On Being Anti-Reliable

There’s a scene in Tarrantino’s best movie – Jackie Brown – where Louis is telling Ordell that Melanie, after having slept with him, is trying to get him to go in with her on a plot to steal Ordell’s money. In theory, they both work for Ordell, but for Melanie the arrangement is clearly temporary.

Ordell isn’t much bothered by this "revelation," though. He already knows Melanie is a cheat, and so he knows – in theory, anyway – better than to trust her with anything important.

You can’t trust Melanie, but you can always trust Melanie to be Melanie.

Ordell takes a utilitarian approach: "predictable" is functionally equivalent to "reliable."

Louis is more deontological: you don’t keep a backstabber around, because backstabbing is wrong.

I’d just like to say I’m firmly with Louis on this one. In fact, I see it as a good litmus test of whether you have a utilitarian or deontological soul (disposition).

A certain individual at work is "reliable" in this negative sense. He has such a bad habit of assuring you he’s going to do a thing and then not coming through that it’s more practical to just go ahead and count on him not doing whatever it is he’s said he’s going to do. If he comes through, then hey, you’re pleasantly surprised, and no harm no foul! But if he doesn’t – which is the far more frequent case – then you haven’t lost anything. The interesting thing is that his rate of accomplishing tasks is much higher for those tasks he hasn’t expressly promised anyone to do. It’s like there’s a short-circuit somewhere in his brain that misinterprets "promising delivery" as "delivery," and so the task doesn’t get the attention it needs to bring it to completion. Moreover, he’s been doing this for so long that the adverse shame most of us feel when we fail to complete a task has basically maxed out on extinction: it’s just not there anymore. Recently, for example, he failed to show up for a client meeting – and I need to stress that this is an account he’s in charge of – and when asked what happened, he didn’t even bother to provide a cover story. He simply "spaced" on it – and this excuse was remarkable for how unapologetic he was about it.

On Ordell’s terms, he’s something like a model employee. Since there’s a reliable algorithm for predicting when he’ll complete tasks, we have to treat him as though he were reliable. I find that completely absurd.

What he actually is is "anti-reliable." He’s not unreliable, exactly, because you can rely on him being unreliable. But you can’t call him "reliable" either, not without debasing the term. "Anti-reliable."

To a person with a utilitarian soul, "anti-reliable" is not too different from "reliable." Maybe you’d rather have standard "reliable" for purely practical reasons – like not having to switch your "expectation" algorithm on a per-person basis, or because it just so happens that situations when people are assuring you they’ll do something are disproportionately more likely to be situations where you really need them to follow through. But the fact that there’s a pretty reliable method for predicting when he’ll be unreliable is at least useful – from a utilitarian point of view.

I’m not a utilitarian – certainly not in the strict sense. My emotional makeup reels at this line of reasoning. Consistently saying you’re going to do something and then not doing it is a bad thing, and no amount of being able to work around that makes it any better.

It’s like people who are habitually a little bit late. To me, that’s worse than being wildly unpredictable about when you’ll arrive. When a person is sometimes early and sometimes late – or is always late but by unpredictably different amounts of time – it’s practically worse for planning, but it’s also a problem that’s either fixable or isn’t. I’m willing to belive, for example, that some people are just congenitally handicapped when it comes to planning, and those people are never going to be reliably on time. That’s a problem that’s not really fixable – not without an undue amount of effort – and so you can’t really blame them for it. For other people (and I guess these are the ones who are always late, but by varying amounts), there’s a disability, but not an INability. Sort of like with me and tennis. I’m pretty bad at tennis, which sucks because I really enjoy it. Because I enjoy it, I know that if I put in a lot of effort and really practice at it, I get (temporarily, but hey) good enough at it to hold my own. Some people are like that with being on time. They can do it, but it’s harder for them. Because being on time is not like playing tennis and has consequences for other people, they also really should do it. But I accept that it’s harder for them, and I cut them a certain amount of slack.

What’s completely galling are people who are reliably 15-20minutes late. There’s a plague of this in America. If you are reliably 15-20min. late, then you’re demonstrating not only that you know how to be on time, but that you currently possess the skill to do it and just can’t be bothered. No practice is needed, and there’s no disability. All it takes is a modicum of consideration for other people’s time and the value it has to them. By always being a standard amount of time late, you’re throwing in my face that my time doesn’t matter to you – and, by implication, that I don’t.

I feel that way about the anti-reliable guy at work. If you’re batting 500 on getting things done, then there’s plausibly something wrong with your planning ability. You lack organizational skills – or something. That’s the kind of thing that I can see being either an unfixable congenitable problem, or (more likely) the kind of thing that’s really hard for some people, and something they should work on. But if you’re reliably unreliable – and specifically then when you’re asking people to believe you’re reliable – then it’s a straight-up character flaw. It isn’t that you don’t know how to plan things, or that you’re sincerely trying and failing – it’s that you’re honestly not even trying, because you just don’t feel the sense of duty that the rest of us do to keep your promises. It’s a form of gaslighting. You want people to believe you’re reliable without actually being reliable. And yeah, that pretty much makes you a horrible person.

Here comes the deontology. It’s wrong because if everyone did it, promises themselves would become meaningless. It doesn’t really matter that I can predict when you won’t follow through by just inverting the normal expectations – the fact that you’re doing this at all tells me pretty much all I need to know about how important I am to you. I’m Louis in this situation … and you’re fired.

Although in this situation, unfortunately, he’s not, because my co-founder is Ordell, and predictability matters more than character to him. He prides himself on being the kind of person that can find the good in everyone. And hey, it’s his employee – rather, someone who works more directly with him than with me – so it’s ultimately his prerogative. But me? I think not everyone is good. And I think finding good in bad people leaves you associated with a lot of bad people.

In the actual movie, in scene in question, the audience is supposed to sympathize with Ordell. Ordell is cooler and smarter that Louis, and clearly the dominant of the two. And yet, by the end of the movie Ordell is shot in the head, and the people who set him up get away with it. And why? For a lot of reasons, really – but one of them is that the unreliable Melanie was allowed to tag along on this plan and sabotaged Louis’ part in it by deliberately irritating him.

But of course the bigger one is that Jackie Brown is a deontologist too. Ordell crossed her once, and so their contract is broken. Forever. Because once you know someone is bad, you don’t keep them around.

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