by Zetsu

As a culture, I believe we face a serious problem that people are generally not comfortable talking about.  Because we are a culture that values freedom, independence and tolerance, we are loathe to tell people that anything they are doing is wrong.  In fact, many of us, myself included, generally accept people doing just about anything they want in the name of kink as long as it is consensual and all parties know what they are getting themselves into.

But unless education is your kink, I don’t think the same standards apply.  When you stand up in front of a class, you bear a special responsibility because by virtue of the fact that someone (a club, a conference, a dungeon) has invited you to teach.  You gain both credibility and authority.

And this is the core of the problem.  We have no objective criteria to establish who is credible as a teacher and who isn’t.  Almost every other forum for learning has one of two means for assessing skill.  Either you have some sort of professional credentials (a degree or certification) or you have some sort of commercial or professional success.  Sometimes you have both.

Both are, if not objective, at least third party verification.  We have nothing like that.  Even worse, when we do have teachers with professional credentials or degrees they often can’t share that (at least in a verifiable way) without being out.

So how do we judge our presenters?

There seem to be two metrics:  We like what they do or they have been doing it a long time.

Both of these things are problematic for the same reason: competence.

I have just come across a fascinating essay which proposes, tests, and validates a theory about metacognition and competence and I think it goes a long way to diagnosing what is wrong with education in the lifestyle.

The essay, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments” was written by Kruger and Dunning and was published in 1999 (also confirmed by [][Ehrlinger], et al with 5 additional studies in 2008).  The article found that people who lack competence in a skill or ability radically overestimate their own competence in relation to their peers.  In fact, Kruger and Dunning found that even though people had test scores that put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd percentile.

That means that people who are incompetent not only can’t see it, they consider themselves well above average.

But that is just the start of the bad news.

Those who score in the top 25% assess their competence lower (sometimes much lower) than it actually is.  So those who are the most competent are likely to be more tolerant of other people’s incompetence and likely to assume others to be competent even when they aren’t.

To quote Bertrand Russell: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

So that brings us to issue number one:  Self selection is the worst way to pick presenters because incompetent people will self select as teachers at a higher rate than competent people.

Let me say that again.  If you ask for volunteers, you are more likely to get incompetent teachers.  And for the most part, that is how we select our educators.  People who are competent generally are reluctant to teach because they don’t accurately assess where they stand in relation to others.  If you ace a test, you assume it was because the test was easy, not because you were competent.  You are likely to assume everyone else aced it to.  As a result, you are also likely to assume that anything you have to teach, people probably already know.

The school of “everyone has something to share” and “I can always learn something from anyone,” seems to have a fatal flaw.  What those people want to share and what you may be learning from them might be complete and utter bullshit.  They may just be spreading their incompetence around and if you are not already competent yourself, you lack the ability to distinguish quality information from incompetent nonsense.

Of course, we all know this about “the other guy” but we are generally not very willing to accept it about ourselves.

But if Kruger and Dunning are right, in an area where you have no expertise or competence, you will almost certainly overestimate your ability to distinguish good information from bad.  Probably by a factor of 5.

Your willingness to accept what you hear from a teacher will be based on qualities like how much you like the presenter or how effective their presentation style is, not the quality of what they say.

Nobody wants to admit this is true.  In fact, if you ask most people how good they are at sniffing out bullshit, they will probably rank themselves above average, probably around the 62% percentile.  Sound familiar?

What Kruger and Dunning showed was that incompetence is a metacognitive failure which makes you unable to see just how much you suck as well as just how much other people suck too.  Worse than that, when you actually do see someone who is competent it actually ups your own self assessment, making you think your skill is as high or higher than theirs.

Now toss that into a culture that is loathe to tell anyone that they are doing anything wrong and you produce a group of “BDSM Celebrities” who get by on confidence, showmanship, and bravado.  But at the end of the day, they are still, skill-wise, still in the 12th percentile.

Audiences, who are also incompetent (or at least not yet competent) have no ability to tell the difference.  They are relying on the institution who invited the presenter to make that call for them.  Students, by definition, lack the metacognitive skill level to assess competence.  They are likely to accept what they are taught, even if it is counter intuitive or completely wrong.

This brings us to problem number two: if you are incompetent, hanging out with competent people is not the answer.

The solution that seems obvious (and the one that we tend toward in the lifestyle) is that we try to raise the competence of those around us by serving as good examples.  The competent, it is argued, by simply providing a good example, a model, and some inspiration will raise everyone else’s game.

The problem is, Kruger and Dunning found, that not only does it not work; it makes the problem worse.

When people who are not competent are shown their own work in comparison with those who are competent, the effect is to *raise the incompetent person’s self assessment, not lower it.*
That means that if someone is incompetent at their kink, the worst thing you can do is surround them with competent people.

The problem stems from the fact that incompetence is a metacognitive failure.  If you are truly incompetent, you don’t have the metacognitive ability to realize it.  You also cannot distinguish your work from someone else’s who is actually competent.  As a result, you grossly overestimate your own performance and ability and view those who are competent as peers.

This leads to problem three: Time and experience in the lifestyle are unrelated to competence.  In some cases there may actually be an inverse relationship.

Read any conference program and look at the presenters’ bios.  The number one credential people have is basically “time served.”  Master X has been in the lifestyle for 27 years.  Sadly that tells us absolutely nothing.

As Kruger and Dunning point out, competence is a metacognitive ability and people will continue being incompetent until they have a metacognitive awakening.  Competence is defined by a metacognitive break where you recognize in your own skill or performance where it actually rates in relation to others.  If you have never had the “Oh Shit, I actually suck at this” moment, there is a very good chance you are incompetent.  Happily, it is a fixable condition.

If you look at the rope work of Akira Naka and don’t think he is better than you.  If you think what Robert Dante or Adam Winrich do with whips isn’t all that different from what you can do.  If you think that guy who all the women line up to get spanked by is slapping girls assess just like you are.  If you you think your photography is great art, yet you’ve never had a picture published or a gallery invite you to show.  If your sum total of credentialing is that whatever you are teaching “makes your dick hard or your pussy wet.”  You may well be in that 12%.

This is where the tyranny of “no right way” or “not better or worse, just different” does us the greatest disservice.

The only way that education works in this context is to show people the “right way” to do something such that they recognize that the way they are currently doing it is wrong.  Not different.  Not what “works for them.”  They need to see that they are in the 12% and, most important, that some other people are not.  That those in the 60th percentile are five times better than they are.  And that there are people out there scoring 9 out of 10, not 1 out of 10.  And they are not just different.  They are better.

Only then are you able to start the path to becoming competent.  The harsh part of this is that the only way we ever recognize that we were incompetent is by becoming competent.  That experience is humbling and we develop countless defense mechanisms to avoid it.  No one likes learning or hearing that they are incompetent.  Worse yet, we have no standard or objective measure to quantify or assess competence.  There is no test you can wave in front of their face and scream “You got 9 out of 10 answers wrong!”

So where does that leave us?

Incompetence is fine when we are talking about people in the lifestyle and what they do in the privacy of their lives, bedrooms, dungeons, etc.  Not everyone wants to be competent (although everyone likes to think they are).

But it is not OK when we are talking about our educators.

If we are serious about education in the lifestyle, we need to make sure that our educators have the basic metacognitive ability to distinguish good from bad and correct from wrong in both their own work and the work of others.

The single most important thing, I believe, we can teach to others in the lifestyle is the metacognitive ability to recognize competence in both ourselves and others.  And to be honest, I think it is something we suck at because we have made even the mention of it taboo.

Any attempt at criticism or discernment of quality will be shouted down with screams of “One True Way!” or “Elitism!”

What we do can be really fucking dangerous.  I am not saying everyone needs to be Akira Naka or Robert Dante.

What I am saying is that I would much rather take a class from someone who isn’t Robert Dante and knows it, than from someone who thinks they are Robert Dante when they aren’t even close.

It is time we start making a separation in how we judge things.  There is a difference between what we do and how we do it.  I believe that we, as a culture, need to be a better job of being tolerant about *what* it is that we do.  I believe that people should be free to explore what turns them on, thrills them, and gets them off in just about any context they want (as long as it is consensual).  This is not about judging kinks.

But I also think it is time to bite the bullet and say there are better and worse ways to actually do those things.  And, yes, there are even right and wrong ways.  Being competent in your kink means you have the ability to distinguish between choices.  Better and worse.  Right and wrong.  *How* we do things is a question of competence.

Right and wrong.  Good and bad.  Better and worse.  These are not dirty words.

Zetsu has been active in the Southern California BDSM lifestyle since 2008.  He identifies as MDHL (Male Dominant Het Leather) and is one of the executive producers of BOLD, an annual conference in Los Angeles focused on creating strong, healthy, and mutually gratifying relationships in the MDHL dynamic.  Zetsu is also a member of The Society of Monarchs, a leather brotherhood of dominant men in Southern California