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When None Dare Urge Restraint, pt. 2

56 Post author: Jay_Schweikert 30 May 2012 03:28PM

In the original When None Dare Urge Restraint post, Eliezer discusses the dangers of the "spiral of hate" that can develop when saying negative things about the Hated Enemy trumps saying accurate things. Specifically, he uses the example of how the 9/11 hijackers were widely criticized as "cowards," even though this vice in particular was surely not on their list. Over this past Memorial Day weekend, however, it seems like the exact mirror-image problem played out in nearly textbook form.

The trouble began when MSNBC host Chris Hayes noted* that he was uncomfortable with how people use the word "hero" to describe those who die in war -- in particular, because he thinks this sort of automatic valor attributed to the war dead makes it easier to justify future wars. And as you might expect, people went crazy in response, calling Hayes's comments "reprehensible and disgusting," something that "commie grad students would say," and that old chestnut, apparently offered without a hint of irony, "unAmerican." If you watch the video, you can tell that Hayes himself is really struggling to make the point, and by the end he definitely knew he was going to get in trouble, as he started backpedaling with a "but maybe I'm wrong about that." And of course, he apologized the very next day, basically stating that it was improper to have "opine[d] about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots."

This whole episode struck me as particularly frightening, mostly because Hayes wasn't even offering a criticism. Soldiers in the American military are, of course, an untouchable target, and I would hardly expect any attack on soldiers to be well received, no matter how grounded. But what genuinely surprised me in this case was that Hayes was merely saying "let's not automatically apply the single most valorizing word we have, because that might cause future wars, and thus future war deaths." But apparently anything less than maximum praise was not only incorrect, but offensive.

Of course, there's no shortage of rationality failures in political discourse, and I'm obviously not intending this post as a political statement about any particular war, policy, candidate, etc. But I think this example is worth mentioning, for two main reasons. First, it's just such a textbook example of the exact sort of problem discussed in Eliezer's original post, in a purer form than I can recall seeing since 9/11 itself. I don't imagine many LW members need convincing in this regard, but I do think there's value in being mindful of this sort of problem on the national stage, even if we're not going to start arguing politics ourselves.

But second, I think this episode says something not just about nationalism, but about how people approach death more generally. Of course, we're all familiar with afterlifism/"they're-in-a-better-place"-style rationalizations of death, but labeling a death as "heroic" can be a similar sort of rationalization. If a death is "heroic," then there's at least some kind of silver lining, some sense of justification, if only partial justification. The movie might not be happy, but it can still go on, and there's at least a chance to play inspiring music. So there's an obvious temptation to label death as "heroic" as much as possible -- I'm reminded of how people tried to call the 9/11 victims "heroes," apparently because they had the great courage to work in buildings that were targeted in a terrorist attack.

If a death is just a tragedy, however, you're left with a more painful situation. You have to acknowledge that yes, really, the world isn't fair, and yes, really, thousands of people -- even the Good Guy's soldiers! -- might be dying for no good reason at all. And even for those who don't really believe in an afterlife, facing death on such a large scale without the "heroic" modifier might just be too painful. The obvious problem, of course -- and Hayes's original point -- is that this sort of death-anesthetic makes it all too easy to numb yourself to more death. If you really care about the problem, you have to face the sheer tragedy of it. Sometimes, all you can say is "we shall have to work faster." And I think that lesson's as appropriate on Memorial Day as any other.

*I apologize that this clip is inserted into a rather low-brow attack video. At the time of posting it was the only link on Youtube I could find, and I wanted something accessible.

Comments (91)

Comment author: Xachariah 29 May 2012 06:18:03AM *  30 points [-]

hero: he-ro [heer-oh]

  1. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal

It's not just about ignoring death. These men and women in the armed forces are heroes... if you abandon the definition above and use a more useful definition. "A person who has qualities or performed acts which are useful to the community, who can serve as models for others, so that more people will act like them." It's a Hansonian status signal.

To allow a little anthropomorphizing, a society wants to reinforce that which makes it stronger. If you were to design a civilization from scratch which is involved in wars, the first thing you'd do is grant +200 status points to everybody who died in the service of their country, regardless of if they were effective or not effective. That will get you more recruits; that will make wars easier. It doesn't matter if the words are true or the definitions are consistent, granting those bonus status points would help you achieve your goals. It makes sense for a society to do that, and it makes sense that a society would punish people who point out it's reinforcement systems.

This is how being a cell in an organism feels from the outside.

Comment author: Desrtopa 29 May 2012 02:11:43PM 4 points [-]

If you were to design a civilization from scratch which is involved in wars, the first thing you'd do is grant +200 status points to everybody who died in the service of their country, regardless of if they were effective or not effective.

Just how much is 200 points? That might lead to a lot of people being really careless in battle.

Comment author: Strange7 31 May 2012 03:50:26PM 3 points [-]

Ah, not necessarily. If being the one who achieves actual military objectives is worth any points at all, the optimal strategy is to get killed the day before you retire. (see also "retirony")

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 May 2012 02:07:47PM 5 points [-]

These men and women in the armed forces are heroes... if you abandon the definition above and use a more useful definition. "A person who has qualities or performed acts which are useful to the community, who can serve as models for others, so that more people will act like them."

The second part of that definition is unhelpfully recursive... choosing to call people "heroes" or otherwise laud them is an important part of what turns them into models for others. To make that laudability part of the definition of heroism risks emptying the word of all content: heroism becomes anything we describe as heroic.

Leaving that aside... lots of things are useful to the community, so the first part of that definition covers a lot of ground. Using the model you suggest, it seems if I was to design a civilization from scratch that consumed food, presumably I would also label farmers "heroes," and if I was to design a civilization from scratch that produced organic wastes, presumably I would also label sewage engineers "heroes".

That doesn't seem to describe the world I live in. It would seem there's more to be explained.

Comment author: roystgnr 29 May 2012 03:46:38PM 16 points [-]

The non-cynical explanation is that what makes soldiers unique is morale. We can encourage farmers and sewage engineers via steady monetary compensation, and we don't have to worry that hazardous manure will make them break and run, and if 5% of them were to suddenly quit then we'd be okay eating 95% as much food and paying some overtime to maintain the pipes. With soldiers, shit really does turn lethal, a 5% retreat can quickly cascade into a rout, and less mercenary compensation (using status and esteem instead of just money) seems to make such a rout less likely.

Although I think Hayes' points were apt and his treatment despicable, he may be missing a similar point: thinking of soldiers as "heros" rather than just regular employees may also reduce peoples' desire to risk their lives unnecessarily. You can see an overreach of the same effect in public attitudes toward the space program: death counts that would go unremarked in heavy construction projects are considered intolerable because the dying astronauts are heroes to us.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 May 2012 04:07:32PM 1 point [-]

I agree that certain roles, like warfare, are much less tolerant than others of individuals unexpectedly refusing to perform the functions of the role.
I agree that certain roles (again, like warfare) are much more likely than others to involve intermittent periods of extremely high risk, which makes steady-state reward very easy to game.
I agree that both of those factors seem to explain a lot more of what we call heroic than the "useful to the community, who can serve as models for others" metric proposed earlier.

It is not clear to me that we're less willing to tolerate astronaut's deaths or soldier's deaths than we are construction workers' deaths... we seem pretty willing to tolerate all of them, though we make a much bigger fuss about the former group. I suspect our lack of support for the space program has other causes.

Comment author: Desrtopa 16 June 2012 11:45:15PM 0 points [-]

You can see an overreach of the same effect in public attitudes toward the space program: death counts that would go unremarked in heavy construction projects are considered intolerable because the dying astronauts are heroes to us.

It may be significant that their deaths are associated with projects which are not only highly visible but orders of magnitude more expensive.

I suspect that if we decided to build a proper Tower of Babel, and people died in the construction, their deaths would get plenty of publicity.

Comment author: Ezekiel 31 May 2012 12:11:18AM 1 point [-]

As an explicit example of this, Jewish Orthodox doctrine has it that anyone who dies "for the sanctification of The Name" gets an automatic ticket to Awesome Afterlife. The thing is, that class includes those murdered by anti-Semites - so you can go to Heaven for someone else's bigotry.

Comment author: hfkdnp 31 May 2012 04:58:05AM 6 points [-]

anyone who dies "for the sanctification of The Name" gets an automatic ticket to Awesome Afterlife. The thing is, that class includes those murdered by anti-Semites - so you can go to Heaven for someone else's bigotry.

Whoa, that sure does explain a lot!

As it turns out, that Adolf dude with the funny moustache has optimally maximized discounted utility up to T=∞ for a lot of folks! And he didn't even take credit for it - he just did it out of sheer willingness to do the moral and utility-maximizing thing. What a cool guy, right? Could anyone even believe that people view him as the personification of evil?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 31 May 2012 03:32:43AM 1 point [-]

Well, if we're concerned about consequences of actions rather than some other metric of moral value, that's not unreasonable.

Comment author: D2AEFEA1 29 May 2012 06:39:38AM 5 points [-]

labeling a death as "heroic" can be a similar sort of rationalization.

Homer, about 2800 years ago :

It is entirely seemly for a young man killed in battle to lie mangled by the bronze spear. In his death all things appear fair.

Comment author: Unnamed 29 May 2012 04:29:41PM *  15 points [-]

Homer, about 20 years ago:

Homer: That Timmy is a real hero!
Lisa: How do you mean, Dad?
Homer: Well, he fell down a well, and... he can't get out.
Lisa: How does that make him a hero?
Homer: Well, that's more than you did!

Hero inflation is not just for the dead or the military.

Comment author: Larks 15 June 2012 08:31:04PM 0 points [-]

Even the fact that he was probably only fighting because he'd been enslaved.

Comment author: Nornagest 15 June 2012 09:23:07PM *  1 point [-]

I don't think this would have been true, at least in that time and place. Warfare in Archaic Greece -- i.e. when Homer was writing -- was dominated by hoplites, expensively equipped heavy infantry drawn from the citizen classes. Later on, peltasts and other light infantry became more common, and were sometimes recruited from unfree classes (especially in Sparta, which fielded large numbers of helot auxiliaries), but also came as mercenaries or from the lower free classes.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 May 2012 03:35:23PM 19 points [-]

I found an article on the Atlantic that provides additional context to Chris Hayes's remarks and it also asks a series of followup questions about whether people should be called heroes under different circumstances.

Link here.

The followup questions seemed to be worth reposting in their entirety:

1) Are all American war dead heroic because, if nothing else, they had the courage to volunteer for service knowing they might ultimately give their life for their country? That seems heroic to me. But if they're all heroes, does it follow that everyone in the military is a hero? Why is dying necessary? And if everyone who volunteers is a hero, what about the guys who would go AWOL if sent to fight, or who assault their commanding officer, or who run away in combat? What about the ones who are dishonorably discharged? Was Bradley Manning a hero? Had Lynndie England died in Iraq, would she have been a hero?

2) What about people who volunteer for foreign armed forces? Are they all heroic? Or does it depend upon their country? If an American helping to liberate Libya would've been a hero had he died in action, shouldn't the Germans from NATO engaged in the same conflict be heroes too? What about the Islamic fundamentalists fighting alongside NATO? Heroes?

3) What about the morality of the cause? Does anyone think brave Nazi soldiers during the World War II era were heroes? How about the soldiers in Stalin's army? Does the nature of the mission matter, so that a Soviet soldier who died liberating a death camp was a hero, whereas another who died while ravaging German civilians he was ordered to take revenge upon isn't? There's this reality to confront: if bestowing the title hero has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the cause or mission, we'll have to grant the honorific to individuals who took part in deeply immoral acts... and yet, if the mission does matter, do we really want to deny the heroism of a GI who jumped on a grenade to save his platoon, even if we think the platoon's presence in country X was immoral? It's a confounding choice.

4) Speaking of jumping on grenades, isn't "hero" often invoked in common parlance as if it means even more than serving and dying? For example, when we hear someone described as "a World War II hero," don't we expect that he did more than fall overboard and drown en route to the D-Day invasion? Don't we assume from that adjective that he undertook some dangerous mission, or distinguished himself in combat, like the younger Bailey brother in It's a Wonderful Life? Were the average American to watch From Here to Eternity, would he or she call Robert E. Lee Prewitt a hero?

5) And say, for the sake of argument, that all American war dead are heroes, strictly defined, but that the word and its emotional resonance is being manipulated by advocates of an imprudent war. Is it better to give soldiers an honorific they deserve, consequences be damned, or to withhold an honorific they deserve to prevent future soldiers from needlessly dying?

Comment author: Spurlock 31 May 2012 04:09:22PM *  10 points [-]

I'm reminded of how people tried to call the 9/11 victims "heroes," apparently because they had the great courage to work in buildings that were targeted in a terrorist attack.

Let's be fair: Almost no one actually said this. It's a large nation and you can generally find at least one example of just about any dumb statement, but this seems like 99% strawman.

I remember a lot of talk about how the rescue workers were heroes, and some discussion about the heroics of specific attack victims (people who e.g. tried to help others escape the building), but labeling the victims as "heroes", while certainly something one could have gotten away with, I don't recall at all.

A quick and dirty google search for "9/11 victims were heroes" without quotes returns a page full of results referring to 'victims' and 'heroes' as separate groups. If you add the quotes you mostly just get people attacking the sentiment, rather than the sentiment itself.

Comment author: Jay_Schweikert 31 May 2012 08:32:02PM 3 points [-]

Fair point. While I definitely do recall hearing this point made in earnest at least a couple times, you're right that it probably wasn't prominent enough to identify as "something that people thought," outside of a few silly assertions. It's certainly not on par with the other examples here.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 29 May 2012 12:12:29PM 16 points [-]

The title of this post looks like an episode title for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Comment author: RobertLumley 29 May 2012 04:02:00PM *  0 points [-]

I was wondering what it reminded me of, and this is it...

Edit (sorry about the double post, I had two tabs open in my browser and messed up.)

Comment author: shminux 29 May 2012 05:35:16PM 2 points [-]

You can delete the other comment after refreshing the page.

Comment author: RobertLumley 29 May 2012 06:25:56PM 1 point [-]

Thanks. I thought only Admins had the power to delete posts. I thought we could only retract our own posts.

Comment author: RobertLumley 29 May 2012 09:20:41PM 8 points [-]

My biggest takeaway from "When None Dare Urge Restraint" was this quote: "It is just too dangerous for there to be any target in the world, whether it be the Jews or Adolf Hitler, about whom saying negative things trumps saying accurate things."

But it always bothered me that this only applied to negative things. Obviously there are some instances where saying positive things may trump saying accurate things (You look great in those jeans, and other white lies), but I think you've identified a better rule: It is just too dangerous for there to be any target in the world about whom saying positive things always trumps saying accurate things.

Great post. Upvoted.

Comment author: handoflixue 30 May 2012 11:49:56PM 3 points [-]

(You look great in those jeans, and other white lies)

I get that the majority of people make it very unpleasant to say accurate things, but it doesn't seem to matter if it's a white lie or not - saying "those jeans make you look fat" and "not all soldiers are heroes" both get you punished for being accurate. There's just a CULTURAL attitude that the latter is a "more important truth" and therefor it's more-excusable to upset people with it.

Change the cultural context and suddenly white lies go away too - I understand it's fairly common amongst autistic people to value accuracy in that regard, for example. I know it's true of my own social group (I've commented numerous times on things that aren't attractive about my girlfriends, or that I simply find personally unpleasant :))

Comment author: RobertLumley 31 May 2012 01:27:01AM 0 points [-]

I'm not saying white lies are always exceptions either. And I don't think "all soldiers are heroes" is analogous to white lies, since there are very real consequences from framing the discourse in that manner, which was Hayes original point.

Comment author: beoShaffer 30 May 2012 05:18:33PM 2 points [-]

I think it was less that it only applied to negative things and more that the lesson for positive things got its own posts.

Comment author: Grognor 29 May 2012 05:04:29AM 27 points [-]

an image I made for my blog

Comment author: ciphergoth 29 May 2012 10:16:11AM 25 points [-]

I can only assume this is a logarithmic scale, or something.

Comment author: Maelin 29 May 2012 05:23:02AM 14 points [-]

I know this image is pretty much pure applause light and no substance, but I think it might serve as a great talking point to post on Facebook for all my less rational friends.

Comment author: shokwave 30 May 2012 04:45:03PM 5 points [-]

Having seen the outcome of your plan, I think we have learned that talking points are only great when you have strictly great people talking.

Comment author: beoShaffer 30 May 2012 05:37:43PM 13 points [-]

Would it be considered impolite to ask what happened?

Comment author: Maelin 31 May 2012 03:52:19AM 11 points [-]

Not by me! One friend immediately replied, describing living forever as an 'unbelievably horrible concept'. An argument developed in which he claimed to be opposed to medicine in general because it results in overpopulation. A few friends who are LW readers and/or transhumanists joined in and it grew a bit one-sided. I tried to inoffensively explain that his arguments seemed to be neglecting the fact that the other human problems we have (which would be exacerbated by cured aging) might also be solvable, failed at the 'inoffensive' part, and he got angry at me for thinking I knew what he was thinking better than he did and then abandoned the thread. Afterwards a few of the people who've 'already seen the light' discussed a few interesting points about the topic, like hard limits on energy consumption/use, etc.

I'll take partial blame - I didn't work hard enough to maintain civility, in my own posts or in the atmosphere in general. I have previously argued with this person about life extension etc and found that he pattern matches very promptly into the 'typical' opposer - who summons up every problem they can connect to the idea immediately without any thought for plausibility or relevance.

Overall it was a bit of a disappointment but some friends who I don't think would have been exposed to the idea much otherwise did put some 'likes' on a few comments, which is heartening.

Comment author: [deleted] 31 May 2012 10:20:36AM 3 points [-]

opposed to medicine in general because it results in overpopulation

I used to agree with that.

Comment author: cata 29 May 2012 05:45:19AM *  12 points [-]

If you want it to be pithier (and more accessible?) you can just shorten "living forever" to "living."

Comment author: orthonormal 29 May 2012 02:58:53PM 4 points [-]

And switch the order, too, perhaps.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 May 2012 11:20:46AM *  5 points [-]

Not necessarily. If the awesome way of dying involves saving billions of people's lives, and living forever involves humanity going nearly extinct with all of the survivors (including yourself) being tortured for eternity...

Comment author: shokwave 30 May 2012 04:44:01PM 6 points [-]

Right, so think of this graph as actually being two graphs: one of the situation you describe, and one of the situation you do not describe. Then we blend these two graphs together according to the probability of each situation occurring in order to most accurately represent the future...

Comment author: [deleted] 31 May 2012 09:57:12AM -1 points [-]

Then put error bars on them for sqrt(E(awesomeness^2|living forever) - E(awesomeness|living forever)^2) and sqrt(E(awesomeness^2|dying in an awesome way) - E(awesomeness|dying in an awesome way)^2). :-)

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 30 May 2012 07:31:58PM *  4 points [-]

That seems to me like something you could contrive to say about any generally-true comparison...

Comment author: wedrifid 30 May 2012 07:51:32PM *  -1 points [-]

That seems to me like something you could contrive to say about any generally-true comparison...

Yes, which is why it's an awesome go to test to apply to generalizations. Death, extinction, torture forever, saving billions of people!

Comment author: handoflixue 31 May 2012 12:50:51AM 0 points [-]

That test is only useful if you're interested in illustrating exceptions to the norm. The graph, I think, does a brilliant job of illustrating normalized expectations.

I would assume that for most generalizations, it either shouldn't be a generalization, or else it's meant to illustrate normalized expectations. So the test seems useless unless you simply need to demonstrate that, duh, generalizations tend to have exceptions.

Comment author: wedrifid 31 May 2012 01:16:41AM -1 points [-]

'Generalizations' is an interesting word in as much as it expresses nearly the opposite meaning depending on the kind of person who speaks it (and to a lesser extent, the context).

Comment author: handoflixue 01 June 2012 06:47:35PM 0 points [-]

Can you expand on what you actually mean by that? I've always taken a generalization to mean "a broad statement that is true for the majority (but not all) specific instances of the group". For instance, one can generalize that humans have 2 arms - this, despite there being a number of exceptions, and the average (mean) values being less than 2.

Comment author: mwengler 29 May 2012 06:05:50PM 6 points [-]

As I consider this, I suspect that virtually anything which you can imagine being reported angrily on commercial cable "news" channels has purposes that are actually at odds with reporting truth. Calling terrorists cowards is just the usual insulting of the enemy, isn't it? Calling soldiers "heroes" seems to me to be a way to lower the costs associated with getting young people to go do this thing.

Is it irrational to use communication whose primary purpose is at odds with spreading objective information? Only if survival is irrational. Before we are the animal that thinks, we are the animal that survives. We gather together in groups whose members are unlikely to kill us and indeed may be likely to save us, and we gather up our dudgeon to attack the groups that are not on board with that program. The groups that are stingy using "irrational" tools to prevail against other groups do not pass either their genes or their memes into succeeding generations.

In my opinion, trying to make rational-information passing sense of a question like "should all our cannon fodder be called heros" is like an argument over whether the typical bride should wear white. The value in examining such questions comes from acquiring a better understanding of what the real purpose of such statements is, and how very orthogonal that purpose is to enhancing our perceptions of objective truths.

Comment author: handoflixue 30 May 2012 11:59:08PM *  4 points [-]

The groups that are stingy using "irrational" tools to prevail against other groups do not pass either their genes or their memes into succeeding generations.

That would mean that if the United States of America does not use this language, we will lose our wars and be defeated by a foe that IS willing to use such biased language. That... seems like a VERY strong assertion to make without any actual evidence.

Certainly, it might lower overall military recruitment costs, or improve troop efficiency, but has anyone ever studied this? How much would accurate information cost us? How much damage is being done because we're stuck in traditions of inaccurate communication? It's a fairly simple equation, but filling out the variables is far from a casual armchair exercise, I think.

Comment author: mwengler 31 May 2012 06:52:21AM 0 points [-]

I am not aware of any systematic attempt to study these things. My own opinion is formed from a somewhat casual reading of Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist, Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel and Collapse, and probably a few other books that don't leap to mind. These books have plenty of citation of studies if you are interested.

I think you would be hard pressed to find any existing "significant" country that does not engender a strong belief in patriotism among its populace, which does not lionize especially those who have given their lives in wars on behalf of the country. If you can think of any significant counter examples among the 50 richest or 50 most populous countries, please let me know. I am essentially hypothesizing that the scarcity of genteel foreigner-loving pacifist countries among the richest and most populous is not a mere coincidence.

Comment author: JoachimSchipper 03 June 2012 12:37:14PM 3 points [-]

The Netherlands is (used to be) pretty un-patriotic, to the point that "nationalist" means "nazi" and "patriot" isn't used, ever. Our "Remembrance Day" is explicitly for all victims of all conflicts (admittedly with precedence given to Dutch WW2 victims, but explicitly including the people on the other side of our last colonial war).

One could argue that we are geopolitically reliant on the United States' overwhelming military force, but that would be moving the goalposts.

(The Netherlands are #17.)

Comment author: mwengler 03 June 2012 04:42:08PM 0 points [-]

Thanks.

On the one hand preloading the idea that I might move the goalposts is good argumentation. But at the risk of appearing to do that, let me try some rationalization.

Could the words patriotism and nationalism haven a meaning in the Netherlands which has been distorted by the traumatic history with a neighbor that linked these words so powerfully with expansionism and genocide?

The Netherlands is a democracy which supports a conscript army. They are a founding and continuing member of NATO. The Netherlands is famous for its international courts. Would you say that the Dutch tend to be neutral on the question of their continued existence as Dutch?

Perhaps the Dutch reject Nazi-style patriotism and nationalism but have their own spin on their national identify that, looked at through non-Nazi filtered glasses, is a flavor of nationalism and patriotism after all?

Comment author: JoachimSchipper 04 June 2012 06:33:42PM 0 points [-]

Yes, our attitude towards nationalism has certainly been shaped by WW2. I'm not enough of a historian, but it may also be important to note that the Netherlands have been a rather fragmented (we prefer "tolerant") society before WW2; that is, one's loyalty was more to "the catholics" or "the socialists" than to the nation itself.

Although we technically still have conscription, it's been "paused" for many years, and re-introducing it would be unpopular, to say the least. We are indeed quite active in a military sense, but the current army is all-voiunteer and rather small. Humanitarian aid and international justice are more our speed (although humanitarian aid is increasingly coming under fire for being less effective than promised.)

Football matches and the monarchy aside, I haven't detected many traces of nationalism in the Netherlands. With our local far-right party riding high in the polls, there has been an effort to revitalize Dutch nationalism, but that hasn't been very successful. (Xenophobia/racism/anti-islam has been much more successful in setting the debate and drawing votes.)

Comment author: ksvanhorn 10 June 2012 04:27:37AM 1 point [-]

I think you would be hard pressed to find any existing "significant" country that does not engender a strong belief in patriotism among its populace, which does not lionize especially those who have given their lives in wars on behalf of the country.

You're begging the question here, by slipping in the assumption that these wars are "on behalf of the country," rather than on behalf of the executive (e.g. president), on behalf of some vested interest, or just colossal f*-ups. To repeat what the author said,

"If a death is just a tragedy... [y]ou have to acknowledge that yes, really, ... thousands of people -- even the Good Guy's soldiers! -- might be dying for no good reason at all."

Comment author: handoflixue 01 June 2012 06:56:42PM -2 points [-]

My theorizing was based largely on another comment in the thread: http://lesswrong.com/lw/cph/when_none_dare_urge_restraint_pt_2/6p0s

Also, the criteria that "all significant countries do it" strikes me as rather horrible reasoning. History is replete with examples of barbaric behaviors that were at one point considered perfectly normal, and often defended as a necessity without which the country would crumble.

I do have a suspicion that Australia might be less caught up in the heroic pedestal for war heroes, but all my Aussie friends are away for the weekend. Google did turn up a recent example of a high-profile hero being degenerated by a talk show, which suggests that the stigma is much lower there (but they were then forced to apologize, so there's still at least some stigma - but this is an actual decorated hero we're talking about).

Certainly, it would be hard for me to provide a citation for the claim "This country wouldn't rip apart a talk show host who said the same thing there", so I think we might have to just leave this one at intuitions (or, at least, I don't care enough to do more than bug my Aussie friends when they get back)

Comment author: fubarobfusco 29 May 2012 04:45:09PM 4 points [-]

I'm told that in some countries, every schoolchild reads Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est".

I wonder if that actually works at reducing such high zest for war heroism.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 May 2012 05:12:29PM *  5 points [-]

I read this as a schoolchild in the U.S. I remember it making an impression, and can still quote the last stanza. Jarrell's Death of the Ball Turret Gunner even more so. Though it's hard to know what that really means in terns of effects.

Edit: And then of course there's Kipling's Tommy. I frequently misquote
'For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the guns begin to shoot;"

...when I'm feeling particularly cynical about the social construction of heroism.

Comment author: ksvanhorn 10 June 2012 04:55:28AM 2 points [-]

Soldiers in the American military are, of course, an untouchable target

I know I'm playing with fire, but... touch. (Warning: deliberately inflammatory polemic.)

Comment author: shminux 29 May 2012 05:33:22PM *  5 points [-]

Welcome to the positive use of Dark Arts. You can enumerate the exploited biases galore as an exercise.

Indiscriminately calling the soldiers and especially the war dead heroes is quite rational, as it facilitates the country's task of maintaining an enlisted military force, as opposed to a mercenary force. Yes, it's brainwashing, and it is irrational for the individuals believe it, but it is very much the right thing to do for the government. Imagine what would happen if the prevailing sentiment was "well, these dead soldiers weren't very nice people, anyway, so, whatevs".

Comment author: Jack 29 May 2012 06:22:56PM 7 points [-]

Treating "the government" as anything like a unified agent for whom one can define self-interest or a utility function is problematic.

Comment author: Strange7 31 May 2012 03:43:55PM 3 points [-]

Effective organizations have official policies; members who act against those policies in important ways while on duty rapidly stop being part of the organization. Different departments and organizations within the government formulate and carry out policies on different issues, sometimes clashing with each other... but that's not entirely dissimilar to a person suffering internal conflicts when e.g. meal planning and libido point in opposite directions.

Comment author: shminux 29 May 2012 07:54:31PM 1 point [-]

I would be interested to know if there is a research on the subject. It does not seem unreasonable that organizations have utility functions different from its individual members. After all, that's how bee hives and ant colonies work.

Comment author: Jack 29 May 2012 08:21:46PM 1 point [-]

Kin groups with millions of years of natural selection aren't really the same.

Comment author: shminux 29 May 2012 08:39:43PM 0 points [-]

Maybe, or maybe not. Like I said, I'd be interested in seeing the relevant research.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 May 2012 05:52:02PM 4 points [-]

Indiscriminately calling the soldiers and especially the war dead heroes is quite rational, as it facilitates the country's task of maintaining an enlisted military force, as opposed to a mercenary force.

Enlisted soliders get paid already. Plus they get to wear uniform and the associated status perks. Simple economics applies even without introducing 'mercenary forces'.

Comment author: lessdazed 04 June 2012 06:28:25AM 1 point [-]

Presumably without the ribbons they'd have to be paid more. And the status perks seem tied to the same thing that causes people to call war dead "heroes."

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 30 May 2012 05:43:38AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer discussed something similar in the post Bayesians vs. Barbarians .

Comment author: shminux 29 May 2012 04:34:52AM *  5 points [-]

All good points, but hardly anything new... I guess a reminder can't hurt.

Comment author: David_Gerard 30 May 2012 08:18:05AM 3 points [-]

This article should be on Main.

Comment author: Jay_Schweikert 30 May 2012 03:28:07PM *  1 point [-]

I had considered posting it there, but I'm still somewhat new to writing articles and didn't want to jump the gun. Given the response, however, I'll go ahead and move it. Thanks for the encouragement!

Comment author: thomblake 30 May 2012 03:12:46PM 0 points [-]

Yes, belongs in Main.

Comment author: waditude 29 May 2012 05:04:44AM 2 points [-]

I see a hero as one who volunteers to take a personal risk on behalf of his or her group/tribe/country. Whether or not the risk results in death or injury does not have a bearing on whether or not the actions taken were heroic. If one is conscripted against one's will and dies in battle one is not a hero, but more like an unlucky slave. Also, the label is bestowed by the group that stands to benefit from the hero's actions - your hero in warfare is my evil opponent.

Comment author: DanArmak 01 June 2012 12:06:37PM *  5 points [-]

In Israel - to simplify somewhat* - everyone is conscripted against their will, for 2.5 years (and no pay). They are then given a choice. They can volunteer for combat service, risk dying more, and be lauded as heroes. Or they can opt for non-combat service, like auto mechanics, clerks, etc., and be generally shamed by society.

Would you call those who volunteer heroes, or slaves? Or both?

*This is quite simplified. Men are conscripted for 3 years, women for 2. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Arabs, and non-able-bodied persons, are not conscripted at all. Large segments of society which oppose govt. military policies also tend to assign the same moral blame to volunteer combat soldiers, and consider them villains not heroes. Actual posts differ widely in desirability, and family connections are a major factor in assignments. Other caveats apply.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 30 May 2012 05:50:48AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: JGWeissman 30 May 2012 05:05:33PM 7 points [-]

I suspect that if a nation of rationalists who all think "It is just too dangerous for there to be any target in the world about whom saying positive things trumps saying accurate things" were invaded by barbarians, they would, after short reflection, decide that designating those among them who took the role of soldier to repel the invasion as heroes, that this would be an accurate thing as well as positive.

The point of Bayesians vs. Barbarians is not that the Bayesians lose, but that true rationalists win against the barbarians where merely "clever" wannabes lose, and that we aspiring rationalists know enough about how they do it to win as well.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 31 May 2012 12:57:07AM *  1 point [-]

The point of Bayesians vs. Barbarians is not that the Bayesians lose, but that true rationalists win against the barbarians where merely "clever" wannabes lose, and that we aspiring rationalists know enough about how they do it to win as well.

That only happens if rationalists actually implement advise like that contained in the post, instead of simply patting themselves on the back over that fact that "true rationalists" would win while still acting like "merely 'clever' wannabes".

Comment author: RomeoStevens 30 May 2012 08:34:44PM -2 points [-]

I believe the only way to be left alone by barbarians is to have a credible deadman-switch doomsday device.

Comment author: JGWeissman 30 May 2012 09:40:21PM 7 points [-]

I believe the only way to be left alone by barbarians is to have a credible deadman-switch doomsday device.

That could be an effective strategy, but how much effort did you put into thinking of others before you decided that there are none?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 30 May 2012 10:09:11PM 0 points [-]

It's an issue I've read and written about for a few years. How much concerted thought? Not sure, probably not enough. Constructing human institutions in which the cost for violent action increases sharply in all circumstances is non-trivial.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 02 June 2012 01:17:18AM 2 points [-]

Is it that non-trivial? Humans have managed to make societies as a whole have less violence over the last few thousand years, and much of that impact seems to have been accidental.

Comment author: Bugmaster 30 May 2012 10:44:30PM 4 points [-]

That only works when the barbarians are rational enough so that they a). believe that you do in fact have such a device, and b). care whether you have it or not. If, instead, the barbarians are committed to invading you even at the cost of their own lives, or believe that their gods/manifest destiny/force of will/whatever will protect them against any retaliation by you, then your doomsday device is useless.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 May 2012 09:10:18PM 2 points [-]

Doesn't that presume barbarians who will reliably act in their own best interest?

If I assume that, then being able to offer barbarians a service they value in exchange for something they value less is sufficient to protect myself from barbarians, as long as I ensure I won't provide that service once attacked. But it's quite an assumption.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 30 May 2012 10:10:10PM 0 points [-]

no, you use the threat against people who are rational to provide you with conventional air superiority. This protects you from stupid people.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 May 2012 10:15:45PM 0 points [-]

Ah, I see.
So what protects them?

Comment author: wedrifid 30 May 2012 10:18:39PM 1 point [-]

So what protects them?

The stupid people? Their overwhelming numbers! ;)

Comment author: RomeoStevens 30 May 2012 10:21:28PM -1 points [-]

How does air superiority protect you? Is that the question? It reliably does, the fact that modern empires are too chickenshit/stupid to use it correctly doesn't mean it doesn't work.

http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Air_Power/vietnam/AP40.htm

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 May 2012 10:53:03PM 3 points [-]

I am now confused.

It sounds like you are saying:
a) conventional air superiority is a reliable way of being left alone by barbarians, and
b) a credible deadman-switch doomsday device is the only way to be left alone by barbarians

I also believe:
c) conventional air superiority is not a credible deadman-switch doomsday device,

It seems that at least one of those statements must be false.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 30 May 2012 10:58:45PM -1 points [-]

there are two types of barbarians, the kind that take a nuke seriously (current nation states) and the kind that are just insane. You use conventional means against the latter. you get supplied with conventional means by the former.

Comment author: jsalvatier 29 May 2012 04:10:13PM 0 points [-]

Point 1 seems obvious enough. Point 2, is interesting.

Comment author: Jay_Schweikert 30 May 2012 08:09:47PM 0 points [-]

One more link on the subject. Jason Brennan has a post on Bleeding Heart Libertarians cataloging different norms for valorizing soldiers (this post is largely a follow-up to a prior post arguing that it might be appropriate to hold even individual soldiers accountable for volunteering to serve in wars they know or should know to be unjust). While it's nothing particularly innovative, I think this framework is useful for understanding both the Hayes controversy and the issue more generally.

The reaction to Chris Hayes suggests that most Americans are pretty close to norm 1, or otherwise a norm 2 where it would take something shocking and extreme -- like overt torture or rape -- to rebut the presumption of heroic status. But the reasonable debate is where we should fall between norms 2 and 3 -- that is, to what extent soldiers should be presumed heroic vs. judged neutrally according to their actual motivations and decisions, like we would judge everyone else.

For me, the hardest issue is distinguishing what makes a war unjustified enough to blame the civilian leadership and unjustified enough to blame soldiers who volunteer to fight in it. There will of course be a gulf between these positions, and the size of that gulf is probably the biggest difference I have with Brennan (I think it's bigger). As many here have pointed out, there's value in having a strong presumption of heroic status, not only as an honest recognition of what subjectively motivates most soldiers, but also to provide a social incentive to keep the military consistently strong over time. But it's still important to acknowledge the existence of this line and to question where it is, both to provide a check on unjust war itself, and to discourage soldiers from risking their lives unless it's really necessary.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 31 May 2012 01:07:17AM 2 points [-]

that is, to what extent soldiers should be presumed heroic vs. judged neutrally according to their actual motivations and decisions, like we would judge everyone else.

The difference between soldiers and (almost) everyone else is that the soldiers' job involves risking one's life.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 31 May 2012 04:45:48PM *  13 points [-]

The difference between soldiers and (almost) everyone else is that the soldiers' job involves risking one's life.

According to the 2010 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, the jobs with the highest fatal injury rate per 100,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers in the U.S. were:

  • Fishers and related fishing workers
  • Logging workers
  • Aircraft pilots and flight engineers
  • Farmers and ranchers
  • Mining machine operators

The fatal injury rate for people in the fishing trade is 116 per 100,000 — or slightly more than 1 in 1000, per year. (If you value your life, do not go into the fishing business; and if you value other people's lives, you might consider buying farmed rather than wild-caught fish!)

According to this Congressional Research Service report, the worst year for U.S. military deaths recently was 2007, when 1953 out of 1.6 million military FTEs died. However, 235 of these deaths were due to illness rather than injury, whereas the above figures for other occupations deal only with injury. Subtracting these, members of the military are risking their lives slightly less than the people who bring you your salmon and tuna.

If you want to make a moral difference between soldiers and other people in dangerous occupations, you might consider making it on the basis that soldiers have to deal with threats to their lives that are caused by other people's deliberate hostile action. Humans tend to reckon risks caused by other people's deliberate action as being morally worse than risks caused by dangerous environments. Whether this difference should be considered a bias, or part of our utility function, or both, is another issue ...

Comment author: lessdazed 31 May 2012 05:00:29PM 8 points [-]

What about infantry v. armor? Or helicopter pilots v. people piloting drones from a base in Nevada? "Military" isn't too homogeneous a category.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 01 June 2012 02:50:21AM 3 points [-]

If you want to make a moral difference between soldiers and other people in dangerous occupations, you might consider making it on the basis that soldiers have to deal with threats to their lives that are caused by other people's deliberate hostile action.

Disagree. I think the relevant difference is people risking their lives providing a service that's (at least believed to be) a public good. Notice that the two civilian jobs that are also frequently called heroes are police and firefighters and your criterion doesn't apply to the latter.

Comment author: Jay_Schweikert 31 May 2012 01:48:58AM 0 points [-]

Well, yes, I think that's right. But even under norm 3 (neutral judgment), somebody who risks their life for a worthy cause clearly deserves praise. And if you think that most of what the military does counts as a worthy cause (or at least, is worthy enough that someone could volunteer in good faith), then norms 2 and 3 are probably going to blend together. In that case, the neutral judgment will be to presume heroism. But the more unjustified you think military actions are, the more the distinction becomes relevant, because you have to start asking what to think of soldiers who voluntarily join up with an unworthy cause.

Also, norm 3 might entail more of a distinction between risky and non-risky military roles. My general impression is that "military/non-military" matters more in how people make judgments than "combat role/non-combat role," even though the point about "risking one's life" only really comes in with the latter. (Yes, I'm aware that even supposedly "non-combat roles" can operate in war zones and involve substantial risk -- I'm speaking in generalities.)

Of course, there may be good reasons for this approach, even just in terms of signaling cost. It's relatively easy to see whether someone has served in the military, but harder and more awkward to ask "okay, but how much danger were you really in?" I'm just trying to explain why there might be a distinction between norms 2 and 3, even acknowledging that military service generally involves heightened risk to one's life.