All Debates Are Bravery Debates

“I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to.”
— J. R. “Bob” Dobbs


I read Atlas Shrugged probably about a decade ago, and felt turned off by its promotion of selfishness as a moral ideal. I thought that was basically just being a jerk. After all, if there’s one thing the world doesn’t need (I thought) it’s more selfishness.

Then I talked to a friend who told me Atlas Shrugged had changed his life. That he’d been raised in a really strict family that had told him that ever enjoying himself was selfish and made him a bad person, that he had to be working at every moment to make his family and other people happy or else let them shame him to pieces. And the revelation that it was sometimes okay to consider your own happiness gave him the strength to stand up to them and turn his life around, while still keeping the basic human instinct of helping others when he wanted to and he felt they deserved it (as, indeed, do Rand characters).


The religious and the irreligious alike enjoy making fun of Reddit’s r/atheism, which combines an extreme strawmanning of religious positions with childish insults and distasteful triumphalism. Recently the moderators themselves have become a bit embarrassed by it and instituted some rules intended to tone things down, leading to some of the most impressive Internet drama I have ever seen. In its midst, some people started talking about what the old strawmanning triumphalist r/atheism meant to them (see for example here).

A lot of them were raised in religious families where they would have been disowned if they had admitted to their atheism. Some of them were disowned for admitting to atheism, or lost boyfriends/girlfriends, or were terrified they might go to Hell. And then they found r/atheism, and saw people making fun of religion, and insulting it, in really REALLY offensive ways. And no one was striking them down with lightning. No one was shouting them down. No one was doing much of anything at all. And to see this taboo violated in the most shocking possible way with no repercussions sort of broke the spell for them, like as long as people were behaving respectfully to religion, even respectfully disagreeing, it still had this aura of invincibility about it, but if some perfectly normal person can post a a stupid comic where Jesus has gay sex with Mohammed, then there’s this whole other world out there where religion holds no power.

Gilbert tells the story of how when, as a young Christian struggling with doubt, he would read r/atheism to remind himself that atheists could be pretty awful. r/atheism is doing a bad job at being the sort of people who can convert Gilbert, and the new mods’ policy of “you should have more civil and intellectual discussions” might work better on him. I think it would work better on me too.

But there is – previously unappreciated by me – a large population of people for whom really dumb offensive strawmannish memes are exactly what they need.


A friend described his experiences in the Landmark Forum’s self-improvement workshop. He said their modus operandi was to get people to take responsibility for the outcome of their actions. His example was an office worker who always did substandard work, and was always making excuses like “My boss doesn’t s support me” or “My computer system isn’t good enough” or “My coworkers aren’t pulling their fair share.” Landmark says those kinds of excuses are what’s keeping you back. And they taught (again, according to this one person) that the solution was to treat everything that happens in your life as your responsibility – no excuses, just “it was my fault” or “it’s to my credit”.

Then a few days later, I was reading a book on therapy which contained the phrase (I copied it down to make sure I got it right) “Don’t be so hard on yourself. No one else is as hard on yourself as you are. You are your own worst critic.”

Notice that this encodes the exact opposite assumption. Landmark claims its members are biased against ever thinking ill of themselves, even when they deserve it. The therapy book claims that patients are biased towards always thinking ill of themselves, even when they don’t deserve it.

And you know, both claims are probably spot on. There are definitely people who are too hard on themselves. Ozy Frantz has done an amazing job of getting me and many other people inclined towards skepticism about feminist and transgender issues, engaging with us, and gradually convincing us to be more respectful and aware through sheer kindness and willingness to engage people reasonably on every part of the political spectrum. Two days ago some people on Twitter – who were angry Ozy said one need not boycott everything Orson Scott Card has ever written just because he’s against gay marriage – told Ozy they weren’t a real transgender person and suggested lots of people secretly disliked them. And instead of doing what I would do and telling the trolls to go to hell, Ozy freaked out and worried they was doing everything wrong and decided to delete everything they had ever written online. I know Ozy is their own worst critic and if that therapy book was aimed at people like them, it was entirely correct to say what it said.

On the other hand, I look at people like Amy’s Baking Company, who are obviously terrible people, who get a high-status professional chef as well as thousands of random joes informing them of exactly what they are doing wrong, who are so clearly in the wrong that it seems impossible not to realize it – and who then go on to attribute the negativity to a “conspiracy” against them and deny any wrongdoing. They could probably use some Landmark.


In a recent essay I complained about bravery debates, arguments where people boast about how brave they are to take an unorthodox and persecuted position, and their opponents counter that they’re not persecuted heretics, they’re a vast leviathan persecuting everyone else. But I think I underestimated an important reason why some debates have to be bravery debates.

Suppose there are two sides to an issue. Be more or less selfish. Post more or less offensive atheist memes. Be more or less willing to blame and criticize yourself.

There are some people who need to hear each side of the issue. Some people really need to hear the advice “It’s okay to be selfish sometimes!” Other people really need to hear the advice “You are being way too selfish and it’s not okay.”

It’s really hard to target advice at exactly the people who need it. You can’t go around giving everyone surveys to see how selfish they are, and give half of them Atlas Shrugged and half of them the collected works of Peter Singer. You can’t even write really complicated books on how to tell whether you need more or less selfishness in your life – they’re not going to be as buyable, as readable, or as memorable as Atlas Shrugged. To a first approximation, all you can do is saturate society with pro-selfishness or anti-selfishness messages, and realize you’ll be hurting a select few people while helping the majority.

But in this case, it makes a really big deal what the majority actually is.

Suppose an Objectivist argues “Our culture has become too self-sacrificing! Everyone is told their entire life that the only purpose of living is to work for other people. As a result, people are miserable and no one is allowed to enjoy themselves at all.” If they’re right, then helping spread Objectivism is probably a good idea – it will help these legions of poor insufficiently-selfish people, but there will be very few too-selfish-already people who will be screwed up by the advice.

But suppose Peter Singer argues “We live in a culture of selfishness! Everyone is always told to look out for number one, and the poor are completely neglected!” Well, then we want to give everyone the collected works of Peter Singer so we can solve this problem, and we don’t have to worry about accidentally traumatizing the poor self-sacrificing people more, because we’ve already agreed there aren’t very many of these at all.

It’s much easier to be charitable in political debates when you view the two participants as coming from two different cultures that err on opposite sides, each trying to propose advice that would help their own culture, each being tragically unaware that the other culture exists.

A lot of the time this happens when one person is from a dysfunctional community and suggesting very strong measures against some problem the community faces, and the other person is from a functional community and thinks the first person is being extreme, fanatical or persecutory.

This happens a lot among, once again, atheists. One guy is like “WE NEED TO DESTROY RELIGION IT CORRUPTS EVERYTHING IT TOUCHES ANYONE WHO MAKES ANY COMPROMISES WITH IT IS A TRAITOR KILL KILL KILL.” And the other guy is like “Hello? Religion may not be literally true, but it usually just makes people feel more comfortable and inspires them to do nice things and we don’t want to look like huge jerks here.” Usually the first guy was raised Jehovah’s Witness and the second guy was raised Moralistic Therapeutic Deist.

But I’ve also sometimes had this issue when I talk to feminists. They’re like “Guys need to be more concerned about women’s boundaries, and women need to be willing to shame and embarrass guys who hit on them inappropriately.” And maybe they spent high school hanging out with bros on the football team who thought asking women’s consent was a boring technicality, and I spent high school hanging out entirely with extremely considerate but very shy geeks who spent their teenage years in a state of nightmarish loneliness and depression because they were too scared to ask out women because the woman might try to shame and embarrass them for it.

And the big one is trust. There are so many people from extremely functional communities saying that people need to be more trusting and kind and take people at their word more often, and so many people from dysfunctional communities saying that’s not how it works. Both are no doubt backed by ample advice from their own lives.

A blog like this one probably should promote the opinions and advice most likely to be underrepresented in the blog-reading populace (which is totally different from the populace at large). But this might convince “thought leaders”, who then use it to inspire change in the populace at large, which will probably be in the wrong direction. I think most of my friends are too leftist but society as a whole is too rightist – should I spread leftist or rightist memes among my friends?

I feel pretty okay about both being sort of a libertarian and writing an essay arguing against libertarianism, because the world generally isn’t libertarian enough but the sorts of people who read long online political essays generally are way more libertarian than can possibly be healthy.

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168 Responses to All Debates Are Bravery Debates

  1. Teldari says:

    A) As ever, context is (almost) everything. Since the internet, for all its positive qualities, is spectacularly bad at maintaining and conveying context (when it’s not being outright antagonistic to it), things tend to end up as you’ve described.
    B) The link on ‘too scared’ is broken.

  2. Watercressed says:

    Excellent essay. There isn’t enough going meta in the blog-reading populace.

  3. John says:

    This makes me think of a computer science maxim, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.” Basically, figure out what’s taking the most time in your program, and start your optimization there, or it can kind of be stated “Optimize the common case.” Don’t worry about trying to fix the 5% of broken people, when you could take the same effort and fix 95% of broken people.

  4. Alyssa Vance says:

    Very much agreed. However, with reference to Peter Singer, I expect the natural result of increasing society’s level of “help the poor!” to be lots of work that supposedly helps the poor but is actually counterproductive. For example, “low income housing” projects are a terrible terrible terrible idea for everyone involved. So is giving money to beggars, welfare programs with >100% effective marginal tax rates, giving churches more money, sending Harvard students to Africa in expensive jets to out-compete local labor by digging wells for free… these aren’t edge cases, they’re what *first comes to mind* for average people who are told to help the poor more.

    • endoself says:

      > sending Harvard students to Africa in expensive jets to out-compete local labor by digging wells for free

      Is this actually counterproductive? Obviously it’s wastefully inefficient, but naively reversing this would suggest that it would be beneficial to fill in wells so that they could be redug (assuming they could be filled in for free).

      A more careful analysis would take into account that the economy may be organized to produce exactly the needed number of wells and that friction in reallocation may cause waste, but it’s still far from obvious that digging wells for free actually harms poor countries.

      • von Kalifornen says:

        THat’s not the point. The point is that it does no-one any good to send the cream of the young European aristocracy to do manual labor which they are untrained for and which is readily available in the rustic lands they are sent to, when the aristocrats would better exercise both the talents they are trained for and do more good in the world by administering the improvement of infrastructure.

        It’s also worth noting that should-be leaders who do these ridiculous tours of duty, with a strange fetishism for dirtying their ivory hands, frequently use incredibly colonialist language despite being the very paragons of anti-imperialist bourgeoisie bohemianism.

        As to actual counterproductivity, inculcating this attitude must surely funge against realistic attitudes toward improvement and development — not as aid, but as propaganda.

        • Deiseach says:

          My cynical interpretation of these kinds of junkets is that they’re meant primarily to get the scions of the aristoi into the premium colleges; put it on your application that you’ve done service work abroad along with your high grades, cultural pursuits, and other awards you garnered in secondary education for the winnowing out procedure.

        • Lucidian says:

          Sending rich white people to do manual labor in poor countries could easily have the following good effects: those rich white people gain a better understanding of the developing world’s situation, and their empathy for poor third-world people increases through firsthand experience. I am concerned about sending rich white kids off to make policy and improve infrastructure if they have no firsthand experience of that which they’re trying to improve. Seems that they’d fall very easily into traps of armchair theorizing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if infrastructure-improvers with no first-hand knowledge came up with solutions that were roughly equivalent to “let them eat cake”.

      • Malcolm says:

        So I’m not quite a Harvard student, but I went to a private high school and 18 of us took a two-week volunteer trip to Kenya. Half of this we spent painting murals on a school (which people seemed extremely impressed by, so I guess we had sort of a comparative advantage there? only a few of our group were “artists”.) The other half we spent building a food-storage-building-cum-kitchen at a different school. The latter operation was overseen by a local construction crew of maybe 5 people. We didn’t know what we were doing, but they got us organized etc.

        Much ado was made about the money we raised for the building project, which was about $14,000, and went towards both the materials and hiring the local skilled labour. Very little ado was made about the money we spent travelling there: about $4000 each, for a total of $72000—about 5 times what we raised.

        Ultimately we didn’t even put in that much labour: a lot of preparation was done before we arrived, and in the one week we spent building we only finished the basic walls. So the crew (or some other crew) spent a lot of time after we left.

        The experience had an impact on me, for sure, although possibly not a profound one. I found myself looking at the $14k figure and the $70k figure, and thinking that it was a waste to go over at all, if our goal was impact. But if we were honest, that wasn’t our goal. Or not our main goal. Our main goal was experience. But it still felt like a huge waste.

        I became somewhat less frustrated by this waste when I realized that over the same spring break during which we’d taken the trip, an even larger group of students had gone on a tour across Europe. Just for fun. So maybe the moral of the story is: if you’re going to travel, might as well make it slightly useful. …just be honest about why you’re really doing it.

        • da55id says:

          Your experience in cost vs output $ ratios is similar to the fuel expended in a heavy 3 stage rocket to get a lightweight payload to orbit. The social, economic and educational “distances” are similar so it is not a surprise that it costs so much to deliver a “payload” to such an unlikely place. In other words – it was money well spent. Having identified the inefficiency ratio, one could work on optimizations. That is what missionaries are from an economic standpoint.

    • Army1987 says:

      Well, you should also teach them how to help the poor.

    • Auroch says:

      Please explain how low-income housing is a bad thing. Having low-pay professionals (ex. teachers) living near where they work in high-cost areas (ex. suburban schools) is a good thing. It reduces commutes — unclogging roads and reducing emissions — and both tightens and diversifies communities.

      Everyone living where they work isn’t an achievable goal for now, but it is part of an ideal situation. And without low-income housing, it’s impossible.

      • myriad ways says:

        I think the beef with “low-income housing” isn’t with people being able to live near where they work – it’s with things like “the projects”, big subsidized apartment blocks that somewhat resemble Terrafoam in purpose and texture, warehousing, etc. My suspicion is that it’s more useful to everyone involved if poorer families can live next to middle-class and higher families (though forcing the ultrarich into such places is probably a lost cause) so their kids can mingle, and stuff like that. This is called mixed-income development.

  5. aretae says:

    I’m inclined to think that instead most debates are thought to be oppositional, but instead when pursued, turn out to be orthogonal.

    Most folks are chasing something useful with their thoughts. It’s also usually poorly formed, and not very easy to translate out of their map and into anyone else’s.

    Very standard examples available in “free will or determinism” debates, or pro-life vs. pro-choice.

    • von Kalifornen says:

      Even when not literally independent, debates often coincide less than expected.

  6. Swimmy says:

    Welp. Should Ozy, see this, I just want zir to know that ze had the most interesting, most reasonable, and most resourceful feminist blog I have seen, and I’m sad to see it go. It’s rare in any blog circle to find someone who understands the nature of evidence. That alone justified zir blog’s existence.

    I also take criticism poorly, so I understand the web wipe, but here’s some support anyway.

    More OT: I’ve realized recently that, as enlightened as I try to be about religion, and as discouraged as I am by the PZ Myerses of the world and the typical r/atheism threads, I have some serious hangups about my formal religion and I need the catharsis of scientifically informed creationism takedowns.

    Like, my heart starts pounding before I read a blog I know to be fundamentalist Christian, not because I feel afraid it might make a good point I’m unprepared for, but just because I’m making a detour back to the ignorant hate I was raised with. It’s harrowing! And hard to explain, so I’ll leave it there.

    • Swimmy says:

      *former* religion, not “formal.”

    • von Kalifornen says:

      I read the sheets of Alexander’s hand
      which say: A vast and beauteous stretch of prose
      inhabit the net. Through-linked, on demand,
      a vanished blogsite lies, without repose
      With beckoning arms, and wisdom’s golden band
      Tell that it’s writer well these reason’s arts profess’d
      Which yet survive, written in the GMP’s dissolute sand
      The rationality that teaches and the care that arrests
      And on the sidebar these words appear:
      My name is Ozymandias, blog freehand,
      Look upon my works and geekout!
      Only tweets remain beside, round the critic’s word
      Of Discourse’s jewel, which may blaze too hot
      Til attacked over-strongly with Discourse’s sword

      (with apologies to Percy ‘Bishie’ Shelley.)

    • Doug S. says:

      According to an email Ozy sent me it was

      • @zhinxy tweeted that a lot of people are having problems with Ozy that they’re reluctant to talk about because they have a lot of mutual friends with Ozy and are worried about being dismissed/ostracized/forced to take “sides” against friends if they criticize zir.

      that was the part that triggered the blog takedown; zie didn’t want to put anyone in that kind of position.

      • Earnest Peer says:

        Since some of you actually know other LW-type rationalists, please tell me: Would that happen among you? Or could you actually criticize friends of friends without putting your friends in an awkward position?

        I don’t know if this is a mean question, don’t answer if it is.

        I also think that this is one of them problems that could have been avoided by just facing it directly when its components came up. I understand that a big stack of criticisms might not go over well with friends, but posting “you didn’t invent the word femme-phobic, you little doofus” and the like one at a time couldn’t have been a problem, could it?

      • Michael Vassar says:

        So people effectively censored Ozy by threatening to feel censored WRT their desire to censor Ozy’s nuance and openness, which they characterized “devils advocacy” in “areas where we have enough devils already”? Well, I for one am always happy to see people of good will escape from pits of such malignancy. Ozy, if you’re reading this, CONGRATULATIONS and Good Luck!

  7. JJJ says:

    Can’t people read Singer and Rand and determine which is more appropriate for them? Seems to me that Singer and Rand have both made net positive contributions.

    • Shel says:

      You’re assuming that people *know* whether they err on the side of too generous or too selfish. There’s a risk selfish people may read Rand and decide that this means that they are being insufficiently selfish and they need to care about people even less, or a risk generous people may read Singer and go into a depressive spiral about how every time they have a coffee they’re murdering babies. (The latter may, uh, actually have happened to me. >.>)

      • says:

        So you think a writer can better discern what advice the majority of people need to hear better than the reader can discern what advice she personally need to hear?

        • Shel says:

          No, I’m saying it’s a hard problem and I don’t know what the solution is, but “people should discern whether they are too generous or too selfish and take appropriate corrective action” observably doesn’t work.

      • Army1987 says:

        every time they have a coffee they’re murdering babies

        As of now, the cheaper way to save babies is estimated to be the AMF at $2,300 each, so they must be having some very expensive coffee.

      • Michael Vassar says:

        I suspect that WRT Rand, well, lots of people are going to be jerks anyway, but frankly, if they claim to get ‘care about people less’ out of Rand they are about as literate as the people who claim to get ‘murder gay people’ out of Jesus.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      And when you look at Rand’s books more closely (and contrast the cultures of early 20th century), it looks like what Rand is really promoting isn’t too far out by our current standards. Her ‘selfishness’ is what some people used to call ‘enlightened self-interest’. She just likes to put things in a shocking way, defend extreme edge cases.

      I haven’t read Singer, but have the impression he may be doing the same thing (on the left of course).

      So if the debate is civil enough, getting both sides on the same forum hashing it out, then readers can sort out which bits apply to themselves.

  8. Braden says:

    I think you are my favorite blogger. Thank you for doing this.

  9. Douglas Knight says:

    Is it ever useful to crudely push for or against some simple abstraction, say, selfishness? If both sides give concrete examples, it should be possible to see if they are pushing for the same happy medium, or if there is real disagreement. But if they don’t give concrete examples, how sure are you that (a) they mean anything and (b) that they have any effect? I would guess that Landmark and the therapy book don’t just meet in the middle, but are actually talking about completely different things. If you accept that, then repeating short slogans means misrepresenting at least one of them.

    You seem to defend such crude pushes by giving the example of r/atheism, but then you seem to say that it isn’t really advocating atheism as moving the Overton window by social proof. Is moving the Overton window a zero-sum game? Can one simply widen it? Can one make people more open to both selfishness and charity?

    • endoself says:

      > Is moving the Overton window a zero-sum game? Can one simply widen it?

      One can widen one’s personal Overton window. At least, some people can. If everyone can have their Overton window widened, then we can widen “the” Overton window.

      • von Kalifornen says:

        I think Mn. Ozy Frantz (as well as Mr. Alexander here and Less Wrong) were/are working on widening the Overton window but it can only widen so quickly and probably cannot be particularly wide for most people.

        /r/Atheism definitely does not widen it.

        • Nestor says:

          That final assertion contradicts the assertions made by other people. Several people have mentioned being converted by r/atheism, meaning their Overton window wasn’t merely shifted but blown wide open.

        • Misha says:

          The window is shifted rather than widened when instead of only narrowly praising statements of jesus can be made, only mockery can be made.

        • Mary says:

          That makes several assumptions about their Overton window that can not be justified by their stating it converted them.

      • Michael Vassar says:

        Ancient Athens seems to have had a wide Otheron window.

        Bible Belt towns seem to typically have narrow Otherton windows.

        My current best guess is that the width of a society’s Otherton window is determined largely by the extent to which hierarchy and shame are used as its foundation for social order.

        American public schooling has a SPECTACULARLY narrow Otherton window.

    • Nick T says:

      This makes sense to me if you interpret everything as being about propositional argument, but the OP is saying that some things like Rand or /r/atheism are well-interpreted as having therapeutic value for people who need to learn that they’re permitted to entertain some argument/feeling, in which case “crudely pushing” and not diluting the message seems more potentially valuable.

  10. Mike Blume says:

    “It’s much easier to be charitable in political debates when you view the two participants as coming from two different cultures that err on opposite sides, each trying to propose advice that would help their own culture, each being tragically unaware that the other culture exists.”

    This is probably the best individual sentence I have read in quite some time.

    • von Kalifornen says:

      Incidentally, I suspect that part of the reason people reacted so negatively to Ozy once a consensus of criticism formed is that there was ambiguity as to whether Ozy was a member of the trans/feminist/etc SJ culture, or an outsider to it. People tolerate a lot more from outsiders before actually attacking them.

      • von Kalifornen says:

        (and can shrug off more serious attacks, although it can become pretty scorched-earth.)

    • I agree that it’s a lovely thought and relevant to understanding cultural differences, but often people in the same polity argue about policy. How many immigrants. How much taxing / borrowing / spending, from/for what. Punishments for smoking weed. Licensed or free-for-all hairdressers. Earth-tone or ice-cream paint jobs. Privacy or panopticon. War or peace.

      • Nick T says:

        “Same polity” definitely doesn’t imply “same culture”, especially in the US, but I agree that those examples are harder to fit into Scott’s framing.

  11. I was sent to (mildly) religious schools between 5 and 18, and subjected to the usual theist brainwashing processes, which luckily didn’t work.

    I think that’s why I take such childish delight in blaspheming, and annoying theists who make a big deal about how “reasonable” and “serious” they’re being as they discuss the finer points of exactly why they want to force women to bear their rapists’ children. Nothing I say or do online to a theist can be as rude as getting control of a large chunk of their country’s school system, and lecturing them daily about why I am right, and making them sing songs in praise of my belief system.

    And I didn’t go to crazy fundamentalist schools; this is vanilla Church of England school brainwashing I’m talking about. Am I from a “functional” or “disfunctional” society?

    I can totally see why, in a country teetering on the brink of theocracy like the US, where atheists are a shunned and hated minority in many places, people would want to blow off steam by looking at insulting image macros and so on.

    Criticising r/atheism for being unpersuasive is like criticising a group therapy session for victims of child abuse for not taking into account how hard it is to be a parent nowadays.

    The real problem with r/atheism was the lack of diversity in the blasphemy available. It got very boring.

    • von Kalifornen says:

      That, and that /r/atheism also became a place for angry bigots who hadn’t be subject to intense theism, and who often took their rejection of theism — something never truly forced upon them — as entitlement to reject all other good and true things in the world.

      • amuchmoreexotic says:

        Which members of the r/atheist population would you count as not having had theism forced upon them? There are very few countries in the world where being a theist isn’t the norm. I’d expect most r/atheist denizens to be Americans, and the vast majority of Americans hate and shun atheists.

        Even the supposedly reasonable “Gilbert” cited by Scott in the original post is someone who seeks to justify bishops preventing rape victims from receiving emergency contraception in the Catholic-dominated hospitals of Germany. “Gilbert” wants raped women to be forced to bear their rapist’s babies (if it’s God’s will that they happened to be raped in their fertile period). I don’t see that there’s anything “good and true” about disgusting pigs like Gilbert, but Scott is a better person than me, and seems to be willing to give a lot of time to the Catholic point of view in particular.

        • Berry says:

          You often call people disgusting pigs without ever having read a thing they’ve written?

        • amuchmoreexotic says:

          I’ve read and commented in detail on his article Confusion And The Morning After Pill, and it’s that experience which makes me confident that he’s a disgusting pig who thinks it’s OK to make women have a rape baby due to some fine point of the theology to which he subscribes.

        • Gilbert says:

          Thanks for the defense Berry, but no need in this particular case.

          The troll is angry because I banned him over at my place. My incoming links show him raving about my evilness on another blog’s comments and now here. Obviously I’m a lot more important to him than he is to me.

          My recommendation is to not even ignore him.

        • You’re on the side of the weird pro-forced pregnancy church that ran child rape camps in Ireland, and I’m the one who’s a “troll”?

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I request nicer comments in the future. I don’t mind the criticism or even the “bear rapists’ babies” part, but the “disgusting pig” part is unnecessary.

        • OK, let the record show he wants to make women bear their rapists’ babies based on his unqualified opinion of how emergency contraception works. Also his Church systemically raped thousands of children in Irish homes for decades. I withdraw my characterisation of him and leave it up to the reader to decide how acceptable those things are, according to their own ungrounded, subjective moral system.

    • Deiseach says:

      In which I demonstrate that I am indeed an intolerant stone-hearted bitch, because someone complaining that they were oppressed by the Church of England is like someone complaining they have been pelted by marshmallows.

      • amuchmoreexotic says:

        Oh, don’t get me wrong, on the scale of all possible oppressions people have to endure, going to a couple of C of E schools is pretty trivial. I just find it really strange that it’s still considered normal and acceptable for statefunded schools to be controlled by churches, with the right to kick out children whose parents aren’t from the right tribe.

        Obviously the Church has no power over me now – even though it has unelected Lords Spritual inserted into the lawmaking process, it couldn’t even enforce its homophobic views to prevent equal treatment of my gay and lesbian friends.

        But 5-11 year old me did believe in the stuff I was taught at school about Jesus, even though my parents didn’t really. Has that ruined my life? Of course not. I just find it really weird and creepy that the C of E had to insert itself into the education system and try to get me when I was 5.

    • Randy M says:

      “I can totally see why, in a country teetering on the brink of theocracy like the US,”
      Ha. That kind of silliness takes me back to the halcyon days of 2006 or so. Still silly, then, of course.

      • Multiheaded says:

        No laughing matter, especially not for some Americans I’ve read. Did you know that US is the ONLY nation in the world except for Somalia that hasn’t signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, due to pressure from the huge far-right “Christian” lobby that insists on giving homeschooling parents the right to physically abuse… er “discipline” their children? This kind of shit is just… totally out there for a first-world nation.

        • Deiseach says:

          So if there really is this huge right-wing Christian theocratic bloc, how come abortion clinics still operate? They can pressure politicians into not signing the Convention on the Rights of the Child but can’t get Roe vs. Wade overturned?

          I rather think the U.S. hasn’t signed the convention for the same reasons it hasn’t signed a shitload of other legislation*; the excuse is “no international law in American courts!” but the reality is “we don’t want to sign anything that will bind us to actually do stuff and not torture, abuse, kill or spy on our own citizens”.

          *For example, there are American court cases involving Irish citizens and extradition, where the U.S. authorities pretty much just expect Irish courts to rubberstamp their ‘request’ (in actuality, demands) to arrest and ship off the Irish person in question, without bothering their arse to give a reason that will hold up in an Irish court as to why they should be turned over to the American legal system, but there is no quid pro quo in return regarding extradition of Americans. In sum, the U.S. expects foreign nations to turn over anyone they demand but they won’t allow American accused to be tried abroad. Double standards?

        • Multiheaded says:

          Maybe feminists and just women who want abortions have a strong counter-lobby – but children at risk don’t really have anyone to speak for them, and can’t very well represent themselves?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Filicide is illegal in the US. That treaty sounds pretty meaningless to me. Would you prefer that the US sign it and continue to allow corporal punishment, like Canada and France?

          The big fight over corporal punishment in the US is when northerners move to the exurbs of Raleigh and discover that there is corporal punishment in the schools.

        • amuchmoreexotic says:

          There’s a huge alternate-history movement on the American right which seeks to erase separation of church and state and reconstruct the Founders as good Christians rather than a bunch of secularist Deists.

          Inevitably, at some point in the next couple of election cycles there’s going to be a swing back to the right (well, the further right) of US politics. When the Republican party learns to abandon racist anti-Hispanic dogwhistle tactics and starts playing to the Catholic sentiments of that part of the US population, or otherwise learns again to say what voters want to hear to get elected, the Christian Dominionist nuts won’t sit quietly and watch. They’ll learn from the success of FISA that you can pass laws with extremely broad implications as long as you keep the results from scrutiny until it’s too late. They’ll pass the “Christians Have Rights In State Transactions” Act, or something, and then the US is a theocracy.

          And that’s assuming it all happens above-board and legit. Plenty of oil-rich secular states have fallen to Islamist revolutions and slipped back in time three centuries, and I don’t see any reason why Christianists couldn’t pull off the same thing in the US. I mean, the Army is heavily infiltrated by Christ-botherers already.

        • amuchmoreexotic says:

          Deiseach, abortion rights in the US are increasingly theoretical in the Christer-dominated states, because they continue to pass laws restricting rights to abortion in ridiculous ways:

          You have to have a sonogram and computer based simulation of how your fetus will look aged 27, you can only access public funds for an abortion if it’s filmed and broadcast on PBS, it’s illegal to have a miscarriage if you’re single, etc. etc.

          You have to understand that theocrats are so fanatical that they will work to use any angle they can to enforce their views. That’s why Scott, while I admire him a great deal, is totally wrong to say “It’s much easier to be charitable in political debates when you view the two participants as coming from two different cultures that err on opposite sides, each trying to propose advice that would help their own culture, each being tragically unaware that the other culture exists.”

          They are very aware of the other culture, they just want to enforce their values on the scum on the other side.

          Here’s an example of Christian fundamentalism in UK politics. They aren’t reasonably debating their views in a comment box and building consensus, they’re just going straight ahead and trying to get access to power and make their opinions about abortion the law of the land.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Deiseach, abortion rights in the US are increasingly theoretical in the Christer-dominated states, because they continue to pass laws restricting rights to abortion in ridiculous ways

          True, and there are fewer and fewer abortion clinics, and even contraception access is being cut back.

          The theocratization is incremental. One issue in one county or state at a time, and the premises are becoming more absurd (eg ‘fertilized egg personhood’). Of course in other states other issues are becoming more liberal.

        • Toby Bartels says:

          They can pressure politicians into not signing the Convention on the Rights of the Child but can’t get Roe vs. Wade overturned?

          Yeah, that’s how the U.S. constitution works. To keep a treaty from being ratified (after it has been signed, which in this case it has been), you only need to keep 40 of 100 Senators that will vote against bringing it up for consideration. To overturn a Supreme Court decision, you need to get 67 of 100 Senators, 290 of 435 Representatives, and majorities in 38 of 50 State legislatures. (Alternatively, you can get Presidents who will appoint sympathetic Justices when the old ones retire, and this approach has been working, but it’s very slow and has not quite been finished yet).

  12. Nick T says:

    I really like this post, but feel like I should have figured out and articulated this already. I conclude from this that what I need is a narrative that’ll tell me in over-the-top fashion that “you should know this already” is bullshit.

    (tongue-in-cheek but not at all sarcastic, in case not clear)

  13. von Kalifornen says:

    Long live.

    This is an excellent post, and actually much better than my ‘individuals subject to rain of garbage and falling shell casings from zeppelin sky battle’ metaphor.

  14. Avantika says:

    This is my favorite blog post in a long time. Some comments:

    I. My experience with Rand was very similar to your friend’s, though the book was Fountainhead and the friends-and-family situation wasn’t quite that bad. I don’t think I was ever like a Rand character or wanted to be like one, but the idea that doing what you think is good and right for you, even if your family and friends are upset by it, reshaped my teenage life in a very good way at a time when it was going badly downhill.

    II. So we should permit dumb offensive things just to show people that they can exist? That is the most interesting idea I’ve heard in a while and it makes a surprising amount of sense. The problem is, I would still want to ban certain offensive things because they contain outright lies – lies that people might believe and be misled by, not things like Jesus/Mohammed.

    III. I have taken Landmark Forum, and ‘everything that happens in your life is your responsibility’ isn’t what they say – what they say is closer to ‘how you respond to everything in your life is your responsibility’. So if you’re a teenager trying to cope with your parent’s divorce, they would say something like ‘okay, your parents’ divorce is not your fault, but if you’re sitting around moping instead of studying and your grades are falling, those things are your fault.”
    IMO Landmark Forum has some other pretty dramatic flaws, but this is not the place.

    It’s much easier to be charitable in political debates when you view the two participants as coming from two different cultures that err on opposite sides, each trying to propose advice that would help their own culture, each being tragically unaware that the other culture exists.
    As someone said below: best sentence I’ve read in ages. Thank you.

    • von Kalifornen says:

      We should at least make dry recordings of past iniquities, so that people do not become complacent and imagine that the present world, their imagined dystopia, and their imagined Heaven comprise the whole of possible worlds.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      It’s much easier to be charitable in political debates when you view the two participants as coming from two different cultures that err on opposite sides, each trying to propose advice that would help their own culture, each being tragically unaware that the other culture exists.

      This could make sense of the ‘contraception increases abortions’ debate. The anti-choice side there, may be thinking of their own families or their own church or small town culture — in which small enclaves it might be true.

    • Michael Vassar says:

      I notice that the idea that permitting discourse ‘we’ consider dumb or offensive is, in the 21st century, considered “the most interesting idea I’ve heard in a while and it makes a surprising amount of sense”! Maybe the best way to sell the Enlightenment is to act as if it had never previously been tried.

      • Nick T says:

        “…just to show people that they can exist”, but yeah, it’s noteworthy that “we should permit” is still considered a live issue.

      • Avantika says:

        The phrasing was a little funny, now that you mention it 🙂

        As Nick says, I meant the reason for permitting was interesting and unusual, not the act of permitting itself. I haven’t heard that particular reason anywhere before.

        Also, it is quite clear that ‘we should permit’ is still a live issue all over the world. I don’t see what the problem with that is. We have slander laws and laws against ‘disturbing the peace with inflammatory speeches’ that are open to interpretation and debate.

    • Luke Somers says:

      Another thing Landmark emphasized – big time – was ‘Story’ – we all make stuff up to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, and that’s OK… but it’s much better if you remember which stuff you made up so you treat it like a story you made up instead of fact.

      That’s another antidote to blaming yourself for things out of your control. Yes, take responsibility, but don’t beat yourself up over tenuous connections that may not even exist.

  15. Tommy says:

    Like Swimmy, I am sad to see Ozy’s blog disappear. (I don’t mean in any sense that Ozy zirself has harmed ME by doing what ze needs to do for zir own peace of mind, just that I regret the combination of circumstances that lead to such a compelling, amusing and informative voice being silenced). Tried to access Ozy’s blog on the train yesterday and was somewhat alarmed that something awful might have happened to zir. Thankyou to Scott for clearing this up, and hope that Ozy in the fullness of time realizes how valuable zir contribution has been, and that the venom to which ze has been subjected is a function of the loudness of zir critics’ metaphorical voices, not the breadth of their support.

    (Also, when writing this post, I reflexively wrote ‘her’ in the last sentence. That I notice this kind of thing and am able to correct it is pretty much all down to Ozy).

  16. Army1987 says:

    Eliezer went a good deal of the way to correcting it by rephrasing to “Single bad things happen to you at random. Iterated bad things happen to you because you’re a dumbass.” But I would go further and add “Or because you’re a minority. Or because you live in an awful place, like the ghetto, or North Korea. Or because there’s a war going on. Or because you have a disease, either somatic or psychiatric. Or because of any of the thousand and one other reasons why you might consistently have bad things happen to you that aren’t your fault.”

    I’d interpret “bad” relatively to your demographic: if worse things usually happen to you than to the other people in your ghetto, then you’re probably more of a dumbass than the other people in your ghetto.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes, but I don’t think there’s any way to give myself a reference class such that it captures all the reasons I might be unlucky AND I can’t weasel my way into a reference class of one who can’t be fairly compared to my peers.

  17. Sniffnoy says:

    Echoing the others in saying I’m sad to see Ozy’s blog go.

    I don’t know, I feel like there ought to be some way of specifying good ranges for things rather than just “more this way!” or “more that way!”. Like concrete examples. “This is too far this way. This is too far that way. This might be a sensible medium.” (Note that examples should ideally really be concrete — because people tend to take all abstract terms as relative to their own experience. Or if you want to use terms that could cause such confusion, ground them in concrete examples first.)

    • Jai says:

      I’m also in the “happy medium” camp. Is the bandwidth of culture so narrow as to only allow one signal per issue through?

      It seems like blasting

      It’s much easier to be charitable in political debates when you view the two participants as coming from two different cultures that err on opposite sides, each trying to propose advice that would help their own culture, each being tragically unaware that the other culture exists.

      dominates “pick a side per issue and blast it” as a world-improvement strategy.

  18. Deiseach says:

    Why are there so many people who love “Atlas Shrugged”???? I tried to read it once, I really did: took it down off the bookshop shelf, said to myself “I need to read this, everyone seems to have read it and loves it”, opened the book at random and read a paragraph, replaced it on shelf.

    Because what I read made me want to slap the head off Dagny Tarrant, and I couldn’t face an entire book featuring this character. What is this mysterious attraction of this book? If it’s the nerd’s revenge/power fantasy, I got all that covered in my fanfic writing days in my mid-teens.

    Re: what Scott says about feminists. See, every time I feel like broadly agreeing with reasonable objections like that, something like this pops up:

    Reporter: “I have a question to Robert and to Scarlett. Firstly to Robert, throughout Iron Man 1 and 2, Tony Stark started off as a very egotistical character but learns how to fight as a team. And so how did you approach this role, bearing in mind that kind of maturity as a human being when it comes to the Tony Stark character, and did you learn anything throughout the three movies that you made?

    “And to Scarlett, to get into shape for Black Widow did you have anything special to do in terms of the diet, like did you have to eat any specific food, or that sort of thing?”

    Scarlett: “How come you get the really interesting existential question, and I get the like, “rabbit food” question?”

    Sorry, Scott; when mass media stops the treatment of “Men – have brains and interesting opinions! Women – if they don’t got the booty, they’re nothing!”, then I’ll start being sympathetic about the poor guys who felt scared women might judge and reject them.

    • Multiheaded says:

      Strongly agree on both counts! (I have a lot more to say about both – but basically I felt that the post was a bit of an exercise in false equivalence, even if the meta point is worthwhile.)

    • Multiheaded says:

      Also, there are pretty decent feminist authors, like Clarisse Thorn, and communities, like the SRS network on Reddit, that do appreciate the orthogonal issue of introverted men suffering from bad social scripts – and feminist-friendly / anti-PUA relationship coaching for men.

      So, surprisingly enough (for my generally somewhat gloomy worldview), I came to have optimism about the prospects of reconciling feminist activism and “men’s issues”. Perceptive and empathetic people on both “sides” are starting to see that their goals might not always be perfectly aligned (as a simplistic “Feminism helps men too” spiel would have it), but they’re orthogonal at worst and definitely not in opposition.

      • an-y says:

        SRS, no. Ok, they recognize that men can get raped and are ambivalent about calling people neckbeards as an insult. But they also totally buy into hating “nice guys” for feeling entitled to sex for inserting niceness tokens or whatever and will definitely tear apart any guy who tries to honestly talks about his romantic frustrations.

        Clarisse Thorn, yes. Along with pervocracy and ozy and some others she’s one of the few internet feminist writers that I can stomach reading for more than a few minutes at a time.

    • BenSix says:

      Given that the U.S. is, more than any other nation, the centre of the world’s literary, cinematic, musical and culinary creation, and among its freest places in terms of access to artistic, sexual and intoxicative indulgences, I suspect that Rand’s appeal is generally not due to people having been made to feel guilty for enjoying themselves.

      • Nick T says:

        (Your perception of) The average level of perceived-freedom-to-enjoy-self, on its own, doesn’t say much about the experiences that large minorities might have had (isn’t that an implicit point of the OP?).

        • BenSix says:

          Well, no. But I was not disputing Scott’s account of his friend’s fondness for her work, or the idea that a great many others may have found it appealing for similar reasons, but suggesting that the scale of its idolisation in a culture that is indulgent on the scale of that of the U.S. demands other explanations. I would suggest, indeed, that she appeals to many people because she legitimises their habits and ambitions rather than offering new ones.

          I suppose this represents a confession to side-tracking the discussion but, hey, the introduction of Ayn Rand or Peter Singer dooms any comment thread to side-tracking.

      • Michael Vassar says:

        Is there *anything* endorsing hedonistic self-indulgence in Rand’s books?

    • Benquo says:

      What made you think it was the kind of book where reading a paragraph at random, out of context, would be a good way of determining whether you’d like it?

      Someone could open Hamlet randomly and find:

      Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
      The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
      And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
      And these few precepts in thy memory
      See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
      Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
      Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
      Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
      Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
      But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
      Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
      Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
      Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
      Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
      Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
      Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
      But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
      For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
      And they in France of the best rank and station
      Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
      Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
      For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
      And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
      This above all: to thine ownself be true,
      And it must follow, as the night the day,
      Thou canst not then be false to any man.
      Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

      and conclude that Shakespeare is just a bunch of windbag proverbs.

      Soneone could open Lord of the Rings to a random part, and read:

      A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
      silivren penna míriel
      o menel aglar elenath!
      Na-chaered palan-díriel
      o galadhremmin ennorath,
      Fanuilos le linnathon
      nef aear, sí nef aearon!

      and conclude that the book was either written in a foreign language or full of incomprehensible gibberish.

      • Deiseach says:

        Random paragraphing is as good as any way; one does not need to eat the entire egg to know if it tastes rotten or not.

        As for Tolkien’s gibberish, I fell in love with his languages at the age of fifteen, when first I read “The Lord of the Rings”, even though I have no Welsh or Finnish and but little Irish – perhaps it might be more discouraging to a monoglot?


    • Randy M says:

      And yet… what gender is more likely to watch entertainment and celebrity gossip shows?
      Oh, right, surely women only watch that because their daddies told them to.

      • Multiheaded says:

        In a parallel world:

        Reporter: “I have a question to X’aala and to Zrlvkar. Firstly to X’aala, throughout Obsidian Maiden 1 and 2, Lady Vayshr’ix started off as an aloof, roguish young adventurer but gradually develops social ties and becomes an admired and beloved High Priestess as her tribe needs her healing and mediation. And so how did you approach this role, bearing in mind that kind of maturity as a nay’xith being when it comes to the Vayshr’ix character, and did you learn anything throughout the three movies that you made?

        “And to Zrlvkar, to morph your imposing exoskeleton and long pseudopods for Grey Shield, did you have anything special to do in terms of morph cycles, like did you have to attach any external symbionts, or that sort of thing?”

        Zrlvkar: “How come you get the really interesting existential question, and I get the like, “drone symbionts” question?”

        Tl;dr – this is why we need feminism, you bloody unimaginative fool.

        • Deiseach says:

          Yeah, but Multiheaded, some of us really like those long pseudopods on a virile young exomorph 🙂

        • Multiheaded says:

          We are autonomous beings, not just soldier drones! Our bodies don’t exist just for your protection! Go defend your own damn hive!

        • Deiseach says:

          See, this is the kind of special pleading whinging you soldier drones always produce when you can’t win an argument based on cool, dispassionate reason.

          You don’t think females find themselves misrepresented in popular media? You don’t think there isn’t pressure on them to be wise, capable, beloved Supreme Goddess-Empresses of their egg-clutches? And yet if we dare express an opinion that says females and drones both have it tough when it comes to depiction and idealisation in games and movies, suddenly it’s all “Oh, you only want us for the mating flight! Oh, you want to bite off our heads during coition! Oh, it’s so tough being an object of desire for your superior genetic enhancements!”

          Try leading your own migration and invasion of a competing queen’s territory and then come crying to me about “We’re only seen as valuable in terms of how many segments we possess”, okay?

        • Deiseach says:

          I am sexually harassing an arthropod life form. My life is complete 🙂

        • Randy M says:

          “Tl;dr – this is why we need feminism, you bloody unimaginative fool.”
          I don’t find your summary accurate, nor does your role reversal address the point that the readers of this pieces, ie, women, care more about the diet of the actress than the mental struggles she undergoes in playing femme fatale assassin.

      • Multiheaded says:

        Seriously, this comes across as some completely distasteful, weak-minded trolling from you.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          BE NICE.

        • Multiheaded says:

          1) I’m a bit of an Internet jackass, OK… but somehow you haven’t called out any of my earlier comments here as problematic? I’m sorry, I just didn’t expect this level of animosity to be over the line for your policy, not from prior experience here.

          2) His comment WAS trolling, obnoxiously smug and dismissive without any provocation by Deiseach. The way I see it, she laid out some reasoned opinions in good faith and then he butted in with a derailing and trollish cliche. So I felt justified in calling him out, as is often done in conversations about feminism that take a similar route.

        • Randy M says:

          Half right, I’d say. If I could edit, I’d have deleted the second, snark filled sentence. I think I clarified my point in the other post, feel free to disabuse me of my impressions of the reader/viewership demographics of such interviews, though.

      • Deiseach says:

        Who watches the entertainment and celebrity gossip shows in my family?

        My brothers.

        Who doesn’t?

        I do not, their elder sister.

        Your point being?

        • Multiheaded says:

          Your point being?

          “Something something stereotypes exist for a good reason something”, I’d guess.

          Anyway, the main problem with his words IMO is that they’re femmephobic, not that they’re stereotyping. People don’t have this kind of smug condescension for stereotypically masculine, gratuitously violent/aggressive media like shooter games – or for women who counter-stereotypically play them. But both men and women get looked down upon for enjoying “girly” stuff a little too much – because the femmephobic cultural attitude sees it as a mark of weakness, silliness and belonging to a lower stratum.

          • Logosmanos says:

            Nah, have you seen movies and any content out there, the last couple of decades, masculine men are mocked all the time. Do you know how many movies/tv shows etc, where the masculine man is mocked, shown as stupid, wife is always right? Homer Simpson, Family Guy, Rules of Engagement, Friends (Joey), any sitcom out there? The woman is right, she’s clever, every macho guy is shown as an idiot, only the geeky, feminine, down with their feelings guy are the good ones.

            It’s just as bad for men, sorry love.

        • Multiheaded says:

          And yes, this really bothers me on a personal/selfish level too. I’m a cis guy, I’m quite masculine looking, but still I’d much rather get less shit in my life for displaying gender-inappropriate emotions/mannerisms in various situations, or enjoying weepy dramatic/romance-heavy media. At least as little as I get for, say, hanging out in the military history section at bookstores.

        • Watercressed says:

          People don’t have this kind of smug condescension for stereotypically masculine, gratuitously violent/aggressive media like shooter games

          I know several people who have plenty of condescension for stereotypically masculine behavior.

          You’d probably say that it’s nowhere near as widespread, and you’d be right, but it’s not nonexistent.

      • Nick T says:

        I’m not sure what its intent was, but I can read this comment as arguing against a straw feminism* that says “women aren’t really interested in the rabbit food question, it’s only there because of the patriarchal men who make these shows” by pointing out that women do watch these shows and create demand for them…

        …which is a poor argument against the claim that Something Is Wrong, because internalized oppression etc etc…

        …but makes a great deal of sense in terms of the OP, as a reaction to a memetic background (not necessarily a subculture, but maybe a micro-subculture like a family with dysfunctional gender dynamics, or a self-sustaining pattern of perceiving some cultural messages and not others whatever the origin of that pattern) that sends the message that women are in general virtuous (in a way that men aren’t), that women are moral objects and victims who can’t be asked to have responsibilities while men are moral subjects with responsibilities, or something similar. It seems to me that it’s somewhat common for men to struggle with background memes like these, round feminist claims off to them, and reject feminism. (This and this post, and their comments, are a good example of part of this dynamic — a bunch of men taking for granted that “one of the most accepted premises of our society is that women are more mature on average than men” and arguing that this is false.)

        Or maybe I’m reading way too much into one comment, but IMO the general point is important and relevant to the OP.

        (* or at least a weak opponent, I’m sure someone actually claims this)

        • Nick T says:

          by pointing out that women do watch these shows and create demand for them

          Oops, I meant to say “some women”, rather than trying to suggest that women in general like sexist gossip shows.

        • Deiseach says:

          I wouldn’t mind if they both got the stupid question e.g. “Robert, did you have to follow a special diet or gym regime to wear the suit?” but when the male actor gets the “So how did you develop your character?” and the female actor gets “So how did you develop your perky behind?” then it’s irritating, and it is pitched as though ‘we’ll ask the girl about diets because women want to know these diet secrets’. I’m sure men as well as women watch these entertainment shows, and I’m sure women as well as men watched this interview because they love Marvel comics and wanted to know about the characters and how they would be played.

          I know at least two female bloggers who are going crazy with anticipation over the next “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” movie, and what the portrayal of Bucky Barnes will be like, and it’s not because they want to know if he has a cute butt*, it’s because they want to know if the movie makers will follow comics canon or how they’ll develop the character and his interaction with Black Widow and Captain America.

          *Okay, I can’t lie: a cute butt in those tight black leather pants isn’t going to go to waste, either, but they’re not speculating on the eye candy, it’s on the character and his history with the other characters.

      • cool rich guy says:

        Sports and celebrity gossip are equally dumb.

        Also, how is this relevant?

        • Shel says:

          The important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.

        • Berry says:

          “The important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.”

          If I point out that you’ve quoted XKCD without attribution, will I feel superior to all of you? Only one way to find out…

          (Also, very ironic that the name of that comic is Atheists :D)

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        And yet… what gender is more likely to watch entertainment and celebrity gossip shows?

        By that standard, the reporter could have asked the woman the character question, and asked the man about body building.

      • Army1987 says:

        That cuts both ways — what gender is more likely to watch football matches?

    • Andrew says:

      when mass media stops the treatment of “Men – have brains and interesting opinions! Women – if they don’t got the booty, they’re nothing!”, then I’ll start being sympathetic about the poor guys who felt scared women might judge and reject them.

      We can’t work on two problems at once?

      Shit, we can’t even have sympathy for people suffering from problem 2 while we work on problem 1?

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m sympathetic to those suffering from problem 2. It’s tough for everyone who wants what is presented to them as what’s normal and who are anxious about how they live up to that measure.

        But as I said, every time I start to be convinced by “Men are just as humiliated by false expectations as women are in general”, something comes along to go “Oh, hey, let’s reduce a woman’s value as an object of interest to the outside of her head and how it meets aesthetic criteria!”

    • Elissa says:

      Sorry, Scott; when mass media stops the treatment of “Men – have brains and interesting opinions! Women – if they don’t got the booty, they’re nothing!”, then I’ll start being sympathetic about the poor guys who felt scared women might judge and reject them.

      I agree with most of your comment and find it interesting, but I wish people would stop using this “I don’t feel bad for you” kind of language. It seems gratuitously unkind, and I don’t find it difficult, in fact, to feel sorry for people with diametrically opposite problems. Isn’t it a bit like saying, “I’ll feel sorry for undernourished people when obesity stops being such a huge problem,” or something?

      If Scott were recommending less feminism in general here, I can understand why you’d say, “Once sexism is much less worser we’ll handle the problem of sad lonely geeks,” but not, “and until then I don’t care about their feelings.” Anyway it seems that he wasn’t actually suggesting we change anything, just using this as an example of how you can make misguided recommendations when you don’t recognize the other side of the problem– presumably he sees the relevance to himself in this situation as well as to feminists.

      • Deiseach says:

        As a sad lonely geek myself, I don’t care. I really don’t. I’m at the age where I don’t particularly give a damn about delicate sensibilities.

        I don’t want to be cruel, even for a purpose, much less gratuitously cruel. But I don’t think the larger structural problems can be shoved aside with the equivalence of “Everyone has it tough”. If we can’t fix the big tear in the balloon, never mind fudging about with the small tear in the ballast bag: we’re not going to make much progress if we can’t keep in the air.

        • Berry says:

          Diseach, do you by any chance have a website or blog? As the sages say: “Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.”

        • Deiseach says:

          I do have an occasional blog over on Dreamwidth but it’s mainly for the purpose of uninformed ranting about what has annoyed me lately and some raving about my obsessive interests. I haven’t yet done a post on my least favourite colour but any day now…

          What really amuses me is that I got roped in to provide occasional essays (well, I call ’em that, they’re more off the top of my head unstructured ramblings) about spiritual/religious topics for a (broadly) kinda post-Evangelical Protestant blog, all because I can’t resist shooting my mouth off in fora like this one and they asked me to do proper posts if I was going to clog up the comments. Believe me, my guardian angel is breaking his heart laughing at that one 🙂

        • von Kalifornen says:

          I mostly get frustrated when complaining about your own issues in a neutral or self-controlled space, without strategizing, gets treated as oppressive.

        • Andrew says:

          I’m at the age where I don’t particularly give a damn about delicate sensibilities.

          Consider the possibility that the use of gratuitously unkind language, even if you don’t really mean it (as seems the case here) is alienating people who might otherwise be willing and able to see your side of the problem too, if the problem isn’t framed as us vs you. I’m pretty sure it took me about a decade longer than it could have to “get it” with respect to this because of language like that.

    • Ronak M Soni says:

      One possible reason: excessive leftist indoctrination. My school was annoying as fuck this way, and Rand felt like a breath of fresh air – and I classified all her problems as “believes all people think the same way.”
      (Worst part was that worked, and the fact that different people think differently is enough of a black box to me that I was sympathetic to the mistake, so for years I went around defending her. And most takedowns I see of her are worse than jokes.)

      Also: she’s a far above average writer.

      • Multiheaded says:

        One possible reason: excessive leftist indoctrination.

        Hmm, I see you’re from India, so I’m just curious; “leftist” like what? I know what gets lumped in under such a label in America, but how would it look in Indian political climate?

        • Ronak M Soni says:

          Well, the political climate is not very polarised along any real lines here: there’s a Hindu nationalist party, and the other big party is what Ramachandra Guha – famous historian – calls a “Hindutva b-party.”
          (There’s animosity all right, just not much by way of ideological polarisation.)

          So I just take my ideas of left and right from American politics, but I often tend to mix up the political polarisation with the ideological polarisation involving Marxist or kinda-Marxist critiques of modern culture, technophobia and mysticism (which is an uncharitable description of the indoctrination I received at school).

          (Interestingly, it was when I came out of school and realised that most people were disturbingly righty did I notice the fact that people are always answering other people in the way Scott describes here.)

    • Fnord says:

      So, basically, you don’t understand anything Scott wrote in this post at all, since the entire point of the post was explaining why something that looks pointless and indulgent to you might be meaningful and important to someone with a different experience.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      So basically you took a tangential point of my article, ignored it, talked about something completely different under the same heading, and gave a single anecdote of something where two people got treated differently one time for reasons that might have just been a coincidence?

      • Deiseach says:

        You sound surprised, Scott 🙂

        Honestly, this is how most discourse on the internet plays out – there is always someone (and I have a horrible suspicion I’ve been that someone myself at times) who plucks one sentence out of an entire post and rides off madly in all directions on their hobbyhorse.

        • Michael Vassar says:

          So here you are asserting that since other people are trolls, you are entitled to be one, which is true of course, but Scott’s also entitled to ban trolls from his blog.

          I don’t think he should, since that well played arthropod bit was very fun to read, but then again, I’m not the person you attacked and I’d totally approve if he thought otherwise.

      • St. Rev says:

        Thank you, Scott.

    • Michael Vassar says:

      Deiseach: Simply put, Scott is NOT the Media, and saying that he doesn’t deserve sympathy because the Media often oppresses women is just standard monkey bullshit. You are the oppressor here, regardless of whether someone else is also an oppressor, just like terrorists are oppressors even if the governments they live under are also oppressors.

  19. Rachael says:

    Great post.

    I think it’s possible for a culture or even an individual to err on both sides at once. I’m pretty sure I’m both too hard on myself and too soft on myself at the same time, in a strange quantum-superposition kind of way.

    Also, minor typo:
    “Landmark claims its members are biased against ever thinking ill of themselves, even when they deserve it. The therapy book claims that patients are biased towards always thinking ill of themselves, even when they do deserve it.”
    I think the last “do” should be “don’t”.

  20. Steve says:

    > Landmark claims its members are biased against ever thinking ill of themselves, even when they deserve it.

    I don’t think it affects your overarching, and quite excellent, point at all; but “treat everything that happens in your life as your responsiblity” isn’t necessarily the opposite of “don’t be so hard on yourself.”

    If you’re dealing with someone who’s responsible for everything that happens to you, you probably want to approach them with respect, and in general act in such a way as to get better outcomes for yourself. The last thing you’d want to do is harangue them into guilty paralysis.

  21. Leonard says:

    What’s up with “r/atheism”? I grasp that it is a neologicism for “atheism”, spawned from reddit, so I suppose meaning “online atheism”. But I don’t understand why you want to use it. What’s wrong with the original word, that you’d intentionally mar the rather nice flow of your essay to put that fart-noise in there?

  22. Sasha says:

    Since you’ve provided a balanced and diplomatic perspective, apparently there’s a need for a polarizing polemic – so here’s a vituperative contradiction 😉

    ‘Suppose an Objectivist argues “Our culture has become too self-sacrificing! Everyone is told their entire life that the only purpose of living is to work for other people. As a result, people are miserable and no one is allowed to enjoy themselves at all.” If they’re right, then helping spread Objectivism is probably a good idea – it will help these legions of poor insufficiently-selfish people, but there will be very few too-selfish-already people who will be screwed up by the advice.’

    If the culture is *actually* behaving like that, then either they’re doing it incredibly badly, self-sacrificing to the degree that they’re actually generating fewer utilons through their altruism than they burn up for themselves, or it’s false to say ‘as a result people are miserable’.

    Sure we tend to suck at optimizing our behaviour, but it’s a huge leap from claiming that we tend to be inefficient to claiming that we tend to be wildly self-harmingly irrational.

    Even if it turns out people do tend to be that inept, we stand to gain far more by teaching altruists to improve their efficiency than by teaching them to be more selfish.

    Aside from anything else, if they were so incredibly bad at altruism, why would you assume they’ll be competent self-interest-maximizers?

    You rapscallion.

    • Earnest Peer says:

      What our culture calls altruism has little to do with what rationalists call it; the cultural definition is a virtue-based description rather than a comparison of money/utilons spent on oneself to money spent on others. If you’re clever about it, you can be both a cultural altruist and a rationalistic egoist; the opposite would automatically happen to someone who sent *all* the money she doesn’t need to charity, because she wouldn’t be giving anything to her community.

      • Sasha says:

        If they’re supposed to be suffering because of their actions, then they must be giving up something. If doing so doesn’t gain more utilons than it costs, then I’d say they’re doing it a lot worse than the average human being would tend to.

        And if they’re doing it badly, I still don’t see why telling them to be selfish would lead to a better outcome than telling them to be altruistic better – which is basically what Singer does.

        Sure, we can construct some scenarios in which giving someone Rand rather than Singer does more good than the reverse, but it’s far from being the sort of yin-yang situation Scott seems to imply – it would almost always be better to give them Singer.

        • Earnest Peer says:

          While you are being terribly unclear (they?), I do think I agree with your main point now, that giving someone Singer to read will make them a better person to a larger degree and with higher certainty that Rand.

        • Sasha says:

          ‘While you are being terribly unclear (they?)’

          Sorry, this refers to the hypothetical Objectivist and his social group I quoted in my first reply.

        • Michael Vassar says:

          Empirically, I think Rand causes more improvement in people’s behavior per-capita and in aggregate than Singer does by a large margin, but I think they are both extremely good at improving people’s behavior. I tend to engage more with Singer because he’s actually alive and being a pretty good rationalist, can be influenced to do better, while Rand is dead and her organized followers are a mess.

          In both cases, actually, I think the organized followers tend to do more harm than good, but do less harm collectively than the author does good individually.

  23. Ronak M Soni says:

    I seriously doubt that both sides can’t be beneficial for the same person, and for most people whose influences have been within reasonable limits. I realise this anew every time I try to narrativise my life: I’ve felt every influence, and I can give yu the history both of the conditions that make me extra-permeable to social justice rhetoric, and of those which make me completely averse to it.

    While this is obviously typical mind-ing, it just seems more likely on general principle that most influences on most people only differ a little bit towards either direction. (The issues that are hot-button political issues for most people, like feminism in Caucasia and politics, are obvious exceptions. But there are also other things you could argue about, and those things outnumber the small set of hot-buttons – ask a random pleasant person at work about free will (assuming you aren’t at MIRI or something).)

    The thing I’m really thinking about in the first sentence is compartmentalisation: its perfectly likely for you to adopt one set of influences in one area and another somewhere else.

    (Obvious caveat: it might be that if you are decompartmentalised enough to be able to take both sides to heart, you might not need it in the first place. I want to say I don’t generate decompartmentalisations but do take them to heart, but I think it’s just that the ones I do generate but they are rarely as significant as external ones, eg this post.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Probably both sides could be beneficial to the same person if they were really well delineated (“You need to learn when to be more selfish! And you also need to learn when to be more altruistic!”) but I think people don’t process conditionals as well as absolutes.

  24. D_Malik says:

    Hi Scott, do you have some sort of list of the blog posts you’ve written (here and at the other place) that you like most? What are your favorite things you’ve written?

  25. JP says:

    Great post.

    There is some common ground with both Hegelian Dialectics and TRIZ. From Wikipedia:
    “Fichtean Dialectics (Hegelian Dialectics) is based upon four concepts:
    Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time.
    Everything is composed of contradictions (opposing forces).
    Gradual changes lead to crises, turning points when one force overcomes its opponent force (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
    Change is helical (spiral), not circular (negation of the negation)”

    “Inventive problems stem from contradictions (one of the basic TRIZ concepts) between two or more elements, such as, “If we want more acceleration, we need a larger engine; but that will increase the cost of the car,” that is, more of something desirable also brings more of something less desirable, or less of something else also desirable….principles [are then applied] have been most frequently used in patents in order to resolve [(or remove)] the contradiction.”

    In either case the important first step is to recognise, and label that a opposing pair of contradictions exist, which you are doing in this post. This can often give insight into the problem, and may sufficiently resolve, or enable optimisation of the problem. The second level is to step outside the contradiction and use another dimension to remove the problem.

  26. Sarah says:

    I really did not understand the “men feel shy around women” thing viscerally until I had my first date with a woman.

    OF COURSE it’s ludicrous to presume that women are delicate flowers who are defiled by any contact with sex, right? I mean, *I’m* a woman, I have female friends, I should know better, right? What could be sillier than putting half the human race on a pedestal? Who would do that?

    Except it turned out that even I had internalized those attitudes. That my brain was screaming “YOU MUSTN’T TOUCH HER, SHE IS PURE AND YOU ARE A HORRIBLE LECHER.” Despite the fact that we both had giant crushes on each other…

    Imagine if I had been born male! If the presumption about me had been “potential aggressor” rather than “insecure nerd who needs a hug”; if the people around me had actually encouraged me to worry about being a horrible lecher instead of reassuring me that everything was fine. The results would not be pretty.

    Some people need to hear “seriously, second-guess yourself, don’t be threatening or overbearing to women you’re interested in, you’re making an ass of yourself” and some people need to hear “sheesh, everything is fine, stop worrying, don’t be ashamed of your sexuality.”

  27. Karl says:

    Parts of what you’re saying sound dangerously close to “It’s totally okay to lie to peoples as long as it make them feel better about themselves!”. Which is an absolutely terrible thing to think.

    The real problem here is that some people use their intelligence to shoot themselves in the foot. If you’re using the knowledge that there is something that you could have done to make a bad thing which happened to you not happen in order to feel depressed about how this is all your fault, then you’re doing it wrong. You ought, instead, to learn from the incident and figure out what you should do in the future so it never happen again.

  28. John Maxwell IV says:

    Low-resolution views of the world suck. Oh wait, what did I just say?

  29. Another example: Typical Mind/”you’re perfectly normal”. Sometimes people need to be reminded that not everyone’s mind works just like theirs. But other times, people think their behavior is really weird and feel ashamed about it (I think a lot of people feel this way about masturbation), even though the behavior is typical.

  30. Alex says:

    The idea of different sides coming from different cultures was very valuable to me, and it clears up many debates that seem oppositional but aren’t (legalizing marijuana, feminism vs men’s rights, welfare, affirmative action), but it didn’t help me to understand the biggest social debates any better.

    For example, I can’t think of a middle ground between gay rights groups and anti-gay groups that both sides can agree on. Can anyone else find such a middle ground, or figure out what the culture disagreement is?

  31. Regarding the Landmark Forum/self-help book example, I think there’s a large difference between the types of things that are “your fault” according to Landmark, and the types of things that are “not your fault” according to self-help books. Your parents getting divorced or your friend committing suicide is not your fault; not getting your work done on time or people thinking you smell bad is your fault.

    In short, things are your fault if, by their being your fault, you have a good chance of fixing them.

  32. Chris says:

    I guess this can be explained by the cognitive bias called Bayesian conservatism. People tend to underweight newer evidence, and repeating it won’t work unless you can get away with sockpuppetry, so the solution is to exaggerate it.

    The other day in League of Legends, I was playing AD carry, and before the game, the support (a teammate I’d be working closely with) said she was new to her role and her character’s abilities, and asked how to play them. So I knew not to expect much from her. But I performed much better than usual, especially in the early game, even though her performance made it clear she *wasn’t* new. (She admitted late in the game that she’d been trying to scare another teammate into backing out.) That was when I realized I’d been holding myself back by expecting too *much* help from my teammates (which, for various reasons, would have been more justifiable when I was first learning the game).

  33. Chris says:

    But by the same token, if you *are* getting to repeat the message frequently (e.g. the audience is your kids, spouse, or subordinates), exaggerating will pull them too far in the direction of the message.

  34. Dan says:

    This post basically boils down to “Most problems, when framed as calibration problems, are difficult to solve even in theory”.

    No shit, Sherlock.

  35. Andrew says:


    I cannot believe I did not know that. I read that thing! It’s great!

    (Now that I look at it again, I see your name is not even on it. So I don’t have to blame myself for failing to recognize the name. Now I can blame you 🙂 )