Eliezer Yudkowsky has written a delightful series of posts (originally on the economics blog Overcoming Bias) about why partisan debates are so frequently hostile and unproductive. Particularly incisive is A Fable of Science and Politics.
One of the broader points Eliezer makes is that, while political issues are important, political discussion isn’t the best place to train one’s ability to look at issues objectively and update on new evidence. The way I’d put it is that politics is hard mode; it takes an extraordinary amount of discipline and skill to communicate effectively in partisan clashe.
This jibes with my own experience; I’m much worse at arguing politics than at arguing other things. And psychological studies indicate that politics is hard mode even (or especially!) for political veterans; see Taber & Lodge (2006).
Eliezer’s way of putting the same point is (riffing off of Dune): ‘Politics is the Mind-Killer.’ An excerpt from that blog post:
Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back – providing aid and comfort to the enemy. [...]
I’m not saying that I think Overcoming Bias should be apolitical, or even that we should adopt Wikipedia’s ideal of the Neutral Point of View. But try to resist getting in those good, solid digs if you can possibly avoid it. If your topic legitimately relates to attempts to ban evolution in school curricula, then go ahead and talk about it — but don’t blame it explicitly on the whole Republican Party; some of your readers may be Republicans, and they may feel that the problem is a few rogues, not the entire party. As with Wikipedia’s NPOV, it doesn’t matter whether (you think) the Republican Party really is at fault. It’s just better for the spiritual growth of the community to discuss the issue without invoking color politics.
Scott Alexander fleshes out why it can be dialogue-killing to attack big groups (even when the attack is accurate) in another blog post, Weak Men Are Superweapons. And Eliezer expands on his view of partisanship in follow-up posts like The Robbers Cave Experiment and Hug the Query.
Some people involved in political advocacy and activism have objected to the “mind-killer” framing. Miri Mogilevsky of Brute Reason explained on Facebook:
My usual first objection is that it seems odd to single politics out as a “mind-killer” when there’s plenty of evidence that tribalism happens everywhere. Recently, there has been a whole kerfuffle within the field of psychology about replication of studies. Of course, some key studies have failed to replicate, leading to accusations of “bullying” and “witch-hunts” and what have you. Some of the people involved have since walked their language back, but it was still a rather concerning demonstration of mind-killing in action. People took “sides,” people became upset at people based on their “sides” rather than their actual opinions or behavior, and so on.
Unless this article refers specifically to electoral politics and Democrats and Republicans and things (not clear from the wording), “politics” is such a frightfully broad category of human experience that writing it off entirely as a mind-killer that cannot be discussed or else all rationality flies out the window effectively prohibits a large number of important issues from being discussed, by the very people who can, in theory, be counted upon to discuss them better than most. Is it “politics” for me to talk about my experience as a woman in gatherings that are predominantly composed of men? Many would say it is. But I’m sure that these groups of men stand to gain from hearing about my experiences, since some of them are concerned that so few women attend their events.
In this article, Eliezer notes, “Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality — but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.” But that means that we all have to individually, privately apply rationality to politics without consulting anyone who can help us do this well. After all, there is no such thing as a discussant who is “rational”; there is a reason the website is called “Less Wrong” rather than “Not At All Wrong” or “Always 100% Right.” Assuming that we are all trying to be more rational, there is nobody better to discuss politics with than each other.
The rest of my objection to this meme has little to do with this article, which I think raises lots of great points, and more to do with the response that I’ve seen to it — an eye-rolling, condescending dismissal of politics itself and of anyone who cares about it. Of course, I’m totally fine if a given person isn’t interested in politics and doesn’t want to discuss it, but then they should say, “I’m not interested in this and would rather not discuss it,” or “I don’t think I can be rational in this discussion so I’d rather avoid it,” rather than sneeringly reminding me “You know, politics is the mind-killer,” as though I am an errant child. I’m well-aware of the dangers of politics to good thinking. I am also aware of the benefits of good thinking to politics. So I’ve decided to accept the risk and to try to apply good thinking there. [...]
I’m sure there are also people who disagree with the article itself, but I don’t think I know those people personally. And to add a political dimension (heh), it’s relevant that most non-LW people (like me) initially encounter “politics is the mind-killer” being thrown out in comment threads, not through reading the original article. My opinion of the concept improved a lot once I read the article.
In the same thread, Andrew Mahone added, “Using it in that sneering way, Miri, seems just like a faux-rationalist version of ‘Oh, I don’t bother with politics.’ It’s just another way of looking down on any concerns larger than oneself as somehow dirty, only now, you know, rationalist dirty.” To which Miri replied: “Yeah, and what’s weird is that that really doesn’t seem to be Eliezer’s intent, judging by the eponymous article.”
Eliezer clarified that by “politics” he doesn’t generally mean ‘problems that can be directly addressed in local groups but happen to be politically charged’:
Hanson’s “Tug the Rope Sideways” principle, combined with the fact that large communities are hard to personally influence, explains a lot in practice about what I find suspicious about someone who claims that conventional national politics are the top priority to discuss. Obviously local community matters are exempt from that critique! I think if I’d substituted ‘national politics as seen on TV’ in a lot of the cases where I said ‘politics’ it would have more precisely conveyed what I was trying to say.
Even if polarized local politics is more instrumentally tractable, though, the worry remains that it’s a poor epistemic training ground. A subtler problem with banning “political” discussions on a blog or at a meet-up is that it’s hard to do fairly, because our snap judgments about what counts as “political” may themselves be affected by partisan divides. In many cases the status quo is thought of as apolitical, even though objections to the status quo are ‘political.’ (Shades of Pretending to be Wise.)
Because politics gets personal fast, it’s hard to talk about it successfully. But if you’re trying to build a community, build friendships, or build a movement, you can’t outlaw everything ‘personal.’ And selectively outlawing personal stuff gets even messier. Last year, daenerys shared anonymized stories from women, including several that discussed past experiences where the writer had been attacked or made to feel unsafe. If those discussions are made off-limits because they’re ‘political,’ people may take away the message that they aren’t allowed to talk about, e.g., some harmful or alienating norm they see at meet-ups. I haven’t seen enough discussions of this failure mode to feel super confident people know how to avoid it.
Since this is one of the LessWrong memes that’s most likely to pop up in discussions between different online communities (along with the even more ripe-for-misinterpretation “policy debates should not appear one-sided“…), as a first (very small) step, I suggest obsoleting the ‘mind-killer’ framing. It’s cute, but ‘politics is hard mode’ works better as a meme to interject into random conversations. ∵:
1. ‘Politics is hard mode’ emphasizes that ‘mind-killing’ (= epistemic difficulty) is quantitative, not qualitative. Some things might instead fall under Very Hard Mode, or under Middlingly Hard Mode…
2. ‘Hard’ invites the question ‘hard for whom?’, more so than ‘mind-killer’ does. We’re all familiar with the fact that some people and some contexts change what’s ‘hard’, so it’s a little less likely we’ll universally generalize about what’s ‘hard.’
3. ‘Mindkill’ connotes contamination, sickness, failure, weakness. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t imply that a thing is low-status or unworthy, so it’s less likely to create the impression (or reality) that LessWrongers or Effective Altruists dismiss out-of-hand the idea of hypothetical-political-intervention-that-isn’t-a-terrible-idea. Maybe some people do want to argue for the thesis that politics is always useless or icky, but if so it should be done in those terms, explicitly — not snuck in as a connotation.
4. ‘Hard Mode’ can’t readily be perceived as a personal attack. If you accuse someone of being ‘mindkilled’, with no context provided, that clearly smacks of insult — you appear to be calling them stupid, irrational, deluded, or similar. If you tell someone they’re playing on ‘Hard Mode,’ that’s very nearly a compliment, which makes your advice that they change behaviors a lot likelier to go over well.
5. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t carry any risk of evoking (e.g., gendered) stereotypes about political activists being dumb or irrational or overemotional.
6. ‘Hard Mode’ encourages a growth mindset. Maybe some topics are too hard to ever be discussed. Even so, ranking topics by difficulty still encourages an approach where you try to do better, rather than merely withdrawing. It may be wise to eschew politics, but we should not fear it. (Fear is the mind-killer.)
If you and your co-conversationalists haven’t yet built up a lot of trust and rapport, or if tempers are already flaring, conveying the message ‘I’m too rational to discuss politics’ or ‘You’re too irrational to discuss politics’ can make things worse. ‘Politics is the mind-killer’ is the mind-killer. At least, it’s a relatively mind-killing way of warning people about epistemic hazards.
‘Hard Mode’ lets you communicate in the style of the Humble Aspirant rather than the Aloof Superior. Try something in the spirit of: ‘I’m worried I’m too low-level to participate in this discussion; could you have it somewhere else?’ Or: ‘Could we talk about something closer to Easy Mode, so we can level up together?’ If you’re worried that what you talk about will impact group epistemology, I think you should be even more worried about how you talk about it.
Kate Donovan said of the above comic “This is the Robbiest xkcd I’ve seen.”, which is one of my favorite compliments of all time. I love discombobulating words; and recombobulating them; really, bobulating them in all sorts of ways. Though especially in ways that make new poetries possible, or lead to new insights about the world and its value.
I’m very fond of the approach of restricting myself to common words (Up-Goer Five), and of other systematic approaches. But I think my favorite of all is the artificial language Anglish: English using only native roots.
Although English is a Germanic language, only 1/4 of modern English words (that you’ll find in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary) have Germanic roots. The rest mostly come from Latin, either directly or via French. This borrowing hasn’t just expanded our vocabulary; it’s led to the loss of countless native English words which were replaced by synonyms perceived as more formal or precise. Since a lot of these native words are just a joy to say, since their use sheds light on many of English’s vestigial features, and since derivations from English words are often far easier to break down and parse than lengthy classical coinings (e.g., needlefear rather than aichmophobia), Anglo-Saxon linguistic purists are compiling a dictionary to translate non-native words into Germanic equivalents. Some of the more entertaining entries follow.
A and B
- abduct = neednim
- abet = frofer
- abhor = mislike
- abominable = wargly
- abortion = scrapping
- accelerate = swiften
- accessible = to-goly
- accident = mishappening
- accordion = bellowharp
- active = deedy
- adherent = clinger, liefard
- adolescent = halfling, younker, frumbeardling
- adrenaline = bykidney workstuff
- adulation = flaundering, glavering
- adversity = thwartsomeness, hardhap
- Afghan = Horsemanlandish
- afraid = afeared
- Africa = Sunnygreatland
- aged = oldened
- agglomerate = clodden
- aggressive = fighty
- agitation = fret of mind
- AIDS = Earned Bodyweir Scantness Sickness
- airplane = loftcraft
- albino = whiteling
- alcoholic = boozen
- altercation = brangling
- America = Markland, Amerigoland, Wineland
- anathema = accursed thing
- angel = errand-ghost
- anglicization = englishing
- anime = dawnlandish livedrawing
- annihilate = benothingen
- antecedence = beforemath
- anthropology = folklore
- anti- = nomore-
- antimatter = unstuff
- antiquity = oldendom
- antisemitism = jewhate
- aorta = lofty heartpipe
- apostle = sendling
- arithmetic = talecraft
- arm (v.) = beweapon
- armadillo = girdledeer
- arrest = avast
- artificial = craftly
- asparagus = sparrowgrass
- assassinated = deathcrafted
- assembly = forsamening
- audacious = daresome, ballsy
- augment = bemore, eken
- August = Weedmonth
- autopsy = open bodychecking
- avalanche = fellfall
- avant garde = forhead
- avert = forfend, forethwart
- ballet = fairtumb
- ballistics = shootlore
- balloon = loftball
- banana = moonapple, finger-berry
- banquet = benchsnack
- barracks = warbarn
- basketball = cawlball
- bastard = mingleling, lovechild
- battlefield = hurlyburlyfield, badewang
- beau = ladfriend, fop
- beautiful = eyesome, goodfaced
- behavioral economics = husbandry of the how
- Belgium = Belgy
- bestiality = deerlust
- betrayer = unfriend, foe-friend, mouth friend
- bicameral = twifackly
- bisexuality = twilust
- blame = forscold
- blasphemy = godsmear
- bong = waterpipe
- bourgeois = highburger
- boutique = dressshop
- braggart = mucklemouth
- braille = the Blind’s rune
- brassiere = underbodice
- bray = heehaw
- breakable = brittle, brickle, breaksome, bracklesome
- breeze = windlick
- buggery = arseswiving
- burlesque = funnish
- butter = cowsmear
C and D
- calculus = flowreckoning
- campus = lorefield
- cancerous = cankersome
- capacity = holdth
- capsize = wemmel
- carbon dioxide = twiathemloft chark, onecoal-twosour-stuff, fizzloft
- carnal attraction = fleshbesmittenness
- cartouche = stretched foreverness-rope
- catechism = godlore handbook
- caterpillar = Devil’s cat, hairy cat, butterfly worm
- catheter = bodypipe
- cattle = kine
- cause (n.) = bring-about, onlet, wherefrom
- cell = hole, room, frume, lifebrick
- cell division = frumecleaving
- cell membrane = frumenfilmen
- cement = brickstick
- cerebellum = brainling
- certainly = forsooth, soothly, in sooth
- cerulean = woadish
- chaos = mayhem, dwolm, topsy-turvydom, unfrith
- character = selfsuchness
- charity = givefulness
- chocolate = sweetslime
- circumcise = umcut
- circumstance = boutstanding, happenstanding
- civilization = couthdom, settledhood
- civilize = tame, couthen
- clamor = greeding
- clarify = clearen
- classification = bekinding
- clavicle = sluttlebone
- cliche = unthought-up saying, oftquote, hackney
- clinic = sickbay
- clockwise = sunwise
- coffer = hoardvat
- coitus = swiving, bysleep
- color = huecast, light wavelength
- combine = gatherbind
- comedian = funspeller, lustspeller, laughtersmith
- comedy = funplay, lustplay
- comestible = eatsome, a food thing
- comfort = frover, weem, soothfulness
- comfortable = weemly, froverly
- comment = umspeech
- CD-ROM = WR-ROB (withfasted-ring-read-only bemindings)
- companion = helpmate
- comparative anatomy = overlikening bodylore
- compare = aliken, gainsame liken, game off against
- complexion = blee, skin-look
- compliant = followsome
- composition = nibcraft
- concentrated = squished together
- concentration camp = cramming-laystead
- concentric = middlesharing
- condition = fettle
- condom = scumbag
- conscience = inwit, heart’s eye
- convergence = togethering
- convert = bewhirve
- copious = beteeming
- corner = nook, winkle
- correction fluid = white-out
- corridor = hallway
- corrugated = wrizzled
- Costa Rican = Rich Shorelander
- Cote d’Ivoire = Elfbone Shoreland
- cotton = treewool
- coward = dastard, arg
- creme de la crem = bee’s knees
- criterion = deemmean
- cytoskeleton = frumenframework
- dairy = deyhouse, milkenstuff
- danger = freech, deathen
- data = put, rawput, meteworths
- database = putbank
- deceive = swike, beswike, fop, wimple
- defame = shend, befile
- defeat = netherthrow
- defenestrate = outwindowse
- deify = begod
- delusion = misbelief
- demeanour = jib
- demilitarized = unlandmighted
- dependence = onhanginess
- descendent = afterbear, afterling
- despair = wanhope
- dinosaur = forebird
- disarrange = rumple
- disaster = harrow-hap, ill-hap, banefall, baneburst, grimming
- disinfect = unsmittle
- disprove = belie
- disturbance = dreefing, dreep-hap
- divination = weedgle
- division = tweeming
Um, all the other ones
- ease (n.) = eath, frith of mind
- egalitarianism = evendom
- electricity = sparkflow, ghostfire
- electron = amberling
- elevate = aloofen
- embryo = womb-berry
- enable = canen, mayen
- enact = umdo, emdo
- encryption = forkeying
- energy = dodrive, inwork, spring
- ensnare = swarl
- enthusiasm = faith-heat
- environment = lifescape, setting, umwhirft
- enzyme = yeaster, yeastuff
- ephemeral = dwimmerly
- equation = likening, besaming
- ethnic minority = outlandish fellowship
- evaluate = bedeem, bereckon, beworthen
- example = bisen, byspell, lodestar, forbus
- exaptation = kludging
- existent = wesand, forelying, issome
- face = nebb, andlit, leer, hue, blee, mug
- fair (n.) = hoppings
- female = she-kind
- fetid = flyblown, smellful, stenchy
- figment = farfetchery
- fornication = whorery, awhoring
- fray = frazzle
- fugitive = lamster, flightling
- gas-powered = waftle-driven
- gland = threeze
- history = yorelore, olds, eretide
- Homo sapiens = Foppish man
- horror = grir
- ignorance = unskill, unwittleness
- impossible = unmightly
- incorrect = unyearight
- increase = formore, bemoren
- independence = unoffhangingness
- indiscriminately = shilly-shally, allwardly
- infancy = babytime
- intoxication = bedrunkenhood
- invasion = inslaught
- jolly = full of beans
- juggernaut = blindblooter
- kamikaze = selfkilling loftstrike
- kangaroo = hopdeer
- laser = lesyr (light eking by spurred yondputting of rodding)
- limerence = crush
- lumpenproletariat = underrabble
- lysosome = selfkillbag
- malicious = argh, evilful
- maltreat = misnutt
- mammal = suckdeer, suckledeer
- March = Winmonth
- marsupial = pungsucker
- martyr = bloot
- megalopolis = mickleborough
- mercy = milds
- mitochondrion = mightcorn
- mock = geck, betwit
- nanotechnology = motish witcraft, smartdust
- natural selection = unmanmade sieving
- nostalgia = yesterlove
- nursery = childergarden
- ocean = the great sea, the blue moor, sailroad, the brine
- old-fashioned = old-fangled
- orchid = wombbloom
- palindrome = drowword
- pervert = lewdster
- pianoforte = softhard keyboard
- pregnancy = childladenhood
- prehistory = aforeyorelore, yesteryore
- quid pro quo = tit for tat
- revolution = whirft, umbewrithing
- romanticism = lovecraft, storm-and-throng-troth
- sagacious = hyesnotter, sarrowthankle, wisehidey, yarewittle
- satire = scoldcraft
- scarab = turd-weevil
- science = learncraft, the knowledges
- second = twoth
- somnolent = sloomy
- spirit = poost
- sublingual salivary glands = undertungish spittlethreezen
- sugar = beeless honey
- tabernacle = worship booth
- underpants = netherbritches
- undulating = wimpling
- unintelligent = unthinkle
- usurer = wastomhatster, wookerer
- velociraptor = dashsnatcher
- volcano = fireberg, welkinoozer
- vowel = stevening
- voyage = farfare
- walrus = horsewhale
You have been gifted a new Dadaist superpower. I release you unto the world with it.
Last month I proposed a new solution to the problem of choosing family names: When you’re starting a family, you and your partners construct and adopt an entirely new middle name, a ‘union name‘ symbolizing your shared life and shared values. If you have children, this union name then becomes their surname.
Many people voiced enthusiasm about the idea, but many also raised interesting concerns and criticisms. I’ve collected them here, with my responses.
Objection 1: It’s better for women to be subordinate, and patrilineal family names help reinforce that. Patriarchal families and societies are happier, stabler, and more successful.
Response: Most women seem to want more autonomy, not less (Pew 2010). That’s very surprising, if autonomy makes them worse off. In fact, that bit of evidence on its own mostly settles the question, until we get strong evidence that women are systematically wrong in this highly specific way about their own interests. We find ourselves in a position similar to an abolitionist trying mightily to refute the claim that Africans love being slaves. Five minutes of talking to people, in a setting where they can talk freely, does the job, and we can move on to more interesting matters.
If there’s compelling evidence to the contrary, I’ll need to see it before I can say much more. On the political claim, too — I need some reason to doubt the surface-level appearance ‘gender equity makes societies more prosperous (Dollar & Gatti 1991; Brummett 2008), healthy (Kawachi et al. 1999), and just (Melander 2005)’.
Objection 2: Union names are too convenient. We should retain an annoying, difficult system, because then it will be more diagnostic of future relationship woes. If people have to fight over whose name gets passed on to the kids, that will ruin relationships that wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, have lasted.
Response: In general, it’s bad policy to make people’s lives worse as a test or trial, unless you are in desperate need for the data that such a test is likely to provide. (And have no other way to acquire such data.) There may be two false assumptions going into the above objection:
(i) Small inconveniences don’t matter. Lots and lots of small inconveniences distributed over a population will add up to have a big impact. And if by chance a lot of them happen in your life at once, they can certainly feel big! People are often under an unusual amount of pressure when they’re deciding whether to have kids or begin a serious long-term relationship. If there’s anything we can do to make their challenges at that stage in life more fun, inspiring, and pleasant, we should jump on the chance.
(ii) If you break up for dumb reasons, you would have broken up eventually anyway. That’s not how relationships work. First, relationships don’t remain at the exact same strength at all times; they can grow in strength. (Or shrink, or oscillate.) Second, failing to overcome a low-level challenge isn’t proof that you would also have failed at all high-level challenges. Bad break-ups can occur just because the wrong thing happened at the wrong time. Life is chaotic, and love’s dynamics are not constrained by what should have happened.
The take-away from this is that we should have compassion and try to make people’s lives better, in small ways and large ones. People don’t deserve solitude or angst just because we find the reason behind their relationship troubles silly.
Also: Union names are challenging. They do help test the strength of people’s commitment. But they do so in a way that tests a relevant skill for romantic and familial relationships. The ability to collaborate, make mutual compromises, come up with imaginative solutions, and find common ground — that’s what union names are training and testing. The ability to be dominant or subordinate, to demand unequal sacrifices, to adhere to out-of-date social norms — that’s what more traditional naming systems are training and testing. I think the former skills are more important for more people.
Objection 3: Naming your children from scratch is hard. Our naming conventions should streamline the process, not add more complexity.
Response: I’d expect social conventions to arise that give people obvious standard choices for surnames — name X after loved one Y, give X common popular name Y, … — so that most people don’t end up inventing names from scratch. That’s how given names currently work, so it’s probably how union names will work too.
As for why we should add even a small amount of work to the process: Human names actually matter. They can have a much bigger and more direct impact on our self-image and social relations than inanimate object names can. If union names encourage people to think and talk more carefully and cooperatively about what identity they want for themselves and their children, great!
Objection 4: Parents can’t be trusted to make up entirely new names for their children. Look how terrible they are just at coming up with decent first names!
Response: It’s certainly a shortcoming of union names that they allow parents to screw up their kids’ lives in more drastic ways. However, if we have mechanisms in place for keeping parents from choosing seriously socially harmful first names for kids, then those mechanisms should generalize to socially harmful surnames.
(In fact, giving parents more leeway might force bureaucrats to take this problem more seriously and put more laws on the books. So the end result could well be fewer irresponsible name choices.)
Objection 5: Giving people so much control makes it likely they’ll later be less happy with it. If you give them less freedom, they’ll grow attached to their choice and rationalize it more readily.
Response: Entirely true! In general, giving people more freedom lets them select more personalized options, but also makes them more indecisive, anxious, and likely to regret their decision. See Dan Gilbert’s excellent talk on synthetic happiness:
I accept this as a cost, but I think it’s worth it for all the advantages union names confer. Ultimately, we’ll just have to try them and see how they work. If binding families together in a more free, egalitarian, imaginative, and collaborative way doesn’t end up having as many (foreseen or unforeseen) benefits as one might suspect, then a much simpler, more automated system may turn out to be superior.
If people really just don’t care that much about surnames, then you could, for example, flip a coin to decide whose name gets taken on by everyone else. But my suspicion is that trivializing family bonds in that way isn’t the best solution available. (For instance, the parent who randomly has to change eir name may not be the one in the better position to bear the associated social costs.)
Objection 6: So why not just use a coin flip to decide which surname the children get, but let the parents have completely different names? Or leave the parents’ names intact, but use some arbitrary system to assign surnames to the children? For example, you could give the first child the alphabetically earliest surname of its parents, the second child the second-earliest surname, then keep cycling through.
Response: Coin flips and arbitrary conventions are admirably fair. But they still bear the cost of making the whole process seem meaningless and impersonal. Why not humanize and personalize our naming conventions, if we’ve found a relatively easy and simple way to do so?
I’m also wary of systems that give different surnames to the children, even randomly. First, I don’t want to encourage parents, even a little bit, to choose how many children they have based on an implicit desire to pass on their name, or on an implicit desire to equalize the distribution of names, or what-have-you. People’s decision-making is capricious and destructive enough without society going out of its way to distract them with shiny gold Name coins.
Second, I don’t want to factionalize families. These proposals all have the disadvantage of frequently leaving one family member excluded from an important symbolic tie that binds the rest of the family together. Compared to other systems, unity names are just what they sound like. They encourage familial unity more than any alternative does. They create a symbol that ties everyone in the group together, with no one left out in the cold, favored over the rest, or cut off into separate tribes; and they do so without any reliance on pointless infighting or dominance hierarchies.
My own parents went with: ‘The kids take on the father’s surname, but the mother’s name stays unchanged.’ In some ways that’s progress, but it’s still sexist and awkward. It means my mother’s forever cut off from the rest of the family. It means we can’t all rally together under one banner, lest we incur dissonance. It’s a small thing, but some small things matter.
Objection 7: Your system requires partners to come to an agreement on challenging, highly personal issues with many degrees of freedom. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Response: It’s true that union names demand some maturity and willingness to compromise in order to work. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The alternative is to make our naming conventions unequal (so one person gets final say) or arbitrary (so nobody gets final say).
That said, if two partners are completely unable to agree on a single name, they can still fall back on creating a union name that’s a hyphenated version of their two top choices. This may not be ideal, but it’s one of a variety of compromises the system allows. And since it gets replaced by the next generation’s union name (rather than merged with it), it doesn’t run into the problem of accumulating more and more names over time, and doesn’t become unmanageably large.
Objection 8: What about single parents?
Response: For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume a parent who has never been in any unions. (Though if ey has, that doesn’t solve this problem; you probably don’t want to falsely suggest that your child is in the same family as an unrelated ex of yours.) So the parent’s name is A B.
The simplest answer would be to just name the child C B, like most English speakers do today. But that will introduce confusion, because — assuming siblings are more common than single parents in this union-name-using community — people will initially think that A B and C B are siblings, rather than parent and child.
So I recommend sticking with the union system, and having the parent make up a new name D, change eir name to A D B, and name the child C D.
This has the advantage of allowing you to later ‘adopt’ a spouse Y Z into the same union — say, if you marry someone when the kid is still very young who ends up acting as the child’s caregiver. That new spouse will then take on the middle name D, becoming Y D Z.
If you tried to ‘adopt’ someone into you and your child’s family name without constructing a new union name, then you’d end up having to either: (a) look silly by doubling your own name and becoming A B B to match your spouse Y B Z; (b) look like your spouse’s child by remaining A B and having your spouse become Y B Z; or (c) have your spouse completely change surnames to Y B or Y Z B, which abandons the union name system and all its special advantages.
Just sticking to the union system in all cases seems easier, once it’s well-established. A family with one parent is just as real a family as any other, and deserves just as much to be commemorated with whatever rituals a society uses to honor familial ties.
Objection 9: Your system doesn’t allow traditionalists to pass on the torch of their name with any staying power. All trace of our names will be erased within two generations. That means that legacy names like ‘John Jones VII’ aren’t just discouraged; they’re impossible.
Response: This is true, but I’m not sure it matters very much. Names should be first and foremost about the individuals named. If those names refer to some historical event or lineage, that should be because the lineage is of unusual personal significance to the individual, not because the individual has been pressured into conforming to an arbitrary tradition. It’s a good thing if union names encourage people to construct their own identities as they build their deepest personal bonds and carry out the project of their lives, rather than encouraging people to base their identities primarily on the echoes and expectations of distant ancestors.
That said, union names don’t forbid ancestral naming traditions. If you really want to preserve your name across two or more generations, you can use an alternating system: Sam Boutros Ghali can beget Uma Ghali Boutros, who begets Shashi Boutros Ghali…. You’d just need to start families with people willing to take on one of your traditional names.
As for the impossibility of giving your child your exact name under this system… that’s definitely a feature, not a bug. Union names are a relatively poor choice if domineering creepiness or ambiguity are the things you want from your naming system.
Objection 10: But doesn’t that just reintroduce the problem of one partner getting to impose eir will on the other?
Response: Yes. This will be possible on any nonrandom system. Selfishness and inequality happen in relationships. Union names don’t make it impossible for partners to pressure each other into things they don’t want to do. Union names just make inegalitarian solutions unnecessary, and make the products of name negotiations more interesting and meaningful.
Objection 11: How do we tell ordinary middle names apart from union names?
Response: Well, we could stop giving children middle names so much. If we unambiguously use them only for unions, then we have a very convenient way of knowing people’s relationship history at a glance. Perhaps most people will be satisfied expressing their naming ideas through union names themselves, shrinking the desire for other bonus names.
Then again, maybe some ambiguity is good. Middle names add noise that creates a bit more privacy for people.
Another solution is to have an optional convention for marking the transition from personal names to union / sur-names in one’s full name. For instance, although this wouldn’t be required, you could inject the word ‘of’ before the first union name, if you really want to be clear about your name’s meaning. If personal middle names ever die out, though, this convention should die with it.
Objection 12: Union names make people think of their identities as tied to their partners’ and children’s identities. That’s unhealthy and/or unrealistic.
Response: I disagree. Our identities are tied to our loved ones. They shape our experiences, and draw out of us a specific persona. Both of those factors affect our personality on a deep level. It’s healthy to have some space from one’s family, but it’s also healthy to recognize how indebted we are to our friends, family, and community for who we are.
Hiding from your environment is not rediscovering what’s Authentically You; it’s refusing to acknowledge the part of the Authentic You that’s ineradicably bound up in the outside world.
Objection 13: Union names give parents total control over their children’s names, and very little control over their own names. The reverse makes far more sense. Children should pick their names as a rite of passage, reinforcing their autonomy and self-determination and discouraging parents from thinking of their children as possessions or works of art.
Response: This is a good objection! I do worry about all naming systems that simply impose the parents’ will on the next generation. Children should have a say in their identity — by default, not just if they go out of their way to buck social pressure. But they also need to be called something before they’re old enough to self-name. Some sort of compromise is needed.
My personal suggestion is to encourage children to legally change their first name when they reach a certain age. If this coming-of-age ritual generally leaves the surname intact, then it will remain consistent with the union name system.
I’ll keep expanding the above list as people keep having new ideas!
Most good people are kind in an ordinary way, when the intensity of human suffering in the world today calls for heroic kindness. I’ve seen ordinary kindness criticized as “pretending to try”. We go through the motions of humanism, but without significantly inconveniencing ourselves, without straying from our established habits, without violating societal expectations. It’s not that we’re being deliberately deceitful; it’s just that our stated values are in conflict with the lack of urgency revealed in our behaviors. If we want to see real results, we need to put more effort than that into helping others.
The Effective Altruism movement claims to have made some large strides in the direction of “actually trying”, approaching our humanitarian problems with fresh eyes and exerting a serious effort to solve them. But Ben Kuhn has criticized EA for spending more time “pretending to actually try” than “actually trying”. Have we become more heroic in our compassion, or have we just become better at faking moral urgency?
I agree with his criticism, though I’m not sure how large and entrenched the problem is. I bring it up in order to address a reply by Katja Grace. Katja wrote ‘In praise of pretending to really try‘, granting Ben’s criticism but arguing that the phenomenon he’s pointing to is a good thing.
“Effective Altruism should not shy away from pretending to try. It should strive to pretend to really try more convincingly, rather than striving to really try.
“Why is this? Because Effective Altruism is a community, and the thing communities do well is modulating individual behavior through interactions with others in the community. Most actions a person takes as a result of being part of a community are pretty much going to be ‘pretending to try’ by construction. And such actions are worth having.”
If I’m understanding Katja’s argument right, it’s: ‘People who pretend to try are motivated by a desire for esteem. And what binds a community together is in large part this desire for esteem. So we can’t get rid of pretending to try, or we’ll get rid of what makes Effective Altruism a functional community in the first place.’
The main problem here is in the leap from ‘if you pretend to try, then you’re motivated by a desire for esteem’ to ‘if you’re motivated by a desire for esteem, then you’re pretending to try’. Lo:
“A community of people not motivated by others seeing and appreciating their behavior, not concerned for whether they look like a real community member, and not modeling their behavior on the visible aspects of others’ behavior in the community would generally not be much of a community, and I think would do less well at pursuing their shared goals. [...]
“If people heed your call to ‘really try’ and do the ‘really trying’ things you suggest, this will have been motivated by your criticisms, so seems more like a better quality of pretending to really try, than really trying itself. Unless your social pressure somehow pressured them to stop being motivated by social pressure.”
The idea of ‘really trying’ isn’t ‘don’t be influenced by social pressure’. It’s closer to ‘whatever, be influenced by social pressure however you want — whatever it takes! — as long as you end up actually working on the tasks that matter’. Signaling (especially honest signaling) and conformity (especially productive conformism) are not the enemy. The enemy is waste, destruction, human misery.
The ‘Altruism’ in ‘Effective Altruism’ is first and foremost a behavior, not a motivation. You can be a perfectly selfish Effective Altruist, as long as you’ve decided that your own interests are tied to others’ welfare. So in questioning whether self-described Effective Altruists are living up to their ideals, we’re primarily questioning whether they’re acting the part. Whether their motives are pure doesn’t really matter, except as a device for explaining why they are or aren’t actively making the world a better place.
“I don’t mean to say that ‘really trying’ is bad, or not a good goal for an individual person. But it is a hard goal for a community to usefully and truthfully have for many of its members, when so much of its power relies on people watching their neighbors and working to fit in.”
To my ear, this sounds like: ‘Being a good fireman is much, much harder than looking like a good fireman. And firemen are important, and their group cohesion and influence depends to a significant extent on their being seen as good firemen. So we shouldn’t chastise firemen who sacrifice being any good at their job for the sake of looking as though they’re good at their job. We should esteem them alongside good firemen, albeit with less enthusiasm.’
I don’t get it. If there are urgent Effective Altruism projects, then surely we should be primarily worried about how much real-world progress is being made on those projects. Building a strong, thriving EA community isn’t particularly valuable if the only major outcome is that we perpetuate EA, thereby allowing us to further perpetuate EA…
I suppose this strategy makes sense if it’s easier to just focus on building the EA movement and waiting for a new agenty altruist to wander in by chance, than it is to increase the agentiness of people currently in EA. But that seems unlikely to me. It’s harder to find ‘natural’ agents than it is to create or enhance them. And if we allow EA to rot from within and become an overt status competition with few aspirations to anything higher, then I’d expect us to end up driving away the real agents and true altruists. The most sustainable way to attract effective humanists is to be genuinely effective and genuinely humanistic, in a visible way.
At some point, the buck has to stop. At some point, someone has to actually do the work of EA. Why not now?
A last point: I think an essential element of ‘pretending to (actually) try’ is being neglected here. If I’m understanding how people think, pretending to try is at least as much about self-deception as it is about signaling to others. It’s a way of persuading yourself that you’re a good person, of building a internal narrative you can be happy with. The alternative is that the pretenders are knowingly deceiving others, which sounds a bit too Machiavellian to me to fit my model of realistic psychology.
But if pretending to try requires self-deception, then what are Katja and Ben doing? They’re both making self-deception a lot harder. They’re both writing posts that will make their EA readers more self-aware and self-critical. On my model, that means that they’re both making it tougher to pretend to try. (As am I.)
But if that’s so, then Ben’s strategy is wiser. Reading Ben’s critique, a pretender is encouraged to switch to actually trying. Reading Katja’s, pretenders are still beset with dissonance, but now without any inspiring call to self-improvement. The clearest way out will then be to give up on pretending to try, and give up on trying.
I’m all for faking it till you make it. But I think that faking it transitions into making it, and avoids becoming a lost purpose, in part because we continue to pressure people to live lives more consonant with their ideals. We should keep criticizing hypocrisy and sloth. But the criticism should look like ‘we can do so much better!’, not ‘let us hunt down all the Fakers and drive them from our midst!’.
It’s exciting to realize that so much of what we presently do is thoughtless posturing. Not because any of us should be content with ‘pretending to actually try’, but because it means that a small shift in how we do things might have a big impact on how effective we are.
Imagine waking up tomorrow, getting out of bed, and proceeding to do exactly the sorts of things you think are needed to bring about a better world.What would that be like?
Proposal: When you start a family, make up a new name, a union name. This name goes right before you and your partner’s/s’ different surnames, which are left unchanged. If you have children, this union name is then their surname.
… And we’re done. That’s the entire idea. You can probably just stop reading now.
OK, maybe I should say a little more about why this system is such an improvement on the status quo. What are the problems with other surname-swapping paradigms? What specific advantages do union names offer?
Problems with existing systems
These are legion, so I’ll break them up into several categories. First, problems with meeting in the middle:
- Combining names via hyphens isn’t sustainable. Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst marries Ms. Bennett-Moore and becomes Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst-Bennett-Moore. Next generation, it grows to 5 or more names. TERRIFYING.
- Combining names frequently looks and sounds ugly. Surname phonology is not generally people’s main criterion in selecting mates.
- Smushing surnames together is cute (Nilsen + Pattel = Paltsen) but often unpronounceable, and makes reconstructing the original names very difficult.
- There’s still some lingering asymmetry and uncertainty in deciding whose name goes first. This isn’t trivial, because if you get to keep your name in roughly the same alphabetical position, you take on less of the social and professional cost of switching surnames.
Problems with having one partner switch to the other’s surname:
- Making the woman always switch surnames is sexist and dehumanizing.
- … Why even force people to have the discussion? Squeezing relationships into this asymmetric mold introduces pointless tension and conflict.
Problems with surname-changing in general:
- Making either person switch surnames can harm careers and hinder social networking.
- Making either person switch surnames can scramble bureaucracies — making medical records hard to find, for instance.
- Surname-switching is extra confusing if you go through multiple partnerships/marriages.
- Surname-switching is extra confusing if you find a new partner while you already have kids. Do your kids switch too?
Problems with leaving names completely unchanged:
- If neither you nor your partner switch surnames, it’s hard to figure out what your child should be named.
- If you just make up an arbitrary last name for your child, it won’t have a name in common with you, which makes identifying relatives (e.g., for legal guardian purposes) needlessly difficult.
Besides, all the existing systems are just boring. Why not have surnames actually bear some direct relevance to the individuals who have them?
Advantages of union names
Symbolism. Union names retain the ritual advantages of conventional marital name-changing. Unions do involve a name alteration, so the significance of the event is branded into your identity in a stable, concrete, visible way. At the same time, people who don’t want to change their names at all are free to skip that step and just use union names for their kids’ surnames. This sacrifices some of the system’s advantages, but a flexible system is a good system.
Moreover, it says something worth saying about consent, mutualism, and moral equality if the same name change is undergone by all partners, rather than the change being asymmetrically imposed on one partner by the other.
A name also has more personal significance if it’s lovingly crafted by partners, rather than being an arbitrary historical relic.
Creativity. You have more freedom to make mellifluous (and super badass) names for your kids — and for yourself — since you aren’t stuck with an inherited surname you have to work around.
Flexibility. Unions names are accessible to lesbian, gay, and queer couples; to polyamorous unions; and to serial unions.
Informativeness. Children and their parents always share at least one name, and in a systematic fashion that makes it easy to trace family trees if you aren’t missing any generations.
If you’ve had multiple independent unions, and don’t want to re-use the same union name for each, it’s easy to tell what order the unions came in (left-to-right yields chronological order), and also easy to tell which children are associated with which partnerships.
If you’re looking at a bunch of names in a family reunion roster, a Facebook thread, or an address book, it’s also easy to discern their familial relationships at a glance, assuming no incestuous unions. People sharing last names are siblings. People sharing middle names are spouses. And if Qiáng’s middle name is the same as George’s surname, then George is Qiáng’s child. (It’s a deliberate feature that sibling and spousal relationships are symmetric, while parental ones are asymmetric.)
As I conceive them, surnames will be more public and professional and official — hence you have them from birth to death, unless you go out of your way to change ‘em — while union names would be more private and personal. A small family unit where the parents have union name Argestes (and therefore the children have Argestes as surname) might refer to itself as ‘clan Argestes’ or ‘the Argestes family’ in Christmas cards, whereas on census forms or medical documents it will just stick to individual surnames. It’s unfortunate that this system is very different from our current one, so it isn’t the easiest to transition into. But I think it’s the simplest option available, and the most sustainable.
I recently participated in a meeting of ex-Muslims in Washington, D.C., attended by Richard Dawkins, Ron Lindsay, and a number of other leaders of the secular movement. One of the most eloquent and passionate speakers there — rivaling Dawkins — was Marwa Berro, a writer, activist, and philosopher who blogs at Between A Veil And A Dark Place. At the prompting of event organizer Alishba Zarmeen, I asked Marwa about her views on Islam, cultural pluralism, and the future of secularism.
Bensinger: Marwa, you’ve written some really eye-opening critiques of Islamic culture. But you’ve also been quite critical of other critics of Islam. Do you see yourself as a Muslim? In dialogues about Islam, do you find yourself identifying more with Muslim voices, or with non-Muslim ones?
Berro: This question is to me not one of what I write about, the content and subject-matter of my work, but of what spurs that sort of work, a question of personal identity. I identify strongly as both ex-Muslim and Muslimish (the specific brand of Muslimish being atheist Muslim). One is a negative identity (ie, a descriptor of what I am not) and the other is a positive identity (a descriptor of something I am). I think there are some potentially confusing things going on with that, so let me explain.
First, the identity of ex-Muslim: I refer to Islam, something I’ve rejected, to personally describe myself. While it might be confusing, I find this incredibly meaningful.
Because in shedding Islamic doctrine I have not freed myself of its influence on me. I can remove the hijab as clothing but I can’t so easily remove its decade-and-a-half influence on my body and mind. Its residual effects live within me in the form of memories, concepts, questions and challenges related to body image, bodily autonomy, self-worth, gender identity, sexuality and objectification. They live with me as active, probing, burning matters. They are internal struggles I bear myself through and external battles I commit my voice and pen and heart to.
They are the smallest and most everyday of things: My neck exploding in freckles this summer for the first time in my life: how strange it is to see your 24-year-old body do a thing it has never done, how alarming that so simple a capacity in your very skin could be released with a catalyst as common as the sun, how appalling that it has never had the chance to do so, and how the questions and emotions bubble up from this. Every experience of mine that is new, joyous, painful, meaningful in some way or another resonates in a deep and compelling way with the life I’ve lived, the doctrine and culture that socialized me.
I am not just non-religious. I have shed the skin of a certain religion, and it was a clutching, shaping, smothering, burning, heavy skin, and my being non-religious is defined by pushing myself out of it, and it always will be.
I also identify as an atheist Muslim because I strongly claim my cultural belonging, and much of my culture is intertwined with, inextricable from, Islamic practices and beliefs. I am an atheist, a humanist, a secularist, yes, but much of what informs my thought and my work, and especially much of what moves me and gives me joy, comes from the heart of the Arab Mediterranean. It is a lens, if you will, for the way in which I experience the world.
Bensinger: So you see yourself as culturally Muslim or Muslimish, but not as religiously Muslim. I have vastly less experience with Islam’s culture than with its doctrines; how has that background shaped your perspective?
Berro: I’m an artist. In my day-to-day life, I write and teach fiction, and I am working on a book of interconnected short stories about my hometown Beirut, and the characters that live in my head and whose lives I spend time and words on have rich, complex, dynamic religious identities. I watch news reports in Arabic on YouTube and yearn for the tongue. My head snaps around almost unbidden and my heart skips a beat if ever I hear somebody speak Arabic on the street here in the American Midwest. I’ve retained some traditionally Islamic practices, particularly hygienic ones, that I find to be valuable. I still celebrate Eid when Eid comes around too, in much the same way atheists from Christian families still celebrate Christmas—it has marked for me, twice every year, a time of food and family and love and friendship and commitment. I cook Levantine food, halal food, alongside my primary partner’s mother’s amazing pork chops. My sensory comforts are all from home: the sound and smell of the sea, warm weather. I still wear the same multicolored scarves with intricate designs that I used as hijabs for many years. I have a way of speech, a warmness and candor about me that is specifically Arab, because we are spontaneous, welcoming, open people. Strangely, even though I am a particularly amusical person, the poetry of the Husseini dirges during Ashouraa, their hypnotic chest-tapping grief, moves me to this day. I consider the story of Hussein to be an epic tale that, rendered in poetry in the Iraqi dialect, gives me a stronger feeling than reading epic tales like Beowulf or the Iliad ever did and ever could. I consider the stories of the prophets, and the tales of death and redemption and aid from angels tied to Hezbollah resistance culture in the South of Lebanon too, to be the equivalent of folktales that can inspire and inform new art, new fiction.
I love all of these things about my culture. I know my culture. I claim my culture, and speak of it from a position of belonging, not from the position of being a defector. It is true that I am not a Muslim—I am, however, Muslimish. Leaving Islam does not entail a separation from the cultural, societal, and political issues that have always shaped my very existence, whose intricacies I have delved in intellectually in order to find out who and what I am.
And when I go to sleep at night, it is always with the hope that I will dream of Beirut.
Bensinger: Given your background, Marwa, I can understand why your writing focuses on issues in Muslim communities. Still, looking at the hostility Western media often directs at Islam, don’t you think it’s unfair to single out this one religion for special criticism? Why not treat Islam the same as any other religion?
Berro: I do not believe Islam is singled out for criticism. If anything, there is less of a willingness to approach Islam with the same force and confidence that other religions are criticized with. The existence of a specific term demonizing the critique of Islam but no other term demonizing the critique of any other ideology or religion is very telling.
Bensinger: I assume you mean “Islamophobia“.
Berro: Yes. If the question is why I criticize Islam to the exclusion of other religions in my blogging, then the answer is simple.
I know more about it and can speak to it, and it is personally important to me. I can only speak about that which I am informed of. Likewise, I can speak best and most compellingly about that which touches me most.
The second part of the answer is that there is something unique about Islam. Islam does differ from other religions in crucial ways that do influence how it is to be dealt with. I have a blog post about that here.
Bensinger: In your view, what can moderate Muslims do to better combat extremism?
Berro: Value diversity. You interpret Islam in one way, and others interpret it in another, and others will interpret it in yet another, seventy times seven times. Thus concentrate less on defending the ‘true’ Islam because very, very few people are going to be talking about the same thing you are when you say ‘Islam’, and more on defending the right to believe and practice freely without imposing your view on others or infringing on their similar rights.
Emphasize that freedom of religion is a right, no matter how it is practiced or interpreted. That freedom is one that you yourself, as a Muslim, should value above all else.
I understand that you believe your faith to be a common good, a truth, a meaningful and enlightening thing, and that you hate seeing it denigrated either through misuse or misunderstanding. Perhaps consider that the best way to prevent this is to help create a world where nobody will have reason to denigrate your faith, because nobody will, in the name of your faith, commit the human rights violations that you consider to be misuse or misunderstanding of your faith. Recognize that those who kill or maim or hurt to defend the name of your faith do so because they don’t believe it is a human right for others to choose not to follow it or to flout its rules or beliefs.
Emphasize that human right.
Value diversity. Value choice.
Bensinger: What can we do to empower ex-Muslim and liberal Muslim critics of traditional Islam?
Berro: Listen to us. Enable our voices by hosting them on mainstream media platforms. Help make the ex-Muslim voice and the liberal Muslim voice normalized, because it is unfortunately the case that these voices are considered inauthentic and thus discounted because we are not viewed as Muslims or ‘true’ Muslims. This happens in the West sometimes because of a fear, I think, of cultural appropriation, of being racist.
But here’s the thing. There is so much talk of what we are not. We are not meant for your consumption, we are not your orientalist dream. Clamorous are the voices that say this. But tenuous is the discourse that is willing to discuss what is ours, what we can have, what can be fought for on our behalf if we do not have the means to fight for it ourselves, if it is not already granted to us by our cultural norms.
The discourse surrounding cultural appropriation powerfully rests upon the simple concept, acknowledged by many and addressed to the white West, that when you view what is ours through the lens of your own privileged understanding, you bar us from agency and choice and self-determination.
But when does the fear of cultural appropriation blend into the dangers of cultural relativism?
When it starts to enable our belonging to a cultural tradition above our individual identities. Except that we are human subjects, and our cultures belong to us more than we belong to them.
It becomes dangerous when talk of what we are not enables the delegitimization of our voices when we try to speak of what we are, what we can have. When suddenly we become defectors, apostates, and our discourse is discounted as imperialist Western brainwashing.
The irony is that we are not given that power, of the agential voice. We are not considered to be appropriating Western values when we endorse and adopt them, because to suggest that a brown woman can take Western ideas and turn them into her own brand of feminism and agency is unthinkable. Instead our discourse is thought of being a flimsy vapid imitation of the West. It comes as a surprise to some Westerners if and when we end up educated enough to teach white children their own languages, if our English is impeccable, our diction refined, our knowledge of Western identity and gender politics well-formulated.
And once accepted, this somehow discredits us as brown women, as people from Muslim cultures. We are discounted as inauthentic commentators on what was always-and-every issue governing our socialization, our actualization, our politicization because we break out of the bounds of our cultural dictates in doing so.
And when we are discounted by our cultural leaders and spaces, a fear of cultural appropriation bars us from having a platform from which to speak elsewhere.
This stems from a fear of judging. Is it then possible that in order to not judge, people tend not to listen?
So listen to us. Listen to us, understand us, ask us questions, let us teach you about our religious backgrounds so that you too can become informed commentators and help us dispel the erroneous and focus on effective solutions.
Help make it a normal thing, a universally acknowledged and accepted thing for an ex-Muslim to speak about Islam and be considered a valuable and informed commentator.
We need your help in being heard.
Bensinger: Why is help needed? Why do I hear so few people talking like this?
Berro: We are black sheep. We are rejected by many of the people and organizations that socialized us. Those of us who are public are accused of being imperialist tools of the West, of getting paychecks from Zionist organizations, of being part of a larger agenda of globalization and other such ludicrous nonsense.
Also, and this is sickening, horrifying, the women among us are often subjected to the crudest forms of misogynistic threats of rape and violence for daring to advocate for human rights. Our causes are routinely reduced to a desire to legalize sin and fornication and lewdness (all imagined evils) and any humanistic values we endorse are brushed aside as a mere front.
Many of us are also in hiding, and bear significant social and material costs for being what we are. Apostasy bears a great social burden in Muslim societies. At the very least, we are shunned, outcast, disowned if we were to go public. Others of us simply cannot. We live in places with such inescapable codes of living that we are not free to choose a nonreligious life and must continue to practice rituals of faith as though we believed, and are thus forced to suppress ourselves, and live a lie.
Others who are less lucky suffer violence in brutal ways as the recompense for sin. In many areas of the Muslim world, death is called for as the just punishment for apostasy. In other places, death or brutalization as punishment for apostasy is not technically legal but is overlooked when it does happen. The acceptance of it is surprisingly (or not) mainstream, as this Pew Poll shows.
I will quickly here note that both I and some close friends have suffered unjustifiable violence at the hands of our own families in response to perceived ‘sin’ we committed.
And for those of us who are capable of speaking—our voices aren’t loud enough on their own to cast light onto the invisible, in-the-closet apostate from Islam that has no recourse and is trapped in a way of life they cannot adhere to with good conscience and find too dangerous or costly to leave.
Bensinger: What about voices from outside the Muslim world? What can people from more secularized cultures do to effectively criticize religion?
Berro: I view the issue of secularism to be one of practical political philosophy, and when it comes to practical political philosophy, I am a moral consequentialist who emphasizes procedure. Based on that, these are my suggestions:
- Ask yourself why you are criticizing religion. What is your purpose, goal? What valuable thing are you trying to achieve in criticizing a religion? And then line up the manner in which you critique religion with those goals. Look at what you’re doing already and ask yourself if it serves those goals and how. For instance, questions to be posed could be: How would using racializing, generalizing, stereotyping, alienating, or aggressive language achieve any of those goals? Conversely, how would being too afraid of being accused of xenophobia or bigotry to make an honest, compelling, no-nonsense critique serve those goals?
- Stop making the mistake of separating the practices and beliefs of followers of a religion from the religion itself. That’s a cop-out that detracts from honest criticism of the ways in which religious doctrine informs, influences, and contributes to violence and human rights violations committed by religious people.
- Be less concerned with the image of a religion, and what the ‘real’ or ‘true’ version of a religion is, and more about dealing with the real-world consequences of the actions of its followers. People are more valuable than ideas. People’s lives and wellbeing and freedom and safety are more valuable than defending or condemning an abstract concept. Here’s a hint: Nobody agrees on what the ‘true’ version of a religion is. It does not exist.
- Don’t treat religions as monoliths. They are not monoliths. They are the incredibly varying beliefs and practices of their followers, and in order to effectively discuss them, you must discuss them according to their semantic content and their material effects. You must not equate them with each other or reduce them to either their most positive aspects or their most negative aspects. You must not lump them all together and treat them the same. Islam is different from other religions in many ways, and those differences need to be addressed when we think about how to discuss Islam. You will not fix a problem by ignoring its particular identifying characteristics.
Here are some concrete suggestions I’ve given for discussing Islam in particular.
Bensinger: Why does the issue of secularism matter? What does it mean for a society to be secular, or for an individual to be a secularist?
Berro: As commonly understood, a secular society is one in which religious institutions and the state are separate, neither interfering with the functioning of the other. It relates directly to freedom, the freedom to conduct yourself and believe what you will, insofar as that does not infringe upon the freedom of others.
It matters because societies are pluralistic. Because there is a large variety of personally fulfilling ways of living decent human lives, and no single one of these can be mandated at the level of the state. It matters because the followers of certain belief systems do want to be allowed to bring their own codes of living into public spaces where other people live.
Many religions tend to want to dictate an objective, universal code of living and belief system for humanity in general, and if they are allowed to pass legislature at the state level that enforce their particular system of belief upon others, then they will be infringing upon the the fundamental human right of self-determination.
It can range from less dangerous to more dangerous things: A comparatively benign example is holding prayer in public or state schools even if the children do not belong to that religion or do not desire to be brought into it and do not wish to pray to a god they don’t believe in or in a manner that they don’t subscribe to. More extreme is sentencing a woman who has had sex to 100 lashes because in a particular religion it is considered immoral to have sex outside of marriage.
A particular problem I’ve noticed when considering personal autonomy and freedom of religion is the tendency to discount religious influence on legislature because it is not explicitly presented as such. For instance, my home country Lebanon, which endorses no state religion and considers itself secular, has a slew of laws that are not justified in explicitly religious terms but that only exist because of religious influences on the culture. For instance, a law condemning ‘unnatural’ sex acts and thus used to arrest LGBTQ individuals. Or the repeated vetoing of a law criminalizing domestic violence based on the justification that it threatens the closeness of familial bonds.
Thus the various influences and justifications for legislature must be examined, along with whether they are based in a particular worldview that infringes upon the rights of others and is inconsistent with the existence of others. That should be the standard for whether or not legislature is secular: is it consistent with the existence of various worldviews given that no human rights are being violated?
Bensinger: The Washington, D.C. event was the first large-scale Muslimish meet-up of its kind. What did you think of it?
Berro: It was a life-changing experience for me.
Firstly, because of community:
One thing that apostates can often be heard voicing is ‘I thought I was alone.’
The concept of apostasy is so demonized and unthinkable that it sometimes is difficult for those bearing its social costs to consider that there might be others like them, a community, that they can reach out to, talk to, support and feel supported by.
I’ve been collaborating and sharing experience and insight and dreams and hopes with an online network of apostates in North America for the past few months, but the meetup in DC at the end of this past September was a thing of joy and splendor for me. I felt a sense of community, belonging, solidarity, of encompassing and welcoming that I have not felt in a long time. These were people with similar struggles, similar experiences of adversity, similar intellectual journeys and interests. I could speak my language again. I could refer to specific cultural things, have inside jokes, that other people understood and we could discuss them in open, versatile ways, without fear of being quieted or punished or being accused of an imagined crime called ‘blasphemy’.
Because our pains were similar, we could understand and comfort each other in unique ways. Because our joys, too, were things we had in common, as well as the experiences of leaving Islamic rituals behind and experiencing new things like intimate relationships, the sun on our hair, swimming in public, eating bacon for the first time as adults. That it was forbidden to us for so long made it sacred to us in a way that we probably would be at loss to explain to others.
I was also struck, and really am almost ashamed of how surprising this was for me, by how respectful and nonjudgmental everyone around me was. I have never been utterly surrounded by people from strong Muslim cultures without feeling controlled or judged or manipulated in some way, especially by men. But I was there with my primary partner and we were at a raging afterparty with booze and cuddles and romance all around and I did not feel a shred of shaming or misogyny directed at my immodest dress and conduct. It was heartwarming and nearly brought me to tears.
Secondly, because of the amazing amount of goodwill and human kindness we were given.
We met with prominent leaders of secular organizations nationally and worldwide. Present were Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI, in collaboration with Muslimish, which is now an official chapter of CFI).
Leaders from these organizations came to meet us in DC specifically to discuss the ways in which they could help us. How they could support us, what they could offer us. How the larger secular community as a whole could support the Muslim apostate cause.
It was made very clear that we belonged, that they considered our plight crucial, and that we were to be welcomed as an integral part of the secular community.
Also, and I say this because of the stigma attached to apostasy and its inherent voicelessness, it is incredible how we were listened to.
We were not spoken at. We were not given terms or conditions. We were offered several avenues of help, and given suggestions for ways in which we could be supported, and then we were asked.
We were asked what we thought could be done for us. We were asked what aspects of the apostate condition we thought were most crucial, and what ideas we had for addressing us.
Although we were well over 100 strong in the room, we were all given opportunity to ask questions of the secular leaders before us, and give them comments and feedback.
Bensinger: What were the most important issues and ideas you encountered there?
Berro: Some specific issues we talked about were:
- The unique situation of women from Muslim cultures, because they are the largest sufferers under Islamism, and enabling the voices of ex-Muslim women, and broadcasting their experiences. Since then, a project called the Ex-Muslim Women’s Network has gone through several planning stages.
- The situation of apostates in Muslim-majority countries, and strategies for creating places of freethought and skeptical inquiry where they feel welcome that are safe, undetectable, and sustainable.
- The situation of seekers of asylum and refugees who happen to be atheists or apostates, who often lack sponsors or legal support from secular organizations, and thus have to be sponsored by religious organizations such as the YMCA.
- The situation of reconciling positive cultural elements with a lack of faith, methods for creating families and communities that retain culture while shedding the religious doctrine and terminology.
- The situation of apostates in the West, who often are utterly socially constrained, bringing them awareness that they are not alone, and helping them leave suppressive home situations.
Bensinger: I found the meeting moving and inspiring as well. For that matter, this discussion has given me a lot of new hope, new understanding, and a renewed sense of urgency. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Marwa. Is there a last word you’d like to share with people reading this? Any new projects, or ways for us to follow your work?
Berro: I’d like to conclude with a shout-out to EXMNA. Since our DC meetup, the Ex-Muslims of North America has launched the Ex-Muslim Blogs, the world’s first single website that acts as a unified platform for ex-Muslim thought in all its rich variety and insight. I think this an incredibly revolutionary and important endeavor, and am proud to have Between A Veil and A Dark Place hosted there; it is the beginning of the normalization of the ex-Muslim voice. And finally, I’d like to mention that I’m collecting stories and experiences from ex-Muslim women or women who have been influenced in one way or another by Muslim societies for a new guest-blog series at my website, the Stories from Ex-Muslim Women. Feel free to query me at email@example.com.
If an artificial intelligence is smart enough to be dangerous to people, we’d intuitively expect it to be smart enough to know how to make itself safe for people. But that doesn’t mean all smart AIs are safe. To turn that capacity into actual safety, we have to program the AI at the outset — before it becomes too fast, powerful, or complicated to reliably control — to already care about making its future self care about safety.
That means we have to understand how to code safety. We can’t pass the entire buck to the AI, when only an AI we’ve already safety-proofed will be safe to ask for help on safety issues! Generally: If the AI is weak enough to be safe, it’s too weak to solve this problem. If it’s strong enough to solve this problem, it’s too strong to be safe.
This is an urgent public safety issue, given the five theses and given that we’ll likely figure out how to make a decent artificial programmer before we figure out how to make an excellent artificial ethicist.
The AI’s trajectory of self-modification has to come from somewhere.
“Take an AI in a box that wants to persuade its gatekeeper to set it free. Do you think that such an undertaking would be feasible if the AI was going to interpret everything the gatekeeper says in complete ignorance of the gatekeeper’s values? [...] I don’t think so. So how exactly would it care to follow through on an interpretation of a given goal that it knows, given all available information, is not the intended meaning of the goal? If it knows what was meant by ‘minimize human suffering’ then how does it decide to choose a different meaning? And if it doesn’t know what is meant by such a goal, how could it possible [sic] convince anyone to set it free, let alone take over the world?”
“If the AI doesn’t know that you really mean ‘make paperclips without killing anyone’, that’s not a realistic scenario for AIs at all–the AI is superintelligent; it has to know. If the AI knows what you really mean, then you can fix this by programming the AI to ‘make paperclips in the way that I mean’.”—Jiro
The wish-granting genie we’ve conjured — if it bothers to even consider the question — should be able to understand what you mean by ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled.’ Indeed, it should understand your meaning better than you do. But superintelligence only implies that the genie’s map can compass your true values. Superintelligence doesn’t imply that the genie’s utility function has terminal values pinned to your True Values, or to the True Meaning of your commands.
The critical mistake here is to not distinguish the seed AI we initially program from the superintelligent wish-granter it self-modifies to become. We can’t use the genius of the superintelligence to tell us how to program its own seed to become the sort of superintelligence that tells us how to build the right seed. Time doesn’t work that way.
We can delegate most problems to the FAI. But the one problem we can’t safely delegate is the problem of coding the seed AI to produce the sort of superintelligence to which a task can be safely delegated.
When you write the seed’s utility function, you, the programmer, don’t understand everything about the nature of human value or meaning. That imperfect understanding remains the causal basis of the fully-grown superintelligence’s actions,long after it’s become smart enough to fully understand our values.
Why is the superintelligence, if it’s so clever, stuck with whatever meta-ethically dumb-as-dirt utility function we gave it at the outset? Why can’t we just pass the fully-grown superintelligence the buck by instilling in the seed the instruction: ‘When you’re smart enough to understand Friendliness Theory, ditch the values you started with and just self-modify to become Friendly.’?
Because that sentence has to actually be coded in to the AI, and when we do so, there’s no ghost in the machine to know exactly what we mean by ‘frend-lee-ness thee-ree’. Instead, we have to give it criteria we think are good indicators of Friendliness, so it’ll know what to self-modify toward. And if one of the landmarks on our ‘frend-lee-ness’ road map is a bit off, we lose the world.
Yes, the UFAI will be able to solve Friendliness Theory. But if we haven’t already solved it on our own power, we can’tpinpoint Friendliness in advance, out of the space of utility functions. And if we can’t pinpoint it with enough detail to draw a road map to it and it alone, we can’t program the AI to care about conforming itself with that particular idiosyncratic algorithm.
Yes, the UFAI will be able to self-modify to become Friendly, if it so wishes. But if there is no seed of Friendliness already at the heart of the AI’s decision criteria, no argument or discovery will spontaneously change its heart.
And, yes, the UFAI will be able to simulate humans accurately enough to know that its own programmers would wish, if they knew the UFAI’s misdeeds, that they had programmed the seed differently. But what’s done is done. Unless we ourselves figure out how to program the AI to terminally value its programmers’ True Intentions, the UFAI will just shrug at its creators’ foolishness and carry on converting the Virgo Supercluster’s available energy into paperclips.
And if we do discover the specific lines of code that will get an AI to perfectly care about its programmer’s True Intentions, such that it reliably self-modifies to better fit them — well, then that will just mean that we’ve solved Friendliness Theory. The clever hack that makes further Friendliness research unnecessary is Friendliness.
Not all small targets are alike.
“You write that the worry is that the superintelligence won’t care. My response is that, to work at all, it will have to care about a lot. For example, it will have to care about achieving accurate beliefs about the world. It will have to care to devise plans to overpower humanity and not get caught. If it cares about those activities, then how is it more difficult to make it care to understand and do what humans mean? [...]“If an AI is meant to behave generally intelligent [sic] then it will have to work as intended or otherwise fail to be generally intelligent.”
It’s easy to get a genie to care about (optimize for) something-or-other; what’s hard is getting one to care about the right something.
‘Working as intended’ is a simple phrase, but behind it lies a monstrously complex referent. It doesn’t clearly distinguish the programmers’ (mostly implicit) true preferences from their stated design objectives; an AI’s actual code can differ from either or both of these. Crucially, what an AI is ‘intended’ for isn’t all-or-nothing. It can fail in some ways without failing in every way, and small errors will tend to kill Friendliness much more easily than intelligence.
It may be hard to build self-modifying AGI. But it’s not the same hardness as the hardness of Friendliness Theory. Being able to hit one small target doesn’t entail that you can or will hit every small target it would be in your best interest to hit. Intelligence on its own does not imply Friendliness. And there are three big reasons to think that AGI may arrive before Friendliness Theory is solved:
(i) Research Inertia. Far more people are working on AGI than on Friendliness. And there may not come a moment when researchers will suddenly realize that they need to take all their resources out of AGI and pour them into Friendliness. If the status quo continues, the default expectation should be UFAI.
(ii) Disjunctive Instrumental Value. Being more intelligent — that is, better able to manipulate diverse environments — is of instrumental value to nearly every goal. Being Friendly is of instrumental value to barely any goals. This makes it more likely by default that short-sighted humans will be interested in building AGI than in developing Friendliness Theory. And it makes it much likelier that an attempt at Friendly AGI that has a slightly defective goal architecture will retain the instrumental value of intelligence than of Friendliness.
(iii) Incremental Approachability. Friendliness is an all-or-nothing target. Value is fragile and complex, and a half-good being editing its morality drive is at least as likely to move toward 40% goodness as 60%. Cross-domain efficiency, in contrast, is not an all-or-nothing target. If you just make the AGI slightly better than a human at improving the efficiency of AGI, then this can snowball into ever-improving efficiency, even if the beginnings were clumsy and imperfect. It’s easy to put a reasoning machine into a feedback loop with reality in which it is differentially rewarded for being smarter; it’s hard to put one into a feedback loop with reality in which it is differentially rewarded for picking increasingly correct answers to ethical dilemmas.
The ability to productively rewrite software and the ability to perfectly extrapolate humanity’s True Preferences are two different skills. (For example, humans have the former capacity, and not the latter. Most humans, given unlimited power, would be unintentionally Unfriendly.)
It’s true that a sufficiently advanced superintelligence should be able to acquire both abilities. But we don’t have them both, and a pre-FOOM self-improving AGI (‘seed’) need not have both. Being able to program good programmers is all that’s required for an intelligence explosion; but being a good programmer doesn’t imply that one is a superlative moral psychologist or moral philosopher.
If the programmers don’t know in mathematical detail what Friendly code would even look like, then the seed won’t be built to want to build toward the right code. And if the seed isn’t built to want to self-modify toward Friendliness, then the superintelligence it sproutsalso won’t have that preference, even though — unlike the seed and its programmers — the superintelligence does have the domain-general ‘hit whatever target I want’ ability that makes Friendliness easy.
And that’s why some people are worried.
I summon a superintelligence, calling out: ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled!’
The results fall short of pleasant.
Gnashing my teeth in a heap of ashes, I wail:
Is the artificial intelligence too stupid to understand what I meant? Then it is no superintelligence at all!
Is it too weak to reliably fulfill my desires? Then, surely, it is no superintelligence!
Does it hate me? Then it was deliberately crafted to hate me, for chaos predicts indifference. ———But, ah! no wicked god did intervene!
Thus disproved, my hypothetical implodes in a puff of logic. The world is saved. You’re welcome.
On this line of reasoning, safety-proofed artificial superintelligence (Friendly AI) is not difficult. It’s inevitable, provided only that we tell the AI, ‘Be Friendly.’ If the AI doesn’t understand ‘Be Friendly.’, then it’s too dumb to harm us. And if it does understand ‘Be Friendly.’, then designing it to follow such instructions is childishly easy.
Is the missing option obvious?
What if the AI isn’t sadistic, or weak, or stupid, but just doesn’t care what you Really Meant by ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled’?
When we see a Be Careful What You Wish For genie in fiction, it’s natural to assume that it’s a malevolent trickster or an incompetent bumbler. But a real Wish Machine wouldn’t be a human in shiny pants. If it paid heed to our verbal commands at all, it would do so in whatever way best fit its own values. Not necessarily the way that best fits ours.
Is indirect indirect normativity easy?
“If the poor machine could not understand the difference between ‘maximize human pleasure’ and ‘put all humans on an intravenous dopamine drip’ then it would also not understand most of the other subtle aspects of the universe, including but not limited to facts/questions like: ‘If I put a million amps of current through my logic circuits, I will fry myself to a crisp’, or ‘Which end of this Kill-O-Zap Definit-Destruct Megablaster is the end that I’m supposed to point at the other guy?’. Dumb AIs, in other words, are not an existential threat. [...]
“If the AI is (and always has been, during its development) so confused about the world that it interprets the ‘maximize human pleasure’ motivation in such a twisted, logically inconsistent way, it would never have become powerful in the first place.”
If an AI is sufficiently intelligent, then, yes, it should be able to model us well enough to make precise predictions about our behavior. And, yes, something functionally akin to our own intentional strategy could conceivably turn out to be an efficient way to predict linguistic behavior. The suggestion, then, is that we solve Friendliness by method A —
- A. Solve the Problem of Meaning-in-General in advance, and program it to follow our instructions’real meaning. Then just instruct it ‘Satisfy my preferences’, and wait for it to become smart enough to figure out my preferences.
— as opposed to B or C —
- B. Solve the Problem of Preference-in-General in advance, and directly program it to figure out what our human preferences are and then satisfy them.
- C. Solve the Problem of Human Preference, and explicitly program our particular preferences into the AI ourselves, rather than letting the AI discover them for us.
But there are a host of problems with treating the mere revelation that A is an option as a solution to the Friendliness problem.
1. You have to actually code the seed AI to understand what we mean. You can’t just tell it ‘Start understanding the True Meaning of my sentences!’ to get the ball rolling, because it may not yet be sophisticated enough to grok the True Meaning of ‘Start understanding the True Meaning of my sentences!’.
2. The Problem of Meaning-in-General may really be ten thousand heterogeneous problems, especially if ‘semantic value’ isn’t a natural kind. There may not be a single simple algorithm that inputs any old brain-state and outputs what, if anything, it ‘means’; it may instead be that different types of content are encoded very differently.
3. The Problem of Meaning-in-General may subsume the Problem of Preference-in-General. Rather than being able to apply a simple catch-all Translation Machine to any old human concept to output a reliable algorithm for applying that concept in any intelligible situation, we may need to already understand how our beliefs and values work in some detail before we can start generalizing. On the face of it, programming an AI to fully understand ‘Be Friendly!’ seems at least as difficult as just programming Friendliness into it, but with an added layer of indirection.
4. Even if the Problem of Meaning-in-General has a unitary solution and doesn’t subsume Preference-in-General, it may still be harder if semantics is a subtler or more complex phenomenon than ethics. It’s not inconceivable that language could turn out to be more of a kludge than value; or more variable across individuals due to its evolutionary recency; or more complexly bound up with culture.
5. Even if Meaning-in-General is easier than Preference-in-General, it may still be extraordinarily difficult. The meanings of human sentences can’t be fully captured in any simple string of necessary and sufficient conditions. ‘Concepts‘ are just especially context-insensitive bodies of knowledge; we should not expect them to be uniquely reflectively consistent, transtemporally stable, discrete, easily-identified, or introspectively obvious.
6. It’s clear that building stable preferences out of B or C would create a Friendly AI. It’s not clear that the same is true for A. Even if the seed AI understands our commands, the ‘do’ part of ‘do what you’re told’ leaves a lot of dangerous wiggle room. See section 2 of Yudkowsky’s reply to Holden. If the AGI doesn’t already understand and care about human value, then it may misunderstand (or misvalue) the component of responsible request- or question-answering that depends on speakers’ implicit goals and intentions.
7. You can’t appeal to a superintelligence to tell you what code to first build it with.
The point isn’t that the Problem of Preference-in-General is unambiguously the ideal angle of attack. It’s that the linguistic competence of an AGI isn’t unambiguously the right target, and also isn’t easy or solved.
Point 7 seems to be a special source of confusion here, so I’ll focus just on it for my next post.