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Against Bravery Debates

One of the things I was most criticized for on my old blog – and upon reflection, criticized for fairly – was my propensity to engage in bravery debates.

There’s a tradition on Reddit that when somebody repeats some cliche in a tone that makes it sound like she believes she is bringing some brilliant and heretical insight – like “I know I’m going to get downvoted for this, but believe we should have less government waste!” – people respond “SO BRAVE” in the comments. That’s what I mean by bravery debates. Discussions over who is bravely holding a nonconformist position in the face of persecution, and who is a coward defending the popular status quo and trying to silence dissenters.

These are frickin’ toxic. I don’t have a great explanation for why. It could be a status thing – saying that you’re the original thinker who has cast off the Matrix of omnipresent conformity and your opponent is a sheeple (sherson?) too fearful to realize your insight. Or it could be that, as the saying goes, “everyone is fighting a hard battle”, and telling someone else they’ve got it easy compared to you is just about the most demeaning thing you can do, especially when you’re wrong.

But the possible explanations aren’t the point. The point is that, empirically, starting a bravery debate is the quickest way to make sure that a conversation becomes horrible and infuriating. I’m generalizing from my own experience here, but one of the least pleasant philosophical experiences is thinking you’re bravely defending an unpopular but correct position, facing the constant persecution and prejudice from your more numerous and extremely smug opponents day in and day out without being worn-down … only to have one of your opponents offhandedly refer to how brave they are for resisting the monolithic machine that you and the rest of the unfairly-biased-toward-you culture have set up against them. You just want to scream NO YOU’RE WRONG SEFSEFILASDJO:IALJAOI:JA:O>ILFJASL:KFJ

A lot of common political terms pretty much encode bravery debates. “Political correctness”, “mainstream media”, “liberal media”, “corporate media”, “rape culture“, “Big Government” or “Big Business” or “Big Anything”, “patriarchy”, “the climate establishment”, or “the anything-anything complex”. By not-at-all-a-coincidence, these also happen to be some of the terms most likely to be inflammatory and get people angry. Has there ever been an argument that continued being civil or productive after “political correctness” was mentioned?

The persistence of bravery debates is actually kind of weird. Shouldn’t it be really really easy to figure out who’s being oppressed by whom? The Spanish Inquisition had many faults, but whining about being unfairly persecuted by heretics was, as far as I know, not one of them. Can two opposing positions really be absolutely certain they are under siege?

This question immediately reminded me of my recent observation about Christians and Muslims in the media. Whenever the media says something negative about Christians, comments and blogs and forums immediately fill up with claims that the media loves picking on Christians and that no one would ever publish a similar story about Muslims for fear of being “offensive” (eg 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). And whenever the media says something negative about Muslims, comments and blogs and forums immediately fill up with claims that the media is Islamophobic and attacks Muslims any chance it gets and they would never dare pick on a large powerful group like Christians in such a way (eg 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

So for example, Aziz Mubaraki writes:

There are numerous cases to judge whether there is bias against Muslims in the media, but in recent times look no further than the press coverage regarding the terrorist attack that took place in Norway not very long ago. Impartial population waited impatiently to read this act being explicitly described as a “terrorist attack” or an “act of terrorism” by the mainstream media. But never once the “Christian” label was used despite the fact that Mr. Breivik was a self-described devout Christian. Therefore the important question is: Why is it when the person responsible for the terrorist act happens to be Muslim all of a sudden the religion becomes the focus instead?

Yet israpundit.com writes:

Big media has no qualms about boldly and repeatedly labeling the Norweigan shooter as a “Christian”, even describing him as a Christian Zionist, despite no evidence that he was any kind of devout Christian whatsoever. Yet till this day the same vile liberal media will not refer to the Fort Hood jihadist as muslim or emphasize the Islamic motivation behind the shooting. Neither do government reports on the jihad attack.

So can we agree that this phenomenon of two opposing groups being equally sure they are bravely pointing out the world’s bias in favor of the other is, in fact, a thing?

Because once we acknowledge it, it’s not really hard to explain.

Psychologists have known about the hostile media effect for thirty years, ever since a 1982 study where they got pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students to watch a documentary and found that:

On a number of objective measures, both sides found that these identical news clips were slanted in favor of the other side. Pro-Israeli students reported seeing more anti-Israel references and fewer favorable references to Israel in the news report and pro-Palestinian students reported seeing more anti-Palestinian references, and so on. Both sides said a neutral observer would have a more negative view of their side from viewing the clips, and that the media would have excused the other side where it blamed their side.

Note that this was not at all subtle. The pro-Palestinians claimed that favorable references to Israel outnumbered unfavorable references almost 2:1, but the pro-Israelis complained that unfavorable references outnumbered favorable references at a greater than 3:1 ratio (p < .001). Transforming a different measure mentioned earlier in the paper to a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is completely pro-Palestine and 10 is completely pro-Israel, the average pro-Israeli rated it a 3.2, and the average pro-Palestinian rated it a 7.4. These numbers were even higher in people who claimed to know a lot about the conflict.

So even when exposed to genuinely neutral information, people tend to believe the deck is stacked against them. But people aren't exposed to genuinely neutral information. In a country of 300 million people, every single day there is going to be an example of something hideously biased against every single group, and proponents of those groups have formed effective machines to publicize the most outrageous examples in order to “confirm” their claims of bravery. I had an interesting discussion on Rebecca Hamilton’s blog about the Stomp Jesus incident. You probably never heard of this, but in the conservative Christian community it was a huge deal; Google gives 20,500 results for the phrase “stomp Jesus” in quotation marks, including up-to-date coverage from a bunch of big conservative blogs, news outlets, and forums. I guarantee that the readers of those blogs and forums are constantly fed salient examples of conservatives being oppressed and persecuted. And I don’t mean “can’t put up ten commandments in school”, I mean armed gay rights activist breaks into Family Research Council headquarters and starts shooting people for opposing homosexuality. Imagine you hear a story in this genre almost every time you open your RSS feed.

(And now consider all the stories you hear every day about violence and harassment against your people in your RSS feed.)

And if there aren’t enough shooters, someone is saying something despicable on Twitter pretty much every minute. The genre of “we know the world is against us because of five cherry-picked quotes from Twitter” is alive, well, and shaping people’s perceptions. Here’s an atheist blog trawling Twitter for horrible comments blaming atheists for terrorism, and here’s an article on the tweets Brad Pitt’s mother got for writing an editorial supporting Romney (including such gems as “Brad Pitt’s mom wrote an anti-gay pro-Romney editorial. Kill the b—-.”)

Then we get into more subtle forms of selection bias. Looking at the articles above, I am totally willing to believe newspapers are more likely to blaspheme Jesus than Mohammed, and also that newspapers are more likely to call a Muslim criminal a “terrorist” than they would a Christian criminal. Depending on your side, you can focus on one or the other of those statements and use it to prove the broader statement that “the media is biased against Christians/Muslims in favor of Muslims/Christians”. Or you can focus on one part of society in particular being against you – for leftists, the corporations; for rightists, the universities – and if you exaggerate their power and use them as a proxy for society then you can say society is against you. Or as a last resort you can focus on only one side of the divide between social and structural power.

So it’s far from a mystery how bravery debates can be so common or persistent. Or why everyone is so sure they’re on the brave side. But the interesting thing is that they actually work.

I call your attention to two studies by Joseph Vandello et al. In the first, experimenters once again took the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but ran the experiment in the other direction. Here they presented maps that showed Palestine as the underdog (by displaying a map emphasizing a tiny Palestine surrounded by much larger Israel) or Israel as the underdog (by displaying a map emphasizing tiny Israel surrounded by a much larger Arab world including Palestine). In the “Palestinians as underdogs” condition, 55% of subjects said they supported Palestine. In the “Israelis as underdogs” condition, 75% said they supported Israel. And in the second, experimenters found subjects rated people who had been unfairly disadvantaged during a job interview as more attractive and more desirable romantic partners than people who had not been.

Baaaaasically if you get yourself perceived as the brave long-suffering underdog, people will support your cause and, as an added bonus, want to have sex with you.

And I dislike this, because bravery debates tend to be so fun and addictive that they drown out everything more substantive. Sometimes they can be acceptable stand-ins for actually having an opinion at all. I constantly get far-right blogs linking to my summary of Reactionary thought, and I hope I’m not being too unfair when I detect an occasional element of “Oh, so that’s what our positions are!”. There seem to be a whole lot of Reactionaries out there who are much less certain of what they believe than that they are very brave and nonconformist for believing it.

As I said before, I accept the criticism that I was too quick to start bravery debates at my old blog and am trying to cut down on them. I would also recommend that other people cut down on them. I think they probably fall into the large category of things that make people who already agree with you fist-pump and shout “Yeah! We are awesome rebels!” while alienating everyone who doesn’t hold your position.

But what if you are being really brave by holding a dangerous and unpopular position? Shouldn’t you get credit for that?

I guess. I propose that if you write something and, for even just a second, you think of not publishing it, because of the risk to your reputation, or your livelihood, or your family, or even your life – then go ahead and call yourself brave, and I will try to reassure you and tell you everything is going to be all right.

If you think “Not publish this? But then how would everyone know how brave I’m being? I’m going to plaster my name all over this thing so everyone knows exactly where to send the bravery-related kudos!” … then stick to the damn object-level issues.

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90 Responses to Against Bravery Debates

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very nice. I think it was Nydwracu who said something like you know you’re on to something when you can fix big glowing neon signs to concepts other people are grasping at blindly. I had noticed this phenomenon before, but was grasping blindly, so thanks for fixing a big neon sign to it.

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  2. Oligopsony says:

    I think you’ve hit on something important but may be conflating a few things. The idea of “I’m not allowed to say what I’m about to say” is distinct from “my ideas are not commonly held” and “my ideas aren’t getting currently implemented.” The former is, I think, the really annoying claim, and the only one that tries to claim bravery in any meaningful sense.

    So in this sense I wouldn’t want to conflate “political correctness” and, say, “big government.” “Big government” doesn’t come packaged with a claim that you can’t talk about big government, just the claim that the government is too big, while “political correctness” does contain the claim that you can’t talk about political correctness. In fact I don’t think I can think of any other examples that are quite like it in this respect (though I’m sure they exist.)

    Some of the mechanisms here may be entirely innocent, rather than subconscious outrage-seeking. If I am pro-Palestinian then propositions which are commonsensical and neutral to me are apt to be unfamiliar and anti-Israel to a pro-Israeli. And in the indexical way that most people use “bias,” everyone involved is basically right in claiming that the media is biased against their views – nobody, after all, claims that the media is biased against cancer, even though the media treats cancer as an overwhelmingly negative thing. Everyone pretty much agrees to hate on cancer, and accepts its badness more or less as a matter of fact. Other people accept big government’s badness as a matter of fact and see the media unsure of whether it’s good or not, and this sensibly describe the media as “biased,” that is, diverging from their own viewpoints. Alice and Bob can both claim the media is biased to the left and right (respectively) politically in precisely in the same sense that they can both say some object is to their left and right (respectively) physically, and neither needs to hold they are brave for pointing this out.

    I have an additional point which I think is analytically interesting, but I can’t really make it in a “neutral” way and I think these sorts of discussions are really only productive as long as they remain on a formal level.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I accept your distinction between “political correctness” and “big government” as important, but I don’t think your summary of this as being about what you can’t say is quite correct either.

      Take the example of the Christians talking about media bias against Christianity and universities denying rights to Christian students. They seem to be an archetypal example of this kind of discussion, yet at no point are they claiming that they the people-reporting-about this are committing any kind of transgressive act by talking about it.

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      • Oligopsony says:

        Hmm, well, this skirts into my non-neutral point, but hopefully I can keep it at a formal level:

        Suppose one were not a Christian, but made the claim that people somewhere were being oppressed for their Christianity. Does this strike you as a more noncentral example of the phenomenon than when the person is themselves Christian?

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      • Douglas Knight says:

        Right, the Christians say that the media is united against them; that they are underdogs. But they don’t say that they are transgressive. They don’t say that it’s brave to stand up to the media. So why do you choose the word “bravery” to characterize this?

        The example of being brave to say something that that might get you in trouble requires as a prerequisite that you are an underdog. Why do people like to claim to be underdogs? Is it also because it feels brave? I suppose that’s plausible, but I’ve never noticed anyone claiming that it’s brave just to be an underdog (maybe I haven’t read enough reddit). The post doesn’t seem to address this. It just asserts that it is about bravery. If I had to interpolate an argument, it would be that transgressive version is the extreme and we can deduce aspects about the basic form from it. I don’t find that convincing.

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    • Brian Delwiche says:

      I interpret “bravery” in this context as encoding not so much “I’m not allowed to say what I’m about to say” as “the deck is stacked against me”; “big government” doesn’t come with a taboo attached, but it does say pretty effectively that you view yourself as an underdog.

      It’s interesting that that’s an effective strategic move, though. The naive evopsych model seems to point in the opposite direction: if you’re facing an unstoppable coalition, the fitness-maximizing move is to bend rather than be broken. Yet it seems like every movement out there is eager to cast itself as facing such a coalition, and the more unstoppable the better.

      I wonder if this is strictly a culture-bound thing? Western society does seem to glorify iconoclasm to a historically unusual degree, and offhand I don’t remember many instances of this pattern elsewhere.

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    • peterdjones says:

      Surely Alice and Bob would describethe situation more accurately as “I diverge from the mainstream” rather than “they are biased”. Seeing bias everywhere seems to be an effect of a typical mind fallacy.

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  3. suntzuanime says:

    … can you reassure me and tell me everything is going to be alright even if I don’t publish stuff? Please?

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  4. Sarah says:

    I actually like bravery debates.
    Actual work on improving the world is dismal stuff that constantly reminds me how little I can do. When I want to talk politics, it’s strictly for Hulk Smash.

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  5. im says:

    My view on it is that the world is nowhere near as clean-cut as anybody thinks, and there are lots of extremely powerful, extremely biased entities that exercise power in an incredibly inconsistent, inefficient manner, with casualties everywhere. To the individual on the ground, it doesn’t matter what side you are on, there’s a high chance that if you say anything at all outre, you’ll get hit.

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  6. Thomas Eliot says:

    Speaking of your reactionary post, did you do a follow up takedown of reactionary politics that I missed? I remember you saying you would, but the closest I can remember is the Windows 8 metaphor post, which was much less convincing than the original pro-reactionary post.

    I’m also curious to see some of the right wing blogs you mentioned linking to you, especially the ones that seemed to be saying “oh, so this is what we believe.”

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  7. Pingback: The Imperial Iconoclast | Dread Lord von Kalifornen

  8. Pingback: On the Universality of Feeling Persecuted | Dread Lord von Kalifornen

  9. Kaj Sotala says:

    People who turn everything into bravery debates oppress us who would like to debate the substantive issues!

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  10. Konkvistador says:

    This article is functually about reactionaries. I expect a “har har this proves Scotts point” reply to my comment. A cheap shot. I have been threathened over my political views and they are literally technically illegal in my country. I think I’ll go on believeing anti-democratic thought isn’t an advantageous position.

    On the other hand hard right views do give you a bad boy vibe, I’m pretty sure they netted me several lefty major chicks. They where outraged during most of the seduction process.

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    • Multiheaded says:

      You used to be classier than this. Just saying.

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    • ozymandias42 says:

      That’s odd, I read this article as being fundamentally about social justice people.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I anticipated people from various sides would believe it was against the other side; instead you and Ozy both believe it’s against your side. I notice I am surprised.

      If you want my honest opinion, I think the Right does it more often, but the Left manages to annoy me with it much more.

      I totally believe you risk getting in trouble for your positions, but I also think making that the focus of your case is annoying, misses the point, and doesn’t apply to most of your readers.

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      • ag says:

        I am surprised that you are surprised. Isn’t this exactly the hostile media effect that you’ve talked about?

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      • cool rich guy says:

        “If you want my honest opinion, I think the Right does it more often, but the Left manages to annoy me with it much more.”

        I think the right genuinely is the underdog by a little bit. So it makes sense that they would point this out more. It also makes sense that the left would annoy you more, because their claims of being the underdog run counter to reality.

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      • nydwracu says:

        You can tell who’s not in power by who’s arguing for freedom of speech. Given that, freedom of speech arguments are boring — and bravery debates are close to freedom of speech arguments. “I can’t say X; my freedom of speech is being infringed!”

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        • MugaSofer says:

          “You can tell who’s not in power by who’s arguing for freedom of speech.”

          I had gotten the impression that both sides in every debate CLAIM to be arguing for freedom of speech. And, indeed, they are – freedom to say what they want to say, anyway. Not so much freedom to disagree with them.

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      • This is something I’ve notice as well. General criticisms get taken to be against the other guy when people are confident you’re on their side, and are taken against you in all other cases.

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    • Michael Vassar says:

      I’m surprised to hear about your views helping you with women. My impression is that most women find hard-right views intensely unattractive.

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      • Multiheaded says:

        I’ve like never been in a straight relationship (some female friends + non-serious flirting), but even I can recognize that people in general are attracted to things that stand out in a crowd, are mildly thrilling/pattern-breaking but not in a “can’t do any better” or “dangerous nutjob”-signaling way. Basically, a display that one is able but boldly refusing to fit in, not simply incapable of meeting the “baseline”.

        Plus, if you take away the disgusting PUA language, even they confirm that women tend to be attracted to an assertive, rebellious-but-not-in-a-persecuted way personality. (ALSO LIKED BY MEN IN A NON-SEXUAL WAY) Shouldn’t have much to do with any *object-level* views and ideas, just with their *relation* to the status quo; “radical and untamed” vs “maladjusted resentful failure”.

        However, this is perfectly consistent both with the content of right-wing views being repulsive in a non-sexual way to average people, and with them being predictive of personality traits commonly found less-than-romantic.

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      • Oligopsony says:

        What Multiheaded said, and also seeking out sexual partners is something where you’re looking for highly positive responses, so increasing the variance is as good as increasing the mean.

        (FWIW, as a data point I’ve found myself attracted to women whom I otherwise wouldn’t just because they expressed views that offended me without shame.)

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      • Kaj Sotala says:

        Hard-right views seems like a high variance strategy.

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      • Konkvistador says:

        I think it might be the handicap principle at work.

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    • Konkvistador,

      I didn’t interpret this article as being particularly about Reaction, and Scott’s point about status-effects amongst “iconoclastic” rightists is both true and funny. I have also been informed that amongst libertarian groups in the UK, “I’m more libertarian than you” becomes a happy death spiral.

      I have never been threatened for my political views, but I say many of the same things to all and sundry in meatspace, should it seem appropriate. I would however watch my tongue in a corporate environment.

      I find that red flags are provoked in an inconsistent way. Should one come to high school wearing a Nazi armband one would meet with serious trouble. Yet if in civics class one were to claim:

      *The executive branch is too weak, and needs to be given legislative power in order for it to implement important social policies

      *The bourgeoisie are too politically conservative, and to be supplanted by activism across a broad swathe of the public

      *Youngsters need to be made aware of political and health issues through national camps and activities

      *Cloistered groups who conspire and are prejudiced against the rest of society ought to be sensitized, identified and shamed

      One might even be applauded.

      I can imagine Reactionary beliefs meeting with outrage if phrased in a deliberately provocative way. Other claims that reduce in exactly the same way seem inoffensive.

      Amongst public intellectuals, on the other hand, as we have seen recently it is very brave to take a Reactionary, or even paleoconservative stance.

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      • Michael Vassar says:

        Great points. People… Ugh.

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      • Konkvistador says:

        I move in academ-ish and bohemian-ish social circles, people there are very sensitive sometimes in my experience. You don’t need to go far right to be treated as if you are a fascist. I have received threats from antifa acquaintances.

        Overall I do agree what Scott is describing is a real phenomena.

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        • Douglas Knight says:

          Antifa is the perfect illustration of James’s comment, of how people don’t care about the content of political statements, only the branding.

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        • Mary says:

          There are times when Huey Long was clearly prescient.

          He was the guy who predicted that yes, Fascism could come to America — but it would come calling itself anti-Fascism.

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    • MugaSofer says:

      “This article is functually about reactionaries. I expect a “har har this proves Scotts point” reply to my comment.”

      Well … yeah. It does.

      I’ve mentioned to liberal friends that conservatives see themselves as oppressed and the establishment as liberal, and been met with a genuine “you’re joking”.

      Both sides view the other as in control. Whether one of them is correct is, in fact, beside the point. This article is about the phenomenon that causes them to somehow both agree that they’re the underdog.

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    • siodine says:

      Wow, how closely does your life mirror Ignatius J. Reilly’s?

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  11. bloop1989 says:

    “The point is that, empirically, starting a bravery debate is the quickest way to make sure that a conversation becomes horrible and infuriating. I’m generalizing from my own experience here….”

    I’m a little confused by this bit. If you are basing your interest in the topic upon your own experience with frustrating and horrible bravery debates, that is understandable. But to claim that your judgement is empirical does not make sense. Perhaps you meant to say something else?

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m using “empirically” to mean “based on experience rather than theory”, not “based on (controlled) experiment”. Is that wrong?

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  12. Michael Vassar says:

    A few points,
    a) you can remain productive after mentioning political correctness if and only if you are explicitly advocating political correctness, e.g. if you are explicitly endorsing esoteric and exoteric schools of discourse.
    b) everyone is NOT fighting a hard battle. Most people are, in fact, not fighting hard battles. I remember growing up, with my mother claiming that life was hard all the time, and thinking NO!, it’s NOT! You are a doctor with two incredibly obedient and independent kids and exclusively first world problems. You had ONE real problem, a schizophrenic husband, and you simply dropped it rather than fighting to help him, and then wasted years of effort gratuitously harming him. You get and deserve NO sympathy for life being hard. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate how common such situations are among people who think they are fighting or have fought hard battles.
    c) the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t complaining about persecution by heretics, but contemporary witch trials certainly complained about persecution by witches.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve got to disagree with you on point 2.

      My life is objectively really really good, with way more advantages than most people, and it wasn’t until this year when I kind of stopped panicking about it and stopped being mostly stressed and miserable. And I still have days when I feel I’m right at the limit of what I’m capable of tolerating (a feeling which is almost certainly false, but strong nevertheless)

      The claim “everyone is fighting a hard battle” is not the claim that everyone’s life has challenges that objectively seem difficult, but that everyone’s challenges seem difficult to them, sometimes unbearably difficult. Or that people’s battles are hard relative to the specs their coping mechanisms were designed for, which is probably true of everyone in modern life.

      This seems to me not only to correspond to the way people describe their lives, but to be a good fit for happiness set point theory. No matter how hard people’s problems actually are, their concept of “hard problem” scales to fit it, such that they may experience as much or almost as much stress and fear and feeling of effort as people with actual hard problems.

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      • Mary says:

        Well, one hard truth is that everyone is, in fact, outnumbered and surrounded by vastly superior forces that have their own individual agendas and are indifferent to his survival, no matter how many friends and allies are willing to help him. (7 billion people on earth, most of whom never will know you.) The powerful always face the risk of being nibbled to death by ducks.

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      • ozymandias42 says:

        Also you often don’t know if someone is fighting a hard battle (even if it is an Objectively Hard Battle) unless you know them quite well. Many people don’t share “I just got diagnosed with cancer and my daughter’s not doing well in school and I think I might end up divorcing my husband” with everyone, you know?

        So it often makes sense to err on the side of being compassionate, particularly if the costs of being uncompassionate to someone in pain are larger than the costs of being compassionate to someone who doesn’t need it.

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    • My (perhaps excessively charitable) reading of “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” is that it’s a way of discouraging people from starting out by defecting and from taking excessive revenge.

      I think it’s also the principle that anti-racists get into trouble by neglecting– they tend towards the assumption that some pain is so important that any pain caused by trying to alleviate it should just be ignored.

      However, if you’d like an equal and opposite proverb, try “Being kind to the cruel is being cruel to the kind.”

      The Prisoner’s Dilemma suggests that they’re both right, and when to apply which one is ill-defined.

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  13. Nomophilos says:

    When someone claims to be an underdog, yes, it’s likely to be wrong (especially in the many cases where *both* sides claim to be the unerdog), but in addition, it’s usually *irrelevant*. If anything, the fact that many people hate your opinions should be (pretty weak) evidence that you’re full of it.

    I’m usually quite willing for argument’s sake to concede that “ok, maybe you’re persecuted, but can we get back to the object level discussion now?”.

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    • peterdjones says:

      The only relevance a claim of underdoghood could have at the object level is as an excuse for not being able to provide facts to support one’s case.

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  14. Deiseach says:

    I’m more liable to do the cowardice debate, where I “think of not publishing it”, NOT “because of the risk to your reputation, or your livelihood, or your family, or even your life”, but because I know this will possibly start a row or somebody will want to argue or just plain start yelling, and I’m not in the mood/too tired/had a bad day and just want to relax right now/don’t think it’s worth rocking the boat for this particular subject.

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    • orthonormal says:

      Of course, there’s a selection bias where most of the posts one sees about controversial topics are written by people who enjoy rocking the boat, not by people for whom it takes an effort.

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  15. MugaSofer says:

    In a country of 300 million people, every single day there is going to be an example of something hideously biased against every single group, and proponents of those groups have formed effective machines to publicize the most outrageous examples in order to “confirm” their claims of bravery. I had an interesting discussion on Rebecca Hamilton’s blog about the Stomp Jesus incident. You probably never heard of this, but in the conservative Christian community it was a huge deal; Google gives 20,500 results for the phrase “stomp Jesus” in quotation marks, including up-to-date coverage from a bunch of big conservative blogs, news outlets, and forums. I guarantee that the readers of those blogs and forums are constantly fed salient examples of conservatives being oppressed and persecuted. And I don’t mean “can’t put up ten commandments in school”, I mean armed gay rights activist breaks into Family Research Council headquarters and starts shooting people for opposing homosexuality. Imagine you hear a story in this genre almost every time you open your RSS feed.

    (And now consider all the stories you hear every day about violence and harassment against your people in your RSS feed.)

    And if there aren’t enough shooters, someone is saying something despicable on Twitter pretty much every minute. The genre of “we know the world is against us because of five cherry-picked quotes from Twitter” is alive, well, and shaping people’s perceptions. Here’s an atheist blog trawling Twitter for horrible comments blaming atheists for terrorism, and here’s an article on the tweets Brad Pitt’s mother got for writing an editorial supporting Romney (including such gems as “Brad Pitt’s mom wrote an anti-gay pro-Romney editorial. Kill the b—-.”)

    I was already aware of the Hostile Media Effect and how it applied to both conservatives and liberals, although not by name. This, however, hadn’t occurred to me.

    You know, this finally explains the disconnect I keep getting when people who are active in the LGBT movement make casual refeence to how society thinks transexuals are scum and wants them to just die.

    And feminist references to how everyone is completely OK with rape, which inevitably garners commenters complaining that they’ve never encountered these supposed rape-friendly people.

    And … I was going to say it explains fundamentalists talking about how Christians are the most persecuted group on earth, somehow, but HOLY **** HOW DID I NOT HEAR ABOUT THOSE STORIES.

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    • Randy M says:

      You didn’t hear about that shooting? Are you an American?

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      • Sniffnoy says:

        I’m an American, I didn’t hear about it. Or maybe I did; it sounds vaguely familiar. Didn’t really stick in my mind though.

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      • Sniffnoy says:

        (Oops, this should have been part of the original comment.) I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear very much about it, if I did hear about it.

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      • MugaSofer says:

        Ah … no, I’m not, I live in Ireland. Still, we get a lot of exposure to American media, and we tend to hear about prominent shootings.

        At least I … think we do. Maybe it’s possible there are lots of shooting we don’t hear about? I spend a lot of time on American websites, too, so you’d think I would see confusing references to these phantom shootings.

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  16. Misha says:

    Way to be part of the brave minority pointing out that everyone thinks THEY’RE part of the brave minority!

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  17. orthonormal says:

    > Or you can focus on one part of society in particular being against you – for leftists, the corporations; for rightists, the universities – and if you exaggerate their power and use them as a proxy for society then you can say society is against you.

    I think I’m going to start using the phrase “persecution by synecdoche”.

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  18. Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

    More awesome writing. Of which I will remark that nothing I’ve done, nothing I’ve said, and nothing I am, has ever made me a persecuted underdog. And if my degree of ideological daring isn’t enough for that…

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    • Doug S. says:

      You were lucky enough to have parents that were willing to homeschool you. When I wanted to stop going to school, my parents responded with physical force.

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      • MugaSofer says:

        Children seem to be something of an exception to this – they’re pretty much always the underdog, and we acknowledge this and indeed use it against them (after all, they need adults to protect them.)

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    • Sarah says:

      Of course you’re a persecuted underdog, in the sense people usually mean the word.

      People say bad things about you all the time! They say bad things about you *in the press*, no less! My own sister has, unprompted and a propos of nothing, ranted to me about how much she hates Eliezer Yudkowsky!

      If “I’m a persecuted underdog” means “people are going to give me a hard time for saying this, aren’t they? And not many people are going to agree, are they?” then you’re a ridiculously persecuted underdog.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Wow, you’re right. I hadn’t noticed that. That’s inhuman.

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      • Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

        I have never been the target of a lawsuit or of police repression. I am not aware of any cases in which authorities, legal or otherwise, have colluded to suppress myself or my writings. There’s lots of people who hate me, and some Internet trolls who follow me around saying nasty things, but that’s not the same as being persecuted the way that whistleblowers are persecuted. I’ve never been fired from my job on account of my beliefs (quite the opposite).

        I’m not saying that nothing which has happened to me has made me claim bravery, I’m saying that nothing which has happened to me so far has required bravery. You do not get to claim bravery on First World Problems, and somebody disagreeing with you on the Internet, or society failing to fall all over itself to unanimously agree with you, is a First World Problem.

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        • Joe from London says:

          I have more sympathy for your views than for the extreme sort of feminism. That said, I think it would require X* to be willing to stand up and broadcast militant feminism in certain careers, more so than it does for you to post on Less Wrong. It garners you support from most LWers, whereas militant feminists would experience genuine problems in a lot of industries. (I will refrain from comment on how deserved those problems would be)

          To put it another way, James Watson had X for saying what he did about blacks, while neo-Nazis who rant about how to kill more Jews and blacks will not require the same quality.

          (X: I don’t like the word ‘bravery’, because it’s used in a lot of different senses and seems to have different meanings, ranging from selflessness to the ability to face your irrational fears. In this context I refer to the willingness to push your beliefs despite the fact that it will cause you to suffer career setbacks. I label this X rather than ‘bravery’.)

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  19. Adam Augusta says:

    I think this article is looking at these behaviors incorrectly.

    While everyone wants the empirical facts to justify their position, that’s an aside. The behavior being described here relates to an ontological war.

    There are two kinds of “I’m being persecuted” behavior in this space. One expresses the importance of adopting the speaker’s ontology to obviate bad outcomes. “If everyone thought of money as property and taxation as theft, these bad outcomes would never have happened.” Another expresses the outcomes of an enemy ontology. “If people didn’t believe gun ownership was a fundamental right, these kids would be alive.” “If these people didn’t have a this unsubstantiated worldview, they wouldn’t be making these idiotic comments about atheism and terrorism.”

    The truth is, though, that everybody in the ontology wars *is* actually an underdog.

    In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict review, there are six classes of relevant statements.
    1) Validation of Israel within a Palestinian ontology.
    2) Validation of Palestine within a Palestinian ontology.
    3) Validation of Israel within an Israeli ontology.
    4) Validation of Palestine within an Israeli ontology.
    5) Non-validation statements made within an Israeli ontology.
    6) Non-validation statements made within a Palestinian ontology.

    From an Israeli’s perspective, #1 is positive, and #2, 3, 4, 6 are negative.
    From a Palestinian’s perspective, #2 is positive, and #1, 3, 4, and 5 are negative.

    And that’s not irrational.

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  20. Adam Augusta says:

    *From an Israeli’s perspective, #3 is positive, and #1, 2, 4, 6 are negative.

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  21. I’ve written stuff and not posted it because I’m tired of the issue, or it’s redundant to what I wrote about the same issue four years ago, or I just don’t want to deal with the inevitable flame war. A couple of posts about terrorism and/or violence in politics got spiked because I didn’t want anyone using them as a to do list.

    Never been afraid of posting anything because of threats to me. I did wind up creating the linked blog as a spin-off from my original all-stuff one because people I was arguing with started taking their frustrations out on my wife. Now that her friends aren’t reading my political posts her life is easier.

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  22. I generally don’t claim to be an underdog, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. There’s a level where I think it’s very undignified, but that’s pretty abstract. I think part of it is a belief that if you show you’re frightened, you’ll be treated worse. Part of it is a belief that it’s better to let people have their own reactions rather than priming them with a claim that they’ll behave badly. It’s amazing how common that sort of priming is– one might almost think people are habitually irrational.

    On the other hand, if I’m too frightened to speak (I’m talking about expecting that the conversation will be emotionally difficult for me, not physical or financial threats), I don’t speak. And sometimes I resent the hell out of people who’ve scared me that much.

    Oh, what the hell, courage might be worth something…. the people who get me that way are mostly the social justice/anti-racist types. If it’s a hard-core sexist or whatever, then I can just feel as though they’re too much trouble to be worth arguing with. Anti-racists make some moral claims that I find plausible, but I don’t want to deal with people who have complex arguments that I’m morally obligated to ignore that they’re hurting me.

    At this point, I’m wondering whether claims to be an underdog somehow enables some people to speak up at all. I don’t have a theory about whether two-sided underdog debates are especially toxic. Since I don’t hang out where they happen (I’m not crazy about reddit), I don’t even know whether I’d think they’re especially toxic, or if they just especially drive Scott crazy.

    There may be some relation to something I’ve noticed as the worst social strategy ever– what I call the snapping underdog. This is a person who goes into a group, claims to be an underdog, and then proceeds to try to punish the group for not respecting them. This doesn’t start well, doesn’t proceed well, and doesn’t end well.

    Arguments about status tend to go badly, possibly because people generally don’t feel they have enough status, certainly don’t want to lose status, and can come up with vaguely plausible arguments for why the other side has completely misconstrued what’s going on.

    Thanks for the link to the 1982 study about pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian viewers seeing the same news clip as slanted toward the other side. As nearly as I can tell, a lot of partisans on the issue are absolutely committed to the belief that the other side has no normal human motives.

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    • MugaSofer says:

      “As nearly as I can tell, a lot of partisans on the issue are absolutely committed to the belief that the other side has no normal human motives.”

      Yeah, this seems pretty standard in human politics.

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  23. Adam Augusta says:

    “As nearly as I can tell, a lot of partisans on the issue are absolutely committed to the belief that the other side has no normal human motives.”
    Or that the other side views the world through a mental framework that utterly invalidates their feelings and concepts. Which is often true.

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  24. JPo says:

    Another failure mode I see in bravery debaters is that they seem to disregard that who has privilege/the upper hand (I use them fairly interchangeably) is highly context-dependent. Feminists having the upper hand on feminist blogs, for instance, doesn’t actually imply that feminism is societally privileged in general. Likewise, males having the upper hand in, say, American politics does not imply that a male commenter on a feminist blog has much wherewithal to exert said privilege in that particular setting.

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  25. Mary says:

    I wonder why this made me think of this?

    Any man living in complete luxury and security who chooses to write a play or a novel which causes a flutter and exchange of compliments in Chelsea and Chiswick and a faint thrill in Streatham and Surbiton, is described as “daring,” though nobody on earth knows what danger it is that he dares. I speak, of course, of terrestrial dangers; or the only sort of dangers he believes in. To be extravagantly flattered by everybody he considers enlightened, and rather feebly rebuked by everybody he considers dated and dead, does not seem so appalling a peril that a man should be stared at as a heroic warrior and militant martyr because he has had the strength to endure it.

    G. K. Chesterton

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  26. Douglas Knight says:

    The expression “speaking truth to power” is, at least today, an example of bragging about bravery. I am surprised to learn that it has been rapidly increasing for 20 years. The measure is books, so this is not about social justice tumblr.

    Perhaps this expression lets us trace the history of this idea. Or perhaps not, since the meaning has changed over time. The example that seems to have established it seems to be the Quakers in 1955. Their statement is a single Truth, namely pacifism. While their statement is addressed to the powerful, it is also about the abstraction of Power.

    In 1985, Elie Wiesel received a medal from Reagan and said that, while he had his attention, he had the obligation to advise him, specifically not to go to the Bitburg cemetery. This is closer to the modern use, in that there is some cost to publicly advising, particularly he was not advising on a clean slate, but attacking an existing choice. But he was not the child in the crowd pointing out the emperor’s new clothes, but someone that the powerful had chosen and honored. This probably triggered the rapid growth of usage, after a couple of decades of plateau.

    Fairly widely quoted before the war is the ending of the Hammonds’ 1923 biography of Shaftesbury: “This was his service to England: not the service of a statesman with wide plan and commanding will, but the service of a prophet speaking truth to power in its selfishness and sloth.” In the 19th century, Benjamin Haydon may have said that he regretted having speaking truth to power, but he always used the word “tell,” not “speak.”

    The Quakers say that they’ve been using the phrasing since the 18th century, but I was unable to confirm that. I did find an 18th century usage, in the 1748 pamphlet “A free Briton’s advice to the free citizens of Dublin (Number II),” by “Helvidius Priscus,” believed by some to be a very young Burke. “Strange it is that men should be found abject enough to tremble at the very thought of speaking truth to power! Even to unauthorized power!”

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  27. BenSix says:

    My favourite example of this phenomenon is the Internet commenter who will end his tirade on this or that left or right wing blog by saying something along the lines of, “I BET YOU WON’T PUBLISH THIS”. Once it has been published, of course, it looks rather embarrassing.

    And I dislike this, because bravery debates tend to be so fun and addictive that they drown out everything more substantive.

    Indeed. It also seems to me we are inclined towards presuming that if an idea is being repressed it must have merit, and, thus, that if we can express a “brave” opinion it will be a valuable one. This seems nonsensical. Few people have risked more in expressing their ideas than Nazi sympathisers in Europe, radical Islamists under Mubarak or members of the teapot-worshipping Sky Kingdom sect in Malaysia. People can be brave and right but they can also be brave and blithering eejits as well.

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  29. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/weekinreview/25bronner.html?ref=world&_r=0

    An overview of how the differing points of view about Israel and Palestine lead to people completely talking past each other.

    Even my choice of “Palestine” rather than “Palestinians” is politicized– I’ve been told that Palestine is not a nation.

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  30. Taj says:

    A late quibble: I found the start of this post a little disorienting because the two notional Reddit quotes are both unmistakably sarcastic. It took me some time to establish that the main thrust of the piece was against the good-faith claim that one’s position is “brave”, not the mockery of that claim.

    I’m just pointing this out because otherwise this post is a really excellent reference point for what seems like an important phenomenon.

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