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Missing the Trees for the Forest

64 Post author: Yvain 22 July 2009 03:23AM

Politics is the mind-killer. A while back, I gave an example: the government's request that Kelloggs  [EDIT: General Mills, thanks CronoDAS] top making false claims about Cheerios. By the time the right-wing and left-wing blogospheres had finished with it, this became everything from part of the deliberate strangulation of the American entrepreneurial spirit by a conspiracy of bureaucrats, to a symbol of the radicalization of the political right into a fringe group obsessed with Communism, to a prelude to Obama's plan to commit genocide against all citizens who disagree with him. All because of Cheerios!

Why? What drives someone to hear about a reasonable change in cereal advertising policy and immediately think of a second Holocaust?

This reminds me of something I used to notice when reading about politics. Sometimes there would be a seemingly good idea to deregulate something that clearly needed deregulation. The idea's proponents would go on TV and say that, hey, this was obviously a good idea. Whoever by the vagary of politics had to oppose the idea would go on TV and talk about industry's plot to emasculate government safeguards. Predatory corporations! Class solidarity! Consumer safety!

Then the next day, there would be seemingly good idea to regulate something that clearly needed regulating. The idea's proponents would go on TV and say that, hey, this was obviously a good idea. Its opponents would go on TV and say that all government regulation was inherently bad. Small government! Freedom! Capitalism!

I have found a pattern: when people consider an idea in isolation, they tend to make good decisions. When they consider an idea a symbol of a vast overarching narrative, they tend to make very bad decisions.

Let me offer another example.

A white man is accused of a violent attack on a black woman. In isolation, well, either he did it or he didn't, and without any more facts there's no use discussing it.

But what if this accusation is viewed as a symbol? What if you have been saying for years that racism and sexism are endemic in this country, and that whites and males are constantly abusing blacks and females, and they're always getting away with it because the police are part of a good ole' boys network who protect their fellow privileged whites?

Well, right now, you'll probably still ask for the evidence. But if I gave you some evidence, and it was complicated, you'd probably interpret it in favor of the white man's guilt. The heart has its reasons that reasons know not of, and most of them suck. We make unconsciously make decisions based on our own self-interest and what makes us angry or happy, and then later we find reasons why the evidence supports them. If I have a strong interest in a narrative of racism, then I will interpret the evidence to support accusations of racism.

Lest I sound like I'm picking on the politically correct, I've seen scores of people with the opposite narrative. You know, political correctness has grown rampant in our society, women and minorities have been elevated to a status where they can do no wrong, the liberal intelligentsia always tries to pin everything on the white male. When the person with this narrative hears the evidence in this case, they may be more likely to believe the white man - especially if they'd just listened to their aforementioned counterpart give their speech about how this proves the racist and sexist tendencies of white men.

Yes, I'm thinking of the Duke lacrosse case.

The problem here is that there are two different questions here: whether this particular white male attacked this particular black woman, and whether our society is racist or "reverse racist". The first question definitely has one correct answer which while difficult to ascertain is philosophically simple, whereas the second question is meaningless, in the same technical sense that "Islam is a religion of peace" is meaningless. People are conflating these two questions, and acting as if the answer to the second determines the answer to the first.

Which is all nice and well unless you're one of the people involved in the case, in which case you really don't care about which races are or are not privileged in our society as much as you care about not being thrown in jail for a crime you didn't commit, or about having your attacker brought to justice.

I think this is the driving force behind a lot of politics. Let's say we are considering a law mandating businesses to lower their pollution levels. So far as I understand economics, the best decision-making strategy is to estimate how much pollution is costing the population, how much cutting pollution would cost business, and if there's a net profit, pass the law. Of course it's more complicated, but this seems like a reasonable start.

What actually happens? One side hears the word "pollution" and starts thinking of hundreds of times when beautiful pristine forests were cut down in the name of corporate greed. This links into other narratives about corporate greed, like how corporations are oppressing their workers in sweatshops in third world countries, and since corporate executives are usually white and third world workers usually not, let's add racism into the mix. So this turns into one particular battle in the war between All That Is Right And Good and Corporate Greed That Destroys Rainforests And Oppresses Workers And Is Probably Racist.

The other side hears the words "law mandating businesses" and starts thinking of a long history of governments choking off profitable industry to satisfy the needs of the moment and their re-election campaign. The demonization of private industry and subsequent attempt to turn to the government for relief is a hallmark of communism, which despite the liberal intelligentsia's love of it killed sixty million people. Now this is a battle in the war between All That Is Right And Good and an unholy combination of Naive Populism and Soviet Russia. This, I think, is part of what happened to the poor Cheerios.

Now, if the economists do their calculations and report that actually the law would cause more harm than good, do you think the warriors against Corporate Greed That Destroys Rainforests And Oppresses Workers And Is Probably Racist are going to say "Oh, okay then" and stand down? In the face of Corporate Greed That Destroys Rainforests And Oppresses Workers And Is Probably Racist?!?1

One more completely hypothetical example. Let's say someone uses language that objectifies women on a blog. Not out of malice or anything, it was just a post on evolutionary psychology, it's easy to write evolutionary psychology in a way that sounds like it's objectifying women, and since obviously no one would objectify women on purpose to insult them it will be clear to everyone that it was just a harmless turn of phrase. Right?

And let's say some feminist comes along and reads this completely innocent phrase about women. Let's say the context is the entire history of gender relations for the past ten thousand years, in which men have usually oppressed women and usually been pretty okay with doing so. And a society that's moving towards not oppressing women and towards treating them as full and equal human beings, but it's still not entirely clear that everyone's on board with this.

This poorly-worded phrase is now a symbol of All Those Chauvinists Who Think Of Women As Ornaments Or Toys Only Good For Sex And Making Babies2. The feminist is unhappy. He or she asks for the phrase to be removed.

Let's say some person who is emphatically not a feminist notices this request for removal. Let's say the context is a society where men are generally portrayed in popular culture as violent bumbling apes who cause all world problems. A culture where women can go on for hours about what boors men are, but any man who says a word about women is immediately branded a sexist pig. A culture where a popular feminist once said that all sex was rape [EDIT: Or not. Apologies for misquote], and many people believed her, one with affirmative action laws mandating that women be hired over equally qualified men, one where you can't say "chairman of the board" without someone calling you sexist and accusing you of taking advantage of your male privilege to ignore male privilege if you disagree.

This request to remove a potentially offensive phrase is now a symbol of All Those Feminists Who Hate Men And Want Them To Feel Guilty All The Time For Vague Reasons. He or she gets angry, and certainly won't remove the offending phrase.

I'm not sure that's what's happening in this case, but I don't think a few poorly worded phrases followed by a polite request to change those poorly worded phrases would have reached five hundred fifty comments divided over four top-level posts if people were just taking it as a request to use slightly different language. In our completely hypothetical example, of course.

I call this mistake "missing the trees for the forest". If you have a specific case you need to judge, judge it separately on its own merits, not the merits of what agendas it promotes or how it fits with emotionally charged narratives3.

 

Footnotes

1: This gets worse once it gets formally organized into political parties. You get people saying something like "How can you, as an atheist, support the war in Iraq?" and thinking it makes perfect sense, because, after all, the war in Iraq is a Republican initiative, and the Republicans are the party of religious conservatives, therefore... Oh, yes, people think like this.

2: Oh, and this answers a question I sometimes hear asked half-seriously on message boards: how come derogatory jokes are okay in some settings but not in others? For example, how come Polish jokes are generally considered okay, but black jokes definitely aren't? Or how come it's considered okay for a black person to make a racist-sounding joke about black people or use the n-word, whereas it's not okay for a white person?

I think the answer is that if I were to make a Polish joke, it would be interpreted as what it is - a joke that needed somebody to play the part of a stupid person to be funny, and Polish people have traditionally served that role. There is no active well-known ongoing context of persecution of Polish people for the joke to symbolize, so it symbolizes nothing but itself and is inert. If I were to tell a joke about black people, even if it was clear that I wasn't actually racist and just thought the joke was funny, then since most people have a very active concept of persecution of black people, my joke would be a symbol of that persecution, and all right-thinking people who oppose that persecution would also probably oppose my joke. 

This leads to the odd conclusion that in a society known to be without racism, no one would mind racist jokes or slurs. In fact, this is confirmed by evidence. Black people are, society generally assumes, above suspicion when it comes to anti-black racism, and therefore black people can use the "n-word" without most people objecting.

This is what led to me developing some of these thoughts. I told a joke which I considered to be making fun of racism. Someone who heard it misinterpreted it and thought it was racist, accused me of racism, spread rumors that I was racist, and generally started a large and complicated campaign to discredit me. After that, I noticed that I was always coming to the defense of people who were accused of racism, and was willing to dismiss practically the entire concept of racism in society as a self-serving attempt at personal gain by minorities, a one hundred eighty degree turn from my previous attitude. Eventually I realized that I was just re-fighting the battle I had to fight after this one joke, and fitting everything to my "sometimes false accusations of racism unfairly harm majority group members and we need to protect against this" narrative. So I stopped. I think.

This also could explain why, contrary to Robin Hanson's hopes, people will never stop using disclaimers. They're ways of saying "I did this action for reasons that do not relate to your narrative; please exclude me from it", and this is not people's default position.

3: One objection could be that the specific case could start a slippery slope, or create a climate in which other things become viewed as more acceptable. In my experience, neither of these matter nearly as much as they would have to to justify the number of times people invoke them.

Comments (159)

Comment author: Peter_Twieg 22 July 2009 03:33:10PM *  12 points [-]

One person's "overarching narrative" is another person's set of Bayesian priors.

Take, for example, your pollution discussion. An economics textbook will tell you that there is an ideal level of taxation, yes. However, it won't tell you about regulatory capture, mission creep, the Hayekian knowledge problem, etc. There is always a correct set of contextual data to be used to interpret and resolve problems in isolation, yes - but determining what this set is and how we should interpret the probabilities of various events occurring is pretty much always going to invoke an overarching narrative unless you really, really think that this screws everything up.

But as an economist - a Masonomics student, no less - I'm inclined to see a greater harm in "markets fail, so assume a benevolent social planner and imagine what policies she could implement" approach to solving economic questions than the harms of dirtying one's self in the morass of historical context. This is why social science is hard - and why it should be hard. It's not that we should be indifferent to the injection of ideology into these debates, but that it's liable to create greater harm if we try to avoid all questions which cannot yield precise analytical answers which are self-apparent to reasonable minds.

Hopefully I'm not strawmanning your point here - maybe you're primarily trying to explain how ideology mucks things up, but I also get the impression that you think it's reasonably feasible to avoid questions that lend themselves to ideological answers... I definitely would disagree with such an assertion.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 22 July 2009 04:20:12AM 10 points [-]

"What drives someone to hear about a reasonable change in cereal advertising policy and immediately think of a second Holocaust?"

you have to one up everyone else commenting on a subject in order to get attention. attention = potential higher status.

Comment author: MendelSchmiedekamp 22 July 2009 04:23:24AM 9 points [-]

I have found a pattern: when people consider an idea in isolation, they tend to make good decisions. When they consider an idea a symbol of a vast overarching narrative, they tend to make very bad decisions.

If I recall correctly, these are generally called Grand Narratives. And it is one of the agendas of post-modern philosophy to try to undermine and eliminate them in favor of more nuanced ways of thinking about things.

Admittedly, most "po-mo" folks aren't as selective as we'd like, since they, often, consider rationality one example of a Grand Narrative.

Comment author: teageegeepea 22 July 2009 04:06:16AM *  9 points [-]

I came to the wrong conclusion in the Duke Lacrosse case, even though I didn't think our society is all that racist. I messed up because I just assumed the authorities wouldn't do what they did unless they had good reason. I have since changed my assumptions.

Comment author: cousin_it 22 July 2009 06:36:50AM *  7 points [-]

This is... impressively level-headed, like orthonormal's post was. The net result might be to shame me into shutting up on those hot-button topics, which would be a good thing. We really had better stop and move on. Although the last couple days have been an obscene karma mint for many commenters including me.

Comment author: elharo 16 February 2013 10:33:00PM 6 points [-]

This post exhibits a common fallacy in both economics and politics. I'm not sure what, if anything it's traditionally called, but for the moment I propose the "We are all on the same side" fallacy. Let me explain.

"Let's say we are considering a law mandating businesses to lower their pollution levels. So far as I understand economics, the best decision-making strategy is to estimate how much pollution is costing the population, how much cutting pollution would cost business, and if there's a net profit, pass the law. Of course it's more complicated, but this seems like a reasonable start."

Actually, no. Non-owners of a polluting business will rationally prefer that the business is to be made to stop polluting, even if that costs that business more dollars than they are willing to pay for clean air/water/etc. Classical economics suggests that in this case the business owner should pay the populace for the right to pollute, but that's never been practical or seriously considered.

In reverse, owners of polluting businesses prefer to pollute even if the benefit to them of polluting is far less than the cost to everyone who suffers their pollution. This is the classic example of an externality in economics.

Politics, especially democratic politics, is the process by which people with differing and opposed interests compete to try to put their interests first. There is no one rational best choice for everyone. Different people have different wants and desires that cannot always be mutually satisfied.

None of this negates your discussion of how people use broader narratives to understand (or misunderstand) specific stories. Sometimes, as in the Duke Lacrosse case, it's simply a matter of fact. And other times, though rarer than most people think, there is one obviously better solution for everyone; and we should all just rationally choose it.

But most of the time you need to distinguish the rhetoric and propaganda from the genuine interests of different parties. Take your example of "there would be seemingly good idea to regulate something that clearly needed regulating". Maybe for the good of society something, call it a "boonlicket" to avoid triggering patterns on real products, needs regulating because fly-by-night producers are highly incented to produce dangerous boonlickets instead of spending ten cents more per unit. Or maybe retailers are incented to sell expired or damaged boonlickets instead of new ones. And let's suppose that everyone who uses a bad boonlicket loses their little toe; and that this is a real problem and it's really happening in the marketplace. Lots of folks are now walking around without little toes. (I'm being deliberately extreme here to make it really obvious that regulation is called for.)

Nonetheless retailers and manufacturers of good boonlickets may still not accept regulation because following the regulations will cost them a lot of money, even if it saves millions of little toes. (Then again, in some cases good manufacturers may actually request regulation if it puts the bad competitors out of business, and restores consumer confidence in boonlickets as a class; but for the moment let's assume the costs of regulation are really, really high; or maybe the bad boonlickets only sometimes cut off a little toe.)

Either way, the manufacturers and retailers of the bad boonlickets are going to strongly oppose the regulations because they'll lose everything they make on the bad boonlickets. Now of course they can't go around saying they want to sell boonlickets that cut off peoples' toes to save $0.10 a unit, so instead they try to obscure and obfuscate the problem. They talk about "Small government! Freedom! Capitalism!" though they don't actually care about any of that stuff. They just want to continue selling the toe-cutting boonlickets.

To understand what's really going on in these debates and disputes, you need to look beyond what people say. Ask yourself who benefits? Who pays for that benefit? How much do payers pay? How much do beneficiaries receive? A classical economist would identify this as a transfer of wealth from one group to another, though I think wealth isn't a full description of what's happening here. But it is a transfer of utilons from one party to another; and politics is one way of distributing a society's gross utilons. It is by no means obvious or accepted that we should simply accept any policy that results in a net increase of utilons across the population, or reject any any policy that results in a net decrease of utilons across the population. The real question for politics is "Who gets what?", not "How much is there?" Politics is about distribution, not maximization.

Comment author: christopherj 13 October 2013 04:11:30AM 1 point [-]

And then, all the totally unrelated industries that are at risk of losing money from regulation, and all the people pushing for regulation in any industry, will add their voices to the argument -- a precedent will advance their goal, after all.

Comment author: HalFinney 22 July 2009 06:01:28PM 8 points [-]

I agree with the logic of this analysis, but I have a problem with one of the implicit premises: that "we" should care about political issues at all, and that "we" make governmental decisions. I think this is wrong, and its wrongness explains the seemingly puzzling phenomenon of jumping from tree to forest.

There was no need for anyone beyond the jury to have an opinion on the Duke lacrosse case. We weren't making any decisions there. I certainly wasn't, anyway. So of course when people do express an interest, it is for entertainment and showing off only. They may think it is for other reasons, but it is essentially a form of social interaction, part of the status game that we are all playing. And this game is played better with big issues than with small ones.

Likewise with poor Cheerios. (It's funny - I wrote a semi joking rant last night defending Cheerios, and as a result I now find myself quite favorably disposed to the little yellow box; an effect we have often discussed and warned against.) I don't need to have an opinion on what the FDA should be doing. They aren't asking me. Nobody's asking me. At best I can vote for a President who can appoint an FDA commissioner and perhaps set policy, but my influence on this process is infinitesimal.

So once again, if I do take an interest it will be as part of a social game, not because it's something I can do anything about.

This effect is the fundamental reason why ideology rules in politics. It's because our beliefs don't matter, so we adopt them just for fun and for a competitive edge. We don't seem to recognize this, perhaps because believing ideologies are important helps us win the game. But it explains why people are quick to see little things in the context of big issues.

Comment author: HalFinney 22 July 2009 06:40:42AM 8 points [-]

I'm afraid I have to take issue with your Cheerios story in the linked comment. You say of the 4% cholesterol lowering claim, "This is false. It is based on a 'study' sponsored by General Mills where subjects took more than half their daily calories from Cheerios (apparently they ate nothing but Cheerios for two of their three daily meals)." You link to http://www.askdeb.com/blog/health/will-cheerios-really-help-lower-your-cholesterol/ but that says nothing about how much Cheerios subjects ate.

I found this article that describes the 1998 Cheerios research that is the foundation for the claim: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0813/is_8_32/ai_n15691320/ . It says that participants ate 3 cups of Cheerios per day, while control subjects ate 3 cups of corn flakes. 1 cup of Cheerios is about 100 calories, so 3 cups would be 300, far less than "more than half their daily calories" for any reasonable adult. Further, this article goes on to report that LDL (bad cholesterol) in the Cheerios group fell from 160 to 153, which looks to me like 4%.

Furthermore, my understanding is that the FDA's complaint is not with the accuracy of Cheerios' claim; it is that it is making such a claim at all, even if truthful. The FDA has a lot of rules about what kinds of health benefits products are allowed to make. It is not enough that a claim appears to be correct; the question is the depth and strength of the evidence behind it. For specific health claims, the FDA basically requires full blown clinical trials, as with drugs. According to the LA Times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/shopping_blog/2009/05/fda-warns-general-mills-over-cheerios-cholesterol-claims.html , "The FDA allows some health benefits of foods to be advertised but within strict limits. For instance, a company can say that a diet low in saturated fat and high in fiber-rich foods such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains may reduce the risk of heart disease."

There are reasonable questions to be raised about what policy we want to have for regulating health claims. But demonizing Cheerios and General Mills does not facilitate rational discussion of the issues. Saying that their claim is false, and exaggerating the amount of Cheerios which was eaten in their study, only serves to put Cheerios in an unjustifiably bad light.

And BTW I typically eat 600-1000 calories for breakfast, often cold cereal. Sometimes I eat Cheerios but usually I mix two or three different cereals. 300 calories of cold cereal is not difficult for me. The hard part is holding myself back to only eat that much.

Comment author: mps 22 July 2009 02:30:13PM 1 point [-]

I think the author's point was not to claim one side was right and the other wrong, but to say one's determination of who is right/wrong in a situation like this should probably be more independent of one's political party affiliation than it actually is. I take that no one actually studied the correlation among people's opinion on this matter and their party affiliation; my impression was the author was speculating that such a correlation would exist.

Comment author: HalFinney 22 July 2009 05:44:32PM 1 point [-]

A typical comment from an anti-Cheerios advocate. Is this what LW is coming to? Cheerios lovers unite!

Anyway it was probably not clear but I was a little tongue in cheek with my Cheerios rant. I think what I wrote is correct but mostly I was having fun pretending that there could be a big political battle over even the narrow issue of the Cheerios study and what it means.

Comment author: Yvain 23 July 2009 01:53:54AM 0 points [-]

Hm, I had an article from which I got my numbers, but now I can't find it anymore. I do see several that say three cups of cheerios per day and 450 calories of Cheerios out of a 1900 calorie diet, but I have no idea where I got that "half your total calories" phrase. Possibly I made a mistake and multiplied 4503, when the 450 is already 3150, or possibly copied from an article that did so.

Comment author: Alicorn 22 July 2009 04:18:51AM 10 points [-]

A culture where a popular feminist once said that all sex was rape

Misquote.

Comment author: Yvain 23 July 2009 01:37:57AM 8 points [-]

Corrected with apology, although for the sake of the argument it's only necessary that people think this was said.

Comment author: thomblake 23 July 2009 01:48:12AM 11 points [-]

And in fairness, someone did say something like that.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 04:25:04AM 6 points [-]

It's not much of a stretch though. MacKinnon did claim that talking about rape is equivalent to committing rape, and having read a good deal of her work, it certainly seems like "all sex is rape" is the sort of thing she'd say. Of course, people really should find something crazy that she's actually said if they want to criticize her.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 July 2009 05:03:12AM *  6 points [-]

Yvain could have been referring to Dworkin, who, in the link, says

When asked to explain her views on the topic, Dworkin replied: "Penetrative intercourse is, by its nature, violent. ..."

ETA: Her next sentence is to self-servingly disavow the "all sex is rape" attribution, and my initial post left this out. Considering the part that I did quote, and its context, it should be clear why such a disavowal carries no credibility. Because I didn't make this all clear the first time around, the discussion turned to the topic of why I cut off the quote, and I present my reasons in the comments that follows. My case is best summarized by an analogy in this comment.

Yeah, it sure sucks when people slightly misquote your actual beliefs, doesn't it? It's like with Ronald Reagan. What he REALLY said was

"I mean, if you've looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees — you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?"

But ignorant liars always quote him as saying

"If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all."

What an undeserved smear on Reagan's reputation to have such a quote attributed to him.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 02:13:15PM *  6 points [-]

When asked to explain her views on the topic, Dworkin replied: "Penetrative intercourse is, by its nature, violent. ..."

Yeah, it sure sucks when people slightly misquote your actual beliefs, doesn't it?

The ellipsis conceals "I'm not saying that sex must be rape". You seriously don't think "All sex is rape" would therefore be a misinterpretation of what Dworkin said?

ETA: Note that I'm primarily responding to academic bad form.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 July 2009 03:24:56PM *  5 points [-]

Dworkin spent her life espousing an ideology that saw guilt in everything men did. Normal, well-adjusted people who actually read her works could not make any sense of them except to mean that men automatically do lots of oppressive, evil things, and got the impression -- right or wrong -- she believed all sex is rape, which probably spiraled into a rumor that she said exaclty that.

When finally held to account for her views, she's forced to realize how absurd her views actually are, and what they imply. So, she does what everyone would do -- she backpedals: "Oh, no, I didnt' actually believe that."

But note that even when she has to disavow the minimal amount necessary to maintain street cred, she still groups all sexual intercourse in the same category as "violence".

Yes, Dworkin was misrepresented -- just not by very much, and certainly not enough to warrant all the handwringing.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 03:32:17PM 0 points [-]

I don't think there was all that much 'handwringing'. Most references to "all heterosexual sex is rape" are misattributed to MacKinnon, and if Dworkin did any favors for feminist discourse, it was to speed up the loss of credibility for radical feminism.

I was primarily pointing out that it is disingenuous at least to interpret a quote out of context where the context contained the negation of your interpretation.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 July 2009 03:42:50PM *  0 points [-]

The issue is whether Dworkin's views imply "All sex is rape", and her personal disavowal of that position when under the spotlight counts for nothing, which is why I don't think it's necessary for context. The critical part is what she still clings to, not what she can sheepishly disclaim.

Look, Thom, most anyone can voice a coherent sentence. So the fact that they say something, even about themselves, does not make it true. (It is weak Bayesian evidence of its truth if the statement is self-serving.)

I'm going to show you a trick:

I, Silas Barta, have the utmost respect for both men and women, and I never use language that is in any way objectifying to either.

See? I made a claim about my statements and character. And that doesn't make it true! In fact, it's going to utterly fail to convince Alicorn.

Can you start to see how the part I didn't quote is less important than what I did quote? Can you start to see why "Oh, no, I totally don't believe that stuff about all sex being rape" doesn't carry much weight?

Comment author: lavalamp 22 July 2009 04:15:18PM *  6 points [-]

I, Silas Barta, have the utmost respect for both men and women, and I never use language that is in any way objectifying to either.

This is a statement about your prior actions.

"I'm not saying that sex must be rape"

This is a statement about her prior statement.

I don't think these two are analogous.

I don't know anything about Dworkin, but when you're telling someone what they really think (in spite of their explicit statement to the contrary), you're on pretty shaky ground. It's much better to just call their statements inconsistent than to insist they really mean X.

EDIT: The fact that you find someone's views weirdly and obviously inconsistent implies one of two things: their internal state is muddled (or they are rationalizing/confabulating), or you don't actually understand their view. I've been on both sides of both cases in my life, it's hard to tell the difference. It's extremely frustrating when people who don't understand my view on something try to tell me what I really think.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 July 2009 06:09:13PM 1 point [-]

This is a statement about her prior statement.

I don't think these two are analogous.

They're both statements about the speaker's position, and I explained the parallels, which you need to address. It's elaborated here.

I don't know anything about Dworkin, but when you're telling someone what they really think (in spite of their explicit statement to the contrary), you're on pretty shaky ground. It's much better to just call their statements inconsistent than to insist they really mean X.

You know what's even better than that? Quoting them. You know what's even better than that? Quoting their reaction to criticism of the view in question. You know what's even better than that? Quoting the part that shows how close the accusation is to being correct, because of what they'll admit to when "defending" themselves.

Look back: which one did I do?

The fact that you find someone's views weirdly and obviously inconsistent implies one of two things: their internal state is muddled (or they are rationalizing/confabulating), or you don't actually understand their view. I've been on both sides of both cases in my life, it's hard to tell the difference. It's extremely frustrating when people who don't understand my view on something try to tell me what I really think.

You know what's also frustrating?

-When someone's writing is so vague that most people read it as "all sex is rape".

-When I'm told all my life that I'm an oppressor, and have to watch out for the invisible acts of oppression that I'm committing, which can only be revealed by consultation with a special class of offical censors, all the while men who ignore these rules attract all the women.

Where's my pity party? It seems that patience is reserved for those who say inflammatory things, propogate myths for decades, and then manage to say with a straight face, "no, no, I didn't mean -- what was the unpopular part again? -- yeah, that. That I didn't mean. But yeah, sex is violence. You can keep feeling guilty."

Comment author: lavalamp 22 July 2009 06:52:43PM 5 points [-]

They're both statements about the speaker's position, and I explained the parallels, which you need to address. It's elaborated here.

I think you changed the example a little bit there (http://lesswrong.com/lw/13k/missing_the_trees_for_the_forest/yrh). What you wrote there I don't have any problem with. Whether it's a charitable reading of Dworkin or a straw(wo)man, I have no knowledge. Since I don't feel like reading up on her, I am inclined to grant you that interpretation for the sake of conversation.

You know what's even better than that? Quoting them. You know what's even better than that? Quoting their reaction to criticism of the view in question. You know what's even better than that? Quoting the part that shows how close the accusation is to being correct, because of what they'll admit to when "defending" themselves.

That's fine, but packing that whole line of thinking into the act of omitting half of a quotation is bound to give people the wrong impression. If you think "all sex is rape" is consistent, on the whole, with someone's work, you can just say that's what you think. Hell, I don't know anything about her in particular and personally find radical feminist thought to be weird and wrong, so I wouldn't even argue with you.

But don't do half a job quoting someone; if in your original comment on the subject contained the words "and I know immediately afterwards she disclaims the obvious interpretation of this sentence, but that is clearly an out-of-character statement for her and probably does not reflect her true view, given all the other things she's said," then we would not be having this conversation.

When I'm told all my life that I'm an oppressor, and have to watch out for the invisible acts of oppression that I'm committing, which can only be revealed by consultation with a special class of offical censors, all the while men who ignore these rules attract all the women.

I certainly don't support what you're reacting to. If it's not already clear, I find radical feminism quite hypocritical, assuming I understand it. I suppose my few comments on this have given the impression that I'm on Alicorn's "side", whatever that means, but I'm actually pretty neutral on the whole thing, I can understand both positions. My comments have admittedly been on the "moderate feminist" side, but only because it's been less well represented (quantity, not quality, my subjective opinion) and I thought I could contribute something positive.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 July 2009 07:11:57PM *  4 points [-]

But don't do half a job quoting someone; if in your original comment on the subject contained the words "and I know immediately afterwards she disclaims the obvious interpretation of this sentence, but that is clearly an out-of-character statement for her and probably does not reflect her true view, given all the other things she's said," then we would not be having this conversation.

Okay, fair point. I thought it was obvious why the next sentence should carry so little weight, but even so, I should have explained that that was the reason for the exclusion.

ETA: I've added a clarifier to the initial comment.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 07:08:14PM 3 points [-]

I find radical feminism quite hypocritical, assuming I understand it.

Brief intro:

Radical feminism, simply put, is isomorphic to radical marxism. Where the marxist would interpret virtually anything as an instance of "class warfare", the radical feminist would interpret virtually anything as an instance of "oppression by the patriarchy". The "patriarchy", in this sense, is that complex web of behaviors and assumptions that, on the whole, radical feminists believe was constructed by men to keep women down.

There is a charitable interpretation of the "patriarchy" that suggests that it was not created specifically by men, and it is not intended to keep women down, but then "patriarchy" is a bad name. Radical feminist works usually make more internal sense if you just read it as though "patriarchy" referred to an illuminati-like organization with immense power hell-bent on subjugating women using insidious methods like making the Washington Monument look phallic.

While there are still quite a few radical feminists alive and kicking, their views are largely discredited and a serious thinker should be embarrassed to use their arguments.

The Wikipedia article does a decent job of summarizing different movements in feminism. (For reference, when I put on my "feminist" hat, I'm a "liberal feminist". Note that "Liberal" here is used in the same sense as in "Classical Liberal" or "Liberty")

Comment author: lavalamp 22 July 2009 06:55:06PM 3 points [-]

Replying to this separately so it can be voted up/down separatly.

Where's my pity party? It seems that patience is reserved for those who say inflammatory things, propogate myths for decades, and then manage to say with a straight face, "no, no, I didn't mean -- what was the unpopular part again? -- yeah, that. That I didn't mean. But yeah, sex is violence. You can keep feeling guilty."

Do you have a bias against feminism that goes beyond disagreement? This sounds to me to be the statement of someone who feels personally injured.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 July 2009 07:27:39PM *  1 point [-]

Yes, I do feel personally injured. I'm told all my life what is proper behavior around women and what is not, while, right in front of my face, men flout these rules (as best I understand them) and are, for lack of a better term, rewarded by those women.

I cannot interpret advice, of the type Alicorn has given, any more charitably than "I'm trying to clean the gene pool of any man submissive and stupid enough to actually follow this advice in the real world." To the extent that Alicorn is sincere and honest, she is an extreme outlier, and is asking for special treatment that cannot be justified by preferences of women in general.

To see why it would be special treatment, please refer to my previous comment, which may have the side effect of demonstrating my humanity. It details how I, like Alicorn, experience a negative physical reaction from PUA threads, but, unlike Alicorn, see this as a failing I need to overcome, rather than a reason to demand suppression of a topic.

Comment author: Lightwave 22 July 2009 07:54:41PM *  1 point [-]

This sounds to me to be the statement of someone who feels personally injured.

Btw, how is that different from Alicorn feeling 'personally injured' (or offended) by us having PUA discussions on LW? Can't SilasBerta feel offended by any attempts to censor the topic?

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 06:56:03PM 0 points [-]

Said much more diplomatically than mine. Good job.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 06:21:09PM *  0 points [-]

When I'm told all my life that I'm an oppressor, and have to watch out for the invisible acts of oppression that I'm committing, which can only be revealed by consultation with a special class of offical censors, all the while men who ignore these rules attract all the women.

Were your parents killed by angry feminists when you were a child?

This has been happening all your life? I've actively studied radical feminism and I don't feel like I've been exposed to such a dire situation. And radical feminism lost credibility and practically died over decade ago now (I believe most scholars of feminism place it around when Carlin Romano penned his now-famous "Suppose I raped Catherine MacKinnon" review). Really, give it up man, war's over, Dworkin's been dead for many years and nobody important takes her work seriously.

EDIT: removed undiplomatic remark.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 03:49:14PM 3 points [-]

The issue is whether Dworkin's views imply "All sex is rape", and her personal disavowal of that position when under the spotlight counts for nothing, which is why I don't think it's necessary for context.

If you're going to interpret her charitably, then her clarification that she doesn't mean to say that all sex is rape is relevant to understanding what she did mean. Leaving out her clarification is deceptive.

If you're not going to interpret her charitably, then it doesn't matter what she said, as you can twist her words into meaning whatever you'd like.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 22 July 2009 04:54:47PM 2 points [-]

I like the concept of narratives (make it "affective narratives"). Every problem looks like a nail. This bias doesn't necessarily determine what gets decided, as the factions can fight over the outcome, but it results in discarding all the relevant considerations, leaving only the sufficiently polarized ones. The perception of facts gets distorted without an agreed-upon affective bias for a specific cause. A cult-anticult field that doesn't necessarily consist of a pair of organized cults. When the cults are organized around the poles, it gets worse, but the first stage is like spontaneous fluctuations from sanity to both sides along the given direction.

This possibly creates an approach to the question posed in Do Fandoms Need Awfulness?. If there is a controversy, it creates factions, which start to argue in an adversarial mode, creating an affective narrative that draws attention to a few simple properties of the object of fandom, raising them to absolute, which appeals to the people who value these properties.

Comment author: CronoDAS 22 July 2009 04:04:54PM 2 points [-]

I gave an example: the government's request that Kelloggs stop making false claims about Cheerios

Cheerios is made by General Mills, not Kellogs.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 04:39:56PM 0 points [-]

Ha... I was wondering if this was a mistake, or if I'd missed something in that controversy.

Comment author: colinmarshall 22 July 2009 05:10:51AM 3 points [-]

The more time I spend thinking about it, the more I come to realize that Narrative Is the Enemy, at least where attempts to see and reason clearly are concerned. One heuristic has proven surprisingly useful time and time again, in efforts of rationality as well as creativity: don't try to deliberately tell a story.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 02:37:18PM 2 points [-]

But narrative is our primary means for understanding; it's where we get the context for situating our ideas. Even the 'self' is a story we tell ourselves, to give narrative unity to the disparate actions we take.

While many philosophers have written about this in recent years, I shall point to the one most likely to be respected here. Dan Dennett: The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity

Comment author: colinmarshall 22 July 2009 02:59:38PM 1 point [-]

You're absolutely right; it's the overuse of narrative we need to be concerned about. Humanity can't get by without it, but one inch too much and we're in self-delusion territory.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 03:01:52PM 1 point [-]

Agreed. At least postmodernism got something right.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 04:20:11AM 0 points [-]

As far as actually talking about bias in general, I don't think this post adds anything that hasn't already been said, for instance in "Politics is the mind-killer". In terms of the current discussion, I thought the idea was to drop it and move on.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 22 July 2009 06:35:23AM 2 points [-]

I thought it was well-repeated.

Comment author: FrankAdamek 22 July 2009 06:53:23AM 1 point [-]

I get the feeling sometime that people tend to be "blunt objects", that there is a tendency to see one issue that does have some importance, or a few, and then go slamming against that issue and things that resemble it. Then your slamming becomes an issue and other people start hammering against your whole position and related views. If this system works at all, it hopefully works by this pounding back and forth settling somewhere close to where we think things ought to be, based on the relative 'objective' merits that give a bit more fuel to one side or the other. Being built to be successful packhunters and foragers on the savannah and not the perfect disputants, I think people are applying what limited resources they have or think they have in attempting to settle fine points with large unwieldy views, the sort of broad conceptions that did the job in the savannah. Hopefully by policing ourselves and/or increasing our own ability to handle lots of nuanced information at once we can apply more precision to things. Then instead of flinging the issue around like a tetherball, we could carefully place it in a measured and thoughtful position to best satisfy our collective desires. Anyway just some thoughts and an analogy I find viscerally enjoyable.

Comment author: orthonormal 22 July 2009 06:20:29PM 3 points [-]

IAWYC, but I want to caution against too much arguing by analogy. I can always find a neat-sounding analogy for any problem (especially facets of human psychology), but that as persuasive as such analogies often are to sympathetic audiences, they tend to have very little predictive power.

That being said, they can be very pithy and memorable, so they're a good tool when they're justified.

Comment author: FrankAdamek 22 July 2009 08:53:51PM 0 points [-]

Good point and agreed. Here I sought just to share a descriptive analogy I found interesting, in agreement with Yvain, but any description could even unintentionally be used later for argument (by myself too of course), so that's something for me to watch out for, thanks.

Comment author: gworley 22 July 2009 11:01:14AM 0 points [-]

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Even though I don't think there was anything really new in this post, I like it anyway because it finds additional evidence and helps build the body of evidence to support the idea that politics is the mind killer.

Comment author: mps 22 July 2009 02:19:47PM *  0 points [-]

I agree.

In fact, I think the "vast overarching narrative" is often something very basic. In many cases, I think a given policy is seen simply as "punishing" a group, and is resisted by people who think that group deserves more respect.

For instance, why are so many people against increasing taxes on the wealthy to cut deficits? Are they really worried that these people will lose incentive to work hard, and the economy will suffer? Or that markets for luxury goods will crumble? I suspect what many really feel is that successful people deserve praise and admiration, while increasing their taxes puts them down -- the tax increase is seen to say that their wages were not fairly won. And perhaps many on the other side feel so strongly about it because they think wealthy people are overpaid and otherwise get too much admiration, and thus should be taken down a notch.

The "vast overarching narrative" is simply "wealthy people get too little / too much respect."

Same with govt regulation. Do you think society gives large corporations too much or too little respect? (That is, do you think they have too much power and wealth, or do you think people tend not to appreciate how important they are toward empowering and creating wealth in our society?) Perhaps differences in the answer to that simple question explain why many take a set of certain positions on a wide range of questions of regulation, the practical implications of which are actually very diverse.

Comment author: matt 26 July 2009 06:46:18AM *  3 points [-]

There are many who would love to achieve the assumed goals of government regulation, but have noticed a law of unintended consequences or have studied public choice theory, and believe that advocating sensible regulation isn't the same as getting it.

Comment author: thomblake 22 July 2009 02:40:25PM 3 points [-]

Are they really worried that these people will lose incentive to work hard, and the economy will suffer? Or that markets for luxury goods will crumble? I suspect what many really feel is that successful people deserve praise and admiration, while increasing their taxes puts them down

I doubt the economists on that side of the issue have fallen into this trap. It seems at least more charitable to assume they mean it when they say it will disincentivize creating wealth.