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.
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.