Trump and the world order

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My co-worker Eliezer Yudkowsky recently made the case on social media that Trump’s candidacy raises national security concerns qualitatively more serious than the sort you see in a normal US presidential race:

Every election, the Chicken Littles of both parties make a big deal out of how this year’s election opponent is the Worst Ever and Literally Hitler, and take every single thing their opponents do and try to make it sound as terrible as possible, and so on.

Okay, but here’s the thing. What does not happen every election cycle — and this happened months ago, not in the wake of the current bandwagon — is the entire Republican national security establishment going holy shit and repudiating the Republican candidate en masse.

Maybe I shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone already looks at the world and sees (a) a level of politics that’s theater and (b) a level of politics that’s deadly, deadly serious.

Maybe you heard that Trump said maybe we shouldn’t defend NATO countries if Russia invades. And you interpreted that as Trump expressing fed-up-ness with American military spending and our trying to defend everything in the world without getting much in return. Somebody in the newspapers seemed to be making a big deal out of it, just like they make a big deal out of Clinton emails. Clutching at their pearl necklaces and fainting about how terribly important it is that America honor its commitments to other countries, or something.

No.

The people in the national security bureaucracy — hell, even me, even though I’m not a national security bureaucrat and have only read a handful of military history books — heard that and thought:

Holy shit.”

Members of the Washington, DC establishment who privately laugh about sexual assault and insider trading, heard that and thought: “You don’t do that.”

And I want to try to spell out why this was so terrible. But I’m not sure it will do any good for me to try to talk about that, until I can slice off and distinguish that discussion from the “that was oh such a terrible bad idea” of the pundits that you’ve already filtered out by now.

Which is a difference that might be difficult to convey. Because the news media and the pundits and certainly all the politicians pretend that, why, of course it’s all deadly serious. It’s hard to convey without me sounding like I myself think that taking bribes and grabbing genitals are not “deadly serious”. And to be clear, it’s not that all discussion of national security is on this separate serious level, because there’s lots of pearl-clutching and professional-wrestling about national security too, in the media.

In a previous thread on my Facebook wall, about the existence of expertise, Brent Dill observed that from the perspective of somebody sufficiently ignorant, maybe there doesn’t seem to be any higher expertise in the world. “Then who builds the spaceships, dammit?” I asked, and Brent Dill replied, “They just saw a TV special on how the moon landings were faked.” From your perspective and my perspective, there are these sorts of entertaining TV shows about the moon landing being faked, and then above that is Real Science, where some things are pretty darned solid despite all the frothy arguments that go on about the replication crisis.

Okay, but what if all you see is the arguments over whether the moon landing was real, and as far as you know, that’s all there is to see? You understand that the TV shows are entertainment, but you don’t realize that there’s a non-entertainment part. Or maybe you think that “did aliens build the pyramids” is real serious science and that it doesn’t get any more serious than that. The Discovery Channel isn’t going to tell you about it. If you’re sufficiently immersed in that world, maybe it’s the only world there is.

Maybe I’m assuming too much when I assume that everybody knows that politics is theater. Maybe the reason the political theater works is that people honestly don’t realize it’s all professional wrestling. That hypothesis doesn’t seem to quite fit with people’s behavior, but maybe this is one of those things I’m not likely to understand that well?

It does occur to me, though, that I might be presuming too much in supposing that other people realize that there’s a Level B in politics as well. Maybe if you grow up with the modern media, it’s easy to think that the Level A is all that exists and there is no deadly serious politics, that people clutching at their pearls and fainting is as serious as anything ever gets.

At this point the analogy to science breaks down, because in science, the Level B above the Discovery Channel is a virtuous place where you find the real pursuit of truth. The Level B in politics is not in the same way the repository of true concern for truly important things. But the Level B in Washington, DC, the issues that people take seriously unlike insider trading, is also not just sociopaths reacting to disasters that are so bad that their own personal hometown might get a nuclear missile. The Level B does contain more stuff than that. The Level B is also not the upper ranks of the Illuminati where they discuss how to keep power and worry about things so bad that they might affect their personal stock prices, because there aren’t any Illuminati and Washington, DC doesn’t work like that either. It’s not the level at which people are just trying to do their jobs, because nobody in Washington, DC is just trying to do their jobs.

But it is the level where you worry about things like the stability of the Europe-Russia border, not because a journalist is going to clutch their pearls in offense because you don’t seem concerned enough, but because you actually care about the stability of the Europe-Russia border. Yes, there are people in Washington, DC like that.

I said this in a comment elsewhere on Facebook, but I’m going to repeat it here, in case there’s people on my Facebook wall who haven’t seen it before:

My reading of history books is admittedly biased by having read about historically interesting cases. This does tend to be cases where things went very right, or more usually, very wrong. American revolution, French revolution, World War I, World War II.

Perhaps there are dozens of other cases where a country elected an impulsive, chaotic, populist leader and nothing whatsoever went wrong.

But when I think of Trump, I think of Hitler, and not in the generic sense of “Hitler” meaning “bad”. I think of the British diplomats who sent Hitler a sternly worded note on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, warning that Britain would defend Poland even though they hadn’t defended Czechoslovakia. According to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Hitler read the note himself instead of having his diplomatic corps explain it to him, and interpreted the standard diplomatic politesse as conciliatory and a go-ahead to invade Poland.

I once played a four-hour live simulation/game called the National Security Decision-Making Game, which was run by various people who were ex-whatevers. There were around 80 of us simulating just 3 different countries, with myself trying to play the Secretary of Defense of the US.

Thinking myself probably above-average intelligence for the room, I’d originally asked for a position that involved intrigue; I was given the title for Director of National Intelligence. But somebody who’d played the game before said he really wanted to be DNI, so I traded it for his Secretary of Defense position. Which I’m glad happened, because my ambitions rapidly went from world optimization to “Understand what is happening immediately around the Department of Defense.”

By the end of NSDM, I left with a suddenly increased respect for any administration that gets to the end of 4 years without nuclear weapons being used. We did not do that well in our NSDM session. I left with a greatly increased appreciation of the real skill and competence possessed by the high-level bureaucrats like the Secretary of Defense who keep everything from toppling over, and who understand what the sternly worded diplomatic notes mean.

I think that a lot of the real function of government is to keep things from toppling over like they did in our NSDM session, and that this depends on the functionaries including the President staying inside certain bounds of behavior — people who understand how the game is supposed to be played. It’s not always a good game and you may be tempted to call for blowing it up rather than letting it continue as usual. Avoid this temptation. Randomly blowing it up will not end well. It can be so, so much worse than it already is.

The system isn’t as stable as it might look when you’re just strolling along your non-melted streets year after year, without any missiles ever falling on your own hometown. I don’t even know how much work it really takes to prevent everything from falling over.

If I were to try summarize very briefly why Trump’s remarks on NATO crossed a holy shit line, it’d be along the lines of: “If you read the history books, you realize that it is really really bad to have any ambiguity about which minor powers the major powers will defend; that is how World War I and World War II both started.”

And: “In the wake of the second World War that started from that kind of ambiguity, the senior leaders in both the East and the West, enemies though they may have been, decided to learn the lesson and henceforth be more clear about which countries they’d defend. Not only did Trump blow through that, he did so in a way that indicates he has no idea of how World War I started and why this is one of the things you absolutely don’t do. He doesn’t listen to advisors. He doesn’t have advisors! God knows what other guardrails he’s going to blow through!”

Trump didn’t realize he was blowing through one of the deadly serious guardrails. And Trump is not actually stupid, he does not actually have an IQ below 100, he took economics at Wharton. So it’s fine, it’s okay, it does not make you a bad person, if you also don’t know why that was so much more terrible than everything else the media is making a fuss about. Not every citizen of America needs to read The Guns of August and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, like I did, or study a vastly larger amount of real military history, like the Republican national security bureaucracy did.

However. If you want to be in the national government, you are supposed to know that this is one of those places where you talk to one of the senior bureaucrats before deciding that it is okay to mouth off about NATO commitments, or before deciding to go ahead and invade Poland.

Even people in Washington, DC who haven’t read any history books understand that part, because most people in Washington, DC do know that politics has a deadly serious level as well as a media theater level.

What Trump said wasn’t a gaffe, it was not one of those things that you’d have to be an idiot to say in front of journalists, it was a world-threatening misstep in the real-life version of the National Security Decision-Making Game.

And now Xi Jinping is thinking about the part where Donald Trump said “Why do we have all these nukes if we can’t use them?” and wondering whether China can take for granted America’s possession of nuclear weapons given that America’s electoral system seems to allow for a certain kind of President. That has already happened and cannot be undone. Even though Donald Trump doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the NSDM, the NSDM gives a fuck about him.

Like it or not, there is in Washington, DC a perceived difference between “committed sexual assault” and “violated the system guardrails that prevent World War III”. Some people in Washington, DC think sexual assault is a big joke, and other people honestly believe it is quite bad and would be just as swift to fire any abuser whether or not the journalists knew about it. But both of those kinds of people understand that the current culture in Washington, DC dictates a difference.

And I’m glad that cultural rule exists, because the Level A culture where everybody clutches their pearls and every gaffe indicates a life-threatening level of incompetence and everything is oh so terribly serious, is not a culture where policy-making can take place. The fact that there are quiet backroom talks with no journalists present, in which at least some people are actually concerned about the Europe-Russia border, is why the Earth hasn’t already blown up.

Again, it’s not that all discussion of national security takes place on that level, there’s lots of theater about that too, the entire Transportation Security Administration is well-known to be pure theater. But there’s also cases where somebody blows through the real actual guardrails, which is when the senior bureaucrats in your own party repudiate you.

That didn’t happen to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she made a move about suggesting a no-fly zone over Syria. Because that’s a kind of move people make sometimes in the NSDM. Some people disagreed with that as a Level B move, and maybe some of those people wrote Level A articles about how terribly wrong and serious it was; but nobody who understood that Level B existed went holy shit over it. From their standpoint the difference is clear-cut, even if it so happens that you can’t immediately perceive that difference and what Clinton did sounds maybe arguably just as bad as what Trump did. The holy shit reaction to Trump from senior national security bureaucrats, and from a lot of smart people you know who never seemed that worked up about Mitt Romney in 2012, is one cue as to what just happened. Even though you can’t tell the difference yourself and maybe shouldn’t expect to be able to tell the difference yourself. Certainly the media isn’t going to tell you about the difference, because everyone in the Level A theater has to pretend that all the professional wrestling is terribly, terribly serious.

Maybe you wish that Washington, DC culture would take sexual assault more seriously, as something deadly serious in its own right, as serious at it is possible to be — instead of some people laughing it off, some people being frankly offended, and everyone in Washington, DC tacitly understanding that this is not one of the issues that everyone has agreed to take deadly seriously even when no journalists are looking.

Maybe you look at that, and conclude that this ‘deadly serious level of politics’ thingy does not respect your own values and priorities. Maybe you conclude that the kind of political issues people are fighting over theatrically in the newspapers are, yes, every bit as vital to you as that so-called ‘deadly serious’ stuff, even if a lot of other people are treating them as entertainment.

I think you’re making a dreadful mistake. Scope is real. If you ever have to choose between voting a convicted serial abuser of children into the Presidential office — but this person otherwise seems stable and collected — versus a Presidential candidate who seems easy to provoke and who has ‘bad days’ and doesn’t listen to advisors and once said “Why do we have all these nukes if we can’t use them?”, it is deadly important that you vote for the pedophile. It isn’t physically possible to abuse enough children per day over 4 years to do as much damage as you can do with one wrong move in the National Security Decision-Making Game.

An evil but sane NSDM player is far, far less dangerous than an impulsive one who doesn’t care all that much about what the rules of NSDM are supposed to be.

That’s one reason why people at my level of national security expertise and above–and there’s a hell of a lot of headway above me on that one–went into holy shit mode over Donald Trump, on both sides of the aisle.

Programmer Michael Keenan details the circumstances under which ambiguous alliances sparked WW1 and WW2, as well as the Korean War and the Iraq-Kuwait War.

Maritime security author John-Clark Levin’s “How Trump Could Realistically Start a Nuclear War” picks one example of how Trump’s temperament is likely to increase the probability of international catastrophes:

[…] Trump has pulled off a stunning victory. Transition team Chairman Chris Christie’s first task is assembling a solid national security staff, but most of the top officials who would normally serve in a Republican administration refuse to serve under Trump (many have already stated this publicly).

So instead of the smartest and ablest leaders, Trump is forced to fill essential defense and intelligence posts with hacks  —  the B-level talent whose ambition overcomes their objections, and the C-level talent whose loyalty wins them undeserved appointments. Some good people do go to work in the Trump White House, judging they’d rather be in the Situation Room than the alt-righters who’d otherwise get their jobs. Maybe, they think, they can influence Trump for the better.

By the end of Trump’s first 100 days, though, it’s clear that his lifelong leadership style will not change. First, he surrounds himself with people who flatter him and tell him whatever he wants to hear, because he is a “great loyalty freak.” Second, he can’t take criticism or dissent, and sees these as disloyalty that must be punished. Third, he has a profound insecurity that cannot tolerate advice from big minds and strong personalities. Instead, he famously said, “Always be around unsuccessful people because everybody will respect you.” Over Trump’s first years in office, these traits force more good people out of government, replaced by those willing to follow Trump blindly.

Meanwhile, just as Trump boasted during the campaign that he knew more about ISIS than the generals, he now demoralizes top military leaders, publicly denigrating their competence even as he thwarts them with meddling and micromanagement. Trump continues to alienate the CIA, just as during the campaign he ignored consensus assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies in their briefings to him, instead bizarrely insisting that the DNC hacks weren’t the work of Russia, but perhaps a “400-pound man sitting on his bed.” Under these conditions, many of the best people in the Pentagon leave, and Trump makes good on his campaign statements by firing others.

On an October afternoon in 2019, terror strikes again  —  this time, a truck bomb in Jersey City kills almost a hundred people. Trump’s first instinct  —  as it has been throughout his long and well-documented life  —  is immediate and overwhelming retaliation. Despite contemplating nuclear counterattacks during the campaign (“Somebody hits us within ISIS  —  you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?”), Trump now orders conventional punitive airstrikes on civilian areas in Raqqa, Syria. “We have no choice, people,” Trump says. Trump’s Justice Department insists that the strikes are legal, but as images of maimed children fill the airwaves, officers of conscience start retiring or resigning rather than participate in what they see as war crimes.

Then, on a sleepy summer morning in 2020, Chinese jets make simulated attack runs against the USS Ronald Reagan, operating in the South China Sea. Trump’s pride is pricked. Officials in Beijing have been bragging about how the SCS is becoming a Chinese lake. It makes him look weak. So Trump orders the jets shot down (which he has already said he would do in similar circumstances). Several Chinese airmen die. China responds by shooting down a B-1 bomber off Taiwan.

Trump orders the carrier to enter Chinese waters in a show of force to reassert American might in the region. The admirals who would have resisted such recklessness have already left or been muscled out. Chinese warships intercept, and in the tense and confused standoff, someone starts shooting. American firepower blows the smaller Chinese vessels out of the water. In minutes, DF-21 carrier-killer missiles rain down on the U.S. strike group, and when the smoke clears, the Ronald Reagan is on the bottom along with a couple thousand American sailors. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Beijing has ordered its nuclear forces to maximum alert in preparation for a first strike.

6,500 miles away in Washington, an admiral approaches President Trump as an aide unlatches the nuclear football. “Well, Mr. President. Here are your options…” […]

This particular scenario, obviously, isn’t likely; but it seems broadly in keeping with Trump’s impulsive and Jacksonian brand of militarism. Freelance policy analyst and GCRI affiliate Matthijs Maas comments on Levin’s hypothetical:

(1). The specific scenario that’s presented — a tit-for-tat with the Chinese — may be slightly exaggerated — specifically: while the Chinese might gamble with shooting down the (nonnuclear) B1 bomber, they would know that a DF-21D strike on a US carrier group would constitute an attack against US regional nuclear capabilities (viz. the US Navy doesn’t confirm or deny whether carriers carry nukes, but strategically it would be surprising if they didn’t). Given that Chinese nuclear first-strike/counterforce capabilities are by far insufficient against the US, they would be unlikely to sanction such a gamble. On the other hand, the Chinese would certainly disperse their nuclear forces to increase survivability in case of a US first strike, and this could in turn be misperceived by the US as preparation for a first strike, and… you get the picture. Let’s not take the gamble.

(2) Setting aside discussions of this specific illustration — I think the key phrase in this article, and the broader underlying argument, is ‘Uncertainty breeds danger’. This is perhaps the fundamental geopolitical insight which I’d want people to take away / keep in mind.

In short: it’s been suggested that Clinton’s bad relations with the Kremlin would lead to destabilising conflict. However, reliable antagonism may lead to outcomes that are tense, but at least predictable (and therefore ‘manageable’): both sides roughly know each others’ ‘red lines’, and trust that the other side grasps the basics of nuclear deterrence, and the magnitude of mismanaging it, and to count those risks in their decision-making. So it might be useful to note that a Clinton presidency may see a higher base rate of crises (specifically vis-a-vis Russia), as a function of her bad relationship with Putin and general hawkish tendencies — but that these crises generally will remain more ‘manageable’. (doesn’t mean it’s a good situation to be in, in terms of global catastrophic risks, but we’re considering relative cases).

(3) Conversely, even if we assume that Trump’s bravado and unpredictability may cause some countries to tread more lightly, ensuring a slightly lower base rate of crises, the stakes of these crises will be higher. By taking all guarantees off the table, his presidency would increase strategic uncertainty, creating opportunities for conflict between other powers, and making those crises that do inevitably occur massively more vulnerable to miscalculation and unintentional escalation. That doesn’t mean those cannot be managed — Consider Nixon’s ‘madman strategy’, where he once ordered a fake nuclear assault on the Soviet Union to force them to suspend their support for the Vietcong (this failed); or when another time (during the Watergate proceedings) threatening that ‘I could walk out of this room and pick up a phone, and in 20 minutes 70 million people will be dead’—but managing such bravado requires a responsible, capable, and realistic national security staff (which, as the article rightly points out, Trump will likely not suffer to have around for long).

(4) At that point — and considering how short is the chain of nuclear command, how tiny the window for decision-making, and how irreversible the command to launch –Trump’s personality traits create a dangerous situation. At worst, we’ll see a combination of (a). Trump’s (perceived) personality traits (e.g. impulsiveness; inability to back off), unchecked by (b). a sycophant national security apparatus; and tempted by (c). the availability of a new generation of ‘flexible’ nuclear weapons now being developed (e.g. hypervelocity missiles; the LRSO).

(5) Even if his sort of policy-making doesn’t lead directly to nuclear catastrophe, it will indirectly heighten the baseline global risk of such (or other) global risks. Trump’s disregard for international institutions and laws (yes — they’re boring; yes — they’re imperfect; yes–we need them), his retraction of US security guarantees, the idea that all alliances are negotiable or conditional, and his overarching zero-sum view of the world will work to increase states’ incentives to engage in arms races or realpolitik, and decrease willingness to cooperate on non-proliferation / responsible development and innovation regimes.

Trump’s warning that he’s liable to ignore Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty “if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed” — even though the treaty itself doesn’t include this as a requirement; even though Article 5 has only ever been invoked once; and even though the one time it was invoked was on behalf of the U.S., drawing NATO into Afghanistan in response to 9/11 — suggests a new regime in which international law is much softer and more ambiguous than we’ve seen in past decades. It suggests that Trump’s perspective is a novel one on which treaties as they’re understood today should be replaced with more informal arrangements, and that from his perspective the US government ought honor its word to other nations only while it happens to be favorably disposed to those nations.

That’s at least one way of understanding what Trump means when he says — in response to a question from NBC’s Katy Tur, “Do you think the Geneva Conventions are out of date?” — “I think everything’s out of date. We have a whole new world.” Without the benefit of context, I might take this to mean that Trump thinks the Geneva Conventions ought to be revised through some ratification procedure. Now, this sounds like a more sweeping statement: the threat of terrorism means that international law simply doesn’t apply anymore. Absent is any apparent insight into why the rule of law (both domestically and internationally) has serious practical value, and why some measure of forced predictability makes us more safe.

I think it’s extremely clear that this is one of the most critical issues American voters should weigh when they decide who to vote for this Tuesday.

Library of Scott Alexandria

I’ve said before that my favorite blog — and the one that’s shifted my views in the most varied and consequential ways — is Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. Scott has written a lot of good stuff, and it can be hard to know where to begin; so I’ve listed below what I think are the best pieces for new readers to start with. This includes older writing, e.g., from Less Wrong.

The list should make the most sense to people who start from the top and read through it in order, though skipping around is encouraged too — many of the posts are self-contained. The list isn’t chronological. Instead, I’ve tried to order things by a mix of “where do I think most people should start reading?” plus “sorting related posts together.” If stuff doesn’t make sense, you may want to Google terms or read background material in Rationality: From AI to Zombies.

This is a work in progress; you’re invited to suggest things you’d add, remove, or shuffle around.

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I. Rationality and Rationalization
○   Blue- and Yellow-Tinted Choices
○   The Apologist and the Revolutionary
○   Historical Realism
○   Simultaneously Right and Wrong
○   You May Already Be A Sinner
○   Beware the Man of One Study
○   Debunked and Well-Refuted
○   How to Not Lose an Argument
○   The Least Convenient Possible World
○   Bayes for Schizophrenics: Reasoning in Delusional Disorders
○   Generalizing from One Example
○   Typical Mind and Politics

II. Probabilism
○   Confidence Levels Inside and Outside an Argument
○   Schizophrenia and Geomagnetic Storms
○   Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale
○   Arguments from My Opponent Believes Something
○   Statistical Literacy Among Doctors Now Lower Than Chance
○   Techniques for Probability Estimates
○   On First Looking into Chapman’s “Pop Bayesianism”
○   Utilitarianism for Engineers
○   If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing with Made-Up Statistics
○   Marijuana: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   Are You a Solar Deity?
○   The “Spot the Fakes” Test
○   Epistemic Learned Helplessness

III. Science and Doubt
○   Google Correlate Does Not Imply Google Causation
○   Stop Confounding Yourself! Stop Confounding Yourself!
○   Effects of Vertical Acceleration on Wrongness
○   90% Of All Claims About The Problems With Medical Studies Are Wrong
○   Prisons are Built with Bricks of Law and Brothels with Bricks of Religion, But That Doesn’t Prove a Causal Relationship
○   Noisy Poll Results and the Reptilian Muslim Climatologists from Mars
○   Two Dark Side Statistics Papers
○   Alcoholics Anonymous: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   The Control Group Is Out Of Control
○   The Cowpox of Doubt
○   The Skeptic’s Trilemma
○   If You Can’t Make Predictions, You’re Still in a Crisis

IV. Medicine, Therapy, and Human Enhancement
○   Scientific Freud
○   Sleep – Now by Prescription
○   In Defense of Psych Treatment for Attempted Suicide
○   Who By Very Slow Decay
○   Medicine, As Not Seen on TV
○   Searching for One-Sided Tradeoffs
○   Do Life Hacks Ever Reach Fixation?
○   Polyamory is Boring
○   Can You Condition Yourself?
○   Wirehead Gods on Lotus Thrones
○   Don’t Fear the Filter
○   Transhumanist Fables

V. Introduction to Game Theory
○   Backward Reasoning Over Decision Trees
○   Nash Equilibria and Schelling Points
○   Introduction to Prisoners’ Dilemma
○   Real-World Solutions to Prisoners’ Dilemmas
○   Interlude for Behavioral Economics
○   What is Signaling, Really?
○   Bargaining and Auctions
○   Imperfect Voting Systems
○   Game Theory as a Dark Art

VI. Promises and Principles
○   Beware Trivial Inconveniences
○   Time and Effort Discounting
○   Applied Picoeconomics
○   Schelling Fences on Slippery Slopes
○   Democracy is the Worst Form of Government Except for All the Others Except Possibly Futarchy
○   Eight Short Studies on Excuses
○   Revenge as Charitable Act
○   Would Your Real Preferences Please Stand Up?
○   Are Wireheads Happy?
○   Guilt: Another Gift Nobody Wants

VII. Cognition and Association
○   Diseased Thinking: Dissolving Questions about Disease
○   The Noncentral Fallacy — The Worst Argument in the World?
○   The Power of Positivist Thinking
○   When Truth Isn’t Enough
○   Ambijectivity
○   The Blue-Minimizing Robot
○   Basics of Animal Reinforcement
○   Wanting vs. Liking Revisited
○   Physical and Mental Behavior
○   Trivers on Self-Deception
○   Ego-Syntonic Thoughts and Values
○   Approving Reinforces Low-Effort Behaviors
○   To What Degree Do We Have Goals?
○   The Limits of Introspection
○   Secrets of the Eliminati
○   Tendencies in Reflective Equilibrium
○   Hansonian Optimism

VIII. Doing Good
○   Newtonian Ethics
○   Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others…
○   The Economics of Art and the Art of Economics
○   A Modest Proposal
○   The Life Issue
○   What if Drone Warfare Had Come First?
○   Nefarious Nefazodone and Flashy Rare Side-Effects
○   The Consequentialism FAQ
○   Doing Your Good Deed for the Day
○   I Myself Am A Scientismist
○   Whose Utilitarianism?
○   Book Review: After Virtue
○   Read History of Philosophy Backwards
○   Virtue Ethics: Not Practically Useful Either
○   Last Thoughts on Virtue Ethics
○   Proving Too Much

IX. Liberty
○   The Non-Libertarian FAQ (aka Why I Hate Your Freedom)
○   A Blessing in Disguise, Albeit a Very Good Disguise
○   Basic Income Guarantees
○   Book Review: The Nurture Assumption
○   The Death of Wages is Sin
○   Thank You For Doing Something Ambiguously Between Smoking And Not Smoking
○   Lies, Damned Lies, and Facebook (Part 1 of ∞)
○   The Life Cycle of Medical Ideas
○   Vote on Values, Outsource Beliefs
○   A Something Sort of Like Left-Libertarian-ist Manifesto
○   Plutocracy Isn’t About Money
○   Against Tulip Subsidies
○   SlateStarCodex Gives a Graduation Speech

X. Progress
○   Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism
○   A Signaling Theory of Class x Politics Interaction
○   Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell
○   A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum
○   We Wrestle Not With Flesh And Blood, But Against Powers And Principalities
○   Poor Folks Do Smile… For Now
○   Apart from Better Sanitation and Medicine and Education and Irrigation and Public Health and Roads and Public Order, What Has Modernity Done for Us?
○   The Wisdom of the Ancients
○   Can Atheists Appreciate Chesterton?
○   Holocaust Good for You, Research Finds, But Frequent Taunting Causes Cancer in Rats
○   Public Awareness Campaigns
○   Social Psychology is a Flamethrower
○   Nature is Not a Slate. It’s a Series of Levers.
○   The Anti-Reactionary FAQ
○   The Poor You Will Always Have With You
○   Proposed Biological Explanations for Historical Trends in Crime
○   Society is Fixed, Biology is Mutable

XI. Social Justice
○   Practically-a-Book Review: Dying to be Free
○   Drug Testing Welfare Users is a Sham, But Not for the Reasons You Think
○   The Meditation on Creepiness
○   The Meditation on Superweapons
○   The Meditation on the War on Applause Lights
○   The Meditation on Superweapons and Bingo
○   An Analysis of the Formalist Account of Power Relations in Democratic Societies
○   Arguments About Male Violence Prove Too Much
○   Social Justice for the Highly-Demanding-of-Rigor
○   Against Bravery Debates
○   All Debates Are Bravery Debates
○   A Comment I Posted on “What Would JT Do?”
○   We Are All MsScribe
○   The Spirit of the First Amendment
○   A Response to Apophemi on Triggers
○   Lies, Damned Lies, and Social Media: False Rape Accusations
○   In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization

XII. Politicization
○   Right is the New Left
○   Weak Men are Superweapons
○   You Kant Dismiss Universalizability
○   I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup
○   Five Case Studies on Politicization
○   Black People Less Likely
○   Nydwracu’s Fnords
○   All in All, Another Brick in the Motte
○   Ethnic Tension and Meaningless Arguments
○   Race and Justice: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   Framing for Light Instead of Heat
○   The Wonderful Thing About Triggers
○   Fearful Symmetry
○   Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism

XIII. Competition and Cooperation
○   The Demiurge’s Older Brother
○   Book Review: The Two-Income Trap
○   Just for Stealing a Mouthful of Bread
○   Meditations on Moloch
○   Misperceptions on Moloch
○   The Invisible Nation — Reconciling Utilitarianism and Contractualism
○   Freedom on the Centralized Web
○   Book Review: Singer on Marx
○   Does Class Warfare Have a Free Rider Problem?
○   Book Review: Red Plenty

__________________________________________________

 

 

If you liked these posts and want more, I suggest browsing the Slate Star Codex archives.

Politics is hard mode

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.

bluegreen

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.

In defense of actually doing stuff

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?

Listen and judge: An interview with Marwa Berro

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 aveilandadarkplace@gmail.com.

America’s anthem

AceTerrier has a disastrously interesting blog, Don’t Stay Up Too Late, on 20th-century pop music. Here’s his conclusion to an article on the evolution and context of 1940s American music:

“It is the national anthem, and it lies in waiting for the America that will someday sing it with one voice. Arthur only sleeps; he will return when Britain needs him most. So it is with Woody Guthrie and his most beautiful and dangerous song.

“But until then we have a lot of national anthems, as befits a nation of such size and variety, and the official one is the worst of them all, which is only fitting for a country that prides itself on its greatness in all things and loathes its government. Apart from its other routinely-mentioned defects — it’s unsingable, it’s about a minor war, and even the story told about its creation, which is the only thing it has going for it, isn’t true — “The Star Spangled Banner” is schlock enshrined as piety. Which should be no surprise — we’re a nation of hustlers and nouveau-riche climbers, and our taste is as suspect as our intentions. We make things and sell them; whether art is involved doesn’t impact the bottom line, and only vaguely interests us. We know what we like.

“The first national anthem, “Yankee Doodle,” probably should have been retained, its goofy air of cussedness and the cheerful fuck-you attitude that allowed Americans to adopt it after the British sang it in mockery remaining wonderful evocations of the American spirit that has persisted in all the great pop production that made America the cultural force for good it has been in the world: American music, comics, movies, television, and comedy has always been chasing after the deliriously bizarre image of “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” ever since the meaning of the word changed. But of course it’s not self-serious enough for the other American spirit, the prim and proper spirit, the one that wears the top hat that, in the elemental American gag, gets knocked off by a chance snowball. It’s those people, in every country, who demand real national anthems, ones that can only be sung by choirs in four-part harmony with big brass accompaniment, rather than whistled by a kid walking barefoot down the road.

“The other two early nineteenth-century anthems — “America The Beautiful” and “My Country, ’Tis Of Thee” — are far more coherent as tunes and sentiments, but they’re still too sappy, and one of them even borrows the melody off “God Save The King/Queen.” Royalist treason! but of course that too is part of America; few Britons can manage to be quite so Anglophilic as a certain breed of idealistic American, as nineteenth-century lecturers, writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and anyone who ever argued on the internet about Britpop all discovered to their profit (or detriment, depending). And then there are the anthems of the Civil War — “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “Dixie” — both of which have great sentimental value and are calibrated to offend and annoy at least half the population of the country. The self-righteous abolitionist fervor of the “Battle Hymn” would, that end accomplished (and once they been emancipated, fuck ’em), move on to the next moral horror destroying the nation: alcohol consumption. Which obviously turned out well. As for “Dixie,” well, the sovereign irony of the slave-owning South marching to war singing a song written from the perspective of a free black man (even if he does pine for the ol’ plantation) is its own reward.

““Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” combines the best of both worlds, the moral fervor of “Battle Hymn” and the democratic underclass perspective of “Dixie,” but the fact that none but black children are taught it (and not many of those, any more) has to date kept it from being embraced by the widest possible audience. And so into the twentieth century.

“The penultimate national anthem is, of course, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” the one that still gets sung at seventh-inning stretches not because anyone wants to but because everyone is too afraid of being called unpatriotic to suggest cutting it and just doing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” which was good enough for our grandfathers, who kicked Hitler’s ass, for God’s sake, but I digress. In fact, the obnoxious omnipresence of “God Bless America” is a direct echo of the circumstances surrounding it: Berlin, who famously never wrote a song unless he felt its sentiment keenly himself, wanted to write a patriotic song to lift America’s spirits out of the Depression. The ghetto-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants who despite not being able to read music or play in more than one key became the most popular and beloved songwriter alive in America, he was honestly grateful to the country which had given him the opportunities which he, with a sharp-eyed hustler’s instinct for the main chance, had grabbed onto with both hands. “God Bless America,” especially as sung by the big, blowsy-voiced alto Kate Smith, became the de facto national anthem, especially once we got into the war and pietistic nationalism was the order of the day throughout popular culture.

“In New York, a fellow-traveling Okie who loved nothing more than reinventing himself, unless it was sticking it to capitalists, was sick and tired of hearing Kate Smith boom out “God Bless America” every ding-durned day on the radio, practically as regularly as a station identification. In fact the more he thought about it, the more pissed off he got. It was capitalist Republican humbug, and mawkish to boot. It was, in fact, better suited to a sentimental Eastern European parlor than to the grinning, wiry-muscled, cigarette-dangling, and dirty with the dirt of many roads America which he knew, or believed he knew; like most idealistic autodidacts, he believed implicitly in the truth of his wide experience. He’d write one better.

“He recorded “This Land Is Your Land” for Asch for the first time in 1944, and played and sang it everywhere he got the chance, encouraging others to do the same. It wasn’t formally published until the 1950s, and even then came with the copyright legend “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” (Woody really was from rural Oklahoma, but he embellished the nonstandardness of his dialect as much as possible out of perversity and a leavening sense of fun.) He snarkily subtitled it “God Blessed America,” accent on the past tense, meaning His work is done, it’s up to us to figure out and implement the best use of what we’ve been handed, rather than waiting on Biggest Brother to sort out our shit for us.

“But the real spirit of the song isn’t in its hail-fellow-up-yours rejoinder to Tin Pan Alley, or even in its infamous anti-capitalism verse (a version of which is included in this cut of the song, though not as direct as in some takes). In its broadminded embrace of the vastness and variety of the nation, it’s the first national anthem since “America The Beautiful” to describe patriotism as a love of the country rather than the civilization. It’s about the land, and the people on it, not the government or the military or the moral rectitude or even the culture, popular or otherwise. And Guthrie’s plainspoken directness even avoids the picture-postcard prettiness and sentimentalism of “America The Beautiful.” Instead of amber waves of grain (symbolizing the agricultural wealth of the Midwest), there’s a plain ribbon of highway; instead of fruited plains (which doesn’t even make sense, the plains are barren, that’s what makes them plains) there’s a golden valley. Everything, that is, exists in potential, not categorical, terms for Woody.

“And America at its best, at its most honest and fundamental core, is also a nation of potentiality. It’s why we developed film and comics and recorded music into such uniquely immediate narrative forms. To pluck (say) Cary Grant out of history, to capture and preserve him forever in The Philadelphia Story or Arsenic And Old Lace or Bringing Up Baby, is to give the finger to death and decay. The slow decline and sudden shock of nonexistence have no place in movies, except as part of an intelligible, sane moral order. Dorothy Parker’s bon mots can live forever, even as the witty pixie of the 20s becomes the alcoholic bitch of the 50s and 60s; Bing Crosby’s golden, reassuring burble on record can establish a corner of idyllic harmony in which he never abused his kids or fucked anyone over; Krazy and Ignatz can keep hurling bricks and sonnets at each other into infinity even as George Herriman’s ashes blow across the pink mesas. Movies and records and yes printed material too establish miniature universes in which the unresolved tensions and categorical evils of this one need not apply; all art is artificial, and all pop is art. […]

“I have come within the last several years to accept the fact that I love my country (the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of a youth spent abroad with a clear view of her cruelty and arrogance needs no further elaboration), and it is the music she has given the world that has reconciled me to her. This, I thought, should be explained. I have attempted to do so.

“But I would not be misunderstood. […] I no more love what she was than I love what she is; and what she is — a nation of self-satisfied gluttons addicted to shrill nonsense and perfectly willing to destroy the planet in the name of convenience and profit — is of all possible nations the least lovable.

“But of course that is not all America is. Nothing is ever all America is. So because I love her potential, I love her infinite variety; every version of America is possible in such space. From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters. From California to the New York island. The sparkling sands of her diamond desert. The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling: either alone is intolerable, smug fatness or apocalyptic despair, but together they sum up the contradictions, the extremes, the combination, in every imaginable ratio, of great evil and great good, which means America. As it means everywhere. To be a true patriot, as G. K. Chesterton noted, is to embrace all the earth in one’s fierce pride of place, because our common humanity is, at last, our only refuge from the darkness which howls within us and without.

“This is why I listen to the music of the 40s, and of every era, why like any good history obsessive I rage against the forgetting of anything however trivial; the more opportunities we have to connect, to observe and embrace our common humanity in all its difficulty and squalor and pretension and meaninglessness and fragile beauty across the street or across the ocean or across the ages, the better we’ll be. This is the very opposite of the art snob who thinks that exposure to the Great Works of Humanity makes him a better person; it’s exposure to humanity period that does it, and that humanity is present in everything.

“America, fuck yeah. Copulation and affirmation. Ain’t nothin’ more American, ’cause ain’t nothin’ more human. Happy trails, motherfuckers. See you round the bend.”

 

Links

When dialogues become duels

Why did the recent blow-up between Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald happen? Why was my subsequent discussion with Murtaza Hussain so unproductive? More, why are squanderous squabbles like this so common? Even among intelligent, educated people with similar moral sensibilities?

To a first approximation, the answer is simple: Hussain wrote a sloppy, under-researched hit piece. More worried about Harris’ perceived support for U.S. foreign policy than about Hussain’s journalistic misconduct, Greenwald happily lent Hussain a megaphone. Egos flared and paralyzed discussion, and only a few third parties called Hussain or Greenwald out on their errors. So there the story ended.

But if all we take away from this debacle is ‘well, Those People are crazy and dumb and shouldn’t be listened to’, we’ll have missed an opportunity to hone our own craft. Habitually thinking in such terms is how they fell into error. They thought, ‘Those guys are the Enemy. So they can’t be reasoned with. They don’t deserve to have their views presented with charity and precision! They are simply to be defeated.’

And, of course, recognizing that this way of thinking is harmful still isn’t enough. They think that we are the ones in the throes of us-vs.-them thinking. The parallelism is rather comical.

And the thing is, they’re right. … And so are we.

Both sides are at the mercy of enemythink, even if only one side happens to be right on the points of fact. Even my way of framing this conversation in pugilistic terms, as a ‘conflict’ with ‘sides’, reveals a deep vulnerability to partisan animosity. To make progress, we have to actually internalize these lessons, and not just use them as more excuses to score points against the Other Side.

There are four fundamental lessons I’ve taken away from the Hussain/Greenwald libel scandal. And they really all boil down to: Getting everything wrong is easy, and treating discussions like battles or status competitions makes it worse. Put like that, our task could hardly be more simple — or more demanding.

1. There but for the grace of Rigor go I.

Rationality is hard. It isn’t a matter of getting a couple of simple metaphysical and political questions right and then coasting on your brilliance. It takes constant vigilance, effort, self-awareness. We shouldn’t be surprised to see mostly reasonable people slipping up in big ways. Rather, we should be surprised to observe that a jabbering bipedal ape is capable of being at all reasonable in the first place!

Since we’re all really, really bad at this, we need to work together and form social circles that reinforce good epistemic hygiene. We need to exchange and test ideas for combating our biases. I couldn’t put it better than Julia Galef, who lists seven superb tips for becoming a more careful reasoner and discussant.

We can’t spend all our time just clobbering everyone slightly more unreasonable than we are. We must also look inward, seeking out the deep roots of madness that make humans susceptible to dogmatism in the first place.

2. Reality is nonpartisan.

By this I don’t mean that two sides in a dispute must be equally right. Rather, I mean that falling into reflexive partisanship is dangerous, because the world doesn’t care that you’re a Skeptic, or a Libertarian, or a Consequentialist, or a Christian. You and your ideological allies might have gotten lots of questions right in the past, yet still completely flunk your next empirical test. Reality rewards you for getting particular facts right, not for declaring your allegiance to the right abstract philosophy. And it can punish without mercy those whose operative beliefs exhibit even the smallest error, however noble their intentions.

Beware of associating the truth with a ‘side’. Beware of focusing your discussion on groups of people — ‘neoconservatives’, ‘atheists’… — rather than specific ideas and arguments. In particular, treating someone you’re talking to merely as an avatar of a monolithic Ideology will inevitably lead you to oversimplify both the individual and the ideology. That is perhaps Hussain’s most transparent error. He was convinced that he knew what genus Harris belonged to, hence felt little need to expend effort on research or on parsing new arguments. Too much theory, not enough data. Too much hedgehog, not enough fox.

I think Harris worries about this too. He doesn’t like identifying as an ‘atheist’, because he strongly opposes any tendency to see simply being reasonable as an ideology in its own right.

We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

[… R]ather than declare ourselves “atheists” in opposition to all religion, I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs—not with religion in general. There is no religion in general.

I’m not sure this is the best strategy for banding together to save the world. Labels can be useful tools for pooling our efforts. But it’s absolutely a good strategy when it comes to improving our intellectual clarity on an individual level, any time we see ourselves starting to use tribal allegiances as a replacement for analytic vigilance.

philosoraptor

Partisan divides lead to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to you committing inferential fallacies. Therefore, don’t just get mad, and don’t just get even; get it right. You have far more to fear from your own errors than from your adversary’s.

3. When you have a criticism, talk it over first.

It sounds banal, but you’d be surprised how much mileage this one gets you. Starting a direct conversation, ideally someplace private, makes it easy for people to change their minds without immediately worrying about their public image. It lets them explain their position, if you’ve misunderstood something. And it establishes a more human connection, encouraging learning and collaboration rather than a clash of egos.

Neither Hussain nor Greenwald extended that basic courtesy to Harris; they went for the throat first. Harris did extend that courtesy to Greenwald; but Greenwald wasn’t interested in talking things out in any detail, preferring to go public immediately.

Like Harris, I tried actually talking to Greenwald and Hussain. The result was revealing, and relatively civil. I still came away disappointed, but it was at least several steps up from the quality of Hussain’s dialogue with Harris. Had we begun with such a conversation, rather than waiting until the disputants were already entrenched in their positions, I suspect that much more progress would have been possible.

If you intensely oppose a view, that makes it all the more important to bracket egos and get clear on the facts right at the outset. All of this is consistent with subsequently bringing the discussion to the public, if the other party doesn’t respond, if you’re left dissatisfied, or if you are satisfied and want to show off how awesome your conversation was.

4. To err is human. To admit it, tremendously healthy.

Everyone screws up sometimes. The trick to really being a competent conversationalist is to notice when you screw up — to attend to it, really ponder it and let it sink in—

— and then to swiftly and mercilessly squish the mistake. Act as though you yourself were pointing out an enemy’s error. Critique it fully, openly, and aggressively.

Making concessions when you’ve screwed up, or when you and your opponent share common ground, makes your other positions stronger and more credible. Because you’ve proven that you can change your mind and notice conflicts between your theory and your data, you’ve also demonstrated that your other views are likely to track the evidence.

Don’t think, ‘Well, I’m right in spirit.’ Don’t think, ‘My mistake isn’t important. This is a distraction. I should keep a laser focus on where I’m right.’ If you ignore too many small errors, they’ll add up to a big error. If you don’t fully recognize when you’ve misjudged the evidence, but just shrug it off and return to the battlefront, then, slowly but surely, you and the facts will drift further and further apart. And you’ll never notice — for what evidence could convince you that you aren’t listening to the evidence?

Constant vigilance! That’s the lesson I take from this. Be uncompromisingly methodical. Be consistently reasonable. Never allow your past intellectual triumphs or your allegiance to the Good Guys to make you sloppy. Always seek the truth — even when the truth is a painful thing.

Realities to which you have anesthetized yourself can damage your person and your mind all the same. You just won’t notice in time to change them.