Nonfiction Writing Advice

People have asked me for advice on writing nonfiction online, so here are some tips:

1. Divide things into small chunks

Nobody likes walls of text. By this point most people know that you should have short, sweet paragraphs with line breaks between them. The shorter, the better. If you’re ever debating whether or not to end the paragraph and add a line break, err on the side of “yes”.

Once you understand this principle, you can generalize it to other aspects of your writing. For example, I stole the Last Psychiatrist’s style of section breaks – bold headers saying I., II., III., etc. Now instead of just paragraph breaks, you have two forms of break – paragraph break and section break. On some of my longest posts, including the Anti-Reactionary FAQ and Meditations on Moloch, I add a third level of break – in the first case, a supersection level in large fonts, in the latter, a subsection level with an underlined First, Second, etc. Again, if you’re ever debating more versus fewer breaks, err on the side of “more”.

Finishing a paragraph or section gives people a micro-burst of accomplishment and reward. It helps them chunk the basic insight together and remember it for later. You want people to be going – “okay, insight, good, another insight, good, another insight, good” and then eventually you can tie all of the insights together into a high-level insight. Then you can start over, until eventually at the end you tie all of the high-level insights together. It’s nice and structured and easy to work with. If they’re just following a winding stream of thought wherever it’s going, it’ll take a lot more mental work and they’ll get bored and wander off.

Remember that clickbait comes from big media corporations optimizing for easy readability, and that the epitome of clickbait is the listicle. But the insight of the listicle applies even to much more sophisticated intellectual pieces – people are much happier to read a long thing if they can be tricked into thinking it’s a series of small things.

2. Variety is the spice of life

This is really closely linked to the last tip. Your brain gets bored if it has to focus on the same thing for too long. But you can get around that by making an activity look like many different things. Sometimes this is as simple and as dumb as putting Roman numeral one, Roman numeral two, etc at natural breaks in the article, and then your brain thinks “Oh, I guess there are two different things here”. But other times you actually have to vary the reading experience.

Again, the clickbaiters are our gurus – they intersperse images throughout their content. The images aren’t always very useful, they don’t always add much, but now it’s not just a wall of text. It’s a wall of text and images.

Watch the blue twirly thing until you forget how bored you are by this essay, then continue.

Or you can be more subtle. Break your flow. Include links, so that the never-ending stream of black text on white background is broken up with some pretty blue. If you are very desperate, italicize certain words to simulate the stresses of normal speech and turn the visual experience into a visual-auditory experience. Vary the form of your sentences, as per Gary Provost:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

(Blockquotes are also a nice way to vary the reading experience)

But don’t just vary the appearance of your writing. Vary the tone. If you’re comfortable, shift between registers. When I was talking about SSRIs, I mentioned study after study after study – and then, around the middle, I told a kind of funny story about the time I had a job interview with the author of one of the studies. It was a complete break with the tone of the piece, which is dangerous – but my hope was that after having your mind dulled by twenty different pharmacology studies in a row, a quick first-person aside and silly story would be invigorating and give you the energy to wade through another twenty such studies.

3. Keep your flow of ideas strong

I lampshade my flow of ideas with a lot of words like “Also”, “But”, “Nevertheless”, “Relatedly”, and “So” (when I’m feeling pretentious, also “Thus”). These are the words your eighth-grade English teacher told you never to start paragraphs with. Your eighth-grade English teacher was wrong. If you’re writing three paragraphs that are three different pieces of evidence for the same conclusion that you’re going to present afterwards, make damn sure your readers know this. It could be as simple as:

It’s pretty obvious that X is true, and we have lots of converging lines of evidence for this. Some of the best evidence comes from the field of augury. For example:

First, A

Second, B

Third, C

Now, some people say that not-A, but that’s totally wrong. It only looks like not-A, because P. Likewise, although Q might make it look like not-B, Q can’t be trusted for several other reasons, for example R. And not-C is too silly to even think about. So despite the objections you always hear, the augurical evidence for X is strong.

Even more evidence comes from the field of haruspicy. All four major haruspical schools hold X as a major principle. School 1 says X because of D. School 2 says X because of E. School 3 says X because of F. And school 4 says X because of G. So although augury and haruspicy disagree on a lot, on the subject of X they are in complete accord.

Notice the underlined words holding up the structure of the argument. Not only is the argument nice and tight, but the role of each part in the whole is telegraphed beforehand. For example, the “now” that comes just after C is saying something like “Take a step back, I’m about to tell you something that might otherwise be controversial, but listen to what I have to say”. And the “likewise” just after P means something like “We just got down talking about not-A because P, here’s another argument with about the same structure”. Before any of the facts are inserted, you already know where they fit into the structure. And you’re able to abstract from the micro-level and get the bigger picture of some fact which is supported by both augury and haruspicy, which was the main point of the argument.

I overuse the world “actually” really badly. I’m trying to cut down on it, but I don’t want to stop completely. “Actually” is a great structural word. It distinguishes “Here’s how things look, here’s what’s actually true”. That sentence makes sense even without the “actually”, but I feel like the “actually” holds my readers’ hands through the process and makes the dichotomy better-defined.

Defend your flow of ideas at all costs. This might sound paradoxical after section 2, which was about how breaking flows is great. It is kind of paradoxical, and it is sort of hard to explain, but it’s the difference between “exciting” and “horrible”. Eating a foreign cuisine can be exciting because it’s so different from your usual fare; eating hot lava is even more different than your usual fare, but no longer fun. Play around with flow and variety, but never break the flow in a jarring way. And if you have to break a flow, make it the flow of your sentence, or the flow of your paragraph, but not the flow of ideas.

I agonize a lot about where it is versus isn’t appropriate to break the flow of ideas. Sometimes I use the really ugly solution of having an entire paragraph within parentheses, as if to say “I really wanted to bring this up here, but remember it’s not actually part of the structure of this argument!”

(this is a good meta-level example. I used the word “actually” there, and I wanted to point it out as an example of what I was talking about before, but doing that would break the flow of this whole argument about how you shouldn’t break the flow of things. So, in accordance with the prophecy, into a paragraph-long set of parentheses it goes. I’m starting to think maybe I’m not the best person to be giving writing advice…)

But sometimes you’ve just got to leave out an observation which would be interesting and helpful but not at that particular part of your argument. I think the phrase is “kill your darlings”.

4. Learn what should and shouldn’t be repeated.

A lot of the medical notes I read look like this:

Mr. Smith presents to the ER for evaluation. He is a 24 year old man. He is complaining of chest pain. He was in the shower today when he slipped and fell. He was able to get up and make dinner. He says the chest pain started two hours later. He says has never had chest pain before. He took two aspirin. He says that did not help. He says the pain is 8/10 at this time. He says it is pretty bad, but that the pain of hearing these repetitive sentence structures is even worse.

If two sentences in a row start with the same word, it sounds unwieldy. If three or four do, it sounds bizarre. If it’s a whole paragraph’s worth, people start questioning their own sanity and trying to claw their eyes out.

A counterexample: what about the paragraph just above, starting with “If two sentences…”? I started with “if” three times in a row, and it didn’t sound bad at all! What’s up?

Deliberate use of parallelism is okay and even commendable. Usually this involves using the same structure to call attention to certain differences. You can tell if something is good parallelism by saying it aloud. When I say the paragraph above aloud, I’m using special intonation, especially in the places where the sentences differ (ie “two”, “three or four”, “whole paragraph’s worth”). Here your reader knows what you’re trying to do and it’s interesting. In the medical history example, there’s no deliberate attempt at parallelism in order to compare and contrast. You’re just doing the same thing again and again.

But it’s not just about first words of sentences. Consider something like this:

China has the largest population of any country in the world. It also has the largest military. Because of China’s powerful military, some of its neighbors are afraid of it. China has reassured its neighbors many times that it’s peaceful, but they’re not convinced.

This sounds off to me. The repetition of “largest population” and “largest military” is done clumsily. There are a lot of ways to make it a virtuous parallelism – for example “China has the largest population – and largest military – in the world” or “China has the largest population in the world; it also boasts the largest military” – but as it is, it just sounds weird. When you come to “largest military”, there’s an immediate mental callback to “largest population”, but you’re not sure why and it’s just distracting.

Likewise, the repetition of “neighbors” is weird. It could be solved by changing the second use to “those neighbors”, which sort of telegraphs that you know you’re repeating “neighbors” and did it on purpose. Otherwise it has the same unfortunate dull-sounding cadence as the medical history.

You could also solve both those problems by just varying the structure enough that the problem goes away. For example:

China is the most populous nation in the world. It also boasts the world’s largest military, which has provoked concern among other nations in the region. Although China has tried to reassure its neighbors of its peaceful intentions, they remain unconvinced.

This is hard and really deserves a book-length treatment. Without the book, all I can say is to realize that any repetition of words and structures will stand out to your reader, and make sure that their standing-out emphasizes your point instead of just being confusing.

5. Use microhumor

You’ve heard of microaggressions. Now try microhumor. It’s things that aren’t a joke in the laugh-out-loud told-by-a-comedian sense, but still put the tiniest ghost of a smile on your reader’s face while they’re skimming through them.

I learned this art from Dave Barry and Scott Adams, both of whom are humor writers and use normal macrohumor, but both of whom pepper the spaces in between jokes with microhumor besides. Your best best is to read everything they’ve written, your second best bet is to listen to me fumblingly try to explain it.

Here’s a paragraph from my “about” page:

Topics here tend to center vaguely around this meta-philosophical idea of how people evaluate arguments for their beliefs, and especially whether this process is spectacularly broken in a way that may or may not doom us all.

There are a couple of things here that might qualify as microhumor. Take “especially whether this process is spectacularly broken in a way that may or may not doom us all”. It’s not really a joke. If I were a comedian and recited that sentence, you wouldn’t start laughing. But it’s kind of funny to be starting with what sounds like a pretty dry academic idea (“how people evaluate arguments for their beliefs” and whether the process is broken), and then confound expectations with an exaggerated (well, maybe) warning about it dooming us all. The phrase “may or may not doom us all” does the same thing on a smaller scale: “may or may not” is a pretty reserved, careful sounding phrase, whereas “doom us all” is obviously the opposite of reserved (I also like the similar construction “it might have sort of kind of been the worst idea ever”).

You can actually go a long way toward microhumor just with hedge words (“vaguely”, “sort of”), exaggerations (“the worst thing ever”, “doom us all”), and sometimes the combination of the two.

I think this microhumor stuff is really important, maybe the number one thing that separates really enjoyable writers from people who are technically proficient but still a chore to read. Think about it with a really simplistic behaviorist model where you keep doing things that give you little bursts of reward, and stop doing things that don’t. There are only a couple of sources of reward in reading. One of them is getting important insights. Another is hearing things that support your ingroups or bash your outgroups. And a third – maybe the biggest – is humor. Who ever had trouble slogging through a really hilarious book of jokes?

Nobody can be super funny all the time, and an article on the economic crisis filled with man-walks-into-a-bar-style jokes would be jarring and weird. But micro-humor really works. It works at a background level where people don’t notice it working, and it makes people keep coming back for more.

Humor is also disarming. It’s hard to hate somebody who’s making you laugh. I don’t mean somebody who’s making bigoted jokes that offend you, or writing political cartoons about how awful your ingroup is. Those people are easy to hate. I mean somebody who’s making you laugh, right now. If you can make people laugh while challenging their cherished beliefs, you’ve got a tiny bit more good will than usual.

6. Use concrete examples

Consider the following proposition:

In a study measuring whether implicit attitudes determine an outcome, you need to make sure the implicit attitudes aren’t serving as accurate proxies for underlying fundamentals.

This is the thesis of one of my more popular posts, Perceptions Of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability, but I don’t present it like that. Instead, I start by saying:

Imagine a study with the following methodology. You survey a bunch of people to get their perceptions of who is a smoker (“97% of his close friends agree Bob smokes”). Then you correlate those numbers with who gets lung cancer. Your statistics program lights up like a Christmas tree with a bunch of super-strong correlations. You conclude “Perception of being a smoker causes lung cancer”, and make up a theory about how negative stereotypes of smokers cause stress which depresses the immune system. The media reports that as “Smoking Doesn’t Cause Cancer, Stereotypes Do”.

Whether or not you understood or agreed with the abstract version thesis, you (hopefully) find the problems with the nicotine example intuitively obvious. Now if I give you the principle “in a study measuring whether implicit attitudes determine an outcome, you need to make sure the implicit attitudes aren’t serving as accurate proxies for underlying fundamentals”, that principle makes sense and you will tend to agree with it. Now we can move on to harder problems, like the actual study in the post, where it’s not as obvious and where a lot of people thought they’d proven that the implicit attitude determined the outcome.

If you’re going to be making a complicated point, start with a concrete example. If you’re going to be making a very complicated point, start with a lot of concrete examples. When I wrote Meditations on Moloch, probably the most complicated point I’ve ever tried to express on this blog, I began with fourteen different examples before I even started trying to express the underlying principle. I hoped that readers would be able to triangulate my point by finding what all fourteen examples had in common, and most of them did.

This is related to an idea I keep stressing here, which is that people rarely have consistent meta-level principles. Instead, they’ll endorse the meta-level principle that supports their object-level beliefs at any given moment. The example I keep giving is how when the federal government was anti-gay, conservatives talked about the pressing need for federal intervention and liberals insisted on states’ rights; when the federal government became pro-gay, liberals talked about the pressing need for federal intervention and conservatives insisted on states’ rights.

So if you want to convince someone of a meta-level principle, you need to build it up from examples that support it. And if you want the principle to be well-founded and stable under reflective equilibrium, you also need to present the examples that don’t support it and explain why you didn’t make your principle out of those instead.

And if you want to convince somebody that their meta-level principle is wrong, the quickest and most effective way to do it is to show that it proves too much, then provide them with a better principle that preserves the things they want but doesn’t prove things they don’t want.

But my point is that all of this has to be done on the object-level, with the excursions to the meta-level level being few, far-between, and justified with extensive application to the object-level. Otherwise you’re too likely to shoot off into the entirely abstract and end up sounding like Hegel:

The good is the idea, or unity of the conception of the will with the particular will. Abstract right, well-being, the subjectivity of consciousness, and the contingency of external reality, are in their independent and separate existences superseded in this unity, although in their real essence they are contained in it and preserved. This unity is realized freedom, the absolute final cause of the world. Every stage is properly the idea, but the earlier steps contain the idea only in more abstract form. The I, as person, is already the idea, although in its most abstract guise. The good is the idea more completely determined; it is the unity of the conception of will with the particular will. It is not something abstractly right, but has a real content, whose substance constitutes both right and well-being.

Please don’t end up sounding like Hegel.

And a free tip for this: use words like “me” and “you” instead of “a person” or “someone”. Compare:

“If someone does the calculations with this methodology, the result will probably be nonsense.”


“If you do the calculations with that methodology, you’ll probably end up with nonsense.”

I think the second sounds snappier and more concrete.

7. Figure out who you’re trying to convince, then use the right tribal signals

Your role model in this (and in nothing else) should be Donald Trump. Think about it. He supports Planned Parenthood, doesn’t want to cut entitlement programs, condemns Dubya and the Iraq war, supports affirmative action, supports medical marijuana, etc. If somebody were to tell you last year that a man with those policy positions would not only be leading the Republican primary, but leading even among the most conservative voters, you’d think they were crazy. The rest of the country has been trying to convince conservative Republicans to be more comfortable with those positions for decades, and we’ve failed miserably. Now Trump just waltzes in and everyone is like “Yeah, okay, sure”?

The secret of Trump’s success is that most conservative Republicans don’t really care about medical marijuana (or whatever) for its own sake. They care because opposing medical marijuana symbolizes membership in their tribe, they feel like their tribe is persecuted, they have a fierce loyalty to their tribe, and darned if they’re going to support somebody who doesn’t use the right shibboleths.

Trump throws them a bone. He says things like “illegal immigrants are rapists” that no moderate or liberal would ever say, things that would horrify them. He uses all the affectations of being working class. He may not quite prove he’s “one of us”, but he very effectively proves he’s not Just A Typical Outgroup Member. When Trump says “Legalize medical marijuana”, they don’t hear “I’m yet another RINO liberal pansy who hates Christian values and wants everybody to become reefer-smoking hippies”. So they only hear something boring about the regulations around pain relief medication – and who cares about those?

Trump’s Law is that if you want to convince people notorious for being unconvinceable, half the battle is using the right tribal signals to sound like you’re one of them.

For example, when I’m trying to convince conservatives, I veer my signaling way to the right. I started my defense of trigger warnings with “I complain a lot about the social justice movement”. Then I cited Jezebel and various Ethnic Studies professors being against trigger warnings. Then I tried to argue that trigger warnings actually go together well with strong versions of freedom of speech. At this point I haven’t even started arguing in favor of trigger warnings, I’ve just set up an unexpected terrain in which trigger warnings can be seen as a conservative thing supported by people who like free speech and don’t like social justice, and opposition to trigger warnings can be seen as the sort of very liberal thing that people like Jezebel and Ethnic Studies professors support. The important thing isn’t that I convince anyone that trigger warnings are really on the right – that’s a tall order – but that the rightists reading my argument feel like I’m working with them rather than against them. I’m not just another leftist saying “Support trigger warnings because it’s the leftist thing and you should be leftist and everyone on the right is terrible!”

My reward was seeing a bunch of hard-core anti-social-justice types trip over themselves in horror at actually being kind of convinced, which was pretty funny.

On the other hand, when I’m trying to convince feminists of something, I start with a trigger warning – partly because I genuinely believe it’s a good idea and those posts can be triggering, but also partly because starting with a trigger warning is a tribal signal that people on the right rarely use. It means that either I’m on their side, or I’m being unusually respectful to it. In this it’s a lot like Trump saying illegal immigrants are rapists – something the outgroup would never, ever do.

(And that’s not just my theory – I’ve gotten lots of angry comments about the trigger warnings from people further right than me, saying that using them makes me an idiot or a pushover or a cuck or something. I am always happy to get these comments, because it means the signaling value of using trigger warnings remains intact.)

Crossing tribal signaling boundaries is by far the most important persuasive technique I know, besides which none of the others even deserve to be called persuasive techniques at all. But to make it work, you have to actually understand the signals, and you have to have at least an ounce of honest sympathy for the other side. You can’t just be like “HELLO THERE, FELLOW LIBERALS! LET’S CREATE INTRUSIVE BIG GOVERNMENT AGENCIES TOGETHER! BUT BEFORE WE DO, I HAVE SOMETHING I WANT TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE SECOND AMENDMENT…”

Which I guess means that being able to consider both sides of an issue sort of gives you superpowers. That’s pretty encouraging.

8. Anticipate and defuse counterarguments

Here’s something I’ve noticed. Something like:

Alice: We need to invade Syria. I know that there’s always the risk of creating a Iraq-style power vacuum in these situations, but the threat from ISIS is too great.

Sounds a whole lot better than something like:

Alice: We need to invade Syria.
Bob: But isn’t there a risk that will create a Iraq-style power vacuum?
Alice: The threat from ISIS is too great.

The second one sounds too much like Alice hadn’t really thought about the power vacuum thing, Bob called her on it, and she kind of blew him off with a tangentially related point. The first one sounds more like Alice is a careful thinker who has weighed all the risks and benefits and finally decided in favor of invasion. This is true even though Alice’s reasoning is the same in both situations.

Or what about this:

Alice: We need to invade Syria. I know that there’s always the risk of creating a Iraq-style power vacuum in these situations, but the threat from ISIS is too great.
Bob: I know the threat from ISIS is serious, but I’m still really worried about that power vacuum thing.

Bob sounds kind of weak here. Come on, Bob. Alice already raised the power vacuum issue! We’re done with that!

The moral of the story is that you sound a lot more credible, and your opponents a lot less persuasive, if you’re the one who brings the possible counterarguments up yourself. This is true regardless of how effective your countercounterarguments are.

There’s also a visibility advantage. Suppose Alice puts her argument on her blog. Bob quotes her and puts his counterargument on his blog. Maybe the readers of Bob’s blog won’t read Alice’s blog where they can see her countercounterargument. Maybe they don’t even read the comments of Bob’s blog. If Alice addressed the obvious counterarguments in her first post, Bob has been preempted from blogging about them separately, or at least has lost his low-hanging fruit and has to stretch further before he finds something he can talk about. And if he does quote Alice, all the countercounterarguments against his point will be right there for his readers.

This isn’t just good rhetorical practice, it’s good epistemic practice. A lot of Internet arguments are the same ten or twenty issues re-examined time after time after time after time. If you’re arguing in favor of gun control, you have no excuse not to realize somebody will bring up “But don’t guns save lives by helping people with self-defense?”. And in fact, if you’re arguing in favor of gun control, you had better have thought long and hard yourself about whether or not guns save lives through self-defense. If you’ve never considered that, you have no business having an opinion. But if you have considered and rejected that, then you might as well run your audience through your thought process now (and sound more convincing) now rather than wait until some pro-gun person brings it up (and be caught flat-footed like Alice in the second example).

The logical conclusion of this process is that you address all the arguments, counterarguments, and countercounterarguments in the space you’re covering, nobody can disagree with you, and you’re self-evidently right. Sometimes this takes a lot of text, but better a long argument which is accurate and convincing than a short snappy argument which might be wrong or unpersuasive. Besides, by this point you’ve absorbed all these other tips and hopefully write in an engaging way that makes your readers want to keep going no matter how many levels of countercountercountercounterargument you spring on them.

(Your other option here is just to put this stuff in footnotes and let your readers decide whether or not to go through them. It’s very satisfying to answer somebody’s stupid objection with “Actually, I think you’ll find I disproved that in footnote 17.”)

There’s a special variant of this you need when you’re in shark-infested waters, debating very controversial things with very hostile people. Here the “counterargument” is going to take the form of trying to destroy your reputation by using one of your comments, taken out of context, to prove you’re a bad person with unconscionable beliefs who should never be listened to.

For example, suppose I’m trying to explain some social phenomenon and I mention that rich people get better grades in school than poor people. A hostile opponent could accuse me of making a stupid stereotype and saying that all rich people are better than all poor people; then he could condescendingly “correct” me by saying that actually the within-class differences are larger than the between-class ones. Or might say that I need to realize school grades aren’t the only thing and there are much more important determinants of people’s worth as a human being. Or he might accuse me of being a Social Darwinist, and “correct” me by saying that maybe this is because of the stresses of poverty.

Now, in fact I neither said nor meant any of those things. But if somebody accuses me of them, and I have to plead that I really didn’t mean it that way, honest – then they can double down and say that my protests of innocence are the surest sign of my guilt. Whether they succeed or not, I’m on the defensive. We’ve shifted from debating whatever point I wanted to make in the first place, to debating whether Scott is a monocle-wearing Social Darwinist who believes all poor people deserve to starve on the street.

The solution is really simple: anticipate and defuse counterarguments. If I wanted to make the class/grades point, it would go something like this:

According to [study], students from families earning >$100,000 score have an average high school GPA X points higher than students from families earning < $20,000. This obviously doesn't mean all rich people do better than all poor people, and it doesn't rule out causes like the stress of poverty hurting people's brains. But it does suggest a possible explanation for [whatever phenomenon I was trying to use this to explain].

A related note: when talking about controversial things to a potentially hostile audience, look through every single sentence of your work and imagine how it would sound if it were quoted out of context and used as a summary of who you are as a human being. If you don’t, eventually someone will try this and you’ll be unprepared.

9. Use strong concept handles

The idea of concept-handles is itself a concept-handle; it means a catchy phrase that sums up a complex topic.

Eliezer Yudkowsky is really good at this. “belief in belief“, “semantic stopsigns“, “applause lights“, “Pascal’s mugging“, “adaptation-executors vs. fitness-maximizers“, “reversed stupidity vs. intelligence“, “joy in the merely real” – all of these are interesting ideas, but more important they’re interesting ideas with short catchy names that everybody knows, so we can talk about them easily.

I have very consciously tried to emulate that when talking about ideas like trivial inconveniences, meta-contrarianism, toxoplasma, and Moloch.

I would go even further and say that this is one of the most important things a blog like this can do. I’m not too likely to discover some entirely new social phenomenon that nobody’s ever thought about before. But there are a lot of things people have vague nebulous ideas about that they can’t quite put into words. Changing those into crystal-clear ideas they can manipulate and discuss with others is a big deal.

If you figure out something interesting and very briefly cram it into somebody else’s head, don’t waste that! Give it a nice concept-handle so that they’ll remember it and be able to use it to solve other problems!

10. Recognize that applying these rules will probably start disastrously

There’s a pattern across almost all skills, where people start off doing things half-baked but sometimes with a bit of native talent. The experts teach them The Right Way To Do Things, and they switch to doing it in a stilted formulaic way that makes everybody else cringe. Eventually they become better and better. Finally, they do things that completely contradict the rules they were taught, and it works great. I think it was in the context of poetry that somebody said “Learn the rules first, then you can break them as much as you want.”

Untrained natural writing is often bad, but at least honestly bad. Untrained writing that tries to force itself to do something because somebody told them it was a good idea is much worse. Think of the old adage “If you’re giving a speech, start out with a joke.” It’s great advice when done right. Now imagine all the ways it could go wrong – terrible jokes, inappropriate jokes, forced jokes, speeches that absolutely shouldn’t start off with jokes, et cetera. A speech that doesn’t start off with a joke is often good; a speech that shouldn’t start out with a joke but has been forced into doing so never is. Eventually you end up shouting “Just use your instincts!” at people who do not actually have instincts.

Use the advice in this post wrong, and you end up transforming the famous quote from the Declaration of Independence into something like:

Although we agree King George has many good qualities, we nevertheless hold these truths to be more or less self-evident. Truth number one, that all men are created equal. For example, they should all be equally allowed to speak freely about important issues like taxes. It’s possible that there might be some times they shouldn’t be equal, like children having fewer rights than adults, but this are just minor exceptions. [insert picture of Liberty Bell here] Truth number two, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…

Almost the only good advice in any discipline is “develop instincts, then use them”. While you’re waiting for the instincts to develop, or in order to push them along, it’s sometimes helpful to hear some other people’s advice. But do. not. force. it.

George Orwell ended his own list of writing advice with “Break any of these rules rather than say something outright barbarous”. As usual, George Orwell is right.

I also like Piet Hein’s commentary:

There is
one art,
no more,
no less:
to do
all things
with art-

594 thoughts on “Nonfiction Writing Advice

  1. Kai Teorn

    > if you want to convince people notorious for being unconvinceable, half the battle is using the right tribal signals to sound like you’re one of them.

    Giving signals sometimes works – but it’s too easy to sound insincere. Investing more than just learning signals – that is, actually familiarizing yourself with your opponents’ worldview – is much better. But I want to take this even further – perhaps even carry this to the point of absurdity, make this a paradox: to really win over your opponents, you must fully become one of them; you have to *join* them before you cab argue. I call this *engaging* (in my Everday meaning of the word, see

  2. Vox Imperatoris

    I’m watching the Republican debate, and it is so unimaginably terrible.

    It’s the first one I’ve watched since the very first one last summer. That one was actually pretty good.

    This one is just personal attacks and competition to say just how much they hate illegal immigrants so far. And how we need to stop “trade deficits” and hire Americans.

    Edit: it’s gotten slightly better, but only slightly.

    I have to say, I was amused by Rubio standing there against Trump with a “who the hell is this guy?” expression on his face, repeatedly asking Trump to explain his nonexistent healthcare plan. And I don’t remember exactly how it went, but his “you’re plan’s got five things: you’re gonna win, win win, you’re gonna make deals,” etc. line was hilarious.

    Who the hell cares about their tax returns?!

    1. Vox Imperatoris

      Also, why do people get so worked up about the damn border wall? I don’t give a shit one way or the other whether they build a wall.

      “I think we should keep out the vast majority of people who want to immigrate to the United States and make it illegal for the ones who do come to be employed”: mainstream Democratic position.

      “I think we should do the same thing but build a border wall”: horrible racist position.

      Our current policy is outrageous. But a border wall is no more outrageous; I don’t know why anyone would focus on that.

      1. jaimeastorga2000

        The actual mainstream Democratic position is to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration until it becomes politically feasible to grant illegal immigrants amnesty and thus end up with a vast army of cheap votes, much like the actual mainstream Republican position is to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration and thus end up with a vast army of cheap labor. A border wall is a pretty strong signal that you are not planning to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration, hence why our globalist elites find it incredibly offensive.

        1. David Friedman

          Concerning a border wall:

          The U.S. hosts about fifty million tourists a year. Unless the government is willing to very sharply reduce that, how do you prevent people from coming in legally as tourists and staying illegally?

          One of the students my price theory textbook was dedicated to had earlier been an illegal immigrant from somewhere in Latin America, and that was how his family came in.

          1. Nita

            how do you prevent people from coming in legally as tourists and staying illegally?

            Possibly the same way you’re doing it right now — by requiring potential tourists from poorer countries to convince a skeptical U.S. official that they have excellent, documented reasons not to stay?

            Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (also cited as 8 United States Code § 1184(b)) states that most aliens must be presumed to be intending to remain in the US, until and unless they are able to show that they are entitled to non-immigrant status.

            I’m not sure how a wall would change any of that.

    2. BBA

      This isn’t the open thread, or the most recent post. Why are you posting this stuff here instead of those more logical places?

      1. Vox Imperatoris

        1) The latest Open Thread is totally dead, but people are still posting on this one.

        2) The latest thread is still getting lots of discussion on the actual topic of psychiatry, and I don’t want to interrupt it needlessly.

        3) Previous to the latest thread, I already made a couple of comments here about the presidential race, and it seems natural to group them together.

      2. Whatever Happened to Anonymous

        When you have strong opinions about things, every thread looks like an open thread.

  3. Vox Imperatoris

    Filed under “truth coming out of her well”: this article criticizing Republican tax plans argues that the tax cuts are unsustainable by comparing revenue lost over a decade to annual expenditures.

    They don’t even mention that they do this, or that something might be wrong with it.

    Also, Ted Cruz is extremely unlikely to get the nomination, but his tax plan is pretty great. It’s very similar to what I proposed a few threads ago: he eliminates all other major taxes, like the corporate tax and the payroll tax, and replaces them with a 10% flat income tax and a 16% “business flat tax” (i.e. a VAT). The 10% income tax, while eliminating most distortionary deductions, also includes a $25,000 annual deduction for all investment. This means that most people’s investment is tax-free (since most people do not save more than $25,000 a year). So it is almost a pure consumption tax.

    1. JBeshir

      Do they have any estimates on how much revenue this would generate calculated? That VAT is lower that any European country’s VAT. In the UK VAT (at 20%) is only about 20% of total tax receipts (including all local taxes), compared to income tax’s 45% (with local per-household tax, fuel taxes, business rates, other stuff making up the remaining 35%).

      I’d expect you’d need a lot higher than 16% to compensate for cutting income tax to a third or less of what it used to be and the loss of other tax methods, unless you also had a plan to cut government spending in half or more.

      Edit: I’m not entirely clear why, but a VAT doesn’t seem to raise anything anywhere near a similar percentage income tax; it might be that things like rent and food (depending on type) being non-applicable or zero rated is responsible and an alternative implementation could fix that by not zero-rating them, but I’d want to see expected revenues worked out before I would trust such a fix existed.

      (And, obviously, the implication if it isn’t viable or does require extreme measures to make work is that you’re being lied to about what they actually intend to do, since they almost certainly don’t actually intend to do those extreme measures or enact something not viable.)

      1. Protagoras

        Pretty sure $4.7 trillion is for ten years (the total budget for one year isn’t quite $4.7 trillion yet).

    2. Vox Imperatoris

      Embarrassing but honest correction: as Protagoras pointed out, I seriously misinterpreted the way the article was comparing the numbers. They are comparing equals to equals after all, considering outlays over ten years versus tax decreases over ten years.

      So the first part of that I retract entirely. I still like the general structure of the Cruz tax plan, but the rate is unfeasibly low without getting rid of Medicare and Social Security in the very near term. However, that’s no less likely to happen than the Cruz tax plan in general. 😉

      1. JBeshir

        For what it’s worth I took a look at the source documents myself to try to get a grasp of things and didn’t notice that either.

        1. Vox Imperatoris

          The embarrassing part is that I have so little numerical feel for governmental spending that this didn’t immediately jump out to me. Only one order of magnitude off, though. 😉

      2. Whatever Happened to Anonymous

        Worth keeping in mind that the total expenses for the 2016 Federal Budget are around 4 trillion.

        1. Vox Imperatoris

          I feel like if I had said the total federal spending was $40 trillion a year, I would have realized that’s too big and double-checked.

          But in thinking about all the other numbers, which are also ten times too big, and add up to that amount, I lose the sense of scale and just roll with it.


          In reminds me of some picture on the internet I can’t find, critiquing some absurdly scaled-up variant of a star destroyer from some kind of Star Wars fan art or story. Saying that if you had one ten times bigger than this, which was ten times bigger than that, and so on, the control bridge’s window would be like ten miles across, and the elevators would be like transcontinental train lines.

          1. Whatever Happened to Anonymous

            To be completely fair, I think you were actually only half an order of magnitude off, rather than a full one (Are half orders of magnitude a thing?)

          2. Vox Imperatoris

            They’re basically the same thing as common logarithms, right? So yes, they can be fractional.

            But no, I’m pretty sure I was off by a whole order of magnitude. Because I was thinking “No, you can’t compare $8.6 in revenue losses over ten years to $6 trillion annual total military spending.” Not realizing that we don’t spend $6 trillion annually on the military; that’s more than we spend on everything.

          3. Whatever Happened to Anonymous

            Now we’re partners in dumb calculation mistakes!

            However, that brings up the question, is the 10 year cost just multiplying the current one by 10? I’d expect medicare expenditure to increase significantly in the future, barring reforms of some sort.

  4. Marvy

    > Still, I think all of this touches on a much more important question: why don’t whales get cancer more often?

    Milli-humor through sheer unexpectedness

  5. FullMeta_Rationalist

    It occurs to me that one commonality among effective writers is being well read. Not just technically well read within their own field, but having broad knowledge of various classics in other fields and being able to refer to them offhand.

    E.g. I remember Scott discussing Carol Dweck’s studies on the Growth Mindset. In the post, he wrote that he may not understand Derrida very well, but analyzing scientific papers sorta resembles Deconstructionism. I remember another SSC post mentioned an economics book titled A Farewell to Alms. And I remember a competition between two researchers to fit the most Pink Floyd lyrics into their research paper titles.

    I can also attest through my own life experiences that including extraneous references can make a dry, tedious text a little less dry and tedious. I remember during an English class, we were asked to analyze a poem and present our analysis to our classmates. During my presentation, I made a comparison to an Everybody Loves Raymond episode and included an obscure quote from The Sword of Shannara Trilogy. Judging by my classmates’ reactions, they received it well and were kept engaged (even though all of them were likely unfamiliar with either work, which means there’s more to this than just ingroup-signaling).

    Silly Easter-eggs like these feel refreshing. But this is often overlooked. Probably because it’s considered “content” rather than technique.

    1. Arbitrary_greay

      References are a application of the techniques outlined in the post. They serve as tonal breaks and signal section breaks. They can reinforce the flow of ideas by serving as examples. And they are potential points of entry for people to relate to, so you want a wide variety of references, to have the largest potential audience that can comprehend the points made in the writing.

      And it’s also an indication of the author being more of a fox.

      1. FullMeta_Rationalist

        I want to agree and disagree simultaneously. On one hand, I think the advice “include variety” can definitely be interpreted as “include a variety of topics”. On the other hand, I feel like there’s a subtle but important difference between “penguin taco catfish LOL so random” and being fluent in 8 languages. Surely you see the difference. But technically, are they not both “variety”?

        Since I’m in a lisp state of mind, an analogy might be: the difference between changing a function name and importing a macro. I’m also reminded of how the term “Political Correctness” is an important term that we couldn’t live without.

        1. Arbitrary_greay

          Yes, the “it’s funny, because it’s a thing I’ve heard of” complaint about reference humor comes from when the references have nothing to do with the topic at hand, but are literally, just thrown in as a thing the reader has heard of.

          Good reference integration means that the references should be either valid examples/counter-examples, or more riskily, used with clear irony/sarcasm.

          If you still have variety while following that principle, it just proves that the ideal/argument has wide applicability. For arguments that are deliberately narrow in scope, references may be more necessarily less varied as well, depending on how confident the writer is in their deployment of metaphors.

          1. FullMeta_Rationalist

            I can’t help but think there’s still maybe something worth investigating here that I’m having trouble articulating yet isn’t sufficiently captured by the term “variety”.

            Scott used examples in the Dweck post, but the Derrida remark wasn’t one of them. Examples are on a lower level of abstraction, but the Derrida remark was on a equivalent level of abstraction. When I saw the Derrida remark, my mind didn’t think “that’s a nice way to phrase it”, or “that’s a satisfactory way to phrase it”, but “that’s the correct way to phrase it”. It’s as if the Shel Silvertein Pacman had found its missing piece. Including the Deridda remark gave the the Dweck post a unique dimension that couldn’t be replaced in the same way one exemplifying anecdote could be replaced by a different exemplifying anecdote.

            I don’t understand category theory. But if I did, I think I could better articulate this. Because the relationship between the Dweck post and the Derrida remark somehow differs from the relationship between the Dweck post and its examples.

            I’m also reminded of when Scott Aaronson (iirc) said that taking certain math courses like statistics, linear algebra, et al is lifechanging because it loads new software modules into one’s brain. Also related is the phrase “le mot juste” (which I adore because it’s conspicuously autological).

  6. Vox Imperatoris


    a) Are we doomed to have Trump as the Republican nominee?

    b) Would President Trump destroy the cohesion of the Republican Party to such an extent that it breaks up?

    c) If no to the above, would President Trump, or even Nominee Trump, destroy the Sixth Party System and produce a realignment?

    d) Would the destruction of the Republican Party and/or the Sixth Party System be a good thing or a bad thing?

    1. Vox Imperatoris

      My very provisional answers:

      a) At this point, I’m going to go a little ahead of the predictions markets and say 80% chance.

      b) The base rate of party breakups is very low, and it seems that they’ve only gotten more institutionally embedded over time. I think there will be a “Republican Party” and a “Democratic Party”, no matter what they end up standing for. But if there were a time for it, this seems like it, with the base and the “donor class” totally opposed. So I will say 5% chance the Republican Party dissolves or splinters on a “Bull Moose Party” level, conditional on Trump’s election. If he loses, 1% chance.

      c) It’s happened six times in 240 years, so the naive base rate is 2.5%. Yet I’m going to say there’s at least a 25% chance, given the situation. My gut tells me more like 50% or more.

      d) The libertarian dream is to destroy the two-party system as it currently stands, such that we can have a faction consistently for social and economic freedom. However, I don’t think such a realignment is likely because the votes aren’t there. What I see as more likely is something like Trumpesque protectionist populism versus Bloombergesque globalist technocracy. Seeing as the current party divide is pretty bad, I give it even odds, 50%, that this would be better.

    2. onyomi

      It seems like, in the absence of weekly OTs, people will turn the latest post into a de facto OT. This could mean people have ADD, but I take it as reason for weekly OTs.

      Re. the questions:

      a. Seems very, very likely. I predicted a Rubio win not too long ago based on what seemed like his smooth, palatable charisma and the precedent that the boring guy the party likes usually wins. But this was before his robotic gaffe and New Hampshire. At this point it’s clear that Trump is by far the most charismatic persona in the race, and I think there’s a strong precedent for charisma “trumping” all else in politics (this seems even more true in general elections than primaries, which doesn’t bode well for Hillary).

      Some have suggested Cruz should drop out to support Rubio in exchange for the VP spot or an appointment, but I think the reverse would actually have the best chance of stopping Trump because if Cruz dropped out I think his voters would go to Trump, not Rubio–which shows the depths of the anti-establishment sentiment this time. But this won’t happen, anyway, because maybe the only person the establishment hates more than Trump is Cruz, and because Rubio won’t likely give up his mantle of establishment standard-bearer.

      b. Probably not. If Trump loses the general then the establishment will say “I told you so.” If he wins, they’ll pretend they were with him all along.

      c. Maybe. He seems more likely than anyone else currently running to shift the dynamics: blacks and, surprisingly, Hispanics, seem to like him more than any recent Republican for example.

      d. yes, because the status quo is awful, acrimonious, dysfunctional…

      1. Douglas Knight

        Not to disagree about charisma,* but I am concerned about people’s ability to judge past charisma. People rewrite history to declare that the winners always were charismatic. People are unable to watch past performances without knowing who the winner turned out to be.

        * eg, I think that the betting market odds of 35% of a Trump general win conditional on a primary win are too low.

        1. onyomi

          It’s a good point, and, to some extent, I am only judging Trump to be so charismatic retroactively because of how much obviously personality-based support he’s getting. I don’t personally find him very convincing, though he’s certainly more entertaining to watch than most of the other candidates.

          Another reason I now judge him the most charismatic is because of how criticism doesn’t stick to him. He has an attitude–maybe it’s confidence, maybe it’s careful choice of words–that just seems to make criticism roll off him and stick to whoever’s criticizing. Not being a hypnotism expert, I don’t think I’d have predicted in advance that this would happen, but given that it’s happened, charisma seems one way to describe it (though maybe charisma can tend to be a bit of a cop-out description, like “why does this drug cause sleep? Because it has a dormative property”).

          This seems to be a problem with charisma in general: millions of people followed Hitler with great fervor because he was so charismatic. How do we know he was so charismatic? Because millions of people followed him with fervor. If you had just shown me a video of Hitler being Hitler and I somehow didn’t know anything about him and you removed any screaming crowds, I don’t know if I’d find him very charismatic at all (though admittedly he seems to be a great public speaker in a way which might be objectively judgeable).

          That said, there seem to be much more black-and-white cases: Ronald Reagan was obviously more charismatic than Michael Dukakis, G W Bush than Kerry, Clinton than Bush Sr and Dole, and Obama than McCain or Romney (or, indeed, Hillary, arguably). I think people knew Kerry wasn’t very charismatic when he got nominated, as opposed to just a retroactive judgment.

          1. Douglas Knight

            I don’t think those are all obvious. Reagan and Clinton are generally considered charismatic. Maybe Obama. But I don’t think Bush Sr was particularly more charismatic than Dukakis or Bush Jr than his opponents. In fact, I think Kerry and McCain were considered charismatic early in their careers.

          2. onyomi

            It’s true Bush Sr wasn’t very charismatic, but Dukakis seemed so unusually uncharismatic that he warranted a mention. Though being the taller candidate, all else equal, seems to translate into increased perception of charisma, generally. Not enough for Jeb, though, apparently.

      2. houseboatonstyx

        Charisma has two edges. “Hey, I’m a real red-blooded Red Triber and no mistake” would bring out Red Tribers to vote for him. And Blue Tribers to vote against him, which would benefit any Democrat who was seen as bland. The more charisma Hillary has for her causes (or Sanders for his), would bring out opponents of those causes to vote against those candidates.

    3. JBeshir

      On a, I’d say 80% if I hadn’t looked at a prediction market first.

      On b, my impression as an outsider who’s spent a while trying to track the dynamics was that the answer was probably not because basically all the parts of the Republican coalition except the small government cons would face total irrelevancy on their own, and have no alternative plausible allies. And the small government cons base almost universally doesn’t want to split, even if their would-be thought leaders would.

      As I see it, the social conservatives/crunchy cons are going to kind of end up in the wilderness politically for a while whatever they do at this point*, their belief that the rest are going to quietly throw their preferences under the bus at every opportunity seems well-founded, but no one is going to give them a better offer any time soon, the other members of the Republican coalition seem to be the only people returning their calls so to speak, and any effort to strike out alone would be a really obvious failure very quickly. They don’t seem to *like* the ethnonationalist, pro-torture, boorish and obviously unvirtuous aspects of Trump very much, but given the choice between having only enemies and having them as a semi-friend, well, right now they’re not in a position to be choosy.

      The small government cons seem pretty convinced their own establishment has become part of the whole “government officials will be some mix of lazy, inept, and corrupt most of the time they’re not actively watched” thing that’s one of their bigger concerns. That establishment hates Trump, because he’s not pro small government, because they don’t like ethnonationalism, because he’s a very rude person. But they can’t split off without at least a sizeable chunk of their base siding with them, and I don’t think I see that happening. Their base seems to be more pissed at them than they dislike Trump for not being very “small government”, is pretty apathetic about ethnonationalism, and takes his rudeness as a good tribal signal. While that will probably change back eventually- the constituency is still there and given time I’d expect either their establishment to work out a way to get back in the good books or a new set of thought leaders to emerge- when it does it will probably also put that new establishment in control, at which point it no longer would *want* to split.

      And the ethnonationalist/white-working-class/rural group is the one gaining power, so it has no reason to want to splinter. Even if it did have such reason, I think they will take whatever allies they can get; they’ve spent a long time being ignored, and they’re not going to choose to go back to that again if they don’t have to. It’s in an intense war with the soc justice part of the left, and seemingly actively trying to make itself look as evil and contemptuous of human well-being as possible to the welfare part (I dunno *what* the inside view of that is, I only see how it looks from here), which is pretty closely tied to the soc justice part *anyway*. And in a choice between them and the small government cons, I’d expect libertarians to solidly side with the latter. So their odds of getting any non-Republican allies would be very slim even if they wanted to split.

      All in all I think the three are probably going to stick together, be rowdy and dissatisfied for a while, and then probably stabilise around a reformed small gov cons establishment at some point. So let’s say 1.5% chance, conditional on victory, within their term, and 3% for it occurring in the next term in some way related to fallout, most of that depending on the possibility that someone does something very clever that lets them attract alternative outside allies to replace what they’re losing.

      c) Maybe 8% chance of realignment lasting more than 15 years, conditional on President Trump? It seems more likely to make identity-group-affiliations *stronger* than weaker, but maybe he attracts some opportunistic switching.

      d) I’m inclined to think good thing short term, as the former factions of the Republican political coalition lose elections horribly, since I don’t agree with their policy proposals. 80% on that. Long term effect maybe just breaks some status quo bias, eliminates some “stickiness” in favour of new settlements, after new coalitions form. Maybe 60% that getting rid of the stickiness was more good than bad.

      * Hopefully to return eventually with revamped and reformulated ideas about virtue, good structures for living, and ways of building them.

  7. Vox Imperatoris

    Is there any possible “steelmanned” or at least somewhat sensible version of an (in my opinion, crazy) argument that I hear on the time on places like reddit, which goes something like this:

    “If you can’t pay your workers a living wage, you don’t deserve to stay in business.” Or, as FDR put it: “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

    What are they thinking? They’re not saying that employers are just greedy and refuse to raise wages even though they could (then the condemnation would make a certain sort of sense); they recognize that it would drive some of them into bankruptcy.

    But somehow, the destruction of these businesses and job opportunities is a nevertheless a good thing? The existence of these jobs represents some kind of active harm toward workers?

    Now, I could see how one could argue, “Yes, raising the minimum wage will put some people out of work, and this is unfortunate, but this is counterbalanced by the wonderful new opportunities that will be created by some kind of Keynesian multiplier.” However, that doesn’t seem to be the actual argument. The destruction of these jobs is not portrayed as a necessary evil but a positive good.

    This seems to be the whole thrust of the Catholic social justice position on the minimum wage, too: that there’s just something inherently sick and wrong about paying someone less than a “living wage”—regardless of whether that’s the market wage or whether you could even afford to pay him more. If you can’t hire him for “living wage” or a “just wage”, don’t hire him at all; that seems to be the message.

    It’s almost as if they analogize wages to the position of tips at restaurants, where one can validly give the moral injunction: “If you can’t afford to leave a decent tip, you can’t afford to eat out.” But tips are decided unilaterally after the fact, yet according to a certain fixed custom. If you violate that custom and don’t tip for satisfactory service, you are essentially stealing from the waiter.

    But if you’re setting up a gas station or something, you’re not tricking the workers into thinking you’ll pay $15 an hour and hitting them with an $8 paycheck. Whatever the wage is, is clearly agreed upon beforehand.

    1. onyomi

      I can’t steelman this position, but I think it derives from a combination of: ignorance of economics, conflation of salary with metaphysical worth, and the push to keep children in school and not working. On the last point, the current ideal is that children should be in school until the age of at least 21, at which point they should jump right into a sophisticated job with which they can support themselves and, ideally, a family, thanks to all the sophisticated training they’ve received.

      This combines with the strong egalitarian streak common today to give the impression that some jobs shouldn’t exist at all: only fully grown adults should be working; fully grown adults need to be able to support themselves; therefore, jobs on which an adult can’t support himself should not exist at all, since they are an insult to the dignity of full-grown adults.

    2. brad

      If you use the standard definition of voluntary and observe that a voluntary transaction always makes both parties better off, it is never going to make any sense. But the same intuition that says that makes some people feel that price gouging is highly immoral also applies here. Also prostitution.

      I guess a good way to put it might be that: even if you aren’t at all responsible for the circumstances that are “forcing” someone to enter into a “bad” bargain, it is still immoral to enter into it.

      1. Vox Imperatoris

        I guess a good way to put it might be that: even if you aren’t at all responsible for the circumstances that are “forcing” someone to enter into a “bad” bargain, it is still immoral to enter into it.

        But that’s like the “If you’re driving through the desert and see someone dying of thirst, it’s unconscionable to sell them a cup of water for $100,000” argument. In that situation, you are a monopolist, you can charge whatever you want, and the only reason you don’t sell it for a “reasonable” price is that you are a greedy bastard. Yeah, selling for $100,000 is better than not selling it at all, but they’d be a lot better off if you were more compassionate.

        (Indeed, price gouging laws would make a fair amount of sense if these types of situations were common. The reason they’re misguided is that the laws ignore incentive effects for people to bring in supplies from outside and allocation effects to make sure resources are not being wasted on suboptimal uses. My favorite example of the latter is of a family who bought a generator not being able to sell it for more than they bought it. So they used it to power hairdryers and so on while a nearby grocery store saw all of its perishables spoil.)

        However, the argument above implicitly rejects the monopolistic framing, as it recognizes that many employers literally cannot afford to pay a “living wage” while remaining in business. Yet they are to be condemned as greedy exploiters anyway.

        In the water-in-the-desert case, the consequence of the person being less greedy is that the poor dehydrated person gets water for less. (If the guy can only sell a cup of water for $100, it’s still a great deal for him.) In the minimum wage case, though, the consequence is that the people employed there don’t get a job at all.

        1. brad

          You’re thinking like a consequentialist. The proponents think that — we’ll call it — benefiting-from-an-unfair-bargain is first and foremost *wrong*. What the consequences of banning it are is not of primary importance. If pressed on the issue they’ll point to some other policy or change they’d like to see that will deal with the underlying increase in poverty or whatever.

          I’m sorry this isn’t much of a steelman, but I think it accurately portrays the thought process.

        2. Chevalier Mal Fet

          This reminds me of the incident, oh roughly a year ago, I believe.

          Detroit was going through its own water crisis at the time. PETA offered to pay the water bills of any poor family that opted to eat entirely vegetarian for as long as PETA was paying their bills (or some such offer – the details escape me now).

          Facebook exploded in outrage, as if PETA had done some monstrous thing like murder a puppy or wear socks with sandals. How dare they hold poor people hostage to their extreme ideological demands!?

          Somehow no one noted that the offer was entirely voluntary, and could only improve people’s options – either they opted to keep eating meat, in which case they were no worse off than they were before, or they took PETA’s deal and had their water bills paid. Apparently, though, there was some vague sense that PETA should have just paid the bills, no questions asked. Similar outrage was not directed at the infinite constellation of organizations that did not offer to pay ANY bills whatsoever.

      2. onyomi

        See, to me, the intuition against price gouging has never made sense, and has always felt like a shitty sort of moral intuition which prioritizes enforcing some notion of compulsory generosity over people actually getting what they need. I mean, it’s not like I have the gut-level feeling price gouging is wrong and then my logic overrides it; I don’t even understand the former, though I can theoretically imagine it in the admittedly rather uncharitable way described.

        1. Vox Imperatoris

          If it’s someone in your community, like your neighbor, and you have a spare generator (or something) yet won’t sell it to him except for an outrageous price, I can absolutely see why people would think you are a not a very kind or dependable person.

          But if you’re buying a truckload of generators or ice or whatever and driving it into a disaster zone to make a buck, I don’t see anything wrong with that. If you want to get mad at that guy for charging high prices, first get mad at the vastly larger number of people who couldn’t be bothered to load up a truck at all. I guess the concern is some version of “They’re charging monopoly prices, in excess of what would motivate them to bring down the supplies!” Yet the profits are what encourages competition, and the high prices discourage supplies from being put to frivolous use.

          1. FullMeta_Rationalist

            In accordance with the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics, he who sells fuel is directly responsible for the high prices, and therefore bears full responsibility for the fuel crisis. Economics be damned.

            I’ve never actually understood why Copenhagen Ethics is a thing and have been dying to figure it out.

          2. Vox Imperatoris

            @ FullMeta_Rationalist:

            I can think of at least three reasons:

            1. The “cui bono?” heuristic. If someone’s benefiting from something, it’s not a terrible idea to suppose that he has some hand in causing or perpetuating it. But this gets extended to the most marginal kinds of benefit, while ignoring the unlikelihood of causation.

            If people in your medieval town are dying of the plague, and you see Jewish merchants benefiting, maybe you decide that the Jews poisoned the wells. Especially if you already tend to think they are fundamentally evil, as most leftists think about multinational corporations, for instance.

            2. Preservation of one’s own moral self-image. Most people think of themselves as basically good, and most people accept an essentially altruistic ethics. However, most people don’t act particularly altruistically.

            Therefore, when another person has done more than you have to, say, help the homeless (and they of course agree that everyone has an obligation to help the homeless), this creates a threat. You have to even the scales by negating all the additional help they’ve provided through fault-finding: “You’re just making them dependent” if they give material aid; or “How dare you try to moralize them; it’s society’s fault!” if they try to get them to quit drugs. This restores your conviction that nobody is morally superior to you.

            Or if you give 50% of your income to people in Africa, they’ve got to respond by saying it only props up dictators and undermines economic self-sufficiency. Etc., etc.

            Lifeguard Would Save Drowning Man But It’s a Waste of Time Since That’s Not Systemic Change to the System That Causes Drownings.”

            Flat denial of the obligation is the last resort, except with a few small groups like Objectivists and explicit identitarians (who deny it in very different ways).

            3. Compartmentalization of morality from everyday life. Closely related to the above, as Joseph Rowlands explains pretty well, most people actually have two systems of ethics. There is the explicit one, which is altruistic and used solely for making judgments identified as “morally relevant”. And then there is the implicit, “practical”, mostly egoistic one which they use the other 99% of the time.

            The purpose of this split is that people don’t want to be altruistic 100% of the time; it’s very unpleasant. So they cruise around on “practical” autopilot until someone issues a challenge to their moral status, identifying a certain issue as a moral one. The goal here is to keep doing what you wanted to do anyway while preserving your moral status.

            The archetypal example is when some “holier than thou” vegan explains to you that he doesn’t eat meat for moral reasons. He has invoked morality, the alarm bells are going off, and you have to deal with it. You can’t just say, “Well, I value the taste of meat more than I care about the suffering of defenseless little animals.” That would be selfish.

            One approach is, as in point two above, to argue that your course of action is really more altruistic (or at least no less). For instance, “If it weren’t for the meat industry, these cows and chickens wouldn’t be alive anyway.”

            The other way is to change it back from a moral issue and into a practical issue. Selective moral skepticism is a favorite here: “Oh, it’s all just a matter of taste and opinion, anyway.” If it’s a subjective matter of taste, there’s nothing stopping you from pursuing what you self-interestedly want. Or you can say: “This isn’t a matter of ethics; this is a matter of health: veganism isn’t healthy.” No one disputes that it’s okay to pursue your own health.

            You want to take the issue out of the “morality” compartment and put it back in the “real life” compartment.

            Effective altruists (and similar people) are therefore huge assholes here because they point out that everything you do trades off against help you could be providing to others, and thus it belongs in the “morality” compartment. To restore compartmentalization, you have to challenge and delegitimize this however you can. For instance, call them robo-Spock-droids who don’t understand human nature. “Let’s be realistic here.”


            Of course, I’m not endorsing these attitudes, but I think they are common.

          3. onyomi

            See, I think the problem is precisely that many people seemingly can’t help but apply a small community-appropriate mentality to everything, even as they have very strong opinions about who should be president of 300 million people.

            To me, I am only morally offended by gouging if the person is someone who would offend by asking for money at all, i. e., a family member or close friend. To me, business relationships are just in a totally different category.

            That said, I wonder whether it would make things better or worse to encourage people to voluntarily act more “community-minded” in the running of businesses–say, to pay people more than a market price because it helps morale, etc. On the one hand, I think the increase in good will might increase overall societal utils, even if it means everyone is slightly poorer, but more secure in his job and happier with his coworkers and bosses; on the other, if everyone did it, it might result in huge inefficiency that would only seem insignificant at the individual level. Further, it might encourage the erroneous attitude that businesses and their employees and customers should have some kind of “family”-like relationship.

          4. FullMeta_Rationalist

            I agree that Cui Bono (#1) might explain the Price-Gouging context. Unfortunately, it doesn’t generalize to the Homeless Guinea pigs example of Copenhagen Ethics. Because “scheming” to be homeless doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that the homeless themselves would perpetuate. If their scheming were successful, they’d be con artists. But a successful con artist wouldn’t be homeless or need handouts from a one-off science experiment.

            Preservation of Moral Ego (#2) I don’t think is a viable explanation of Copenhagen. Because often the criticism takes the form of “why aren’t you doing more?” Also, I have no idea how it’s suppose to explain the Price-Gouging context, because the gouger is being greedy (the opposite of altruism) Therefore, there’s no altruism to feel threatened by.

            Compartmentalized Morality (#3) suffers a problem similar to (#2) in that it relies on altruism.


            Like “heliocentrism”, “supply and demand” is one of those things that I never would have figured out de novo. So my intuition says Copenhagen Ethics actually has something to do with a an overly-simplistic model of blame.

            Rather than attributing control of prices to the Invisible Hand, consumers attribute control of prices to the merchant (as if the merchants price their goods on a whim without repercussions). So instead of “fuel prices too high? Fuel must be in short supply”, the consumer concludes “fuel prices too high? WOW, what an asshole”.

            And with the Homeless Guinea pigs experiment, I think people assume “if the scientists shelter half the homeless, then they can shelter ALL the homeless. And since they have the power to do this, they have the obligation to do this (since with great power comes great responsibility). But if the scientists take no action at all, then this represents an implicit admission that they don’t actually have the power to shelter the homeless. In which case, the scientists can’t be blamed for the problem because they were never obliged to fix it to begin with.

            If we frame it this way, it’s as though people believe that rewriting the map (perceived power) changes the underlying territory (actual power).

            When I think about the above step-by-step, it kinda makes sense. But when I zoom-out and evaluate the explanation as a whole, something feels off. As if I’m missing something important.

          5. FullMeta_Rationalist


            Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you just reinvented Communism. (Do Western communes still exist? or is that a thing that completely died out decades ago.)

          6. Nornagest

            Do Western communes still exist? or is that a thing that completely died out decades ago.

            They exist, but the surviving ones are mostly religious, or glorified group houses, or populated only by a few aging hippies, or some combination.

          7. Vox Imperatoris

            @ FullMeta_Rationalist:

            I agree that Cui Bono (#1) might explain the Price-Gouging context. Unfortunately, it doesn’t generalize to the Homeless Guinea pigs example of Copenhagen Ethics. Because “scheming” to be homeless doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that the homeless themselves would perpetuate. If their scheming were successful, they’d be con artists. But a successful con artist wouldn’t be homeless or need handouts from a one-off science experiment.

            Oh, I think “cui bono” applies quite well. The researchers are benefiting from the existence of homeless people because they get to publish their findings on what interventions are more effective. They get all these free test subjects.

            Preservation of Moral Ego (#2) I don’t think is a viable explanation of Copenhagen. Because often the criticism takes the form of “why aren’t you doing more?” Also, I have no idea how it’s suppose to explain the Price-Gouging context, because the gouger is being greedy (the opposite of altruism) Therefore, there’s no altruism to feel threatened by.

            I think sentiments against price gouging are explained by the kind of reasoning you gave: people perceive merchants as having the ability to set prices to whatever they like, so if they charge “too much”, it’s because they are greedy. It’s their fault the prices went up.

            I think “why aren’t you doing more?” is precisely part of preserving compartmentalization and one’s own self-image. Normally, you don’t consider a moral question, whether you’re allowed to spend money dining out at restaurants.

            But then some effective altruist comes up to you and says that he decided to cut back on dining out in order to give that money to Africans. “Yeah, but you still dine out sometimes; why don’t you stop that, too?” shows that the guy is immoral: he in what he perceives to be a moral issue, he acts less than 100% altruistically. While in the domains you perceive as moral, you act 100% altruistically (there’s just not many of them).

            At the same time, his failure to practice his ethic consistently shows that it is impractical and unreasonable, therefore you don’t have to practice it yourself, therefore dining out is not a moral issue. Compartmentalization restored.

          8. onyomi

            “I think you just reinvented Communism.”

            Well, I wasn’t talking about pooling everything, I was talking about social pressure to encourage companies to be more like Starbucks and Whole Foods (which, if I understand, provide a lot of fringe benefits, profit-sharing, etc. for their employees–though this makes jobs correspondingly harder to get at those places). That is, more of just a cultural shift away from the most cutthroat-ish practices and towards practices which, while not profit-maximizing, may nonetheless make everybody happier in the long run because community, stable employment, blah blah.

            I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good idea, though it has struck me as on potential compromise with those who think capitalism is irredeemably corrupt. And, in general, I think good business ethics of the “don’t replace eggs with petroleum jelly just because you can get away with it for a little while (China)” variety, are not only good for companies, but good for capitalism. The question is whether it should go further than that, and I’m not sure. Expecting businesses to be quasi-charity community organizations might do more harm than good.

          9. Protagoras

            I agree that most criticism of price gouging is missing crucial points, but none of the discussion seems to have looked at one of the most obvious reasons someone might consider a voluntary trade unfair. Voluntary trade produces a surplus, and since both parties are consenting to the trade, presumably part of the surplus goes to each (otherwise the one not getting any of it wouldn’t agree). But if one party seems to be capturing a vastly larger part of the surplus than the other, it is easy to see why this would trigger some of people’s unfairness intuitions, even though the party getting the tiny share is still getting a net benefit. And the “price gouging” cases can definitely give the appearance of involving that kind of unfairness.

          10. Protagoras

            Yeah, I don’t think price gouging is the best, or perhaps even a good example (hence all my hedging about “appearance”), but a lot of people seem to be coming at this from a perspective of “trade is always good! Any complaints about it are automatically irrational!” with no attention paid to how the surplus is distributed. And I think at least some of the criticisms of some kinds of trade (including some criticisms of price gouging) are motivated by precisely the issue of how the surplus is distributed, rather than being motivated entirely by total cluelessness (the theory of trade criticism suggested by many in this thread). What constitutes a fair division of the surplus is another question, but it’s not obvious that “if both parties accept, it must be fair” is always right.

          11. Jiro

            I think sentiments against price gouging are explained by the kind of reasoning you gave: people perceive merchants as having the ability to set prices to whatever they like, so if they charge “too much”, it’s because they are greedy. It’s their fault the prices went up.

            There’s a middle ground between “merchants can charge anything” and “merchants can only charge one price which the market forces them to charge”. Even if there is only a range of charges and merchants cannot go outside it, it may be that there is an objection to charging the high end of the range.

          12. onyomi

            But people who get mad at sellers for selling things at the high end of the range of what they think they can get presumably don’t get mad at employees who ask for raises.

          13. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Protagoras:

            Well, as I see it, the whole ostensible purpose of price gouging laws is to stop the gougers from capturing so much of the surplus.

            What people think they do is cause those selling supplies to sell them for a small markup instead of selling them for a large markup. Not to stop them from selling the supplies at all.

            @ onyomi:

            The employees are perceived as having a greater need for the money.

            @ Jiro:

            There’s a middle ground between “merchants can charge anything” and “merchants can only charge one price which the market forces them to charge”. Even if there is only a range of charges and merchants cannot go outside it, it may be that there is an objection to charging the high end of the range.

            I agree. And to that extent, it’s the “why aren’t you doing more” Cophenhagen Interpretation of Ethics.

            If you just want to leave the disaster victims alone, that’s fine.

            If you want to sell them supplies at a non-disaster price, that fine but you’re nothing special.

            If you want to give them away, that’s really admirable.

            But if you want to sell them supplies at a huge markup, you’re “taking advantage of them”. Yes, they’re better off than they would be if you hadn’t brought the supplies at all. But they’re not as well off as they would be had you given them away.

            It’s a matter of “what is seen and unseen”. What is seen, is that you could absolutely charge less for those supplies. What is unseen, is that if you had to charge less, you wouldn’t have done it at all. Making you no worse than the average person who doesn’t help.

            Because of compartmentalization, however, not doing anything is not a moral choice. Bring supplies but selling them at a high price is choosing to be less than 100% altruistic in a moral situation. If you choose not to get involved, it’s fine. But if you do get involved, you have to have unselfish motives.


            One side here basically thinks “If we make it unacceptable, either through law or moral suasion, to sell supplies to disaster victims at high prices, then the same supplies will be sold at lower prices, leaving the victims better-off.”

            The other side thinks: “If we make it unacceptable to sell supplies at high prices, fewer supplies will be sold at all.”

            Both of these things are true to some extent. But more economically inclined people are going to suspect that the second effect is much stronger.

          14. Mark Atwood

            encourage companies to be more like Starbucks

            (Speaking as a Seattle coffee snob)

            Starbucks treats their baristas well for the same reason that rice farming by slaves is difficult. I am trying to remember the book that makes the argument that part of the deep social economy of societies that base on rice farming is due to the fact that there are thousands of little things you have to get right to manage rice paddys well, and there are thousands of little places where a small amount of lack of care will reduce or eliminate the yield.

            Pulling an espresso is similar. There are dozens small points of care and attention in maintaining the roasteria, the grinders, doing the pack, and managing the pull, that if you don’t care and don’t get right, results in a substandard drink. If you want to McDonaldize coffee so anyone can do it with a half hour training and a checklist, well, that’s McDonalds coffee. If a large employer wants to be able regularly produce espresso on demand that are roughly good as the indy café across the street where the barista/owner has a direct interest in having a reputation for getting it right, then said large employer has to treat the people with their hands on the steam levers of the machine very well.

          15. Nancy Lebovitz

            Also, (source: Michener’s Hawaii) slaves who farmed pineapples were better treated than slaves growing sugar cane.

            A pineapple needs to look perfect– knock off one flower and it’s not a nice-looking pineapple.

          16. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Nancy Lebovitz:

            Why can’t they just beat the shit out of any slave who knocks a flower off the pineapple? (Not that I’m morally endorsing that option.)

            I guess it’s a monitoring problem. You don’t know who did it. Or with rice, you don’t know which of the many steps they screwed up.

            You can impose collective punishments, but those don’t work very well after a certain point. Saying “If these pineapples don’t start looking better, we’ll beat the shit out of all you” theoretically motivates each slave to police the other slaves. But this is hard, and after a certain point you just give up and say: “Well, I might as well produce terrible pineapples because I’m going to get beaten anyway.”

          17. FullMeta_Rationalist

            re: Fairness. I’m reminded of the fairness experiment where Alice accepts or rejects a cash offer from Bob, where Bob was given a sum of money by the experimenters. Alice usually rejects the offer unless given > ~40%. Otherwise neither Alice nor Bob gets any money. The conclusion was that Alice sacrifices short-term monetary-gain for social respect, which pays dividends in the long run.

            So if we follow this train, the disaster victim is likely upset because if the trade surplus isn’t distributed equally to both parties, this sets a precedent that the merchant can exploit the disaster victim in the future. I think this has a lot of validity.

            I’m also impressed by “Seen vs Unseen”, which reminds me of the Wason Selection Task and is explained by Positive Bias.

            I like Compartementalization and I totally agree now.

            I still don’t like Cui Bono because the scientists probably aren’t the cause of homelessness to begin with. By this reasoning, police officers are the cause of crime. I mean if there’s no crime, the police officers are out of a job! Right?

          18. Vox Imperatoris

            @ FullMeta_Rationalist:

            Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. A social norm against price gouging, whether enforced by law or public opinion, means that the supplies that are sold split the trade surplus more equitably. That’s the seen effect.

            The unseen effect is that they encourage fewer supplies to be sold. The question is the size of the unseen effect vs. the seen effect.

            Usually, the non-economists and people uninformed of economics are going to exaggerate the seen effect as compared to the unseen effect.

            This is exactly like the minimum wage question. Seen effect: it makes employers pay their workers more. Unseen effect: it causes them to hire fewer workers.

            I still don’t like Cui Bono because the scientists probably aren’t the cause of homelessness to begin with. By this reasoning, police officers are the cause of crime. I mean if there’s no crime, the police officers are out of a job! Right?

            Well, you say that, but how many people think the “military-industrial complex” is the cause of war?

            And that is the Marxist view of the police: they are the cause of crime because they enforce the dominance of the bourgeoisie by protecting property rights. This sustains poverty and unequal distribution of wealth, which causes crime.

            You’re right that this is not a mainstream opinion. It depends on your fundamental attitude toward the police. And with more hostility toward police, even non-Marxists are saying that by prosecuting the Drug War they break up minority communities, which causes crime.

            But sure, I think “cui bono” is less relevant in the “homeless guinea pigs” case than in the “homeless Wi-Fi stations” case. Because the “homeless guinea pigs” case doesn’t involve much benefit.

            Yet if a pharmaceutical company were offering to pay homeless people a lot of money to try dangerous drugs, you can be damn straight that there would be outrage at people being taken advantage of.

          19. onyomi

            haha… I’m like the most pro-capitalism person I know, yet I still can’t help but laugh that the response to my suggestion that capitalists should be nice is basically “capitalists are nice when it is profitable to be nice!” (or maybe that is a criticism of capitalism, depending on whether it’s prescriptive or just descriptive).

            I mean, yeah, they are, I’m sure, but isn’t there some room for supererogatory niceness? Or will anyone attempting that be immediately outcompeted?

          20. Vox Imperatoris

            @ onyomi:

            I mean, yeah, they are, I’m sure, but isn’t there some room for supererogatory niceness? Or will anyone attempting that be immediately outcompeted?

            The economy doesn’t work by “immediately outcompeting” people who made decisions less than maximally profitable.

            There are plenty of companies out there that make money by giving workers cushy jobs and high salaries.

            What happens is that even if 95% of people morally refuse to run a business employing workers in undesirable jobs at poor wages, yet it is profitable to do so, those 5% will do it anyway and make all the money.

            It’s like trying to ban drugs. Most people aren’t morally willing to sell drugs. But given the demand that remains there, it just means the price goes up until someone decides money outweighs principles.

            So again, it’s not that people have to make the most profits possible or they die; that’s the “Meditations on Moloch” dystopian scenario. If you work less than 100 hours a week, you’re not doing that.

            It just that the people who want to make the most profits are going to make the most profits.

            If you want to stop Wal-Mart from hiring people at low wages, you have to make it illegal. Which doesn’t really help anyone. Unlike banning drugs, which doesn’t work either but theoretically would help people if it worked.


            To put it another way, say you only want to make high-quality movies that really make people think. Well, there’s a place for you under capitalism because there’s a demand.

            But there’s also a demand for low-quality summer blockbusters and screwball comedies. Those are also going to be produced under capitalism because there’s a demand: a bigger demand.

            On average, though, you’re not going to make a higher percentage on low-quality movies, even if you make a higher total amount—because there’s a lot of competition for that demand. Except to the extent that making high-quality movies is an intrinsically rewarding “hobby” project.

            If most actors and directors hate working on low-brow movies, you can make easy money by only doing low-brow movies.

            Under the Soviet Union, all the music was “classy” and respectable because there was no profit motive to encourage “sex sells”. Even in Britain, the BBC (which controlled the airwaves) wouldn’t play rock ‘n’ roll as a matter of principle, so people started setting up “pirate radio” stations in the oceans.

          21. arbitrary_greay

            @Vox Imperatoris:
            It just that the people who want to make the most profits are going to make the most profits.

            I think here you’ve hit on the source of the emotions driving people to like this argument. They’re not really looking for viable solutions, but describing their sense of what the ideal world should look like, independent of how we should move and toward and maintain that ideal.

            It’s frustration born out of the fact that the majority of the population doesn’t give a shit about profit. They just want to earn enough to live a certain desired lifestyle, and stabilize there. But now the economy is being dominated by profit-seekers, (by design) which means the rest of us have to defect or die just because of a 1% of optimal profit-seekers. There’s no way to opt out of the system, and the amount of needing to care about profit to stay afloat is only increasing and thus fucking over a larger number of people who don’t care about profit.

            The natural conclusion is that maybe we shouldn’t keep supporting a system that by design optimizes for people who care about profit.

          22. Vox Imperatoris

            @ arbitrary_greay:

            It’s frustration born out of the fact that the majority of the population doesn’t give a shit about profit. They just want to earn enough to live a certain desired lifestyle, and stabilize there. But now the economy is being dominated by profit-seekers, (by design) which means the rest of us have to defect or die just because of a 1% of optimal profit-seekers. There’s no way to opt out of the system, and the amount of needing to care about profit to stay afloat is only increasing and thus fucking over a larger number of people who don’t care about profit.

            But this is not true.

            It is easier to live a minimal subsistence lifestyle today than it has ever been in history. If you want to live in a hovel and eat potatoes, you don’t have to work ten hours a day, six days a week. You can do it while working the most minimal odd jobs. If you don’t care about being self-supporting, aid to the poor has never been more abundant.

            The only element of a “struggle to keep up” is that some people’s expectations of the kind of lifestyle they want to live increase faster than the amount of money they make.

            There is no “pressure” to “defect or die”. That’s just nonsense. The only pressure to “defect” is greed to keep up with the Joneses.

            The natural conclusion is that maybe we shouldn’t keep supporting a system that by design optimizes for people who care about profit.

            We don’t have such a system.

            A system like that would eliminate people who care about anything other than profit. However, our system makes wealth so abundant that people can care about a vast number of things other than profit without worrying about starving. A medieval peasant or an Industrial Revolution factory worker had to care almost solely about “profit” in order to avoid dying.

            Now, you can’t starve to death on the streets even if you try.

            This is the problem with social Darwinism: the predictions it makes are the opposite of the truth. We don’t see all the disabled people going by the wayside because they can’t produce much profit. Rather, we see more aid than ever going to them because we can afford the luxury. When the Eskimos had a deformed baby, they threw it out on the ice to die, and they did the same to the elderly because they had no other choice. Children being left to die like Hansel and Gretel was no fairy tale. Now it’s inconceivable, except in the case of a few literally insane parents.

            Capitalism does not lead to the survival of the fittest. It leads to the survival of the increasingly less fit.

          23. onyomi

            On the one hand, yes, if you don’t make it illegal to hire people for low wages then some people will get hired for low wages; but that’s better than them not being able to get hired at all, of course.

            Nevertheless, I think one can point to many cases where culture, even when not reinforced by law, shapes the sorts of employment contracts typically entered into: pre-bubble-era Japan had a strong ethos of lifetime employment at one company and promotion based on seniority. This still persists somewhat.

            Plus, my company paying employees more eventually makes Wal Mart pay a little more because I’m essentially increasing the demand for labor.

          24. Vox Imperatoris

            On the one hand, yes, if you don’t make it illegal to hire people for low wages then some people will get hired for low wages; but that’s better than them not being able to get hired at all, of course.

            Nevertheless, I think one can point to many cases where culture, even when not reinforced by law, shapes the sorts of employment contracts typically entered into: pre-bubble-era Japan had a strong ethos of lifetime employment at one company and promotion based on seniority. This still persists somewhat.

            I suppose you’re right that such influence can happen. A good example is how David Friedman points out in his linked paper that restaurants have long lines despite the fact that they could decrease deadweight loss by charging more on busier nights, or auctioning spots at the front of the line.

            But how would companies choosing not to hire workers at low wages benefit anyone?

            Plus, my company paying employees more eventually makes Wal Mart pay a little more because I’m essentially increasing the demand for labor.


            I don't know what you're trying to say here.

            Yes, technically you're increasing the demand for labor, because the demand for labor is the total spending on labor and you're part of that spending. But you're not increasing anyone else's demand for labor.

            Think of it like an auction. Wages are driven up by employers bidding against one another. But if you're paying above-market wages, it's like continuing to bid against yourself after you've already won. It's not going to make anyone else bid more.

          25. David Friedman

            “Plus, my company paying employees more eventually makes Wal Mart pay a little more because I’m essentially increasing the demand for labor.”


            The question is how many workers you are hiring at the higher wage. If you would have hired 100 at $8/hour and are now hiring 95 at $10/hour, you have lowered the demand for labor–there are five more people competing for all the other jobs. In order for what you are doing to drive up wages, you have to be hiring more people than you otherwise would have, which is not likely to happen when they cost you more.

          26. Vox Imperatoris

            @ David Friedman:

            I thought I was going to agree with you, but this confuses me:

            The question is how many workers you are hiring at the higher wage. If you would have hired 100 at $8/hour and are now hiring 95 at $10/hour, you have lowered the demand for labor–there are five more people competing for all the other jobs.

            If your demand, i.e. spending, for labor was $800 and is now $950, are you not increasing total demand for labor? Even if those 5 workers are now unemployed and make nothing, is not demand still up?

            Second, how would more people competing for other jobs lower the demand for labor? Surely it increases the supply, causing the wage to fall by moving along the demand curve, no?

          27. David Friedman

            @Vox Imp:

            Demand for labor is a function, quantity of labor hired as a function of the price of labor. We normally assume that everyone is paying the same price, that being the price at which quantity demanded equals quantity supplied.

            But the story here is one in which one employer deliberately chooses to hire a certain amount of labor at more than the market price. To analyze the rest of the market, you want to look at the demand curve of all other employers vs the supply curve of all laborers other than the ones working for that employer and see where they intersect.

            If the employer paying the higher wage has reduced the number of workers on the market by 95 and the number of jobs by 100, that being how many workers he would have hired at the old wage, the supply curve for all other workers will intersect the demand curve for all other employers at a lower wage than before.

            If the generous employer was willing and able to hire an unlimited number of workers at the higher wage, that would drive up the wages that all employers had to pay, but that doesn’t seem likely. If he is hiring the same number of workers as he would have at the market wage, then his workers are better off than before and all other workers are being hired at the same wage as before. If he is hiring fewer, as seems likely, his workers are better off, other employers are better off, other workers are worse off.

          28. onyomi

            “In order for what you are doing to drive up wages, you have to be hiring more people than you otherwise would have, which is not likely to happen when they cost you more.”

            What I am talking about is exactly spending more on labor than you really need to, either by hiring more people, or paying existing employees more. In other words business+charity, in a way.

            Though maximal impact would, of course, be achieved by hiring more people and paying them all more, it seems even just paying existing employees higher than market wages would have some impact, since, assuming they are less likely to leave a job which is overpaying them, everyone else has fewer qualified workers competing for similar jobs, and so will have to pay slightly more to get them. Though yes, the impact goes no further once charitable co. stops hiring.

            Real life example: I recall that CEO who made headlines by taking a paycut in order that all the employees would get a big raise. If I recall, it didn’t work out well, but it is, at least conceivable (and assuming he didn’t hire fewer people than he otherwise would have just because the salary was higher–arguably very implausible, because one never knows exactly what one would do in a counterfactual: I might say I would hire the same number of people if labor were cheaper, but I might, in reality, hire more).

          29. Vox Imperatoris

            @ David Friedman:

            Demand for labor is a function, quantity of labor hired as a function of the price of labor. We normally assume that everyone is paying the same price, that being the price at which quantity demanded equals quantity supplied.

            I suppose I was going by the other definition, where the price of labor equals the demand for labor divided by the supply. Therefore, demand for labor is spending on labor and supply is the quantity.

            But I feel like the point is the same either way.

            If the employer paying the higher wage has reduced the number of workers on the market by 95 and the number of jobs by 100, that being how many workers he would have hired at the old wage, the supply curve for all other workers will intersect the demand curve for all other employers at a lower wage than before.

            I still don’t see how that’s “lowering demand”. Isn’t that the precise difference between shifting the demand curve and moving along the demand curve?

            The employer has put five more workers on the job market, effectively increasing the supply. With demand from other employers remaining constant, the price goes down.

            On either definition of demand, this seems to hold:

            a) They’re not going to spend less in aggregate on labor.

            b) They’re not going to hire a smaller quantity of labor at any given price; i.e. their demand curve is not shifted. And they’re not going to hire fewer workers, either; it’s the price that will drop, not the quantity demanded.

          30. FullMeta_Rationalist

            I suspect you two are discussing different scopes of “demand”.

            Suppose the economy consists of three companies: Acme Co, Berkshire Hathaway, and Carnegie Steel. At first, each employs 100 workers at a wage of $8/hr. Then Acme spontaneously decides to lay off 5 workers, but pay its remaining workers $10/hr.

            Acme’s demand for labor has decreased from 100 to 95 (-5%). For the rest of the economy (Berkshire and Carnegie), the demand for labor remains at 200 (0%). The economy’s total demand for labor has decreased from 300 to 295 (-1.67%).

            (This is an instance where the “all sentences should have transitive verbs” rule that I shared in a recent Open Thread came in handy.)

            Also. It’s often assumed that wages are a reliable signal of demand. But in our Charitable Employer scenario, wages are no longer a reliable signal. So we have to think of demand strictly in terms of its definition, which: is the quantity of workers a company employs; and has nothing to do with wages or supply.

          31. Vox Imperatoris

            @ FullMeta_Rationalist:

            So we have to think of demand strictly in terms of its definition, which: is the quantity of workers a company employs; and has nothing to do with wages or supply.

            But “demand” is separate from “quantity demanded”, isn’t it?

            From Wikipedia:

            In economics, demand is the utility for a good or service of an economic agent, relative to his/her income. (Note: This distinguishes “demand” from “quantity demanded”, where demand is a listing or graphing of quantity demanded at each possible price. In contrast to demand, quantity demanded is the exact quantity demanded at a certain price. Changing the actual price will change the quantity demanded, but it will not change the demand, because demand is a listing of quantities that would be bought at various prices, not just the actual price.)

            Demand is a buyer’s willingness and ability to pay a price for a specific quantity of a good or service.

            Or in the older terminology I was using before, the price is equal to the demand divided by the supply. So the demand is a quantity of money, and the supply is a quantity of goods, with the price being dollars per good.

            Acme’s demand for labor has decreased from 100 to 95 (-5%). For the rest of the economy (Berkshire and Carnegie), the demand for labor remains at 200 (0%). The economy’s total demand for labor has decreased from 300 to 295 (-1.67%).

            I disagree. On either definition, Acme’s demand for labor has increased.

            The quantity of money they spend on labor has increased. And the amount they are willing to pay for a given quantity of labor has increased. There has only been a decrease in the quantity demanded, not demand.

            Moreover, there is no reason these five workers should not be hired by the other two companies. If they were hiring 200 workers at $8 an hour, they can hire 205 workers at $7.87 an hour. That’s assuming the value of each worker is linear, but even if it isn’t they should be hired at some wage.

            There is no reason to expect that the demand for labor on the part of the other employers has decreased. The fall in price from $8 to $7.87 is merely a move along the demand curve caused by an upward shift in the supply curve facing these two other companies.

            Also, the total and average demand for labor is still higher than before: where once each worker was making $8 an hour, now the average worker is making $8.54 an hour. This is a net improvement. Even if the five workers don’t get hired at all, demand for labor is still up.

          32. FullMeta_Rationalist

            TIL the difference in terminology between Demand (curve) and Quantity Demanded (abscissa).

            So as I understand, onyomi argued that Starbuck’s wage-hike increases the demand for labor, which therefore increases Walmart’s wages. Technically, that “Starbuck’s wage-hike shifts the Demand Curve right” is true.

            But the rightward shift only applies to Starbuck’s Demand Curve. There’s no reason (a priori) for Walmart’s Demand Curve to also shift right. And given Starbuck’s Quantity Demanded remains the same, there’s no reason for Walmart’s Supply Curve to shift left. Therefore, Walmart’s wages don’t rise.

            So David Friedman explains that for Walmart’s wages to increase (while its Demand Curve remains constant), its Supply Curve must shift left. And for Starbucks to cause Walmart’s Supply Curve to shift left, Starbucks must hire additional workers. This contradicts onyomi’s conclusion that Starbucks can indirectly raise Walmart’s wages without hiring additional workers (i.e. without increasing Starbuck’s Quantity Demanded).

            And when Friedman says “you have lowered the demand for labor–there are five more people competing for all the other jobs”, I think he’s referring to the Quantity Demanded by Starbucks (which is the only thing that can move Walmart’s Supply Curve in this scenario).

          33. Vox Imperatoris

            Just a datapoint on how the business world doesn’t work on the basis of “maximizing profit” at the expense of other human values:

            One of my favorite entrepreneurs is Brian Goulet, who started the Goulet Pen Company that sells fountain pens online. He’s a young guy who started the company with his wife just a few years ago, selling out of their house, but now he employs 29 people.

            He didn’t go into that line of business by saying: “Hmm, in what area can I maximize profit?” He had been interested in carving wooden pens and sold those online for a while, but that wasn’t so successful. Then he realized that there was a significant gap in the market he could serve: being a pen retailer who would engage with the internet and really make things interactive for customers who didn’t know the first thing about fountain pens. Basically bring them into the modern world.

            So he made hundreds of videos reviewing fountain pens, ink, and paper, showing how to use them and take care of them properly, answering questions, and so on. And he succeeded because he has real, genuine enthusiasm for it. People can tell that he loves his job and is really tries to do his best to give customers the best experience possible. Just look at his most recent Q&A video.

            Now, he is successful and he does make money, but he doesn’t do it by chiseling the customers or mistreating his employees. The helpful, personal image of the company is a big part of its success. What’s good for him is the same as what’s good for his customers and his employees.

            So there’s three things at work here:

            1) To a very large extent, what maximizes profit is the same thing that maximizes value to consumers. If he tried to cheat people or stopped spending time doing reviews and engaging with the community, he would make less money, not more, because it would ruin his reputation.

            2) Even if he could maximize profit temporarily by doing something dishonest, he almost certainly wouldn’t want to, as the whole reason he’s involved in the business is that he genuinely loves it and loves making customers happy. And this is not a world where we have to sacrifice all human values to producing profit for survival; if it were, the whole fountain pen industry would not exist.

            3) There are even areas that would increase profits and value to customers that he doesn’t pursue, as he’s simply not interested in it. For instance, he could become a more general writing supplier, but he doesn’t want to take away the focus of his business. And he could work more, but he wants to spend time with his family. He could probably be more of a hardass boss and squeeze out a little more productivity, but that’s not his personality. And so on. He’s a human being; he cares about things other than monetary profits.

          34. Nita

            @ Vox Imperatoris

            He’s a human being; he cares about things other than monetary profits.

            That’s a factor when the business is owned and run by a human being free to make whatever choices they like. (And then the business is as “nice” or ethical as the owners.)

            But the people who run large companies on behalf of others have a duty to maximize profit (because without this legal obligation they tend to line their own pockets a bit too much).

    3. Doctor Mist

      “If you can’t pay your workers a living wage, you don’t deserve to stay in business.”

      Well, it’s crazy to me, too. But I guess the assumption is that there is some terrible externality involved. Clearly one can think of businesses that should not exist regardless of profitability, like ivory poaching or extract-of-infant-pituitary drugs. In this case the externality would seem to be that it encourages well-meaning consumers to assume that the service or product provided is a reasonable thing to want, as opposed to something unseemly, which they really should not want, like they should not want to see a bumfight.

      That’s not bad, now that I think about it: maybe the premise is that lowballing somebody’s pay is an insult to their dignity as a human being. “If your business requires your employees to clean dogshit off the streets with their tongues, you don’t deserve to stay in business!” Lots of people would probably agree with that even if you paid those employees $100 an hour.

      Or maybe the externality is that the existence of jobs that do not pay “a living wage” is a trap, without which people would know from childhood that they need to get more education (or work harder at assimilating and retaining the education they do get) and that this is not something they can be sloppy about. This reminds me of the argument a few weeks ago about people moving from the land to take the horrible factory jobs in the city; to me it seemed obvious (to the point of tautology) that the factory jobs must in fact be better than the alternative, but there was quite a passel of people who denied that.

      Not a very good steelmanning, because I can’t imagine someone proposing these to me without my reaction being to shake my damn head, but the best I can do.

      1. Nornagest

        This reminds me of the argument a few weeks ago about people moving from the land to take the horrible factory jobs in the city; to me it seemed obvious (to the point of tautology) that the factory jobs must in fact be better than the alternative, but there was quite a passel of people who denied that.

        (I can’t adequately express my frustration in text, so just imagine thirty seconds of screaming here.)

        I guess it’s not… totally impossible. But it would require either an unheard-of level of naivety on the part of the country folk, or an unheard-of level of marketing sophistication on the part of the spherical monocled capitalists. Every other time I’ve heard of populations moving en masse into much worse situations, there have been people with guns behind them moving them along, and the victims have generally cottoned on pretty quickly.

        (This is typically the part where someone comes out of the woodwork to educate me about enclosure.)

        But there are people who think that industrial capitalism itself is a con job on a stupendously vast scale, and/or impracticable without genocidal levels of force, so maybe that’s where the inferential leap is starting.

        1. Vox Imperatoris

          The usual Marxian argument with regard to the Industrial Revolution is that the aristocrats used their connections in Parliament to “enclose the commons”, i.e. privatize agricultural lands. Then they kicked the poor peasants off the land, depriving them of their livelihood, at which point they had no better options than to move to the cities and take factory jobs. But this was not really voluntary because the rich stole their communal property.

          I’m not saying that’s an accurate and complete account of things, but that’s what you’ll hear if you bring it up.

          Edit: did you edit in the part where you mention enclosure in parentheses? Or maybe I just skipped over it… Funny either way, though. 😉

          1. Nornagest

            Yeah, I edited it in (before I saw yours, though). I often go through three or four versions of a post before settling on one I like, especially if it’s long or snarky.

            And yeah, I knew about enclosure. I don’t find the position convincing, though, for various reasons but for example because the same population movements happened in a number of places (e.g. the US) where there were no similar land-tenure reforms happening around the same time. A lot of American factory workers were immigrants during the early Industrial Revolution, but a lot weren’t, and even in the immigrant case that just kicks the can down to their countries of origin.

    4. Nancy Lebovitz

      Thanks for bringing this up. I’m not going to steelman the argument because I don’t think I can, but I’ve been wondering about the same thing.

      Actually, I might have a steelman handy– it might be a belief that working for very low wages is so debilitating that people are better off getting government aid.

      Or it might be a belief that wages are made arbitrarily low, and if a few low-wage businesses are driven out of existence, then better-paying businesses will appear.

      Out of steelman mode…. I’ve wondered whether low-wage businesses should get government subsidies instead– at least some of them are doing useful work.

      One of the things I’ve noticed is that left wing moral standards aren’t cheap to live up to. Some of the low-wage businesses are run by owners who aren’t doing much more than getting by themselves, but there’s not distinction made between that sort of business and Walmart.

      In re the horrors of city employment vs. peasant life: Maybe what we need are more novels about how bad it is to be a low-tech peasant.

      1. houseboatonstyx

        In re the horrors of city employment vs. peasant life: Maybe what we need are more novels about how bad it is to be a low-tech peasant.

        Dunno about novels, but we’ve got a real life example here in the US Pacific Northwest. Logging and fishing are both dangerous and unpleasant jobs. Statistics show loggers and fishers ‘fleeing to the city in droves’. What’s not so often shown, is how hard they fight not to go: political action against the ‘Environmentalists’ whom they blame for the shortage of fish and logs (cf ‘enclosure’).

        To see what kind of work they really prefer, we’d need to look at when a factory opens in a logging town offering wages comparable to what the loggers have been getting. With no need to move*, do they prefer the indoor job to the outdoor?

        *(And with comparable medical facilities etc etc — remember, they are still living in the same house in the same town.)

    5. Arbitrary_greay

      Wow, these guesses are way far off from my perceived motivations behind this argument. (And I kind of like this argument. Won’t claim that this is a steelman, but at least I can provide a more accurate explanation of why people promote the argument.)

      For me, the concept is that our current levels of economic growth and “success” are measured by things like profit and such, to the exclusion of how much they benefit the lowest denominator worker. This means that, to people for whom “base level of well-being of the population” is their marker for economic health, (the people who are least well off right now) the growth that has been achieved by slashing worker payments is false growth. Why are we prioritizing higher Maslowian needs when we’ve got holes in the lower levels? How did we get to this point where it’s common practice to not pay workers a livable wage, and why did we let it get this way?
      Businesses shouldn’t be leaving workers behind as they grow. Landlords shouldn’t be raising rents just to increase their profit margins, once they reach their own desired level of comfortable living and don’t need to increase their rate of incoming cashflow to sustain that lifestyle. Not unless they’re re-investing that money in a way that also benefits the local community. The argument isn’t against small businesses that can’t afford to pay their workers more, because those small businesses can’t afford to pay their workers more because they can’t compete against large corporations that STILL don’t pay their workers more. The argument is against those spaces where the money isn’t trickling down.

      Which is why Hillary talks profit-sharing. The more successful the business, the more the bottom level of worker should get paid. Everyone grows together. No dollar auctions. Stop defecting.

      Basically, the argument is rage against Moloch. If you copied and pasted all of the listed examples from Meditations to the people who make this argument, they would all go “Yes! Yes! This is all supporting my argument! Down with cutthroat profit-optimizing capitalism!”

      Now, while I like the argument as an ideal, it is not a solution. It’s like the “ban all guns” argument for gun control. Might have been nice if America had been founded without the Second Amendment, but it sure as hell ain’t going to be practically and effectively implemented now. The argument is essentially the first part of section III of Meditations, the imagined utopia. The utopia where instead of companies have to pay unlivable wages in order to compete, everyone gets paid a livable wage, and can still compete. Because no one defects to profit optimization at the cost of worker pay. Might have been nice if we had enacted some sort of profit sharing requirement, or a fixed CEO-bottom worker pay ratio from the beginning. (Here are some of the ratios people believe would be fair)

      So I admit that this argument fails on its own. It doesn’t provide a good solution that still captures the benefits of capitalism. I think UBI has a good chance to, though, and odds are the people promoting that argument haven’t heard of UBI. They’re still stuck on the fairness aspect, (“economic growth shouldn’t leave people behind, or be at the expense of certain people”) whose importance is much lowered if people are no longer in danger of dying/homeless/starving/sick because of market whims.

      Re: factory jobs being worse
      I think this comes from a frustration of how the need for increasing specialization means that if your own specialization loses out, you get fucked. You’re already behind the specialization curve in trying to switch specialties, which is why a large chunk of people that have fallen out of employment from before still can’t get back in. In addition, there are lots of systems outright preventing people from being self-sustainable without already being very wealthy. You can’t fall back to finding an unsettled piece of land and growing your own food to survive.
      (So again, UBI is a solution to the most important consequences of this. That, and reducing the levels of certification needed. Would be nice to be able to instate pass/fail minimum intelligence tests for job interviews. Most jobs only need an adequate worker, and not the best. Pass/fail should help address discrimination effects.)

    6. JBeshir

      I think it stems from a general intuition is that if you’re employing someone, then you ought to pay, in a sense, the ‘manufacturing costs’ of that person- the costs involved in making them available to you as an employee, which includes them getting what we consider to be an acceptable quality of life.

      The assumption is that if you aren’t, then you’re, in a sense, mooching off whoever *is* providing those costs- or else you’re paying only the costs for an unacceptably poor quality of life, which is intuitively thought of as immoral business practice in much the same way that keeping caged hens are thought of as immoral business practice.

      The reason this is erroneous is basically that the employer is not responsible for the humans coming into existence, in the way they would be responsible for causing the caged hens to come into existence. The supply of humans that other people are having to support, or else suffer inadequate life, is decoupled from your demand. Metaphorically, caged hens are being delivered at your door in sets of thousands without you asking for them, and all you’re doing is feeding them to get eggs, which you sell to afford to feed them (and make a profit), as opposed to letting them starve.

      This is sufficiently… left-field that it is counter-intuitive to people. Supply gluts happen in anything, but when they’re long-term, people start looking for someone or something responsible, and that’s usually the right thing to do. Maybe recyclables or other waste/secondary output products would be the main things that can behave similar to labour in this respect over the long-term?

      It’s also *somewhat* challengeable, there’s a more complicated question about whether they’re responsible for “upholding the system” that brings those humans into existence. I don’t think much of that one in general, because it boils down to holding random individuals personally responsible for the Molochian behaviour of the system they are inside, which generally doesn’t work and is quite cruel when they aren’t even given any realistic actions they could perform to be deemed morally acceptable.

      In extreme cases like company-owned towns, whole-family-works-for-same-company arrangements, places where a single company really *does* control all the incentives involved and has them align so that people have children in order to be able to survive in old age, and those children then have shitty lives, it’s no longer Molochian, there’s a single agency choosing to set things up that way, and I think it’s reasonable to hold that agency responsible, but regular life is far, far from that nowadays.

      Outside of the case for them having done something wrong under existing morals, there’s a strong strategic case that the main way we can collectively dismantle hostile Molochian systems is by identifying agents within the system who, given proper additional social incentives and expectations, can realistically change their actions to cause those systems to shift behaviour. The usual way to do that is to modify morals to obligate those actions, and the usual way to do that is, apparently and very unpleasantly, to start pretending that the morals you want were always the morals all along.

      I think this is a big component in what is in actual fact guiding people to act the way they do, although I’m iffy about all of their choice of agent, choice of expected actions, and method of accomplishing it, the last most strongly.

    7. Furslid

      Here’s a go at steelmanning the argument about living wages.

      Businesses who pay under living wages are the beneficiaries of corporate welfare.

      There is a minimum amount of money that a person and their family needs, call it X$. If a company doesn’t pay its workers X$, the extra money has to come from somewhere.

      What if the company pays only X/2$ in wages and the government pays X/2$ in food stamps, medicaid, etc? This is the same situation as if the company paid them X$ and the government gave X/2$ to the company, because each party ends up with the same amount of money. So we can treat each dollar in welfare benefits paid to full time workers as a transfer of a dollar to the company that employs them.

      There is no good corporate welfare for these companies. If the pseudo transfer goes to profits, then it’s going to people rich enough to own stock in proportion to their wealth. Not good. If it goes to operating expenses, then that means that the government is propping up a business that would otherwise fail. It’s propping up a business that keeps its labor force employed at just the minimum acceptable standard of living.

      1. Vox Imperatoris

        This argument is completely fallacious, though.

        First of all, it assumes that the minimum wage is truly less than minimum subsistence. But that is ludicrous. Sure, if you faced a choice between starving and working or starving while not working, I suppose you’d choose the latter. But if welfare did not exist, that is not the position minimum-wage workers would be in; they would just be poorer. The American poverty line is nowhere near minimum subsistence.

        But suppose that the minimum wage really were less than minimum subsistence. Welfare given to those workers still wouldn’t be “corporate welfare”. If no one could live on less than $10 an hour, and we removed all welfare, then anyone incapable of producing $10 an hour or more would starve. If the government gives them all $2 an hour, sure, Wal-Mart benefits because it can hire people at $8 an hour who otherwise would have died. But everyone else benefits, too: by being able to hire more workers at lower wages, Wal-Mart and other minimum-wage employers spread lower prices throughout the economy.

        If the workers who otherwise would have died cost less to support than they produce, then everyone benefits from supporting them. Their employers don’t get a special benefit. (Of course, if they cost less to support than they produce, it doesn’t make sense that the market wage is less than subsistence in the first place.)

        1. Furslid

          It’s not an argument I find convincing. However, it’s the strongest I could make “If you can’t pay a living wage, you should go out of business.”

          The argument starts with “poor people with bad jobs” rather than “poor people who aren’t qualified for good jobs”. The money could be viewed as the government spending less on welfare because of the employer.

          It ignores several things that weaken the argument. A “living wage” is more than “enough money to stay alive.” Profits can be spent on capital, which can increase wages in the future. There are personal (a bad job is a useful reference for a decent job) and social benefits (the working poor have lower crime rates than the nonworking poor) of a low paying job.

          I don’t expect to convince anyone with that argument. But after writing it, I better understand why people take similar arguments seriously. I also see how low wages + government spending on workers could be a problem in different circumstances (such as convict labor for politically connected businesses.)

  8. Vox Imperatoris

    Such a strange feeling: I was reading an article on Trump’s victory in Nevada, and they were quoting Twitter posts about the “chaotic” situation in the caucuses there. Perfectly normal, but then I noticed the name of the Twitter account. She had the same name as a girl I went to high school with, a fairly distinctive name.

    The thing is, my graduating high school class consisted of 30 people. So could it really be her?

    But yes, it was her, writing as a “fellow” for a major national magazine. Not the most earth-shattering revelation, but it’s the first time I’ve had one of those “small world” moments, especially given that this is someone I went through K-12 education with as one of 30 classmates and not someone I met in college.

    Though she, I, and a second girl were the three top achievers in our class and went to highly ranked out-of-state colleges, so it’s not incredibly surprising in that respect, other than the long odds of (all political writers)/(30 people you graduated with).

    1. David Friedman

      Thinking about somewhat similar coincidences in my life.

      One of the oddest was discovering that a friend of mine was also a good friend of a colleague. That’s odd because I and the colleague live on the West Coast, the friend on the East Coast, and the friend is someone I know through the SCA, not through the legal world.

      Another was encountering on one occasion the head of a very large and prominent Silicon Valley firm and discovering that he was the son of someone who was a colleague of mine at VPI some thirty years earlier.

      And, for a third example, the son of another SCA friend (midwest this time) turned up at my wife’s church last Sunday with wife and kids, having moved to this part of the country.

      1. HeelBearCub

        Isn’t this just “bizarreness effect” and/or ignoring the law of large numbers?

        Being surprised that we sometimes encounter coincidences is a little like being surprised that two people in a class of 30 have the same birthday.

  9. Austin

    I’m curious if you have any fiction/more general writing advice. Writing is something that you seem good at, and that I am not particularly good at. Or, more specifically, writing (especially fiction) is an interesting hobby that I would like to pursue but don’t know how to suck less at, especially since I graduated from college.

  10. onyomi

    On the creation of content handles and dark arts: it seems to me that the use of concept handles itself can be a dark art in that giving something a name predisposes people to accept that it exists. Of course, it also provides an indispensable mental “chunking” function, so it’s usage could hardly be considered bad or sneaky in all cases. But it also seems like something to be aware of.

    For example, you create a term like “rape culture.” The fact that it is a term which exists and which people use seems to imply only two options:

    1. rape culture is a serious problem
    2. rape culture is not such a serious problem

    It tends to foreclose option 3, which is that rape culture is not a Thing at all.

    1. John Schilling

      We have terms like “unicorn” and “Death Star” for things that everybody accepts do not exist, and terms like “demon” and “UFO” for things whose existence is controversial. I don’t see that e.g. having a simple concrete term for “hypothetical minions of a hypothetical fallen angel ruling a hypothetical underworld” causes unbelievers to be significantly more accepting of the demonic-possession model of mental illness.

      1. onyomi

        “Unicorn” and “Death Star” are not really analogous to “rape culture” because the former are imaginary ideas about tangible creatures/objects, while the latter is a proposed cultural phenomenon. I think people can more easily distinguish real and imaginary animals than real and imaginary concepts. In fact, it’s pretty common to apply concepts borrowed from science fiction worlds to real life.

        I’m not saying people can’t possibly determine that a concept is not useful or doesn’t refer to a real social dynamic, just that it’s harder/less likely. This is why framing a debate is so important: sure it’s possible to say “I reject the premises of this question,” but once a question has been framed in a certain way, there is a tendency to accept the frame and then debate object-level points about it.

      2. Error

        I think I’m going to start using “Death Star” as a concept handle for “fear-inducing Thing used for persuasion purposes, but that doesn’t actually happen and/or exist.” Political FUD. Chick tracts about the horrifying things that happen to D&D players, for example, are now filled with Death Stars.

        1. Jiro

          But within the context of its source material (Star Wars), the Death Star did actually exist, even if it doesn’t exist in reality. A better metaphor for an imagined threat would be something that doesn’t exist even within its own context.

          1. Nornagest

            I’d suggest “fnord”, but that’s taken.

            But why come up with new stuff when we already have the perfectly good “boogeyman”?

          2. FullMeta_Rationalist

            Yes, this seems right. “Deathstar” definitely exists in memespace. I think new terms are instantiated in the meatspace category, unless overridden by a fictional context.

            Additionally. If a term such as “rape culture” is used, I think it’s always assumed to at least exist in memespace. Otherwise, “rape culture” is just a dangling pointer. So the algorithm must be something like

            if ( context.is_fictional() ) {
            } else {

    2. Brian Donohue

      I had a similar thought. There are better and worse concept handles, and things can get smuggled in this way.

    3. John Nerst

      I’ve thought the exact same thing, and it seems like a common failure mode to me. In the great Ethnic Tension and Meaningless Arguments Scott talks about the fact that many arguments pretty much involves arguing about whether you should feel positively or negatively towards some concept (essentially: “What side are you on?”).

      But there is a third attitude towards a concept than “positive-negative” or “important-unimportant”, namely to question the validity of it. One person I talked to expressed astonishment that I did not “believe in patriarchy” – and I said that if he pointed at the things he meant by patriarchy I would in virtually all cases agree that, yes, those things are real, and bad – but that is a different thing than thinking they should be conceptualized as an entity. To him it seemed that I was denying the concrete things he was referring to when using the word. That conversation was ripe for derailing and catastrophe.

      There is often the risk, if you’re not incredibly careful, that questioning the validity of a concept turns into arguing for the side “against” that concept.

      1. arbitrary_greay

        So, basically, concept handles risk turning into hedgehogging? Hedgehogging also seems to be to how baileys are born. (Even as I risk hedgehogging the hedgehog concept handle)

      2. Nornagest

        I’ve occasionally tried to argue stuff like this in terms of framing — “I share your concerns, but they’re framed in a distracting/inflammatory/counterproductive way”. More often than not, though, that gets me told, essentially, to go fuck myself.

        1. Arbitrary_greay

          Save me from people who are anti-tone argument. They’re never consistent about it.
          Yeah, sure, language is a bit of an awful means of communicating ideals, but they’re what we got, which means that tone is a huge part of what information is and isn’t conveyed. Use the tools in the toolbox. They have utility.

          Besides which, I vastly prefer “Principle of Charity” to “Fuck the Tone Argument.” One of them has a better tone. 😛

          1. Jiro

            One big problem with tone arguments is that you are rewarding people for detecting bad tones, which creates incentives to have poorly calibrated tone detectors. (And after all, it’s really hard to argue the tone someone has detected is not present, since that depends on the subjective opinion of the person who may have the poorly calibrated tone detector.)

            It’s like offense. If you let people use “that is offensive”, or “that has bad tone” as a weapon, suddenly detecting lots of offense or bad tone becomes a strategy

          2. arbitrary_greay

            I agree. But most anti-tone argument people are really inconsistent about it. They proclaim a blanket anti-tone argument, (“I have the right to be angry and not dismissed! Tone arguments are dog whistles like freeze peach”) but then turn right around with Words Matter arguments, and analyzing diction is itself a tone argument. As are microaggressions, for that matter.

            Again, why I think Principle of Charity is important in side-stepping the perils of over-sensitive tone detectors.

            But if you are trying to persuade someone of something, (as activist outreach is trying to do) then tone is your best friend. Section 7 is a tone argument. Signalling establishes tone.

    4. FullMeta_Rationalist

      I’m reminded of a Jimmy Kimmel clip I saw on facebook a while back. He asks pedestrians for their opinion on Obama’s decision to pardon the sequester and send it to Portugal. Of about 6, half of them admit their confusion. The other half say things like “I’m SO grateful because: Portugal should be protected at all costs; they have a constitutional right; and it should be protected!”

      Another Kimmel clip asks pedestrians whether they prefer ObamaCare or the Affordable Care Act. The responses in this video are pure bs, 100%.

      This leads me to believe that this particular dark art relies on people’s readiness to bullshit in order to save face. I mean, pretend Kimmel asked a serious question and the pedestrian didn’t know how to respond. “Le MAO. You don’t even know what a SEQUESTER is? Do you even LIFT, BRUH?”

      (do two dark arts make a light art?)

  11. FJ

    FYI: tip #8 is sometimes referred to as “drawing the sting.” I’ve always assumed the metaphor involved some type of venomous insect, but a Google search suggests that it might have more to do with artistic depictions of a popular musician.

  12. ChristianKl

    The term toxoplasma seems to have failed to get any traction. There’s nobody using it at LW. At the same time I think the mechanism is important. Maybe it’s possible to find a better catchphrase that people will actually use?

      1. Frog Do

        I thought it was outrage porn: it lets you get off, but it’s not the real thing. And of course, you can never really define it, but you know it when you see it.

        1. onyomi

          My understanding of “toxoplasma,” just based on the post where I first recall seeing it, was that it referred to a mechanism whereby people latch onto seemingly poor cases about which to express outrage–Michael Brown, or that fake UVA rape case, for example–because those cases function better to signal one’s tribal affiliation. One gains no anti-racist points by conceding that Emmett Till probably suffered an injustice, for example.

          As a side note, before I read Scott’s enlightening Toxoplasma piece, I wondered aloud on Facebook during the Michael Brown debacle as to why people kept picking the worst cases to get outraged about, linking to a much more obvious case of an innocent black teenager having been shot. I was basically told to go f____ myself by blue tribe facebook “friends.”

          1. Jiro

            The problem with that concept is that sometimes people pick bad examples because good examples are rare or nonexistent. How do you distinguish between someone picking bad examples as tribal signalling about a real problem, and picking bad examples because good examples are rare?

            (Note that good examples can be rare enough that we shouldn’t go to great lengths to handle them, yet not nonexistent. So your answer can’t just assume that the latter case has no good examples at all.)

          2. Frog Do

            Maybe it violates narrative consistancy? For example, the UVA case, if your claim is that rapes on campus happen all the time and are bad and this is your great example of it, there’s clearly a disconnect. If your claim is that they are rare and bad, it might work better.

        2. JBeshir

          The definition I came away with for toxoplasma was “a meme with a two-stage lifecycle”.

          Two opposing ideas which spread each other and are better thought of not as a two memes, but as a single meme with lifecycle stages, one form when its host is one side and another form when its host is the other side.

          An example being the “terrorism feeds drone strikes, drone strikes feed terrorism” thing- while support for drone strikes and support for terrorism are at the human level opposed to each other, at the level of memetic competition they’re mutually reinforcing and create each other. Metaphorically, support for terrorism causes terrorism to happen, which infects the terrorised with support for drone strikes, which causes drone strikes to happen, which infects more people with support for terrorism. Thus, toxoplasma.

          The big, practical implication being that, if you see two ideas which at the human level are contradictory or opposed, and you want one of those ideas to stop being popular, you need to deliberately evaluate consequences before assuming that supporting the opposing idea is going to accomplish that, because at the level of memetic competition they could be a toxoplasma.

          How common this stuff is, I’m not sure. I think “unkindness begets unkindness, defection begets defection” is probably my rule of thumb for where to put in extra thought.

      2. Nadja

        I second the idea of coming up with a new term for Scott’s “toxoplasma.” To me, the problem with “toxoplasma” is that the word is already laden with too much meaning, all of which is so crazy and vivid.

        I don’t know about you, but when I hear toxoplasma, I think of how the majority of people in many countries, such as France or Brazil, are infected with it. Doesn’t it blow everyone’s minds that this parasite has formed cysts in the brains of a huge chunk of the world’s population?

        Or I think of how if a woman gets acute toxoplasmosis in pregnancy, her baby will be at a very high risk of birth defects. The interesting thing is the if she gets the parasite early in pregnancy, the likelihood of problems is small, but if there are problems, they will be severe. If, on the other hand, she gets it late, she’s much more likely to have issues, but the issues will be less pronounced.

        Or I think of how the one drug that has been shown to be somewhat effective in preventing toxoplasma-related birth defects (and that is widely prescribed in Europe) is not available for purchase in the US because the FDA.

        Or I think of those crazy scientists who came up with a theory that the parasite makes its human hosts into moody, neurotic cat people. Since it’s known that mice infected with toxoplasma turn into suicidal mice who lose their fear of being eaten by cats, it’s also speculated the parasite might perform some similar magic on human brains.

        So, anyway, when I hear toxoplasma, my mind automatically goes off in many different directions, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was that Scott wanted it to mean. (Something about the parasite having two hosts?)

    1. FullMeta_Rationalist

      As I see things, what Scott calls Toxoplasma represents a Territorial Dispute. You know how Scott collects fictional maps? Well imagine the map of the entirety of memespace (or is it a globe). The type of map I want to draw attention to is a political map which depicts the borders of different cultures’ sovereignty.

      In another thread, onyomi notices that terms like “rape culture” strongly connote tribal affiliations. In a sense, “rape culture” represents a location of memespace which lies firmly within the borders of the Feminism-stan. No other culture really wants to contest this, thus no one is pouring significant resources into its assault or defense.

      But “Michael Brown” on the other hand represents a location of memespace which lies on the border between B.L.M. and A.L.M. The location is highly valuable. Thus each culture vies for control of the property, which is littered with the blood and iron of skirmishing troops.

  13. Vox Imperatoris

    Off-topic, but the Wikipedia article titled simply “Russian jokes” is an absolute goldmine. One of those rare articles like “List of common misconceptions”. One of my favorites:

    An American, a Hindu, and a Russian land in Purgatory. A grey-winged angel with a huge whip hanging from his belt meets them and says: “Alright, here’s the rules. Anyone who takes three strikes from my whip without screaming, can go straight to Heaven. You can shield yourselves with whatever you like. We’ve got everything here. Who’s first?” The American steps forward. “Alright, you’ve got three hours to prepare yourself.” The American puts on a full-body Kevlar outfit, gets into a tank, drives it into a concrete bunker, the bunker is covered with 15 feet of dirt and inch-thick titanium plates. The angel unravels his whip. SNAP! The titanium and the dirt are gone. SNAP! The bunker and tank are gone. SNAP! The American howls in pain, the ground opens up under his feet and he drops straight to Hell. “Next!”, says the angel. The Hindu steps forward. “You’ve got three hours to prepare yourself.” / “I need only five minutes. I have studied Yoga all my life and can make myself immune to all pain.” The Hindu gets into a lotus position, hums mantras for a few minutes, and rises a couple of inches off the ground. The angel unravels his whip. SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! The Hindu is completely unfazed. “Hmm, impressive. Alright, you’re free to go.” / “Thank you, but only after I see how this last one makes it out of this”, says the Hindu, looking at the Russian. / “Your call.” / The angel turns to the Russian: “What are you going to shield yourself with?” / “With the Hindu, of course.”

    The one titled “Russian political jokes” is similarly funny:

    Five precepts of the Soviet intelligentsia (intellectuals):
    Don’t think.
    If you think, then don’t speak.
    If you think and speak, then don’t write.
    If you think, speak and write, then don’t sign.
    If you think, speak, write and sign, then don’t be surprised.

    1. Vox Imperatoris

      This one is pretty subtle:

      A quartet of violinists returns from an international competition. One of them was honored with the opportunity to play a Stradivarius violin, and cannot stop bragging about it. The violinist who came in last grunts: “What’s so special about that?” The first one thinks for a minute: “Let me put it to you this way: just imagine that you were given the chance to fire a couple of shots from Dzerzhinsky’s mauser…”

      1. God Damn John Jay

        Not 100% sure I got this, I assume its just that they are using an odd metaphor because they are eager to show their loyalty, but if it was that, it wouldn’t be that subtle.

        1. Vox Imperatoris

          The joke is that the KGB sent spies with Olympic teams and musicians who were competing abroad, to keep them from defecting. So the worst-performing violinist is actually part of the KGB, posing as a violinist.

          Every violinist would be enthused about playing a Stradivarius; when this one isn’t, the other figures out that he is in the KGB, and would therefore be more interested in firing shots from the pistol used by the founder of the Cheka to execute people.

          It reminds me of another Russian joke I actually had told to me by a professor there:

          “In every joke, there is a little kernel… of joke.”

    2. blacktrance

      Cadets, write down: “the temperature of boiling water is 90°.” / One of the privates replies, “Comrade praporshchik, you’re mistaken — it’s 100°!” / The officer consults his handbook, and then announces, “Right, 100°. It is the right angle that boils at 90°.”

      1. Vox Imperatoris

        And I think the explanation of all these military jokes is interesting: every Soviet male college student was required to take a certain number of classes to become an officer in the military reserves. Like forcing everyone to do ROTC.

        1. Who wouldn't want to be anonymous

          Uh. Do you realize that this isn’t particularly novel?

          Like, the US land-grant college system was designed to train officers. Almost all the state school systems were founded with federal land/money, some state schools that predated the program (e.g., Rutgers) joined it, and even some private schools like MIT and Cornell are part of the system. Up until anti-war protests during Vietnam all male students at these schools were required to participate in the military curriculum. They are still required to have an ROTC program on campus, though participation is now voluntary.

          Schools that never took federal money are not required to have an ROTC program, so iirc Harvard got rid of theirs in protest over Don’t ask/Don’t tell.

          1. bean

            It’s not quite the same thing. Most colleges made some military training compulsory, but it didn’t incur a service obligation like a ROTC scholarship does. (In fact, there’s nothing stopping a regular student from taking ROTC classes at most schools today. I looked into doing so, but only ended up in rifle shooting, which was mostly outsiders.)
            There are a few schools which still do require ROTC participation, namely the 6 Senior Military Colleges. (At least in theory. In practice, I think most of them effectively waive that requirement now.)

          2. Vox Imperatoris

            I was actually unaware until just now of the extent to which ROTC used to be compulsory at American colleges.

            However, looking into the history of it, it doesn’t surprise me. The Morrill Act didn’t make it compulsory: it only said that land-grant colleges had to offer military training. It was mostly made compulsory in the Progressive Era—which, as I said, doesn’t surprise me one bit.

            Like, the US land-grant college system was designed to train officers. Almost all the state school systems were founded with federal land/money, some state schools that predated the program (e.g., Rutgers) joined it, and even some private schools like MIT and Cornell are part of the system.

            I wouldn’t say that the land-grant college system “was designed to train officers”. It was at least as much designed to train people in agricultural management and industrial sciences.

            In any case, the movements in the 60s to throw ROTC off campuses now make a whole lot more sense to me.

          3. Douglas Knight

            It is true that compulsory ROTC only dated from the Progressive Era. But that is only because the name was changed to ROTC at that time.

          4. Who wouldn't want to be anonymous

            The compulsory military education didn’t incur a service obligation in the same way that being a member of the unorganized militia doesn’t. You can either register for the draft and be required to come when called, or become a reserve officer and be required to come when called.

            Whether or not the Morrill act specified it explicitly, military education was mandatory. ROTC replaced the prior system and was also mandatory from its inception.

            It’s like saying that universities aren’t designed to provide a liberal arts education. The fact that all the charters mention it explicitly and taking the classes is almost universally mandatory has no bearing on whether it is one of the primary design goals…

          5. Who wouldn't want to be anonymous

            >.I was actually unaware until just now of the extent to which ROTC used to be compulsory at American colleges.

            Happy to help.

  14. Tricky

    “Sometimes I use the really ugly solution of having an entire paragraph within parentheses, as if to say ‘I really wanted to bring this up here, but remember it’s not actually part of the structure of this argument!'”

    This is exactly what footnotes are for, especially if the comment is an aside on a source, or engaging commonly-cited evidence that you don’t think is relevant but others might.

    And if your parenthetical evidence is accurate but contradicts a broader argument? Maybe your argument should be changed to incorporate that nuance.

    1. 1212

      With footnotes you need links there and back to get the same functionality though, and imo Mr Alexander’s parenthetical paragraphs tend not to break the flow, so I’d rather not have to click twice, which probably would.

      (they’re not always total asides)

  15. Sarah

    I’m working right now as a policy coordinator for an organization that advocates for trans rights. My job in recent weeks has basically became a long exercise in trying to word our position so middle-class, Christian, Republican parents who believe we’re trying to get their daughters assaulted and overturn the First Amendment are willing to actually talk with us about what we’re proposing. It has, I think you can imagine, been frustrating.

    I just wanted to say thanks for this post – seeing these techniques articulated has given me a lot more to think about both in wording our policy and in setting up counterarguments to the opposition’s arguments. I’m interested to see how results would change if we thought a little more about how we’re signaling.

    1. Garrett M. Petersen

      That sounds like quite the challenge! I feel like the thing trans advocates always say about “a woman trapped in a man’s body” has a spiritual quality to it already. The idea that someone is more than (and different from) her body already implies something like a soul, and if you could spin it as the same kind of everlasting soul they talk about in church, you might really get through to them. Are there any Bible stories where someone is trapped in the wrong body somehow?

      1. Garrett M. Petersen

        I Googled around and found an appropriate quote. Here’s my attempt to make a pro-trans argument to a Bible-belt Republican:

        Corinthians 15:50 says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” so how can we argue that our sons and daughters’ identities must be tied to their flesh and blood? Do we think so little of the everlasting soul that we judge a person’s gender by their flesh and blood?

        1. Deiseach

          Doesn’t work because that argument depends on dualism where the soul is more important than the body, and for classical Christian thought, this is not so – we have the expectation of the resurrection of the body, where the glorified body and the soul will be re-united for their eternal fate.

          The whole point of being an incarnate is being a soul and spirit in a body (angels are spirits and do not have souls) so trying to make an argument that the body is trivial is more or less Gnosticism, which is heresy.

          Nice try, but fail.

          1. Garrett M. Petersen

            I guess that just illustrates the importance of Scott’s point:

            Crossing tribal signaling boundaries is by far the most important persuasive technique I know, besides which none of the others even deserve to be called persuasive techniques at all. But to make it work, you have to actually understand the signals, and you have to have at least an ounce of honest sympathy for the other side. You can’t just be like “HELLO THERE, FELLOW LIBERALS! LET’S CREATE INTRUSIVE BIG GOVERNMENT AGENCIES TOGETHER! BUT BEFORE WE DO, I HAVE SOMETHING I WANT TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE SECOND AMENDMENT…”

            Since I’m a lifelong atheist with no particular interest in scripture, I shouldn’t go for the religious angle. Better to find actual common ground. (Maybe go with the whole “free market economist” angle.) Still, if Sarah has some actual devout Christians on staff, she could definitely find someone more qualified than me to take the religious angle.

          2. Deiseach

            Garrett, it is extremely easy to fall into heresy. The first four centuries or so of Christianity have such a broad selection (especially Christological ones) that every time I see the latest progressive Christian thinker coming out with a provocative new thought (generally accompanied by a best-selling book) about “Hey, what if we think of the Deity Concept this way?”, I go “Ah, another round of ‘Spot the Heresy!’ Didn’t we settle this at one of the Councils?” 😉

          3. caethan

            @Deiseach – isn’t that a fun game? “Let’s see – Arian, Arian, Pelagian, Gnostic, ooh, a Donatist, that’s novel! Another Pelagian, etc., etc.”

        2. HeelBearCub

          Depends a great deal on the sect for one thing, as some of them really do think they will have a bodily resurrection when Jesus returns.

          edit: Deiseach beat me to it.

      2. Deiseach

        The trouble with that is the “X trapped in a Y body” notion is perceived by some trans people to be (a) a very outdated argument from the early years of the trans rights movement (b) actively offensive because it reinforces gender binary, invokes medical gatekeeping (e.g. acting and dressing feminine or masculine enough to pass as female or male to a standard that satisfies the doctor’s judgement of how trans you are, in order that you should get hormones/surgery), puts the need for proof of transness other than “you are trans when you identify as trans” on trans people and other things I can’t recall off the top of my head.

        (How I know I’ve been hanging out on Tumblr too much… I’m quoting all the trans blogging I somehow see on my dash).

        1. Garrett M. Petersen

          I’m not a fan of the framework either. It never made sense to me, particularly since I’m not a dualist, and the idea that someone is anything besides their body doesn’t make sense to me. An argument that would work on an atheist libertarian like me would be more like, “it’s not hurting anyone, categories like male and female are really arbitrary anyways, and did I mention it’s not hurting anyone?” But I’m not sure how well that would fly in a flyover state.

        2. Sarah

          It is true, though – “X trapped in Y’s body” has been pretty much abandoned as, among other things, unproductive and not actually relevant to the concrete changes trans people are fighting for. I think it comes from wanting to be cautious about the extent to which that language creates a standard for trans-ness that emphasizes the physical body rather than the gender identity.

          I really, REALLY don’t want to get into an involved discussion of how people define trans-ness, it’s heavily contentious even within the community. But the crux of the argument I’m trying to make to our opposition is that trans men are men and trans women are women, not in-between or “trapped” as something else. We want to expand the definition of “male” and “female” to include trans experiences and to lose the emphasis on the physical body as the sole marker of gender.

          So, our problem with arguing our point is bridging the cultural gap between the two sides’ understanding of that male/female definition. To them, forcing cisgender people of one sex to share public space with transgender people of a different physical sex is forcing the cisgender people to modify their behavior based on someone else’s cultural understanding. We might say “It shouldn’t matter at all to you what the junk of someone you’re interacting with looks like,” and they’d reply with something like “No, someone’s status as physically male or female is vital to my understanding of how I should engage with them, and telling me to ignore that is harmful to me.”

          I totally understand why that’s an extremely difficult jump to make for them, especially where religious beliefs (which are in turn deeply embedded in social norms and cultural understanding) have a huge effect on how they believe people of different sexes are supposed to (or are permitted to) interact. It feels like we’re telling them their discomfort doesn’t matter but a tiny minority of people’s discomfort does, and that’s a perfectly valid reason to feel attacked. It just doesn’t lead to an obvious way to explain our position in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re attacking them.

          Basically: To our opponents, our understanding of gender and physical sex is just a belief we’re declaring more right than their equally valid belief, and then trying to get federal protection for on top of it. “Your position is based in harmful societal norms and you hurt people because you impose your belief system on people trying to operate outside it, but our imposing our belief system on you is better and more just and NOT hurting anyone, and if you say it hurts you you’re wrong” is a shitty argument to make at someone you’re trying to persuade, and that’s what the argument inevitably ends up sounding like.

          1. David Friedman

            “We want to expand the definition of “male” and “female” to include trans experiences and to lose the emphasis on the physical body as the sole marker of gender. ”

            It sounds as though you already understand why this is too ambitious a goal, since you do a good job of explaining why what you want seems entirely unreasonable to the people you want to persuade. To put it strongly, you want to control the inside of their heads, which is none of your damn business.

            I think it makes more sense to pursue a more modest goal, to try to persuade them that trans people are not crazy, that they may be odd but harmlessly so, and it’s only courteous not to make a point of the oddity.

          2. Vaniver

            It just doesn’t lead to an obvious way to explain our position in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re attacking them.

            Have you considered the possibility that your position is in fact attacking them? (Both in the “you and your beliefs are wrong” sense and the “I want to make sexual assault against you easier” sense.)

            I think if you have, and you’ve shown your work, then you’re at the start of a persuasive case. But I also think that if you start with the “this policy is correct” bottom line and then work backwards, you will not have actually considered that case (except in the “yeah, they all need to die for my policy to win, but that can be arranged” sense).

          3. Samedi

            Why not advocate a general “live and let live” philosophy instead? Everyone benefits from that. Religious people benefit because they may soon find the tables have turned. Tolerance now might mean tolerance for trans people but it could soon mean tolerance for those odd people who believe in gods. You have a common cause.

          4. John Schilling

            Why not advocate a general “live and let live” philosophy instead?

            Because we’re talking about a context where local governments are rounding up just about every teenager in reach and making them take off their clothes and take showers with one another. We’re well past “live and let live” and into “can you at least limit the audience for my daughter’s compulsory nakedness to people who don’t want to ogle, fondle, or rape her?”

            Yes, there are opt-outs to high school gym class, but they come with substantial costs of one sort or another, and the strong cultural default is to just go along with it. Like many of our cultural defaults,
            it works quite well if everybody involved is cis-hetero.

          5. Adam

            If I had my way, every restroom in the world would be unisex, but as it stands, the entire point of the division is physical. Human entities with a penis can piss standing up, so they get a separate room with different equipment that doesn’t work any other way. Whether they’re male, female, non-binary, or undeclared doesn’t really matter. Arguing they still need to be segregated, but simply by the preference of the people entering them, seems like an inherently difficult argument to make.

            Since the specific fear seems to be trans women assaulting cis women, and this likely is not the first place in the world where this has ever been proposed, find a place where it did happen and compare the relative rate of trans women assaulting cis women in a public restroom to cis men assaulting trans women in a public restroom. If the latter is higher, you at least have a compelling reason grounded in something other than competing feelings of ideologically opposed groups to argue segregating based on what you prefer to be called is superior to segregating based on whether or not you have a penis. Nobody wants to see more assault.

          6. smocc

            It is true, though – “X trapped in Y’s body” has been pretty much abandoned as, among other things, unproductive and not actually relevant to the concrete changes trans people are fighting for.

            As a social conservative who has tried at least a little to understand what this trans business is all about this is troubling to me. The “X trapped in Y’s body” is the only description that I have ever been able to come close to sympathizing with, not to mention understand.

            All the other descriptions I’ve seen have seemed like literal non-sense. As in, I can’t understand them at all. It feels like people are using words I know but with a secret dictionary that they won’t show me.

            I can kind of sympathize with “X trapped in Y’s body” because I have experienced some form of dissatisfaction with my own body and strong visceral reactions to others’ bodies (positive and negative, depending on sex). I also know that the brain plus hormones can cause all sorts of varied and powerful effects, and I know that hermaphroditism is a thing. The analogy of being forced to use other sex’s locker room is also powerful for similar reasons. But I guess I’m not supposed to understand it that way?

            Is it supposed to be that there is no such thing as gender and we should treat all gender distinctions and superfluous and stifling? But I thought that the whole point was that someone may strongly identify as a gender. Like, Joe wants us to call him Mary because that is a female name specifically. Is there supposed to be a difference between gender and sex?

            Is sex supposed to be real? Is gender? I was taught one set of definitions growing up, and they had a distinction, but I can never tell if the definitions used by trans-advocates are the same ones I’m used to.

            Since it is so hard to understand what’s going on it is very difficult to see many of these requests as anything but “you must allow me to do whatever I want and if you don’t accommodate me you are a bigot.”

            I suspect that unless there is a understandable, relatable story, there won’t be much significant progress with people more conservative than me.

          7. onyomi

            “If I had my way, every restroom in the world would be unisex”

            This would be extremely unjust as men spend, on average, 30 seconds each time they use a public restroom, whereas women spend, on average, 30 years.

          8. Nathan

            Hi Sarah,

            I’m a religious conservative. I appreciate you expressing yourself as openly and vulnerably as you have.

            I’m going to repay the favour by expressing my own feelings on the topic as openly and sincerely as I can. I warn you and others reading this that it might be pretty confronting to read. Consider this a trigger warning if you like.

            I consider trans people to be, essentially, disabled. That is, there’s a part of their brains that just isn’t working like it should. To me a trans woman is not a woman but a delusional man.

            Now, in general I’m fine with accomodating disabilities. But there has to be a reasonable limit. If some schizophrenic thinks that they are actually the owner of my house and that therefore they have a right to be there, that doesn’t mean I should play along and allow them inside. Neither should I play along and allow a man in a bathroom with my daughter just because he thinks he’s a woman and has a right to be there.

            I apologise if my view is upsetting to you. I don’t want to offend you, but it’s specifically because I don’t want to be offensive that I don’t normally express these sorts of opinions even though they are core to my position on the subject. You’ve expressed a sincere desire to understand how to try and convince people like me and I can’t help you do that without accurately stating what I actually think.

            The big barrier I think is that I’ve never seen what I consider to be a reasonable explanation for why “I feel like a woman” should be considered equivalent to “I am a woman”. It doesn’t seem different to me to saying “the tape measure says I’m five and a half feet tall, but actually I’m six foot three in my mind so that’s my real height”.

            I hope that’s some sort of help to you. I’m happy to answer any questions if there’s something I’ve left unclear.

          9. David Friedman

            “Since it is so hard to understand what’s going on it is very difficult to see many of these requests as anything but “you must allow me to do whatever I want and if you don’t accommodate me you are a bigot.” ”

            Or, still worse, “you must view the world in the way I want you to view it, and if you do not you are bigot.”

            With unlimited and baseless confidence that that way of viewing the world is of course true.

          10. houseboatonstyx

            @ Sarah
            the concrete changes trans people are fighting for

            Sarah, I’m bi, comfortable with and attracted to androgynous people.
            But like Friedman, Nathan, et al, I’m confused and a bit irritated … sorry, but I hope I can make that useful to you.

            What are some concrete changes you want in law, and from whom?

          11. Samedi

            @John Schilling

            My definition of “live and let live” does not include local governments forcing people to do things. Quite the contrary. I trust that people can work out creative compromises when given the authority and responsibility to do so. I expect it will be messy and unsatisfactory for all but such is compromise.

          12. Vaniver

            @JohnSchilling: Actually, public showers are on the way out in schools. (See articles like this or this.) We had private stalls (but a public locker room) when I was in school over a decade ago.

            If the issue is forced and communal showers get shut down, this is probably a net societal win.

            (This does call to mind, though, a Muslim group calling for their religious holidays to be included in the school calendar, which led to the removal of all non-federal holidays (of which Jewish ones were the only ones celebrated).)

          13. John Schilling

            If the issue is forced and communal showers get shut down, this is probably a net societal win.

            Agreed, but a small one and for logistical reasons probably not fast enough to satisfy LGBT activists if that is the only path to acceptance.

            Quasi-compulsory public education isn’t going away any time soon. Given that, physical education and/or a vigorous recess is probably appropriate, and that means showers and locker rooms aren’t going away any time soon. And it will take a great deal of time, money, and political will to rebuild every school to provide private and secure facilities for each individual student.

            Until then, you need to figure out how to assure the conservative parents of teenaged girls that the most intimate shared facilities aren’t being shared with aspiring rapists, when your public position seems to be that anybody can use any facilities they want.

          14. Vox Imperatoris

            @ John Schilling:

            Communal showers are already gone from many (most?) schools.

            And one can change in the bathroom stall if one desires.

            It seems natural to me that transgendered students are going to take steps to “pass” as the appropriate gender, for the precise reason of avoiding social alienation as much as possible. The point is to keep them from being publicly castigated and even subject to official sanctions if they are discovered.

            Until then, you need to figure out how to assure the conservative parents of teenaged girls that the most intimate shared facilities aren’t being shared with aspiring rapists, when your public position seems to be that anybody can use any facilities they want.

            I think the answer is that this an insignificant threat, and that the “solution” doesn’t really stop men who want to go into the women’s restrooms looking for rape victims. It’s not as if there’s some kind of laser field on the door.

          15. houseboatonstyx

            @ John Schilling
            Given [quasi-compulsory public education], physical education and/or a vigorous recess is probably appropriate, and that means showers and locker rooms aren’t going away any time soon.

            Why not? They’re expensive, kids hate them, they’ve always been places for misbehavior, parents complain. Here’s an area where ‘changing the way people think’ can apply — because it’s a small number of people who would have to change, ie the people who plan use of school space.

          16. Mary

            “— because it’s a small number of people who would have to change, ie the people who plan use of school space.”

            Path dependency. If we were deciding now how to make our schools, it would be small. Given the immense stock of schools we already have, it’s large.

        3. arbitrary_greay

          Chiming in to say that the gender dysphoria argument is actually one of the strongest to non-leftists, because it has been concretely proven to be an existing condition, visible in brain scans and such.

          At that point, people are much more likely to get to the “we should accommodate this disability, we shouldn’t dehumanize them” point of view, which comparing historically to other movements, is well on our way down the slippery slope to acceptance! A slide I have few problems with, in this case. Just as homosexual advocacy went through its “born this way” phase for a reason, and trans discourse went through the “X in Y body” phase sincerely at the time, so it is that in converting people to allies, they most likely have to pass through the same phases in the process of adjusting their perspectives.

          And as far as getting a policy to pass, requiring that the policy be passed for the right theoretical/systemic reasons is little comfort if the policy fails to pass. Use the outdated arguments if they WORK.

          1. Whatever Happened to Anonymous

            I think the strongest pro-trans argument for skeptics that I’ve seen came from Scott/Ozymandias (don’t know who said it first), paraphrasing from memory: “Yes, it might be pretty much delusions from mentally ill special snowflakes, but they are a very at risk demographic, and the best way there is to address it is to let them indulge in them.”

            I like it because it’s very simple, it doesn’t rely in great edifices of gender theory (which most of your ideological opponents think is pure bullshit anyway) nor in the ever elusive definition of mental illness. It concedes the premises straight up and instead makes an appeal for compassion/mercy.

            It has some pretty big flaws, though. Most notably that most non-utilitarian trans-advocates would probably find it denigrating, and that people nowadays don’t seem too big on compassion/mercy (be them red, blue, grey, gentry or whatever).

          2. Whatever Happened to Anonymous

            OK, I get that I’m talking from a postion of priviledge in not having to deal with these people in Meatspace, but is it necessary for you take every possible topic, no matter how tangentially related, as an opportunity to rail about West Coast “Liberals”?

          3. Vox Imperatoris

            “I hate these goddamn liberals so much! They never shut up about the latest ‘culture war’ issue of the day. In every conversation: you can’t get away from it!

            “And they act like anyone who disagrees with them is personally corrupt and part of some evil conspiracy to oppress the poor and minorities. But I’m telling you: if someone thinks you ought to be punished for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding, that’s a one-hundred percent guarantee that he’s not going to hesitate to stab you in the back when it comes to an issue on which you are ‘politically incorrect’. The real root of it is that they just hate religious people and anyone else not in their ‘tribe’. And they’re working together to systematically exclude them from the highest positions in society.

            “It’s going to get to the point where there’s an ideological litmus test for every position. And that’s why you’ve got to make sure to root out these liberals before they take over your workplace.”

          4. Whatever Happened to Anonymous

            I’m not 100% sure of what you’re going for here, but I’m not conviced it’s very productive either.

          5. Tibor

            I might be wrong (I’m basing this on personal experience and maybe it is different in other countries), but I think that most people do not have problems with transsexuals per se in the sense that they would want to actively oppress them, they just don’t like bullies who are telling them how they should think about others. That is to say, I won’t try to ostracize someone for being a transsexual and I might even be ok with addressing him/her as the opposite sex than he/she physically is (that is if the person respectably asks instead of demanding it).

            It is sort of like with vegetarians. I am not a vegetarian, I agree with some reasons for vegetarianism, disagree with others. I am going to follow a “live and let live, everybody do your thing” policy as long as the vegetarian in question is doing the same. The moment someone gives me lectures about meat with a “holier-than-thou” condescension, I stop playing nice too.

            The same way, a transsexual will be a weirdo for me, but that’s fine, many people would find me weird for various reasons too and as long people are not trying to force me to partake in their kind of weirdness or condemning me for not doing so, then whatever. I don’t really care if “they’re born that way” or they “choose to be that way”. I don’t think that choosing to be a transsexual would make it worse.

            And while I will disagree with someone who is socially conservatives and who simply finds transsexuals in general revolting, I am strongly convinced that it is nobody’s business to force him to feel differently. Actually, there is a curious discrepancy – if someone who’s body is male feels like a female or the other way around, then people should respect that and not try to force him to feel differently. But why should not the same hold for someone who feels negatively about those people as long as all he wants is to avoid association with them, without ever coercing them to conform to his standards?

            As for public toilets, I for one don’t think there should be any regulations in this respect, if the building owner decides to have unisex toilets or male/female toilets, or even male/female/transsexual toilets, that’s his business and nobody should force him to do it one way or the other. At the same time, I generally don’t like restrooms with multiple toilets in them and would prefer individual toilets 🙂 I get that it would get dear to build 10 toilets in separate rooms, but I really don’t feel very nice when I am at a toilet with someone else at the same time. And when someone is at a urinal right next to me, I often just have to stand there until the other guy leaves, because I cannot make myself piss before that 🙂 Sharing toilets with other men is already pretty bad, with women it would be even worse and I imagine that most women would be even more strongly against sharing them with men.

            My parents are quite conservative, especially my father (although not in a religious way, he is an atheist, my mother is vaguely mildly-christian-ish), my grandmother is as well but when there was this guy in the neighbourhood who decided to have a sex operation, they just treated it as nothing even remarkable, let alone bad. At the same time, my father is definitely not be very excited about gay pride marches and things like that (not that he would want to ban it or anything), which may seem contradictory.

            I think the crucial difference is that that guy was just “a normal person”, not an aggressive activist or someone deliberately doing things people might find annoying and then demanding that they cheer for him. But that is what most gay pride parades and most LGTB activists are all about, at least when observed from the outside.

            It is way less about being gay which mostly people don’t care about much, at least not where I am from, or gay marriage, which is legal in the Czech republic and there was practically no opposition to it, and way more about exhibitionism (in the case of pride parades) and generally bullying other people into liking the things that you do or at least pretending that they do. Maybe this is different in more religious countries, but I am pretty sure that with a less confrontational approach, the transsexual activists would be way more successful. Essentially, the message they should try to convey should be something like “we are not all that different from everyone else”, instead they mostly do quite the opposite, emphasizing on the differences.

            Accidentally, this is also my problem with the various “diversity” (as in ethnic diversity) people, they basically spread stereotypes and highlight the differences between various peoples instead of finding common ground and pointing out the similarities. Singapore was the only place where I saw “diversity” done right. It is multi-ethnic multi-religious country and instead of “celebrating diversity”, they emphasize on that everyone there is Singaporean, regardless of whether they are Chinese, Tamil or Malaysian and what gods they worship and that the Singaporean bit means common values that are more important than the rest. But I guess (to stereotype a bit myself 🙂 ) that this is a very Asian thing to do, whereas Europeans (and by extension Americans) think more in terms of “us versus them”.

          6. John Schilling

            Another critical advantage of the gender dysphoria/”born this way” argument is that it counters the contagion fear. Most people would prefer that their children be cis-hetero and otherwise “normal”. Even intellectually tolerant people aren’t always above an instinctual disgust reaction, and even the wholly tolerant will recognize the negative life outcomes associated with non-traditional sexuality.

            If [sexual deviance du jour] is a matter of choice, allowing the “deviants” to practice their culture openly and to official approval will increase the rewards and decrease the penalties of making that choice. Almost certainly more people would chose to be gay, trans, or whatever. If it is driven by poorly-understood environmental factors, then the presence of the culture seems intuitively likely to correlate with those environmental factors. Either way, presence of “gay culture” or “trans culture” or whatnot will be seen as increasing the odds that an otherwise cis-hetero child will become gay or trans. Most parents would prefer otherwise, and that preference may rise to the level of a real fear for the more conservative.

            “They’re just born that way” reduces gay culture or trans culture to the level of, e.g., deaf culture. People may approve or disapprove but aren’t going to have the fear that their children will become deaf if there are openly deaf students in their school, and their instinct for sympathy will face less instinctive opposition.

            You could get the same result if you can pin it down to specific environmental factors that won’t be carried into the high school environment, e.g. childhood malnutrition or sexual abuse or whatnot.
            But insisting that it is a perfectly valid lifestyle choice, no explanation necessary, takes you back into the more threatening “choice” regime.

          7. jaimeastorga2000

            My parents are quite conservative, especially my father (although not in a religious way, he is an atheist, my mother is vaguely mildly-christian-ish), my grandmother is as well but when there was this guy in the neighbourhood who decided to have a sex operation, they just treated it as nothing even remarkable, let alone bad. At the same time, my father is definitely not be very excited about gay pride marches and things like that (not that he would want to ban it or anything), which may seem contradictory.

            I think the crucial difference is that that guy was just “a normal person”, not an aggressive activist or someone deliberately doing things people might find annoying and then demanding that they cheer for him. But that is what most gay pride parades and most LGTB activists are all about, at least when observed from the outside.

            I am reminded of AntiDem’s “On Homosexuality And Uranus”:

            Anime homosexuals are carefully portrayed as not representing a threat to the prevailing cisheteronormist order. Let us take consider an early example, Sailors Uranus and Neptune from Sailor Moon. Though obviously (and yet never quite explicitly) a lesbian couple, one of whom has some prominent transgender (or at least highly androgynous) qualities, they never really make any demands for accommodation on the world that surrounds them. Sailor Uranus does not wish to upend the society around her in order to gain the validation involved in having her lifestyle redefined as normal; she only desires to be left in peace to discreetly live as she wishes. She doesn’t want to change marriage laws, get you fired for saying that you don’t like her, or tear down the faith of the polis.

            And it is because of this that she can safely be left alone by the larger society around her. She is not a threat, so she can be treated as a curiosity – liked by some, disliked by others, but simply not worth bothering with on a societal level. The implicit, unspoken bargain that she makes with the larger society is both reasonable and humane – she gains a strong measure of security through obscurity, and the mores of the society around her remain secure. That is largely how it is in Japan, and how it largely used to be in the West as well. Laws against homosexuality in the West existed, but were essentially a hedge against precisely what has happened now that they have been removed – open, politicized homosexuality becoming a serious threat to the existing order. As for the discreet, private practice of homosexuality, laws against it are and always were virtually unenforceable (for many reasons, including the general disinterest of Westerners in taking any great pains to enforce them against those who kept their proclivities private), and when they were on the books they remained virtually unenforced.

          8. Tibor

            @onyomi: Are there no nudist beaches in the US?

            @jaimeastorga2000: This might be a view of some people, but for others this is not about societal changes but about living the way you yourself want to without being bullied. It is actually similar to gays. A few decades ago there would be a strong pressure not to admit in public that you are gay. Today, there is a similar pressure in some circles against admitting that you don’t like gays because the LGBT activists tend to demand not just tolerance (which means not active hostility) but active acceptance. That is a pressure to conform to a certain norm and people who don’t like that norm don’t like that. There will definitely be some, maybe even many among them would would simply want to enforce their own norms instead but also many who just want to live their lives their own way and with whom they choose to and let all the other people leave them in peace – in which case they are happy to return that courtesy. For those people, gay marriage is not a problem, they might even kind of support it. The problem is the aggressive demanding activism.

          9. Larry Kestenbaum

            At the same time, I generally don’t like restrooms with multiple toilets in them and would prefer individual toilets

            Probably most of y’all will live to see the day when multiple individual, private, unisex toilets will be everywhere, and people will wonder how we got through the barbaric era of gang toilets, or tolerated long waiting lines for women’s restrooms and none for men.

            Pretty much every single trend in physical accommodation is toward greater individual privacy and separation. The disappearance, already, of communal showers in favor of shower stalls is one example. Hospitals and college dorms no longer have wards containing dozens of beds. And no doubt brief-hire self-driving cars are going to usurp the role of city buses.

            Yeah, privacy is more expensive, but we rarely stop to think just how wealthy we all are compared to our ancestors.

          10. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Larry Kestenbaum:

            Yeah, privacy is more expensive, but we rarely stop to think just how wealthy we all are compared to our ancestors.


            Closely related: Don Boudreaux’s recent posts (and the back-and-forth) about how all of us today are richer than John D. Rockefeller was in 1916.

            Ours is a world of marvels. And nothing about these marvels is more marvelous than the fact that these marvels are so familiar and inexpensive and available to hoi polloi that intellectual fashion practically commands us – particularly us oh-so-perceptive intellectuals – to ridicule these marvels as contemptible baubles.

          11. onyomi

            Related to the “we are all unimaginably richer than everybody 100 years ago” story, and the equally, if not more prevalent “now every household needs two earners and it’s so much harder to get a decent job” narrative, both of which paradoxically seem to be true:

            I recently heard the claim that if those who love to be nostalgic about the 50s wanted to live like Ralph Kramden then they surely could still do so today–even on the salary of a single, blue-collar breadwinner. But remember they lived in a two-room apartment with like, no tv, no phone, a literal ice box in lieu of refrigerator, and certainly no AC.

            Which makes me wonder: is the fact that it seems so hard to get a decent job and make ends meet today mostly a keeping-up-with-the-Jones effect combined with nostalgia? I tend to be a bit pessimistic about our economy, feeling like there are real, deep, systemic problems that have been papered over somewhat by rapid technological progress and credit cards, yet there’s also no denying how much higher our expectations are.

            To some extent, I think it’s ironically difficult to live cheaply precisely because of how rich we are, strange as it is to say. Example: food in China is really cheap compared to here, especially in restaurants. This is partially due to much cheaper labor input, but it’s also because the way they cook genuinely involves making due with much cheaper ingredients because most of the customers are, by American standards, dirt poor. Yet they eat much better (imo) than the American poor because there are so many “poor” people and a correspondingly large number of good restaurants to cater to them.

          12. Vox Imperatoris

            @ onyomi:

            In general, I sort of agree with you on the economy. It’s basically a race between government-imposed inefficiency and technology. I tend to think technology is winning, certainly as compared to the 50s. But in more recent years I hold it more open to debate.

            To some extent, I think it’s ironically difficult to live cheaply precisely because of how rich we are, strange as it is to say. Example: food in China is really cheap compared to here, especially in restaurants. This is partially due to much cheaper labor input, but it’s also because the way they cook genuinely involves making due with much cheaper ingredients because most of the customers are, by American standards, dirt poor. Yet they eat much better (imo) than the American poor because there are so many “poor” people and a correspondingly large number of good restaurants to cater to them.

            I don’t know. I’m pretty sure this is almost all labor costs.

            There are a large number of relatively poor Americans, and therefore we ought to expect a large number of restaurants set up to cater to them with very low prices, if that were feasible.

            And to some extent it is, but you end up with McDonalds instead of actual places with waiters and dishwashers.

            That’s what happens when you have, on a global scale, one country full of rich people and another country full of poor people. The country full of poor people has all the labor they want and has to economize on goods. The country full of rich people has all the goods they want, but at the cost of driving up wages so high that rich people are willing to do those jobs.

          13. Nancy Lebovitz

            I think the forcefulness on the gay and transgendered side is that they aren’t just dealing with people who can switch fairly easily to being friendly.

            They’re also dealing with a small proportion of people who are dangerously violent, and I can see wanting to change the culture so that assaulting someone for having a non-standard gender is not imaginable.

            It’s complicated– a strategy which is forceful enough to possibly really change the culture may well alienate people who were already at live and let live.

          14. arbitrary_greay

            it seems so hard to get a decent job and make ends meet today

            It seems like the floor for “basic” living is higher? There’s a lot more on the cardboard soles side of boots now. You can get more Stuff, but there’s a much more difficult leap to get to non-cash financial stability, and thus actual wealth mobility. Not sure how accurate this is, but in this account, monthly expenses include rent, transportation, and insurance as necessary things that didn’t take such a large chunk of expenses before, as well as internet/cell communication being requirements to access work markets.
            Insert that Ne-yo/Pitbull song here

          15. David Friedman

            When people treat “basic living” as if it were a solid fact, I’m reminded of Dierdre McCloskey’s estimate that the mean real income in the world today—all of the world—is about ten times what it was through most of history, twenty to thirty times in the developed world.

          16. Tibor

            @Larry: You might be right. But I am not sure about the common showers, this might be a cultural thing. In Europe, these don’t seem to be leaving any time soon. I’m doing my PhD at a quite renown university in (west) Germany and at the sport centre here, if you want to take a shower, you have to take it with the other men (I expect that the same holds for women’s showers as well). I think that particularly in school-like institutions and also most public swimming pools, this is the standard and stall-showers are an exception. It could change perhaps. For some reason, I find the common toilets more annoying than this even though you are actually much more clothed there than in the showers (even at a urinal, and of course nobody sees you in a stall). But while in the shower, while people (I would obviously feel way less uncomfortable if there were women there as well, but they are not and I don’t care much if maybe a gay guy looks at me in the swimming pool’s showers) can see me naked, I don’t mind that much about that. But what I do at the toilet I prefer to do in complete privacy 🙂

          17. Tibor

            @Nancy: Yeah, I guess you want to be kind of aggressive against the people who themselves are aggressive , who are intolerant in the actual sense of the word – i.e. they do not tolerate the existence of something different and want to persecute that. The courtesy of being tolerant should not extend to the people who are not tolerant themselves.

            But if you turn that into a witch hunt, you end up sending more people into that exact camp who would otherwise perhaps see transsexuals as something a bit strange, but who would not really care much either way. And those people are more numerous than the really aggressive opponents. It is exactly that mechanism when you criticize people for being too X (when you are overzealous about what X is already), then people will start thinking “Well, if I am X, then X is probably not all that bad because I am not a bad person”. And they will accept the parts of X they would have never accepted otherwise. At the end of the day, the net effect of what you do is making X more common.

            Also, one probably wants more than mere tolerance, but also at least rudimentary acceptance. But if you want people not to just tolerate you but also see you as more or less normal with some quirks, then you have to highlight all the way in which you are pretty boring and normal. I don’t know any LGBT activists who do that. I do know gays who don’t like LGBT activists for exactly that reason though. I am all for individuals expressing them any way they want and all that, but if you are extravagant, then people will invariably see you as a weirdo and you can be as heterosexual and “cis” as you want, so often you have to choose between some conformity which is not all that important to you (like not going around in 16th century clothing even though you like 16th century clothing more than today’s clothing) and “individual expression”. Also, the kinds of individual expression most dear to most adults do not usually involve as much physical and visual extravagance, people most interested in those things are teenagers (although they are actually often quite “conformist” exactly in the way how all want to look “different” in more or less the same way).

          18. Tibor

            @onyomi: Well, I don’t know if there’s a country where they are mainstream…Sweden maybe? 🙂

            But even at a regular beach, you can see most everything. I mean you don’t actually see other people’s sexual organs (but if you go to a public swimming pool and then hit the showers then you will…of your own sex of course), but apart from that the swimsuit does not really conceal much anything else – Men’s version only covers the groin and women also often sunbathe without the upper part of their bikinis.

        4. John Schilling


          and that means showers and locker rooms aren’t going away any time soon.

          Why not? They’re expensive…

          That’s why not.

          Communal showers and/or locker rooms are expensive, and they have already been built. Anything that can privately clean, dry, and clothe a phys-ed class of sweaty teenagers in fifteen minutes or less, will be larger and more expensive and in most places it hasn’t been built. Any plausible consensus for replacing the communal facilities will include, “…when we have to tear down and rebuild the facilities anyway”, which means a timescale of decades.

          1. houseboatonstyx

            @ John Schilling

            Sure, communal cleanup is cheaper than private. But why any Phys Ed classes at school at all? Kids hate them, they require cleanup facilities, etc etc.

            Who even wants Phys Ed at schools, anyway?

          2. Vox Imperatoris

            @ houseboatonstyx:

            If by “Phys Ed” you include “sports”, which requires all the same facilities, the answer is, like, everybody except huge nerds such as the posters here.

          3. Nornagest

            Who even wants Phys Ed at schools, anyway?

            Kids who’d prefer an hour of sports to an hour of some other subject. Parents who want physically fit kids and don’t want to spend another hour a day playing catch or whatever. Old people who take the second half of “a sound mind in a sound body” seriously. Social engineers of all stripes.

          4. houseboatonstyx

            @ Vox Imperatoris
            If by “Phys Ed” you include “sports”, which requires all the same facilities

            Good point financially. Still, making any sort of Phys Ed a non-required, opt-in thing, should give some immediate relief on some of the emotional issues.

          5. onyomi

            I wish phys ed were really physical education–as in, teaching body awareness and that sort of thing. This would probably require hiring someone other than an off-duty history teacher.

          6. John Schilling

            Still, making any sort of Phys Ed a non-required, opt-in thing, should give some immediate relief on some of the emotional issues.

            If the set of people needing relief is a tiny handful of severe transphobes, perhaps. I suspect the set of teenaged girls plus parents of teenaged girls who are not otherwise transphobic but not yet ready to sign off on hairy penises dangling around in the girls’ locker room is more than a handful. And it’s asymmetric, because breasts in the boys’ locker room won’t be quite so unwelcome.

            If that leads to a noticeable male/female disparity in Phys Ed classes and sports teams, you’ve now got a lot of aggrieved parents looking at a Title IX claim, and you’ve given the TERFs some potent ammunition for their campaigns. Along with more unhealthy overweight teenaged girls.

          7. Adam

            I never actually took PhysEd after middle school, because I always played sports and that covered the credit requirement. At least that way you avoid showering in locker rooms. Since practice is after school, I just went home and showered.

          8. brad

            If we didn’t already have PE, likely no one would dream of suggesting it today. It’s got a very progressive era flavor to it — you can just imagine Teddy Roosevelt thinking it was the best idea ever. Also, I doubt it, as actually implemented in many places, does anything to reduce the number of overweight teenage girls or does anyone much good in any way, shape or form. With the exceptions, I guess, of PE teachers and school bullies.

            That said status quo bias is a powerful thing, and I imagine it would be tough to get rid of.

          9. Nancy Lebovitz

            brad, now that you mention it, I have no idea what PE is supposed to do. It isn’t enough exercise to affect fitness, nothing much works to eliminate overweight teenagers whether male or female, it doesn’t teach athletic skills, and has the effect of causing many people to hate exercise.

            I do talk to people who say that school was useful for them for academic subjects, though obviously school doesn’t work reliably to teach those. I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone who said they benefited from PE. School sports have a more mixed record, with some people getting some good out of them.

          10. Arbitrary_greay

            The couple of times I attended Taiwan school, the PE period was a godsend. Lets you leave the classroom, socialize a bit, clear your head. We played badminton. (They also had a mandatory post-lunch nap period, which was amazing.)

            But I’m not bad at physical activity, so that probably affected my enjoyment of PE activities.

            Plus, this is in the context of PE being the only during-school non-academic period. In American schools, elective and extra-curricular classes are often distributed through the day’s schedule, and so serve that “break from regular class” purpose. In that kind of set-up, yes, I agree that PE is probably unnecessary.

          11. John Schilling

            brad, now that you mention it, I have no idea what PE is supposed to do.

            If you ask most teachers, I suspect PE is supposed to be a concession and adaptation to the fact that it is biologically impossible for a room full of children to remain quietly in their seats for six straight hours.

            It’s also the only vigorous exercise some of those children will ever get, and “not enough for physical fitness” is a continuum – a little is still better than none. For others, it promotes the habit of physical exercise that might carry over after school.

            And it promotes the discipline and teambuilding of organized sports, which was probably more important in the days when the classroom education was almost entirely lectures, notes, readings, and tests rather than independent and team learning activities.

            But that first part is going to be hard to get away from so long as we have six or so hours a day of material we think children need to learn, and/or parents who are working all day and expect their taxes to pay for day care and education simultaneously. Organized PE or free recess, there’s probably going to be enough sweat involved to call for a shower and a change of clothes.

            Or we could relax personal hygiene standards for children, but doing that across a community would be tricky.

          12. brad

            In my experience across public, private, and parochial schools (albeit a couple of decades ago) vigorous exercise during PE is more aspirational than something that happens every time or even often. It’s also laughable to describe it as building the discipline or team-building of a sports team. Even if a team sport was being played on a particular day, which wasn’t often, the teams were completely ad hoc. There was no ongoing association as there was in an after school sport to build camaraderie or reliance.

            Perhaps the Leave it Beaver version of PE obtains in most of the country and my experience was an outlier. But from what I remember I think unstructured time during the day would be a big improvement. Cheaper and better for most kids. Like Nancy I have much more mixed opinions about organized school sports. A fair number of kids really do got something of those, including me.

      1. Sarah

        Don’t worry; our lawyers tell me that no one involved on either side understands the First Amendment well enough to overthrow it in the first place

    2. Deiseach

      Take their fears seriously. You may think it’s stupid to worry “But what about boys pretending to be trans so they can get into the girls’ locker rooms?” but if a school is supposed to take a trans pupil as being trans on nothing more than “I identify as Mary now”, then talk to them that no, Jim can’t simply say “I’m really Sally” and get to use the girls’ bathroom while still acting and identifying as Jim in all other areas of his school and home life.

      Have good arguments, other than “If your fourteen year old child tells you they want this, you have no authority over them!” because parents do worry that their teenagers will make rash decisions that will hurt them, and putting an obligation on them to be responsible for the maintenance of a minor while being unable to exercise reasonable authority as a parent is not going to ease any fears.

      (And by “reasonable”, I mean “reasonable” as in “No, you are not going out drinking with your twenty-one year old boyfriend, I don’t care if the Gay-Straight Alliance at your school says you are old enough to make your own decisions, they don’t mean this situation”, not “I will beat you to within an inch of your life with a leather strap if you don’t scrub the kitchen floor”).

      1. Chevalier Mal Fet

        I’d second this.

        The best way to reach people is not to condescend, or dismiss their concerns out of hand as irrational bigotry. To lots of parents, trans rights seems like proposing that we let boys into the girls’ locker rooms, based purely on the boys’ sworn word that yessir, he is definitely a she now.

        As a conservative Republican myself, the best way to approach it is to argue it as a matter of individual freedom. Why should Big Government dictate what gender everyone is? Isn’t this the sort of decision best left up to the individual? That was what converted me on gay marriage – I went from thinking that the state had no right to impose a new definition of marriage on people to realizing that the current definition was, itself, a state-sanctioned imposition.

        Basically, make the small-government, liberty-oriented case for trans rights, and avoid demonizing opposition as small-minded “hate” or something, that’s a quick way to get folks to tune you out.

        1. Sarah

          Thanks a ton for your comments, seriously.

          I agree that avoiding accusations of bigotry or small-mindedness is step one – honestly, one of the problems with leftist signaling is that you definitely get points for strong, unequivocal statements that imply you care more about other human beings than your opposition. (Obviously this goes on on both sides, but the activist-specific iteration of “Only we care about people’s feelings!” is really counterproductive to trying to have a conversation with people anxious about their kids’ safety, whether or not you think the grounds for their anxiety are legitimate.)

          I’d say there’s a distinction between “government dictating what gender everyone is” and “government telling you you’re not allowed to complain that your daughter shares a locker room with a girl who might have a penis” – that’s the sticking point, as a lot of people in opposition actually have platforms declaring they don’t care what gender someone claims to be so long as there are privacy protections based on physical sex. That’s where I’m at now: Is there a conservative-friendly way to approach that argument?

          1. Garrett M. Petersen

            I don’t think Chevalier Mal Fet’s argument will fly. Even though Chevalier Mal Fet identifies as a conservative Republican, the argument exudes libertarian tribal signals. Here’s what I think might work: recruit your spokesmen from among the set of people who used to believe what your intended audience now believes. Have them give your audience a first-person narrative about how and why they came to change their mind.

          2. Randy M

            “Is there a conservative-friendly way to approach that argument?”

            Are you trying to change minds or address legitimate concerns and compromise? Do you think it is valid to want a penis-free girls locker room, or do you think this is bigotry you need to talk out of them so you can get the humane solutions imposed?

          3. HeelBearCub

            I think it’s difficult problem to solve because one big thing that has to be overcome is the unwillingness to discuss naked human bodies at all. That tends to cut across the ideological lines, so I don’t even think there is particularly good discussion around these issues on the pro-Trans side of the equation.

            But, perhaps a way to approach this might be to ask them how they would feel if their daughter was forced to use the boys locker room every day. That is what they are asking a trans-girl to do, use the “wrong” locker room every day.

            If you can put them in that mindset, it might make them feel the pain of trans-girls and women. From there, discussions on how to help might be possible.

          4. Sarah

            Thanks, y’all. Balancing between whether it’s more effective (or even feasible) to change minds, or just to find a compromise you can both deal with or at least have a chance of seeing written into law, is pretty much what activism-through-policy organizations do.

            I, personally, happen to believe changing minds entirely is the better solution in the long term; I’d like other people to feel the same way I do on the issue. I do not actually think we’re going to accomplish this in the near future, but I think we can at least ask for a better-informed compromise.

            @HeelBearCub specifically: This is actually a good example of the reason the conversation is so difficult to have – we say “Imagine if your daughter were forced to use the boys’ locker room every day and no one listened to her trying to communicate that that wasn’t a safe place for her– how difficult and traumatic that would be,” and the response is, “I see no practical difference between the idea of forcing my daughter into the boys’ locker room and the idea of allowing a male-bodied person to use the girls’ locker room alongside my daughter.” These things are abhorrent for the same reason – not because of the hypothetical daughter’s gender identity, but because of her exposure, in both cases, to male bodies.

            …Which is like you (totally correctly) said – it is so damn hard to move the conversation over the hurdle of nakedness-as-inherently-sexual. The taboo is so deeply ingrained in culture that neither side has managed to find a productive way to bring it into the conversation.

            I think the best thing the pro-trans movement is doing on this front right now is emphasizing that there is no connection between transgender use of public facilities and greater danger to others – the idea that men will pretend at a female identity to harass women has simply not borne out in any of the places that have instated more trans-inclusive laws. There’s something to be said for a solid, evidence-based statement of “These are ordinary people living out their lives, and the potential loophole you’re afraid of is both not being exploited and not actually a way to get out of being punished by law for creeping on people.”

            Just, even when you’ve helped ease someone’s fears on that front, you run right back up into that wall: “Well, sure, my daughter’s classmate is just an ordinary person trying to live their life, I get that, but I don’t have to think they’re a bad person to believe that they have no place in the same restroom.”

          5. HeelBearCub

            So here is a question, of the “is half a loaf better” variety. Is separate accommodation of some sort better than mis-gendered ones? Some set of gender neutral bathrooms available to the trans kids?

            I realize that this is probably deeply wounding to the average trans kid. The question is, is it less wounding than the alternative? That is the sort of compromise you might get agreement for, recognizing that it probably wouldn’t actually work in your average high-school and is deeply unsatisfactory.

            Otherwise, I wonder if compromise is even possible, which raises the question of whether stating it as a goal is actually true. Understand, I’m coming at this as a liberal with an asexual lesbian daughter who has a number of non-cisgendered friends. I just am not sure if there are really possible compromises.

            Make all bathrooms gender neutral (like at my daughters dorm) seems like the only reasonable end goal, but that just doesn’t seem possible at high-schools that weren’t designed with this in mind.

          6. Nathan


            I genuinely don’t mean to be rude, but what does “asexual lesbian” even mean? It seems like a contradiction in terms.

          7. Tracy W


            the idea that men will pretend at a female identity to harass women has simply not borne out in any of the places that have instated more trans-inclusive laws

            Sounds like there might be one case, of a possibly cis guy abusing this sort of policy.

          8. keranih


            I myself would urge you and yours to shelve, indefinitely, the “change their minds” goal. Firstly because that’s – for lack of a better word – unAmerican, and secondly because you have no way of accurately measuring progress towards your goal. Keep on with your goal of finding ways for people who think different things to co-exist, and not only will you have better success, you’ll have my support in what you’re doing.

            I think the best thing the pro-trans movement is doing on this front right now is emphasizing that there is no connection between transgender use of public facilities and greater danger to others – the idea that men will pretend at a female identity to harass women has simply not borne out in any of the places that have instated more trans-inclusive laws.

            Be very very careful with this – first because I don’t think this is correct (really? in all the history of frat pranks no one has dressed up like a girl to harass a sorority?) and secondly because once the parolee out on a work pass murders someone an incident happens, you’ve stuck yourselves due to being either “too stupid to see what everyone else could see was coming” or “lying liars who knew this was a risk and went forward anyway”.

            I am persuaded by a number of others who hold that normalization of non-sexual-nakedness is part of the key…but in that regard, things are only getting worse in the USA, with the decline in open locker rooms, mandatory sports, etc. (I myself am aware of a generational shift here, where young women are entering college having never been naked around a stranger before.) Force people to share space they don’t want to share, and you’ll just see home schooling explode.

            In any rate, forcing people to be naked around opposite sex bodies when they aren’t comfortable around same-sex bodies isn’t going to help. I suggest a separate neutral area where the trans person is shielded from threat but does not threaten others is probably your best option, long term.

          9. Nita

            shelve, indefinitely, the “change their minds” goal. Firstly because that’s – for lack of a better word – unAmerican

            This is interesting. Does that make Scott’s advice in the original post anti-patriotic?

            I agree on the second point, though — a few individual booths for trans kids, gay kids and other potential targets of social mistreatment might be a decent solution in the current cultural climate.

          10. HeelBearCub

            She is homo-romantic/attracted, but isn’t into sexual contact. Much like Scott (as I understand it) is hetero-romantic (has girlfriends) but not into sexual contact.

          11. Vox Imperatoris

            @ keranih:

            I myself would urge you and yours to shelve, indefinitely, the “change their minds” goal. Firstly because that’s – for lack of a better word – unAmerican, and secondly because you have no way of accurately measuring progress towards your goal. Keep on with your goal of finding ways for people who think different things to co-exist, and not only will you have better success, you’ll have my support in what you’re doing.

            This is absurd!

            It’s “un-American” to suppose that there is such a thing as the truth and that people ought to use their freedom of speech to promote it, and to form civic organizations in order to promote it? That’s not the America I’ve heard of.

            The whole point and purpose of America’s protections of freedom of speech and freedom of religion is to allow people to move toward the truth in these areas by means of the “marketplace of ideas”. Restrictions on freedom of speech and the press were the tools of monarchs, to keep people in ignorance of their equality and their natural rights. Restrictions on the freedom of religion were the tools of corrupt established churches to blind people to religious truth in the same way.

            Going out and persuading people, seeking to change their minds, is an essential part of a free society. Especially in one where political power lies with the people.

            If you say that everyone’s point of view is equally valid or that no one is supposed to infringe upon anyone else’s ignorance, well, then you have relativist multiculturalism. Which conservatives rightly decry as a destructive policy.

          12. Deiseach

            The “no guy has ever pretended to be a woman in order to gain access to women’s spaces” argument dies on its feet because, for one instance, the huge (historical) scandal of Clodius Pulcher doing exactly that.

            Consider that you’re trying to persuade parents of school-age children; do you really think a gaggle of teenage boys won’t consider this a great joke to try and pull?

            I think the problem with the “separate gender-neutral bathroom for trans kids etc.” is going to be that the kids who use this (and not the bathrooms for the cis kids) are immediately going to be marked out as “different” and will be targets of comment (and bullying at the worst).

            So maybe gender-neutral bathrooms for all are the solution; the other one is yes, let people use the bathroom of the gender they identify with (and that is not going to be without problems, whether it’s a trans male going into the boys’ bathroom and never using the urinal, only the stalls or a trans female going into the girls’ bathroom). Whatever about locker rooms and nudity, again – a boy or girl pre-op, pre-transition, only started on hormone treatment – still looking a lot like their assigned gender and not identified gender – how are you going to get around that?

            The problem seems to come down to: (a) fear on the part of the parents re: sexual harassment or opportunism where mixing of genders happens and you are not going to overcome that by saying “Sure Susie has a penis but she’s a girl” or “Mike may have breasts but he’s a guy” (b) the real problem perhaps being bullying and sexual opportunism whether we’re talking cis or trans, straight or gay young people (and adults) sharing spaces traditionally reserved for one gender only, and that is something that needs to be worked on for everyone.

            It’s a genuine problem and I have no idea how to tackle it. But for a start having some solid definitions (and don’t be dishonest here; don’t try selling the “trapped in the wrong body” story if you don’t believe it and you’re teaching the trans kids that this is all hooey) and some workable solutions for “So how does it work if someone who looks like a boy/girl wants to use the girls’/boys’ bathroom?”

          13. brad

            I myself would urge you and yours to shelve, indefinitely, the “change their minds” goal. Firstly because that’s – for lack of a better word – unAmerican

            There’s nothing more American than trying to convince people they are wrong. I can’t even fathom where that is coming from. If nothing else, just look at the religious history of the US, what do you think the purpose of all those revival movements were?

          14. Vox Imperatoris

            In general, I agree with Deiseach here.

            I don’t see why we can’t have gender-neutral bathrooms. And I don’t think that necessarily goes along with being more “open about nudity” or making it “non-sexual”. In bathrooms, you have stalls and dividers. Even in locker rooms, you can have curtained off areas; besides, as many people have observed, open showers are really on the way out.

            At my high school, shower stalls were private. I played tennis and sometimes stripped down to my underwear in front of others, but I was never forced to be naked in front of others. And if someone really wants, there’s no problem with changing in the shower stall itself.

            Whatever about locker rooms and nudity, again – a boy or girl pre-op, pre-transition, only started on hormone treatment – still looking a lot like their assigned gender and not identified gender – how are you going to get around that?

            Doesn’t “pre-transition” mean that they are still going by their birth gender and wearing the respective clothes, etc.?

            So a “pre-transition” person shouldn’t have any problems using the bathroom of that gender in any case.

          15. Chevalier Mal Fet

            As another alternative, why not concentrate on attempting to persuade trans people?

            To my mind, it seems the problem is that their sex and their mental gender don’t match, and they feel extreme discomfort when forced to use a locker room that doesn’t line up with their mental gender. On the other hand, allowing them to use the facilities that match their mental gender but not their physical sex will cause extreme discomfort in their more-numerous cis peers.

            Given this, why are we trying to persuade the vast majority that their instincts are wrong, even as we admit the myriad problems of implementation, even in the best intentioned compromises? Could we not instead persuade people that physical facilities like locker rooms and bathrooms are mainly intended to match up with your physical sex, and gender’s got nothing at all to do with it? Thus believing, a trans woman could cheerfully use a male locker room, since she has a male body. I suppose this is what the “we need to desexualize nudity” comments are about, since that’d be a huge step to making people comfortable using locker rooms full of the opposite gender (but same sex).

            In other words, the problem is that either trans people are discomfited, or cis people are discomfited, and we’re acting as if cis people’s discomfort is totally illegitimate and must be trained out of them. Is that necessarily the only solution?

            (Also, regarding my original post, I will cop to being a more libertarian-minded Republican, but I was always in favor of Marco Rubio over Rand Paul, who never really appealed to me. I have absolutely no affiliation with social conservatism, though. My envisioned argument would work on some, but not all, Republicans. I don’t think there’s an argument in the world that would appeal to all Republicans, it’s a pretty broad coalition of disparate ideological groups. Even Trump’s supposed super-persuasion and Dark Arts is only winning over 30-40% of Republicans).

          16. Nancy Lebovitz

            keranih, I think you’ve got something relevant about that “un-American” thing, even though the matter isn’t especially about America.

            I didn’t get the impression that Sarah was looking to force people to agree with her, but attempts to force minds (or looking as though one is attempting to force minds) is a problem with arguing.


            My impression is that trans is partly about feeling bad about one’s body, but it’s also frequently about wanting to have completely reliable acceptance of one’s felt gender– and that gets into the territory of what’s going on in other people’s minds.


            Special shower stalls and bathrooms for trans people won’t do the job of making them feel comfortable.

          17. Nita

            @ Chevalier Mal Fet

            Could we not instead persuade people that physical facilities like locker rooms and bathrooms are mainly intended to match up with your physical sex, and gender’s got nothing at all to do with it?

            For that to work, we might have to get rid of those “person in a dress” pictograms on the doors. Oh, and no more “ladies’ room” or “boys’ shower” — it’s “vulva room” and “penis shower”.

            More seriously, I’m not sure that all cis kids would be happy to share the facilities with opposite-gender trans kids, either.

          18. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Chevalier Mal Fret:

            To my mind, it seems the problem is that their sex and their mental gender don’t match, and they feel extreme discomfort when forced to use a locker room that doesn’t line up with their mental gender. On the other hand, allowing them to use the facilities that match their mental gender but not their physical sex will cause extreme discomfort in their more-numerous cis peers.

            I think you are misunderstanding the nature of the objection. It’s not that they have an objection to using a locker room that is mismatched with their gender in some cosmic sense.

            The objection is that there are only two ways this can go, for a male-to-female transgender person:

            a) This person, with male genitalia and female clothing, enters the men’s locker room. Since people don’t usually make a habit of staring at other people’s genitals (and since even in a locker room you can avoid exposing yourself, for the most part), the immediate question is: why is a woman going into the men’s locker room? And they have to reveal their transgender status.

            Any attempt to “pass” and be socially accepted is ruined if this person is forced into this option; they are immediately singled out and often faced with violence, or bullying at the very least.

            b) This person enters the women’s locker room, changes in a shower stall (or even while facing a corner), and leaves. No one is singled out, no one is questioned.

            This seems like a much better option.

            Now, it’s true that transgender individuals don’t always “pass” successfully, especially during the initial phases of transition. But if a male-to-female person still really “looks like a man”, then they can use the men’s locker room without worry, especially if they are still wearing men’s clothing (or gender-neutral clothing).

            The point isn’t to force them to use the other gender’s locker room; it’s to allow people the choice. If someone who successfully “passes” as female wants to use the men’s locker room and doesn’t mind the looks, fine. And if someone can’t “pass” as female but wants to use the women’s room, being willing to accept the social consequences, that’s also fine. But the more important goal is to allow people to go places where they’re not going to stand out as much.

            And the main thing to avoid here is situations where if, by chance, someone in the women’s locker room is discovered to be hiding their transgender status (by someone catching a glimpse of a penis, say), they aren’t attacked by a metaphorical lynch mob of people accusing them of being Peeping Toms. Or attacked by literal vigilantes.

            If someone wants to swagger through the women’s restroom, swinging their dick around for all to see… well, that’s not the primary group of people that I see these changes as designed to benefit.

            Could we not instead persuade people that physical facilities like locker rooms and bathrooms are mainly intended to match up with your physical sex, and gender’s got nothing at all to do with it? Thus believing, a trans woman could cheerfully use a male locker room, since she has a male body.

            How would you persuade people of this, as it’s clearly false? Locker rooms have nothing to do with physical sex, and the “natural” divide in bathrooms is between stalls and urinals, not men’s and women’s.

            The separation is entirely due to a cultural practice of segregating activities based on gender. Most notably for the purpose of keeping locker rooms a non-sexual environment and for protecting women from the lecherous gazes of men.

            In other words, the problem is that either trans people are discomfited, or cis people are discomfited, and we’re acting as if cis people’s discomfort is totally illegitimate and must be trained out of them. Is that necessarily the only solution?

            That is the reason: the cisgender fears are far less legitimate, i.e. far less grounded in actual facts.

            “Ew, there’s a man in the women’s locker room!” may cause some momentary distress for the women there. But compared to the fear of shaming, isolation, and even violence faced by the transgender, it is not much to consider.

            It’s analogous to the case of racially segregated restrooms (which are why the Pentagon has twice the number of restrooms as a usual government office, by the way). It no doubt caused white people some distress to see blacks sharing their restrooms. Maybe they were even afraid of being robbed by black men. But their discomfort was a lot less severe, and a lot less grounded, than the distress felt by blacks at being forced by a legal system of white supremacy to use separate, often inferior facilities. (And this analogy is not perfectly accurate, either, since at least blacks felt no direct shame and alienation from the other users of the “Negro” restroom.)

            Actually, an interesting parallel exists between the transgendered and mixed-race people who could “pass” as white. If they use the black restroom, they’re revealing their inferior status, quite possibly placing them in severe social jeopardy. If they use the white restroom, they’re infringing upon the privileges of the white race and are subject to attack for that, too, if it gets discovered that they have “one drop” of black blood.

          19. Chevalier Mal Fet

            Eh, I suspect I’m revealing my ignorance here in not really grokking what it is to be transgender. I don’t really get why misgendering someone is such a big deal, for example – every thought experiment I try in imagining someone persistently mislabeling me, for example, elicits little more than a shrug. So I don’t really see why training people to use facilities matching their own sex, with no reference at all to mental state, is a totally unworkable arrangement.

            As for the violence directed at trans people, that I can understand (understand, er, fighting it, that is. None of the trans people I know elicit any particular homicidal urges in me). For that I think the best solution is some kind of compromise – either the end of communal showering (or something as simple as private stalls and changing rooms in locker rooms) or third options for people who don’t feel particularly suited to their own sex’s facilities.

          20. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Chevalier Mal Fret:

            Eh, I suspect I’m revealing my ignorance here in not really grokking what it is to be transgender. I don’t really get why misgendering someone is such a big deal, for example – every thought experiment I try in imagining someone persistently mislabeling me, for example, elicits little more than a shrug.

            It’s not the mislabling in and of itself. It’s the mislabling in the social context in which it occurs, where it is intended to stigmatize the transgender, castigate them for claiming an identity to which they are not entitled, and to make it clear that you don’t respect them.

            For instance, I don’t know if you are a Christian, but let me use that example. It wouldn’t really bother you if some alien from Mars called you a Buddhist. But suppose that your own church members started calling you a “Christian” in scare-quotes and made it clear that, while you are welcome to attend the services of the Unitarian Universalists, you won’t be allowed to receive communion in your church anymore. That would probably sting if you thought that, no, you are a Christian just as much as they are.

            Now, this might be appropriate if you went into church saying “There is no God” or “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” But when this is over other doctrinal issues, it can get complicated and contentious fast (see the previous thread on whether non-trinitarians are Christians or “Christians”).

            And the question with gender, to draw in the metaphor, is: what is the basis of gender? Is it always the same as biological sex? Or can you be “really female” with XY chromosomes?

            It is an interesting fact and complication of this that the people in favor of transgender acceptance are not all of one mind on the subject of gender. Some are gender essentialists who believe that gender is innate and that some biological men are born female. Others are complete anti-essentialists who think it is entirely socially constructed, but that if a biological male feels strongly female (for whatever sociological reasons), that choice should be respected as no more arbitrary than any other. And others take a position somewhere in between (which is more where I stand).

            So I don’t really see why training people to use facilities matching their own sex, with no reference at all to mental state, is a totally unworkable arrangement.

            The problem is that this is an approach that works if you achieve complete societal transformation, but has poor results before then. Because basically what you’re saying that everybody should be cool with obviously transgendered people in their restrooms or locker rooms, since they ought to be based on sex, not gender.

            However, currently, many people are not cool with it. An male-to-female individual wearing a dress walking to the men’s restroom is going to get stares and worse. And the situation is probably even worse for a female-to male person with an obviously masculine appearance walking into a women’s restroom.

            Therefore, the more practical, gradualist solution is: make sure, first of all, that you can’t get arrested for walking into the restroom that is the opposite of your biological sex. And encourage private providers of restrooms not to exclude the transgender. It’s easier to change these things than to eliminate anti-transgender bias in every user of every restroom.

            And gender-neutral restrooms is a more long-term thing that has the advantage of being perfectly workable on a piecemeal scale. But “why don’t we just get everyone to accept people of the same sex but opposite gender in their restrooms or locker rooms?” requires a much wider degree of acceptance in order to work. Just one asshole holdout can make the men’s locker room a miserable place for the transgender female. While switching to gender-neutral restrooms is an institutional change decided by the people in charge, who are likely to be more decent than the worst user of them.

            It’s not too different from the reason why “hire janitors to clean the toilets” works better than “just tell people not to piss all over the seats”. 😉

          21. Nancy Lebovitz

            Vox, I don’t think you’ve quite got it. From what I’ve seen, intentional disrespect isn’t the only issue.

            One of my friends was MtF. (Past tense because she’s dead.) It would hurt her a lot even if she was accidentally misgendered by someone who did it because they’d known her for years as male.

            As far as I can tell, she felt a very strong desire to be reliably seen as a woman. I have no idea what was going on with her, but it seemed like a low cost way of being kind to remember to refer to her as a woman rather than a man.

            It became easier as she worked out what I can only refer to a very ladylike style of self-presentation.

          22. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Nancy Lebovitz:

            I don’t disagree with anything you say there.

            Sure, I was giving deliberate misgendering as the archetypal case.

            But what does this kind of accidental misgendering say? It says: this person, who has known you for years, still subconsciously thinks of you as male. Your status as female is not fully real to them. And, as we often have a tendency to ask paranoid questions like this, you might wonder (with some justification): “Was it all an act? Was it a subconscious slip, or is this person just humoring me as a harmless lunatic, like Emperor Norton?”

            That doesn’t mean this transgendered person has a right to get angry at others for such subsconscious slips, or to blame them, but you can see how it might upset them. It’s like the sitcom cliche of a man calling his girlfriend by his ex-girlfriend’s name. On the one hand, people do make weird mental slips like that. On the other hand, not remembering your girlfriend’s name correlates highly with not caring about her very much.

            But again, the overall point is: it’s the social context of the misgendering that upsets people.


            This is sort of a tangent, but it reminds me of how it’s a bit of a social faux pas not to remember someone’s name, when you should have interacted enough to remember. I was personally called out on this just a few months ago, as I was going with a friend to eat at a Russian restaurant, which had a little Russian grocery store next to it. I was mentioning to the sales clerk that I had studied abroad there, living with a Russian host family, when she asked me my host mother’s name.

            This caught me completely off-guard, and for some reason I drew a complete blank. I ended up saying “Natalia” just to save myself from the embarrassment. Shortly after the conversation, I remembered that her name was Maria; it hadn’t come to me immediately because I had rarely actually used her name in our face-to-face conversations. Still, I suppose it did have something to do with the fact that our relationship was not particularly close.

          23. Chevalier Mal Fet

            I can relate to that. I absolutely hate not knowing students’ names, and make a strenuous effort every year to learn them, because knowing their names is one of the easiest and most reliable ways to signal that I care about them (I have become fairly good at certain common mnemonics as a result of this).

            On the rare occasions when I come up blank (I have nearly 200 to remember this year, gimme a break!), I always have the horrible feeling that I’m giving hte impression that I’m barely aware of their existence, that their success doesn’t matter to me, etc, etc.

            Sometimes I avoid this by simply referring to all students very gruffly. “You. Girl-child. In what way does Mrs. Dubose’s struggle with opium parallel the trial of Tom Robinson?” but they catch on to this one pretty quick so’s I can’t lean on it too much.

          24. Acedia

            “Ew, there’s a man in the women’s locker room!” may cause some momentary distress for the women there. But compared to the fear of shaming, isolation, and even violence faced by the transgender, it is not much to consider.

            A lot of ciswomen claim to feel genuine fear of violence and/or sexual assault on encountering male-bodied people in womens’ public bathrooms. As a big guy who doesn’t really feel physically threatened by other people it’s not easy for me to empathize, but I see no reason to believe they’re not being truthful.

            You can argue that their fear is unrealistic or irrational, I guess, but mischaracterizing it as a disgust reaction (“Ew!”) seems disingenuous.

          25. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Acedia:

            Fair enough, but I think the more usual concern is not rape (male-to-female transgender people hardly tend to be very imposing individuals) but rather disgust at “creepy perverts” getting some kind of thrill from “peeping” at the women changing.

            Of course the standard hypothetical by the anti-transgender side is always “But what if some 250-pound hairy linebacker wants to go into the women’s room, so he can check out the naked women?!” However, social pressure tends to stop that sort of thing from happening. It’s like choosing to be a male ballet dancer because there are a lot of women in it. True, but the reason there are a lot of women is that it is perceived as effeminate, and you will be, too. If a man wants to dance ballet, it’s probably because he likes it.

            Besides, I don’t see how this locker-room segregation does much, if anything, to prevent “stranger danger” rape. If there’s a crowd of women in the room, you’re not going to get away with it. If you’re lying in wait in an empty room for the first woman to walk in, well, it seems like you can do that already.

          26. Vox Imperatoris

            It’s pretty acerbic, but I actually like one of ozymandias‘s recent question-answers about this sort of issue:

            Anonymous says:

            I’m going to explain this in small words so you understand: When a man with a peepee says he’s a wants a coochie, the grownups at the poll have to let him use the ladies bathroom. You say this is a good thing. Whatever. But then you say “No man with a peepee is allowed in the ladies bathroom, unless he wants a coochie.” But problem: you can see his wants. Now a man with a peepee can go in the lady’s bathroom without even wanting a coochie. You say it never happens, but it does.

            ozymandias replies:

            Except that everyone agrees that that guy who entered the woman’s locker room in Green Lake:

            (a) is not a trans woman
            (b) never claimed to be a trans woman
            (c) was never identified by staff to be a trans woman
            (d) was not treated as a trans woman by staff, because nobody involved thought he was a fucking trans woman

            therefore, trans women are totally unrelated to the case you brought up. Completely fucking irrelevant! This isn’t a case of a cis guy taking advantage of the rules that were meant to apply to trans women, because NO ONE APPLIED THE TRANS WOMAN RULES TO HIM, BECAUSE HE NEVER SAID HE IDENTIFIED AS A WOMAN.

            Also, I don’t give a shit whether trans women want a vagina, because I prefer not to think about the genitals of other people who are pissing next to me. To be honest, I kind of want a special bathroom for creepazoids like you who like thinking about complete strangers’ genitals while they’re trying to pee.

          27. houseboatonstyx

            @ keranih
            I myself would urge you [Sarah] and yours to shelve, indefinitely, the “change their minds” goal [….] because you have no way of accurately measuring progress towards your goal.

            Yes. Sarah, I think it was Nathan who complained that definitions are being changed out from under us. First it was ‘tolerate gays/whatever because gender blah blah is just a social construct illusion anyway’. Now suddenly it’s ‘gender is so important that blah blah.’

            Consider the time factor. By the time the outsiders are re-conditioned to one view (as Nathan was), there will probably be some whole new view in fashion that we’re supposed to be re-re-conditioned to.

            Keep on with your goal of finding ways for people who think different things to co-exist

            Yes. Practical [ie physical] solutions to physical problems, no metaphysical theories needed. If people are spying through the hinge side of stall doors, tape those openings; they’re too wide anyway. If people are crouching to look under stall doors, attach a curtain to the bottom of the doors. For mis-behavior in general, put up some security cameras, and a sound-activated alarm to bring response to a scream.

          28. Nornagest

            @Vox — The questioner there was being fantastically rude (I tend to stop listening at “grownups”, if not at “small words”), but I’m not sure Ozy’s objection carries much water either. There are plenty of ways — revolving around conflict avoidance, mainly — that a policy like this could lead to more dudes in the ladies’ room on the margin, without anyone being asked about their gender identification. I don’t know whether or not Green Lake was a situation like this (I’d never heard of it until now) but without a lot more detail that’s a tough thing to divine.

            That said, unisex bathrooms never seemed much of an issue to me. My dorms in college had them — one large bathroom to handle a floor of 30-50 people, with curtained shower stalls but without any other unusual privacy measures. Of course, it was a pretty Blue college and different cultures might have different problems.

          29. Whatever Happened to Anonymous

            >There are plenty of ways a policy like this could lead to more dudes in the ladies’ room on the margin, without anyone being asked about their gender identification.

            I mean, I’m pretty sure there are a lot more cisgendered assholes than transgendered people.

          30. David Friedman

            “For that to work, we might have to get rid of those “person in a dress” pictograms on the doors.”

            I’ve been imagining for a while the point, not far in the future, where someone wonders why the women’s room is marked by a picture of someone wearing a dress when all the women she knows wear pants.

          31. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Nornagest:

            There are plenty of ways — revolving around conflict avoidance, mainly — that a policy like this could lead to more dudes in the ladies’ room on the margin without anyone being asked about their gender identification.

            More dudes, maybe. More rapes? I find it highly implausible that there would be any significant effect in this area.

            And if we’re worried about people potentially being looked at in a sexual way, that ship has already set sail (or at least weighed anchor): gays and lesbians are allowed in the locker rooms.

            Overall, I just find this argument highly similar to the once-popular “Yeah, you talk about ‘gay rights’ now, but how are you going to like it when some faggot hits on you in a bar?” It’s got a superficial plausibility, but only if you ignore the incentives gays have to identify who’s straight and ways they might do so.

            I guess the concern is: “If some peeping tom wants to go into the girls’ locker room to oogle them, how are we going to stop that now that we can’t throw him out on the automatic pretext of ‘biological male in the girl’s room’?”

            The most obvious answer is social pressure: people don’t do this now mainly out of fear of official punishment but because you would be seen as a creepy pervert. And this would not really change. It’s also rather like pretending you can’t do the boys’ push-ups so that they make you do the ones for girls: yeah, you can do this, but it’s degrading, which stops most boys from trying it.

            Moreover, it’s hard to keep up the act if you’re trying to fake being transgender for this purpose: it’s very costly, even if you don’t care about the degradation.

            And I think most readers of this site are well aware that the repercussions for a man accused of sexually harassing women are more than strong enough to discourage people from trying something which will make a whole room full of women feel “unsafe”.

            Again, I think male-to-female transgender people are already under more than enough social pressure to discourage them from “flaunting” their male genitalia openly, if that’s the concern. The problem is when they are told “No, you are not an Official Woman, so you have to use the other room.” It’s not that they’re trying to be non-conformist and shock everybody; they’re actually trying to do the opposite, to use the room where they are going to not stand out as obviously.

          32. onyomi

            I am in favor of letting people use whichever locker room they feel is appropriate because the idea of a pervert going to the trouble of pretending to be trans just to be able to peek at or molest people seems like a pretty implausible straw man.

            That said, I am sad to see how many people here are in favor of furthering the trend of decreasing same-sex spaces and the normalization of extreme prudishness about nudity even within same-sex spaces. I like in Japan, for example, where a man can hang out around other men naked and un selfconscious in the hot springs/public baths if he so chooses. I like that families can bathe together. I like the idea of people feeling comfortable around other naked people in non-sexual contexts. I think it’s healthy.

            I was told by an older Yale alum that it used to be the Yale gym was a literal gymnasium in that men would walk around the whole gym naked in between workouts and the like. I certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing at all that most schools have gone co-ed, but it does make me a little sad that we’ve lost so many spaces for this kind of easy homosociality. I think it increases men’s sense of isolation, which I think is pretty endemic in the US today (recall a recent survey showing something like 25% of US men have no close male friends?!).

            The opposite, I think, is unhealthy, at least on my view of what constitutes psychological health, and actually leads to bad body image, imo. One would think that hanging around with other naked people would exacerbate any body image issues a person might have, but I think the effect is precisely the opposite. If non-sexual nudity is rare in your society, the only naked bodies you see tend to be of fashion models and porn stars–not a very realistic standard against which to judge your own naked body.

          33. houseboatonstyx

            @ Sarah

            Here’s a tiny scrap of ammunition for your side. If a man wants to get into a women’s restroom, the safest way is to put on a white cap and jacket with some industrial-looking logo on it. Broom and clipboard optional.

          34. Nornagest

            @Vox — I think you’re probably right that this isn’t going to lead to anything worse than ogling, at least as anything more than a rounding error.

            As to that ogling: social pressure would be an effective deterrent for most people from a certain level of maturity forwards, I agree. But there’s a range of ages where boys (and probably girls too, but I can only speak for boys) don’t really have a concept of what would make them look like a creepy pervert but do have a fear of authority. And for certain people that range is pretty wide.

            Is that enough to outweigh the issues that trans people have? From where I’m standing, probably not, and the unisex bathrooms solution is perfectly adequate to me anyway. But I’m not the conservative Middle American father of a thirteen-year-old girl, and that’s who you need to convince.

          35. Vox Imperatoris

            @ onyomi:

            Sorry, but I am in 100% in favor of “extreme prudishness” about public nudity and would be happy if all instances of it were totally eliminated. 🙂

            Certainly, the last thing I want is for it to become “normal” and socially mandatory, as taking group showers used to be.

            I’m not going to pretend that I have a rational objection to it, but I feel on the deepest emotional level that it’s disgusting, humiliating, and primitive. It’s the most incredible invasion of privacy, and it makes me angry just to think about it. I want the “private parts” of our bodies to be private, period.

            I feel the same way about this as if you proposed installing a camera in every bathroom so Obama can watch me take a shit. I don’t perceive any objective danger from this, and I can’t imagine being persecuted for the political qualities of my excretions. But that doesn’t mean I like it.

          36. Nadja

            I agree with everything that onyomi said.

            And I really hope that the unisex bathroom solution doesn’t get widely adopted. I would certainly not mind it if MtF transgender people were using the women’s restrooms, but I want to have a women’s restroom. I would be extremely uncomfortable if the restrooms most office buildings have these days got relabeled as unisex. I would only find unisex restrooms OK if restrooms got remodeled to afford significantly more privacy than they typically do these days.

            And I also want to have a women’s spa where I can hang around naked without having to think about it. I hope nobody is proposing for such businesses to become illegal. (No one is, right?)

          37. Vox Imperatoris

            Also, my take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt pet theory about “bad body image” is that it has a lot to do with the growing informality of dress.

            If you put a fat guy in a well-fitting suit, he looks “large” and “imposing”. If you put him in a t-shirt and shorts, he looks “gross” and “disgusting”.

            Or when woman wore corsets, well, the main function of that is to draw in your waist. In informal clothes, to look like you have a nice figure means you actually need to have a nice figure.

            I think nakedness and casual, revealing clothes only heighten the disparity between good and bad physiques, while formal clothes lessen them. They’re like handguns: “the great equalizer”.

          38. Who wouldn't want to be anonymous

            Re: desegregated bath/locker rooms

            Convincing parents to accept desegregated might-possibly-involve-nudity spaces for their children would be a struggle. It always helps if you have actual examples of it not going horribly, horribly wrong. Wouldn’t it be nice if it had been tried before in a modern, Western country?

            You’re in luck. Norway has desegregated their military barracks rooms. This is actually a step further than we are looking for. In a bathroom, all the unspeakable bodily functions occurs in a private stall. In a locker room there may be some nudity, but it is increasingly possible to confine that to a private stall, too. In a barracks room both the nudity and an even more unspeakable bodily function occurs pretty well out in the open.

            IIRC, both men and women in these shared barracks rooms report higher levels of satisfaction, the women report feeling higher levels of personal safety, and there appear to be markedly lower levels of sexual harassment and assult. (I really an going from memory, you should look into this.) Far from the the hellish nightmare that a lot of people would reasonably predict, it appears to be working out really well.

            Now, of course Norway is not (presumably) the US, and the military is not high school. A more homogenous ethnic makeup, a different base culture, age, selection effects, and military disciple count for something! But overall it seems like a pretty solid piece of evidence that the wheels might not come off if we try it in other contexts.

          39. Vox Imperatoris

            Why do we need real-world examples when we have the shower scene from Starship Troopers? 😉

          40. Nornagest

            @Vox on body image — One trouble with that theory is that social nudity has gotten less common as clothes have gotten more revealing. It’s easy to overlook this because of the pictures we’ve all seen of ridiculously prudish Victorian and Edwardian bathing costumes, but a lot of casual swimming in those eras — and even into the mid-20th century — was done nude. (Usually gender-segregated, though.) Then there’s the bathroom/locker room stuff that others in this thread have mentioned.

            Clothes of earlier eras haven’t always framed bodies effectively, either. There was a popular “aesthetic dress” movement for women in the mid-to-late 1800s, for example, which eschewed corsetry and ended up looking a lot like a muumuu.

          41. onyomi

            “I think nakedness and casual, revealing clothes only heighten the disparity between good and bad physiques, while formal clothes lessen them.”

            Strange as it sounds, I see a parallel here to the previous discussion about how LTR has become “marriage lite” and marriage has become “LTR+”.

            The last several decades have seen a weird blurring of various social boundaries: compared to today, peoples’ clothing in public 50 or 100 years ago was much, much more formal and non-revealing. At the same time, 50 or 100 years ago, nudity seems not to have been so big a deal in those situations where it was deemed appropriate.

            Now, it’s like everybody walks around in public half naked but is weirdly embarrassed when it comes to removing those last few inches of fabric. And re. the effect, I have seen studies somewhere (thouch can’t seem to find atm) showing nudist families (people who are naked at home but who, by necessity, wear clothes in public) to have better body images.

            That said, nudity may be a bit like opera in that it always seems to be old people who are more okay with it, even though those same old people were less so when younger.

          42. John Schilling

            I am in favor of letting people use whichever locker room they feel is appropriate because the idea of a pervert going to the trouble of pretending to be trans just to be able to peek at or molest people seems like a pretty implausible straw man.

            How much trouble is it going to be?

            If it requires a letter from an MD certifying that hormone injections have commenced, obviously there’s not going to be much of a problem. Even a note-from-a-parent requirement would probably do the trick. But at that point, the LGBT activist community will invoke the student whose parents are abusively transphobic – possibly even the dreaded Amish – who can’t come out at home and for whom school is the only possible safe space. And any obstacle in that student’s path, any false negative in which an actual trans student is bureaucratically denied access to the facilities of his or her choice, is a potential social media and/or legal nightmare for the school.

            If all it requires is the student filling out a form saying they are trans-curious, and for next week at least it’s Sam-for-Samantha not Sam-for-Samuel, the unisex clothing (for camouflage at home) is to be treated as female and will be changed in the girl’s locker room, then I guarantee there will be teenaged boys seeing an opportunity to game the system. And a few teenaged girls as well. And parents more worried about both of these than their numbers and persistence would warrant.

            The best defense there will likely be cultural. If in Guy World playing low-level dress-up to do some ogling and maybe groping in the girl’s locker room is treated as a sign of ostracizable loserdom, then there’s little problem. And that’s the most likely outcome in most places, I think – Real Manly Men(tm) don’t have to resort to such subterfuges because a word and a wink will get them nude selfies and private groping with Hot Girls(tm). But it’s not guaranteed that it won’t break the other way, with cleverly putting one over on the adults and ogling the pretty girls being a source of status rather than shame. And even the good version still leaves you with the already-ostracized social losers with nothing to lose.

            But that is one of the battles you need to fight to win the war for transgender acceptance here and now. Convince suspicious conservative parents that you have erected sufficient barriers to keep the oglers, the gropers, and the possible rapists out of their daughters’ locker rooms (and the tramps away from their sons). At the same time, convince LGBT activists that you aren’t sternly prudish authority figures trying to put obstacles in the path to their self-expression.

          43. Vox Imperatoris

            @ John Schilling:

            If all it requires is the student filling out a form saying they are trans-curious, and for next week at least it’s Sam-for-Samantha not Sam-for-Samuel, the unisex clothing (for camouflage at home) is to be treated as female and will be changed in the girl’s locker room, then I guarantee there will be teenaged boys seeing an opportunity to game the system. And a few teenaged girls as well. And parents more worried about both of these than their numbers and persistence would warrant.

            Really? It seems plausible to you that teenaged boys are going to fill out a form become Officially Recognized as Transgender so that they can get into the girls’ locker room?

            Because that seems really, really implausible to me. High school isn’t some anonymous place. Everyone knows you; you’re not going to pull off this level of faking without being convincing enough that it’s more costly than especially teenaged boys are going to want to do.

            You’re never going to live something like that down. And while there’s the fantasy of being the “fly on the wall” in the girls’ locker room, it’s quite a different story in real life, especially when the girls are all staring at you like the world’s biggest creep. Which you would be.

          44. Troy

            I’ve only skimmed the above conversation, but I want to take this opportunity to ask a question about the transgender bathroom debate that I’ve had for a while.

            Many places have handicapped bathrooms separate from the men’s and women’s bathrooms. Would it be an acceptable solution to transgender people to expand the availability of those, and allow them to be used by transgender people as well? Even as it is most anyone can usually use such bathrooms, which tend to be single-person. This lets transgender people avoid being in a bathroom with people who they take to be of a different gender. It doesn’t let them be in a bathroom with people who they take to be of the same gender, but it’s much less obvious to me that that preference should be accommodated.

          45. Chevalier Mal Fet

            I believe the problem with this solution, Troy, is that it pattern matches to “separate but equal” – the same reason why the, to my mind entirely sensible, compromise of civil unions was shot down in favor of the creation of same-sex marriage.

            I think it’s the most practical solution to the issue, at least in the short term while we sort out where society is going on trans issues in the long term, but for lots of people it is not good enough.

          46. onyomi

            I could be totally off base, but I have a sense it may be a mistake to move away from the “man in a woman’s body” or “woman in a man’s body” conception, at least in terms of the public presentation of trans issues. Honestly, I still have no idea what it means to be “gender nonbinary,” and I wonder if it isn’t, in any case, a separate issue. And I’ve read Judith Butler, so if I don’t know what that is about, good luck with Joe Sixpack.

            The issue for most trans people as I understand it is that they feel their biological sex doesn’t match their psychological gender. I feel like that is something guy on the street can sort of understand, to the extent he can understand trans at all. Focusing on the fact that biological sex is not gender identification and that there can, at times, be what seems to be a mismatch seems like the way to go to me, as is emphasizing, as gays have, the non-chosen nature of it.

            To further muddy the waters by saying “and really we want to break down gender binaries anyway” seems to me like barking up the wrong tree, and, from the perspective of your average red tribe conservative, especially, will likely only add fuel to the “these are just weirdos” fire.

          47. Tracy W

            @Vox: your argument about social pressure stopping cis men from pretending to be trans to gain access to female bathrooms only applies as long as there is social stigma against being trans, or gender fluid. If trans women are socially accepted by their friends when they transition then your argument would not apply.

          48. onyomi

            “If trans women are socially accepted by their friends when they transition then your argument would not apply.”

            Being gay is much more acceptable nowadays, yet straight teenage boys still do not want to be misidentified as gay by their peers. The probability of a straight teenage boy wanting to tell his parents and school administrators and peers that he is now identifying as a woman all for the sake of getting a peek at some women in a locker room who will, as mentioned, view him as a gross creep if his attempt to fit in as a woman is not perceived as genuine, seems slim to none to me.

            This all reminds me of the (to us) hilarious advice a Puerto Rican grandmother gave to a female friend regarding a mutual gay male friend who was going to be staying with her in her home for a few days: “just be careful around him: there’s no such thing as a gay man–just men who are looking for their chance!”

          49. arbitrary_greay

            If I were more leftist I would sincerely say something like “Rape culture is why ogling in the first place is threatening. If we just taught our boys not to treat ladies as Things To Be Fucked, with the male gaze as the first step of possession, then letting them have a peek would be harmless, and we could let ladies ogle the packages, too.” And then also something about masculinity so fragile.

            There is something to the belief. Why is the peeping tom pervert creep condemned? Because they’re watching things that aren’t theirs, taking away privacy, (and thus agency in the form of right to privacy) and it’s presumed that they will go on to do other sexually deviant things, given how they are already willing to break social norms in this way.
            And the peeping tom didn’t used to get such a bum rap, or at least they were somewhat glorified in anime and teenage sex comedies as a rite of male passage. But again, why is that act of peeping, as well as the fears of homosexuals ogling, so feared? In aforementioned sex comedies, there are a few times where the desperate virgins follow from those acts and do shit like record and publish what they’re seeing, dreaming of and enacting plans for the hot girl being impaired enough (by alcohol, or roofies) not to know better than sexing our poor loser protagonists, or faking a nuclear attack, hustling a girl to a “fallout shelter” and saying that they need to do it to restart the human population post-apocalypse. The usual things anti-rape-culturists oppose.

            (Kind of surprised that the term hasn’t come up in this thread yet. Which speaks to the ideological distribution of the commentariat?)

          50. houseboatonstyx

            @ Sarah
            the places that have instated more trans-inclusive laws

            Can you give some examples of both the more and the less trans-inclusive laws?

            In general, looking for some perspective, aiui trans people (either direction) really are in danger of rape by mean cis males. So a trans (either direction, any stage) in a male locker room or restroom is in real physical danger.

            Otoh, the only time anyone is in real physical danger from a penis in a women’s restroom is if she and the molester are the only people there. The danger is the seclusion, which is rare, fleeting, and more safely obtained with a broom and clipboard.

            So the situation is not symmetrical. A trans person (or gay or non-binary or whatever or straight cis liberating the closest restroom) is physically safer in a women’s restroom than in a men’s restroom.

          51. Tracy W

            @onyomi: first I’ve heard of gayness being fully accepted by teenage boys. Though this is making me remember how old I am now.

            You are of course free to think that the chance of this happening is slim to none. Based on the reddit link I supplied earlier, even though that involved adults in a work situation (and the person posting it might be wrong!) I think you are understating the odds.

            I would feel much more comfortable if there was a plan for what to do with anyone who abuses the situation (including cis people who harrass trans of course.)

          52. Mary

            “Otoh, the only time anyone is in real physical danger from a penis in a women’s restroom is if she and the molester are the only people there. ”

            Exactly why is this true when it is true for no place else on earth?

    3. David Friedman

      I wonder if you could appeal to them along the lines of not having to hide what you are.

      Consider the situation of a fundamentalist, or even conservative, student at a college where everyone assumes that anyone with those views is either stupid or evil—a pretty common situation nowadays, as best I can tell. What is life like for that student, concealing her own views and pretending to go along with the orthodoxy? Then consider how similar the case is of someone who is physically male and has to pretend to be male, even though she thinks of herself as female.

      1. Jiro

        If you believe X and you claim that X is similar to Y, you can tell someone that since he believes Y, he should believe X. But likewise, he can tell you that since you believe ~Y, you should believe ~X.

        If you tell someone “you should defer to the wishes of transgender people because that’s like not having to hide your conservative views”, he’s within his rights to ask you “well, do you think it’s okay to have to hide your conservative views?” If you can’t answer “no”, then he can turn your own argument back on you.

        (Also, he could always answer “I think people should not ostracize conservatives, but should not be required to act in ways which assume conservatives are correct either”. He would then agree that someone should not be excluded from a party for being trans, but would continue to want bathrooms to be based on physical gender.)

    4. Mark Atwood

      One recommendation, while talking to that audience, the moment you use the suffix “-phobia”, you have lost, and should lose.

      Another recommendation, if you try to build onthe rhetoric and events of the recent successes in gay marriage rights, you are about to lose again, as that audience’s frame is that this was not a social improvement, but was a conquest, and you are just adding another set of clauses to the “terms of their surrender” (

    5. The Rightest Kid U'Know

      If you want to have a white, middle-class, Christian, Republican (that disagrees with you, but thinks that your heart is likely in the right place) to use as a sounding board, I’d be willing to talk with you privately.

    6. Tracy W

      Could you not start off with common ground – no one wants their daughter to feel harassed in the bathroom or locker room. (That would be a hard one to disagree with, be your daughter cis or trans.)

      And what steps could government or society take to address potential misuse of these laws by people wanting to harass others? Both cis and trans daughters could be harassed in bathrooms so that’s another ground for agreement. What steps are there available for someone to take if someone is making them feel uncomfortable in the bathroom, eg peeking through doors? (and of course trans girls can be harassed by cis girls, or cis girls by other cis girls, or any other combination. This isn’t a side thing.)

      There’s a quote in Lois McMaster Bujold in I think Komarr where a character trying to persuade another thinks of this not as applying more pressure but lowering the wall. Make it easier for people to agree.

      1. arbitrary_greay

        Yes, I was thinking that maybe just addressing the possibility of harassment and bullying within locker room/bathroom spaces in general, regardless of gender, might be a solution.

        The fear of a man invading a woman’s bathroom is in the case where there’s little chance of authority preventing them from doing as they please in that environment.

        Perhaps there needs to be teacher supervision, who will crack down mistreatment in any direction? I mean, trans concerns aside, there’s plenty of inter-girl bullying on the basis of internalized sexism and racism already, that should probably be addressed.
        So proposing this solution not only mitigates their concerns about dudes in the ladies’ room, but points out the hypocrisy of the belief that no dudes in the ladies’ room is a safe ladies’ room.

    7. Tibor

      Do the people actually believe that you are trying to “assault their daughters”? My impression is that people turn hostile when you start telling them what they should or should not like. Now, I am not saying that you are doing that. But a lot of activists (of any kind, but I think this tendency is stronger on the left) do exactly that. I think that what David points out is a good point but they should indeed see it that they are not going to be looked down upon just for having conservative views. Part of those views may include not feeling comfortable around transsexuals and that should be fine in the same way someone who does not like hanging around with a bunch of conservatives should not be looked down upon based on that. People have different tastes in people (and other things) but when they don’t feel like that other group of people is outright hostile towards them, they may still choose not to interact with them, because they are simply not interested, but they will not be hostile either. But if you’re in an environment where expressing your views is met with ostracisation and you feel a pressure from some people to even increase the hostility towards your views, then naturally, you will retaliate. So the first step might be to gain the trust of those people by honestly treating them respectfully. They are then likely to start doing the same. And to reiterate – I am by no means suggesting that you are condescending towards them. But a lot of the people who are trying to convince them of the same things are which means that you have to show them that you are not one of them. And to help improve things in general, you’d have to change the attitude of those bullies as well, but that is a more challenging task.

    8. caethan

      Speaking as a middle-class, Christian, Republican parent with a small daughter, I am willing to be a sounding-board for your arguments.

  16. Julian Schwinger

    If you want to study a good writer who doesn’t follow these principles, consider the Nietzsche that’s feeding yonder…

    1. Nornagest

      Nietzsche was an aphorist, not an essayist. The stuff that works for essays doesn’t work for aphorisms. Except for microhumor, and even then you’re usually better off with macrohumor.

      Compare Ambrose Bierce.

      1. Protagoras

        Nietzsche sometimes wrote essays. He experimented with various approaches; only a small portion of his writing consists of straight up aphorisms.

        1. Urstoff

          He’s not a very coherent essayist, though. Maybe that’s why his later output trends toward aphorisms (although not exclusively).

          1. Protagoras

            I don’t know how to productively argue about the coherence of his essays, other than to note that I disagree, but I’m really not sure about the chronology you suggest. There seem to be examples of both more and less aphoristic writing throughout. “On the Genealogy of Morals,” was late and not at all aphoristic, for example, while perhaps the most aphoristic works, “Dawn” and “Human, All Too Human” are earlyish.

        2. Nornagest

          Less pithily: he was a much better aphorist than essayist, and the meat of his essays often came in aphorism-sized chunks even when he was trying to be an essayist.

  17. Ivan Ivanoff

    Scott does this one thing in his writing that I love & will totally copy. He gives a series of sentences followed by reactions to those sentences, and everything is parallel up until that last sentence where he then tweaks the reaction in a funny way.

    The reader sees a pattern and gets comfortable with it:

    A > B

    C > D

    E > F

    And when they then read

    G > P

    it’s a shock and in many cases is actually really funny. It’s really clever, but it rarely feels like the cheap sort of clever.

    Example from Unsong:

    “Hi,” I said. “I’m Brother Aaron. The short version of our safety plan is that we are going to be extremely boring and do everything by the book and not stand out or draw attention to ourselves in any way.”

    (“Hi,” I said in my imagination. “I’m Aaron Smith-Teller. I know we’re not supposed to give out our full name at church, but since you know where I live and what I look like, it’s kind of silly to haggle over full names, isn’t it? We should probably stop pretending that our cute little Alcoholics Anonymous game gives any real protection. If UNSONG ever really wants us, we’re all fucked.”)

    “Whenever you use a protected Name of God,” I continued “UNSONG agents with the Sentinel Name tattooed above their ear and the Names involve tattooed on their foreheads can track your location. In practice they rarely do, because a million people do that every day and they don’t have a million agents or a million jail cells to put people in. But if a dozen people use all sorts of Names in the same spot every day, they know it’s a place where singers hang out and then if they’re bored then they come and raid you. This is probably what happened in Colorado.”

    (“We have no idea who UNSONG can and can’t track,” I said in my imagination. “The Coloradans weren’t stupid enough to consistently use Names in their hideout because no one is that stupid. So something else went wrong. We could do everything by the book and all get arrested tomorrow.”)

    “So,” I said “here are some things you can do if you’re an idiot who wants to be caught. You can use Names in your own house. You can use Names here. You can use a Name in the same spot multiple times. And you can use a really new Name that lots of bigwigs care about.”

    (“So,” I said in my imagination “Here are some things I have done multiple times. Used Names I have no idea what they do. Used Names in ways that caused giant catastrophes. Used the same Name that caused a catastrophe again, just to see if it would magically work the second time, which it never does. Been something like the third person on Earth to use a Name I didn’t even need, just for the adrenaline rush and street cred.”)

    “Last,” I said, “remember that we can limit any damage that happens. UNSONG’s got to operate within the law. No one can torture you or force information out of you. They can’t even silence you without a court order. As soon as you realize you’re in trouble, sing yourself the Confounding Name and forget all about us. If that doesn’t work, reveal one of our false leads to them. They’ll go in, see the evidence we planted, and figure we got spooked and abandoned it just before they arrived.”

    (“Last,” I said in my imagination, “Director-General Ngo is by all accounts terrifying, and it’s really easy here in our nice safe basement to say that they can’t torture you, but someone in Colorado said something and I don’t know why. The fact that we left a couple of old books and CDs in an abandoned factory might or might not fool UNSONG’s finest, but I wouldn’t want to have to be the shmuck who tests it.)

    “Oh,” I added. “If worst comes to worst, and secret police burst through those doors right when I finish talking, no Tempestuous Name, please. Better we all get a couple years in jail for criminal copyright infringement than die.”

    (I said the same thing in my imagination, only more condescendingly.)

    This is a really long parallelism. But when the reader gets to the end, it’s like ha! and it feels like a little reward.

    1. Urstoff

      Nothing, but Scott is writing to his audience. “Be witty” is banal; “use microjokes” sounds like a tactic that can be wielded.

    2. jaimeastorga2000

      The former is a neologism that can now be used to signal membership in the rationalist community.

    3. Evan Þ

      “Microjokes” is easier to analyze as a term: “microjokes” clearly means “inserting microscopic jokes” which is a technique people can use; “witty” means “have wit” which sounds like something you innately do or don’t have long before you sit down to write. Not everyone thinks like that, but some people – who’re overrepresented in Scott’s audience – do.

      Plus, the novel term sticks in your memory better.

    4. suntzuanime

      I think of wit as sort of a demonstration of mental agility in a conversation; thinking of clever things to say based on the current conversation state proves that you have “nothing up your sleeve” better than a joke that for all the listener knows you could have stayed up all night coming up with or ripped off from a professional comedian. These jokes will tend to be “micro” just because it’s hard to come up with a Certified Grade A Joke off the cuff.

      If you’re writing an essay you can work and slave for as long as you have the patience, so “wit” in this sense is less evident. But Scott’s point is that peppering your writing with microjokes is still worthwhile, because it lets you cram in more humor without distracting from your main point the way a Certified Grade A Joke might.

  18. Phil

    Thanks for writing that, of all the writers I read, you’re one of the writers I wish I could emulate most

    I’d love to know more about your creative process

    Do you outline your essays before the first draft? If so how detailed are they?

    How different are you first drafts from the final product? Do the first draft incorporate the above tips? Or do you just get the ideas on paper and then edit in most of those tips later?

    You seem to publish pretty prolifically, do you have a formal method for brainstorming ideas for essays? Or are your topics just a normal reaction to what you come across? Do you make any formal effort to curate what you come across such that it will generate ideas for your essays (ie do you have any particular ‘information diet’?

    I’d love to know how much time it takes from idea conception to finished essay.

    I love your work, I appreciate you sharing your ideas on writing ( as well as everything else you write about)

  19. Zippy

    I feel personally insulted that sections headers aren’t h2 (or deeper) tags on this blog; what’s the point of this html thing if we aren’t going to use it?

    (Of course, then the headers could be styled to look like they originally had, assuming that’s the look you’re going for)

    Actually, what would be really great is if the headers had associated id’s, so that I could link to them directly. Like Wikipedia, or The Consequentalism FAQ (though I also don’t like that The Consequentalism FAQ’s id’s only work for its integral headings)

  20. Dan T.

    “And not-C is too silly to even think about.”

    …because if you go around calling somebody a not-C, you’re going to trigger Godwin’s Law!

  21. Nomghost

    I once received a fantastic piece of advice about writing essays – one that seems obvious and trite but greatly improves your chances of getting a point across. They said “Nomghost, first, tell them what you’re about to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them.” If you just follow that simple rule, eventually you find you can triple-tap every argument, it becomes effortless, and it becomes so natural that people don’t notice you’re doing it.

    1. onyomi

      I have heard this advice and think is generally good (helps especially with overcoming Pinker’s “Curse of Knowledge”–you feel like you’re being redundant and repetitive or even talking down to your audience, but your audience needs to be told more than once because it’s new information to them), though I also think that conclusions should, ideally, do more than summarize the argument. I think a really good conclusion both summarizes the argument as it ties everything together and also brings you to a new, higher level of synthesis.

      1. Samedi

        I often wonder the same thing since I tend be terse in the extreme. When I realize this I try to include lots of concrete examples to illustrate my point. If I remember correctly Dale Carnegie uses this method in his “How to Win Friends” book.

    2. brad

      On the other hand Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow used this style and I wanted throw it against the wall by the end.

      1. Nomghost

        I agree it’s incredibly tedious when done badly, but, I mean, I did it in the parent comment, and didn’t get called for it 🙂

  22. Cereal Crepe

    I think there is a typo in “It’s possible that there might be some times they shouldn’t be equal, like children having fewer rights than adults, but this are just minor exceptions.” It should be “these” instead of “this” unless mismatching words was intended as some sort of signal.

  23. FullMeta_Rationalist

    In my own writing, I like to include what I think of as “self-annotations”. Grammatically, these annotations usually manifest as embedded-clauses. Though most people delineate their embedded-clauses with commas, I think parentheses are more apt. Scott is one of the few people I’ve seen wield parentheses like this. I wish it were more common because (imho) it’s easier to parse.

    cf “Your role model in this (and in nothing else) should be Donald Trump.”

    vs “Your role model in this, and in nothing else, should be Donald Trump.”


    He [Trump] supports Planned Parenthood, doesn’t want to cut entitlement programs, condemns Dubya and the Iraq war, supports affirmative action, supports medical marijuana, etc.

    This sentence causes me so much cognitive dissonance, I think I may spontaneously combust.



    1. FullMeta_Rationalist

      Incidentally. I have this fantasy where a backwards comma (a left-comma, to compliment our extant right-comma) is added to our standard English orthography. In this way not only could “matched-commas” replace “matched-parentheses of embedded-clauses”, but an unmatched-comma could more clearly indicate the direction of dependency between an independent clause and its subordinate clause.

      (Yes, my end-game is to transform English into a dialect of Lisp. How did you know?)

      (IANALinguist (not even a cunning one). Am I using the right terms? Does this make sense to anyone?)

      1. Vaniver

        (Yes, my end-game is to transform English into a dialect of Lisp. How did you know?)

        I was thinking about this during the article. Giving the parse tree to the user directly allows you to do things you can’t do otherwise.

      2. Didn't read my SICP today

        Start from yourself by adding commas to your keyboard with some hot keys or whatever.

        (I like japanese quote marks:「 」 They are cute)

        1. FullMeta_Rationalist

          I’ve settled on the Halfwidth Dun Comma (、)(U+FF64) as the glyph that most resembles my ideal. But I can’t find an easy way to add global hotkeys to Windows 8. How do you manage?

  24. Samedi

    Great post. I would add #11: Use E-Prime. I care a lot about civility in online discussions. I think categoricals of the “X is Y” variety cause people to get angry and then respond in kind. For example, writing “eating meat is wrong” will almost certainly provoke some readers. On the other hand, writing “I prefer not to eat meat because I feel empathy for animals” doesn’t feel provocative at all.

    I would further recommend strengthening #6, Use concrete examples, to “Use only concrete examples”. By this I mean avoid meaningless abstractions such as “liberals”, “libertarians”, “republicans”, “wrong”, etc. If you wish to take issue with something make it concrete: for example, “I disagree with the college tuition plan Bernie Sanders outlined in his speech in Iowa last week because …”

    1. Garrett M. Petersen

      “I prefer not to eat meat because I feel empathy for animals”

      I’m not so sure that wouldn’t provoke some people. The dog-lover who enjoys hamburgers doesn’t want to be told he has no empathy for animals. Still, I take your point that it’s somewhat less provocative than “eating meat is wrong.”

      1. Urstoff

        It sounds close enough to “I prefer not to eat meat because I’m a good person” that it seems like it is intentionally provocative.

        1. Samedi

          I was trying to avoid judgmental words like “good”. How about “…because eating meat makes me feel unhappy”? The word “empathy” didn’t seem provocative to me, but then I don’t feel passionate about the topic one way or another.

          I like to emphasize the factual over the judgmental and the abstract. I think that reduces the perceived aggression and elevates the tone. Just my preference.

          1. Urstoff

            As a strictly particular statement about the etiology of your own vegetarianism, it’s a perfectly fine statement. For better or worse, though, no one is going to read it as a strictly particular statement about the etiology of your own vegetarianism. Rather, it’s going to be read in ways which are inevitably provocative. For example, as a particular instance of a generalization: those with empathy towards animals don’t eat meat; I am such a person, therefore I don’t eat meat. The implication being that meat eaters don’t have empathy towards animals, which is obviously false (but culture wars have primed us [including myself, hence my take on it] to seek out such outlandish moral boasting from vegetarians regardless of whether that’s what they’re actually saying).

          2. 1212

            That’s way too far imo, it’s almost circular: It’s as if you just mysteriously found yourself suddenly becoming upset by the thought of meat for no good reason, and, like, failed to ward off this irrational bout of pique, and now don’t get to eat the most delicious food man invented (as opposed to not-even-harvest-from-, -literally being, the corpses of dead animals) because you’re weak, weak!, or something -instead of that you prefer not to eat meat as a considered position, which, though it might have to be whispered, does probably have something of a moral dimension.

            My angle on it is that meat eating is the default, so becoming vegetarian is good, while eating meat is not wrong because it’s actually not generally a considered and chosen position, but a normal one, and also because meat is so delicious people beome hedonically addicted to it (literally since childhood), like, it can actually be a significant factor in people’s wellbeing and effectiveness, especially if they don’t know about vegetarian food. In a sense this is a form of cultural relativism applied to to one’s own culture, but it’s also completely true imo: Becoming vegatarian is hard, unusual, and can mess someone up. It’s clearly a good thing to do, (all else equal still,) but calling meat-eating wrong is imo too harsh, to the point where it’s imo actively connotationally false. One doesn’t have to do anything wrong to keep on eating meat, one just has to not go about setting forth some relatively great upheavel in one’s life to right a wrong that one is not responsible for, and forever after pay the price of not having access to a valuable hedonic/motivational resource that others can use. -that’s at least a little too far the other way, but imo it’s not that far off how things are, in relation to the implications of calling meat-eating “wrong”.

      2. Deiseach

        I saw a perfect example of this today, in a Salon article on diet fads that was otherwise fairly good sense.

        It’s so hard for us to understand how something that has an evil origin, such as factory-farmed meat, might not also actually be evil for us physically.

        As a BLOODMOUTH CARNIST, this “evil origin” stuff had me raising my hackles and going “Oh really? Reeeeealllly? “Not evil physically” – well thanks for the condescension, matey!”

        I did read through the whole article, but that assumption about “meat eating is morally evil but for some weird reason this does not mean that sin makes you physically sick, who knew?” lowered my “willing to be convinced” level a lot for the speaker. That’s a great example of assuming everyone who reads your piece shares the same attitudes and beliefs as you do, and a great way of turning away a potential audience.

        1. Nathan

          In all fairness, the writer did not have to convince you that eating meat is perfectly healthy. The only people who think it is are vegetarians, and it sounds like the writer was correctly framing his piece to speak to them.

      3. Deiseach

        Yes, though not a pet-owner myself, I find the “You wouldn’t eat your dog, would you?” argument unconvincing, because I wouldn’t eat my granny either, but what has that to do with me putting on a boiled egg for my breakfast?

        People have eaten all sorts of foodstuffs in one culture that other cultures wouldn’t touch, so it’s less morals and more socially-taught tastes that are at play in the “If you eat a pig then you should be willing to eat a cat/horse/panda” argument.

  25. Vox Imperatoris

    Not that you need a reminder, but you’re an excellent writer, Scott, and this is a great list of tips.

    I feel like I make pretty good use of most of these. Maybe a little too heavy on the “flow words”. Though it’s not really my natural inclination to make little jokes or “microjokes”; if I’m writing about a serious topic, I’m usually in a serious mood.

    And, uh, this is not exactly a huge insight (see, there was a microjoke!), but I find that your point #7 (Figure out who you’re trying to convince, then use the right tribal signals) is much easier to apply when you can get yourself into a calm mood, instead of a mood of anger or irritation. And of course it tends not to work at all when they’ve built their whole worldview around a certain position on the point in question.

    For instance, I can see this in my writing in the last, thread talking about immigration. There are basically two different types of people I was arguing against:

    a) The people who say, “Yeah, I can see how there might be benefits to open borders, but it’s incompatible with the welfare state.” And at that point, I can give off the right signals and say: “See, I don’t like the Democratic economic agenda, and I don’t like the welfare state, but I don’t think the consequences would be as dire as you think. Compare this to the issue of global warming: sure, it’s conceivable that we have to ban all fossil fuels to save the planet, but I think the evidence has to be a lot stronger before I agree to do so.” Now, I don’t imagine that I changed anyone’s mind, but I think this kind of thing is moderately productive.

    b) The people who say, “These goddamn illegals are destroying our country and trespassing on our collective property! It’s a literal fucking invasion, and they all ought to be deported, if not shot, because this is war! And the same goes for the rich bastards who side with them to make a quick buck while putting hard-working Americans out of a job.” With these people, I feel like all I can do is point out the fundamental premises upon which we disagree. Or perhaps it’s all I feel inclined to do, given the limitations of length and time. (Or, quite possibly, I could do better, but I’m rationalizing my behavior. 😉 )

    But I think this point about giving off the right signals is good even in abstract philosophical debates. For instance, if I defend dualism, the first thing I do is say I don’t believe in the immortal soul. Or when I defend the (metaphysical) libertarian position on free will, I point out that it’s incompatible with Christianity and rejected by the most influential theologians. Why? Because I don’t want it to be pattern-matched for a religious dogmatist and have the question reduced to: “Do I like science and rationality, or do I like religious mysticism?”

    Or if it is a debate on religion, I’ll bring up the free will issue as a point of common ground (then argue that it supports my view). Or I’ll try to show that I am not a stereotypical positivistic New Atheist who thinks the cosmological argument, etc. is meaningless. Rather, I’ll argue that they are potentially meaningful but don’t work—and if they did, they’d support deism. And I’ll bring up Thomas Paine as an example of a devoutly religious deist who believed in all these arguments but hated Christianity.

    Anyway, I’m sure I don’t always succeed in this, but I try.

    One fairly effective way that I think you can do this is simply by offering to “cut the bullshit”. For any position you can hold on a hot-button issue, there are probably facile, irrelevant arguments connected to it. On abortion, for instance, the conversation often comes around to “What about if a woman gets pregnant from being raped?” But this is an almost irrelevant point because this makes up a tiny percentage of actual abortions. If you are pro-choice and concede that if the arguments for the fetus’s right to life work, a “rape exception” is morally senseless, you can at least come off as an honest opponent and not as another person trying to make them seem to be “favoring rape”.

    1. 1212

      For “morally senseless” did you mean “makes moral sense”?

      Like, I think an honest person would be pretty fucking concerned about that case. Imo calling it “morally senseless” comes across as saying “FUCK THOSE WOMEN LOL, PUN NOT INTENDED LOL”

      I mean, It’s not the kind of thing you dismiss offhand??!?!

      1. Vox Imperatoris

        I am not saying that I am myself opposed to abortion.

        I am saying that if the anti-abortion arguments about a right to life beginning at conception are correct, the idea of a “rape exception” doesn’t make sense because the embryo is not the rapist. It’s punishing the son for the sins of the father. It has as much right to life as any other fetus.

        In law, you are not permitted to deliberately kill an innocent person, even to save your own life. Even if the other person would have died anyway.

        Now, in fact, I think that abortion bans without a rape exception are objectively worse for women than abortion bans with a rape exception. But if you think that abortion is morally equivalent to baby-murder, the idea that you would let a woman off for it, even if she was raped, doesn’t make much sense. Carrying the baby to term is a major inconvenience, but not a death sentence; it’s not even a life for a life.

        At the very least, this is a basic concession that you can make to their point of view.

        1. 1212

          I did actually get what you were saying, though I realise my post was not the most precisely delineated or argued. (and sorry for responding to that part of your your post, while ignoring the rest, I guess)


          I actually do really think it isn’t even slightly morally senseless, and that dismissing it offhand, especially calling it “morally senseless,” is completely tone deaf and (comes across as) actively disrespectful to people who have been raped:

          Whether or not we’re all sacred beings ensouled in mortal vessels or not, killing a baby is not as bad as killing a child or adult, because it doesn’t have plans, or agency, and it can’t fear the possibility, off the very top of my head. It is the termination of a life, sacred or not, no less, and no more.

          Killing an adult, or child, is more than that, whether what it’s on top of, is a greater or lesser crime, in line with whether the baby is one of god’s sacred children, or -lets say we’re an intelligence-absolutist non-species-ist-absolutist, -about as bad as killing a pig, for an opposite extreme.

          If that’s too abstract, then it’s the difference between killing a baby immediately at birth, (as many cultures have made legal practice by the way, unlike child or adult killing) and killing it at four years old. They’re different things, right?

          Killing a fetus is on a completely different level from killing either a baby or a more developed human, because whether or not it has a soul, it doesn’t have a brain. Whether it isn’t strictly speaking an entity at all, or whether it’s an ensouled entity not yet tethered to this world by body, and brain, and a mind that here resides (unless one holds that souls control humans without intermediation through the brain), it’s actually not all that different.

          Specifically, the difference is between “killing” something that is not an entity at all, and sacriligeously murdering- preventing a truly existent life from coming to proper fruition, which will still, nonetheless, suffer no more than to pass from this world back into god’s embrace.

          That is a meaningful, significant difference, but it’s not a difference on the level of the difference between killing an ensouled-fetus and a “mere material” baby, or the difference between killing an ensouled baby and an at-this-point-the-soul-is-moot- -child.

          And imo it’s also nowhere near the difference between a raped woman having to, by law, carry the baby to term, and us having a society where we appear in any imagined way at all, to not unambiguously not side with rapists, or against those who we have failed to protect. It’s a completely different class of thing, but in the exact opposite direction than you’ve suggested.

          I also don’t think killing an ensouled fetus is on the same level as bringing a child into the world who his mother has been forced to carry into term under such circumstances. Is that fair on the child? Imo it’s a good deal less fair than a blashpemous, sacriligeous murder, that at the end of the day just amounts to a return to god. Bringing that child into the world, if one genuinely and fully accepts the religious premise, is like thinking a forced deportation is worse than a life sentence.

          And I can’t really overstate the importance of the signalling side of this. The message should be, if someone’s been through that, unequivocally: “we are on your side”, not “you must suffer more for the sake of our beliefs, or your rapist, or their child, -let alone their fetus”.

          Honestly, I would rather say that raped women have a right to kill their rapists grown children or relatives, than that they must carry the fetus to term. Alright, maybe not really, not quite, but the message that is sent is fucking important, and it is part of the moral question.

          It’s just wrong to pile that obligation on them, like an additional punishment, and not like, but literally being, an additional burden they have to bear, a difficult one at the very best of times. And then, what?, give it away or spend the rest of their lives promoting it, trying not to treat it worse than they would their own chosen child? Trying not to resent it, or treat it as second best. Trying to love it, trying not to think of it a their rapists child.

          I have no doubt some women have done a great job of it, but that’s for them to decide, IF THEY SO choose, not others, not society, and not even fucking God. (if he somehow was dull and stupid enough to support this notion)

          So I don’t think that thinking this isn’t a clear cut thing that’s an obvious win for (not all) religious people, is uncontroversially morally senseless. I actually think this issue has priority over all other issues involved, and beyond, up to and including, souls or not, sacred or not, infanticide, .

          I think the idea that it is just an offhand thing, and who cares?, is beyond morally senseless, and is almost precisely morally inverted. It might not be a politically relevant concession (though it might well, if that matters at all,) but it’s a huge concession to insanity, and mundane evil, and “moloch.” No bigger one comes immediately to mind.

          1. Vox Imperatoris

            You’re just arguing that an embryo doesn’t have the right to life because it’s not the same as killing a baby or a child or an adult. Well, I agree. But it’s irrelevant.

            That’s on your premises and mine. On the premises of people who are opposed to abortion, who do think that embryos have the right to life, it’s murder, and murder is murder. That’s whole freaking point of arguing that all human beings have an inherent right to life, and that even embryos are human beings.

            It’s a grievous sin, and you are never justified in committing it; you don’t have God’s permission. The fact that raped women have to go through all this trouble is very sad, but it doesn’t justify them in murdering their innocent babies.

            The fact that you’ve been wronged doesn’t give you the right to wrong another. Your Christian duty is to obey the moral law, no matter what.

            Whether or not we’re all sacred beings ensouled in mortal vessels or not, killing a baby is not as bad as killing a child or adult, because it doesn’t have plans, or agency, and it can’t fear the possibility. It is the termination of a life, sacred or not. Killing an adult or child is more than that, whether what it’s on top of, is a great or lesser crime in line with whether the baby is one of god’s sacred children or lets say we’re an intelligence-absolutist non-species-ist-absolutist, or about as bad as killing a pig.

            If that’s too abstract, then it’s the difference between killing a baby immediately at birth, (as many cultures have made legal practice by the way, unlike child or adult killing) and killing it at four years old. They’re different things, right?

            I rather think that most people have the complete opposite opinion on this: killing a child is worse than killing an adult, and killing a baby is worse than killing a child, because they are more innocent and have more life ahead of them that you are taking away.

            You’re not justified in murdering babies because they’ll “go back to God”. (Why you’re not, under Christian premises, is a good question, but nevertheless you’re not.) Most people are going to see that as sick and twisted.

            Just look at the characterization of villains in any kind of fantasy or historical fiction: if you murder babies or order the murder of babies, you are far worse than a killer of adults or even children.

            Hell, I’m pro-choice and even I think this.


            I should add that you do correctly point out that whether embryos or fetuses or even babies have souls is separate from the question of whether they have a right to life.

          2. David Friedman

            To expand a bit on Vox’s point.

            Suppose a woman is raped, is for whatever reason not able to arrange an abortion, bears the child and then wants to kill it. Perhaps there is nobody else willing to take responsibility for the child, perhaps she just finds the knowledge of its existence, combining her with her attacker, unpleasant.

            Would a rape exception to the legal and moral rule against infanticide make sense in that context?

  26. onyomi

    I recommend a book called “The Elements of Academic Style,” by Eric Hayot. I think most of his advice applies equally to intelligent, non-academic non-fiction.

    One of his more useful concepts: “the uneven U”: basically, if you can categorize sentences from 1-5, with 1 being a bland statement of detail/fact and 5 being an abstract, synthesis-oriented statement, then most paragraphs and subsections and chapters and books ought to follow a roughly “4-2-1-3-4-5” ish (“uneven U”) pattern. The idea is that each new paragraph or subsection or chapter should introduce and/or connect to some big ideas in the section preceding, move into the weeds to corroborate, and then move to some higher level of synthesis by the end.

    Also, no big block quotes nor quotes offered without explanation or commentary: “the quotes don’t explain themselves.” Whether reading an academic book or SSC, I think most people, myself included, scan rapidly over block quotes if they read them at all.

    His advice on conclusion-writing I wish my students would take to heart: “don’t wax eloquent as a substitute for content.”

    1. FullMeta_Rationalist

      Oo. I’ve had vague ideas about the “Uneven U” idea, but never been able to articulate it well. Thanks for sharing!

      I’ve been thinking that if programming were to ever be introduced into the standard curriculum, I’d expect rhetoric in English class to improve noticeably. Because there are so many parallels.

      Lessons of programming: Behind every program is an abstract syntax tree. For each function call, there must be an equal and opposite return statement. They say that what goes up must come down. Similarly, what builds up the stack must recurse down the stack. (In case this isn’t clear, I’m saying the “Uneven U” is a natural consequence of traversing the abstraction hierarchy.)

  27. jaimeastorga2000

    Your role model in this (and in nothing else) should be Donald Trump.

    Great example of #7 right at the start. The statement in parenthesis signals that you dislike Trump, which allows you to point out what he does right without alienating your liberal and leftist readers by looking like a Trump supporter.

    1. Bugmaster

      FWIW, as soon as I’d read that sentence, I had that slimy sensation of being pandered to. But maybe that’s just me.

    2. Evan Þ

      Reminds me of when my (very conservative) high school debate coach cited Bill Clinton as a great example of speaking skills. “Not his content, but his way of delivering it.”

  28. Nathan

    “Motte and Bailey” is my favourite concept handle and I felt like someone ought to mention it. I have now mentioned it. Peace out.

  29. Nino

    On the internet, when you underline text, that tells the reader that it’s clickable and when it’s not, the reader experiences confusion and frustration, because it looks like a broken link.

    Please, PLEASE don’t underline your second-level headings, and don’t use underlined text for emphasis. You have bold-face, italics, different font sizes, you can even use a different font for headings! Putting lines under things is confusing and doesn’t look nice. (Except if it’s a link. Underlined links are great.)

    1. Vox Imperatoris

      That’s…certainly not my experience.

      The thing that distinguishes links is that they are blue.

      Excessive underlining can be annoying if it’s used all the time like this (Edit: I can’t even figure out how to underline here), but I don’t get the impression that it’s a link. And I think it’s fine in section headers.

      1. rossry

        This is true in many places, but has become less mandatory over time. Some sites will use other bright colors (which is pretty functionally equivalent), or even the same color as body text.

        I see the latter less as heresy as a stylistic choice which enjoins you from using underlining as markup in other cases, though some people I respect fall into the “heresy” camp.

  30. Liskantope

    This is great, I’d been hoping to see a post about blogging tips for some time (and still hope to see some more, about other aspects of blogging). I actually laughed out loud at the altered Declaration of Independence, so thank you for providing a little macrohumor in addition to explaining microhumor.

    The virtue of using concept handles is something I’ve been mulling over for some time. My first reaction to them has been that they are useful at conveying certain phenomena of human behavior (most often argumentative fallacies / intellectual failure modes / etc.) in an accessible, intuitive way, but that they fail to ground these ideas in much rigor. Maybe as a mathematician, I have a hard time ever letting go of this mentality, but my ultimate goal in persuasive writing is really to argue from the ground up, setting up axioms which everyone should be able to accept and then showing how whatever type of fallacious thinking I’m attacking eventually follows from those axioms. I feel like many of these concept handles provide a shortcut from this dry and tedious objective, but in doing so they allow us to skirt around ever needing to find a completely rigorous framework for what we’re talking about.

    For instance, when I first read your posts on superweapons, I immediately recognized them as a description of something I’d been trying to put my finger on for a long time. But I had never really been successful, because I was trying too hard to set up a whole framework ultimately based on some kind of “axioms of rhetoric” and never quite found the patience to follow through completely. In place of “superweapons”, I only had some vague ideas about “system of assertions which cannot be falsified, and even obstruct falsification on a meta level… in the spirit of dogmatism [need rigorous explanation of dogmatism]…”. Now I feel better off just using the shortcut of “superweapons”, but every time I do, I can’t shake off the nagging feeling that the notion still needs to be justified on more basic principles.

    1. FullMeta_Rationalist

      This phenomenon is what the computer people call worse is better (dw the story is non-technical). I think the moral of the story is that intellectual rigor imposes a mental-cost, which often decreases the fitness of a meme’s virality.

      [This message has been brought to you by the Ministry of Concept Handles.]

      1. David Friedman

        “I think the moral of the story is that intellectual rigor imposes a mental-cost, which often decreases the fitness of a meme’s virality. ”

        Real world example …

        One of my most quoted arguments (Google claims 188 hits) is the explanation of the Principle of Comparative Advantage in terms of growing Hondas:

        We have two technologies for making cars. We can build them in Detroit or grow them in Iowa. The way you grow cars is to grow the raw material they are made out of, called “wheat,” load it onto a ship, and send the ship into the pacific. It comes back with Hondas on it.

        A tariff is a way of getting us to build cars when it would be cheaper to grow them, it protects American auto workers against the competition not of Japanese auto workers but of American farmers.

        It works as an explanation, and it’s almost correct, but not quite. If the U.S. is a large enough part of the wheat market, then exporting more wheat drives down the world price. Trade isn’t quite like a machine that converts wheat into automobiles, because doing more of it sometimes increases how much wheat you need to make a car.

        One implication is that there is a situation where a tariff or an export tax makes the country that imposes it better off at the cost of its trading partners—by letting the country as a whole function like a monopoly or monopsony.

        If I had included that full explanation, the argument would not have been nearly as widely quoted as it is. And understanding the imperfect version moves most people closer to the truth, because they start out seeing a tariff as normally benefiting us at the expense of out trading partners, which is much farther from the truth than seeing it as never doing that.

        1. Randy M

          I’ve seen that example almost verbatim before; I vaguely remember it being in Armchair Economist, but I might be mistaken. Do you know if it was quoted in a book or have you written a popular book on economics?

          1. David Friedman

            Steve probably got it from me. Many years ago, probably when he was writing _The Armchair Economist_, he asked me if I minded his lying about me in print. He wanted to take a theoretical point I had made and turn it into a story with us as the characters.

            I had no objection.

            It turns out that someone made the same argument about trade as mine in a much more elaborate form, in print, before I did, although I only discovered it long after I made it, also in print. So far as I can tell, his version never spread, probably because, in making a story out of it (a supposed super inventor whose factory on the coast turns many inputs into many outputs, making him a national hero, until someone discovers that it’s just trade, at which point he becomes a villain) he made it much longer, more elaborate, harder for other people to remember and repeat.

            So I can’t claim priority, but I seem to be the source for almost everyone who repeats the argument.

          2. Nathan

            FWIW, I heard the other version of the argument multiple times and this is the first time I’ve heard yours.

            Your version is way better though.

          3. Nathan

            The first time I heard it was in an introductory microeconomics textbook – sorry, don’t remember which one. I’m pretty sure I heard it again at some point online – again, I can’t for sure remember where, but it was possibly in the comments of Steve Landsburg’s blog.

            I will note that these were more abbreviated versions of the story than the one you seem to be referencing, but they both featured the characteristic of a black box that was claimed to be an unusually efficient automated process but was later revealed to be just a front for overseas trade.

          4. David Friedman


            Anyone who got it from me would probably refer to “growing Hondas,” since that’s a memorable line. It’s possible Steve actually got it from the earlier version.

      2. onyomi

        Is there a name for the phenomenon where everyone thinks the person with a lot of personal experience of problem x must have a better understanding, but actually the personal experience has just made it impossible for him/her to evaluate dispassionately? Like, I’m from New Orleans and am probably not the best person to evaluate the efficacy of FEMA, for example (or am I?). I guess it’s just “being too close to the problem”?

        Like, I bet if I got to sit down and have a long chat with President Obama I’d leave with a more positive impression of President Obama and his policy initiatives than when I started, but that might just be because I’d then associate them with a nice, reasonable-seeming guy; but maybe my evaluation before I met him was closer to the mark?

        1. FullMeta_Rationalist

          Colloquially, I believe this is known as “to be emotionally invested”. I imagine psychology has a more technical term. Perhaps our resident shrink knows. I performed a cursory search on wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases, but none of the listed terms stood out.

          I notice NIMBY-ism fits a more specific use case.

          Related is the Affect Heuristic.

          1. onyomi

            I’m not so much proposing a general rule as trying to think of a clearer way to describe an exception to a rule of which we should maybe be more aware: I think it’s true that people closer to a thing with more personal experience of the thing usually have more accurate judgments of the thing. I also think there are exceptions to this rule, but I’m not sure if there’s any at all objective way to evaluate when the exception is occuring.

            Related is an idea I’ve heard that academics produce their best or most interesting work when writing on a subject which is not their area of special expertise or focus. This gels pretty well with my own experience and is also a problem with peer review: of course having experts in a thing evaluate new ideas about a thing is generally a good idea–who else would be better?

            Yet experts can, in my experience, be prone to big picture-missing nitpicking that tends to shutdown innovation in their own area. “Myopia,” or “been looking at the problem too long to be objective anymore” are other colloquial ways to put it.

            Also related to curse of knowledge and short inferential distance, I think.

          2. FullMeta_Rationalist

            What about Prejudice. The closest LW meme is retrieving thoughts from a stale cache. The opposite is seeing with fresh eyes. Am I getting any warmer?

            Prejudice carries negative connotations. But taken literally, experts come with prejudice almost by definition. Between the knowledge and experience that makes experts The Experts, they’re going to have judged the most common scenarios beforehand.

            Einstein is quoted to have said “Common Sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18”. 99.99% of the time, to retain prejudices is simply efficient. But I suppose every once in a blue moon, something like Special Relativity pops out of the blue. In which cases, particular prejudices prove to have been unwarranted in hindsight.

            Perhaps there exist signals which correlate with this failure mode. But since the “mistaken” prejudices are only recognized as mistaken in hindsight, I have a tough time imagining an objective metric or indicator.

  31. Stuart Armstrong

    Thanks got this, it was useful and insightful, and I plan to make use of these if ever I get back to writing longer ideas again.

    I suspect, from reading this, that you learnt to write this way before being fully conscious of doing so. This suggests there’s another level above artlessness: having the right instincts, while being consciously aware of them. Do you think this is clearly better than simply excellent instincts?

    1. 1212

      ipso facto, and all else equal, it must be. Unless you mean being consciously aware of them all the time, which would probably be impossible, given the amount of heuristics involved in being good at something like writing. But being able to take apart your “instincts”, (and put them back together), should definitely and directly give you more leverage to improve yourself in that area.

      It could go wrong if you take something apart too quickly in an eagerness to examine it and if it’s somewhat ephemerally grounded, -not hard burnt it, then one might not be able to put it back together again, and one one might also not be able to rederive it. (immediately, or possibly even ever, if one stumbled mostly by accident into the shadow beginnings of an insight.)

      I suspect that people who “refuse to think” mostly do so because they have some important concept or tendency in them, that is both not burnt in, and that they suspect they might not be able to recreate for themselves. -or they might just remain in the habit of not thinking even when they have no such ungrounded, important, wisp-concepts floating around. I know I certainly deliberately do this sometimes. I keep track of which things in my mind are hard locked in and which I have an understanding of sufficient to recreate them either from the inside or outside (and if from the outside, to make the transition from outside to inside.)

      Imo the most dangerous thing for such wisp-concepts are things which are extremely similar but different reframings of them. If the subtly different framing-or-concept is much more salient than the original one, it’s possible for the original to be lost. Imo that’s why it’s often worth trying to figure things out for oneself, and ground them, before going to the “standard” rules and perspectives for the topic or area, which might have all kinds of rhymes, or be all kinds of pithy, because if one goes to them first they might be too salient and “obvious” to think about whatever-it-is without the standard soundbite or heuristic overshadowing them, or at least impeding unbiased thought on it, -and this isn’t at all true the other way around.

      1. houseboatonstyx

        @ 1212

        Indulging myself in some wispy connections….

        Once when I was keeping house for some Jaina monks, one of their mala bead-strings (108-bead rosary) broke. White-robed figures humping around sweeping with their ritual brooms hunting the beads.

        “Did you find them all?”

        “Found 109.”

        Which was true. Nobody was making it up as a joke. But the pause for appreciation of it….

        . . . . . .

        On the whole, I liked TOF’s use of ‘jokes’ in _The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown and Down ‘n Dirty Mud-Wrassle_ (less on second reading, more on third reading). But they didn’t just, yanno, emanate from the irony of the situation, as the 109 beads did. The smackdown metaphor didn’t even fit the history very well. The smackdowns were mostly not between the principals, ie the astronomers, but between Galilileo and the authorities. TOF could well have written the whole history and then looked for some other metaphor to begin and end chapters with to keep the students awake.

        . . . . . . .

        One of Scott’s younger blog entries had a line like, ‘For a long time I thought the only things I was good at were the easy things’.

        . . . . . . .

        All of the levels of humor in the tips in this article help with ‘writer doesn’t take himself too seriously’ (including TOF’s). Duh. No matter how seriously GKC or CSL take their subject, allowing the reader some breathing space makes them more credible (to me, anyway). Even the appearance of a margin of open-mindedness, of self-questioning, does help. Of (if I’m not culturally appropriating) Bayesianism, is a breath of apogee free fall above either alternative: not taking one’s own side, not altogether believing one’s own thoughts.

  32. Steve Sailer

    A visual stylistic tip that I suspect Scott consciously follows is to have a lot of space between lines (what typographers call “leading”). It makes text look less dense and gives an impression of inviting luxury (in the print age, more leading meant more pages in a book, which cost more).

    Charles Murray’s books are usually very good examples of what complex non-fiction books should look like to make them as readable as possible.

  33. Sniffnoy

    Two things:

    1. I find that #2 is good advice for reading. If you’re reading two long things, don’t attempt to read them each straight through, but rather switch between them whenever you get tired of one of them.

    2. For such a basic part of argument, #8 just seems to be really neglected. Relatedly, “lampshading” — like, if you have a gap in your argument, noting this explicitly and asking your reader to spot you it for now — helps get on your readers’ good side. (For instance, “I realize that A doesn’t quite imply B, and there are other possibilities, but I don’t regard them as very likely and so will just ignore them for now.”) Obviously, this is not as good as actually anticipating counterarguments, but it does indicate that at least you realize that counterarguments exist.

  34. Dahlen

    Someone once linked you from a forum, saying something to the effect of “Scott writes very eloquently about this topic”. Another member replied with “Then you and I have very different ideas about what eloquence means”. Not to turn this into another Testimonials entry, but it was something that really drove the point home that the above might not be enough to meet someone’s standards of even merely passable. My first reaction to that was “What? Someone doesn’t like Scott? I’m sorry, can you even read?”. Your writing works for me, because the humor almost never fails to click, because I’m okay with informality, because I look approvingly on people whose opinions blow in the winds of evidence and whose prose reflects this (e.g. through all the hedge words), because I don’t judge writers too harshly for meandering. These are probably not universals. There is probably some writer out there who’s always dead serious, unashamedly opinionated, straight-outta-the-18th-century formal, terse and to-the-point, whom someone judges to be a better writer than you, and their aesthetic preferences are no less valid. There’s a point to be sought in that criticism.

    Half of these are very basic, common, and technical writing advice that’s rather easy to get right, and the other half are more like Things Scott Sometimes Does. There’s something telling me you know and apply considerably more (and more interesting) techniques to write like you do, but if this article is anything to go by, you don’t have insight into them.

    1. moridinamael

      Yeah, I know people who can’t make it through Scott’s articles when I link them, and people who can’t stand Eliezer’s style. I think something like 25% of the value I get from both Eliezer and Scott lies in their patient, methodical, almost languorous way of walking you through their ideas. For some people I guess this is annoying.

      I think the lesson is that I f you’re going to be trying to communciate complex, difficult ideas, then don’t bother trying to write to the audience of people who don’t like reading long, meandering essays. Just write specifically for the people who like very long, detailed writing.

      1. Dahlen

        It’s a mistake to dismiss these people as folks with a short attention span. Most of them do like long, trust me, but a lot of people prefer more “packed” writing. Things that cut to the chase. Less introductory fluff per idea expressed.

        (Though, if SSC fails this criterion for some people, I wonder what they would make of UR.)

        1. Whatever Happened to Anonymous

          As a person with a short attention span, I actually find Scott’s posts unusually comfortable to skim through.

          Probably due to the way he structures things, you can more or less “get it”, by reading the first few and last few sentences of each section. All the justifications, tribal markers, sick references and Tom Swifties are going to get discussed to death in the comments, anyway.

    2. 1212

      You don’t know their aesthetic preferences are no less valid. They could be waaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy less valid.

  35. Tim Martin

    “…and so that the reading experience is broken up by a decision whether or not to click.”

    This surprises me. I am reading it correctly? You *try* to break the reading experience up into decisions about whether or not to click?

    I’ve always found this a distracting characteristic of blog posts, moreso in those that don’t even try to explain what the thing is they’re linking to or why they’re linking to it. The link indicates that there is something here that’s important to what I’m saying and that you may not know about, but I won’t tell you what it is and you will have to decide for yourself whether to interrupt your reading of this post in order to go read some supporting information.

    This was something that really bugged me about lesswrong when I started reading.

    1. Anon

      I have gotten used to command-clicking links to open them in background tabs, to read after I read the essay. It doesn’t really break flow for me. (Also, normally the author will tell you what the link is about.)

      1. Lambert

        I think that is part of why TvTropes is such a black hole. By the time I have read a page, I’ve opened several of the links in new tabs. Exponential growth ensues.

        1. onyomi

          Done well, this technique can lead you down a rabbit hole of discovery and fun (as with TVtropes and LessWrong at its best). Done poorly (some LessWrong posts), it creates a feeling like looking up a definition in a dictionary only to find that the definition itself contains several words you don’t know.

          1. brad

            The worst is when wikipedia links to some other page that has to do with the word being linked but doesn’t help at all with the context it is being used in. Like the war of 1812 will be highlighted but it’ll be linked to the general article about war.

          2. HeelBearCub

            That might be because you know what the War of 1812 actually is, so you are looking for detail or substantiation of a point.

            But isn’t that supposed to be in the citations?

          3. Vox Imperatoris

            @ HeelBearCub:

            No, it’s like when you want to know what a “catalytic converter” is, but instead of being one link, there are two links: one to “catalysis” and the other to “conversion”.

          4. FullMeta_Rationalist

            This is why I think the creation of the LW wiki was a good idea. Because it allows new users to see Jargon defined in terms of Standard English, rather than in terms of More Jargon.

  36. houseboatonstyx

    This makes me want to see the last few drafts of something. Hard to imagine the raisins being inserted at the last minute.

  37. Jordan D.

    This is all excellent advice, but I think you put your best and most succinct advice for essayists thus:

    ‘It’s astounding because I think it was meant to actually convince people. It’s written in a style of “I can see where you’re coming from, but have you considered X?” I thought I was the only person who had figured out that this worked better than “YOU ARE DUMB AND I HATE YOU. NOW PLEASE AGREE WITH ME.”’

  38. David Barry

    It’s really fascinating to see the level of detailed thought that you put into your writing. I guess some of it becomes a matter of habit, but certainly my impression was that you could just sit down, punch out a couple of thousand words at a constant 60wpm and it’d all just flow together perfectly on the first draft.

    I’m not a huge fan of the concept handles though. Of Eliezer’s “short catchy names that everybody knows”, I’m only confident that I could define one of them, and have a decent guess at a couple of others. Building up such a jargon can improve communication efficiency within your blog reader community, but it puts up a larger barrier to entry than perhaps there ought to be.

    I also think that if a concept is wrong, then turning it into a handle encourages overuse of a faulty idea. I think your “tolerate the outgroup” post was wonderful and describes a real dynamic that I can feel in my own reactions to events and which I can now more easily recognise in others. But your “staying classy” post looks much weaker to me, and I expect that better treatments exist somewhere in an academic literature that I’m unfamiliar with. Over time, as you continue to build up an edifice of related ideas, you’ll sometimes link to the outgroup post and sometimes link to the classy post, and as a result I think some pieces of your arguments will be resting on solid foundations and some will be very shaky. Those shaky bits don’t deserve the apparent authority of a blue and underlined word or two.

    (I don’t know if the class post quite rises to the level of concept handle, but the idea seems close enough to me.) I don’t know what the optimal approach is though, especially since people will often disagree on which posts are better than others.

    1. houseboatonstyx

      @ David Barry
      (I don’t know if the class post quite rises to the level of concept handle, but the idea seems close enough to me.)

      I didn’t take that post title as a concept-handle. It’s a phrase I often see thrown around as an insult, like, “Stay classy, Republicans” attached to some objectionable quote by some Republican. The post was nothing like that, so the title just struck me like some of his post titles with words like ‘link’ or ‘thread’.

      1. David Barry

        Yeah, I agree with all that. I just think that regularly linking to a post serves a similar function to a concept handle. Regular readers will see the link about class and go “Yep, I know the ideas that Scott is talking about here”. In a very similar way, he could mention toxoplasma or Moloch or whatever, and that would be an actual concept handle, but it would also just be getting the intended ideas into readers’ heads.

        I’m sure there’s a more subtle distinction as well, but I think it’s close enough.

  39. jeorgun

    FWIW, I really like the digressional-paragraphs-within-parentheses thing, to the point that I’ve consciously started doing it in my own writing. I’ve seen it used around here enough to make me think I’m not the only one.

    1. HeelBearCub

      Of note, footnotes that are paragraph length really annoy me. Heck footnotes rather than end notes annoy me. Basically, I’m going to read the footnote, so you have made that process more rather than less disruptive.

      1. Vox Imperatoris

        I can’t stand end notes, if they’re anything else other than purely citations of sources.

        I want to read the book, dammit; I don’t want to have one thumb on the regular page and another finger holding my place in the end notes.

        You’re right that I’d prefer all text to be in the body of the work itself, but if not I’d much, much prefer it to be a footnote. If I want to skim, I can skip it, but if I want to read them it’s not a pain in the ass.

        Worst practice of all: having end notes where 90% of them are citations but 10% are substantive comments. Without any way to tell the difference except by looking up each one.

        1. HeelBearCub

          “I can’t stand end notes, if they’re anything else other than purely citations of sources.”

          Yes, this was actually the point I was trying to get at. Avoid footnotes, use end notes for citations. If a citation is important enough to to be put into the page, then work it directly into the text as well as end note it.

          I’m sure this is different for works written by scholars for scholars though. I’m speaking strictly at works aimed at the layperson.

          1. Vox Imperatoris

            I think footnote citations are better in works by scholars for scholars. (In my experience, at least.)

            End notes are good for citations in popular works because no one is going to read them. So you can put them in the back of the book where they don’t get in the way.

            On the other hand, if you’re reading carefully and saying “I wonder where he got this from” or “Interesting; where can I research more on this?”, it’s better to have it in a more convenient place.

            Personally, I don’t find footnotes distracting, even when they take up half the page. Especially not when they’re just citations. If you want to skip them, you just skip them.

            Edit: and thinking about it more, I think substantive comments in footnotes are reasonable in certain situations.

            For instance (to use Scott’s example), suppose you are writing a paper giving three arguments against augury. But if there is another argument you think is weaker or simply well-trodden, you can put in a footnote: “There is a fourth argument against augury, namely X. For more, see Crassus and Lepidus, 2007.”

        2. brad

          Worst practice of all: having end notes where 90% of them are citations but 10% are substantive comments. Without any way to tell the difference except by looking up each one.

          That’s how it works with law review articles, but in footnotes rather than end notes. It’s incredibly annoying because everytime you see the little number you don’t know whether there’s going to be an elaboration or just a long string cite. So you break concentration and look down at the bottom of the page. If they were end notes, you’d be less tempted to do that.

          1. Vox Imperatoris

            But, no, I like that much better.

            Given that they are going to include substantive comments in the notes, I would much, much rather they include them in footnotes. Because I’m going to check anyway. If it’s not worth my turning to the end to read the notes, don’t write them.

            Yes, putting too many elaborations in footnotes is bad. But moving those footnotes to a far less convenient place is the opposite of an improvement.

          2. HeelBearCub

            Although, putting them in the endnotes is a pretty serious signal that they aren’t important. And this is what bothers me about footnotes, it’s essentially the author being lazy. They can’t be bother d to make the point readable, but they can’t convince themselves to remove the point.

            To some extent, I wonder whether it would be better to have things like that as “end of section digressions”. If you really don’t care, skip the whole section. If the author doesn’t care enough to make them readable as in-line paragraphs, they shouldn’t put the digressions in.

          3. brad

            I’d rather they put the CYA citations in the endnotes and the substantive asides in the footnotes. They can’t eliminate the CYA citations because the standards of the field require them. The student editors enforce those standards zealously because they can’t actually give substantive feedback. (Law doesn’t have peer review, students edit almost all the journals.)

          4. Nancy Lebovitz

            I appreciate it when a book has page number references (sometimes at the top of the page) for pages of footnotes rather than just having chapter references. It’s also good to put footnotes at the end of chapters rather than clumping them all at the end of the book. I agree that substantive footnotes should be separated from citations.

            I wish Paul Graham essays would have links on footnotes that go back to the text rather than just having links in the text that go to the footnotes.

        3. Yrro

          The best is websites that put “footnotes” in the sidebar directly next to the article instead of at the end.

        4. Tracy W

          I also adore footnotes, at least footnotes that aren’t just citations in their own right. Sadly they are out of fashion at the moment but many writers have used them masterfully, like Terry Pratchett.

          1. David Friedman

            I like the footnotes in the Flashman books:

            “Extraordinary as this incident seems, it is also reported by … and … ”

            Translation: This is real history.

            “For this incident, Flashman is our only source.”

            Translation … .

          2. HeelBearCub

            Pratchett is playing against the expectations of footnotes, for humorous effect. His whole writing style is a series of asides, so there isn’t anything to distract from. Pratchett isn’t a useful model for footnotes in non-fiction.

          3. brad

            ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ is what you get when you take the footnote aside technique to its breaking point. To mixed effect if I remember correctly.

          4. Psmith


            Oh hell yes.

            Also, an entire thread about recreational footnotes and nobody’s mentioned David Foster Wallace? Even his footnotes had footnotes!

          5. Creutzer

            When it comes to footnotes as a tool of literary writing, then Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman” shouldn’t go unnoticed. He uses a series of footnotes that read like footnotes in academic philosophy to basically tell a mini-sideplot throughout the whole book.

          6. John Schilling

            @David Friedman:

            On my last trip to Beijing, I took Flashman and the Dragon as light reading on the grounds that the footnotes and digressions would be at least as informative as the history section of my guidebooks.

          7. Tracy W

            @HeelBearClub: I like footnotes in non-fiction too but am pulling blanks on author’s names right now. I think I read quite a few when I was reading a rash of non-fiction from the 50s and 60s.

          8. HeelBearCub

            @Tracy W
            Simon Winchester or David McCollough, perhaps?

            Really, any book on history is likely to contain footnotes. I just find them all very interesting and don’t want to skip them, which means I would rather have them inline. If the author is good enough to hold my attention, I will want to read everything they thought relevant. If not, I will have put down the book already.

            To be honest it’s probably down to some combination of personal preference and use-case.

        5. Nornagest

          Endnotes for citation are okay when I only want to track down a couple of cites, but if I’m going to be doing it more than every chapter or so, I’d rather have those in footnotes too.

    2. 1212

      If this gets a concept handle it should definitely have one that’s also really long and stream-of-conciouscness. (whether that’s the main one or an extra) Something like this but way better:

      “The Double-down-fuck-you-infinite-jest-deal-with-it-style.”

      With longer and longer versions, that branch out like cascading provisos and asides (exactly like in fact) (or rather, it’s the other way around.) Perhaps infinite provisos.. well not actually infinite, whatever infinite means, -that could be one such first level branch, appearing between “jest” and “deal”

      Maybe one of the things I like about this style is that it preserves the natural “correct as you go” style, that thought tends to have, so that one can follow the writer’s train of thought more closely or it just seems more natural or something.

      Another thing might just be the fun of deciphering it, or the fun I know the author had in writing it.

      I really really really like such tendencies.
      really really really really

  40. onyomi

    The short paragraphs thing is huge, and something I’ve moved continually towards as time goes on and which I struggle continually to get my students to do. I think it helps your thinking, too, because it makes you disentangle ideas.

    I wish the microhumour thing were allowed in academic articles and books, both so I could write it and read it, but sadly it isn’t–at least not for people of my low level of seniority.

    Clarity and readability are at least somewhat valued in academic writing, and I think it is becoming more so over time, but this has historically been in disastrous conflict with the need to signal smartness, which is best done by actually being smart and having good ideas. But barring that, writing like Hegel seems to be the 2nd-most effective strategy, sadly.

    1. David Friedman

      “I wish the microhumour thing were allowed in academic articles and books”

      One of the subsections of my law and econ book is entitled “The Proper Application of High Explosives to Legal Theory.” Another is “A Very Large Pie with All of Us in It.” Another “Alternatives to Marshall, or Rugs to Sweep the Dust under.”

      I think they all qualify, and I could give other examples.

      1. Meredith L. Patterson

        Computer science definitely gets a lot of wacky paper titles. “Functional Programming with Bananas, Lenses, Envelopes and Barbed Wire” is a classic, as are Lamport’s “How to Tell a Program from an Automobile”, Whitten and Tygar’s “Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt”, and Stajano and Anderson’s “The Cocaine Auction Protocol”.

        I’m still sad Len and Bart didn’t want to call this paper “The Byzantine Postman Always Rings Twice.”

    2. Creutzer

      One would expect this to vary by field. Microhumor is definitely allowed in linguistics. My vague impression is that it’s also allowed in computer science.

      1. The House Carpenter

        One thing to note is that microhumour and formality aren’t necessarily incompatible; a piece of writing can include microhumour even if it’s written in a very formal, academic style. My favourite example of this in linguistics is this paper on the Austric macro-family.

    3. Skef

      How is the humor policed at the submission point? Is the thought that an essay with some microhumor would just be rejected? Would you get an R&R that specifically mentions the need to remove any microhumor? Or are you worried people would have a bad impression after publication?

      And would you mind sharing what your field is? It seems like there are a number of fields where some microhumor would just slip below the review radar.

      1. onyomi

        Literature. We take ourselves too seriously.

        As for how it’s policed: it’s not that your article or book would be immediately rejected if it contained microhumor, but that it could easily be taken as a strike against you in your quest to qualify as a Serious Thinker, and there is also a good chance that even reviewers who like and recommend the work for publication will suggest removal of the humor.

        If you are already known to be a Serious Thinker like David Friedman, you can cash in some of your serious points to have a little fun. And also, literature. We take ourselves too seriously. Maybe compensating for the “softness” of our discipline.

        1. frici8

          “Maybe compensating for the “softness” of our discipline.”

          Yes, that’s my first idea, too. CS people are often confident enough of the content of their writings to let the style be more informal.

          It’s also a culture thing, I think. Fashion, if you will. Scientific style used to be more convoluted, but now the style is to be lighthearted and humorous. For example some years ago having fancy words in the title of your thesis was a sign of intellect, nowadays the best theses and papers have common, non-pretentious words in their title. But then it gets boring, too, when too many people use this friendly tone and then people move on to some new style.

          A related example is how this lean, youngish, hip startup with a colorful website and jingly background music in their ads is getting a bit too used and now some people deliberately distance themselves from this and try to look more old-fashioned and serious.

          Maybe literature is just lagging behind. When most of science becomes clear writing (the best are already so), the science envy will kick in (“we’re serious academics, just like the scientists”) and it may become fashionable to write about literature in a clearer way. It stands to see how much still remains after it’s condensed to what it is actually about. Not that you can’t ramble around in clear language, but that makes the reader go “okay but what do you actually want to say?”, while the pretentious text makes him go “I’m not smart enough to get this”

          1. Kaj Sotala

            Scientific style used to be more convoluted, but now the style is to be lighthearted and humorous.

            Seems to go back and forth – papers from the beginning of the 1900s seem to use relatively “chatty” language. E.g. the beginning of the paper where Alan Turing described the Turing Test:

            I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?” This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms “machine” and “think.” The definitions might be framed so as to reflect so far as possible the normal use of the words, but this attitude is dangerous, If the meaning of the words “machine” and “think” are to be found by examining how they are commonly used it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the meaning and the answer to the question, “Can machines think?” is to be sought in a statistical survey such as a Gallup poll. But this is absurd.

      2. David Friedman

        “How is the humor policed at the submission point?”

        When I submitted my price theory manuscript, at least one referee commented negatively on the fact that it had jokes in it. But I got offers from two publishers. And that was my first academic book, so I didn’t have a reputation to persuade them to overlook the humor.

        My editor on that book was the source for one of my small collection of economics jokes.

        1. onyomi

          “at least one referee commented negatively on the fact that it had jokes in it.”

          This seems to support my notion that including humor is marginally harmful to one’s chances of getting published. Unless you think there’s any chance the other offers might not have happened without the humor.

          I also wouldn’t count jokes that serve to illustrate a point as “microhumor.” If you have a funny anecdote that also illustrates some important economic principle then I think reviewers are more likely to see that as a positive addition to say, an economics textbook than a witty, self-deprecating aside.

    4. Deiseach

      How much of “sounding like Hegel” was down to “writing in German which is more tolerant of a lot of things that sound dreadful when translated into English”? (I had to give up learning German as I couldn’t stand the sound of the language, so bear that prejudice in mind).

      1. null

        Unclear. I have read parts of an English translation of Philosophical Investigations that is not in this style, but that probably depends more on the translator and also the fact that Philosophical Investigations probably has a much different style in the first place. But this is one data point against the hypothesis.

      2. Vox Imperatoris

        The problem with Hegel’s writing (in that selection and in general) was not just stylistic things like long sentences and jargon.

        The real problem is that it’s so abstract you can’t really figure out what the hell he’s really trying to say.

        Edit: for instance, The Communist Manifesto is also written in German, but it is much more readable. As Marx’s works in general are fairly readable (much more so compared to Hegel).

      3. onyomi

        It would be funny if an entire school of literary and cultural critique boils down to trying to imitate the sound of overly literal translations of German.

        1. Vox Imperatoris

          They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.

          As I said above, there are other problems with writing like Hegel besides what gets “lost in translation”, but I don’t think you’re entirely off-base here. If you read a lot of Hegel or Marx, you start wanting to write like them (as translated). If you read a lot of Yudkowsky, you start wanting to write like him. And if you read a lot of scholastic theologians, you start wanting to write like them, too.

          You absorb their methods of referring to things and ways of trying to get a point across, on a conscious or unconscious level.

        2. Nornagest

          English-language anime fanfic is arguably an entire literary genre that boils down to trying to imitate the sound of overly literal translations of Japanese.

      4. TheAncientGeek

        AIUI ‘ the German Professor style evolved from people imitating Kant, for all that he decried his own style.

        1. Douglas Knight

          Decried? Are you thinking of this passage?

          Few writers are gifted with the subtlety, and at the same time with the grace, of David Hume, or with the depth, as well as the elegance, of Moses Mendelssohn. Yet I flatter myself I might have made my own exposition popular, had my object been merely to sketch out a plan and leave its completion to others instead of having my heart in the welfare of the science, to which I had devoted myself so long; in truth, it required no little constancy, and even self-denial, to postpone the sweets of an immediate success to the prospect of a slower, but more lasting, reputation. — Introduction to Prolegomena

          He is aware that he is not stylish, but he claims that it is intentional and a good thing. These claims are not very convincing, but they are the opposite of decrying.

          Where else did he talk about his style?

      5. Nornagest

        When I try to speak German, it sounds like I’m trying to gargle a live rat. When my native-speaker friends speak German, it’s a beautiful language.

        I don’t know how this works.

    5. FullMeta_Rationalist

      Re: disentangling ideas

      English teachers say that every essay should have a thesis. I have a personal rule that goes further: each paragraph should have a “mini-thesis”. It doesn’t always have to actually exist on paper, but it should at least be implied.

      As a test during editing: In the side margins, annotate each paragraph with its mini-thesis. If I can’t construct a concise mini-thesis for each paragraph, it signals that I’ve written a “run-on paragraph”. I.e. a single paragraph which deserves to be split into two or more paragraphs.

      As a second test: concatenate together all the mini-theses (and the thesis itself) into a single paragraph. Does it serve as a logically-organized summary of the larger essay? If not, this signals that the audience won’t find my argument very cogent.

      (This is something I wish were second nature. Alas, there is no royal road to rhetoric.)

  41. I don't have a cool name

    If only Hofstadter would’ve taken such advice. GEB started out somewhat interesting (The mysterious connection between Godel, Escher, and Bach) and then slowly got into talking about talking.

    1. AnonymousCoward

      I got bored with GEB and stopped reading it about three quarters through. It just sorta seemed to peter out into stuff I didn’t find as interesting.

      Earlier in the book some character mentions how you can always see the end of a book coming, because you can see approximately how many pages are left, and that this limits the freedom of the author to surprise you. You always know things will wrap up soon if there aren’t many pages left. The character proposes the idea of a book just continuing after the story ends, with the characters just going about their daily lives and the reader having to infer that the story has ended. This is better than blank pages, because otherwise you can tell with a glance still whether the story has ended.

      In the spirit of the self referential nature of the rest of the book, I wondered GEB had pulled this exact trick after finishing explaining Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. I’m guessing it didn’t though, and I just got bored.

    1. jaimeastorga2000

      Do you mean his papers or his blog? Because I like the style of his papers, but dislike the style of his blog.

        1. Sonata Green

          Hyperabbreviated style, like for Twitter. Fit your point into as few tweets as possible, but as many as necessary to fit. Concatenate into a single post, insert paragraph breaks as appropriate, publish on a blog.

        2. Noumenon72

          Unfortunately the hyperabbreviation means you have to say “folks” instead of “people” all the time, which drives me nuts.

  42. Galle

    “Microhumor” is a much better name for something I’ve always thought of with the rather clunky “lightness of writing”, so thank you for that.

    Personally, I learned that art from the late Terry Pratchett, who was an absolute master of it, especially as applied to footnotes.

    1. roystgnr

      The Discworld books seem to do with humor the same thing that HPMOR did with plot: pile layer upon layer, but somehow in such a way that you feel rewarded for each layer you pick up on, you don’t feel confused for each layer you miss. I’d like to know exactly what the trick to *that* is, since the failure mode is nasty; “humor” that gets annoying and “plots” that feel like nonsense.

      1. Nornagest

        I think the key is to write on two levels — plot or argument on one, jokes on another. When you need to get the joke to follow the writing, suddenly it becomes work, and much less funny.

        Take all the jokes out of Terry Pratchett and you have pretty strong fantasy. Take all the jokes out of Piers Anthony and you have a series of random events.

    2. Jacobian

      I love the term “microhumor”!

      I try to cram as much microhumor as Putanumonit will bear, but I’m always worried that people will not be able to tell if I am serious or joking because I always err on the side of frivolity. How many people will read the second paragraph here and assume that I genuinely believe that game theory is useless?

      Any advice on making sure people see where the jokes are even if the don’t get them? Is there such a thing as too many humors?

      1. Nita

        How many people will read the second paragraph here and assume that I genuinely believe that game theory is useless?

        I’d prefer a bit more variation, both in the humor density and the prose itself. I didn’t get the impression that you hate game theory, but wading through cleverness to get to the point did require some effort. (To put this in context, I also get that “too many humors” feeling when reading Scott’s stuff, occasionally.)

        What do you think of this version?

        “Game theory” is a ridiculous attempt to model complex human interactions as simplistic “games” played by rational actors. Its few successes concern straightforward problems, such as nuclear disarmament and counter-terrorism. But texting after a date? Only a maniac would apply game theory to such a genuinely complex conundrum.

        (I had to sacrifice some details about the nature of game theory.)

        1. Jacobian

          Thanks! I think a general rule of thumb that may be useful for me is “tell a joke once, and quickly”. To your example, having a long paragraph that basically just walks around a single joke is more tedious than entertaining.

      2. David Friedman

        “Any advice on making sure people see where the jokes are”

        The only reliable method I have found is to only tell them to my family and, perhaps, selected friends.

  43. estelendur

    I just realized that my favorite fiction writers who do low-effort prose* are exactly the ones who use microhumor liberally. (A possibly non-exhaustive list: Lois McMaster Bujold, Ursula Vernon/T Kingfisher, Seanan McGuire, Steven Brust, Terry Pratchett.) Thank you for that helpful term, which crystallized something I had known but had difficulty articulating!

    *My favorite fiction writer who does high-effort prose is Gene Wolfe

    1. Bassicallyboss

      I’d be interested to hear what it is you like about Gene Wolfe. I’ve read The Book of the New Sun and The Knight; I enjoyed both, but especially the former.

      But I find that reading his novels feels like being in a dream. The kind where things happen and some of them are very strange, by real-world standards, but because it’s a dream you sort of go along without questioning it or thinking about it too hard. And it makes a large impression on me when I wake up/stop reading, but I’m not always sure why. I suspect it has something to do with him not varying his (tone? style? sentence structure?) even when things take an unexpected turn or become suddenly violent, but I really couldn’t say for sure. I’ve never read anything quite like it.

      1. Albino Gorilla

        I’ve had this same impression reading his stuff. I honestly couldn’t tell you what The Book of the New Sun was really even about except in a superficial, cover-sleeve-description way, and that’s despite reading it twice. The words are just… slippery somehow. Slippery but compelling, and so you plow through a 1000 page book and you’re not really sure why, or what you learned, kind of like forgetting a dream upon waking.

        The Malazan Books had a similar effect for me.

        1. Nornagest

          I’m a huge fan of Gene Wolfe, but the Malazan books (well, book — I only got through the first one) just bored me. They’re similarly opaque, if less erudite, but I never got the impression that there was any depth hiding beneath the murk.

          1. Chevalier Mal Fet

            I”d recommend reading at least Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice. Those two are where the series really took off for me (especially the 2nd half of Deadhouse Gates). If you can’t stomach those, well, then it never gets better and Malazan’s definitely not your cup of tea.

            But don’t give up just because of Gardens of the Moon. Most folk I know agree it is a weaker entry in the series.

      2. estelendur

        You know, I’ve never actually figured out why I like his writing. The closest I’ve come to explaining why I like Book of the New Sun is to say that I love slow-reveal, almost background, worldbuilding. But I got that love from reading Book of the New Sun. So I have no idea.

        “Dreamlike” is a concept worth rolling around in my mind to see if it sticks.

    2. Jeff H

      With Vernon and Pratchett, at least, a lot of the humour isn’t so micro, even in what seem to be intended to be random throwaway lines.

      1. estelendur

        This is true. But it’s still sprinkled throughout in steady doses, and it might be brazen, but it’s rarely wholly gratuitous.

  44. sohi

    As an aspiring internet writer myself, thank you for these tips. I just want to say that I always do a quick scroll through of your posts and get increasingly happy the more sections I see, as that means I have more of your writing to read.

  45. Doran

    This is gold. Thanks for posting this.

    I tend to do a lot of free association and stream of consciousness when writing. This leads my writing to become very fragmented.

    Anyways, a solution I found to the “I really wanted to bring this up here, but remember it’s not actually part of the structure of this argument!” problem is the (very liberal) use of footnotes – a solution you actually mention in the context of counterargument rebuttal.

    On the internet there’s not a lot of use for reference footnotes since we can always link to stuff, freeing them up for expanding on the subject or actually making tangentially related, but important points. Using footnotes keeps the writing pithy and still allows you to sneak extra information that might help the reader take important insights from your writing.

  46. Jeffrey Soreff

    I generally agree with the whole article. Lot of very sound advice.
    One cautionary note about “Use strong concept handles”:
    This leans very close to coining new terms, and that can cause problems.

    Dr. K. Eric Drexler coined quite a few of them while arguing for the feasibility
    of atomically precise fabrication (aka nanotechnology):
    “exoergic”, “eutactic”, “machine phase”,
    and I think that contributed to his difficulties.

    If a newly coined term spreads widely, great! Yes it will an aid to clarity of discussion.
    If it spreads throughout one group, but not widely, then it becomes an in-group marker.
    To the extent that it marks group boundaries, it then becomes yet another bone of contention.
    If it is only noticed and used within a very small group, then it becomes something like
    project-specific jargon – cryptic to anyone outside a very narrow group (even to the equivalent
    of adjacent departments), and can wind up impeding communications.

    1. frici8

      Also, do your research before coining new terms. Maybe someone already named that thing or if not exactly that then something very similar. Naming something is like claiming to have discovered it.

      For example, this “concept handle” thing has been discovered long ago, and linguists etc. know that having a name for something helps with recalling it. I’m not sure how they call this effect, but there might already be a name for this.

      Another potential problem with giving names to concepts is that the reader may confuse having learned some insight with just having learned a name.

        1. HeelBearCub

          Sorry, it was a joke, riffing on the last sentence. I purposely misused a concept handle.

          But if you have to explain your joke, you know what they say…

          1. HeelBearCub

            But the phrase “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup” is an SSC idea handle that you will see frequently referenced here.

          2. frici8

            I see. Sorry, I’m not a regular enough to get that reference.

            It’s also a sign that people here assume they all get all the references and assume that everyone is very invested in this “movement” or whatever it is. It’s not necessarily bad, subcultures work this way.

      1. Avery

        “Naming something is like claiming to have discovered it.”

        He did discover it. He might not be the first, but inside the cultural framework in which he reasons, he discovered it. Further, someone who’s been credentialed as a medical doctor (as Scott has) has been exposed to many sophisticated ideas, and somehow he found it necessary to coin “concept handle”. Isn’t that remarkable?

        I’m curious about what the established concept handle for “concept handle” is- you conspicuously didn’t mention it in your comment, immediately after admonishing Scott for not looking things up. If there isn’t a concept handle for it, “concept handle” will do nicely (as this comment demonstrates).

        1. Nornagest

          I’m curious about what the established concept handle for “concept handle” is

          How about “phrase”?

      2. Tracy W

        I don’t see having the same thing with different names as a particular issue. English copes fine with multiple words for the same thing. For example, the same person can easily have different names, eg: Jane, Dr Smith, Aunty JT, Mummy, LadyKillALot.

    2. Tracy W

      But language and ideas that are common to only one group is very common. For example if you are dealing with non-native English speakers you can’t rely on them knowing something of Shakespeare (educated native English speakers typically know of Romeo and Juliet and the balcony scene).

      A good writer therefore adjusts to their audience accordingly. Including introducing jargon by explaining it.

  47. David Friedman

    Generally good advice.

    One thing that I think you do but don’t mention is to signal the reader that there is actually a human being on the other side of the page. That can be as simple as a casual reference to a book you are fond of and your reader is likely to recognize, or to something in your life that is relevant.

    I wonder if, in the case of section 7, describing the trick might make it stop working. If a conservative reader knows that your approach to getting conservatives to consider ideas conservatives usually don’t like is to start out sounding like a conservative, will he recognize the tactic and respond with “there’s Scott trying to put one over on us again”?

    1. Frog Do

      You see this discussed in pickup artist circles a lot, the concept of framing, though of course it has wide application outside of that particular area. There’s a lot of discussion on dealing with frame control, what happens when you lose it, how to reassert it, all that. The consensus I’ve seen is that it basically always works, unless the other person goes FULL SYSTEM 2, in which case hopefully you can interact without the necessary emotional content. Think about it, if someone is trying to honestly engage you through appeasement, it is charming, isn’t it? Even if it sounds terrible when you say it like that.

    2. Navin Kumar

      I doubt it will stop working – it requires an understanding of the out-groups arguments, culture, etc to make the signal, which is hard to fake.

    1. Steve Sailer

      Yes, it’s very good. As a cognitive scientist (as well as a great writer), Pinker is very aware that much of the art of writing is to reduce needless cognitive demands on the reader.

      By the way, I’d really like to see Dave Barry publish a how-to guide to writing someday. Pinker is just one writer influenced by Barry’s prose style. That Dave is a self-conscious master stylist is more apparent to other professional writers than it is to most of his audience.

    2. Ivan Ivanoff

      I’ll third this recommendation. I loved the book because it went beyond advice; it was also about why good writing works, cognitively speaking, and why bad writing doesn’t.

    3. Tracy W

      Fourth. It also has an explanation of English grammar which is very different to what I learnt in school, and also makes sense for English.

      My copy of The Sense of Style is in storage, but from memory Pinker’s grammar terminology separated what words are from what the words are doing in a particular sentence. Very logical.

      1. Nita

        Pinker’s grammar terminology separated what words are from what the words are doing in a particular sentence

        You mean, English-speaking kids don’t do exercises like this at school?

        (The underlines indicate roles in the sentence, the little notes above each word indicate parts of speech — verb, adjective etc.)

        Edit: Here’s a German example — roles in the middle, parts of speech on the outside.

        1. Tracy W

          English-speaking kids covers multiple countries and multiple decades. I did not do any exercises like that in school in NZ in the 1980s or 90s.

          FWIW when I went through school the philosophy was not to teach grammar at all, so I only got the about four teachers who taught it anyway. Most of what I know about English grammar came from learning Latin. I understand the fashion changed towards the end of my schooling.

          1. Nita

            Thanks, Vox! Those diagrams are almost like modern art.

            But the terms seem to be a mixture of proper sentence roles (subject, object, predicate, appositive) and words usually used for parts of speech (adjective, adverb). Doesn’t that get confusing?

          2. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Nita:

            Sentence diagramming is more about trying to understand the structure of the sentence. I don’t think it’s confusing in that context. The labels just show how you diagram a sentence exhibiting each type of case.

            But like I said, I had plenty of exercises as a child where I had to label each word in a sentence as a noun, adjective, verb, etc. And other ones where you label the subject, the predicate, the direct object, the indirect object, etc.

          3. Vox Imperatoris

            @ Larry Kestenbaum:

            Yes, I think to some extent it’s gone out of fashion because of how hard it is to learn vs. how much it actually teaches you about grammar.

            I was taught it, but only with relatively simple sentences.

  48. DonBoy

    The form in “may or may not doom us all” is responsible for one of my favorite jokes-that-only-I-find-funny, in Back to the Future II. Paraphrased but not much: Doc Brown explains that if Marty meets the other version of himself back in 1955, it would cause a reaction that “could destroy the very fabric of time and space itself! — granted, that is a worst-case scenario”.

  49. Anonymous`

    Oh, this is bad. This is legit Dark Arts heresy. Sure, it’s a defection-in-response-to-defection (other people only become convinced of things in horrible ways, so use horrible ways to convince them), but we’re supposed to try to be better than that.

    1. jeorgun

      Only section 7 could really be described as Dark Arts, and even that’s questionable. Another way of saying “use the readers’ ingroup’s signals” is “don’t use the readers’ outgroups’ signals”, i.e. don’t inadvertently make them think you’re being hostile to them even when you’re not. Lulling someone into a false sense of security is bad, but lulling them into a true sense of security isn’t— in fact, it’s pretty much the entire point of having signaling in the first place.

      1. Avery

        Using a shibboleth correctly is a signal that you understand the ideas behind it- you have paid the cost of understanding the interpretive framework of your reader.

        Just because you disagree with (and may seek to persuade) a potential reader doesn’t mean you should act like you don’t understand their ideas enough to use those ideas properly. Well executed shibboleths are like beauty- costly and incontrovertible.

        *Essay 1 in battling the insufferable “Dark Arts” meme*

        1. hlynkacg

          Avery says: Using a shibboleth correctly is a signal that you understand the ideas behind it- you have paid the cost of understanding the interpretive framework of your reader.

          Excellent point!

          Kind of like “the Motte and Bailey” this is one of those ideas that had been hovering on the edge of consciousness, but that I had not quite been able to articulate until someone else provided suitable framing.

          Thank you

          1. David Friedman

            Scott wrote:

            “Trump’s Law is that if you want to convince people notorious for being unconvinceable, half the battle is using the right tribal signals to sound like you’re one of them.”

            Not “to sound like you are an outsider who has gone to the trouble of understanding their ideas.”

            It’s true that he says pulling it off requires enough sympathy with their views to understand them, but that isn’t the message being conveyed to them.

            Whether or not it classifies as a dark art, I think what he is describing is at least mildly dishonest. He isn’t lying to the readers he wants to convince, but he is trying to convey a false message without lying.

          2. edsq

            “Trump’s Law is that if you want to convince people notorious for being unconvinceable, half the battle is using the right tribal signals to sound like you’re one of them.”

            You cite this as though it is an advocation for dishonesty. With the understanding that ideology does not necessarily split evenly between groups, it is absolutely possible to honestly use signals not usually associated with the position you’re arguing.

            If it’s the “sound like you’re one of them” bit that bothers you, well – isn’t it on the reader to avoid making broad assumptions about the author?

          3. HeelBearCub

            It’s the intent to deceive the reader that is at issue. Only when a reader self-deceives is it on them.

          4. edsq


            I’m not sure I fully understand this line of argument. Why is the use of tribal signals (that the author honestly believes, used to preempt outright dismissal based on tribal affiliation) an intentionally deceptive tactic?

          5. HeelBearCub

            “to sound like you’re one of them” strongly implies that you (the writer) are not actually “one of them”, and further that you want to be taken to be “one of them”.

            That’s deception.

          6. edsq


            I don’t think Scott worded that bit particularly well, and I understand your perspective on it.

            It’s fair to say that the writer is certainly not “one of them.” That’s the whole point. However, I think you’re jumping a step too far in assuming using a tribal signal means “you want to be taken to be ‘one of them’.”

            As Avery (above) eloquently put it, a signal indicates “you have paid the cost of understanding the interpretive framework of your reader,” and nothing else. True, some may make a false assumption about the author because of it, but if splitting ideology into tribal groups is so important to the unfortunate reader then they should be quickly disabused of that idea as they read on.

            Authors should not be forced to write within the insidious confines of tribal signaling. If using a phrasing or conceding an idea outside the expected background of an argument is deception, then we’ve lost all hope of rationality. How would you have an author find middle ground without (what you view as) deception?

            (I just found a better way to encapsulate everything I already wrote)

            Why is it so important that the author avoid associating with a tribe to which they “don’t belong,” so to speak? Why should this be a consideration at all?

          7. David Friedman

            “Why is it so important that the author avoid associating with a tribe to which they “don’t belong,” so to speak?”

            It isn’t. It’s important that the author not deliberately deceive people, which he does if he deliberately signals “I am one of you” when he knows he isn’t.

          8. Deiseach

            If you’re doing it to signal “I’m one of you guys, not one of those filthy no-goods over there”, then it’s deception. If you’re doing it to get people to listen to you, to show that yes, I realise the objection or I know how you see it, then it’s not so much deception.

            I think if you’re deliberately misrepresenting your views, or letting people think you’re One Of Us if they take you to be One Of Us, then it gets into deliberate deception.

            Really, Scott’s advice is “Don’t start off with ‘You are all dumb and I’m going to tell you why you’re dumb’ or ‘I know you knuckle-draggers believe silly things like the earth is flat but here is the truth: it’s round!'” because all too often I’ve seen people with good intentions start out with “I realise you lot believe X but – ” when X is not alone wrong, it’s not even in the picture at all. If you start off with “I know Y, but consider maybe Z”, you’ll get a lot further in holding people’s attention.

          9. Devilbunny

            I’m not exactly certain whose comment(s) this is meant to address, but this comment thread seems like the right spot for this.

            I’m from the South. My wife is from Texas. (Yes, they’re different.) We took a trip to San Francisco a few years ago and had an absolutely lovely time, aside from the horrific infestation of flies on Alcatraz. Her parents had gone perhaps a year or two earlier and had a much more negative view of the place. We blew it off; one bad experience, after all, can spoil a vacation.

            Then we went there with them.

            Now, her parents are Texans. They’re not cowboy-boots-and-Stetsons Texans, but they’re not… shy. Or restrained.

            And I watched them get treated horribly. Over, and over, and over again. The only places that treated them well were the high-end stores that had enough sense to distinguish “follows local cultural norms” from “has money to spend”, and cared more about the latter. After the first day, I sort of gently suggested they just let me take the lead.

            I’m definitely not Blue Tribe. But I can pull it off if I need to.

            So learning to give off a few counter-tribal signals isn’t necessarily a deception. It’s sometimes just about giving someone a reason not to treat you like the dirt on their shoes. Maybe we’re not ever going to be best friends. Maybe we will never ally on anything other than the one or two political interests we have in common, and then only by filing amicus curiae briefs on the same side, without being directly affiliated.

            But the behavior I saw toward them in SF was so extraordinarily and thoroughly rude that it shocked me. I have never experienced anything like that. I hope never to see it again. But it’s only because I can send out counter-tribal signals that I got taken seriously. And we did have a lovely time in Napa. Free glass of wine at Opus when you commit to buying a case up front…

          10. Protagoras

            I was treated extraordinarily rudely when I visited Georgia. It’s not just blue states which can be intolerant of outsiders.

          11. Anonymous

            And I watched them get treated horribly. Over, and over, and over again.

            Can you give some examples? I guess you expect the reader to infer what sort of treatment you are talking about here but I don’t know what it is. Probably this means I would unconsciously treat some people horribly, so I hope you can say what kind of treatment you’re referring to so I can avoid doing it.

          12. Gunnar Zarncke

            I think using tribal signals is only deception if it isn’t made clear that this this approach is used. Whether Trump makes this transparent may be questionable but Scott says he does.

          13. Devilbunny

            Protagoras, I would wholeheartedly agree. Didn’t mean it as a blue=bad, red=good. Here in the South I’ve noticed on more than a few occasions someone checking out my car tag before deciding how to greet me.

            Anonymous, if you made any attempt whatsoever not to be actively rude, you would not do the things I’m talking about. Here’s what I’m not talking about: hand an empty bottled water obtained gratis in a store to a clerk behind the counter and ask them to put it in recycling, instead they point to a bin right next to them and say “it goes here”. That’s poor customer service, but it’s not what I’m talking about.

            Here’s a sample: Holding a door for a large number of people (i.e., not just those you are with) and then pointedly dropping it. Staring and pointing at someone and openly gossiping. Pointedly looking someone up and down and then sneering. Incredibly bad restaurant service (got up and went to the bar twice to get refills on water, for example) when the two other tables that have the same server never want for anything.

            All for a little Texas accent, calling people “podnuh”, and dressing a little flamboyantly. He’s not an ass, or an idiot. But he wasn’t their tribe, and they were going to make a point of it.

        2. JuanPeron

          This is an excellent observation, especially the point about costly signalling. Using shibboleths well means that you have some amount of connection to the current ingroup, and are willing to distance yourself from the current outgroup.

          Even in the Trump example where you goal is to “sound like you’re one of them”, this isn’t about lying. Trump has alienated liberals across the board as part of getting conservatives to listen to him. He’s able to push some liberal ideas on the strength of the implication “I can’t ally with the left against you, because they’d like to see me dead.” Hence, he’s given a pass on the RINO accusation, because he’s burned his bridges and can’t possibly talk like a moderate.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      It’s dark arts to use short paragraphs to make things more readable? To put images to break up walls of text? To use paragraph transitions? To not repeat the starting words of sentences?

      I agree with Jeorgun – the only thing in here that even flirts with that is Section 7, and even in that case I end up strongly disagreeing with the characterization. The goal there is to defuse people’s emotional sense of ingroup/outgroup so they’ll read your argument.

      When I use trigger warnings on posts that are trying to appeal to the left, I’m not lying or being deceptive – I’m genuinely in favor of trigger warnings. I want the left to know that to know that, so they don’t mistake me for The Guy Who Is 100% A Stereotypical Rightist In Every Way, because they’ve already decided not to read or trust that guy. I am conveying a truthful fact (that I’m not the 100% stereotypical rightist) to a population that will read further if they know it.

      1. Leif K-Brooks

        #6 sounded very mildly dark artsy to me, especially this sentence: “This is true regardless of how effective your countercounterarguments are.” But #6 seems to also be good advice for non-dark reasons, and you just happened to note that it also has a dark application. It’s clear you’re not advising people to use it that way.

      2. Evan Þ

        On the one hand, you could say all rhetorical training is Dark Arts; a truly Light writer will write as boringly as Hegel and expect his readers to slog through it.

        On the other hand, most of our readers live in the real world. And if we don’t recognize that, why are we writing anyway?

        1. Watercressed

          The light side does not forswear all rhetorical techniques, but tries to use and discover techniques that only work if you are right.

          1. Evan Þ

            I’m not convinced that you can really write an engaging piece while only using those techniques. A lot of argument-neutral techniques really are at the root of what everyone (except Hegel et al) considers good prose.

          2. Daniel Armak

            We live in a less convenient universe, where almost all rhetorical techniques work regardless of whether you are right or wrong. We should not therefore abjure rhetorics.

          3. rossry

            Mark Atwood:

            That is about as realistic as designing a language where only true statements are grammatically correct.

            Recall Scott’s dream of Kadhamic, the formal language of Raikoth:

            Starting with an outlook akin to logical positivism, they invented a language whose grammar was identical to philosophical rigor and in which every concept had to be expressed precisely. Cheap shots, ad hominem attacks, rhetorical tricks, appeals to emotion – all were painstakingly prohibited by careful choice of vocabulary and syntax…

          4. JuanPeron

            Guy, I think you’re proving Mark Atwood’s point more than anything.

            I’ve had a long string of people tell me that in functional programming “code with an incorrect output won’t compile”. When pressed, they amend to “well, it can, but it’s harder to write the wrong thing than the right thing”. These are never people who’ve graded functional programming assignments, which are wrong in so many exotic and dazzling ways as to teach you whole new techniques for writing bad code.

            The belief that elegant programs (or arguments) are correct seems to do little more than talk people out of checking their results.

      3. Bugmaster

        FWIW, the impression I personally got from reading Section 7 was something like, “the best way to convince people is to make yourself seem as one of them, by pretending to hold certain key beliefs that you do not, in fact, hold”. While I agree that this strategy is effective, I am not convinced that its costs outweigh it benefits. I can only conclude that you have failed to employ my specific tribal signs when writing that section…

        1. Theo Jones

          I didn’t get that. In fact, I think he explicitly rejects that idea. My impression is that he thinks that 1) you should emphasize the beliefs that you hold in common with your audience without misrepresenting your beliefs, 2) you should go out of your way to demonstrate that you are arguing in good faith.

        2. Galle

          That’s definitely not what that section says. The point isn’t to misrepresent your beliefs. The point isn’t even to make yourself seem like part of the tribe. The point is to signal RESPECT.

          Most challenges to your tribal beliefs come in the form of standardized strawman arguments deployed regularly by members of rival tribes. These arguments are not merely bad, but are in fact so bad that nobody with the slightest understanding of your tribe’s beliefs could possibly have come up with them. As a result, you instinctively tune out anything rank-and-file rival tribespeople say.

          By using tribal shibboleths correctly, you can effectively say, “I may be an outsider, but I’m not one of those idiots you usually just tune out. I may challenge your tribal beliefs, but I do so as a person who has some idea what the fuck I’m talking about.” And this works precisely because if you DON’T know what the fuck you’re talking about, you won’t be able to use the tribal shibboleths correctly in the first place.

        3. Robert Liguori

          But Scott’s not pretending to hold beliefs. He’s just taking advantage of the cognitive flaw that people share around shibboleths in the first place, that. e.g., providing a TW tag means that you broadly agree with the standards and practices of the social justice set. Scott finds value in the tag anyway, so reason for him not to deploy it tactically.

          Scott does not go to “Mexico is sending us rapists route!” because he doesn’t hold that belief. But he does hold other beliefs that would look sympathetic to the people who find that a positive signal, so he can use those instead.

          The problem, I’d say, is that the efficacy of this technique is strongly dependent on people’s actual tribal associations. There are heresies you can’t say to (most) members of a given tribe; dressing them up in their tribal affiliation just makes you look like a well-groomed snake in a suit, instead of merely a snake.

          But the long and the short of it is that shibboleths are bad. Professed beliefs, appearances, and soundbyte comments tell you very little about someone’s character or goals; they are optimized for tribal warfare, and the sooner we can make people realize that this particular set of Tribal Warfare IFF has been irretrievably fucked by common public knowledge available to everyone, the better.

          1. Evan Þ

            Mexico is sending us rapists route!

            I do strongly believe that at least two rapists have come to the United States from Mexico, with the connivance of at least one other Mexican.

            I also do strongly believe that base rates are important.


          2. Mr Eyeballs

            Common public knowledge doesn’t happen straight away, though. Won’t we just see a treadmill effect where shibboleths make their way outwards from those most in the know, eventually becoming compromised and obsolete as they become familiar to the mainstream?

      4. Deiseach

        Immediate reaction to the above:

        (1) Re: the wall of text thing – yes, yes and yes! Also, please take into account the physical act of reading text on a computer screen – black text on a light background may be boring but it is much, much easier to read than coloured text on coloured background, especially light-coloured text on darker-coloured background. If you have a retina-searing blank white document on plain white background (Word 2013, I am looking askance at you) then do as this site does and have gradations of darker grey-lighter grey-white to give the eyes some relief. Font size large enough not to make the older ones amongst us squint or have to fumble for our reading glasses and don’t make our eyes bleed 🙂

        (2) Prose style – I am going to quote this, point at it, and jump up and down going “This! What I have been trying to say!”

        I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony

        Writing is not merely text before the eyes, it is the sound of the words in the inner ear. If you want to test how a piece of writing is working, try reading it aloud and see if it’s possible to sound like a human being while doing so, or if it requires you to be a robot with no need to breathe.

        (3) “I overuse the world “actually” really badly. ” This is where I go “Are you me?” because so do I, actually 🙂 Re-reading what you’ve just written will help you recognise the verbal tics and little phrases or words you like to use or over-use. This is not saying you need to find sixteen different ways to say “He said”, but using a word (like “actually”) every second sentence needs some balance and variety.

        (4) “For example, when I’m trying to convince conservatives, I veer my signaling way to the right.” And it worked on me, curse your cunning psychiatric-powers manipulation techniques! Yes, I fell for your dark arts and doubtless will do so again 🙂

        1. Anon Anonimusovich Anonov

          General wisdom in hacker community seems to be no more than 80 characters per line, though it mostly applies to monospace text.

          Also, there is specially designed solarized color scheme that supposed to be easy on eyes.

        2. Nathan Sharfi

          I was about to say “check the ‘blue background, white text’ checkbox in Word”, but…evidently they yanked that feature because just about nobody used it.

          I use f.lux; it has which turns white to black and black to red.

          Most browsers these days also seem to have a “Reading View” which attempts to identify the Important Part of the Page™ and display just that, either on a light background or a dark background, without the crud. On the other hand, sometimes they mis-guess and leave out important parts at the beginning or the end…and they never seem to think comments are important.

      5. Jacob Schmidt

        Point 8 doesn’t strike you as at all dark artsy?

        The moral of the story is that you sound a lot more credible, and your opponents a lot less persuasive, if you’re the one who brings the possible counterarguments up yourself. This is true regardless of how effective your countercounterarguments are.

          1. rossry


            This generalized as an answer to the majority of the “Isn’t this dark-artsy?” questions in the comments.

            If “Dark” is defined as “makes your arguments win more than it forces your arguments to be better”, then the question begged is “Relative to what?”.

            If the alternative is “carefully consider the counterarguments, make sure that my argument is true in spite of them, then present my argument”, then yeah, winning extra by inoculating your reader against them makes you win more, and doesn’t force you to be any more rigorous than you were already being. But if the alternative is “just put forward your argument, not having considered the counterarguments”, then the choice to consider counterarguments and then show your work is quite plausibly anti-Dark.

          2. andysw

            I feel like Scott’s implications of ‘sounding credible’ are another example of ‘admission of guilt’/’on the defensive tone.’ People can take advantage of that to accuse good rhetoric with Dark Arts.

            The good argument comes from the legwork of considering the opposite arguments, position, context… and I guess knowing so much about the topic, opponent, and arena that you have the opportunity to argue, and win for the sake of an important truth seems like valid rationality.

            But the whole point of this site is to have a rational argument about good arguing… Why do people insist that stepping over tribal lines, by considering and anticipating signals count as bad? Because some people think agreeing is wrong.

      6. JuanPeron

        This seems to call back to your long-ago point about Epistemic Learned Helplessness (there you go with those pithy phrases again). In that piece, you note that if an argument will sound equally good to you regardless of its accuracy, the Bayesian response is to ignore it completely even if you can’t refute it.

        That state of affairs is common in conventional political debates. Every so often, I’ll see an argument that looks pretty good, check the source, and disregard it almost entirely. I know that the source would push this idea with some piece of evidence, regardless of accuracy, so their ability to cite a good-looking reference doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s not worth spending hours running down misleading quotations, bad data, or simple cherry-picked results when the evidence was backfilled to make the claim look good.

        The signalling thing, at its best, seems to be a way to say “my arguments are not 100% motivated reasoning”. If you can establish that you aren’t the guy who we all know would fake his justification for point X, then it’s at least possible that your ideas on point X are worth reading.

      7. David Friedman

        What you wrote was:

        “Trump’s Law is that if you want to convince people notorious for being unconvinceable, half the battle is using the right tribal signals to sound like you’re one of them.”

        Not “like you are not 100% a stereotypical opponent of theirs.”

        A true but selective account of your views is still dishonest if it is being selected in order to convey a false impression of your overall position. I don’t know that anything you do is dishonest, but the policy I just quoted you as advocating at the beginning of part 7 is.

    3. Vaniver

      What’s the saying? ‘A nerd is someone who thinks it’s morally wrong to make a good first impression’?

      1. Error

        I keep trying to find the source of this quote and failing.

        (it’s also true. At least for me. I do it anyway if I must, of course, but I always want to disinfect myself afterwards)

        1. jnicholas

          I think that’s an extremely stupid attitude to take towards first impressions. Can you justify it?

          (How did I do?)

          (But also, the question is sincere, as is the core belief in the hostilely-phrased first sentence. I think people who seem to have a congenital aversion to being socially graceful are making a classic error of overcorrection and throwing the baby of Don’tAlienatePeopleNeedlessly out with the bathwater of UselessFluffAndConformism, and are typically signalling way too hard how “rational” and “fact-oriented” they are. Counterpoint?)

          1. Guy

            That other elements of that bathwater include BeingASlimyUntrustworthySchmuck seems like something worth considering. The problem is that those to whom the original statement applies usually overcompensate and wind up coming across as … something. “Creepy” is a word that usually describes the worst versions of both groups, but I can’t put the words together to give the actual standard nerd mode of failure.

            (also, on style – note how I phrased the end of that last sentenceto avoid the unwanted parallelism of standard nerd failure mode)

          2. Error

            Justifying it might be a bit much. The mental reasoning seems to follow from the statement: “Promoting less than maximally accurate beliefs is an act of sabotage. Don’t do it to anyone unless you’d also slash their tires.” In the case of first impressions, creating an impression that is not maximally accurate — i.e. that is nicer, smarter, better than you actually are — is such an act. And that’s terrible.

            I alieve something like that strongly enough that I feel like a shithead after doing things like job interviews, where falsely positive first impressions are non-optional.

            (You did just fine. :-P)

          3. Nita

            I became more normal-people-compatible after accepting the fact that most people assume that you’re going to present the best image you can possibly pull off.

            So, refusing to stretch your first impression like that can result in inaccurate beliefs, due to the standard adjustments made by your audience.

          4. Sniffnoy

            Nita: I am going to jump in briefly to note that, FWIW, on the apparently-apocraphyl comment thread I remember this from, that was exactly the justification PJ Eby used, too. 🙂

          5. jnicholas

            @Guy – I agree that there are lots of other elements of the bathwater, certainly including BeingASlimyUntrustworthySchmuck and possibly worse things. But it doesn’t matter how nasty the bathwater is, it’s still a mistake to throw out the baby – which, like you say, is where the overcompensation comes in. The better response, I think, to some people using social niceties to be slimy schmucks, is to use social niceties to be genuinely nice and considerate, which is totally possible to do without (@Error) promoting less than maximally accurate beliefs about who you are, given that however nice you can be is ipso facto within the range of how nice you are and thus not false, and particularly given @Nita’s point that people are going to assume your first impression is being drawn from the top of your personal range, so much so that deliberately attempting to give a middle-of-the-range impression is going to be *more* misleading than simply putting your best foot forward.

      2. Sniffnoy

        I just want to register my amusement that this has gone from “something I remember PJ Eby saying on Less Wrong once, even though I have never been able to locate the comment where he said it, and maybe it wasn’t him” to “a saying”. 🙂

        1. Anatoly

          In the spirit of recording negative results, I’ve spent >3 hours and the best of my google-foo abilities trying to find the source on this on LW and related sites and failed. I do like the “saying”.

          1. Error

            I think this is hilarious. How does one attribute a quote when the earliest known source thinks it wasn’t from him, but Google seems to think he originated it?

            Currently tempted to add the fortune record attributed to Sniffoy.

        2. Mai La Dreapta

          Congratulations sir, you have invented a Saying. In twenty years it will be attributed variously to Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx, and pedants will be correcting them pointing out that it’s actually from something PJ Eby said on Less Wrong once, but no one will care.

      1. Anonymous`

        Sure, but Less Wrong lingo is less a rhetorical tool than useful shorthand for useful ideas we’re going to want to use in many different conversations.

        Anyway, tabooing is always a fair request, so here goes: the article’s advice is all written in the frame of wanting to *persuade* other people whenever writing nonfiction. In the ideal world we don’t do that, because you don’t want your beliefs to depend on how much I wanted you to hold those beliefs; in the ideal world we just lay our ideas out clearly and let other people form their own conclusions.

        There have been a lot of comments in this thread about how this isn’t the ideal world, so that is silly. However, I think we were a lot closer to that world years ago in Less Wrong than we are now, and moving further away from it to try to be able to appeal to the outside world more seems like a bad trade to me.

        Scott’s articles, from the outside, look more or less like they’re trying to do the “lay an idea out clearly” thing. But this article revealed that he’s also actually putting conscious effort into persuasion. The topics he writes about are so vast that, unless you want to devote a multi-year project to fact-checking absolutely everything, you sort of have to file large parts of it into “hmm, this sounds plausible, and he did the research, so while I can’t be *that* confident since I haven’t checked it myself, I’m going to update somewhat towards in favor of it”. The more you find out that he’s actually trying to persuade, the smaller those updates have to be–it doesn’t have to involve conscious dishonesty on his part, but there are *so many ways* to be subconsciously mildly dishonest.

        1. Nita

          Scott’s articles, from the outside, look more or less like they’re trying to do the “lay an idea out clearly” thing. But this article revealed that he’s also actually putting conscious effort into persuasion.

          Uh. You do know that Eliezer’s “sequences” were also written with an intent to persuade, right? And that’s the canon of LessWrong.

        2. FJ

          In fairness, if you genuinely have a moral aversion to persuading people, then certainly any effective rhetorical tactic is immoral. Including such tactics as “lay out your ideas clearly.” Clearly-expressed arguments are more persuasive, ceteris paribus, than obfuscated ones; this effect is largely independent of whether the argument itself is correct; thus, expressing your ideas clearly is immoral.

          I do, however, suspect that nobody actually has a moral objection to being persuasive. At most, Less Wrong acolytes have a moral objection to *other people* being persuasive. The entire purpose of Less Wrong, after all, is “to apply the discovery of biases like the conjunction fallacy, the affect heuristic, and scope insensitivity in order to improve their own thinking.” Nothing about that prohibits acolytes from coming down like Prometheus to enlighten the rest of us!

        3. Nita

          How about this?

          Scumbag Rationalist: Exploits bias in others

          “We will infiltrate and crush the outgroup by imitating their tribal signals!”

          Good Guy Rationalist: Helps others avoid bias

          “Many people experience a sort of memetic immune response. Since I’m looking for a constructive discussion, not a fight, I’ll do my best not to trigger it — I’ll start from the common ground and carefully delineate my views, which should help my audience avoid erroneous pattern-matching.”

    4. HeelBearCub

      Section 7 to me looks like some of the points in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People

      “Give honest and sincere appreciation”
      “Talk in terms of the other person’s interest”
      “Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely”
      “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view”
      “Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires”
      Begin with praise and honest appreciation

      Now, if you remove truth and sincerity as a requirement from those things, you are in ethically murky territory.

    5. Vox Imperatoris

      I think the larger point to draw from this is that it’s tempting to think that all virtues are good to practice on some kind of meta-level, independently of object-level correctness.

      But actually, there are many virtues that are only virtues when you’re right. For instance, being consistent, being dedicated and hard-working, being efficient, being willing to fight for what you believe in. Good if what you believe in is actually good. Bad if what you believe in is the superiority of the Aryan race.

      1. keranih

        But actually, there are many virtues that are only virtues when you’re right.

        Eh. This is outcome-focused, not process focused. One could be mistaken on the pro/con balance of a particular goal – either through mistake, ignorance, or inability to shed cultural background, or some other issue. But the revision of stance and/or goal is far easier to undertake (most of us do this all the time) than is transforming a person of shaky rationality, sloth, inefficiency and marginal fortitude into a better person.

        Rejecting the strengths of those who oppose your own stances as being non-virtuous because they don’t support your stances is not a great way to win others to your pov.

        1. Vox Imperatoris

          But the revision of stance and/or goal is far easier to undertake (most of us do this all the time) than is transforming a person of shaky rationality, sloth, inefficiency and marginal fortitude into a better person.

          But that’s just the question: who’s the “better person”, Adolf Hitler or the guy who never became leader of the Nazi Party because he was too lazy? Osama bin Laden or the shoe bomber?

          Being good at pursuing bad goals is bad.

          1. keranih

            Was the shoe bomber incompetent on purpose or just by random chance?

            Deciding to sabotage a movement toward a bad goal is good purposeful action. Screwing it up because you’re an idiot is no virtue.

          2. Vox Imperatoris

            @ keranih:

            Deciding to sabotage a movement toward a bad goal is good purposeful action. Screwing it up because you’re an idiot is no virtue.

            Being incompetent is not a virtue per se, but it is in comparison to the vice of being a competent terrorist. Or, for instance, what was the more virtuous course of generalship for the Imperial Japanese Army? That which tends to win battles, or that which (unintentionally) tends to lose them?

            Extremism in the defense of tyranny is no virtue, and moderation in the pursuit of injustice is no vice. 😉

          3. David Friedman

            I’m inclined to go with C.S. Lewis here. In, I think, the introduction to _Screwtape_, he argues that Satan cannot be entirely evil because if he had no virtues (intelligence, for instance) he wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything, indeed wouldn’t even exist (Lewis thinks existence is itself a virtue).

            I think it’s worth distinguishing between characteristics that have good effects in the actual context where they exist, what you are thinking of as virtues, and characteristics that are themselves good. Intelligence is a virtue. Honesty is a virtue. One can imagine circumstances in which either has bad consequences. But a person is a better man for being honest, even if his honesty happens to benefit a bad cause.

            In an (unpublished) work of fiction I liked, a very talented super criminal has just prevented the destruction of a major city, at considerable risk to himself and his team. Doing so results in his being captured, but he is offered a free pardon for his past crimes if he will switch sides. His response is to ask whether the pardon will be available to the rest of his team and the other criminals who have relied on him. The answer is “no.” His answer is that in that case he cannot accept the offer.

            Pretty clearly, it would be a good thing for the world if he did accept it. But his refusal is evidence of a virtue—he is an honorable man who stands by his obligations to others even at considerable personal cost—not a vice. We might think more of him if he converted to utilitarianism and accepted the offer for the sake of the world. But we would think less of him if he accepted it for the benefit to himself, ignoring the cost to those he feels obligated to protect.

          4. Nornagest

            I’m inclined to go with C.S. Lewis here. In, I think, the introduction to _Screwtape_, he argues that Satan cannot be entirely evil because if he had no virtues (intelligence, for instance) he wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything, indeed wouldn’t even exist (Lewis thinks existence is itself a virtue).

            I’ve got a theory that the worst evils, at least from a utilitarian perspective, tend to be committed by people who are generally very virtuous but have serious flaws. Especially serious flaws in places that can go unnoticed or overlooked in context, because that short-circuits some of the usual safeguards groups have against this sort of thing.

            Because of this, the scariest people are often also the most likable and relatable. Fiction writers figured this out a long time ago — the villain of a piece is often the most interesting person in it. (E.g. Milton’s Lucifer.)

          5. Randy M

            Well, to back to Lewis, he points out that many vices are simply one virtue taken too far, or out of balance from other virtues (ie, something like courage without prudence).

            However, thinking of the biggest baddies from the last century, I don’t know how many would have been described as virtuous, even by contemporaries, but instead something like powerful, visionary, necessary, or important.

          6. Nornagest

            Well, in the 20th century case, we have to filter that though the fact that fascist and other totalitarian movements focused on very different virtues than we tend to. But vision, charisma, dedication, strength of purpose, etc. are virtues.

        1. HeelBearCub

          The tendency is to reduce that to “Winning is what matters.” And then you aren’t a rationalist anymore.

          1. HeelBearCub

            I don’t think snark is particularly helpful.

            Does a rationalist care about what is true? Do they care that true beliefs are spread?

          2. Nancy Lebovitz

            I believe that “rationality is winning” is a counter to a particular mistake– the person who says “I did everything right, so I don’t even need to think about why I didn’t get what I wanted”.

            However, “rationality is winning” leaves out the question of time-scale.

            Eliezer wrote about taking the time to think about the question of whether AIs would automatically do what was best for people instead of pushing that false idea as hard as possible– if he’d defined winning prematurely, he would have had a memetic mess to clean up, assuming he’d even noticed it was a mess.

          3. Vaniver

            @HeelBearCub: anyone who recognizes the instrumental value of truth is on their way to being a rationalist (and being a rationalist will lead one to the instrumental value of truth). But holding truth, especially shared knowledge of truth, as a terminal value is a different thing.

    6. keranih

      I’d say not so much Dark Arts as sausage making.

      As others have said, this is simply a review of how to take a thought from your brain and put it into the brain of another person. It skips some steps like write in a language that is used by your audience but aside from that, it covers the majority of bases.

    7. Nornagest

      If I could change one thing about the rationality community as it stands, it would be this concept of Dark Arts.

      When someone hits you, it is not unethical to hit them back. When you swim in a sea of people all trying to use dishonest (by nerdy standards) rhetorical techniques on you, it is not unethical to use rhetorical techniques on them. Sure, labeling them “Dark” served a purpose, when this rationality thing was just getting set up and it was important to sort out what was aiming at heuristics and biases and what was just debate-team stuff — and since Eliezer kinda wanted to be an evil overlord anyway, and was writing for people who thought like he did. But I don’t think it was ever optimal, and if the concept leads to you labeling stuff like this “heresy” then I think it’s clearly holding us back.

      1. Douglas Knight

        Scott is reaping what he sowed. He was the one to declare rhetoric to be “Dark Arts.”

        (Here is Eliezer on “Dark Side Epistemology.” He isn’t talking about rhetoric at all. He sometimes comes down very hard against lying, including in those comments, but I think that is a quite separate matter.)

        1. Nornagest

          Fair enough. I was thinking of stuff like this (actually by Steven Kaas, but popularized by “Dark Arts Epistemology”):

          Promoting less than maximally accurate beliefs is an act of sabotage. Don’t do it to anyone unless you’d also slash their tires.

          …which started being deployed against rhetoric pretty much immediately. But you’re right, Eliezer’s name doesn’t belong there. I stand by everything else I said, though.

          1. David Friedman

            I have a problem with “less than maximally accurate beliefs.”

            In another recent thread I described an argument of mine (about trade) which is almost but not quite right, but would be considerably more complicated and less likely to spread if I filled in the missing details. The argument results in people having more accurate beliefs than they started with, but less than maximally accurate beliefs.

            Is making that argument an act of sabotage?

          2. Nornagest

            I’m inclined to agree with you. But that’s not especially central to the art of persuasion — it is essential to pedagogy, but that’s neither here nor there.

          3. HeelBearCub

            It might be appropriate to turn David’s argument around and apply it to statements about the value of promoting accurate beliefs.

            IOW, their absolutely is some give and take here. There are ideals in tension. But even though they are in tension, they aren’t actually fighting against each other, but rather, when they achieve balance, result in a harmonious and stable ethical outlook.

          4. Furslid

            I agree David Friedman. Teaching good approximations is not bad. Otherwise we would have to condemn the teaching of Newtonian Mechanics. It’s not maximally accurate. You need relativity to reach maximal accuracy.

            Simplifications are problems when they claim that they are maximally accurate.

      2. JBeshir

        I am inclined to think all the rhetorical methods discussed here are fair enough. There’s a tension between rhetorical effectiveness and honesty, but I think the stuff suggested here stays on the good side of that, provided you don’t deceive in the process of making it happen. If one took 7 as written with no context, one could read it as suggesting that, but we have a bunch of examples of what Scott means by it to clarify.

        I think we shouldn’t ground this on the basis of a “hit them back” response, though. There’s a key distinction between the “single person hits you, you hit them back” scenario, and the “swim in a sea of people all trying to use, you use on them” scenario which makes the latter quite dissimilar to the former.

        In the first scenario, you’re making an individualised response to a particular person, on the basis that their individual guilt justifies a response which might not otherwise be ethical.

        In the second scenario, you’re treating the sea of people you’re swimming within as a single entity, and making a response to it as a whole, on the basis that its guilt justifies a response that might not otherwise be ethical. But it isn’t actually a single entity with individual guilt, it’s a set of people to whom you’re assigning collective guilt, with most of them probably not having done anything relevant. And this is a lot more fraught.

        Individual guilt, we accept often as justification for behaviour that would normally be unethical, or at least rude, to do otherwise. Someone hits you, you get a (highly conditional) exemption from the ethical prohibition against hitting in regard to them. We have lots of little implicit threats of tit for tat in everyday life. But when you extend this to collective guilt, you’re hitting someone who isn’t the person who hit you. You’re tit’ing against an agent who isn’t the one who tat’d you, by mistakenly treating them as merely two faces of the same agent. This is generally not okay.

        It’s definitely possible to imagine scenarios and particular rhetorical techniques that one might wish didn’t exist, but unilaterally deciding to refrain from them makes you likely to lose, in the presence of others still using them. Avoiding loudly affirming repugnant conclusions you in fact accept, perhaps. That presents you with a tradeoff, and you need to decide how much you care about avoiding that particular rhetorical technique compared to how much it damages you to avoid it. And often the right answer is probably to be okay with making a deliberate effort to sound compelling. But to avoid the tradeoff by way of declaring everyone exempted from ethical consideration by reason of collective guilt is to go too far.

        1. Nornagest

          But it isn’t actually a single entity with individual guilt, it’s a set of people to whom you’re assigning collective guilt, with most of them probably not having done anything relevant. And this is a lot more fraught.

          This isn’t about guilt or innocence, it’s about social norms allowing or forbidding a course of action. I was less trying to set up a tit-for-tat scenario and more trying to point out that stuff like rhetoric, fashion, marketing, etc. are seen as normal parts of stranger-to-stranger interaction and so don’t need any special justification.

          That’s true whether or not a particular person is making any special effort to convince you of anything. “Hit them back” probably wasn’t the best lead-in to that, granted.