent from mid-January till mid-March trying to do exactly that, and Sonia Angell blocked her. Angell—who comes across as a real-life Dolores Umbridge—banned Dean from using the word “pandemic,” screamed at her for her insubordination, and systematically shut her out of meetings. Angell’s stated view was that, until and unless the CDC said that there was a pandemic, there was no pandemic—regardless of what hospitals across California might be reporting to the contrary.

As it happens, California was the first state to move aggressively against covid, on March 19—basically because as the bodies started piling up, Dean and her allies finally managed to maneuver around Angell and get the ear of Governor Newsom directly. Had the response started earlier, the US might have had an outcome more in line with most industrialized countries. Half of the 630,000 dead Americans might now be alive.

Sonia Angell fully deserves to have her name immortalized by history as one of the blankest of blankfaces. But of course, Angell was far from alone. Robert Redfield, Trump’s CDC director, was a blankface extraordinaire. Nancy Messonnier, who lied to stay in Trump’s good graces, was a blankface too. The entire CDC and FDA seem to have teemed with blankfaces. As for Anthony Fauci, he became a national hero, maybe even deservedly so, merely by not being 100% a blankface, when basically every other “expert” in the US with visible power was. Fauci cleared a depressingly low bar, one that the people profiled by Lewis cleared at Simone-Biles-like heights.

In March 2020, the fundamental question I had was: where are the supercompetent rule-breaking American heroes from the disaster movies? What’s taking them so long? The Premonition satisfyingly answers that question. It turns out that the heroes did exist, scattered across the American health bureaucracy. They were screaming at the top of their lungs. But they were outvoted by the critical mass of blankfaces that’s become one of my country’s defining features.

Some people will object that the term “blankface” is dehumanizing. The reason I disagree is that a blankface is someone who freely chose to dehumanize themselves: to abdicate their human responsibility to see what’s right in front of them, to act like malfunctioning pieces of electronics even though they, like all of us, were born with the capacity for empathy and reason.

With many other human evils and failings, I have a strong inclination toward mercy, because I understand how someone could’ve succumbed to the temptation—indeed, I worry that I myself might’ve succumbed to it “but for the grace of God.” But here’s the thing about blankfaces: in all my thousands of dealings with them, not once was I ever given cause to wonder whether I might have done the same in their shoes. It’s like, of course I wouldn’t have! Even if I were forced (by my own higher-ups, an intransigent computer system, or whatever else) to foist some bureaucratic horribleness on an innocent victim, I’d be sheepish and apologetic about it. I’d acknowledge the farcical absurdity of what I was making the other person do, or declaring that they couldn’t do. Likewise, even if I were useless in a crisis, at least I’d get out of the way of the people trying to solve it. How could I live with myself otherwise?

The fundamental mystery of the blankfaces, then, is how they can be so alien and yet so common.

Update (Aug. 3): Surprisingly many people seem to have read this post, and come away with the notion that a “blankface” is simply anyone who’s a stickler for rules and formalized procedures. They’ve then tried to refute me with examples of where it’s good to be a stickler, or where I in particular would believe that it’s good.

But no, that’s not it at all.

Rules can be either good or bad. All things considered, I’d probably rather be on a plane piloted by a robotic stickler for safety rules, than by someone who ignored the rules at his or her discretion. And as I said in the post, in the first months of covid, it was ironically the anti-blankfaces who were screaming for rules, regulations, and lockdowns; the blankfaces wanted to continue as though nothing had changed!

Also, “blankface” (just like “homophobe” or “antisemite”) is a serious accusation. I’d never call anyone a blankface merely for sticking with a defensible rule when it turned out, in hindsight, that the rule could’ve been relaxed.

Here’s how to tell a blankface: suppose you see someone enforcing or interpreting a rule in a way that strikes you as obviously absurd. And suppose you point it out to them.

Do they say “I disagree, here’s why it actually does make sense”? They might be mistaken but they’re not a blankface.

Do they say “tell me about it, it makes zero sense, but it’s above my pay grade to change”? You might wish they were more dogged or courageous but again they’re not a blankface.

Or do they ignore all your arguments and just restate the original rule—seemingly angered by what they understood as a challenge to their authority, and delighted to reassert it? That’s the blankface.

140 Responses to “On blankfaces”

1. John Newton Says:

The word for “blankface” in England is “jobsworth” as in, “it’s more than my job’s worth to let you swim here”.

2. Rollo Burgess Says:

You are right. Dolores Umbridge is the apotheosis of evil; she is far more loathsome than Voldemort… and there are plenty of people like her in the world.

3. Domotor Palvolgyi Says:

I’ve recently finished reading the HP series with my 8-year-old daughter too, she loved it. I think Rowling would deserve a Peace Nobel for teaching kids about totalitarian dictatorships. Make sure you also read the Ickabog, we started with that, it’s much easier.

4. asdf Says:

I hate recommending videos because they are so much more time consuming than reading, so I wish this one was available as a written article. But if you want to understand what is wrong with the original Harry Potter series, watch this:

It describes how the Potter novels are a product of the Tony Blair era that (per Francis Fukuyama) assumed that Blairite neoliberalism was the endpoint of politics and would go on forever. Thus the embrace of consumerism like the Nimbus 2000 vs. Firebolt broom rivalry.

Regarding HPMOR, it has some very cringey parts but also some great parts. Unfortunately the beginning is pretty bad, so lots of people get turned off right there.

If you want to see the Potter villains including Umbridge get their comeuppance, read this deliciously evil fanfiction (age gated because Harry Potter goes on a murder spree in the story, but no sex or really graphic violence):

https://archiveofourown.org/works/6334630/chapters/14514247

Fun stuff.

5. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

If we’re allowed to recommend other Harry Potter STEM-adjacent fanfic, you should definitely also check out Arithmancer and its sequels https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10070079/1/The-Arithmancer . It stars Hermione but a Hermione who is very good at math, and not quite as annoying as Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres. I actually cried at the very end scene of the series.

6. philh Says:

Some people will object that the term “blankface” is dehumanizing. The reason I disagree is that a blankface is someone who freely chose to dehumanize themselves: to abdicate their human responsibility to see what’s right in front of them, to act like malfunctioning pieces of electronics even though they, like all of us, were born with the capacity for empathy and reason.

Ehn, I’m suspicious of this reasoning, it sounds too much like “yeah but they deserve it though”. Like, to you human responsibility means X and so someone who denies X has dehumanized themselves so sure, we can use a dehumanizing term for them. To someone else, human responsibility means devotion to God, or dedication to learning, or or or…

(That said, the word doesn’t feel especially dehumanizing to me, though I can see where that comes from.)

7. Jon Awbrey Says:

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve; but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

❧ Vachel Lindsay

8. asdf Says:

Joshua #5: I found myself reading other Potter fanfiction (most of it much better than the Rowling novels, which I disliked) after HPMOR. I wasn’t crazy about The Arithmancer, whose main idea is that Hermione is a maths whiz, but unfortunately the story doesn’t give any real picture of what that is like. It’s what TV tropes calls an informed ability: we’re told rather than shown that she is good at math, because the author doesn’t know how to actually show it. HPMOR does a much better job of showing what smart and nerdy characters are like, though people legitimately claim that the main character (Harry) is extremely annoying at times.

9. James Miller Says:

If you believe in the signaling theory of education, the primary way college professors like us act as blankfaces is by upholding academic credentialism. If a student came to you and said “I need to get a good grade in your course or an equivalent one to get the job I want, but studying the material in this class has no relevance to such a job. Therefore, will you please stop being a blankface and give me an A without forcing me to do work that’s worthless for my human capital accumulation?”

10. gmh Says:

As John Newton points out, not only do the British have the phrase “jobsworth” for what you’re calling “blankface”, but we’ve had it since at least the 1960s. Has it really taken an extra 50 years for this phenomenon to emerge in the US? (I seem to recall the Simpsons in the early 90s piling in on the DMV.) It’d be surprising, and disappointing, if some linguistic subculture, somewhere in the US, hadn’t nailed it decades ago.

11. Jackson Jules Says:

This reminds me of an AstralCodexTen article from earlier this year: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/why-is-it-hard-to-acknowledge-preferences

There is a key idea that unites both your post and Other Scott’s post: Why are people so bad at being utilitarians? The answer is a depressing one: because they aren’t trying to be utilitarians. Most people don’t understand the conceptual difference between “doing the right thing” and “doing what’s expected of them”. That’s what leads to blankfaceness.

Most people don’t think “what action should I take to maximize the amount of good in the world”. That’s why Effective Altruism is controversial–even though it shouldn’t be. (It’s fine if you disagree with the actual number-crunching and decisions that EA makes, but it blows my mind that anyone disagrees with idealogical principle behind EA.)

12. Jon Awbrey Says:

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve; but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

— Vachel Lindsay

13. asdf Says:

Moving beyond fanfic, I’ll try to read the Lewis book, but I have to ask whether it said anything about Scott Atlas, who sounds more like a Voldemort than an Umbridge. His immortal line was “I want them all infected!”, i.e. he wanted to create herd immunity by letting the virus run rampant. If you saw the fantastic movie The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T and remember the line “I want him disintegrated!, that’s the voice I hear Scott Atlas saying that in.

14. Carl Lumma Says:
15. Carl Lumma Says:

“The chief advantage that Berkshire has had in accumulating a good record is that we have avoided the pompous bureaucratic systems. We’ve tried to give power to very talented people and let them make very quick decisions.”

– Charlie Munger

16. Sniffnoy Says:

I can’t really recommend HPMOR, but I have to disagree with asdf: The beginning is great! However eventually it just kind of drags on and gets tangled in sidetracks and plot snarls, unfortunately…

17. Daniel H Says:

Myself I am an unapologetic Harry Potter fan, and I predict that after you and Lily read volumes 6-7 you will decide there is more to Voldemort than you think now. To understand the holocaust, we need to understand both Eichmann and Hitler.

18. Anonymous Says:

“Today, those same conformists in my age cohort are more likely to condemn the Harry Potter series as Problematically white, male, and cisnormative, and J. K. Rowling herself as a monstrous bigot whose acquaintances’ acquaintances should be shunned. Naturally, then, there was nothing for me to do but finally read the series!”

Spoken like a true edgelord.

19. Scott Says:

Everyone: Thanks so much for sharing the related British term “jobsworth,” which I hadn’t known! I submit, however, that saying “sorry, I can’t do that—it’s more than my job’s worth” already displays a level of honesty and even wit far beyond that of the average American blankface.

20. Jon Awbrey Says:

The dull green time-stained panes
of the windows look upon each other
with the cowardly glances of cheats.

— Maxim Gorky • Creatures That Once Were Men

21. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

Excellent Harry Potter fanfic: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/5537755/1/Amends-or-Truth-and-Reconciliation#

Hermione’s year after the end of canon. Possibly the best fiction I’ve seen about an intelligent person.

Warning: This story isn’t finished and at this point, I expect it never will be. It’s approximately a novel’s worth of good reading.

22. Scott Says:

asdf #13: No, the book’s account mostly ends by March 2020, before the rise of Scott Atlas and the other forces of wingnut backlash, but when it was already set in stone that the US response would be beyond abysmal. While Lewis never addresses the question directly, he might say that the US government’s world-historic early blunders, reversals, and lies helped set the stage for the later covid denialists, as culpable as the denialists obviously are in themselves.

23. Scott Says:

James Miller #9: I’ve resolved that dilemma mostly just by not teaching required courses! I teach stuff like Intro to Quantum Information Science or Theory of Computing, which might help with distribution requirements, yes, but which students are mostly taking because they actually want to learn. So I feel little hesitation about giving grades that accurately measure what they learned. Even then, though, I’m a pretty generous grader, typically giving 1/3 A’s, 1/2 B’s, and then a smattering of C’s, D’s, and F’s, the last of which students really need to work hard to earn.

24. Elo Says:

The biggest problem with blankface is the reciprocal you create. If they are blankface, you are just another no-good rule breaker.

If you choose to project depth where they don’t currently see it, you make a better world, not conform to their limits of the shape of a shitty world.

Call the misaligned beaurocrats, call them rule addicts, call them power trippers. But as soon as you define and project a dead inner life, you can’t find yourself taking actions to change the system. “some people are just npc grade humans”

Are the npc’s in your world, friends or foes.

25. Corbin Says:

In Discordian lore, there is a character named Greyface. Greyface was humorless and believed that the universe was for Order and not for any play whatsoever. Discordians believe that there are two dichotomies, one between order and disorder, and one between creation and destruction. They have a name for the mistake of thinking in terms of order and disorder, rather than creation and destruction; they call it the Curse of Greyface.

Some bureaucrats are sadistic. Others simply value order over creation. These are two different kinds of blights on our society.

26. hpgross Says:

Sometimes it’s hard not to become a blankface. After years of depression, I ended up in a job that I despise, whose goals are to do tasks according to absurd bad metrics including speed for other company, one of the richest on the planet. It gets there by chunking out pointless tasks for people to do that it would be far more money to spend someone to solve them via software, despite a good number of them which could be done. Say a customer forgets to put a space in a postal code in the UK or Canada. We have to manually change this in a database despite the flag saying exactly what must be done. No matter how many times I ask, there is no way for me to directly talk to the client and say “this is inane and pointless and cruel to be subjecting people to these mindless tasks” the blankfaces are all around because the client doesn’t want this criticism. When customers want something, and want to not be treated as parts of an algorithm, we are told not to follow their wishes.

When you are being paid a subliving wage to do these kinds of things are are told every week you must be faster, it seems impossible not to become jaded to it all and all of the clients that buy products from such a company.

I have tried to escape, but HR itself is full of blankfaces, filled with endless rules of how a cover letter/resume should look and sound, despite being able to do a bunch of tasks, despite being able to learn quickly and having a math degree, even just to get an IT entry role, essentially they test for your ability to blankface. It is aggravating to the extreme.

27. David Karger Says:

Scott, I find it interesting that you are so negative on people who follow a rigid set of rules, after you’ve spent so much time criticizing the elimination of standardized testing.

As with most “technologies”, bureaucracy can be used for good or for evil. It’s really easy to tell the difference in hindsight. But we don’t get that in real time, and have to instead decide whether it provides ,an overall benefit over the alternative (arbitrary subjective decisions, favortism, nepotism, popularity contests).

Yes, there’s a special evil in people who abuse bureaucracy as a tool to increase their own power, but overall I see strict rules as an improvement over what came before.

> The reason I disagree is that a blankface is someone who freely chose to dehumanize themselves: to abdicate their human responsibility to see what’s right in front of them, to act like malfunctioning pieces of electronics even though they, like all of us, were born with the capacity for empathy and reason.

This statement, like many diagnoses of social ills, portrays your opposite in a negative interaction as acting from some deep well of human irrationality or cruelty. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this be an adequate explanation for why someone acts a certain why. They may well be enjoying the power, but they don’t think of themselves as enjoying the power, and that’s pretty relevant when you’re trying to find a solution to the behavior. They may feel motivated to uphold the rules because it’s too exhausting to account for all the exceptions, or because their job will be threatened if they are discovered, or any of a number of other reasons that make the pointless exercise of power feel like the rational choice.

> But here’s the thing about blankfaces: in all my thousands of dealings with them, not once was I ever given cause to wonder whether I might have done the same in their shoes. It’s like, of course I wouldn’t have! Even if I were forced (by my own higher-ups, an intransigent computer system, or whatever else) to foist some bureaucratic horribleness on an innocent victim, I’d be sheepish and apologetic about it.

If your diagnosis of the actions of thousands of people is that you are simply morally superior to them, there’s a decent chance you haven’t fully understood what’s going on.

29. Andrew Hirsch Says:

I think what you refer to here as “blankfacedness” is a pretty common complaint, and deservedly so. There’s nothing quite as demoralizing as being told that some stupid rule means that you have to watch the world burn.

However, I’m concerned about what getting rid of it would actually mean. Rules are a pre-commitment device: I will hire whoever scores best on this test, for example. Perhaps you found a way that it doesn’t measure anything useful; it’s frustrating that people still hold to their pre-commitment! However, if the hiring manager allowed herself to be swayed away from her pre-commitment for rational argument, in all likelyhood she’d also be swayed by appeals to family, for instance. The best way to prevent this sort of corruption is to stick to our pre-commitments. In this way, bureaucratic blankfacedness is an important technology for keeping down the level of corruption.

More generally, allowing a little deviation from pre-commitments is a recipe for corruption, and allowing arbitrary deviation is a recipe for aristocracy. The great thing about an absolute monarch, after all, is that they can change the rules to suit the situation. The bad thing about an absolute monarch is that they can change the rules to suit their whim.

As frustrating as I find blankfacedness to be, I’d rather live in a world with blankfaced bureaucrats than arbitrary aristocrats. The best recipe for making blankfacedness bearable is to make policy bearable (and to allow for as much liberalism as possible, so the blankfaces don’t get to ruin every aspect of your life).

30. Jonas Says:

Little Britain’s “Computer says No” series is probably closer to what you want than a jobsworth.

31. Scott Says:

David Karger #27: I’d say that my positions on standardized testing and blankfaces are not merely consistent with one another, but massively so.

Taking a standardized test — the British O-levels, the Indian JEE, the French Concours Général, the American SAT and ACT (for however much longer they exist), etc. — means subjecting yourself to the rules of math, logic, and language, rules that even the blankfaces have limited power to change or reinterpret against you. (They’ve certainly tried — e.g., in the former Soviet Union, by giving the Jewish students impossibly harder math problems and then failing them for a single error — but that precisely required ditching the “standardized” aspect of standardized tests.)

By contrast, “holistic admissions” means putting oneself entirely at the mercy of the people who work in admissions offices, a large fraction of whom (I hope you’re sitting down for this) turn out to be blankfaces. A blankface, after all, is emphatically not someone who never uses their own discretion! Rather, they’re someone who does use discretion to do indefensible things and then hides it, via appeal to “rules,” “criteria,” and “metrics” that are actually arbitrary and malleable.

It follows from what I said above that standardized tests are one of the strongest anti-blankface technologies ever invented — which is precisely, I think, why many people despise them.

32. Lawrence D’Anna Says:

My theory is they start doing it out of spite. Bureaucratic jobs are miserable and acting like a malfunctioning rule obsessed android is the one malicious or spiteful thing you can do in that environment and be certain you won’t be punished for it. Anyone having a bad day and feeling like lashing out can stumble into it. But some people get a sample of the kind of opportunity for unaccountable cruelty that being a blankface offers and discover they have s taste for it. Then it becomes habit.

33. Scott Says:

Lawrence D’Anna #32: Thanks; that’s probably the most plausible theory I’ve seen!

34. Andrei Says:

Congratulations for reading HP! Better late than never – now you know that not everything that is popular sucks 😉

You might also enjoy Stephen King’s review of Order of the Phoenix: https://ew.com/books/2009/08/01/harry-potter-and-order-phoenix-4/

Second that “Amends, or Truth and Reconciliation” recommendation above – it’s very mature, the only downside is that it’s unfinished but since it’s quite slice-of-life it doesn’t matter that much.

35. Michiel Says:

What you call blankfaces, Harry, in the Methods of Rationality, calls NPCs. It’s quite a theme there, especially Harry’s efforts to make McGonagall think for herself. Umbridge also makes an appearance.

No idea if children will like it though.

36. Nick O'Connor Says:

Great article, thank you. Bit of a tangent, but I think Koestler’s “On Disbelieving Atrocities” is also relevant to Coronavirus – people don’t want to believe that horrific things are true, and will resist connecting that knowledge to their everyday lives. They won’t argue with you, they will just ignore you.

He published it, as I’m sure you know, in 1944, after spending years in England publicising and providing proof of the Holocaust – to widespread indifference. It wasn’t that his audience’s rational self-interest led them to ignore him; he was providing ultimate proof that the Nazi regime was evil, and that the war was justified. He wasn’t criticising the British in any way. But nevertheless the consequences of really believing him were psychologically unbearable.

You could argue that this is a special case of the blankface phenomenon – in extremis, all (or nearly all) of us will become blankfaces, when the threat to our ordered quotidian lives from listening to the truth is too great. Maybe blankfaces in normal society are just more fragile than the rest of us – any deviation from the rules puts their self-esteem and the solidity of their world at risk.

When things become really serious, we all have to guard against the temptation to become blankfaces, Koestler’s “neurotics who totter about in a screened phantasy world because they lack the faculty to face facts”.

“There are always the screamers screaming from the thicket and the people who pass by on the road.”

37. Ergil Says:

“Some people will object that the term ‘blankface’ is dehumanizing. The reason I disagree is that a blankface is someone who freely chose to dehumanize themselves: to abdicate their human responsibility to see what’s right in front of them, to act like malfunctioning pieces of electronics even though they, like all of us, were born with the capacity for empathy and reason.”

Reads like an Ayn Rand quote.

38. Mateus Araújo Says:

HPMOR is absolutely hilarious. My favourite part is when Potter tries to use a closed timelike curve to solve NP problems.

39. Ashley Lopez Says:

Scott,

But isn’t there another side too to the story of blankfacedness? The scene from the movie Zero Dark Thirty depicting the suicide attack against the CIA comes to my mind. I remember the guard character saying something like ‘procedures work only if they are followed every time’, then they all get killed because he is talked out of it. Maybe there is an undefinable line between necessary bureaucracy and pointless blankfacedness, and that (the undefinable nature) is the reason why blankfacedness is not yet eradicated.

40. Not a blankface Says:

Scott #31: I thought I understood your definition of blankfaces until I read your reply to David. Now I feel like your definition is inconsistent. In your original post you gave several examples of blankfaces. A couple of them involve bureaucrats who use their (poor) judgement to subvert an existing process. But the last example, about covid being airborne, involves bureaucrats who insist on following the rules (preventing your daughter from using playground equipment) even though they say that they would make a different decision if they were allowed to exercise their own discretion. Isn’t that the same as a college admissions committee that rigidly applies standardized testing criteria, which you say you favor?

41. pavel Says:

Blankface term triggerred memory of a line in a novel which I read long time ago. If you allow me to poorly translate into english (not native, sorry) the quote would be something like:

You can recognize officer by emptiness in the parts of the body where other people have face.

I thought I read this in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, but I can’t find it neither there or in his other works while trying full text search now. So I am baffled who actually wrote that… Any hint? 🙂

42. Scott Says:

Everyone I’ve talked there agrees that I have a point, but they say their hands are tied. I haven’t yet located the blankface who actually made this decision and stands by it.

As you can see, the person who “actually made this decision and stands by it” is the blankface—not the people whose “hands are tied.”

I have nothing against rules as such. In some cases, like aviation safety, it’s probably even good to insist that the rules be followed, even if the rules feel stupid, pointless, and inconvenient in the moment.

But then there are the people who invent rules that really are stupid and pointless (eg, no playing in outdoor playgrounds during covid, even though being inside in an unventilated school is fine)—or more often, who interpret the rules so as to yield stupid results, and who then maintain their interpretation in face of every contradictory fact, treating reality itself as an illegitimate challenge to their authority. Those are the blankfaces.

There is no blankfacedness without the unexercised freedom to laugh, to gasp, to widen one’s eyes in surprise.

43. fred Says:

A masterpiece on the horrors of blankfaceness is the 1985 Terry Gilliam movie “BRAZIL”.

44. iAnon Says:

To me, one of the most depressing unveilings of COVID was the breathtaking extent of the blankface atrophy of America. Whether if due to semi-justified fears of a legal system gone haywire, or simply due to habit, COVID showed that there was simply *no* breaking point past which a blankface might assume some agency and initiative, no matter what’s at stake; including at times, significant perceived risk to their own lives.
And that these blankfaces were simply running America (_maybe_, _hopefully!_ with the exception of some aspects of business).

This was especially evident early on, when it seemed likely that COVID would turn out far worse than it actually did.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I spent about half my life in Israel, and it simply isn’t that way there. @Scott, iirc your wife is Israeli. I’m curious if you spent enough time in Israel / have understood enough despite the language barrier to witness this yourself.

There are 2 unbelievable yet apparently very representative stories from early in the pandemic that I remember coming across, but which I can’t find now.

One story was a journalist at NYC who was presenting with classic COVID symptoms early on in the pandemic, and who was also testing negative for everything else under the sun. Of course, she was for a very very long time denied COVID testing because “there was no evidence of community transmission” and she hadn’t been to China. We’ve all heard that part. But the truly extraordinary blankfacedness manifested as the medical professionals treating her quickly oscillated back and forth between wearing hazmat suits (and visibly worrying for their own health) and being nonchalant and recommending she ride the subway to get home, depending on which ticked boxes the higher-up bureaucrats were instructing them to act upon (along the lines of: you were at an AIRPORT on January 3rd??? Didi, Grab the hazmat suit!! Oh wait a second, you were there only on January 2nd? Take the subway home you baby).

Another story was a tweet storm about the COVID testing shortage early in the pandemic by some ex-head of some major federal health agency (perhaps a major branch of CDC/FDA, can’t recall exactly). He was explaining how virtually every hospital in America was capable of testing for COVID early in the pandemic using their standard PCR machines (which of course, they eventually did), but that laws forced them to send samples to that one FDA lab, since their existing tests were never FDA-approved for COVID (how could they, it was a novel virus).
Then they used some emergency legal loophole to allow for sending “approved” test kits to some select hospitals, to reduce the bottleneck from one lab for the entire US, to a few dozen labs across the US (also not nearly enough).
But the thing is, the kits they sent initially were defective. One of the agents was not synthesized properly. But not to worry, after all the approved test was a standard PCR test, and hospitals had kegs full of said agent, for use in their own PCR tests, right? Yes, except the test kit was only approved as an integrated unit, so hospitals didn’t replace the defective agent with their own supply. And so testing was delayed by another month as the “approved” dozen labs scrambled to re synthesize the agent and resend kits.

And this was at a time when COVID seemed like a catastrophe even bigger than it turned out to be, and when containment was perceived to be plausible.

Folks like to blame Trump and perhaps FDA/CDC for the mangled response, and of course they had the power to shift things significantly.

But to me these stories show an atrophy reaching all the way down and across the US. The states could have made up their own laws to protect/satiate the hospital bureaucrats. Or the heads of hospitals could have assumed responsibility and instructed a sensible policy. Or even the individual doctors / technicians.
But essentially none of them did, anywhere in the US.

I cannot imagine any Israeli head of hospital , or even most lab technicians not going “the bureaucrats are telling us WHAT? Fuck them, we’ll deal with the legal nonsense later if need be, for now we are going to act sensibly”.

Sure, you can quote legal liability, and no doubt that is a big part of the problem. But at what point do you realize nobody is going to actually sue you for testing for COVID in a crisis. And if not that, why can’t we trust that the legal system would itself rise above blankfacesness and clear you of all charges if somehow you were absurdly sued and the law was technically not on your side.

Were things always this way in the US? I don’t know what it would take to get us out of this fucked equilibrium.

45. fred Says:

Getting a summer job in customer support could be one way to appreciate the other side of the coin!

46. fred Says:

The perfect opposite of blankfaceness: you can make them change state with zero energy expenditure!

47. KB Says:

For those who don’t care about major spoilers, see HPMOR chapter 108, the passage beginning with “And eventually”.

The first section of this post made me think of that passage, so I was sure that Scott was going to cite it when he brought up Harry Potter. But I guess it’s just a wacky coincidence!? I’m pretty surprised no one else has mentioned it yet.

(My opinion on HPMOR: it was kinda hard for me to get through the first half, but the second half has earned a spot in my favorite stories. Truly unique & inspiring. YMMV.)

48. MithrilGear Says:

I am reminded of something I read about the end of apartheid in South Africa, that when they went to repeal racist health care policies, they found that there actually weren’t any explicitly racist health care policies. People just understood that they were supposed to be. This is essentially the exact opposite of what you call “blankfacing”, and was also held up as a sinister phenomenon. Well, the racism was sinister, but people being on the same page about what to do without explicit rules is also the basis of anything getting done at all, for good or ill.

Likewise, you make it sound like rule following is universally a bad thing, but imagine, for example, how many innocent people have been acquitted by juries “blankfacing” for the rule of law, rather than doing what they felt was right.

49. Sandro Says:

Regarding the playground rule: I agree that allowing kids to play in a playground is less likely to bring to a covid infection than having them in class. However, forbidding the former has a different impact on society than forbidding the latter. Perhaps if a strict “covid risk” measure was followed, the end result would be to have kids at home, rather than having access to the playground. My guess is that the playground was seen as something that could be sacrificed without much impact (to the adults) with the objective of reducing, even by a little, the overall risk.

50. pete Says:

I have read pretty much all of Lewis’ books – he is a gifted writer and very entertaining. But I would never form an opinion entirely based on any of his books. I’d want to get some kind of additional confirmation. Part of his gift is that he writes from an extreme bias.

Getting a little picky – no matter how much California is struggling, calling an epidemic a pandemic seems to be a stretch as a pandemic should involve more than one country or at the very least one country. Given that China was having problems in December and Italy and others had large infections, it definitely WAS a pandemic but California wasn’t the reason. I’ll read the book for the context.

51. Scott Says:

iAnon #44: Yes, as you might imagine, Dana and I have had many conversations about exactly this! While Israel of course has many problems of its own, it does not have the blankface problem anywhere close to how badly the US has it. I’d be fascinated by an international comparison—e.g., I’d expect the UK to have a pretty bad blankface/jobsworth problem too, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, just like with incarcerations, covid deaths, and so much else, the USA was #1 on earth for blankfaces.

52. Scott Says:

Sandro #49: The part I couldn’t understand was, why not teach the kids outside, whenever the weather allowed? That would’ve made a helluva lot more difference than banning playground equipment.

53. Scott Says:

Ergil #37:

Reads like an Ayn Rand quote.

Haha! Well, Rand’s portrayal of what I’m calling the blankfaces—e.g., her railroad bureaucrats who, on seeing that a train was about to crash, immediately set to work creating a paper trail to make sure none of them would be blamed for it—was one of the few aspects of her novels that I thought was legitimately brilliant. On the other hand, one way Rand’s vision fell short is that she could basically conceive of only one way to oppose the blankfaces: namely, to be an “angular,” chain-smoking, heroic, speechifying, anti-government builder or industrialist with no family attachments. I’d prefer a much broader anti-blankface coalition. 🙂

(For more of my thoughts about Rand, see my old post “The Complement of Atlas Shrugged”.)

54. ultimaniacy Says:

“I decided that the Harry Potter phenomenon was a sort of collective insanity: from what I could tell, the stories seemed like startlingly puerile and unoriginal mass-marketed wish-fulfillment fantasies.

Today, those same conformists in my age cohort are more likely to condemn the Harry Potter series as Problematically white, male, and cisnormative, and J. K. Rowling herself as a monstrous bigot whose acquaintances’ acquaintances should be shunned. Naturally, then, there was nothing for me to do but finally read the series!”

Am I reading this correctly? You decided that the Harry Potter books were so obviously terrible that their popularity must have been “collective insanity”… without having actually read them? The hell?

55. Scott Says:

ultimaniacy #54: I watched the first movie when it came out, having been dragooned into it. At the time, I was massively annoyed by the lack of imagination of the magic—all the supposedly “magical” things that Muggle technology can already do better—as well as the constant theme of Harry triumphing because he was Born Special rather than because of anything he figures out or does. Now that I’ve spent more time with the books and movies, those aspects still annoy me! It’s just that I now also see good aspects that I previously hadn’t noticed, many of which only really emerge in the later books.

56. TonyK Says:

Scott #19: jobsworths don’t say sorry.

57. aram Says:

The Premonition was great but was suspiciously close to the POV of Lewis’s main source. I kept wondering why she alone was willing to explain to him how everyone around her is a moron until the end when he explained that she started a company.

How much do you think the problem is individual blankfaces vs systems that reward and encourage that behavior?

58. Scott Says:

aram #57:

How much do you think the problem is individual blankfaces vs systems that reward and encourage that behavior?

A classic chicken-and-egg mystery! I think blankfaces create the broken systems that incentivize more blankfaces who create the broken systems that…

59. qaux Says:

Funny coincidence I also could not make myself read the books when they came out, but are now reading them with my youngest (10).

Umbridge is indeed a remarkable villain. Also brilliantly played by Imelda Staunton in the movies.

I was wondering, as the Abbott administration prevents cities and universities to enact mask mandates, do you find that these institutions are paralyzed by blankfaces?

60. Scott Says:

qaux #59: While I haven’t been paying as much attention as I should, my sense is indeed that the UT admins would like to institute more covid restrictions but Abbott has legally tied their hands. As I explained above, lack of defiance is totally insufficient for me to call someone a blankface. I want to see the person lean into their blankfacedness with Umbridge-like relish!

61. Ellen Says:

The DRASTIC Team may be a good candidate for a group of anti-blankfaces, outlined in this article which was also written by an anti-blankface of a journalist, Katherine Eban.

https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/06/the-lab-leak-theory-inside-the-fight-to-uncover-covid-19s-origins

62. bagel Says:

Something that Scott Alexander has been talking about for a while is the weighting of learning versus priors in biology. Because isn’t the most peculiar thing about a blankface their resistance to evidence of any sort? Logic doesn’t work on them, facts don’t work on them, moral appeals don’t work on them.

Doesn’t that sound a little like being too heavily weighted towards one’s priors? “This is my world, and no evidence I can imagine either of us providing will change that.” And if somehow despite their prediction the evidence *does* pierce through and change the world, they refuse to internalize it.

I’ve seen that attitude prove infectious. And I’m not alone in that, one of the longest-running complaints about American schools and offices is how strongly they deaden people and turn them into blank-faced robots.

One of the places I’ve seen most effectively avoid that is SpaceX. My favorite story from there (from well before my time) really illustrates how everything worked. An engineer was preparing to test the pneumatic nosecone fairing ejection system; not wanting to damage the nosecone when it was repeatedly thrown from the capsule to the unyielding ground, he called up a traditional aerospace supplier and asked if they could make him a test fixture. They told him they could … in six months and for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He told them he had neither of those and went back to the drawing board. “Who makes really big airbags?”, he asked himself, and then it hit him: “I know, that’s a bouncy castle!”. He called the first bouncy castle company in the LA phone book and they quoted him his specifications for two weeks and $7500. “That’s a very fair offer”, he told them, “but there’s something you ought to know. Engineers of my grade at Space Exploration Technologies are authorized to spend up to$5000 to solve problems; if you bring the price down I can sign this afternoon, otherwise I have to talk to my manager.” And to this day, that bouncy castle is still listed for \$4995.

But that attitude retreats one trauma at a time. NASA and all its contractors, once upon a time, were just as gung-ho and can-do as SpaceX. Seemingly no longer. And SpaceX too has retreated from some of their cavalier confidence; supposedly they brought that bouncy castles to a few parties until someone got very badly hurt. But when I was there, I never saw someone get shot down for asking a question or making a suggestion so long as they had a good reason.

It’s not easy to create or maintain an environment that rewards people for selecting evidence over priors. Fear and uncertainty assail it. Overzealous measurement undermines it. Clumsy regulation trips it up. But for as long as you can maintain such an environment, the results can be as miraculous as the blankfaces are absurd.

63. Douglas Knight Says:

iAnon #44,
The tweet storm you refer to seems to be this one by Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s first head of FDA. The declaration of emergency automatically banned covid testing. He fought for a couple years to relax the rules on LDT and, apparently, burned out and left the job. What if he had still been head? Would he have had the power to remove this ban?

64. Davide Says:

With very few exceptions I don’t like movies but this one is one of those exceptions and it has the perfect definition of blankface. The movie is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non_ci_resta_che_piangere and the scene is the custom crossing (not described in the wikipedia page).

You can watch it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcaO92v9XK8 in Italian and Neapolitan dialect with (poorly made) English subtitles. There is a border-crossing fee to pay and some questions to answer, but nobody cares about the answers! If you understand the dialect you will greatly enjoy it, and I hope that even if you don’t you’ll glimpse from the subtitles, movements and the actor faces the exact thing that Scott described and that they fantastically mocked in the scene.

65. Mateus Araújo Says:

Scott #51: I haven’t been to the US, so I can’t do an actual comparison, but I find it inconceivable that any country can compete with Austria on Kafkaesque bureaucracy. I mean, Kafka was writing about the bureaucracy of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, which survived with little change into the modern Austrian Republic.

I can do a direct comparison with Germany and Brazil, where I have lived for some years. In Germany they are keen to enforce the rules very precisely (as the stereotype would tell you), but the rules make sense, and you can get stuff done. In Brazil the rules don’t make any sense, but people ignore them anyway, so you can also get stuff done. In Austria you have the unique combination of Kafkaesque rules and capricious bureaucrats that delight in enforcing them to the last dot.

I have often heard from my colleagues that they ended up in the impossible situation where they needed documents A and B, but to get document A they first needed to have B, but to have B they first needed to have A. I always thought this was a bit of a joke or an exaggeration, until it happened to me personally. While at the person responsible for document B, I managed to get on the phone with the person responsible for document A, and made them talk to eachother. To no avail, both just said that the other bureaucrat was wrong, and didn’t give me any documents.

66. Andrei Says:

Scott #53: Thanks for linking to your Rand review, I kept remembering I read somewhere the “recent technologies” complaint but I couldn’t find it (I thought it was in a Cracked.com article).

67. fred Says:

IT administrators, pool lifeguards, reimbursement administrators, school superintendents… pointed out as “the fundamental evil”. Okay, sure.

But then how should we characterize the “elites” (in academia and government) who are always silent when it comes to the “mega-blankfaceness” of the big corporations and China because of their own entanglements for financial reasons or prestige?

68. Scott Says:

fred #67: I called blankfacedness one of the fundamental evils of the human condition. It infamously enabled the Holocaust, and also (as I pointed out in this post) enabled the current pandemic, if those are bad enough. But yes, the world also has non-blankface-related problems and evils.

69. Ergil Says:

Scott #53:

[Rand] could basically conceive of only one way to oppose the blankfaces: namely, to be an “angular,” chain-smoking, heroic, speechifying, anti-government builder or industrialist with no family attachments.

‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍

I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Certainly The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are overwhelmingly focused on such characters; however, both feature “good guys” who lack most or all of these qualities, e.g. Mallory and Mike in the former, Eddie and Cherryl in the latter. The one thing separating good guys from bad in Rand’s universe is not heroism, intellect or even competence, but integrity. The degree to which this limits an anti-blankface coalition is debatable.

Regarding “The complement of Atlas Shrugged”, while I find most(*) of your points accurate, important and well-made, I’m a bit confused about the post’s premise. Granted, Rand’s writings do not capture the entirety of the human condition, but are her non-trivial insights so widely known and accepted, either in the general population or the blog’s readership, so as to bear no discussion beyond “makes much more sense than my 11th-grade English teacher”?

Personally, I was already a hard-core libertarian when I first read Rand; my initial response was “nothing new here”. I wish I could say I still feel so now, but in the ~15 years since I’ve encountered many examples of people almost directly quoting Atlas Shrugged‘s villains, whom I took to be bad caricatures at the time, in full seriousness. The ultimate source of Rand’s villains’ behavior is indifference or even hostility to life itself and their own lives in particular. This, for me, is Rand’s most valuable insight, since it’s so far out yet seems to be at least somewhat true. For example, Rand would’ve been completely unsurprised by iAnon #44:

To me, one of the most depressing unveilings of COVID was the breathtaking extent of the blankface atrophy of America. Whether if due to semi-justified fears of a legal system gone haywire, or simply due to habit, COVID showed that there was simply *no* breaking point past which a blankface might assume some agency and initiative, no matter what’s at stake; including at times, significant perceived risk to their own lives.

‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍

Reading back through posts filed under “Rage Against Doofosity” I’ve noticed several other distinctly Rand-like bits, so I was wondering whether your opinion on the value of her work changed in recent times.

(*) Efficient evil people are certainly absent in Atlas Shrugged, but The Fountainhead‘s Toohey is fully as purposeful, intelligent and efficient as any Rand protagonist. I’ve sometimes wondered whether the difference between Toohey and Atlas Shrugged‘s antagonists is due to a change in Rand’s thinking about the nature of evil.

70. fred Says:

Scott,

I agree with all you said, but maybe what you’re missing here is some kind of perspective on how to deal with this.
The silver lining is that your life (and the lives of most people posting here, including me) is probably orders of magnitude better than the lives of those people we feel are getting in our way.
I don’t mean “better” materially, but spiritually.

As someone else put it, using a video game analogy, the way to deal with this is to try and see that type of behavior as just a common NPC, i.e. lesser obstacles driven by very simple patterns… and an expert player should never get tripped over such things, their skills should allow them to simply “jump over” and keep going.
One can only see the truth of this once one faces a true “boss fight”: it’s guaranteed that, one day, each of us (or someone we love) will have to deal with something that will make us wish we would only have to deal with that sort of obstacles.
And using the common obstacles as an opportunity to build resilience is the best way to prepare for those “boss fights”.

71. fred Says:

72. Ariels Says:

There’s an interesting relation that is Epistemic learned helplessness and Chesterton’s fence. If they refuse arguments against the rules because they think they don’t understand precisely the design (rationale) of the rules, that might make sense. They deem themselves not competent enough to go against the rules. Of course, if the situation is too obvious… they should! And if the situation is so conflicting and demanding, sane and rational rules would have made a clear special case reinforcing their argument (such as ‘Rule: children with strokes deemed too inadequate shall not be admitted even if they pass exams’?). So the blankface is perhaps the one that refuses to think for himself at all costs, or rather let his judgement interfere.

This makes another case: maybe we should not only make laws, but try to explain the design principles of laws, the tools and pathways that led to the laws. Then it’s easier to rule the law, and easier to argue for their change (without attributing either ignorance or omniscience to their creators).

73. Peter Says:

Scott,

You might like (or be horrified by) The Systems Bible, it’s a kind of exploration of the ways in which blankfacedness runs any organization. I wouldn’t call it a cheerful book, but it’s written with incisive wit. It needs a companion “why do people act like this, oh my god” book – maybe you could write it.

I’m also reminded of Richard Morgan’s Quellcrist Falconer character:

“The personal, as everyone’s so fucking fond of saying, is political. So if some idiot politician, some power player, tries to execute policies that harm you or those you care about, take it personally. Get angry.”

Morgan just hits the nail on the head that there’s a sort of soporific feeling we get when some bureaucratic system fucks us, and it’s so easy to react with a “I guess it’s not their fault.” And of course, people don’t feel it’s their fault when they make blankface decisions “Sorry, rules.”

Calling someone a blankface is a tiny moment of Bartleby-ness, but I don’t know if I’d use it with my kids, it feels in its own way too cancel-culture for me. But I do teach my kids to take a bureaucracy fucking with them personally, and to feel free to aim their efforts at tearing one down if it’s mistreating people.

74. Dave Lewis Says:

I think there’s a case intermediate between these two which is common:

Do they say “tell me about it, it makes zero sense, but it’s above my pay grade to change”? You might wish they were more dogged or courageous but again they’re not a blankface.

Or do they ignore all your arguments and just restate the original rule—seemingly angered by what they understood as a challenge to their authority, and delighted to reassert it? That’s the blankface.

You’re probably the 500th person this year who’s pointed out some issue, there’s nothing special about your analysis (sorry), and the employee can’t do anything about it. What you take as anger at you may just be anger at their situation. Delight may just be a bit of relief that some phrasing of the rule lets them end their futile interaction with you 30 seconds earlier than if you’d phrased your complaint some other way. Blankness may be depression, like a mouse in an electric room.

To adopt some modern language, when you’re asking for someone in an impossible situation to be all perky and “we’re in this together” with you, you’re asking them to do “emotional labor”. That’s a way overused concept these days, but it actually seems pretty applicable here.

75. fred Says:

Job happiness and probability to give a fuck vary wildly based on responsibility/accountability and perceived degree of control.
High responsibility/accountability with zero control is the worst situation, which can’t be sustained long, leading to high unhappiness, especially for ppl who initially do give a fuck (like, nurses/doctors during covid).
Low responsibility with very low control is probably neutral happiness, with fucks given going asymptotically to zero, because it’s a dead end job.
Running a thriving university dept, at the center of some hot topic, is high responsibility but very high control, leading to maximum happiness and giving a fuck.

76. JimV Says:

I guess we all have blankface stories. Mine was when my landline phone stopped working some years ago. A lot of people had cell phones then but I didn’t, and all the pay phones had been taken out. While I was looking for one to report the problem, a kind person in a store where a pay phone used to be let me use his cell phone to call Verizon. The bf-customer-support person told me I had to walk around the apartment and check things from his checklist while he was on the phone with me before he would send a repair technician. I told him I could not do that because I only had the landline phone which wasn’t working, and could only use the borrowed phone long enough for one call (which was not from my apartment). His response was, then I was out of luck, wasn’t I? He seemed annoyed to be dealing with me.

I wound up buying the cheapest cell phone I could find and calling customer support again. This time I got a non-bf who immediately agreed to send a repair person. She found the problem to be in the connection box for the apartments, outside the building.

77. Kees Says:

Years ago an insurance company in The Netherlands ran an ad that featured a blankface. As in, telling their potential customers that they definitely don’t work that way. The term Purple Crocodile entered vernacular for a while because it was so recognizable.

78. Daniel Böttger Says:

I think much of it is the litigation. In the US it is easier to sue bureaucrats than it is in EU countries, and they defend themselves from this threat by hiding behind the rules, *especially* when challenged. Here in Germany bureaucrats are hard to sue and expected to have some leeway, because they need to defend themselves primarily to their direct superior, rather than to a jury of 12 randos who know too little of the subject matter to be expected to judge a decision sensibly.

79. Ninety-Three Says:

The example you open with of calling website-designers blankfaced seems like an inappropriate use of a serious accusation. You can’t possibly know if the people designing the website were sheepish about the terrible thing they had to build, or stupid enough to think it was good actually. I’ve worked in web design, I promise you that plenty of terrible websites are produced by a combination of idiot customers/bosses and their sheepishly obedient employees.

80. Scott Says:

Ninety-Three #79: Indeed, so let me refine my statement. I constantly find myself forced to interact with websites where it’s obvious, after 15 seconds, that there were one or more blankfaces somewhere in the loop of the design process.

81. Andrew Says:

How do you relate the concept of “blankface” or the modern NPC meme? They seem to be pointing at ideas that are close together, if not the same, although the NPC meme is used more by your outgroup.

My conception of the NPC meme, in case you’re not familiar, is someone who’s response to any topic is always going to be in line with the Vox/NYT/FoxNews/Trump twitter headlines without any variation, and treating it like the outcome of their own thought process.

82. Scott Says:

Andrew #81: Related concept but not the same. For every left-wing “NPC” on Twitter, one can of course find a right-wing equivalent, parroting Trumpist/QAnon talking points. In any case, in this post I wasn’t talking about anyone spouting on social media, but only about those who more proactively make others’ lives difficult.

83. Mike Says:

I tend to agree with Dave Lewis #74. While I’ve been in the receiving end of blankfaces too many times to count, like any other phenomenon, if enough people are doing it, there must actually be a reason for it, and I’m very hesitant to dehumanize it.

As Dave says, many times the person is not the first who has had the exact problem, and management most likely does not want to hear about it. To still try to do something requires emotional energy, which may not be available after the 100th customer of the day. To me, this phenomenon underscores the need for more civic engagement and building of more robust systems. The system and leadership deserve much of the blame.

The closest example I had to being a blankface was when I was an RA. I had not busted anyone for drinking in the dorms after like 6 months, and all of my peers had, so I had a reputation for being quite lax. So, on one patrol I heard the sound of ping pong balls. I did a search and stopped a party of like 2 or 3 people playing beer pong, and wrote them up. Not a disruptive party or anything like that. They were quite incensed that they weren’t hurting anyone, etc etc, but still, it was against the rules, and I needed to get my metrics up. I did try to apologize about the rules to them, but this did not make them more understanding, only more angry. I can imagine that reaction will lead bureaucrats to further not be willing to apologize or take any kind of personal interest.

84. renato Says:

Mateus #65:
> In Brazil the rules don’t make any sense, but people ignore them anyway, so you can also get stuff done.

That is probably a chicken-egg problem.
The rules don’t make sense, but no one will fix them, because someone will ignore it anyway.

The lack of properly written rules create a big legibility issue, as no one can assert if the current ones are just capricious or really make sense in a higher-order.
I feel like even a simple explanation saying that you are being denied/punished because you are doing something that should be discouraged would be a great progress, e.g. not attaching a document will make it much harder to process what you want, and if i eventually deny it, you will just present it and i will have to do everything again.

85. Scott Says:

Mike #83: I’d say that “narc” is a different category from “blankface.” If you do something like underage drinking or illicit drugs, it might be deeply unjust but at least you were aware of the risk.

If people are “only” angry me because my exact issue has come up 500 times before … well then, maybe they should have fixed the issue! That doesn’t mean that the people I’m dealing with are blankfaces — as I said, maybe their hands are tied — but it all but proves that there is a blankface somewhere in the system.

86. Nick Nolan Says:

This kind of psychobabble narrative where people and their personalities are the problems and some other people and personalities are the solution from intelligent people makes me sad.

You gain no real understanding and no real solutions. Evil blankfaces are not the problem and heroic mavericks are not the solution for organizational problems in society.

Scott, you are trying to understand organizations from the wrong perspective that perverts any real understanding.

87. Genuinely Curious Says:

I’m a bit confused. What purpose do the two following passages about race/gender issues serve in your discussion of blankfacedness?

“Today, those same conformists in my age cohort are more likely to condemn the Harry Potter series as Problematically white, male, and cisnormative, and J. K. Rowling herself as a monstrous bigot whose acquaintances’ acquaintances should be shunned. Naturally, then, there was nothing for me to do but finally read the series!”

This sounds as though you decided to read HP in order to defy what you perceive as the (…blankface-like?) conformity of people who critique HP’s white cis maleness and/or J.K. Rowling’s views on trans women. Is that what you meant to convey? If not, what purpose does this language serve?

“Lewis reports the following as the reason:

‘It was an optics problem,” says a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services. “Charity was too young, too blond, too Barbie. They wanted a person of color.” Sonia Angell identified as Latina.’ ”

You describe reports of Angell’s lack of infectious-disease knowledge and abhorrent workplace behavior: these seem like excellent points to convince us that she is exhibiting blankface behavior. If this is the point you’re trying to make, what does Angell’s being Latina (and/or whatever that may have had to do with her hiring) have to do with anything?

With gentle humor, I’d also like to pitch a redefinition of “blankface” from noun to adjective based on a conversation with a friend of mine who is a clinical therapist. We were talking about politics, and I was hopping mad about something the previous president had done. “He is a GARBAGE HUMAN!” I shouted. “GC…” my friend said, “there are NO garbage humans, only garbage behaviors.”

88. William Gasarch Says:

A similar but not quite the same concept:
Faceless Bureaucrat

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/faceless_bureaucrat#:~:text=Noun,interchangeable%20and%20unaccountable%20government%20official.%5D

is

A stereotypical anonymous interchangeable and unaccountable government official.

They also note that the term is usually derogatory.

89. DR Says:

Why didn’t they mandate a quarantine and testing of all travelers into the US? Then we’d not have to have the lot more expensive mandates on the entire population now. Am I missing something? This situation was so predictable. We had been warned by the sudden steep rise in India and the steep rise in the UK, of Delta.

90. Mark Y Says:

Do note that HPMOR gets a bit dark in places.
I liked it, but I don’t go recommending to people because of that.
On the other hand, I recommend Unsong to everyone who will listen to me, and also those who won’t. (But what about The Broadcast? Yeah, that chapter was pretty dark. But I still stand by what I said for both of those two books.)

91. Scott Says:

Nick Nolan #86:

Evil blankfaces are not the problem and heroic mavericks are not the solution for organizational problems in society.
Scott, you are trying to understand organizations from the wrong perspective that perverts any real understanding.

In that case, enlighten me as to the right perspective!

I agree that an organization can catastrophically fail (like, say, the FDA banning private covid tests in the crucial early months of 2020), even when every single person in the organization is smart, competent, motivated, and acting on values that make sense to me. In such cases, one despairs of ever satisfyingly explaining what went wrong.

For me, then, finding an actual blankface within the organization — someone who could unilaterally prevent the disaster, yet chooses not to, because of a petty and boneheaded exercise of power — is perversely a relief, at least from an epistemic standpoint. For it’s finally like: “no, this is not all complex emergent behavior, inadequate equilibria, and the tragedy of the commons. It’s also you. There is old-fashioned moral responsibility here, and it’s on your shoulders.” Something satisfyingly clicks into place, like finally finding the bug in a piece of code.

A priori, one could imagine that this would never happen—that it would just be game theory, misaligned incentives, and complex behavior all the way down. Empirically, though, both in my own life and in the historic catastrophes I read about (from the Holocaust to covid), it happens again and again that there are identifiable blankfaces. Hence this post, which tries to give the evil a name, so that we might better guard against it in ourselves and others.

92. Scott Says:

Genuinely Curious #87: Sorry, but a friend who saw your comment made me promise not to “take the bait” of arguing about J. K. Rowling! 🙂

For me, the relevance of Michael Lewis’s anecdote is simply that Sonia Angell was put in her position, overseeing California’s early response to the pandemic, for a political reason totally unrelated to her understanding of infectious disease — which, as I hope we can now agree, turned out to be a tragic mistake. I’m not especially interested beyond that in the role of race, which in any case can cut both ways. As an obvious example in the other direction, Barack Obama strikes me as having been way more principled, intelligent, sensitive, and thoughtful than a white guy could’ve been, without the current American political system having weeded him out long before he’d reached the Oval Office.

93. Shmi Says:

Blankfaces are actually rule breakers disguising themselves as sticklers.

The moment they have something to lose, they stop pretending to be sticklers and do anything to save their own asses. In the lifeguard situation the mere (if very underhanded) mentioning that she might have been, say, antisemitic, would have probably resolved the issue. The hard part is finding the blankface’s vulnerability, the leverage that would make them insta-pivot into following both the letter and the spirit of the rules.

94. Scott Says:

Shmi #93:

Blankfaces are actually rule breakers disguising themselves as sticklers.

That strikes me as a key insight, and precisely the part that’s missed by the many people who simply conflate blankfacedness with rule-following, and then patiently explain to me why “discretion doesn’t scale.”

In the lifeguard situation the mere (if very underhanded) mentioning that she might have been, say, antisemitic, would have probably resolved the issue.

Yeah, the trouble was that this actually happened at a Jewish Community Center. 😀

Incidentally, I was amused to read on Reddit that this post was marred by my lifeguard story, which was obviously fake, as Lily must have done something dangerous in the pool. I could only smile ruefully: if the stories could be told in such a way that every reasonable person would find them believable, then they wouldn’t be the stories of blankfaces.

Daniel Böttger #78:

I think that you’re on the right track with this.

The American civil legal system is the worst dispute resolution system imaginable. It is grotesquely expensive in terms of money, in terms of the effort required to litigate or defend a claim, and in terms of intellectual talent that goes to waste in pursuing it as a career.

Now, here’s the thing: One of the worst things about the American civil legal system is the fact that if you are sued, you lose automatically. Doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong: The punishment is the process. There’s an enormously expensive and wasteful process called “Discovery” that takes place before trial. This is when you are forced to disclose documents to the other side, forced to sit for depositions, forced to turn over computer hard drives for forensic analysis, etc. Participating in Discovery can easily cost seven figures and consume hundreds or thousands of billable hours. (Primarily in document review, which is always done by lawyers and is about as intellectually stimulating as making license plates.)

There’s only one narrow exception to the automatic loss axiom: If, in your very first response to getting sued, you file a Motion to Dismiss and say, “I stuck to the terms and conditions (written or implied) that plaintiff had agreed to, and they therefore have no grounds to sue.” Technically, what you’re saying is that “plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

…That’s literally the only fast and easy way out of a lawsuit. Do anything else, and you’ll probably end up spending six or seven figures defending yourself, even if you win.

I don’t know, to me it sounds more like these people are either timid (as in, don’t trust themselves to know precisely how the rules are supposed to work, and/or not wanting to have to justify themselves to their superiors if called on allowing something they should have forbidden) or lazy (people running around doing stuff almost certainly means more work or at least more risk of something going wrong , so forbidding people from doing stuff is probably easier on their nerves). As for not seeming more sheepish about it? Well, people don’t usually like having to admit that they’re doing anything wrong, especially not to strangers. They may feel bad about it, but they’re not going to admit that to you because that would make them feel even worse.

I don’t think that explanation completely shields them from moral criticism, but I don’t think it makes them any kind of gleefully soulless Umbridges, either. Trying to spare yourself from unpleasantness, even at other people’s cost, is pretty thoroughly human, unfortunately.

On the subject of JK Rowling, I am deeply torn. Because the things she said are at least defensible, and certainly not enough to make her The Worst Person Ever the way she’s being portrayed, but… well, I always did think she was kind of a crappy person. Not a bad person per se, just a kind of crappy one – a small and dull and spiteful soul, who like most small and dull and spiteful souls prided herself on what a virtuous free spirit she was. So public opinion has gone from one extreme to another, and I wish more people could realise that the reality is and was always somewhere in the middle. Like, yes, please do drag her off her throne, but there’s no need to go on to throw her on the dungheap!

[…] Scott Aaronson introduces us to his term blankface, for a perspective on one of the causes of our problems responding reasonably to situations.   […]

98. Max Chaplin Says:

> As far as I can tell, blankfacedness cuts straight across conventional political ideology, gender, and race. (Age, too, except that I’ve never once encountered a blankfaced child.)

I remember quite a lot of rule munchkining in my childhood, from myself and other kids. It ranged from minor obnoxiousness (like posing a loaded question and refusing to take any answer except for yes or no) to bullying (“not touching you” is a classic). Children generally have little power and lots of oversight, so in their experience, the consequences of their actions are mediated mostly through adult-imposed rules.

99. Andrew Kueny Says:

Nice post. May I suggest an alternate spelling? “–face.”

100. Nick Nolan Says:

Response to Scott #91 “enlighten me as to the right perspective!”

From your description, I can identify a friend who is a professional blankface.

She has no energy to empathize. Very little energy to explain. She just repeats the standard litany and refuses to listen to arguments or suggestions even when they are better formulated than hers. She stares blankly and stops listening when others try to make an opposing argument, waits for her turn, and says what will happen next. She makes people miserable and either does not care or may even gain a dark sense of satisfaction. She admits even genuine enjoyment knowing that she has more power and the only option is to leave. She is cynical and jaded.

She is a senior physician pushing people and even some workers to take vaccines and follow protocol in a hospital. She is also my hero despite her horrible and dehumanizing bureaucratic performance. She has a negative way to respond that causes distress in others and decreases morale. The evil ends there.

You seem to mix (a) evil or misguided purpose and (b) negative self-protecting way to achieve goals, into a single description.

I see “blankface (b)” as a coping mechanism. It’s a way to get things done in an organization “in your way” under a constant power struggle without breaking down.

The fundamental mystery of the blankfaces, then, is how they can be so alien and yet so common.

Because they are not alien, it’s us under the pressure and without energy.

(Harry Potter is a novel for children. It depicts many characters from the childrends’ perspective)

Dolores Jane Umbridge is how your kid sees you when you have no time or energy to argue and you run out of empathy. When you reach your limit you meet every appeal to facts, logic, and plain compassion with the same repetition of rules and regulations and the same blank stare—a blank stare that, more often than not, conceals a contemptuous smile.

101. fred Says:

Nick #86

It’s kind of my thoughts too.
Scott having had some poor interactions with that list of people really isn’t proof that those particular instances are somehow the expression of the root of all evil, the worst of the worst, what leads to Nazism.

Like David Foster Wallace pointed out, our default mode is to frame everything with our experience at the very center (which is natural, by design).

If you ask around enough, you always find extreme opinions about the job performance and perceived ethics of anyone.

You can see this for example in online Doctor reviews, you’ll get 9 super positive reviews, and then a few totally negative ones, all based on actual interactions.

An actual sample of reviews about a particular doctor:

5/5
“There is no better doctor than Dr. xxxxx. He is the most kind, compassionate, caring and knowledgeable man. If there was a way to clone him it should be done. He better never retire because I will not take my son to see any other neurologist. “

5/5
“Dr. xxxx saved my life! At 44 years old, I had my first seizure with two additional ones shortly thereafter. After meeting with Dr. Devinsky for almost two hours, he laid the cards out on the table in an honest and sincere way. “

1/5
“I had a horrible experience with this doctor. After he recommended I have brain surgery and assured me I “would never even know it had happened” after I healed, I instead ended up fighting for my life for many months and suffering with after effects for years. He did nothing to help me and claimed my symptoms post surgery were psychosomatic. His agenda is to medicate and operate without concern for patients reactions or individual needs. Be VERY WARY OF HIM.”

Then what’s the meaning of taking an average?

And how much can we trust one’s particular list of experiences as evidence of some behavior under one neat convenient generic label, like “blankfaces”, “assholeness”, “systemic racism”, etc.

102. fred Says:

(continued)

Especially something like
“No, I never applied for that grant. I spent two hours struggling to log in to a web portal designed by the world’s top blankfaces until I finally gave up in despair.”

Having to provide a good service across a wide range of customers is very difficult, often under particular budget and time constraints.
Yes, the designer could be bad at his job, or could be malicious, or maybe there was no time/money to do a proper job, or maybe it used to work but for some reason some third party subsystem changed and broke the portal, and sometimes even great people have bad days, … we just don’t know! (the only thing we know for sure is that Scott felt butt-hurt).

Those concerns are totally foreign to someone working in Academia, when it’s about releasing papers on pretty arbitrary time scales with no real pressure, and where errors/mistakes really don’t impact anyone. 😛

103. Scott Says:

Nick Nolan #100: No, you don’t get to make judgments about who is or isn’t a blankface on “neutral” procedural grounds, ignoring obvious facts about who’s actually right (when in doubt: who Richard Feynman or Steven Weinberg would have said was right 🙂 ). Indeed, making such determinations based on arbitrary definitions and rules, when what’s needed is to look at actual external reality, is precisely the thing the blankfaces are always trying to do.

In your example, the people trying to vaccinate the entire world against covid are right—and the earlier they’ve wanted to start on it (yes, all the way back to January 2020) and the more aggressively, the righter they are. The anti-vaxxers are catastrophically, suicidally, idiotically wrong. And this is obvious with anyone with any capacity to think quantitatively.

So if you tell me that your friend is a doc trying to get everyone in her community vaccinated, then my prior is that she’s basically a hero. It’s conceivable that she’s a blankface or has blankfaced tendencies, but the evidence for her blankfacedness would need to be pretty damn strong to overcome that prior.

104. fred Says:

“In your example, the people trying to vaccinate the entire world against covid are right—and the earlier they’ve wanted to start on it (yes, all the way back to January 2020) and the more aggressively, the righter they are. The anti-vaxxers are catastrophically, suicidally, idiotically wrong. And this is obvious with anyone with any capacity to think quantitatively.”

I was thinking pretty much along the same line as of this morning, when I had an online discussion about covid and the vaccination with my old friends from engineering school.
One of my friends in the group told us that his brother (living in Brussels, 52, with three kids, healthy with no known problem of any kind) got his second dose of Pfizer on May 31st. After a few hours he started complaining of severe chest pain. The next day he died at the hospital from some undetermined cardiac condition.
The family was told that cardiac problems can appear with Pfizer (one of my oncology nurses here in NYC had told me a couple months ago that her mom got some heart problem after her second Pfizer dose too, and had to stay at the hospital for a few days under observation).
Ironically, just before this happened, my friend was supposed to get the AZ vaccine, and his brother begged him to take the Pfizer vaccine, saying it was much safer than AZ (my friend took AZ in the end).
So, yes, from a statistical point of view all this is true, but go explain that to my friend’s dead brother’s widow and her 3 kids.

105. August 2021 Digest – Dalliance Says:

[…] Scott Aaronson on “Blankfaces” They’re like the non-player-characters who just obstruct. […]

106. Basil Marte Says:

If the word “antagonist” wasn’t already occupied by someone “acting in opposition [to the protagonist]”, it would be a great match for blankfaces, i.e. someone “opposed to action”, opposed to agency in general. To speculate/psychologize: when they are broken into acting like a cog and giving up their own agency, perhaps they solve the cognitive dissonance with the justification that *agency is bad* and that it is *right* to punish people for being agenty. This is a common trope in its own right; “good girl” in particular is almost synonymous with obedience/submission to parents and social mores.

107. 1Zer0 Says:

I take another view on the matter,

“The fundamental mystery of the blankfaces, then, is how they can be so alien and yet so common.”

Could the situation be any different?

If you are a MWI Follower (Yes yes, I read your Zen Article, still) shouldn’t the existence of blankfaces be a contingent statement about a world (“World” in MWI sense, not in the Modal Realist Lewis sense)? What are the odds for there to be no jobsworth people in a branch of the wave function?
Which other character traits among humans may be contingent, existing only in some branches, which are necessary, existing in all – no – let’s say overwhelmingly many branches (with homo sapiens inhabiting earth)?

Or can we say that usually, the branch doesn’t really matter and with
1.) The existence of blankfaces in our branch and
2.) Wavefunction branches having no significant influence on that character traits

it follows that the existence of blankfaces is a necessity?
If that were true, the second part of your question “The fundamental mystery of the blankfaces, then, is how they can be so alien and yet so common.” Would answer itself. Blankfaces are necessarily common.

108. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

Perhaps the edge can be taken off the dehumanization issue by saying that people are blank-facing rather than blankfaces.

Here is a prime example of blank-facing.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/mistaken-identity-lands-man-in-hawaii-mental-hospital/2021/08/03/7ac245ca-f494-11eb-a636-18cac59a98dc_story.html

He was confined to a mental institution for two years because a police officer assumed he was someone else– someone who he didn’t resemble– and he was assumed to be delusional when he insisted that he had a different name than the one he was arrested under. His ID was ignored.

109. Laurence Cox Says:

Scott,

If you think the US response to covid was bad; look at the UK response. Back in 2005 after the original SARS outbreak the UK government created a plan for fighting another SARS-type pandemic. Unfortunately, after the swine flu outbreak in 2009, the Government got the idea that any future pandemic would be like influenza; the plan was filed and everyone forgot about its existence:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/covid-plan-uk-government-sars-coronavirus-b1893726.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/covid-plan-uk-government-sars-coronavirus-b1893728.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/covid-plan-uk-government-sars-coronavirus-b1893729.html

There was a pandemic planning exercise in 2016, ‘Exercise Cygnus’, but this was based on an influenza pandemic.

There has to be a level beyond blankface for the bureaucrats responsible for this.

110. Douglas Knight Says:

These seem to me like such diverse examples. There is a difference between a broken cog, a cog in a broken machine, and a cog in an evil machine. When you bring in the holocaust, it raises the question of where you draw the boundaries of the machine. Wouldn’t most people respond blankly if you asked them about the function of money, or the morality of swimming?

The image of the blank face is very narrow. People up the chain making decisions aren’t facing you down with a blank face, let alone personalized contempt.

111. Rich Peterson Says:

Remember that Michael Lewis’s book is his opinions on what the facts are, and he might or might not be wrong on some details. I don’t know if there is independent verification of what Lewis said happened during Covid times. I don’t know anything about Sonia Angell, but what if Lewis were mistaken about how bad she was? That would be terrible.

112. First Approximation Says:

Definitely familiar with this. Just rewatched The Wire and a blankface can go far in institutions.

A blankface is anyone who enjoys wielding the power entrusted in them to make others miserable by acting like a cog in a broken machine, rather than like a human being with courage, judgment, and responsibility for their action

Almost every institution in modern life is a hierarchy. Many of those at the top will prefer to have cowardly, obedient subordinates who blindly enforce rules than individuals practicing judgement and compassion. The latter is an unpredictable loose cannon who isn’t showing the reverence the upper echelons feel they deserve.

To the blankfaces’ defense, many schools teach kids to be blankfaces. Also, many instituions will incentivize that behavior and severely punish any sort of free thinking. It could be the blankface noticed that showing any independence resulted in punishment, hence why bother?

Also, some of it might be a kick-the-dog kinda thing.

113. Jason Gross Says:

My best guess at the origin / internal experience of blankfacing is that of social copying. c.f. The Secret of Our Success, where, for example bucking the seemingly arbitrary rules about how to prepare manioc (a staple food in some areas of the world) will give your whole tribe chronic cyanide poisoning. The logic here is that culture and society often know more than individuals, and that local optimization can destroy globally-more-optimal equilibria. The child-equivalent of blankfacing is enforcing socially observed rules as moral absolutes (children will quickly correct other children—and even adults—on permissible jobs for mothers and fathers to do, and permissible ways to use objects).

The closest experience I have to blankfacing is enforcing stylistic guidelines when reviewing pull requests, I think. The rules often seem arbitrary to me, but it feels *wrong* to break them, and my response to challenges to the style guidelines are often just to throw the challenge up the chain of status. (I can imagine running a project where I respond to some style-guideline challenge with “that’s the way I’ve always done things, I’m reluctant to pay the unknown cost of changing it for what seems to me to be a small gain.”)

114. Walruss Says:

I will assume that you’ve never actually been a mid-level bureaucrat (this is a compliment, believe me). I can maybe shed some light.

I’m going to get some details wrong here but I’m sure the gist is right. The Air Force once did a study where they took something like 22 measures of a huge sample of men and tried to design a suit to fit “the average man.” They discovered that no person, essentially in the whole world, was within one standard deviation of the mean of all those measurements. Mathematicians would later prove that if you give any set of objects more than like 9 randomly determined properties, the chances that all 9 are within a typical range for one object are absurdly low.

Almost every bureaucratic rule exists for some good reason that is correct 95% of the time. There are hundreds and hundreds of such rules. For any given situation, one of those rules leads to an absurd result. But the most important part of a bureaucracy is that it applies all rules impartially.

So, when you’re looking down the barrel of an absurd, rules-bound result to a situation, and you appeal to a bureaucratic, what are his options?

“I disagree, here’s why”? I guarantee they don’t.

115. Martin Says:

Maybe a tangent, but the “blankface” concept feels like an excellent metaphor for common fears about automation and machine learning. From a certain perspective, AI systems might seem like the ultimate blankfaces, optimizing objectives that aren’t quite right, dodging blame when things go wrong, never willing to explain or sympathize.

I don’t think it has to work this way, but it’s an understandable worry. Perhaps a guideline for machine learning should be: make sure you don’t add yet another blankface to the world!

116. John Stricker Says:

Walruss #114:

“But the most important part of a bureaucracy is that it applies all rules impartially.”

I disagree. Rather, this is a typical and important example of finding/acknowledging the 5% or so cases where the rules do not work (or even make things worse), and assign those specially, for otherwise solutions, to a “bureau of competent flexibility” or some such ;-D.

117. First Approximation Says:

Jason Gross #113,

My best guess at the origin / internal experience of blankfacing is that of social copying. c.f. The Secret of Our Success, where, for example bucking the seemingly arbitrary rules about how to prepare manioc (a staple food in some areas of the world) will give your whole tribe chronic cyanide poisoning. The logic here is that culture and society often know more than individuals

Thanks for the link. Haven’t thought of it before, but in retrospect it seems obvious that rigidly adhering to the tried and tested methods of the tribe, even without understanding why they work, may have evolutionary advantages. This may explain the religious obsession of performing rituals exactly and OCD.

118. Peter Smith Says:

Scott, #51
but it wouldn’t surprise me if, just like with incarcerations, covid deaths, and so much else, the USA was #1 on earth for blankfaces.

I worked in Shanghai for a couple of years and discovered that blankfacedness was a national art form that puts the US to shame. The difference though is that there are well defined and well accepted strategies for penetrating the veil of blankfacedness. The path was (1) an elaborate show of respect, (2) give ‘face’ and (3) a suitable gift. A well known alternative strategy was to search for a backdoor, meaning a classmate, acquaintance in common, extended family, etc. Backdoors are really important for circumventing blankfacedness. The law of reciprocity is also important. A blankface is likely to cooperate if he says a good opportunity to call on you for future favours.

I suggest we have a lot to learn from the Chinese experience.

119. Khürt L Williams Says:

I am reminded of the wine blurry face by Twenty One Pilots.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blurryface?wprov=sfti1

120. Walruss Says:

John #116

I can’t imagine people actually want that – take the worst authority abusers and let them off the narrow leash that a rules-bound approach provides.

But more importantly, what I apparently failed to communicate is that once you reach a critical mass of regulation, *every* situation falls into that 5% along some axis.

A midlevel bureaucrat lives in a world where everything he does is destructive, obtrusive, and surreal. Any one rule may be defensible in the abstract, but in practice he has never helped or protected anyone and has done a great deal of harm.

The options are to admit that it’s evil but you’re gonna do it anyway for the paycheck (cowardice), try to change the system from within by exercising the limited judgment you have available (futile and draining), quit (almost impossible unless, like me, you are very very lucky), or pretend that what you’re doing isn’t an absurd waste of time and resources that make the world a worse place.

There really isn’t an option to respond to any complaint with anything other than “rules are rules.” There’s no rational defense to what you are doing to people, but to admit that is to assist in an appeal that could cost you your job.

121. Michael Says:

@First Approximation#117- No, OCD is rooted in anxiety about not hurting oneself or others- in the need to be SURE. And some of the symptoms aren’t ritualistic in the usual sense- e.g. a person with OCD might watch TV or read a book after having a “bad” thought to distract themselves.

122. Frank Wilhoit Says:

Scott,
What you are calling blankfacedness is a manifestation of fear. (That is not an excuse.). They only understand the rules on a syntactic level, not on a semantic level. They were not trained, or the rules may not have semantic integrity. (These are not excuses.). But above all, they know that they cannot take responsibility for interpreting the rules, because their superiors — their chain, in businessspeak — will not back them up. Probably some of them tried it — once — and were told, very specifically, never to do that again. So it is not a question of a personality defect, but the ubiquitous problem of toxic management (which in turn points to a personality defect, but much higher up the chain).

123. John Stricker Says:

Walruss #120:

I see, thank you for clarifying.

I was coming from a systematic, abstract point of view, of how to solve the problem of “In 95% of cases it works; what are we going to do with the other 5%?” Like with a bubble in wallpaper: you can always shift it, move it by pressure so it will disappear in one place, but appear somewhere else instead; this can not be avoided by repeating the same process (“blankface”), only with a different action (“exception”), like making a small cut for the air to escape.

“once you reach a critical mass of regulation, *every* situation falls into that 5% along some axis.
A midlevel bureaucrat lives in a world where everything he does is destructive, obtrusive, and surreal. Any one rule may be defensible in the abstract, but in practice he has never helped or protected anyone and has done a great deal of harm.”

I don´t believe this to be true. It sounds downright Kafkaesque…

“The options are to admit that it’s evil”

If that is what it is then there is no way one can keep doing it, morally; “evil” has to be fought, or at least blocked or hindered, and not be taken part in.
Time to get out, or become a blankface (or, more properly, start the process of becoming one.) This is one of those choices that show what we are made of, perhaps more so than words and thoughts, and it is imperative to make it while one still can.

But like I said, I don´t even believe this to be the case, but ‘merely’ a universal systematic condition (so, no biggie) with negative consequences (“Rules fail in some cases.”) and what to do about it, namely, how to deal with the 5% that will always occur, in a beneficial way, which I am sure can be done.

The phrase “exception to the rule” would not exist otherwise.

124. walruss Says:

John you’ve hit the nail directly on the head. Scott wonders how people can enforce these absurd rules without so much as a hint of shame or sheepishness. The real answer is “well, obviously if they didn’t do that they’d subject their organization to liability.”

But on a deeper level, you can’t do nonsensical things day in and day out, knowing that they’re nonsensical. If you do crazy stuff enough for long enough you go crazy.

125. Paul Says:

Hi Scott:

I think your argument that one is justified in dehuminizing “blankfaces” is problematic. I’m referring to:

” Some people will object that the term “blankface” is dehumanizing. The reason I disagree is that a blankface is someone who freely chose to dehumanize themselves: to abdicate their human responsibility to see what’s right in front of them, to act like malfunctioning pieces of electronics even though they, like all of us, were born with the capacity for empathy and reason. ”

Let me give you evidence why I think this is motivated reasoning. Lets say we were having a separate unrelated discussion about when is it ok to dehuminize someone. We may bring about nazi soldiers or terrorists or rapists as examples and argue why or why not they are worth of dehuminization. We might bring up the points that dehuminization happens as a result of not properly understanding people’s actions, even when those actions are bad. We might discuss how dehuminization is bad also because of its consequnces — dehuminization is often a precursor to some immoral treatment of those being dehuminized. We might discuss how to weigh these things against the positive of condemning some actions as inhuman and thus beyond the pale.

So do you really imagine that somewhere in that discussion you would say “Well, the one time I do think its ok to dehuminize people is when they “freely chose to dehumanize themselves: to abdicate their human responsibility to see what’s right in front of them”?

I don’t know, maybe you would, in which case my point is moot. But it does seem like a post-hoc rationalization to me rather than a thought-through general principle.

126. Matt Says:

I wonder if a good chunk of the reason for blankface-driven-inertia in the face of better evidence (e.g. the playground example) is prestige dynamics.

One thing I’ve noticed about the decision-making process in large organizations is how much of a factor “prevailing opinion” is. One human correctly and justly synthesizing the proper information and issuing a change to previous protocol is not a commonplace occurrence.

Much more normal is one human campaigning with adjacent peer humans, persuading them to at least acknowledge alternatives, and tentatively aligning them into a coalition. Tentatively because they still wouldn’t outwardly agree, but will be a falling domino should a sweeping tide of opinion turn that way.

Occasionally a true fellow champion emerges, and then those two repeat the steps of the above paragraph until ready to effect the gambit. Then a decision meeting is called, “facts are presented” (even though everyone’s seen it), and then a form of “objectivity theatre” is performed where everyone can be seen demonstrating how agreeable to strong facts they are in their decision making. A vote is taken, it moves in the expected direction, and a progress nugget is spit from the bureaucracy machine.

I’m not sure how much of this aligns with, or justifies, blankface behavior. I’ve definitely seen that a lot of folks do lean back on the “it’s just the rules” excuse to shoot down change, especially if said change threatens their power base. But I’ve also way more commonly seen that fear of admitting oneself is wrong, in public is the root cause.

I’m also noticing, Scott, that this is perhaps another situation where you find yourself having the same goals as the cancel culture / SJW crowd, but advocating different means and methods. It seems to me that dethroning bigoted blankfaces is a big part of what those folks are trying to accomplish.

127. Pascal Says:

Just for you Scott, here is the true picture of a blankface: https://www.myartbroker.com/artist/banksy/smiley-copper/
It may not look literally like a blank face at first sight, but that’s because the contemptuous smile is shining through.

128. Scott Says:

Matt #126: Oh, there’s no doubt that the SJWs and I instrumentally converge in numerous cases, even if the reasons differ! E.g., I might be happy to see Governor Cuomo go, primarily because of the 10,000 covered-up preventable nursing home deaths and secondarily because he groped female staffers, while they might be happy to see him go primarily because of the groping and secondarily because of the 10,000 deaths.

I’m sure I’d likewise converge in numerous cases with the 1917 Bolsheviks, who were justifiably enraged by the blankfacedness of the Tsar’s regime. Of course, as soon as they got power, they created an even more blankfaced regime, and that was even before Stalin. I wish that either the theory or the actions of the SJWs made me confident that they’d be able to resist the urge to swap out one set of blankfaces for another.

My own position consists of a radical rejection of every totalizing ideology or principle, to whatever extent it yields blankfaced results in specific cases: a person jailed, shamed, or expelled from college who was obviously innocent; thousands dead from a disease even though a safe, effective, affordable cure or vaccine was known; etc. etc. If forced to give a name to my position, I say “Enlightenment liberalism,” since I understand that to be not so much an ideology as set of mental habits and methods—and moreover, ones that have enormous overlap with the mental habits and methods of science.

129. Rana Dexsin Says:

Basil Marte #106: Maybe “dysagonist”?

130. Michael Says:

@Scott#126- Let’s be clear about something, Scott. The vast majority of nursing home deaths weren’t caused by Cuomo’s policy:
https://www.syracuse.com/news/2021/03/why-cuomos-death-order-didnt-really-cause-nys-nursing-home-carnage-a-reality-check.html
Cuomo’s order might have increased the death toll- say by a thousand deaths. But most of the deaths in the nursing homes were caused by the spread of the virus among employees.
Cuomo’s order was a reasonable error considering how chaotic things were in New York- and in other states like New Jersey and Michigan- during the early stages of the pandemic.
What was not so understandable was the mathematical slight of hand he pulled with the death figures in the nursing homes. But Cuomo didn’t actually LIE- he just used the method of counting that would produce the fewest number of deaths. Every reporter knew that he was using such a method- and you saw that mentioned in discussions of New York’s nursing home deaths. That’s why Cuomo probably can’t be charged criminally for his creative counting- everyone knew he was using a method that would produce an undercount.
The groping, on the other hand, was clearly illegal. That’s why many Democrats regard it as the grevious sin.

131. walruss Says:

Frank, exactly.

What Scott’s post misses is that “not acknowledging that this whole thing is absurd” is part of the job. Saying “yeah I know it’s nuts, I wish I could help” is a firing offense.

I worked for a state agency, won’t go into the details. But the short version is that we issue licenses and for any given license, if the person had a criminal history of any kind, they had to undergo a time-consuming process involving several hearings. These weren’t, like, medical licenses, they were for day-to-day activities. So if you had a possession of cocaine from 2014 you’d have to go through an arduous process before you’d be allowed to work.

Every license was approved. That’s not a joke. The Powers That Be ultimately denied about one license a year for criminal history reasons. Murderers and child abusers got licenses. So people would call me, understandably terrified that they were going to lose their livelihoods. And I would tell them that I didn’t make the final decision, but the approval rate was very high and not to worry.

And I’d get called in and placed on probation, because one time out of ten, the person gave my name in a “why do I have to do this” letter to the governor or something. And for six months, I’d have to be very very careful. And then at six months and one day, I’d get a “you may show empathy to another human being” credit and I’d immediately spend it.

If you caught me on month two and asked me what the heck was going on, I would absolutely recite in a monotone voice the exact notice that we had mailed you, and refuse to give any additional details. The choice was that or missing rent.

Ultimately I realized (much later than I should have) that there is a difference between “my current employment” and “my employability” and I was able to get out. But that’s a big ask. Most people have to just suck it up and be horrible.

Scott #128,

Would you have wanted Cuomo to go even if he had managed the pandemic perfectly and his only offense was “groping female staffers”?

133. Scott Says:

PublicSchoolGrad #132: Cuomo’s behavior was reprehensible, but I can’t answer your hypothetical without knowing more details. Who would he be replaced by in your fictional universe—someone equally good, or someone as likely to disastrously mismanage the pandemic as real-world Cuomo?

To calibrate, I felt at the time like the removal of Al Franken was a tragic mistake—depriving the country of one of the most effective opponents of Trump, for behavior that merited censure rather than political annihilation—and I’m glad that with hindsight, many other Democrats now see it the same way. But Cuomo’s behavior also strikes me as considerably worse.

134. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Yet more mistakes in papers Says:

[…] The Blog of Scott Aaronson If you take nothing else from this blog: quantum computers won't solve hard problems instantly by just trying all solutions in parallel. Also, next pandemic, let's approve the vaccines faster! « On blankfaces […]

135. asdf Says:

I goofed up by crediting “I want them infected!” on Scott Atlas. The true originator of that gem was Paul Alexander:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jemimamcevoy/2020/12/16/we-want-them-all-infected-trump-appointee-repeatedly-pushed-for-herd-immunity-while-at-hhs

Meanwhile, Texas apparently forbids testing and mask mandates in schools, but you need a negative test to meet with your legislator:

On the question of blankfaces, there was a quote (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6234153 ) that I saved a while back, that explains a lot of blankface-ism, imho:

Let’s not misunderstand people because each one of us wants to hear
positive news everyday. Stuff like Kanye’s baby. This is not an
unexpected behavior because ordinary people like us really want only
one thing: *Not being hassled by assholes.*

That is, the people in those unhappy bureaucratic posts consider their workload to be annoying and do whatever they can to prevent interruptions to routine. It’s understandable even though it’s a crappy situation. By that logic though, Umbridge wasn’t blankface, since she was a pureblood supremacist activist working for Voldemort iirc. In the story that I linked further up, she got to be quite rich from taking bribes.

Scott #133,

If Cuomo was replaced by someone who is just as (in)competent as him but that didn’t harrass women, would you be ok with removing him? I guess my question is, where do you draw the line? If someone is very effective at their elected government job but was harassing women or breaking the law in other ways, do we look the other way?

I do think that there is a threshold beyond which a public servant should be removed from office. The question where to draw the threshold.

137. D Says:

Some people meet more blank faces that others.

At different times in our lives we meet more blank faces than other times.

Partly this is down to things largely outside our control, looks, charisma etc.

Partly it’s down to our attitude – people detect even a slight negative tone in others voices, emails etc. and react negatively themselves.

Partly it’s down to how we argue, discuss etc – people don’t like to be persuaded by brute logic, they don’t like to be proven wrong, they don’t like to feel put under pressure to make a decision.

138. Sniffnoy Says:

I feel like a lot of the people objecting to the concept haven’t read the clarifications. Like, I do not buy the explanation that people do this because to do otherwise is too much emotional work. No, a simple acknowledgement that the rules may be stupid but you are still required to enforce them is not that much work.

By contrast, walruss’s explanation #131 is an actual explanation — in many cases one may not allowed to acknowledge that the rules are stupid because this may expose the organization to some sort of liability.

Of course this only applies to cases of fastidiously enforcing the rules, not cases of being a petty tyrant while hiding behind them. (That swimming pool example is shocking.) But then again, some of these cases may be examples of people being obstructive because they won’t get in trouble for incorrectly denying someone, but they might get in trouble for incorrectly letting someone though…? :-/

There still might be some individual failures of “seeing through” but I’m kind of doubtful of that as an explanation for much of it.

139. Anonymous Says:

I’m going to attempt a defense of certain kinds of blankfaceness.

I really enjoyed this post, but after reading I had a nagging feeling that it reminded me of something. Finally, it came to me: a passage in an article about firing of AI safety researcher Timnit Gebru from Google.

(Important  warning: I don’t have first hand knowledge of the event, moreover, everything I know is based on one article and a discussion on ML Reddit.

It is very much possible that Dr Gebru is a wonderful coworker and Google fired her for legitimate criticism of their AI program. But let’s pretend for a moment we live in a hypothetical universe where what I read is true and my interpretation is correct).

When explaining the reason for firing Gebru Jeff Dean said that this was because they were dissatisfied with her paper “Stochastic parrots”, “because one of its eight sections didn’t cite newer work showing that large language models could be made less energy-hungry. Dean repeated the point so often inside Google that some researchers joked that “I have an objection to Parrots section three” would be inscribed on his tombstone”. The article really does make it feel very much like a blankface kind of thing.

But also after reading more of the article and especially the Machine Learning reddit discussion one is left with an impression that Timnit Gebru created a toxic environment in Google, with a number of anecdotes of how she used activism as a shield and weapon to bully coworkers and derail projects. If that was the reason for firing her, what alternative to being blankfaces did they have?

Ok, I don’t really know enough about the situation. But in my personal life I did once meet someone who’s really there to get you: to twist every single word you say in ways you can’t predict or imagine, create as much conflict as possible (even when it appears to be against their interests), while always pretending (or sincerely believing to be?) operating in good faith. How to protect yourself from such a person? Don’t interact with them at all, but if you have to, be a blankface.

I can totally see how I can be a blankface to them: repeat a vacuous formal statement again and again while secretly smiling: I know you are yearning to hurt me (drain as much energy from me as you can/ sue me / destroy my organization / make everyone hate me / destroy my life / … ), but I will not give you this pleasure.

Of course, people like that are rare. But once you meet one of them, you may become a bit more cautious, a bit more of a blankface with any new person, because who knows? And large organizations encounter many such people, so they often make a choice of treating everyone this way.

One can also put it differently: The price that the author of this blog has paid for not being a blankface is having people like Amanda Marcottee and Arthur Chu significantly affect his life. Many people and most organizations are not prepared to pay that price, and choose to be blankfaces instead (with all the terrible consequences described in the post).

140. DR Says:

Here is the blankface’s side of the story. 🙂

Great shows, by the way – “Yes Minister”, as well as “Yes, Prime Minister”.
https://youtu.be/cIYfiRyPi3o

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