I’ll admit it – I’ve been unusually defensive lately. Defensive about Hallquist’s critique of rationalism, defensive about Matthews’ critique of effective altruism, and if you think that’s bad you should see my Tumblr.
Brienne noticed this and asked me why I was so defensive all the time, and I thought about it, and I realized that my id had a pretty good answer. I’m not sure I can fully endorse my id on this one, but it was a sufficiently complete and consistent picture that I thought it was worth laying out.
I like discussion, debate, and reasoned criticism. But a lot of arguments aren’t any of those things. They’re the style I describe as ethnic tension, where you try to associate something you don’t like with negative affect so that other people have an instinctive disgust reaction to it.
There are endless sources of negative affect you can use. You can accuse them of being “arrogant”, “fanatical”, “hateful”, “cultish” or “refusing to tolerate alternative opinions”. You can accuse them of condoning terrorism, or bullying, or violence, or rape. You can call them racist or sexist, you can call them neckbeards or fanboys. You can accuse them of being pseudoscientific denialist crackpots.
If you do this enough, the group gradually becomes disreputable. If you really do it enough, the group becomes so toxic that it becomes somewhere between a joke and a bogeyman. Their supporters will be banned on site from all decent online venues. News media will write hit pieces on them and refuse to ask for their side of the story because ‘we don’t want to give people like that a platform’. Their concerns will be turned into bingo cards for easy dismissal. People will make Facebook memes strawmanning them, and everyone will laugh in unison and say that yep, they’re totally like that. Anyone trying to correct the record will be met with an “Ew, gross, this place has gone so downhill that the [GROUP] is coming out of the woodwork!” and totally ignored.
(an easy way to get a gut feeling for this – go check how they talk about liberals in very conservative communities, then go check how they talk about conservatives in very liberal communities. I’m talking about groups that somehow manage to gain this status everywhere simultaneously)
People like to talk a lot about “dehumanizing” other people, and there’s some debate over exactly what that entails. Me, I’ve always thought of it the same was as Aristotle: man is the rational animal. To dehumanize them is to say their ideas don’t count, they can’t be reasoned with, they no longer have a place at the table of rational discussion. And in a whole lot of Internet arguments, doing that to a whole group of people seems to be the explicit goal.
There’s a term in psychoanalysis, “projective identification”. It means accusing someone of being something, in a way that actually turns them into that thing. For example, if you keep accusing your (perfectly innocent) partner of always being angry and suspicious of you, eventually your partner’s going to get tired of this and become angry, and maybe suspicious that something is up.
Declaring a group toxic has much the same effect. The average group has everyone from well-connected reasonable establishment members to average Joes to horrifying loonies. Once the group starts losing prestige, it’s the establishment members who are the first to bail; they need to protect their establishment credentials, and being part of a toxic group no longer fits that bill. The average Joes are now isolated, holding an opinion with no support among experts and trend-setters, so they slowly become uncomfortable and flake away as well. Now there are just the horrifying loonies, who, freed from the stabilizing influence of the upper orders, are able to up their game and be even loonier and more horrifying. Whatever accusation was leveled against the group to begin with is now almost certainly true.
I have about a dozen real-world examples of this, but all of them would be so mind-killing as to dominate the comments to the exclusion of my actual point, so generate them on your own and then shut up about them – in the meantime, I will use a total hypothetical. So consider Christianity.
Christianity has people like Alvin Plantinga and Ross Douthat who are clearly very respectable and key it into the great status-conferring institutions like academia and journalism. It has a bunch of middle-class teachers and plumbers and officer workers who go to church and raise money to send Bibles to Africa and try not to sin too much. And it has horrifying loons who stand on street corners waving signs saying “GOD HATES FAGS” and screaming about fornicators.
Imagine that Christianity suffers a sudden total dramatic in prestige, to the point where wearing a cross becomes about as socially acceptable as waving a Confederate flag. The New York Times fires Ross Douthat, because they can’t tolerate people like that on their editorial staff. The next Alvin Plantinga chooses a field other than philosophy of religion, because no college would consider granting him tenure for that.
With no Christians in public life or academia, Christianity starts to seem like a weird belief that intelligent people never support, much like homeopathy or creationism. The Christians have lost their air support, so to speak. The average college-educated individual starts to feel really awkward about this, and they don’t necessarily have to formally change their mind and grovel for forgiveness, they can just – go to church a little less, start saying they admire Jesus but they’re not Christian Christian, and so on.
Gradually the field is ceded more and more to the people waving signs and screaming about fornicators. The opponents of Christianity ramp up their attacks that all Christians are ignorant and hateful, and this is now a pretty hard charge to defend against, given the demographic. The few remaining moderates, being viewed suspiciously in churches that are now primarily sign-waver dominated and being genuinely embarrassed to be associated with them, bail at an increased rate, leading their comrades to bail at an even faster rate, until eventually it is entirely the sign wavers.
Then everybody agrees that their campaign against Christians was justified all along, because look how horrible Christians are, they’re all just a bunch of sign-wavers who have literally no redeeming features. Now even if the original pressure that started the attack on Christianity goes away, it’s inconceivable that it will ever come back – who would join a group that is universally and correctly associated with horrible ignorant people?
(I think this is sort of related to what Eliezer calls evaporative cooling of group beliefs, but not quite the same.)
In quite a number of the most toxic and hated groups around, I feel like I can trace a history where the group once had some pretty good points and pretty good people, until they were destroyed from the outside by precisely this process.
In Part I, I say that sometimes groups can get so swamped by other people’s insults that they turn toxic. There’s nothing in Part I to suggest that this would be any more than a temporary setback. But because of this projective identification issue, I think it’s way more than that. It’s more like there’s an event horizon, a certain amount of insulting and defamation you can take after which you will just get more and more hated and your reputation will never recover.
There is some good criticism, where people discuss the ways that groups are factually wrong or not very helpful, and then those groups debate that, and then maybe everyone is better off.
But the criticism that makes me defensive is the type of criticism that seems to be trying to load groups with negative affect in the hopes of pushing them into that event horizon so that they’ll be hated forever.
I support some groups that are a little weird, and therefore especially vulnerable to having people try to push them into the event horizon.
And as far as I can tell, the best way to let that happen is to let other people load those groups with negative affect and do nothing about it. The average person doesn’t care whether the negative affect is right or wrong. They just care how many times they see the group’s name in close proximity to words like “crackpot” or “cult”.
I judge people based on how likely they are to do this to me. One reason I’m so reluctant to engage with feminists is that I feel like they constantly have a superweapon pointed at my head. Yes, many of them are very nice people who will never use the superweapon, but many others look like very nice people right up to the point where I disagree with them in earnest at which point they vaporize me and my entire social group.
On the other hand, you can push people into the event horizon, but you can’t pull them in after you. That means that the safest debate partners, the ones you can most productively engage, will be the people who have already been dismissed by everyone else. This is why I find talking to people like ClarkHat and JayMan so rewarding. They are already closer to the black hole than I am, and so they have no power to load me with negative affect or destroy my reputation. This reduces them to the extraordinary last resort of debating with actual facts and evidence. Even better, it gives me a credible reason to believe that they will. Schelling talks about “the right to be sued” as an important right that businesses need to protect for themselves, not because anyone likes being sued, but because only businesses that can be sued if they slip up have enough credibility to attract customers. In the same way, there’s a “right to be vulnerable to attack” which is almost a necessary precondition of interesting discussion these days, because only when we’re confronted with similarly vulnerable people can we feel comfortable opening up.
But with everybody else? I don’t know.
I remember seeing a blog post by a moderately-well known scholar – I can’t remember who he was or find the link, so you’ll just have to take my word for it – complaining that some other scholar in the field who disagreed with him was trying to ruin his reputation. Scholar B was publishing all this stuff falsely accusing Scholar A of misconduct, calling him a liar and a fraud, personally harassing him, and falsely accusing Scholar A of personally harassing him (Scholar B). This kinda went back and forth between both scholars’ blogs, and Scholar A wrote this heart-breaking post I still (sort of) remember, where he notes that he now has a reputation in his field for “being into drama” and “obsessed with defending himself” just because half of his blog posts are arguments presenting evidence that Scholar B’s fraudulent accusations are, indeed fraudulent.
It is really easy for me to see the path where rationalists and effective altruists become a punch line and a punching bag. It starts with having a whole bunch of well-publicized widely shared posts calling them “crackpots” and “abusive” and “autistic white men” without anybody countering them, until finally we end up in about the same position as, say, Objectivism. Having all of those be wrong is no defense, unless somebody turns it into such. If no one makes it reputationally costly to lie, people will keep lying. The negative affect builds up more and more, and the people who always wanted to hate us anyway because we’re a little bit weird say “Oh, phew, we can hate them now”, and then I and all my friends get hated and dehumanized, the prestigious establishment people jump ship, and there’s no way to ever climb out of the pit. All you need for this to happen is one or two devoted detractors, and boy do we have them.
That seems to leave only two choices.
First, give up on ever having the support of important institutions like journalism and academia and business, slide into the black hole, and accept decent and interesting conversations with other black hole denizens as a consolation prize while also losing the chance at real influence or attracting people not already part of the movement.
Or, second, call out every single bad argument, make the insults and mistruths reputationally costly enough that people think at least a little before doing them – and end up with a reputation for being nitpicky, confrontational and fanatical all the time.
(or, as the old Tumblr saying goes, “STOP GETTING SO DEFENSIVE EVERY TIME I ATTACK YOU!”)
I don’t know any third solution. If somebody does, I would really like to hear it.