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Offense versus harm minimization

60 Post author: Yvain 16 April 2011 01:06AM

Imagine that one night, an alien prankster secretly implants electrodes into the brains of an entire country - let's say Britain. The next day, everyone in Britain discovers that pictures of salmon suddenly give them jolts of painful psychic distress. Every time they see a picture of a salmon, or they hear about someone photographing a salmon, or they even contemplate taking such a picture themselves, they get a feeling of wrongness that ruins their entire day.

I think most decent people would be willing to go to some trouble to avoid taking pictures of salmon if British people politely asked this favor of them. If someone deliberately took lots of salmon photos and waved them in the Brits' faces, I think it would be fair to say ey isn't a nice person. And if the British government banned salmon photography, and refused to allow salmon pictures into the country, well, maybe not everyone would agree but I think most people would at least be able to understand and sympathize with the reasons for such a law.

So why don't most people extend the same sympathy they would give Brits who don't like pictures of salmon, to Muslims who don't like pictures of Mohammed?


SHOULD EVERYBODY DRAW MOHAMMED?

I first1 started thinking along these lines when I heard about Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, and revisited the issue recently after discovering http://www.reddit.com/r/mohammadpics/.

I have to admit, I find these funny. I want to like them. But my attempts to think of reasons why this is totally different from showing pictures of salmon to British people fail:

• You could argue Brits did not choose to have their abnormal sensitivity to salmon while Muslims might be considered to be choosing their sensitivity to Mohammed. But this requires a libertarian free will. Further, I see little difference between how a Muslim "chooses" to get upset at disrespect to Mohammed, and how a Westerner might "choose" to get upset if you called eir mother a whore. Even though the anger isn't being caused by alien technology, it doesn't feel like a "choice" and it's more than just a passing whim. And if tomorrow I tried to "choose" to become angry every time someone showed me a picture of a salmon, I couldn't do it - I could pretend to be angry, but I couldn't make myself feel genuine rage.

• Muslims' sensitivity to Mohammed is based on a falsehood; Islam is a false religion and Mohammed is too dead to care how anyone depicts him. I agree with this statement, but I don't think it licenses me to cause psychic pain to Muslims. I couldn't go around to mosques and punch Muslims in the face, shouting "Your religion is false, so you deserve it!".

• It is necessary to draw pictures of Mohammed to show Muslims that violence and terrorism are inappropriate responses. I think the logic here is that a few people drew pictures of Mohammed, some radicals sent out death threats and burned embassies, and now we need to draw more pictures of Mohammed to convince Muslims not to do this. But it sounds pretty stupid when you put it in exactly those words. Say a random Christian kicked a Muslim in the face, and a few other Muslims got really angry, blew the whole thing out of proportion, and killed him and his entire family. This would be an inappropriately strong response, and certainly you could be upset about it, but the proper response wouldn't be to go kicking random Muslims in the face. They didn't do it, and they probably don't even approve. But drawing pictures of Mohammed offends many Muslims, not just the ones who send death threats.

• The slippery slope argument: if we allow Muslims' concerns to prevent us from drawing pictures of Mohammed, sooner or later we'll have to accept every two-bit group with a ridiculous superstition and we'll never be able to get anything done. I take this more seriously than the previous three arguments, but I've previously argued that granting large established religions special rights is relatively immune to slippery-slope. And anyway, drawing pictures of Mohammed is such an unusual thing to do that we can stop doing it without giving up our right to keep doing something else that's actually useful if the situation comes up later.

None of these excuses really does it for me. So my provisional conclusion is that yes, people who draw pictures of Mohammed where Muslims can see them are bad people in the same way that people who go around showing photos of salmon to Brits are bad people.

So the big question is: why is this so controversial in the Mohammed example, when it seems so obvious in the salmon example?

A BLAME-BASED CONCEPT OF OFFENSE

I think several features of the salmon example trigger consequentialist moral reasoning, in which the goal is to figure out how to satisfy as many people's preferences as possible; several contrasting features of the Mohammed case trigger deontological moral reasoning, in which the goal is to figure out who is a good person or a bad person and to assign status and blame appropriately. These two forms of reasoning give different results in the two different cases.

The word that comes up a lot in discussions of this sort of issue is "offensive". When someone draws Mohammed, it is considered offensive to Muslims. When someone writes a story where all the sympathetic and interesting characters are male, it is considered offensive to women.

For me, the word "offensive" brings up connotations of "It was morally wrong to say this, and you are either inexcusably ignorant of this fact or deliberately malicious. You must immediately apologize, and it is up to the group you have offended to decide whether they accept your apology or whether they want to punish you in some well-deserved way."

This means that ever admitting you were offensive is a huge status hit implying you are some combination of callous, ignorant, and racist. Sometimes people may be willing to take this status hit, especially if upon reflection they believe they really were in the wrong, but since most people's actions seem reasonable to themselves they will not be willing to accept a narrative where they're the villain.

More likely, they will try to advance an alternative interpretation, in which their actions were not legitimately offensive or in which they have the "right" to take such actions. Such an interpretation may cast the offended party as a villain, trying to gain power and control by pretending to be offended, or unduly restricting the free speech of others.

The controversy over drawing Mohammed has several factors that predispose to this sort of interpretation. There is already a history of misunderstanding and some enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslims' status as a minority makes ideas of "political correctness" readily primed and available, making people likely to miss the trees for the forest. Muslims are often of a different race than Christians, so conflicts with them risk tarring a person with the deeply insulting label of "racist". And because there are reports of Muslims rioting and hurting other people because of Mohammed drawings, they are easy to villainize.

This risks embroiling everyone in an unproductive argument about whether an action was "legitimately offensive" or not, with much status riding on the result.

A CONSEQUENTIALIST CONCEPT OF HARM MINIMIZATION

The British salmon example, on the other hand, was designed to avoid the idea of "offense" and trigger consequentialist notions of harm minimization2.

The example specifically refers to the displeasure that salmon cause the British as "psychic pain", priming ideas about whether it is acceptable to cause pain to another person. The British are described as politely asking us to avoid salmon photography as a favor to them, putting themselves in a low status position rather than demanding we respect their status. British are white and first world, so it's hard to think of this as a political correctness issue and wade into that particular quagmire. And because the whole salmon problem is the result of an alien prankster, there's no easily available narrative in which the British are at fault.

A consequentialist reasoner would consider how much disutility it causes not to be able to use pictures of salmon where the British might see them, then consider how much disutility it causes the British to see pictures of salmon, and if the latter outweighed the former, they'd stop with the salmon pictures. There's an argument to be made about slippery slope, but in this case the slope doesn't seem too slippery and other cases can be evaluated on their merits.

And a consequentialist British person, when considering how to convince a foreigner to stop using pictures of salmon, would try to phrase eir request in a way that minimizes the chances that the foreigner gets upset and confrontational, and maximizes the chances that they actually stop with the salmon.

If the foreigner refused to stop with the salmon pictures, the British person would try to shame and discredit the foreigner into doing so only if ey thought it would work better than any less confrontational method, and only if the chance of it successfully stopping the offending behavior was great enough that it outweighted the amount of bad feelings and confrontation it would cause.

This is a healthier and potentially more successful method of resolving offensive actions.

OFFENSE AND TYPICAL MIND FALLACY

I post on a forum where a bunch of regulars recently denounced the culture of verbal abuse. The abusers, for their part, said that the victims were making mountains out of molehills: exaggerating some good-natured teasing in order to look holier-than-thou.

I was friends with some of victims and with some abusers; neither side were majority bad people, and it surprised me that people would view requests to stop verbal abuse as a Machiavellian ploy.

Not to say that asking for verbal abuse to stop can't be a Machiavellian ploy. In fact, as far as Machiavellian ploys go, it's a pretty good one - take something your political enemies do, pretend to be deeply offended by it, and then act upset until your enemies are forced to stop, inconveniencing them and gaining you sympathy. A conspiracy such is this is not impossible, but why is it so often the first possibility people jump to?

I think it has to do with something I heard one of the abusers say: "I would never get upset over something little like that."

I know him and he is telling the truth. When someone is verbally confrontational with him, he takes it in stride or laughs it off, because that's the kind of guy he is.

I am of Jewish background. I've had someone use an anti-Semitic slur on me exactly once. My reaction was the same mix of confusion and amusement I'd feel if someone tried a vintage Shakespearean insult. And yet I also know of Jews who have been devastated by anti-Semitic slurs, to the point where they've stopped going to school because someone in school taunted them. These people may differ from me in terms of Jewish identity, extraversion, demographics, social status, anxiety, neurogenetics, and some hard-to-define factor we might as well just call "thin skin".

The point is, if I use my own reactions to model theirs, I will fail, miserably. I will try to connect their reaction to the most plausible situation in which my mind would generate the same reaction in the same situation - in which I am not really upset but am pretending to be so for Machiavellian motives.

In the case of anti-Semitism, it's easy to see factors - like a history of suffering from past prejudice - that make other people's responses differ from mine. It's less obvious why someone else might differ in their response to being called ugly, or stupid, or just being told to fuck off - but if these differences really exist, they might explain why people just can't agree about offensive actions.

A thick-skinned person just can't model a person with thinner skin all that well. And so when the latter gets upset over some insult, the thick-skinned person calls them "unreasonable", or assumes that they're making it up in order to gain sympathy. My friends in the online forum couldn't believe anyone could really be so sensitive as to find their comments abusive, and so they ended up doing some serious mental damage.

SUMMARY

Consequentialism suggests a specific course of action for both victims of offense and people performing potentially offensive actions. The victim should judge whether ey believes the offense causes more pain to em than it does benefit to the offender; if so, ey should nonjudgmentally request the offender stop while applying the Principle of Charity to the offender, and if ey wants the maximum chance of the offense stopping, ey should resist the urge to demand an apology or do anything else that could potentially turn it into a status game.

The offender, for eir part, should stop offending as soon as ey realizes that the amount of pain eir actions cause is greater than the amount of annoyance it would take to avoid the offending action, even if ey can't understand why it would cause any pain at all. If ey wishes, ey may choose to apologize even though no apology was demanded.

If the offender refuses, the victim should only then consider "punishment" by trying to shame the offender and make em appear low status, and only if ey thinks this has a real chance of stopping the offending behavior either in this case or in the future. Like all attempts to deliberately harm another person, this course of action requires of the victim exceptional certainty that ey is in the right.

Although people pretending to be offended for personal gain is a real problem, it is less common in reality than it is in people's imaginations. If a person appears to suffer from an action of yours which you find completely innocuous, you should consider the possibility that eir mind is different from yours before rejecting eir suffering as feigned.

 

FOOTNOTES

1) Thanks to Kaj Sotala, Vladimir Nesov, and kovacsa-whose-LW-name-I-don't-know for originally encouraging me to turn the original essay into an LW post.

2) The deontological notion of offense doesn't really supervene on an idea of pain to other people. If two white people, talking where no black people could possibly overhear them, make a racist joke about black people, that is still "offensive", because racism is wrong no matter what. A consequentialist notion of offense could better ground such examples by theorizing that whites telling racist jokes to other whites creates a climate in which racism is considered acceptable, which eventually will end up hurting someone directly. Or it could decide not to, if it decided the link was too tenuous and hokey - but now any disagreement on the matter is honest disagreement about empirical facts and not philosophical disagreement about who's a bad person.

Comments (417)

Comment author: Nominull 16 April 2011 01:59:51AM 55 points [-]

I think you are too quick to discard the Machiavellian ploy hypothesis. In particular, I think the term "Machiavellian" is misleading you. You (rightly) find a vast conspiracy of offense-pretending Muslims to be ridiculous. But the best way to run a conspiracy is not to run it, and the best way to pretend to something is not to pretend.

Have you stopped to ask why group X might find behavior Y of group Z offensive? I'm not doubting their pain, I'm not suggesting that group X cynically decides to find Y offensive, I'm just asking, how does offense arise in the first place? Why are human beings such that they take offense to things?

My view - taking offense begins as a response to a norm violation. "Not cool, dude," we say, because the dude has done something outside of what the group is prepared to accept. We feel uncomfortable when others violate norms, because if we just sit by and do nothing, we may be accused of being in on the norm violation.

But sometimes people take offense to things which are not norm violations. The general US norm is not that drawing the prophet Muhammed is forbidden, it's not that violent videogames are a sin, it's not that the casual treatment of women as nothing but sex objects is unacceptable. Yet people take offense to these things anyway! What is going on?

Here I am going to repeat again that I do not think that Muslims, game-pacifists, or feminists are consciously conspiring. I think, rather, that it is natural to take offense not only at things which are actual norm-violations, but also things which you wish were norm violations, things which would boost your status if they were norm violations. There is no conscious consideration of this, but somewhere deep in our hypocrite brains, we decide to pretend that our desired norms are the actual norms.

And the math gets even better for taking offense when you consider the meaning of being labeled offensive! "It was morally wrong to say this, and you are either inexcusably ignorant of this fact or deliberately malicious. You must immediately apologize, and it is up to the group you have offended to decide whether they accept your apology or whether they want to punish you in some well-deserved way," you say, and I think you have the right of it. This is a powerful weapon to use against your enemies, and a powerful threat to use to keep people from becoming your enemies in the first place. You think your brain isn't going to seize on it whenever possible?

Now, I know you are arguing from a harm minimization standpoint, you might say, "it is not these people's fault that their brains see an opportunity to score points by being offended and cause them pain". And that's true. The vast majority of people who take offense are, I'm sure, not doing it in a conscious, cynical manner. And by freely and gleefully offending them, we are doing them undeserved harm. It sucks to be them, and I say that in a spirit of sympathy. However, if we give in to offense, if we explicitly act to avoid giving offense rather than acting to right object-level wrongs, then we risk emboldening the true villains, the hypocrite brains who are torturing people to score cheap political points. Better to put our feet down now, because if being offended is a useful strategy, people will go on being offended, even if they don't want to.

Comment author: GilPanama 16 April 2011 10:03:13AM 8 points [-]

The general US norm is not that drawing the prophet Muhammed is forbidden, it's not that violent videogames are a sin, it's not that the casual treatment of women as nothing but sex objects is unacceptable.

Either I'm being confused by a triple-negative, or we are living in very different contexts. Even people who are avowedly anti-feminist will usually say that casually treating women as nothing but sex objects breaks their norms. They might disagree that a model on a billboard is a sex object.

More generally, the problem is not manufacturing offense where none exists, but deciding where it can reasonably exist. And even if you don't think that this is a meaningful problem, and that the best answer is to simply not take offense, ever, note that this:

we risk emboldening the true villains, the hypocrite brains who are torturing people to score cheap political points.

... sounds suspiciously like another kind of offense, the offense of anti-offense backlash. This line of argument also makes out feminists and game-pacifists to be "inexcusably ignorant" or "deliberately malicious," and thus is wielding a very similar rhetorical club to the one that was just denounced.

There is no conscious consideration of this, but somewhere deep in our hypocrite brains, we decide to pretend that our desired norms are the actual norms.

"The actual norms?"

Like "general US norm," that's a phrase that does not, as far as I can tell, dissect the space of possible norms in a useful way. If there were a single agreed-upon set of norms, or even an agreed-upon set of rules for describing an agreed-upon set of norms, these discussions would be a lot easier. As it stands, declaring offense can, in fact, shift norms if done enough. In some cases, it can shift them for the better.

Comment author: Alicorn 16 April 2011 05:34:16AM 23 points [-]

I'm not clear on the relevant Muslim sensibilities/doctrine, but are they upset merely by seeing pictures of Mohammed, or by the existence of pictures of Mohammed? It may be that without actual policies/norms/etc. stringently forbidding drawing Mohammed, they will experience a non-negligible background level of upset based on the probabilistic expectation that someone, somewhere, is drawing Mohammed where they can't see. What does this model of offense etc. say to this situation?

Comment author: HughRistik 16 April 2011 08:54:30AM 16 points [-]

I think you're right that the seeing vs. existing is a big part of why people's intuitions about salmon vs. Mohammed may differ in the example. British people (in the example) aren't trying to stop the existence of salmon pictures they can't see, whereas some Muslims are trying to stop the existence of Mohammed pictures they can't see. Even if only a minority of Muslims holds that attitude, it might be sufficiently annoying and scary to some non-Muslims that they are willing to annoy other Muslims by making pictures as a protest.

Yvain almost covers this case:

Say a random Christian kicked a Muslim in the face, and a few other Muslims got really angry, blew the whole thing out of proportion, and killed him and his entire family. This would be an inappropriately strong response, and certainly you could be upset about it, but the proper response wouldn't be to go kicking random Muslims in the face. They didn't do it, and they probably don't even approve. But drawing pictures of Mohammed offends many Muslims, not just the ones who send death threats.

Except kicking someone in the face violates Western notions of rights, while drawing pictures of Mohammed somewhere doesn't. Drawing pictures of Mohammed to protest Muslims who try to deny the right of others to do so is not a violation of anyone's rights, according to Western concepts of rights. Westerners feel they must treat any attempt to deny their rights as a Schelling Point.

Yes, it is still annoying for the set of Muslims-who-are-bothered-by-pictures-of-Mohammed-but-aren't-trying-to-take-away-the-right-of-people-to-do-so. Yet people who draw pictures of Mohammed might feel they are justified in annoying those Muslims in order to protest the subset of Muslims that attempt censorship. Perhaps they hope that moderate Muslims will understand why they must defend that Schelling Point, or perhaps they hope that moderate Muslims will bring the radicals in line.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 16 April 2011 04:35:13PM 8 points [-]

Analogously, If this theoretical scenario were to take place, I would be doing wrong if I were to force British people to look a salmon against their will, same as if I hurt them against their will buy punching them in the face.

But they would have no justification for acting against say the "Australian Salmon photographers association" who happen to enjoy taking pictures of Salmon themselves but have no intention of exposing British people to them against their will.

In the Danish cartoons example, they were originally given a very minor circulation in Denmark, they were not airdropped into Mecca or whatever. The objection to Muslim 'offense' is that they are attempting to restrict others self regarding actions that do no harm to them. [Also in that specific case there was deliberate political manipulations.]

Comment author: JenniferRM 17 April 2011 02:32:21AM 22 points [-]

In the case of your alien-hacked British, they would notice their mass modification and be able to search for a cause. They would be able to scan their own brains and see the electrodes that were implanted by aliens. The idea of repudiating their new emotional reactions would be cognitively accessible, and this would inflect much of their behavior and the politics around the phenomenon.

Even as they outlawed pictures of salmon, they could (for example) put time limits on the laws, fund medical research into safe electrode removal, and make efforts to ensure that their foolish emotional reactions weren't memetically passed on into subsequent generations.

In the case of Muslims, there are no electrodes, and no hope of removing the electrodes. The material cause of their psychological situation is thus distinct and raises many of the issues from the diseased thinking essay. In practice, the people with the relevant emotional reaction were brought into being by cultural practices that include a philosophic endorsement of their over-reactions. The religious leaders benefit from the installation of this craziness in their followers by cultivating and directing the emotions it produces. People in their culture will publicly praise high fidelity memetic transmission of the emotional reactions and so the craziness can be expected to propagate like something living instead of receding like an injury healed by the passage of time.

The emotional reactions of Muslims to sacrilegious symbols are woven into their identities, and thus in some ways deserve more respect than the alien-hacked British with "photofishophobia", but in other ways they seem to me to deserve less respect.

Communities potentially have self-regulating agency over time. If a community has chosen to cultivate bad values over years and centuries (and partially succeeded in this project) , then the thing that gives them the most respect as self-regulating humans is to disrespect their poor regulatory choices.

Comment author: jtk3 18 April 2011 04:29:44AM 20 points [-]

"Say a random Christian kicked a Muslim in the face, and a few other Muslims got really angry, blew the whole thing out of proportion, and killed him and his entire family. This would be an inappropriately strong response, and certainly you could be upset about it, but the proper response wouldn't be to go kicking random Muslims in the face. "

Several times you seem to equate speech or illustration with a punch in the face. They don't seem interchangeable to me. The American founding fathers made a strong case for protecting speech, they argued that people should be able to say what they would without fear of violence in return. I'm pretty sure they never contemplated that face punching should be protected. I see the a bright line between the two behaviors.

Some of the people passing around pictures of Mohammed surely mean to insult. Others are demanding that a bright line between speech and physical harm be observed by all. They are appealing to more reasonable muslims to "police their area" and part of the plan is draw out the muslims who need policing.

I'm not defending that as an optimal plan but I sure think the bright line is a swell idea.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 April 2011 02:08:35AM 19 points [-]

I think the slippery slope you describe is not the correct slope to talk about. Rather, the argument I often hear is "if we accede to Muslims in this relatively trivial matter of pictures, they will see this as a sign of weakness, and expect stronger demands to be met as well."

Comment author: Vladimir_M 16 April 2011 01:50:28AM *  98 points [-]

Yvain:

The offender, for eir part, should stop offending as soon as ey realizes that the amount of pain eir actions cause is greater than the amount of annoyance it would take to avoid the offending action, even if ey can't understand why it would cause any pain at all.

In a world where people make decisions according to this principle, one has the incentive to self-modify into a utility monster who feels enormous suffering at any actions of other people one dislikes for whatever reason. And indeed, we can see this happening to some extent: when people take unreasonable offense and create drama to gain concessions, their feelings are usually quite sincere.

You say, "pretending to be offended for personal gain is... less common in reality than it is in people's imaginations." That is indeed true, but only because people have the ability to whip themselves into a very sincere feeling of offense given the incentive to do so. Although sincere, these feelings will usually subside if they realize that nothing's to be gained.

Comment author: fburnaby 16 April 2011 01:51:34PM *  17 points [-]

Beautifully put. So according to your objection, if I want to increase net utility, I have two considerations to make:

  • reducing the offense I cause directly increases net utility (Yvain)
  • reducing the offense I cause creates a world with stronger incentives for offense-taking, which is likely to substantially decrease net utility in the long-term (Vladmir_M)

This seems like a very hard calculation. My intuition is that item 2 is more important since it's a higher level of action, and I'm that kind of guy. But how do I rationally make this computation without my own biases coming in? My own opinions on "draw Mohammed day" have always been quite fuzzy and flip-floppy, for example.

Comment author: Torben 19 April 2011 12:57:47PM 3 points [-]

But how do I rationally make this computation without my own biases coming in?

One way is to try and compare similar countries where such offensiveness bans are enforced or not, and see which direction net migration is.

This may be difficult since countries without such bans will in all likely become more prosperous than those with them.

Another alternative might be comparing the same country before and after such laws, e.g. Pakistan.

Comment author: fburnaby 20 April 2011 12:54:17PM 2 points [-]

"Look at the world". Always a good answer!

I have a bad head for history. Do you know of anyone who has done this for me, ala Jared Diamond, for the case of free speech? It seems like it may still be hard to find someone who is plausibly unbiased on such a topic.

Comment author: a363 18 April 2011 09:30:15AM 5 points [-]

That is indeed true, but only because people have the ability to whip themselves into a >very sincere feeling of offense given the incentive to do so. Although sincere, these >feelings will usually subside if they realize that nothing's to be gained.

I'm reminded of how small children might start crying when they trip and fall and skuff their knee, but will only keep on (and/or escalate) crying if someone is nearby to pay attention...

Comment author: Lightwave 18 April 2011 09:34:28AM *  4 points [-]

people have the ability to whip themselves into a very sincere feeling of offense given the incentive to do so. Although sincere, these feelings will usually subside if they realize that nothing's to be gained.

I agree with what you're saying and it sounds logical, and I'm just wondering if you (or anyone, actually) would have some experimental evidence from psychology (or any related field) that people do that.

This view does seem to be somewhat intuitive to lesswrongers, but if you try to present it to outsiders, it would be nice if it's backed by evidence from experimental research.

So anyone?

Comment author: Yvain 16 April 2011 07:30:15PM *  2 points [-]

I'm not sure people can voluntarily self-modify in this way. Even if it's possible, I don't think most real people getting offended by real issues are primarily doing this.

Voluntary self-modification also requires a pre-existing desire to self-modify. I wouldn't take a pill that made me want to initiate suicide attacks on people who insulted the prophet Mohammed, because I don't really care if people insult the prophet Mohammed enough to want to die in a suicide attack defending him. The only point at which I would take such a pill is if I already cared enough about the honor of Mohammed that I was willing to die for him. Since people have risked their lives and earned lots of prison time protesting the Mohammed cartoons, even before they started any self-modification they must have had strong feelings about the issue.

If X doesn't offend you, why would self-modify to make X offend you to stop people from doing X, since X doesn't offend you? I think you might be thinking of attempts to create in-group cohesion and signal loyalty by uniting against a common "offensive" enemy, something that I agree is common. But these attempts cannot be phrased in the consequentialist manner I suggested earlier and still work - they depend on a "we are all good, the other guy is all evil" mentality.

Thus, someone who responded with a cost/benefit calculation to all respectful and reasonable demands to stop offending, but continued getting touchy about disrespectful blame-based demands to stop offending, would be pretty hard to game.

One difference between this post and the original essay I wrote which more people liked was that the original made it clearer that this was more advice for how people who were offended should communicate their displeasure, and less advice for whether people accused of offense should stop. Even if you don't like the latter part, I think the advice for the former might still be useful.

Comment author: HughRistik 16 April 2011 08:29:26PM 14 points [-]

Voluntary self-modification also requires a pre-existing desire to self-modify.

People have motives to increase their status, so we can check this box. Of course, this depends on phenotype, and some people do this much more than others.

I wouldn't take a pill that made me want to initiate suicide attacks on people who insulted the prophet Mohammed, because I don't really care if people insult the prophet Mohammed enough to want to die in a suicide attack defending him.

You can't self-modify to an arbitrary belief, but you can self-modify towards other beliefs that are close to yours in belief space. See my comment about political writers. You can seek out political leaders, political groups, or even just friends, with beliefs slightly more radical than yours along a certain dimension (and you might be inspired to do so with just small exposure to them). Over time, your beliefs may shift.

If X doesn't offend you, why would self-modify to make X offend you to stop people from doing X, since X doesn't offend you?

To protect/raise the status of you yourself, or of a group you identify with. I proposed in that comment that people might enjoy feeling righteous while watching out for the interests of themselves and their in-group. When you get mad about stuff and complain about it, you feel like you are accomplishing something.

Thus, someone who responded with a cost/benefit calculation to all respectful and reasonable demands to stop offending, but continued getting touchy about disrespectful blame-based demands to stop offending, would be pretty hard to game.

The problem is that other people only care if you are with them or against them; they don't care about your calculation.

The second problem is that it can be hard to distinguish these two things. People who have a sufficiently valid beef might be justified in making blame-based demands to stop offending, and your demand that they sound "respectful" and "reasonable" is itself unreasonable. Of course, people without a valid beef will use this exact same reasoning about why you can't make a "tone argument" against them asking for them to sound more respectful and reasonable.

There might be a correlation between offense and the "validity" of the underlying issue, but this correlation is low enough that it can be hard to predict the validity of the underlying issue from how the offense reaction is expressed, which weakens the utility of the strategy you propose for identifying beefs.

However, your strategy might be useful as a Schelling Point for what sort of demands you'll accept from others.

One difference between this post and the original essay I wrote which more people liked was that the original made it clearer that this was more advice for how people who were offended should communicate their displeasure, and less advice for whether people accused of offense should stop.

It may have been tough to get the message, because the British salmon example is hypothetical. A real-world example of some group succeeding in claims of offensive might be useful.

Comment author: Yvain 16 April 2011 08:43:34PM *  40 points [-]

Okay. I formally admit I'm wrong about the "should usually stop offensive behavior" thing (or, rather, I don't know if I'm wrong but I formally admit my previous arguments for thinking I was right no longer move me and I now recognize I am confused.)

I still believe that if you find something offensive, a request to change phrased in the language of harm-minimization is better than a demand to change phrased in the language of offense, but I don't know if anyone is challenging that.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 17 April 2011 09:12:02PM 19 points [-]

I still believe that if you find something offensive, a request to change phrased in the language of harm-minimization is better than a demand to change phrased in the language of offense, but I don't know if anyone is challenging that.

"Request to change" is low status, while "demand to change" is high status. The whole point of taking offense is that some part of your brain detects a threat to your status or an opportunity to increase status, so how can it be "better" to act low status when you feel offended? Well, it may be better if you think you should dis-identify with that part of your brain, and believe that even if some part of your brain cares a lot about status, the real you don't. But you have to make that case, or state that as an assumption, which you haven't, as far as I can tell (although I haven't carefully read this whole discussion).

Here's an example in case the above isn't clear. Suppose I'm the king of some medieval country, and one of my subjects publicly addresses me without kneeling or call me "your majesty". Is it better for me to request him to do so in the language of harm-minimization ("I'm hurt that you don't consider me majestic"?), or to make a demand phrased in the language of offense?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 16 April 2011 09:29:25PM *  4 points [-]

I still believe that if you find something offensive, a request to change phrased in the language of harm-minimization is better than a demand to change phrased in the language of offense, but I don't know if anyone is challenging that.

I see at least two huge problems with the harm-minimization approach.

First, it requires interpersonal comparison of harm, which can make sense in very drastic cases (e.g. one person getting killed versus another getting slightly inconvenienced), but it usually makes no sense in controversial disputes such as these.

Second, even if we can agree on the way to compare harm interpersonally, the game-theoretic concerns discussed in this thread clearly show that naive case-by-case harm minimization is unsound, since any case-by-case consequences of decisions can be overshadowed by the implications of the wider incentives and signals they provide. This can lead to incredibly complicated and non-obvious issues, where the law of unintended consequences lurks behind every corner. I have yet to see any consequentialists even begin to grapple with this problem convincingly, on this issue or any other.

Comment author: torekp 17 April 2011 01:08:24PM 2 points [-]

To protect/raise the status of you yourself, or of a group you identify with. I proposed in that comment that people might enjoy feeling righteous while watching out for the interests of themselves and their in-group.

So I can raise the status of my group by becoming a frequent complainer and encouraging my fellows to do likewise?

I won't say that it never happens. I will say that the success prospects of that sort of strategy have been exaggerated of late.

Comment author: bgaesop 17 April 2011 11:07:37PM 2 points [-]

So I can raise the status of my group by becoming a frequent complainer and encouraging my fellows to do likewise?

Sure. See, for example, the rise in prominence of the Gnu Atheists (of which I am one).

Comment author: Vladimir_M 16 April 2011 08:52:35PM *  33 points [-]

If X doesn't offend you, why would self-modify to make X offend you to stop people from doing X, since X doesn't offend you?

It's a Schellingian idea: in conflict situations, it is often a rational strategy to pre-commit to act irrationally (i.e. without regards to cost and benefit) unless the opponent yields. The idea in this case is that I'll self-modify to care about X far more than I initially do, and thus pre-commit to lash out if anyone does it.

If we have a dispute and I credibly signal that I'm going to flip out and create drama out of all proportion to the issue at stake, you're faced with a choice between conceding to my demands or getting into an unpleasant situation that will cost more than the matter of dispute is worth. I'm sure you can think of many examples where people successfully get the upper hand in disputes using this strategy. The only way to disincentivize such behavior is to pre-commit credibly to be defiant in face of threats of drama. In contrast, if you act like a (naive) utilitarian, you are exceptionally vulnerable to this strategy, since I don't even need drama to get what I want, if I can self-modify to care tremendously about every single thing I want. (Which I won't do if I'm a good naive utilitarian myself, but the whole point is that it's not a stable strategy.)

Now, the key point is that such behavior is usually not consciously manipulative and calculated. On the contrary -- someone flipping out and creating drama for a seemingly trivial reason is likely to be under God-honest severe distress, feeling genuine pain of offense and injustice. This is a common pattern in human social behavior: humans are extremely good at detecting faked emotions and conscious manipulation, and as a result, we have evolved so that our brains lash out with honest strong emotion that is nevertheless directed by some module that performs game-theoretic assessment of the situation. This of course prompts strategic responses from others, leading to a strategic arms race without end.

The further crucial point is that these game-theoretic calculators in our brains are usually smart enough to assess whether the flipping out strategy is likely to be successful, given what might be expected in response. Basically, it is a part of the human brain that responds to rational incentives even though it's not under the control of the conscious mind. With this in mind, you can resolve the seeming contradiction between the sincerity of the pain of offense and the fact that it responds to rational incentives.

All this is somewhat complicated when we consider issues of group conflict rather than individual conflict, but the same basic principles apply.

Comment author: Costanza 16 April 2011 08:39:36PM *  6 points [-]

If X doesn't offend you, why would self-modify to make X offend you to stop people from doing X, since X doesn't offend you?

Status games. There's a satirical blog which addresses this, at least in the context of Western sophisticates:

....the threshold for being offended is a very important tool for judging and ranking white people. Missing an opportunity to be outraged is like missing a reference to Derrida-it’s social death.

ETA: In the context of Islamic reaction to the Mohammed cartoons as well as the burning of a Koran, there may be some value for a demogogue to conjure up atrocities by some demonized enemy in order to unite his (and in this case, it will be "his") followers. Westerners have done the same sorts of things as well, most obviously in wartime propaganda.

Comment author: steven0461 16 April 2011 08:42:26PM *  3 points [-]

If X doesn't offend you, why would self-modify to make X offend you to stop people from doing X, since X doesn't offend you?

Surely there are a great many reasons other than offense why, for various different things X, it might be (or seem) useful to me to stop you from doing thing X. For example, if thing X is "mocking my beliefs": if my beliefs are widely respected, I and people like me will have a larger share of influence than if my beliefs are widely mocked.

Comment author: Sideways 16 April 2011 04:37:00AM 36 points [-]

I'm not convinced that "offense" is a variety of "pain" in the first place. They feel to me like two different things.

When I imagine a scenario that hurts me without offending me (e.g. accidentally touching a hot stovetop), I anticipate feelings like pain response and distraction in the short term, fear in the medium term, and aversion in the long term.

When I imagine a scenario that offends me without hurting me (e.g. overhearing a slur against a group of which I'm not a member) I anticipate feelings like anger and urge-to-punish in the short term, wariness and distrust in the medium term, and invoking heavy status penalties or even fully disassociating myself from the offensive party in the long term.

Of course, an action can be both offensive and painful, like the anti-Semitic slurs you mention. But an offensive action need not be painful. My intuition suggests that this is a principled reason (as opposed to a practical one) for the general norm of pluralistic societies that offensiveness alone is not enough to constrain free speech.

I'm not sure which category the British Fish thought experiment falls into; the description doesn't completely clarify whether the Britons are feeling pained or offended or both.

Comment author: pjeby 16 April 2011 04:17:44PM 20 points [-]

I'm not convinced that "offense" is a variety of "pain" in the first place. They feel to me like two different things.

Extremely important point. And the "offense" variety of feeling is the dangerous one - the one we shouldn't accede to.

(A side note: one of the most insidious forms of procrastination is taking offense at a problem, rather than actually solving it. Offense motivates punish-and-protest behavior, rather than problem-solving behavior.)

Comment author: byrnema 17 April 2011 03:25:14AM *  9 points [-]

A side note: one of the most insidious forms of procrastination is taking offense at a problem, rather than actually solving it. Offense motivates punish-and-protest behavior, rather than problem-solving behavior

Wow, this is so true. My least constructive response to being told to do something by my boss is taking offense, and I have to wait hours (or sometimes days) before I don't feel offended anymore so that I can focus on figuring out how to do what I've been asked.

Comment author: pjeby 17 April 2011 05:27:12PM 11 points [-]

My least constructive response to being told to do something by my boss is taking offense, and I have to wait hours (or sometimes days) before I don't feel offended anymore so that I can focus on figuring out how to do what I've been asked.

A faster way: state your offense in the form of a "should" or "should not" that is being violated. (e.g. "I shouldn't have to do this stupid s...tuff."). Then, restate that in the form of a pair of statements about your preferences, first what you don't like, and then what you do.

e.g. "I don't like it that I have to do this stupid s...tuff", followed by, "I would like it if I didn't have to do this stupid stuff."

As you make the statements, pay attention to your emotional response to each one. The first should bring righteous agreement ("damn straight I shouldn't have to!"), followed by something more like, "Yeah, I really don't like it, but I guess I do need to do it" for the second one, and "Gosh, that really would be nice if I didn't have to do it. Maybe I could just try and get it over with quickly."

If you don't get responses like these, try playing with the phrasing or subject matter of the perceived offense. Oftentimes, there is more than one norm being violated, and sometimes your unconscious norms are not immediately obvious to conscious introspection.

It also helps to question the standards themselves -- offense and the corresponding protest-punish motivation is a terrible influence on clear thinking, because it deludes you into ignoring the facts of the situation. (e.g., you might not want to do something, but you probably still need to do it.) While our brains are concerned with protesting the situation, they essentially operate in a state of denial about the situation. Appropriate litanies can also be helpful here... i.e., "if I have to do it, then I want to know that I have to do it... and admitting it won't make it any worse."

Offense-taking is essentially the true antithesis of rational thinking and action, because at a fundamental level it is insisting that what's happening isn't "really" happening, on the grounds that it's "not supposed to" be!

And it thus directly prevents actual problem solving, since it keeps you from even admitting to the basic facts upon which any effective plan of action would actually depend. ;-)

Comment author: byrnema 17 April 2011 07:13:03PM 3 points [-]

Thanks. It seems like it would work, and I would be interested in being more introspective about the source of my indignation in any case.

So now I'm looking forward to being offended.. which will also help.

Comment author: Xachariah 21 April 2011 10:37:45AM *  35 points [-]

I notice that I would not support showing British people pictures of Salmon.

I notice that I would support showing Muslim people pictures of Mohammad.

These two situations seem nearly identical.

I notice that I am confused.

I see two analogous situations, and yet I come to two different conclusions. Therefore, there must be some difference between them, even if it only lies in my perceptions. Perhaps by carving these situations at their joints, I can find why it is I come away with different conclusions. Explicitly, I remember the stated differences.

1) Race/Culturism - The British are British and not Muslim

2) Blame - The British are not "at fault" as victims of a prank while the Muslims are "at fault" by virtue of being members of a religion

As a detirminist, I cannot say that the Muslims chose to be Muslims any more than British people chose to be waylayed by a prankster in the night. That seems very damning; this only leaves the option that I must be racist. However, there is perhaps a third option that is missing. Implicitly, I notice a number of unstated differences that can only be assumed.

3) Treatability - The British people have an electrode installed, which implies to me they receive the same disutility for every salmon picture seen. After year of salmon pictures, the 366th day of seeing salmon pictures would hurt just as much as the 1st day. In Muslims, the disutility of seeing pictures of Mohammad decreases until it eventually disappears. It is possible to 'cure' a muslim of recieving disutility from pictures of Mohammad in a way it is not possible with the British.

4) Resistance - The British people do not want to have an aversion to salmon. If given the choice to remove the salmon reaction, they would do so. The Muslim people want to have an aversion to Mohammad. In fact, they consider it morally right to hate pictures of Mohammad.

5) Propagation - A salmon averse Briton would hate seeing pictures of Salmon all his life, and then would die. In the worst case, the world has to live without pictures of salmon for 100 years, assuming the singularity doesn't hit before then. Muslims will teach their children to have the same aversions they do. Worst case scenario, 10,000 years from now we'll be sending messages to our other planets across galaxies but we still can't make pictures of the prophet Mohammad.

6) Mutation - A Briton would be pained by pictures of only Salmon until their end of days. The aversion to pictures of Mohammad has already mutated into anything critical towards Islam. Specifically, Van Gogh died due to women's rights, a trait only marginally related to Mohammad in as much as his film used verses from the Quran. An appropriate analogy would be if salmon-aversion mutated to hating all pictures or discussion of fish, because they're somewhat similar to salmon.

7) Virulence - Losing the right to show salmon to British people would only hurt a small subset of nature photographers. Losing the right to criticize Islam already hampers a number of humanitarian efforts in the Middle East (eg women's rights). If we were to extend the salmon analogy, we would require the British to hate fighting climate change, because it's sort of related to saving fish.

8) Pathogenicity - The British seem to respond to seeing pictures of fish with polite inquiries to stop and social pressure. Muslim extremists respond to pictures of Mohammad or media critical of Islam with death threats, assassinations, and government blocks.

These are significant differences, and most of them I didn't notice until I started enumerating the differences. The question is, is the difference in my reaction caused by the explicit differences (#1-2) or the implicit differences (#3-8). I shall return to the original scenario and remove those explicit differences. If my reaction to the modified scenario remains constant, it means that I made my decision based on explicit differences. If my reaction to the modified scenario changes, it means I made my decision based on implicit differences.

Imagine that one night, an alien prankster secretly implants electrodes into the brains of an entire country - let's say Britain. The next day, everyone in Britain discovers that pictures of salmon suddenly give them jolts of painful psychic distress. Every time they see a picture of a salmon, or they hear about someone photographing a salmon, or they even contemplate taking such a picture themselves, they get a feeling of wrongness that ruins their entire day. The chip also modifies the British people's behavior such that they believe having this sense of wrongness is morally right. When their children are born, they implant these salmon hating electrodes in them. Interestingly, these electrodes have a number of flaws (or features), such as repeated exposure to salmon burns out the salmon-hating batteries. Another flaw (or feature) is that this aversion to salmon can mutate to an aversion of any sort of aquatic animal or cause relating to aquatic animals. Great Briton quickly becomes currently the only country attempting to fight against reduction of Global Climate Change. A number of climate change scientists and activists receive death threats by the British people for their work. Tragedy strikes when filmmaker Al Gore is assassinated for his quote "salmon-loving ways" unquote.

Sweet zombie jesus! That's a scenario that sends shivers down my spine. I would do everything I could to burn out those salmon-hating microchips. It seems that the difference in my reactions really is based on implicit differences I could not easily identify. On further reflection, Race and Nationality and even (surprisingly) Religion were irrelevant to my decision making compared to the consequences caused by the salmon/Mohammad meme.

Now another scenario. Imagine that those Muslims who hate seeing Mohammad got chosen by the prankster to get the salmon-hating electrodes in their brain. (The original salmon-chips Yvain made, not these nightmarish self-replicating, self-mutating ones I made.) They hate seeing both pictures of Salmon and pictures of Mohammad. In this case I would not support showing the Muslims pictures of Salmon, but I would support showing the Muslims pictures of Mohammad. This is consistent with my prior decisions and internally consistent with my morals.

Let me revisit my first statements now, with sticky and emotional words dissolved.

I notice that I would not support showing any people pictures of anything, if it caused pain but did not make the world a better place.

I notice that I would support showing any people pictures of anything, if it caused pain but helped make the world a better place.

These two situations are not nearly as identical as they appeared at first glance.

I notice that I am no longer confused.

Comment author: teageegeepea 17 April 2011 06:04:51PM *  11 points [-]

There was a time when Christians frequently did kill each other over seemingly minor religious differences. The wars of religion led to a backlash that eventually gave us the political theories of Hobbes, Locke etc. When people talk about the need for a reformation in Islam, they are really thinking of the period after those wars which we accept as normal.

I was going to link to Bryan Caplan on applying the Coase theorem to offense, but turned out I confused him with Alex Tabarrok on envy. He does extend his analysis to offense though.

I do recall Robin Hanson debating with Bryan Caplan and saying that it is a utilitarian best outcome for the majority of believers not to be subjected to atheist speech. I normally assume Caplan is wrong in any disagreement with Hanson, but there I lean more towards his free speech absolutism. That may be because my behaviorist leanings lead me to discount claims of psychic distress (or utility monsters) to zero. On the other hand, I don't value the ability to make atheist polemics all that highly and would be open to "make a deal" along those lines, though I'd be upset if the deal was made without my consent.

The Volokh Conspiracy often discusses the heckler's veto.

Comment author: jtk3 18 April 2011 06:28:51PM 10 points [-]

What would you think of Brits who could have their electrodes removed, but preferred to leave them in?

Personally, it would reduce my interest in being careful with salmon pictures.

Comment author: imonroe 18 April 2011 08:48:32PM 9 points [-]

This is an interesting thread.

Here's a difference between the British-salmon and Muslim-Mohammed scenarios.

In the British scenario, you've postulated that the British politely ask the rest of the world to refrain from waving photos of salmon in their faces.

In the Muslim scenario, the ultra-religious are DEMANDING that the rest of the world obey their edicts on what is appropriate to draw.

I personally feel a very visceral reaction when I'm told that I'm not allowed to draw/write about/think about something. "Who are you," I think, "to presume to tell me what I can and can't express? Just who do you think you are that you get to have that sort of control over my expressions?"

My gut instinct then, is to write/draw/think about/talk about that forbidden thing.

It's the difference between a suggestion and a command. Were the Muslim community to say something like, "Ok, do as you please, but for the sake of civility, we hope you'll refrain from exposing us to the images of Mohammed you might create," you know, I'd probably say sure, ok. That's civilized. But to say, "You may not, UNDER THREAT OF DEATH, make any images or jokes about X," that's just too dictatorial for me to accept, on any level.

Comment author: brianm 19 April 2011 02:26:47PM *  5 points [-]

Is that justified though? Suppose a subset of British go about demanding restriction on salmon image production. Would that justify you going out of your way to promote the production of such images, making them more likely to be seen by the subset not making such demands?

Comment author: khafra 19 April 2011 07:52:04PM 5 points [-]

The above looks like a standard least convenient possible world adjustment; and the original post was already trying for a scenario like that, so I'm not sure why it was downvoted.

The question of why we experience that visceral revulsion at attempted control of our private thoughts and expressions is a fascinating one. I could try to attack it with introspection, but I'd like to see some experiments if anybody knows of relevant studies.

Comment author: Desrtopa 20 April 2011 03:26:09PM 2 points [-]

That might depend on whether it discouraged the salmon extremists from making such demands.

Comment author: jtk3 18 April 2011 08:53:03AM 9 points [-]

"A thick-skinned person just can't model a person with thinner skin all that well. "

Maybe so. And I'm a very thick skinned person. But if a thin skinned person takes offense when a thick skinned person intends none, then isn't it fair to say that the thin-skinned person isn't modeling the other very well either?

"And so when the latter gets upset over some insult, the thick-skinned person calls them "unreasonable", or assumes that they're making it up in order to gain sympathy. My friends in the online forum couldn't believe anyone could really be so sensitive as to find their comments abusive, and so they ended up doing some serious mental damage."

In your prescriptions for how to deal with this I don't see any consideration of the possibility that the offended could grow thicker skin. I really think this would be the most efficient protection of the offended from such offense in at least some cases, and perhaps in most cases.

If a person literally had thin skin such that he was vulnerable to being wounded by contact with rough surfaces it would be more efficient for him to put on protective clothing than to modify his entire environment.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 18 April 2011 01:33:13PM 4 points [-]

But if a thin skinned person takes offense when a thick skinned person intends none, then isn't it fair to say that the thin-skinned person isn't modeling the other very well either?

Only if you understand my taking offense to mean that I'm inferring that you meant to offend me. If I understand perfectly well that you meant no offense and I'm offended anyway, it's possible I'm modeling you very well.

the possibility that the offended could grow thicker skin [..] would be the most efficient protection of the offended from such offense

Efficiency in this context has to do with the ratio of costs to benefits, so how efficient that is presumably depends on the costs of growing that skin, which I expect varies among people and subjects.

That said, the cost to me of other people doing the work of not being offended by my actions is of course extremely low, which makes that strategy maximally efficient for me.

Comment author: jtk3 18 April 2011 04:37:58PM *  4 points [-]

"That said, the cost to me of other people doing the work of not being offended by my actions is of course extremely low, which makes that strategy maximally efficient for me."

Sure, but as someone whose skin has become a lot thicker over time I see the primary benefit of that change is to me. I didn't require the cooperation of offenders to experience less pain.

With little further ongoing effort I'm now largely immune to what many experience as a world of hurt. For the rest of my life. Seems efficient to me. I think it was a lot easier than retraining the world to be less offensive to me.

Yes, growing a thicker skin might be very difficult for some, but most people can make very productive headway. This appears to have been overlooked by Yvain.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 19 April 2011 02:46:21AM 3 points [-]

Fair enough.

I certainly agree that in cases where "growing a thicker skin" (which I understand to mean self-modifying to be less offended by a given act) is relatively cheap, it's worth considering.

Comment author: jtk3 19 April 2011 03:24:16AM 3 points [-]

Yes, that's what I mean. And "relatively cheap" has to factor in the benefit of all of the pain you avoid for the rest of your life by thickening your skin, not just the cost of modification of the "offender".

There's a lot of win on that table.

Comment author: nhamann 16 April 2011 03:02:21AM *  9 points [-]

Another case that's interesting to consider is the Penny Arcade dickwolves controversy. The PA fellows made a comic which mentioned the word "rape", some readers got offended, and the PA guys, being thick-skinned individuals, dismissed and mocked their claims of being offended by making "dickwolves" T-shirts. Hubbub ensues.

What's most interesting about this case is that, apart from perhaps some bloggers, many of the people taking offense appear to be rape survivors for whom reading the word "rape" is traumatic (I guess? This is what I gathered, but being thick-skinned and not a rape survivor it is impossible for me to understand). I don't think it's possible to claim Machiavellian maneuverings here, given that a feminist blog who made a dickwolves protest shirt eventually stopped selling the shirt on account of some rape survivors saying that the shirt acted as a trigger for them.

More to the point: there is apparently a small population for whom using the word "rape" causes psychic horror. So what, are we now not allowed to ever use that word? Or can we not even allude to the act? Of course, reasonable concessions should be made (i.e. not using the word when directly in the presence of such a person), but at what point do sensitive individuals need to take it upon themselves to relocate their attention elsewhere?

Comment author: Nominull 16 April 2011 03:05:57AM 8 points [-]

I think that the mechanism for rape trauma triggers is different from the mechanism for Muhammed representation offense taking, and so the two should probably be treated differently. The trouble with the Dickwolves controversy is that you wound up with offense-takers and trauma-havers on the same side, in the same camp, so they got conflated.

Comment author: nhamann 16 April 2011 03:26:30AM *  2 points [-]

Hmm, but it does seem like trauma triggers and the psychic-distress-via-salmon work via the same mechanism. So probably the key here is to distinguish between actual psychic stress and feigned stress used for status maneuvers. It is not, however, clear to me how to do that in general.

Comment author: Nominull 16 April 2011 03:34:48AM 12 points [-]

No, the key here is to distinguish between actual psychic stress not used for status maneuvers and actual psychic stress used for status maneuvers. Which is of course even harder.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 16 April 2011 04:49:09PM *  17 points [-]

No, the key here is to distinguish between actual psychic stress not used for status maneuvers and actual psychic stress used for status maneuvers.

How about the classic "murder pill" test? If you could self-modify to no longer experience the psychic stress, would you?

I suspect the psychic-distress-via-salmon and rape victims would answer yes, whereas the Muslims would answer no.

Comment author: Alicorn 16 April 2011 05:02:31PM 5 points [-]

I tentatively agree, except I think rape victims might be concerned about no longer holding their beliefs about the moral significance of how people in general talk about triggering topics. If those values could be maintained without the stress reaction I would expect them to want the pill.

Comment author: jtk3 17 April 2011 01:20:49AM 4 points [-]

Yes, I think it's a crucial distinction that the brits in question would almost all choose to have the electrodes removed immediately. And shortly they would take considerably less offense at pictures of salmon.

Far fewer of the offended muslims (it's not the case that all muslims are equally offended) would immediately choose to rewire their brains or rewrite their software to avoid the psychic pain. This is because their current configuration was chosen, to a far greater extent than the brit's was.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 17 April 2011 01:45:46AM *  3 points [-]

This is an important point. In this sense, the Brits are victims of something they can't control, but if the Muslims had a choice, they wouldn't control it. So they bear some responsibility for their own offense.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 19 April 2011 04:58:24PM 3 points [-]

It really is a Gandhi and the murder pill scenario-- the training which made them offended by pictures of Mohammed is the same training which makes them not want the vulnerability to offense removed.

I've got a mild discomfort with Christianity. It's not the result of personal experience with anti-Semitism or having to deal with obnoxious Christians. It's actually a bit embarrassing to have the discomfort, when there are so many people who have good personal reasons to dislike the religion.

Born to Kvetch is a book about Yiddish and the culture it's part of. There's a chapter about detestation of Christianity-- I don't have as strong a flavor, but I bet I inherited the way I feel. [1]

The thing is, I suspect that the way I feel about Christianity doesn't actually serve me, but it's hard for me to really think about it because the idea of giving it up triggers the idea of not being uncomfortable with (ick!) Christianity.

[1] I believe that a lot of emotional reactions are learned by imitation of emotional reactions.

Comment author: HughRistik 16 April 2011 08:01:16PM 3 points [-]

More to the point: there is apparently a small population for whom using the word "rape" causes psychic horror. So what, are we now not allowed to ever use that word?

I think the point is that people shouldn't use it as a joke so much.

Comment author: Nominull 16 April 2011 08:09:54PM 8 points [-]

This only makes sense if you consider jokes to be of lesser social importance than, say, idle political talk.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 16 April 2011 02:04:38AM 28 points [-]

Another unpleasant implication of the consequentialist attitude towards offense is that societies should be as homogeneous as possible with regards to people's values and beliefs. (And I'm not talking about Aumann-agreement here!) As the diversity of a society increases, the set of statements and acts that can be done in public without offending one group or another necessarily shrinks, which implies an inevitable trade-off between the pain of offense and the pain of people who have their freedom curtailed and are increasingly forced to walk on eggshells. I'll leave the more concrete implications in the context of today's politics as an exercise for the reader.

It also implies that a certain level of isolation between societies is desirable, in direct opposition to the present trends of globalization. What is regular business in one society may well be extremely offensive in another. So, if there's an intense mutual interest and exchange of information between societies, we get the same problem as within a single diverse society. This can be mitigated only by isolating these societies from each other so that their members are not exposed to the painful sight of the offensive alien customs.

Comment author: Yvain 16 April 2011 07:39:12PM *  9 points [-]

All of this seems pretty true to me. There were even studies that showed pretty clearly that ethnically homogenous communities were happier than ethnically mixed ones.

There are lots of good reasons not to actually exclude different people from a society. Immigration's been shown to be a net good for most people involved, and of course uprooting people from a society they've grown accustomed to is harmful. But these only counterbalance the above claim, not disprove it.

I think it's pretty self-evident that anything that brings nudists together with those Arabs who freak out if every inch of a woman isn't covered by a burka is going to be a net loss for both groups.

Comment author: TobyBartels 18 April 2011 04:29:00AM 2 points [-]

Point of information: Although women from many ethnic/language groups (including Arabs) will wear burqas, It's mostly Pashtuns who require them to the point of freaking out.

Comment author: teageegeepea 18 April 2011 03:38:37AM *  2 points [-]

Sounds like you are referring to Robert Putnam's research. I spun his results as a positive here.

Comment author: xv15 17 April 2011 03:35:47PM 17 points [-]

There are commenters who note that the use of "ey" and other gender neutral pronouns hurts their head. You may understand this and still use "ey" as part of a larger attempt to accustom people to language that is ultimately more convenient, even if it's worse in the short run. Which is a perfect example of what I was going to say:

When you do your harm minimization calculation, you really need to include the entire path over time, and not just the snapshot. It is often true that hurting people today makes them stronger in the future, resulting in a better outcome. It could be, for instance, that gay marriage today offends more people more deeply than it benefits, but that by pushing for its spread, many of the formerly offended people end up desensitized to it (see also any number of past civil rights issues). Or, if by showing the Brits enough pictures of salmon we could actually desensitize them to the pain, in the long run we may all be better off.

A big difference between the salmon and mohammed example is that you built into the first that Brits can't adapt to the pain. But some people may be imagining a future, better world where everyone has free speech and nobody has a problem with it. And they imagine that the way to get there is by exercising that freedom now, even if it's bad in the short run.

Personally, my feeling is that retaining offendability on some topics can easily confer benefits, but I am sympathetic to people who have not realized this, and I can understand why they would feel some compunction to wave their free speech rights in the faces of others, without necessarily being "bad" people.

Comment author: HughRistik 16 April 2011 09:51:18AM *  33 points [-]

Offense is a lot more cognitive than pain. How do I know that? Because I am a political writer (blogging at FeministCritics.org. I show people what parts of feminism they get offended by, and what parts they should take seriously.

Political writers are offense-mongers. Why? Because on their own, people don't always know what they are supposed to find offensive.

Pain has a cognitive dimension, but many types of pain are non-cognitive. In complex social situations, offense is highly cognitive. There could be many ways to view a particular phenomenon, and political writers will choose the way that is most offensive to the group they are backing.

Offense doesn't always just swoop in and attack innocent people, people go looking for it. They seek out political writers they identify with to learn what they are supposed to be offended about today. In a complex social world, this behavior makes a lot of sense. You don't always know what might threaten your status, so you look to knowledgeable people to show you what to make into a Schelling Point. They tell you what you should be offended about, to inspire you to action that will protect the status of the identity group that you share.

Of course, political writers themselves are generally quite sincere (I certainly am!), which is part of why they are effective (at least in getting people stirred up). It's their job to get offended and then write about it. Furthermore, they gain positive reinforcement and an echo chamber if they can consistently stir up their flock and provide them a constant diet of offense, so that people will feel properly vigilant about protecting the status of groups they identify with.

There is nothing wrong this ecosystem, as long as we have no illusions about how it works.

This reminds me that I need to make a post about male-bashing in music videos. There are some patterns that I'm sure people will see if I point them out. I am of course right, but it's possible that political writers other than me have biases that lead them to perceive spuriously offensive patterns.

Comment author: HughRistik 16 April 2011 09:20:05AM 15 points [-]

Vladimir_M and Nominull have got it right.

Vladimir_M:

You say, "pretending to be offended for personal gain is... less common in reality than it is in people's imaginations." That is indeed true, but only because people have the ability to whip themselves into a very sincere feeling of offense given the incentive to do so. Although sincere, these feelings will usually subside if they realize that nothing's to be gained.

Nominull:

Here I am going to repeat again that I do not think that Muslims, game-pacifists, or feminists are consciously conspiring. I think, rather, that it is natural to take offense not only at things which are actual norm-violations, but also things which you wish were norm violations, things which would boost your status if they were norm violations. There is no conscious consideration of this, but somewhere deep in our hypocrite brains, we decide to pretend that our desired norms are the actual norms.

Although one function of offense is to alert about real threats, another function is to grab any status that it can (except when being thick-skinned grants more status).

Offense can scale depending on how much can be gained by it.

Btw, I first heard this concept from PUAs claiming that a girlfriend will "dial up" or "dial down" the drama that she gives (without any conscious goal-directedness) depending on how the man responds. This tendency seems to be a general principle of human psychology, not just female sexual psychology.

Comment author: Desrtopa 16 April 2011 02:40:20PM *  14 points [-]

Muslims' sensitivity to Mohammed is based on a falsehood; Islam is a false religion and Mohammed is too dead to care how anyone depicts him. I agree with this statement, but I don't think it licenses me to cause psychic pain to Muslims. I couldn't go around to mosques and punch Muslims in the face, shouting "Your religion is false, so you deserve it!".

This strikes me as a bad analogy. Seeing pictures of Mohammed is only offensive to Muslims because of their conviction in a poorly evidenced falsehood, whereas punching someone in the face is an offense regardless of what they believe. I think that a more apt comparison would be holding communion wafers hostage in order to offend Catholics.

If I thought that actions like these would discourage people from taking offense due to falsehoods, I would consider that to be a strong argument in their favor, but I don't see that they're actually doing much aside from fueling persecution complexes and feeding conflict.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 16 April 2011 03:06:45PM 9 points [-]

This strikes me as a bad analogy. Seeing pictures of Mohammed is only offensive to Muslims because of their conviction in a poorly evidenced falsehood, whereas punching someone in the face is an offense regardless of what they believe.

I don't think this is completely true. Speaking as a former Orthodox Jew, the idea of someone desecrating a Torah scroll fills with me with deep emotional pain even though I know that there's nothing at all holy or sacred about it. Once that sort of offense becomes ingrained it is very hard to remove even when one understands that it isn't based on any actual part of reality.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 16 April 2011 05:26:53PM *  10 points [-]

Speaking as a former Orthodox Jew, the idea of someone desecrating a Torah scroll fills with me with deep emotional pain even though I know that there's nothing at all holy or sacred about it. Once that sort of offense becomes ingrained it is very hard to remove even when one understands that it isn't based on any actual part of reality.

I don't think this offense is without any basis in reality. If someone goes around desecrating Torahs, you would be completely rational to conclude that he probably has an issue with Jews in general and feel threatened. Even if you no longer believe in Judaism, and even if you no longer identify as a Jew, this doesn't mean that Jew-haters will leave you off the hook. You may disown your religious, ethnic, or tribal affiliations, but this doesn't mean others will stop perceiving and treating you as still bound by them. (As many found out the hard way in Germany in the 1930s, to give only the most dramatic example.)

To get back to the question from the original post, this also implies that it may be rational for Muslims to sense hostility and feel threatened by people who go around committing blasphemy according to their norms, and similar for every other religion. However, it still doesn't mean that every feeling of offense is a legitimate response to hostility -- as with any human interaction where interests clash, we see a complicated interplay of signaling, Schellingian strategy, and dancing around focal points looking for ways to move them in a favorable direction. Of course, things also depend on the more explicit relations of power, wealth, status, alliances, etc. between the parties involved.

The error of the original post is to assume that these complex and highly situation-dependent questions can be analyzed with a naive consequentialist approach, but it would also be an error to simply reverse its conclusion. In different situations when offense is felt and expressed, many different scenarios may be taking place.

Comment author: endoself 17 April 2011 04:03:18AM 12 points [-]

If someone goes around desecrating Torahs, you would be completely rational to conclude that he probably has an issue with Jews in general and feel threatened.

Here's a possible litmus test: how would you feel about another former Orthodox Jew desecrating a Torah scroll as a symbol of eir change in belief.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 17 April 2011 11:02:31PM *  6 points [-]

Here's a possible litmus test: how would you feel about another former Orthodox Jew desecrating a Torah scroll as a symbol of eir change in belief.

"Another"? I assume this question is directed at Joshua Z. I am not a former Orthodox Jew, nor any other kind of Jew for that matter. I'm Catholic.

That said, as I wrote in my above comment, clearly the context of an offensive/blasphemous act or utterance matters a lot. As for the concrete scenario you list, I find it hard to imagine that a Jew who has left the religion would symbolically desecrate Torah -- the act has such a strong connotation of anti-Jewish pogroms that I'd imagine even a non-religious Jew would find it scary, almost like brandishing swastikas. That's my outsider's impression at least; I'd be curious to hear the opinion of someone more knowledgeable.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 17 April 2011 11:06:35PM 3 points [-]

Just out of curiosity, in what sense are you Catholic (heritage, culture, belief)? (No need to answer if you prefer not to.)

Comment author: Vladimir_M 18 April 2011 01:10:52AM *  10 points [-]

Just out of curiosity, in what sense are you Catholic (heritage, culture, belief)?

Well, legally, I am a Catholic in good standing (I'm baptized, and I've never renounced it nor been excommunicated). In my practices, I am largely lapsed, though I value the heritage, the art, the community, and the folkways a lot. As for beliefs, obviously there is a lot that doesn't stand up to rational scrutiny, though like in any long-standing tradition, many things that may seem irrational or backward are in fact closer to reality than various modern fashionable beliefs. (Clearly, a simple blog comment can't do justice to this topic.)

What I would point out however is that I often find the North American (presumably Protestant) attitudes in this regard quite alien and strange. What I mean is the tendency to see one's belonging to a church as an either-or matter, and breaking with it as a grand and dramatic event. Among Catholics, the normal thing to do is simply to adjust the level of your practices and your closeness to the community to whatever you find to your liking. (ETA: Though conversion to a different religion, as opposed to merely neglecting one's own, would be a big deal.)

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 18 April 2011 01:53:23AM *  8 points [-]

As for beliefs, obviously there is a lot that doesn't stand up to rational scrutiny, though like in any long-standing tradition, many things that may seem irrational or backward are in fact closer to reality than various modern fashionable beliefs. (Clearly, a simple blog comment can't do justice to this topic.)

I'd recommend Nick Szabo's essay Objective Versus Intersubjective Truth as a good first explanation of the topic.

Note: The website appears to be down at the moment, Google cache available here.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 18 April 2011 02:12:32AM 4 points [-]

Yes, I second that recommendation. It's a magnificently good essay.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 April 2011 06:56:31AM 5 points [-]

Here's a possible litmus test: how would you feel about another former Orthodox Jew desecrating a Torah scroll as a symbol of eir change in belief.

That's an interesting test. My background (never belief, exactly) is Conservative (that is, intermediate between Orthodox and Reform), and that scenario makes me queasy. My first thought was that it represents a level of rage which I'm not comfortable with (and this isn't totally nonsense), but I do find it more distressing than imagining an ex-Christian doing the same to a Christian bible, even a hand-lettered bible.

Comment author: ciphergoth 20 April 2011 01:08:30PM 5 points [-]

Wow, really? From an atheist background, to me I'm much more horrified by the thought of any unique hand-created book being burned than any printed thing for which there are endless copies.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 20 April 2011 01:23:07PM 8 points [-]

Wow, really? From an atheist background, to me I'm much more horrified by the thought of any unique hand-created book being burned than any printed thing for which there are endless copies.

Er, Torah scrolls are hand-written. The scroll form is always made by a scribe, not printed.

Comment author: ciphergoth 20 April 2011 01:37:07PM 6 points [-]

is enlightened thanks!

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 April 2011 09:11:10PM 2 points [-]

I think you missed what ciphergoth was reacting to-- I said that I'd be more upset at a Torah scroll being destroyed than a hand-written Christian bible. This doesn't mean that I'd have no reaction to the Christian destroying a hand-written Christian bible.

What I was imagining for the hand-written bible was one without illustrations, but that probably wouldn't make any emotional difference for ciphergoth.

Comment author: whpearson 20 April 2011 02:18:34PM 3 points [-]

Is the emotion the same if someone made a sufficiently detailed scan of it before they burnt it?

Comment author: ciphergoth 20 April 2011 09:38:05PM *  3 points [-]

If it's detailed enough that sufficiently advanced technology could rebuild it indistinguishably, I'm happy. I'm curious how other people feel about this!

Comment author: Nisan 21 April 2011 07:00:33PM *  3 points [-]

It's interesting that you find a hypothetical Torah scroll desecration to be indicative of rage. Before I lost my Jewish faith I, too, would have associated Torah-desecration with villainy and hate — partially because there were stories and legends about villainous Torah-desecrators, and partially because the Torah evoked such feelings of sanctity and purity that the idea of desecrating a Torah only made sense if there was rage or depravity involved. But of course, I can now easily imagine other emotions that would motivate hypothetical Torah desecrators, like trollishness.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 22 April 2011 03:45:18PM *  3 points [-]

I think it's more that I'm generally apt to underestimate the impulse to trollishness, though I do think it overlaps hate. Pissing people off for the lulz has something to do with malice towards those people, though I grant that rage has a lot of emotional intensity while trolling has some distance.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 18 April 2011 02:27:25AM *  3 points [-]

If someone goes around desecrating Torahs, you would be completely rational to conclude that he probably has an issue with Jews in general and feel threatened.

Here's a possible litmus test: how would you feel about another former Orthodox Jew desecrating a Torah scroll as a symbol of eir change in belief.

I think I'd still feel emotional unpleasantness although probably not as much as in the generic case. This suggests that Vladimir's concern is partially correct but that that's not the whole thing and some really is just residual emotional feelings. There's another side issue that may also be involved, in that the burning of books of any form or similar objects (such as scrolls) makes me deeply pained regardless. But that connects to what Vladimir M was talking about in that part of that deep pain is the historical connection between book burning and censorship.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 19 September 2012 01:06:10PM 2 points [-]

Just to bring in the real world, I've never heard of an ex-Orthodox Jew desecrating a Torah to symbolize their break with the religion. I have heard of them eating emphatically non-kosher food.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 April 2011 07:52:18AM 3 points [-]

Interesting. I seem to have the same flinch effect JoshuaZ described, despite believing that religion in general and Judaism in particular are great evils of the world which separated my family from me.

Comment author: Owen_Richardson 20 April 2011 08:33:27AM 7 points [-]

Can you tell how much of that flinch is because it's the Torah specifically, and how much is just because it's a book period?

"Okay, so there's a run-away train bearing down on a copy of 'Godel, Escher, Bach', and a really fat copy of the Torah standing at the edge of a cliff above the track. You are standing behind the Torah, and it's immediately clear to you that if you push it, it will fall on the tracks, stopping the train and saving the copy of GEB..."

Personally, I once found the B volume of some encyclopedia on top of a mountain while hiking, and carried it home through a thunder storm, even though I certainly wasn't expecting me or anybody else to ever actually read it.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 April 2011 08:59:24AM 10 points [-]

A Torah scroll isn't the same thing as a book. It's hand-written on parchment, and it's a long rectangle (rather than on pages) wrapped around rollers. It will probably have an ornamented cover, and more ornaments on the ends of the rollers.

Simchat Torah is an annual holiday at the end of the cycle of reading it in which the scrolls are paraded around the synagogue. "On each occasion, when the ark is opened, all the worshippers leave their seats to dance and sing with all the Torah scrolls in a joyous celebration that often lasts for several hours and more." I have to admit things weren't that exuberant at the synagogue my family went to.

If a Torah is too worn out to be used, it is buried in a Jewish cemetery.

So we aren't just talking about reactions to a book being damaged. though they may certainly be part of what's going on.

One thing that's occurring to me is that you really can't make reliable guesses about the details of religions you aren't familiar with.

Comment author: Owen_Richardson 20 April 2011 12:01:39PM 5 points [-]

Oh right, I actually remember that thing about the 'book funeral' and all. They do the same thing in Sikhism with their own super special book, the... whichamacallit... ah yes, the "Sri Guru Granth Sahib".

In fact, it's so similar that it leads me to suspect that there are some details about unfamiliar religions that you should be able to make reliable guesses about :P

Anyway, the 'flinch' could still be produced for secular reasons. Not only is the 'preserve books' thing in force, but also the 'preserve works of art' thing.

I mean, I definitely flinch at the thought of someone desecrating a Torah or an Adi Granth (different, shorter name), and that's certainly not due to a religious upbringing or any ingrained respect for it. I mean, I'd even forgotten about the 'book funeral' stuff with the Torah, and had to google to double check the spelling of the Adi Granth.

And it's not even that I'm worried about offending adherents. I'd feel the same way if all religions were extinct and the books just museum material (what a wonderful world!).

I guess it's just a flinch towards violently/hatefully wrecking things in general. So the idea of some deconvert burning one copy of a mass market paperback of their former holy book in some sort of secular ceremony, peacefully symbolizing that they're personally moving on, not intending to uselessly provoke anyone... that shouldn't bother me. And I don't think it does.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 20 April 2011 03:24:46PM 7 points [-]

I think i have some further interesting datapoints to add here: I feel I'd flinch away from unbending a papperclip or disturbing a prime numbered heap of pebbles, much more strongly than before reading the LW material where those were used as examples.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 21 April 2011 02:40:02AM *  4 points [-]

I think i have some further interesting datapoints to add here: I feel I'd flinch away from unbending a papperclip or disturbing a prime numbered heap of pebbles, much more strongly than before reading the LW material where those were used as examples.

I'm so glad I'm not the only one.

Edit: Although now that I think about this, I feel this much more strongly about paperclips than heaps of pebbles. This is probably because of the more long-term influence of interacting with User:Clippy.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 April 2011 06:51:14PM 5 points [-]

Hm. I think it's fair to say that I would probably be about equally reluctant to wreck any other artwork containing an equal amount of painstaking effort.

(Whew!)

Comment author: Kevin 21 April 2011 02:35:00AM *  5 points [-]

I see it more in terms of economic value. A Torah is worth about as much as as a new Honda Civic at the low end and a luxury car at the high end. I would be reluctant to wreck anything worth $20,000 - $60,000... presumably the owner of said material object is going to be upset. And if you are the owner, why are you blowing up your own car? You'd almost always make a better statement by selling your Torah/car and giving the money to charity.

Edit: You can get a refurb Torah for only $9,500! o.0 http://www.ahuva.com/prod-Sefer_Torah_Scroll-1279.aspx

Comment author: Owen_Richardson 21 April 2011 09:45:38PM 2 points [-]

Yeah, I second that "whew!" I was afraid for a second there that I might be a secret jewish sikh, and I have a feeling that would be complicated.

Comment author: Perplexed 20 April 2011 02:43:33PM 3 points [-]

it may be rational for Muslims to sense hostility and feel threatened by people who go around committing blasphemy according to their norms ...

Particularly when the 'blasphemy' is committed for the express purpose of committing blasphemy. By contrast, a Jehovah's Witness considers it blasphemy when someone salutes a flag, but probably realizes that every act of reverence for a flag is not done for the express purpose of offending the JWs.

Comment author: komponisto 16 April 2011 03:37:01PM 6 points [-]

Even so, the offense in your case is still the result of your previous belief in a falsehood. If you had never been an Orthodox Jew in the first place, it's unlikely that you would feel the same indignation/offense/pain upon contemplating that particular sacrilege. This may be a case of your visceral reactions not having caught up to your conscious beliefs.

So holding communion wafers hostage is still a better analogy than punching someone in the face (in fact, there are probably former Catholics reading this who would take some kind of visceral offense at the former, and I'd likewise encourage them to try to get over it if they can).

Comment author: TheOtherDave 16 April 2011 03:59:50PM 6 points [-]

Agreed that communion wafers are a better analogy than punches in the face, and that the offense is a product of cultural indoctrination. (That said, the question of how offensive a punch in the face is is not completely separable from cultural indoctrination, either.)

Disagreed that the truth or falsehood of the belief itself has anything to do with the issue, though.

My getting offended if you disrespect my cultural icons has to do with my (true) belief that I am a member of the culture being disrespected. Someone who identifies as an American might be offended by someone urinating on an American flag in the same way that someone who identifies as a Jew might be offended by someone urinating on a Torah scroll or someone who identifies as the child of their parents might be offended by someone urinating on their parents' wedding photo; talking about any of that in terms of true or false beliefs seems unnecessarily confused.

Comment author: komponisto 16 April 2011 04:43:05PM 2 points [-]

My getting offended if you disrespect my cultural icons has to do with my (true) belief that I am a member of the culture being disrespected

Yes -- but my feeling is that if you no longer believe X, you should accept the fact that you're no longer a member of the culture-defined-by-belief-in-X.

In general I am suspicious of the often-heard argument that religion is not really about belief. You only hear this from people looking for an excuse to remain in a tribe they've been in their whole life, because (understandably) it's psychologically difficult to leave a tribe. But sometimes it has to be done -- and I see religion, quite frankly, as one of the clearest examples of a case where one simply needs to let go and be over with it.

That's not to say you can't embrace your identity as a former religionist. But that's a distinct cultural identity, involving your fond memories of formerly being offended by sacrilegious acts, as opposed to still currently being offended by them.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 16 April 2011 06:43:18PM *  8 points [-]

That's not to say you can't embrace your identity as a former religionist. But that's a distinct cultural identity, involving your fond memories of formerly being offended by sacrilegious acts, as opposed to still currently being offended by them.

Trouble is, your identity is about much more than that in practice. It's deeply entangled with your way of life, your family, community, and social network, and also with the way others see and treat you. An offensively blasphemous act may (note: may, depending on the situation) be a credible signal that someone is hostile towards the group you identify with, and given the power to do so, would act so as to endanger your way of life, your community, and perhaps also your personal well-being. (This could range anywhere from making your life miserable in petty ways to outright violence.) In many cases, you must also take into account that those hostile to your group see it as your inherent identity that you can't disown and escape from even if you wanted to.

With this in mind, often it is irrational to get riled up over some provocative act that is best ignored, or that isn't even meant to be provocative but has it as an unwanted side-effect. However, sometimes it is also irrational to ignore clear signs of genuine hostility, some of which can plausibly translate into real danger. In the latter case, the visceral reaction is well adapted to reality.

(There are of course also various other cases where it's less clear if a visceral reaction can be reasonably called "rational," such as when some instrumental goal is best furthered by throwing a tantrum and creating drama to extract concessions.)

Comment author: TobyBartels 18 April 2011 06:36:24AM *  3 points [-]

So holding communion wafers hostage is still a better analogy than punching someone in the face (in fact, there are probably former Catholics reading this who would take some kind of visceral offense at the former, and I'd likewise encourage them to try to get over it if they can).

I'm a former Catholic, and I read the story linked by desrtopia. I must admit that I felt a visceral sense of rage that I never expected. But not in the direction that you predicted! I wanted to shout to Webster Cook (through my computer screen and more than two years back in time) to flush the bread down the toilet.

I don't write this as any sort of reasoned advice on how people ought to behave. I'm just reporting my emotional response.

Comment author: Desrtopa 16 April 2011 03:32:55PM 3 points [-]

Huh. That sort of reaction is completely alien to me. Do you still have a strong cultural allegiance to Judaism which you feel is being affronted by this?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 16 April 2011 03:51:44PM 4 points [-]

I can't speak for JoshuaZ, but speaking as another nonbeliever-raised-Orthodox-Jew, my reaction is similar to his.

And, yes, I think it's fundamentally a cultural thing. That is, the Torah scroll in this example is functioning as an icon of cultural Judaism, much as flags do for various kinds of nationalism.

Just to unpack that a little: if someone behaves disrespectfully towards an icon of a culture, I react as though they'd expressed disrespect towards that culture. If it's a culture I identify with, I react as though they'd expressed disrespect towards me. All of this seems entirely unremarkable and to be expected, to me at least.

The idea that any of this (be it with respect to Torah scrolls or the image of Mohammed or American flags) has anything to do with specific beliefs about divinity is, I think, a complete distraction.

Comment author: soreff 17 April 2011 03:10:23AM *  3 points [-]

if someone behaves disrespectfully towards an icon of a culture, I react as though they'd expressed disrespect towards that culture.

True enough. There can be also other motivations for finding damaging an icon of a culture to be distasteful. When the Taliban was destroying Buddha statues in Afghanistan I found that sad, simply because the statues were ancient and irreplaceable, irrespective of their religious significance.

Comment author: Yvain 16 April 2011 09:27:40PM *  7 points [-]

How's this for a metaphor: suppose I thought my mother had died in the Holocaust, when in fact she'd escaped the Holocaust without incident and simply lost contact with me. Someone makes Nazi jokes around me, or says that everyone who died in the Holocaust deserved it and went to Hell, or something equally offensive.

Suppose my interlocutor knows that my mother did not die in the Holocaust, and knows that if I believed my mother didn't die in the Holocaust I wouldn't be offended by what ey's saying. Ey also knows that since I do believe my mother died in the Holocaust, I definitely will be offended.

Even in this situation - in which I am only suffering because I have a false belief, and for reasons directly related to that false belief - I still think my interlocutor is very much in the wrong.

Comment author: PeterisP 17 April 2011 07:00:33PM 3 points [-]

Your interlucotur clearly wouldn't be behaving nicely and would clearly be pushing for some confrontation - but does it mean that it is wrong or not allowed? This feels the same as if (s)he simply and directly called you a jackass in your face - it is an insult and potentially hostile, but it's clearly legal and 'allowed'; there are often quite understandable valid reasons to (re)act in such a way against someone, and it wouldn't really be an excuse in a murder trial (and the original problem does involve murders as reaction to perceived insults).

Comment author: jtk3 18 April 2011 09:42:58AM 2 points [-]

"Even in this situation - in which I am only suffering because I have a false belief, and for reasons directly related to that false belief - I still think my interlocutor is very much in the wrong."

You wouldn't be suffering only because you had a false belief, another reason would be that you weren't sufficiently thick skinned to decline to be offended.

"Someone makes Nazi jokes around me, or says that everyone who died in the Holocaust deserved it and went to Hell, or something equally offensive."

At this point I would ask myself "Of what consequence is this person's opinion to me"? And I'd instantly conclude: None.

To cause me real pain a statement would have to be justified in my own judgment.

Comment author: drethelin 16 April 2011 05:28:47AM 14 points [-]

The slippery slope that applies is not that every random religion will taboo a certain activity, but that the more power you give to one religion the easier it is for it to get even more power. If, through outrageous overreaction, they can force people to stop one activity, they have zero incentive to not use this tactic against everything they are morally against, much of which is of MUCH greater utility than images of Mohammed.

Comment author: Yvain 17 April 2011 12:30:51PM 3 points [-]

I acknowledge that slippery slope argument has some validity, but what I haven't seen so far is a good criterion of where to apply it.

I feel confident being upset at people who draw swastikas where they expect Jews to see them, or burn crosses outside the houses of black people. Although one can make all the same arguments ("if we embolden the blacks and Jews by giving in now, then they'll start demanding more and more rights until we have to believe as they do") I still think doing either of those actions is wrong.

Drawing Mohammed seems designed to harass Muslims in the same way that drawing swastikas seems designed to harass Jews. So where is the critical difference that makes one necessary and the other abhorrent?

Comment author: drethelin 17 April 2011 05:00:07PM 5 points [-]

both actions are bad, but the right to engage in them is good. I think there is a lot of value in having a permissive rather than prescriptive society. You can condemn them all you want, force the people who make them into lower social status by mocking and insulting them, but you should not be able to stop them through force. If the KKK burn a cross on your lawn, they should be arrested for damage to property. But if they hold a rally where it is their legal right to do so, we should not physically attack them.

They key difference between these actions to me is not the action itself but the context for it. Drawing a Mohammed to piss off a muslim is a dick move by itself. Drawing a Mohammed to show that you stand for a world where you can draw whatever the hell you want and no organization has the right to threaten you with death is another thing entirely.

Comment author: drethelin 17 April 2011 06:04:22PM 3 points [-]

I've been trying to come up with a good way to articulate my thoughts on the topic and this is what I've come up with so far. Assuming you value it, freedom is important to defend far above and beyond any particular use of that freedom. I don't care about Mohammed pictures beyond the fact that I strongly believe people should have the right to draw them. I even don't like septum piercings, but I would strongly protest any campaign to get them banned. The value of any given insult to human society is negligible, probably even negative, but the value of being allowed to insult is incalculable.

Comment author: [deleted] 17 April 2011 05:20:52PM 5 points [-]

"I feel confident being upset at people who draw swastikas where they expect Jews to see them, or burn crosses outside the houses of black people."

The vileness of the swastika doesn't come form the subjective reactions of Jews who see it. A swastika is an implicit call to genocide. I think you are far too hung up on what are relatively insignificant subjective consequences, to the point of ignoring the overarching political significance of the acts in question. (Such microscopy is indeed Dr. Hanson's method.) Depending on context drawing a picture of Mohammed can be (among other things) a call to persecution of persons professing Islam, an objection to Islamic censorship, or serve some purely artistic purpose, each having consequences that far outweighs "offensiveness."

Comment author: Marius 18 April 2011 07:33:55AM *  3 points [-]

Indeed, one of the more relevant similarities between pain and offense is that both are warning signs. Pain is a warning that something may damage you, but if you are experiencing pain from nondamaging events, you are better off reinterpreting the stimulus. For instance, walking barefoot on rocky terrain is often interpreted as painful by those who typically walk shod, but after multiple exposures the sensation is processed differently.
Similarly, offense has a component of "things may turn bad" in addition to the signalling described elsewhere in this discussion. The fact that people take offense primarily tells us/them that something is going on; whether that thing is significant, good, or bad requires us to look farther than the fact that offense was taken.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 April 2011 07:16:03AM *  3 points [-]

A swastika is an implicit call to genocide.

In a modern European-derived culture.

Comment author: XiXiDu 18 April 2011 11:44:12AM *  2 points [-]

Drawing Mohammed seems designed to harass Muslims in the same way that drawing swastikas seems designed to harass Jews.

Hmm:

The swastika has been a symbol of peace for millions of Hindus and Buddhists and for the Raelians as well as it is their symbol of infinity in time, their symbol of eternity. Today, in order to redeem themselves for past horrible discriminations done under a flag wearing this symbol, German authorities are about to discriminate again telling Hindus, Bhuddists, Raelians and all other groups who have been using this symbol for centuries for some of them, that their beliefs are not welcomed in Europe!

Banning cannot solve anything, education is the only way.

Heh: proswastika.org

Comment author: James_Miller 16 April 2011 02:50:52AM *  14 points [-]

"Forward Defense" provides a better justification for Mohammed pictures than "slippery slope" does. By supporting people who create these pictures you implicitly support everyone who engages in a type of expression that's more defensible than creating Mohammed pictures is. Paradoxically, therefore, your well reasoned arguments against the pictures provide a strong "Forward Defense" free expression justification for supporting them.

Those who strongly support freedom of expression may have implicitly used the publicity generated by the Mohammed pictures to coordinate in supporting them and consequently, in the United States at least, created a defense protecting all other types of expression that are easier to justify than the Mohammed pictures. If there was some special social value in these pictures then the forward defense their "legitimacy" creates would provide less protective cover to other types of offensive expressions.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 16 April 2011 05:18:22AM *  20 points [-]

A couple points.

You miss an important issue, which is the western concept as speech as a right. The Folsom street fair can have a promo poster of the last supper as Jesus as a naked black dude surrounded by transvestites, dominatrixes, and sex toys, and no major Christian organization will propose that anyone should be killed. They may try to get funding taken away from the fair, but that's their right. Westerners have a concept of appropriate levels of conflict, and if someone violates them, we want to punish them. If someone asks me politely to keep it down, I probably will. If they tell mento shut up or they'll kick my ass, my instinct is to talk even louder (especially if they're bluffing). This is sensible as annoy of punishing improper behavior.

I also take issue with your characterization of offense as pain. In some cases - where it's directed at someone, like racial slurs, it is. But in cases of taking offense at untethered actions, pain isn't accurate. It's not exactly painful when, say, a Klansmen sees an interracial couple, even if he finds their behaviour offensive. And even if it were, it seems obvious to menthat the couple should not allow that to affect their behaviour. If the Brits in your example just got arbitrarily angry about seeing trout pictures, I'm not sure the same reaction follows. Perhaps if you taboo offense, you get a more coherent picture of two separate emotional reactions.

Comment author: khafra 16 April 2011 12:56:19PM 5 points [-]

Social pain and physical pain seem to be strongly linked. A dyed-in-the-wool racist may indeed experience actual pain at the sight of an interracial couple.

"Speech as a right" is exactly how this appeared to me when it was all fresh and new, which casts the conflict as a bilateral jihad. Our sacred values are freedom of speech, and not being provoked to physical violence by speech. Islam's sacred value is not visually depicting Mohammed. Western civilization probably looks like Superhappies to them.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 16 April 2011 05:00:57PM 3 points [-]

Social pain and physical pain seem to be strongly linked.

I've been offended once or twice in my life. It wasn't painful. It caused anger. I wouldn't call offense pleasant, but I would call it satisfying, to a certain degree. Pain generally isn't. Mental pain and physical pain may be related, but I don't think most offense (particularly of the generalized variety) is properly analogized.

Comment author: Yvain 16 April 2011 09:21:18PM *  7 points [-]

I would like to believe the Klansman (I was considering changing this to Klansperson, but political correctness is probably inappropriate in this situation) doesn't feel anything like real suffering when he sees an interracial couple, but I have no evidence for this except my desire to sweep his feelings under the rug so I don't have to use them in ethical calculus.

For example, I am strongly pro gay rights and gay marriage, but I admit that seeing public displays of affection between gays gives me a negative visceral reaction more than the same displays among straights do. If I could self-modify to remove this feeling I'd do so in a second, but given that I can't self-modify it seems like this preference is worthy of utilitarian respect; eg insofar as they want to be nice to me, gay people should avoid PDAs around me when it's not too inconvenient for them (and if gay people have the same feeling in reverse, straight people who are nice should avoid hetero PDAs around them).

I have no reason to think I can model Klansmen well, but when I try, I imagine their feelings around an interracial couple as being a lot like my feeling around gay people having PDAs.

Comment author: jtk3 17 April 2011 12:59:36AM 6 points [-]

"I have no reason to think I can model Klansmen well, but when I try, I imagine their feelings around an interracial couple as being a lot like my feeling around gay people having PDAs."

Yes, except the feelings of the Klansman are far stronger - more similar in intensity to the feelings of many muslims toward depictions of Mohammed.

"f I could self-modify to remove this feeling I'd do so in a second, but given that I can't self-modify ..."

From my own experience I suspect you could self-modify but have insufficient incentive to do so. (That's not intended as a criticism.) I once had a very strong revulsion to gay PDAs, now I have a very mild aversion to it, perhaps similar to what you describe:

"I admit that seeing public displays of affection between gays gives me a negative visceral reaction more than the same displays among straights do".

Since you are apparently behaving decently toward gays and not massively uncomfortable in most situations with them there's not much reason to change. No doubt you have bigger fish to fry.

I feel similar to that but I'm confident that my mild aversion would decrease if I became close friends with a gay couple and spent a lot of time with them. My aversion would easily be swamped by more important values.

Comment author: Davorak 17 April 2011 08:20:02PM 4 points [-]

I agree. When I hear people say the equivalent of "I can't self-modify" I always want to ask "what have you tried so far," and "how long have tried for." Normally that answer is not much(only a few approaches) and not very long. It often comes from lack of incentives and a belief equivalent to "thats just the way I am."

Comment author: jtk3 18 April 2011 01:31:41AM *  5 points [-]

That's consistent with the point I was making, but let me dial back a bit.

I don't want to commit the Typical Mind Fallacy by generalizing too much from one example. In recent years I've realized more and more that my mind works in a fashion that is not typical of most people I've met. Some things which are very easy for me seem very difficult for others, and some things difficult for me seem easy for them.

Options available to one are not necessarily available to others.

It's fine to offer my experience but I'd do better to be more conservative about speculation on the options available to other particular individuals. Yvain is obviously a top poster here who I assume has done a lot of introspection and thought a lot about self modification so it was cheeky of me to assume I might know more about how he can self-modify than he does - in one of my first posts.

Oops.

Comment author: Davorak 18 April 2011 03:19:26AM 2 points [-]

Interesting. If I am reading your post correctly, then I also might have committed a Mind Projection Fallacy when I read your post, projecting lack of assumption when there was some.

it was cheeky of me to assume I might know more about how he can self-modify than he does - in one of my first posts.

From your post I thought you were expressing that at one point you reacted to gay affection similar to what he described and similarly thought that you could not self modify. You now know that you can so it makes sense to spread the news and method to someone who thinks they can not(who would probably want to if they could) and might be in a similar position you once were and might apply the same solution. Of course maybe Yvain is not in a similar situation and your solution would not apply. You might know more, but there is a better chance that the two experiences do no overlap.

My response comes from the use of "can't self-modify" rather then "can't self-modify due to lack of time/resources," "my continuing efforts have not yet borne fruit," "I have tried all of my ideas and I am seek new ones," "other projects consume my time and it is not currently worthwhile to pursue," and etc. I have seen many people put road blocks in front of themselves by saying "can't" which often reenforces the belief in "can't" rather then staying cognizant of the conditions that make something unworthy of investment.

It may be cheeky to assume that you know weather this particular self modification is worth the resource use to Yvain, but it is not cheeky ask for more details(which are only for Yvain to share at his discretion) or offer personal experiences that Yvain may glen some insight or solution from.

Comment author: Alicorn 16 April 2011 09:40:00PM 6 points [-]

How should this interact with people who are interested in seeing the display in question? (E.g. I once made out with a girl on a bus full of people and we got lots of, er, positive attention. How should I have weighted that vs. your discomfort with public displays of gay affection if you had been on the bus with us?)

Comment author: Yvain 16 April 2011 09:44:29PM *  4 points [-]

I just realized that when I said "gay", I meant "gay male".

Although to answer your question, you'd have to sum up the positive and negative preferences of people who might see you. I expect you'd probably be in the clear at a college pub, less so at the Retired Baptist Womens' Convention.

Comment author: Alicorn 16 April 2011 09:52:18PM *  7 points [-]

I just realized that when I said "gay", I meant "gay male".

Yeah, I thought that might be it. (Of course, when I see gay guys being affectionate my response is "awwwwwww", so the same sort of question can be constructed.)

Comment author: bgaesop 17 April 2011 11:43:17PM *  2 points [-]

insofar as they want to be nice to me, gay people should avoid PDAs around me when it's not too inconvenient for them

It seems to me that encouraging this sort of behavior has many, much larger consequences that you either aren't thinking of or are deliberately omitting. Consider, for example, the closeted classmate of the gay couple, who knows that they are gay and takes a bit of strength from seeing them express their love publicly--it gives him hope that one day he can do the same. Upon the gay couple taking your advice, however, he sees that even people who proclaim themselves his ally (you) don't actually want him to be affectionate with people of his sex (this is by far the most common interpretation of your request, in my ample experience. Recall that in this framework your intention doesn't matter, merely its effects). On the contrary, he sees you and people like you punishing gay behavior and not doing the same to equivalent straight behavior (note that you don't request straights not to have PDAs, you merely think it OK for others to do so, and in an environment where gay PDAs have already been shot down as inappropriate, this is an extremely risky request for the closeted fellow to make). Thus, this heavily encourages people to remain closeted, which is a very harmful condition. So much moreso than being offended that I venture to say that I cannot think of an offense I would not inflict if it meant that a frightened, closeted queer* could come out without negative consequences.

Edit: I am leaving the following sentence here because it has provoked an interesting discussion, but please think of it as a separate post from the preceding one, as it seems to sharply change people's opinion of the rest of the post:

*similarly to nigger, this is our word, not yours, and so my use of it is not offensive, but if you were to use it in a way other than by quoting me, it would be

Comment author: Alicorn 17 April 2011 11:49:04PM 11 points [-]

Goshdarnit, I had you upvoted until you pulled the "our word" thing. That really irks me. I adhere to rules like that because I usually don't want words that "belong" to other groups more than I want to avoid the firestorm, but... Hey, I'm bisexual. Suppose I declare that it's okay with me if Yvain uses the word "queer" to describe people who identify as queer. Then is it okay? I mean, it's my word, right? Can't I share it?

Comment author: Xachariah 20 April 2011 06:02:01AM *  5 points [-]

Yvain, I would urge you to read this post on assigning blame on the subject of diseases, written by a quite eloquent and enlightening writer. There is a very relevant snippet in there regarding the difference between the consequentialist model of blame and the deontological model.

If giving condemnation instead of sympathy decreases the incidence of the disease enough to be worth the hurt feelings, condemn; otherwise, sympathize. Though the rule is based on philosophy that the majority of the human race would disavow, it leads to intuitively correct consequences. Yelling at a cancer patient, shouting "How dare you allow your cells to divide in an uncontrolled manner like this; is that the way your mother raised you??!" will probably make the patient feel pretty awful, but it's not going to cure the cancer. Telling a lazy person "Get up and do some work, you worthless bum," very well might cure the laziness. The cancer is a biological condition immune to social influences; the laziness is a biological condition susceptible to social influences, so we try to socially influence the laziness and not the cancer.

If showing pictures of Salmon to British people helped degrade the salmon-pain-electrodes, then we should show pictures of Salmon to British people. If showing pictures of Mohammad to Muslim people helped reduce their reaction, then we should show pictures of Mohammad to Muslim people. If it doesn't work, we shouldn't do it. If kicking them in the face worked, we should do it; if kicking them in the face doesn't work, we shouldn't do it. Pure consequentialism.

Make no mistake, Muslims taking offense to pictures is a disease of the mind and not just because it's based on religion (and religion is false). People have received death threats over depictions of Mohammad. Others have been assassinated for creating media relating to the Muslim religion. Those who wish to end the oppression of women and other human rights abuses have a harder time because they are unable to create media critical of those practices. These are all aside from the general issue of freedom of speech. There are real world results caused by Muslims being overly sensitive and turning to violence or threats of violence as a result of that sensitivity.

Remember that nobody felt the need to make a "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day" when they were being asked politely to stop. When sensitivity crossed the line to death threats and assassination is the exact point that an 'issue to be sensitive about' turned into a 'disease to be cured'. Once it is classified as a disease the only questions are 'how you can cure it most effectively' and 'is Everybody Draw Mohammad Day an efficacious cure'.

Comment author: Emile 20 April 2011 06:39:08AM 2 points [-]

Make no mistake, Muslims taking offense to pictures is a disease of the mind

Imagine a world where there are a billion Muslims who are exactly as offended by pictures of Mohammed as the average American student would be by a racist caricature of Martin Luther King. Does one "disease of the mind" need to be cured more than the other? In both cases, the "patient" wouldn't take a pill that cured him.

Now add to the picture one Muslim fanatic who is angry enough at depictions of Mohammed that he'd be ready to kill in retaliation. Is it worth hurting the other billion muslims to try to "cure" him (assumting the cure works, which is another question)? How many fanatics do you need before it makes utilitarian sense to use the cure?

Comment author: shokwave 20 April 2011 06:48:21AM 2 points [-]

In both cases, the "patient" wouldn't take a pill that cured him.

And a lazy person probably couldn't be bothered to go out and get the drug that cures laziness, either. Hence the social presssure method.

Comment author: Emile 20 April 2011 07:57:15AM *  2 points [-]

And a lazy person probably couldn't be bothered to go out and get the drug that cures laziness, either.

Would they? I would, if it was cheap and available enough.

There's an important difference between things people would change if they could do it at zero cost (lazyness, disease, shyness, obesity, possibly a psychopath's pathology), and the things people wouldn't change even if they could at zero cost (being offended by racism, being offended by pictures of Mohammed, caring about other people). That's why I don't find that disease is a very good analogy.

Comment author: shokwave 20 April 2011 08:14:04AM 2 points [-]

That's why I don't find that disease is a very good analogy.

Some features of diseases are applicable to this situation - most aren't, but if any of the features it does have recommend a treatment like social pressure, then 'disease' is a good enough analogy.

(For the record, I don't think disease is a good analogy. The closest this situation comes to being a disease is that we don't want them to have it; they want to keep it.)

Comment author: [deleted] 18 April 2011 06:28:38AM *  5 points [-]

Muslims are often of a different race than Christians, so conflicts with them risk tarring a person with the deeply insulting label of "racist"

Why don't you use the terms European and Middle Easterner? Christianity as a religion is about as racially diverse as one can get and the same is true of Islam. Imagining a generic "average" global Christian insulting a generic "average" global Muslim and terming that racist makes little sense.

The charge of racism wouldn't be used by a Sudanese or PC minded Kenyan against a Christian Kenyan. In the context of Europe this is employed because of the inter-ethnic conflict present below the surface.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 16 April 2011 05:22:49PM 5 points [-]

I think the central issue here gets folded into the "utility/disutility" distinction, which makes it easy to miss. The current thing with drawing Mohammed is probably best seen as a sort of culture war between East and West - we value free speech, they do not. The opening salvo was political cartoons in a Danish newspaper. If the opening salvo had been posting similar cartoons on the side of a Mosque, the West would look a lot worse.

Generally, though, targeted offensive behaviour - racial slurs, drawing Mohammed on churches, forcing very religious people to view hardcore pornography - is of virtually no social value and the offender suffers very little from having to avoid doing it.

Conversely, untargeted offensive behaviour - the Klansmen getting upset over seeing an interracial couple - tends to be much more expensive for the offender to avoid, so the appropriate solution is for the offended person to stop being offended.

How hard something is to avoid is obviously a bit fuzzy. It seems it can break down into "intended to harm" versus "not specifically intended to harm." The Mohammed cartoons are mostly in the latter category, as they were intended as a political criticism of a religion.

In other words, I think this is more of a debate over where the utility calculus should come out, because "offense" describes such a broad range.

Comment author: soreff 17 April 2011 04:02:13AM *  6 points [-]

forcing very religious people to view hardcore pornography

Can you point to an example where that actually happened? The vastly more frequent occurrence is of religious people objecting to the mere existence of pornography.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 17 April 2011 05:20:32AM *  2 points [-]

This?

In all seriousness, it's a hypothetical example. If it is something that happens, it's not going to make the news, or probably even the interweb. I'm thinking of something like the scene in Clerks where a customer at a store expresses offense at an extremely lewd conversation the employees are having, to which an employee responds, "If you think that's offensive, look at this!" and shows him the spread in the porn mag he's holding.

This kind of little thing probably does actually happen, but I agree that general objections to the existence of pornography are more common, and they fall cleanly into the other category.

Comment author: hwc 16 April 2011 02:09:54AM 12 points [-]

I am still swayed by the slippery-slope argument. How far is it from “you must not offend us“ to “you must believe as we do?”

Comment author: Hyena 17 April 2011 11:50:26AM *  4 points [-]

I think this an excellent scheme for thinking about the issue because it really does help draw together different intuitions onto the same field in a way where we can imagine useful evaluations.

One issue which may create fractures in reasoning is that the alien brain implant is somewhat different than other psychological reactions. At least when I first interpret the mechanism, the brain implant would not attenuate with time. The idea of "thicker skin" is bound up with growing one, allowing our responses to offensiveness attenuate from "my god, how awful" to "whyd do people think that's funny".

I think this leads to an important objection: if we could, through photographic salmon exposure* attenuate the pain until it no longer is actually felt, we would object much less to showing salmonitypes to Brits. Indeed, we may perceive that they have a duty to therest of us, even on general utility grounds, to attenuate their impulse.

I don't think this is an unreasonable objection and it meshes well with our other general moral commands. Children, for example, no doubt are greatly harmed by not getting what they want but we perceive a need for adults not to remain shrill 8 year olds and cultivate some serenity in this regard. (In fact, I had a conversation interrupted just tonight when the table next to mine began making a scene about salad prices, with obvious disutility to the tables around them.)

So I think this is a critical difference which should be addressed as it is not unreasonable to believe, at least from the muted reactions in the first world, that these feelings can attenuate with socialization or small personal effort.

*If this is not the name of a band, it should be.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 17 April 2011 03:46:09PM *  14 points [-]

It is necessary to draw pictures of Mohammed to show Muslims that violence and terrorism are inappropriate responses. I think the logic here is that a few people drew pictures of Mohammed, some radicals sent out death threats and burned embassies, and now we need to draw more pictures of Mohammed to convince Muslims not to do this.

Of the motivations described above, I think this is the closest, but still not quite accurate. The point of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, as I saw it anyhow, wasn't to show that violence and terrorism are inappropriate responses, but that they are ineffective responses. It isn't about teaching Muslims not to threaten others, but teaching others to defy threats of censorship. It's a group exercise in defying threats of violence; it's one of those "the pen is mightier than the sword" things.

Another modern event dealing with the preservation of freedom of speech is Banned Books Week, which celebrates defiance against censorship, especially in libraries and schools. It's an event that celebrates your right to read Huckleberry Finn, Lolita, Slaughterhouse-Five, or Heather Has Two Mommies by encouraging people to read books that have been, in one context or another, banned or threatened with being banned.

Is Banned Books Week offensive to people who think these books should be banned, and that encouraging people to read them is evil? Yes, in fact it is.

Comment author: brazil84 17 April 2011 09:04:16PM 5 points [-]

I basically agree. The point is to show would-be intimidators that we will not be intimidated. The point is to resist those would would impose an unjust law.

" if British people politely asked this favor of them"

The problem is that the Muslims are not asking nicely. Fundamentally, this is no different from civil disobedience.

Comment author: Maelin 17 April 2011 08:18:46AM 20 points [-]

This is an interesting post, but Yvain, your made-up pronouns hurt my head. Every time I come to one it disrupts my reading flow and feels like my train of thought crashes into a brick wall. It genuinely makes the post more difficult and less pleasant to read for me. Couldn't you just flip a coin for each new character you reference and give them male or female pronouns based on that?

Comment author: XiXiDu 17 April 2011 10:22:04AM *  5 points [-]

I always use "one" as an indefinite pronoun, similar to how I would do it in German. Is that wrong?

...and only if one thinks this has a real chance of stopping the offending behavior either in this case or in the future.

or

...if so, one should nonjudgmentally request the offender stop while applying the Principle of Charity to the offender, and if one wants the maximum chance of the offense stopping, one should resist the urge to demand an apology or do anything else that could potentially turn it into a status game.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 17 April 2011 10:50:19AM *  12 points [-]

I always use "one" as an indefinite pronoun, similar to how I would do it in German.

From what I've heard, these days there are attempts to condemn man in German as sexist.

In English, I also like using "one" but it's often too clumsy. As for those "ey" and "eir" pronouns, I find them not just extremely ugly, but also a very annoying obstruction while reading.

Comment author: robertskmiles 17 April 2011 03:10:10PM *  6 points [-]

As for those "ey" and "eir" pronouns,

Is that what that was? I had assumed that the text had been copied from some typesetting system that made a 'th' ligature glyph which didn't survive the copying process.

I actually stopped noticing it pretty quickly. That's what comes from reading a lot of poorly OCRed ebooks.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 April 2011 07:14:49AM 4 points [-]

As for those "ey" and "eir" pronouns, I find them not just extremely ugly, but also a very annoying obstruction while reading.

Is it worth working to eliminate that negative reaction?

For what it's worth, alternate pronouns don't bother me. I don't love them-- I've never wanted to use alternate pronouns-- but I just treat them like new vocabulary in science fiction (deduce meaning from context) and proceed.

Comment author: David_Gerard 17 April 2011 10:41:10AM *  3 points [-]

It's generally correct in English to use "one" as an indefinite pronoun, but it's not common casual usage and is not easy to do smoothly.

Though I would nevertheless consider it preferable every time to using made-up pronouns. Singular "they" generally works more smoothly than either alternative.

Comment author: Manfred 17 April 2011 09:25:04AM *  13 points [-]

Another option would be to use "they".

Comment author: RichardKennaway 16 April 2011 06:59:02AM 14 points [-]

My first reaction to this was "is this a guest post by Robin Hanson under Yvain's name, to see if anyone notices?"

You could argue Brits did not choose to have their abnormal sensitivity to salmon while Muslims might be considered to be choosing their sensitivity to Mohammed. But this requires a libertarian free will.

Well, no it doesn't. Muslims observably do make a choice in the matter (as proved by the fact that they discuss it and take different views). (Link.) To equate this with aliens hard-wiring our brains to graft on an arbitrary offense-trigger is plain no-free-will determinism, whereby the past reaches past the present to cause the future, just as the alien reaches past our internal functions to cause offense-taking at an arbitrary stimulus.

Comment author: Yvain 16 April 2011 07:40:53PM 6 points [-]

My first reaction to this was "is this a guest post by Robin Hanson under Yvain's name, to see if anyone notices?"

Part of me wants to feel complimented by that, another part wants to challenge you to pistols at dawn.

Comment author: David_Gerard 17 April 2011 08:40:30AM 7 points [-]

Will the pistols be near or far?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 17 April 2011 07:52:58AM 2 points [-]

That wacky Robin Hanson, eh? Never can tell whether there's method in his madness, or madness in his method!

Comment author: lukeprog 26 May 2011 03:12:47PM 3 points [-]

Alonzo Fyfe wrote an article in response to Yvain's article above, here.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 April 2011 06:22:13AM *  3 points [-]

This would be an inappropriately strong response, and certainly you could be upset about it, but the proper response wouldn't be to go kicking random Muslims in the face. They didn't do it, and they probably don't even approve. But drawing pictures of Mohammed offends many Muslims, not just the ones who send death threats.

This is a very Eurocentric way of thinking (not saying its appropriate or inappropriate according to my values). I hope that after some careful thought it will be obvious to most LWers why this is so. Virtual cookie to the first one that gets it right.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 18 April 2011 06:40:18AM 7 points [-]

In Fued based cultures attacking arbitrary members of an out-group in response to violence by a member of said out-group against one of yours is indeed an appropriate response.

(This is why I'm glad I don't live in a feud based culture.)

Comment author: [deleted] 18 April 2011 07:09:38AM 4 points [-]

Enjoy your virtual cookie.

Comment author: PlaidX 16 April 2011 01:52:35AM *  11 points [-]

For me, the important distinction between the salmon thing and the Mohammad thing is that getting zapped when you see a picture of a salmon is a reaction that doesn't go away through exposure. It can't be desensitized. Drawing Mohammad, or really any form of trolling, eventually gets savvy people to change the way they react.

That's not to say that trolling is necessarily good, but it is functionally different than what's happening with the salmon. See this article by Clay Shirky.

Comment author: torekp 17 April 2011 01:04:46PM 2 points [-]

Actually, Yvain didn't say. Maybe Brits can overcome their salmon reactions through a course of cognitive therapy, or exposure therapy. The scenario is under-described. That's why Yvain's first bullet point is wrong about "choice": it uses a backward-looking notion, where a forward-looking one is wanted.

Comment author: prase 16 April 2011 10:32:33AM *  6 points [-]

An important distinction between the salmon and Mohammed pictures was omitted. Namely, the potential to change the offended in the long run.

In both examples the differences between two groups are potentially dangerous. There is a direct risk of accidentally showing a salmon picture in presence of a Briton. There is a graver risk that the salmon thing would cause further distrust between Britons and non-Britons, because it's somehow hard to not laugh at somebody who becomes enraged because of a picture of a salmon. There may be bombings of printers who publish fishing books, or any other kind of violence. The world is almost certainly better without such controversies. So it may be reasonable to try to eliminate them.

In the salmon example, the Britons have a physical reason (chips in their brains) for their salmon obsession and they can't be (presumably) taught to ignore the salmon pictures. On the other hand, Muslims' rage over depicting the prophet is a cultural habit amenable to change. People are usually less offended (in whatever meaning) by stuff which they encounter on a daily basis. Exposing the Muslims to Mohammed cartoons may significantly move their offense threshold towards more tolerance.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 16 April 2011 01:36:31AM *  7 points [-]

This is a really good essay that makes some interesting points. The salmon example is a really clever way of separating some of the issues.

I think you underestimate the slipperiness of the slope in question. If for example, some religious people find that simply saying their religion is false is painful to them in the same way should that be outlawed? Note that this isn't a hypothetical, many countries have anti-blasphemy laws and many European countries have laws against criticizing religion or include such remarks under hate crimes statutes. Consider the case of a certain fellow in England, Harry Taylor, who was forbidden to carry anti-religious literature (and yes, there's no question that his behavior was jerkish but that's not the point). And it just gets worse from there. There are ultra-Orthodox Jews who don't want anyone to say anything negative about their Rebbes.

There seem to be two distinct issues here are also, how should potential victims and offenders act, and whether there should be government regulation. These are related but distinct questions. You start off talking about the first and end by talking about the second.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 16 April 2011 02:26:46AM *  41 points [-]

The salmon example is a really clever way of separating some of the issues.

I think the salmon example is seriously misleading, and in a way that shows a very common pattern of fallacies in consequentialist reasoning. It presents a thought experiment that is contrived to be free of any game-theoretic concerns, and then this example is used as a rhetorical sleight of hand by positing a superficial analogy with a real-life example, in which the game-theoretic concerns are of supreme importance.

Subsequently, these concerns are dismissed with another misleading observation, namely that people rarely fake offense. Well, yes, but the whole point is that people's sincerely felt emotions are very much directed by their brains' game-theoretic assessment of the situation, which may well indicate that a seemingly irrational extreme emotional response is in fact quite rational given the circumstances. Those who ignore this point should read up on their Schelling.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 April 2011 11:14:22PM *  8 points [-]

It presents a thought experiment that is contrived to be free of any game-theoretic concerns, and then this example is used as a rhetorical sleight of hand by positing a superficial analogy with a real-life example, in which the game-theoretic concerns are of supreme importance.

That doesn't seem fair. Yvain explicitly points out that the salmon example is different precisely in that it doesn't have the same game-theoretic issues. From the OP:

The British salmon example, on the other hand, was designed to avoid the idea of "offense" and trigger consequentialist notions of harm minimization.

The example specifically refers to the displeasure that salmon cause the British as "psychic pain", priming ideas about whether it is acceptable to cause pain to another person. The British are described as politely asking us to avoid salmon photography as a favor to them, putting themselves in a low status position rather than demanding we respect their status. British are white and first world, so it's hard to think of this as a political correctness issue and wade into that particular quagmire. And because the whole salmon problem is the result of an alien prankster, there's no easily available narrative in which the British are at fault.

So, Yvain isn't making a "superficial analogy". He is highlighting precisely the differences that concern you, because they are part of his point.

You continue:

Well, yes, but the whole point is that people's sincerely felt emotions are very much directed by their brains' game-theoretic assessment of the situation, which may well indicate that a seemingly irrational extreme emotional response is in fact quite rational given the circumstances.

It is important to keep these issues in mind, and I agree that Yvain downplays this possibility in the OP. But, in fairness, you seem to ignore the fact that your remark applies just as well to those who find themselves sincerely offended by Muslim demands not to draw Mohammed. They too should recognize that their offense is "very much directed by their brains' game-theoretic assessment of the situation, which may well indicate that a seemingly irrational extreme emotional response is in fact quite rational given the circumstances". And they should recognize that what that part of their brain considers to be rational may not really be rational in light of all of their goals.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 16 April 2011 03:16:15PM 3 points [-]

Great counter-argument; perhaps you should post your own analysis of the offensiveness question.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 April 2011 06:05:31AM *  5 points [-]

It is necessary to draw pictures of Mohammed to show Muslims that violence and terrorism are inappropriate responses. I think the logic here is that a few people drew pictures of Mohammed, some radicals sent out death threats and burned embassies, and now we need to draw more pictures of Mohammed to convince Muslims not to do this. But it sounds pretty stupid when you put it in exactly those words. Say a random Christian kicked a Muslim in the face, and a few other Muslims got really angry, blew the whole thing out of proportion, and killed him and his entire family. This would be an inappropriately strong response, and certainly you could be upset about it, but the proper response wouldn't be to go kicking random Muslims in the face. They didn't do it, and they probably don't even approve. But drawing pictures of Mohammed offends many Muslims, not just the ones who send death threats.

There is another way to view this... And I think it would be fair to point out that the basic popular arguiment for "draw Mohammed day" is behind it. Suppose you are subject to a law you consider unfair. Suppose many other people are as well. If you have the possibility of public collective action that makes the consistent enforcement of such a law impossible. Why not take it?

You might quibble that drawing Mohamed isn't illegal (though in some countries hate speech laws can be used to ban it, since Koran burnings have been punished), but this is a bit irrelevant. If there exist widely known formalized rules with organizations dedicated to punishing offenders, what difference does it make if the rules are formalized in a code of law or religious book? Indeed the distinction between the two is no where near universal to begin with. And what difference does it make if they are enforced for everyone not by my government but another state's or perhaps by a non-governmental organization?

The organization enforcing the rule and the popular will to enforce it are likley to erode. If every week a cartoonist draws Mohamed will Muslims bother to riot every week? Humans are lazy. What was once outrages can simply through repetition become a unsightly "feature" of those accursed infidels, much smaller in emotional affect and its impact on punishing a specific offender. It might become part of a wider motivation to act against the West in a organized fashion ... but the West has historically been pretty good at using organized violence.

Now you might ask why do they consider the law unjust and worth fighting?

Simple. Arguing for the enforcement of the law is enemy attire. Having the law upheld gives the other group a "privilege" (a form of protection we don't have because we've given it up in the past) and indicates high status for them.

Comment author: brazil84 18 April 2011 02:06:33PM 6 points [-]

I agree. In essence, drawing Mohammed is civil disobedience.

Comment author: Emile 18 April 2011 03:13:32PM *  2 points [-]

If every week a cartoonist draws Mohamed will Muslims bother to riot every week? Humans are lazy. What was once outrages can simply through repetition become a unsightly "feature" of those accursed infidels, much smaller in emotional affect and its impact on punishing a specific offender.

There are also more moderate (and westernized) Muslims whose feelings are hurt when they see a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims, even if they wouldn't be particularly mind if they encountered a drawing of Mohammed in say a history book or even a cartoon also featuring Buddha, Jesus, Jehova etc. Many probably wouldn't mind if drawing Mohammed and burning the Qur'an were forbidden, but wouldn't go out of their way to make that happen.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 16 April 2011 02:12:40AM 14 points [-]

I find this post offensive, please delete it.

Comment author: Nominull 16 April 2011 02:18:33AM 9 points [-]

I find the very act of taking offense offensive, trump that.

Comment author: Strange7 16 April 2011 09:19:21AM 20 points [-]

I take offense at hypocritical abuses of recursion!

Comment author: loqi 16 April 2011 08:00:56PM 7 points [-]

Stop hitting yourself.

Comment author: James_Miller 16 April 2011 08:54:06PM 4 points [-]

It was a near probability one event that a thread like this would manifest in response to the top level post.

Comment author: knb 16 April 2011 02:43:07AM 14 points [-]

I think the world is better off without sacred cows, rather than with them. The only way to eliminate these kinds of reactions is via "exposure therapy". Admittedly, I say this as someone without many sacred cows. I'm non-religious, an anti-nationalist, and (other than a long career as a "non-denominational" anti-war activist) essentially apolitical.

I support the Mohammed drawing day, Koran-burning, and similar attempts involving other religions and political doctrines. When people do these things, it helps create a safe space for people to speak their reasoned criticisms.

Comment author: Yvain 17 April 2011 12:41:40PM 8 points [-]

I think the world is better off without sacred cows, rather than with them. The only way to eliminate these kinds of reactions is via "exposure therapy"...I support the Mohammed drawing day, Koran-burning, and similar attempts involving other religions and political doctrines.

What about calling black people the n-word, making Holocaust jokes to Jews, and insulting people's dead relatives?

I mean, all these things feel like they're in a different category than the things you described, but I wouldn't know how to describe that difference to a computer.

Comment author: knb 17 April 2011 06:57:07PM *  3 points [-]

What about calling black people the n-word, making Holocaust jokes to Jews, and insulting people's dead relatives?

The distinction here is that if an outsider does these things it is clearly hostile.

Black people are reclaiming the word "nigger". Part of the stated reason is to take away the word's ability to harm, in other words, exactly the reason I mentioned. I am not black, so in context, it would seem hostile, just as bombarding the only Muslim family in a neighborhood with Mohammed cartoons would be hostile.

The example you gave above treats the images as harmful without context. (For a Muslim, seeing an image of Mohammed "hurts" [I don't accept this, btw, offense and harm are not the same thing.] regardless of the intention of the image creator.) So the comparable example would be using "nigger" by another black person or in an academic context, or a Holocaust survivor making jokes about the Holocaust, or a family member joking about the foibles of a dead relative. And yes, I have no problem with any of these things.

It doesn't really seem like you put thought into these examples. Rather, it seems like you made a list of doubleplusungood things and tried to tar me with the association.

Comment author: TobyBartels 18 April 2011 04:45:52AM 2 points [-]

I don't understand your comment. We're not talking about Muslims drawing pictures of Muhammad.

Comment author: orthonormal 16 April 2011 03:43:11PM 7 points [-]

The only way to eliminate these kinds of reactions is via "exposure therapy".

I ask sincerely: why do you believe this?

I've known quite a few people who've left religion (among them, myself) or started to take it less seriously, and I can't think of a single case where the process was helped along by "exposure therapy" (e.g. atheists trying to offend their sensibilities). In fact, it's mostly the opposite.

Comment author: knb 16 April 2011 09:49:16PM 14 points [-]

I'm referring specifically to the angry emotional reactions to perceived slights, not what causes people to leave their religions.

I'm trying to think of the last time anything offended western Christians as much as the Mohammed drawings (apparently) offended Muslims in the middle-east. The anger over Piss Christ was mostly because that project was partially government funded by the NEA. There was no serious attempt to legally censor it. And of course, there were no riots and no one was harmed during that brief controversy.

I think that the difference is not primarily theological but rather cultural. In America, Christians have their beliefs mocked pretty regularly in popular culture. That largely inoculates them to outrage. My guess is that the difference between American Christians and Muslims in Afghanistan is not inherent in their religions, but a matter of exposure. Afghan Muslims have always had governments and strict cultural rules that insulated them from offensive treatments of Islam. With modern telecommunications they will be exposed to things that offend them, even if those things happen in Florida or Denmark. Either they will change or the rest of the world will change for them.

Comment author: jimmy 16 April 2011 07:14:36PM 4 points [-]

Would you know if it did? People's stated reasons are often different than their actual reasons.

No one ever says "I changed religious beliefs for reasons completely other than the truth of the religion", even though one of the biggest predictors is the belief of their social circle.

Comment author: drethelin 16 April 2011 07:23:51PM 2 points [-]

I think you're missing the point by ignoring the last part of knb's post. The specific instance of offensive behavior is not going to convince anyone. But being in a society where it is permitted is a huge difference from one where it is not. seeing that you can live your life without being constrained by silly commandments and still be happy and respected by your friends can make a huge difference.

Comment author: orthonormal 16 April 2011 09:05:37PM 2 points [-]

I can disagree with one of his claims without bothering about the argument's bottom line.

Comment author: SilasBarta 17 April 2011 03:39:33AM *  9 points [-]

I think a lot of Americans completely missed the subtle critique behind the plan to burn a Koran. Basically, they were telling the pastor, "hey, you have the right to burn one and all, but you really need to hold off, just out of sensitivity to others" -- not realizing that this was the exact argument people were making about the mosque near ground zero, and getting an unsympathetic ear. Instead, they just saw it as a crude shock-based attempt to get attention.

Comment author: TobyBartels 18 April 2011 04:42:49AM 2 points [-]

But game-theoretically, these two situations are not parallels at all. In particular, the pastor who wanted to burn the Qur'an actually wanted to offend. In contrast, the people behind Park51 want to integrate Muslims into American society.

Comment author: Perplexed 17 April 2011 01:34:36PM *  8 points [-]

I think the world is better off without sacred cows, rather than with them. The only way to eliminate these kinds of reactions is via "exposure therapy".

"Exposure therapy". Could you explain how that works, doctor? How your cure makes the patient better?

Isn't it great that we have so many people here so sincerely concerned with making the world a better place rather than with rationalizing their own prejudices.

ETA: I Googled for "exposure therapy", and the 2nd item on the list informed me that:

Exposing someone to their fears or prior traumas without the client first learning the accompanying coping techniques — such as relaxation or imagery exercises — can result in a person simply being re-traumatized by the event or fear. Therefore exposure therapy is typically conducted within a psychotherapeutic relationship with a therapist trained and experienced with the technique and the related coping exercises.

For some reason, the karma that knb's comment received really annoys me. When did we come to define rationalism as "thinking about something just deeply enough to achieve self-affirmation, and then pushing the upvote or downvote button"?

Comment author: Kyre 19 April 2011 06:54:12AM 2 points [-]

I think the world is better off without sacred cows, rather than with them.

I generally agree. We should only keep the fun sacred cows, the ones that people would admit to being a matter of personal taste and don't mind being mocked about, like sports teams or musical preferences. We shouldn't get rid of those because it would make the world more boring.

The only way to eliminate these kinds of reactions is via "exposure therapy".

Do you mean "The only way" literally ?

Or do you mean "the best way" ? Or maybe "worth the expected carnage ?"

Comment author: knb 19 April 2011 07:19:16AM 3 points [-]

I guess it could change from within Islam, but I basically don't see any other ways random outsiders can influence the behavior of fundamentalist Muslims.

Comment author: shokwave 19 April 2011 07:17:28AM 2 points [-]

the ones that people would admit to being a matter of personal taste and don't mind being mocked about,

I am not sure that my understanding of sacred cows includes things like this.

Comment author: Perplexed 17 April 2011 06:29:03PM *  10 points [-]

Yvain's salmon analogy has drawn some criticism. I have to agree that it is not a perfect analogy. Analogies rarely are perfect. The best course, I find, is to offer a choice of analogies and let people choose the one with the most resonance. Pick one from this list:

Photoshop the Queen with a salmon day. We don't need to surgically alter the Brits. Just have a bit of fun with their national symbol. If insulting the Queen doesn't work, try Lady Di.

Tell an ethnic joke day. Stereotyping can be funny and is never physically harmful. If an ethnic group is capable of making fun of itself, then everyone should be able to make fun of them. It is all just in fun.

Use a bad word day. Isn't it ridiculous that people get offended at the use of certain four letter words - particularly those denoting body parts or normal biological functions. Isn't it clever to make people angry when they are unable to justify their anger rationally?

Let it all hang out day. And some people are offended not just by hearing about body parts, but also by seeing them. The occasional practice of public nudism (weather permitting) will help to make the world a better, less neurotic, place.

Use racial epithets day. Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you. Some people, though, don't seem to realize this. It is time to confront their irrational viewpoint that speech should not be completely free.

Desecrate a religious symbol day. Don't draw Mohammed - he already has a day. Instead, burn a Torah, feed a sacremental host to rats, pull the pins out of a voodoo doll. Lets show some imagination here. What can we do in Delhi to a sacred cow? Catapults can be fun.

Piss in someone's vegetable garden day. Some people have the uninformed impression that human urine is unsanitary. Not true, it is actually a sterile medium. People in India sometimes consume small quantities of their own urine much as people in the West drink herbal teas. Its time to dispell this anti-urine superstition.

Barbecue a cat day. Confront dietary prejudices head on, and also lend a hand to the Humane Society in addressing the cat overpopulation problem. Actually killing and butchering the cats publicly provides a more vivid demonstration. And as an added benefit, leading people to care less about kittens will make the internet a more productive environment and may even increase contributions to the SIAI.

I have to admit that if I actually encountered one of the protests on this list in real life, my initial reaction would be amusement. Repetition might change that to annoyance. But only one of those ideas actually offends me. Which one? I won't tell. YMMV.

Comment author: Clippy 18 April 2011 04:32:12PM 4 points [-]

I don't see what's wrong with any of those.

Comment author: Alicorn 17 April 2011 06:54:55PM *  7 points [-]

Piss in someone's vegetable garden day. Some people have the uninformed impression that human urine is unsanitary. Not true, it is actually a sterile medium.

Healthy urine is sterile. Unhealthy urine may not be. (To say nothing of the desirability of adulterating others' food with even the most harmless additives - I don't want mint oil on my vegetables, even though I'm certain it won't do me physical harm. I don't like the taste of mint.)

Comment author: TobyBartels 18 April 2011 07:02:04AM 5 points [-]

Also, large quantities of nitrogen in one spot (overfertilisation) can mess up a garden.

But it's barbecue a cat day that really offends me, since (unlike vegetables) cats have feelings too.

Comment author: loqi 26 April 2011 08:05:07PM 8 points [-]

Cat overpopulation is an actual problem, gobs of cats are put down by the Humane Society every day. I don't know what they do with their dead cats, but I find wasting perfectly usable meat and tissue more offensive than the proposed barbecue.

FWIW, I am both a cat owner and a vegetarian.

Comment author: Alicorn 26 April 2011 08:27:54PM 8 points [-]

I wonder if more or fewer people would adopt cats if the cats would otherwise be barbecued.

Comment author: TobyBartels 26 April 2011 09:01:07PM 5 points [-]

That's a good point. However, the danger with a cat BBQ is that people develop a taste for them and, rather than eating the leftovers from the Humane Society, breed their own for good flavour. In fact, I pretty much guarantee that, should Barbecue-a-Cat-Day ever catch on (and be celebrated in earnest), then this will indeed happen.

Comment author: Alicorn 18 April 2011 04:19:07PM 3 points [-]

But it's barbecue a cat day that really offends me, since (unlike vegetables) cats have feelings too.

Are you a vegetarian?

Comment author: TobyBartels 20 April 2011 08:27:21PM 2 points [-]

Are you a vegetarian?

Mostly. I could go into detail if you care.

Comment author: jtk3 18 April 2011 04:57:57AM 3 points [-]

With the exception of evicting the pisser from your garden I'd say none of these actions justifies a violent response. As a believer in the value of free speech I defend them all even if I would not choose to participate in them.

Comment author: PeterisP 17 April 2011 06:50:48PM *  2 points [-]

All of the above days seem quite fun and fine to me.

As for the original article point - I agree that there isn't any significant difference between the hypothetical British salmon case and Mohammad's case, but it this fact doesn't change anything. There isn't a right to never be offended. There is no duty to abstain from offending others. It's nice if others are nice, but you can't demand everybody to be nice - most of them will be indifferent, and some will be not nice, and you just have to live with it and deal with it without using violence - and if you don't know how to handle it without violence, then you are still a 'child' in that sense and have to learn proper reaction, so everybody can (and probably should) provoke you until you learn to deal with it.

Comment author: s8ist 19 April 2011 01:32:38AM 2 points [-]

Well said! It is shameful that many folks' response to this is that we need to punish those who act to offend. Those who enforce and enable the unreasonable standard of a right to not be offended are at blame.

Comment author: SilasBarta 17 April 2011 04:39:12AM 4 points [-]

I think the crucial difference between the salmon/Brit and the drawings/Muslims is form-invariance, which is present in the latter, but not the former.

The Muslims in question don't merely say, "Hey, don't draw pictures that have the form of Muhammad." They say, "Don't express any critique coupled to our offense at that narrow part of artspace." (including, e.g., Drawing an anonymous stick figure and saying, "I call that Muhammad ... is that enough to offend you, or does it have to ...?")

In contrast, there are workarounds in the Brit/salmon case that allow one to reference salmon anywhere and everywhere -- even right in front of Brits! -- without triggering their hardwired response:

  • use a euphemism for salmon
  • when a diagram is needed, use one that doesn't look like salmon, but has a known mapping
  • use indirect complex constructions that nevertheless, after some thought, are identified as referring to salmon

Heck, the Brit-requested prohibition would ever permit you to (incorrectly) argue that the kind of mod the aliens did is impossible.

Yet Muslims expect all of the analog activities to cease.

Now, you can revise the situation to force consideration of the least-convenient possible world, but then you'd be constructing a scenario in which the aliens implant strong AI that can identify every possible kind of salmon reference. But at that point, you're no longer talking about Brits at all, but beings with a different identity, which reduces your dilemma to "Brits are killed and replaced with robots. What else would start to suck about that situation?" Er, the problem was the identity deletion, and any further harm pales in comparison.

I think you can connect the dots from here: there is a difference between expecting others to restrict the manner in which they do something, vs. whether they do it at all. Indeed, even the Americans you criticize have no problem with time/place/manner restrictions of free speech: e.g. "Sure you can say a candidate's great, but not through spam, and not by blasting an airhorn at 3am."

Comment author: jtk3 16 April 2011 10:38:28PM *  4 points [-]

"You could argue Brits did not choose to have their abnormal sensitivity to salmon while Muslims might be considered to be choosing their sensitivity to Mohammed. But this requires a libertarian free will. "

Absent free will I don't understand why you'd be more critical the supposed offending parties than the offended ones.

"And if tomorrow I tried to "choose" to become angry every time someone showed me a picture of a salmon, I couldn't do it - I could pretend to be angry, but I couldn't make myself feel genuine rage."

Some people born and raised in America who freely take up Islam in adulthood and proceed to take offense at such things as pictures of Mohammed which they previously would not have taken offense at. One may not directly choose to take such offense but it's a consequence of choices and one may choose otherwise.

Out of a billion muslims I'd bet there are many who are not deeply offended when outsiders print such pictures. The choice to take less offense is there.

Growing up I had a strong and deeply ingrained aversion to homosexuality. I could feel physically ill at the description or depiction of men kissing, for instance. The aversion was so strong that I identified it as an instinctive part of my nature. Over time however I chose to discount the aversion. I was able to do so. Presumably you would not have thought gays should have refrained from acts which offended me.

I'm confident muslims are also capable of discounting irrational beliefs. If one didn't think people could do this then what would be the point of lesswrong?

Comment author: nitrat665 12 April 2015 08:25:30AM *  2 points [-]

I feel there are some significant differences between drawing Mohammed and showing the British person a picture of the salmon:

  • In case of Britain affected with the salmon ailment, it is not actually necessary to stop depicting salmon. For example, if you are a proud owner of a salmon-fisher’s blog, it is sufficient to put up a “CONTAINS SALMON” warning on the front page to prevent some unlucky Brit from wandering inside and getting a jolt. We do not stop selling peanut products because some people are allergic to them and might actually die from consuming those – we just put a highly visible “CONTAINS NUTS” label on the packaging. However, if you have a religious issue discussion blog that may contain some Mohammed art, posting a “CONTAINS PICTURES OF MOHHAMED” warning on the front page will only attract the kind of Muslims that are particularly averse to Mohammed art.

  • Another interesting point to consider is that being atheist, I do not have a duty or commandment not to draw a picture of Mohammed and neither do Christians, Buddhists, Jews or Hindus. Technically, if your commandments do not forbid it you are not committing a sacrilege. Now, waving a Mohammed pic in the Muslims’ face would be definitely a dick move, but publishing it in your blog/journal/whatever other media that a Muslim would have to actively seek out in order to be exposed should be ok.

  • A tit-for-tat argument – suppose that while Britain was affected by salmon aversion the rest of the world was struck by an aversion to cat pictures (the horror! Oh, the fluffy horror!). Now, if the British demand that we get rid of our salmon pics but keep flashing the cat pics all over the place, would you still feel that it is a dick move to keep your salmon? Getting back to the Mohammed issue, this is exactly what we see – the same Muslim groups that react most aggressively to the Mohammed pics are known for damaging and destroying various objects that hold cultural and religious value to non-Muslims. Is it right to cooperate when your opponent is known for defecting?

However, I do feel that my thinking might be influenced by a tribal-rivalry bias against Muslems. If you find anything of that sort – feel free to dig in.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 December 2013 05:32:34PM 2 points [-]

I think the difference here is that “Mohammed” (for sake of argument) does not exist outside of the context of Islam. To reference “Mohammed” is to reference a character that exists only as a historical character described through historical texts that deliberately do not offer an official image of him (…and no one is saying "you can't talk or write about Mohammed," at least not yet). The presumption here is that the Islamic character and the prohibition regarding his depiction are inseparable aspects of the same idea of “Mohammed.”

Salmon, on the other hand, exist outside of such context. One can draw or photograph a salmon without ever knowing what it is, but one can’t depict a Mohammed without referencing Islam.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, one has to go out of their way to create a visual depiction of Mohammed. To do that, one has to (1) know enough about Islam and Mohammed to even know what to depict, (2) presumably understand that there are few existing depictions of Mohammed because depiction is a cultural taboo; and (3) to label their drawing as specifically a depiction of Mohammed (so that someone else can't get confused and think it is just some random schmuck).

This is, so far as I understand it, a deliberate act of challenging a social norm. So when someone uses the defense of 'free speech,' someone else could counter with the claim that the depiction of Mohammed is by nature libelous/slanderous -- you are knowingly and willingly creating a false depiction (as all depictions are false) that defames or otherwise harms a group of people/beliefs and/or their reputation.

(Again assuming here that the Islamic character and the prohibition regarding his depiction are inseparable aspects of the same idea of “Mohammed.” I suppose one can compare this to how “Voldemort” must not be named because to name him is to cause deliberate harm/offense to any non-Muggles. Muggles will never find out about Voldemort unless some non-Muggle tells them about Voldemort, and even then, the Muggle will learn about Voldemort as “He-who-must-not-be-named” for reasons “x,y,z”. So for a Muggle to name Voldemort is to deliberately harm/offend the non-Muggle then).

Perhaps a better comparison and a better question would be as follows: A homeowner has put up a sign in front of their home saying "Do not draw pictures of QfwfQ." And what the heck is a "QfwfQ"? It is something the homeowner believes in, and inseparable from the belief in QfwfQ is the belief that QfwfQ does not like to be drawn (or it will punish the owner with twenty lashes when the owner meets the QfwfQ in an indeterminate future.) The homeowner has put that sign out as a special –and perhaps irrational-- precaution. An ordinary passerby would not think to draw pictures of the whatever it is, or even /why/ that rule might exit, and would generally ignore it.

However, there seem to be a group of people who, upon hearing of this sign and this rule and this person with their belief in QfwfQ, take it all as a provocation to challenge a rule simply because the rule exists. The homeowner, upon hearing this, reacts in a disproportionate manner. More people hear about this QfwfQ and his silly rules, and criticize the homeowner and his beliefs. The homeowner again reacts disproportionately, and this goes on in perpetuity until everyone has some idea of QfwfQ and the homeowner.

This continues until knowledge of QfwfQ and his silly rules reaches a hyper-logical culture that holds nothing sacred (not even things like “love” and “friendship,” unless there are explicit cost/benefit analyses supporting those ideas). To lampoon QfwfQ and to criticize it are permissible and in fact encouraged as a show of how tolerant and egalitarian this culture is (“Your QfwfQ is no better and no worse than anyone else’s sacred ideas!”).

This leads to what some may call a ‘culture war,’ which is what it seems to me is going on between the West’s caricatures of Mohammed, and the conservative Muslim reaction.

Now, if someone had spontaneously, halfway around the world, drawn a picture and called it QfwfQ, how would that homeowner have reacted? Perhaps the homeowner would request the artist's death. Perhaps, if on not being to explain the drawing as a deliberate aim on part of the artist to insult, defame, or otherwise comment on the homeowner's belief in QfwfQ, the homeowner might conclude that there was an act of divine inspiration, and the rules governing the depiction/non-depiction of QfwfQ will change. Except for in the case of divine inspiration, everyone else who drew a picture of QfwfQ would have done so having learned about QfwfQ from a sign that says "Don't draw QfwfQ"! So the act of their drawing would have been a deliberate rule-breaking, however arbitrary that rule is. Similarly, "Mohammed" does not exist outside of Islam, so in engaging "Mohammed," you are inadvertently also engaging Islam. There is no Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or American or British "Mohammed", though there may be American and European genii of salmon. It would be interesting to explore how people would react if Muslims were to say, "Do not depict the Islamic character of Moses, but feel free to depict Christian or Jewish variants of the same character." in specifying that the varient of "Moses" one had drawn was the Islamic version, would that be a deliberate offense then? This is worth exploring further because there is no explicit Quranic ruling forbidding the depiction of Mohammed (though one could make a case regarding 'though shalt not make false idols and fall into idoltry'): the “ban” regarding depiction comes from a particular set of interpretations of Islam. At prior times, Muslims have in fact created depictions of Mohammed, and onyl certain groups of Muslims get upset with the depiction of Mohammed -- other Muslims with other varients of belief don't care.

Comment author: MinibearRex 16 April 2011 08:31:29AM 2 points [-]

In the salmon example, I would consider it inappropriate to take as many pictures of salmon as possible and try to get them shown to as many Brits as possible. I wouldn't, however, ask a business selling fish in America to not use salmon in their advertisements. In other words, the negative utility of creating such images is non-negligible, but it is small enough that it can be outweighed by other factors. In the case of Mohammad, however, I have never in my entire life been in a situation where I had a particular need to depict Mohammad visually. Most depictions presently seem like deliberate attempts to antagonize Muslims, which I consider immoral. People do it, of course, because of in-group-outgroup behavior. If the alien arrived in England in 1812, Americans would be making as many photographs of salmon as they could.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 April 2011 06:03:24AM *  3 points [-]

So why don't most people extend the same sympathy they would give Brits who don't like pictures of salmon, to Muslims who don't like pictures of Mohammed?

  1. Because people who take their religion and its taboos seriously are low status in the West.

  2. Mind projection fallacy: We assume most Muslims don't take their religion seriously like most Christians or Jews don't. We see them using a technicality to claim offence where there is none in order to control us or display dominance over our tribe.

  3. They aren't part of our tribe. And worse they belong to a culturally powerful, demographically ascendant and politically threatening tribe.

Another thing I find interesting is that such a argument would never be set up using the example of piss Christ or a desecrated Talmud. I think the reason such a argument is employed using the Muslims as an example is because we quietly accept that Christians, Hindus, Shintoist and Jews are very unlikely to retaliate with violence compared to Muslims. We hide this so it seems that we are arguing about general principles but we are actually arguing about this specific situation based on appeal to consequences.

Note: I don't think this is the case with this LW article but I do think it is the case with many other ones available in the media and on-line.

PS: Excellent article! The debate it provoked is very much intriguing. Upvoted.

Comment author: tenshiko 17 April 2011 11:54:57PM 3 points [-]

I think most decent people would be willing to go to some trouble to avoid taking pictures of salmon if British people politely asked this favor of them. If someone deliberately took lots of salmon photos and waved them in the Brits' faces, I think it would be fair to say ey isn't a nice person.

See, this is exactly where your analogy falls apart for me. The Muslims to whose behavior people are objecting in "everybody draw Muhammad" are not politely asking for the favor of avoiding creating images of Muhammad in future. They are approaching creators of existing images with serious threats of violence. In situations like the South Park incident, it seems quite distinct from the infliction of psychic pain in that - well, to blow another hole in the salmon analogy, does it mean that Americans should stop making television programs about how to cook salmon? So... yeah.

Comment author: shokwave 16 April 2011 01:34:57AM 2 points [-]

The high-status vs low-status, demand vs request point is interesting. Is it possible that this is where the enmity begins? That a lot of people who wouldn't denigrate the Muslim faith normally end up calling it ridiculous because that's a good soldier, ditto for slippery slope and other arguments, and their real reason for joining draw a picture of Mohammed day is because they feel slighted by the way they were asked not to draw such pictures?

Another possibility is that such an event functions as a move in some game of conflict between them; doing something that is easily characterised as harmless fun which necessitates (what can be easily characterised as) a huge over-reaction is a powerful move.

Also, I really like the last part of your footnote, about consequentialist morality keeping disagreements honest and empirical.