Those Modern Pathologies

[Related to: The Fidget Spinner Is The Perfect Toy For The Trump Presidency, In Defense Of Liking Things, Open Marriage Is A Neoliberal Pathology]

That modern pathology, the Pyramid of Cheops

The final triumph of modern individualism is an afterlife ensconed in a giant stone structure, carefully segregated from any other souls, based entirely around stuff. No county churchyards here. No slow surrender to nature and the weeds. Just piles of golden goblets and jeweled necklaces, carefully guarded by snake-infested traps. And, of course the bones of dead servants, guaranteed to keep serving you in the great beyond. Of course Heaven is neoliberal. There is no alternative!

That modern pathology, heterosexual intercourse for the sole purpose of procreation

Sex can bring people together. It can cement relationships between people and families. It can pulse with celestial fire, it can shatter inner worlds, it can inspire transcendent art, it can remake souls. Of course moderns took one look at all of that and thought: you know what the only acceptable purpose of sex is? Making a smaller copy of myself.

But calling this narcissism would be missing half the picture. It’s equally related to a sort of productivity fetish, a mindset where anything that doesn’t leave a material token didn’t really happen. Enjoyed the company of your closest friends? Not real unless you put the pictures on Facebook, tagged #bestiesforever. Broadened your horizons with a trip to another culture? Not real without crushed pennies or some other gift-shop tchotchke. Met your soulmate? Not real unless you’ve got a lump of screaming flesh to show for it. This is what capitalism does – reduce experiences to souveniers, reduce relationships to commodities, demand that everything good be mediated by a material end product in order to model the laboring-for-others that workers are told is their only life purpose.

That modern pathology, Homer’s Odyssey

If Harry Potter wasn’t vapid enough for you, now we have a travelogue for the Instagram generation.

Odysseus’ only salient characteristic is being “polymetis”, Very Smart. This is enough to give him a raving fan club of front-row-kids and aspirational Ivy Leaguers, the same people who thought Hermione Granger’s straight A’s made her a symbol of an entire generation of womenhood. Odysseus proves his chops in his very first adventure, where he encounters Lotus-Eaters who convince most of his men to eat a magic fruit that leaves them drugged and listless; Odysseus nobly drags them back to the ship and forces them to keep on rowing for him.

Imagine the horrors of a world where poor galley slaves can leave behind their unpaid labor to live on a tropical beach and enjoy their lives! It is only thanks to Odysseus that this catastrophe is averted. One might think a few readers would note that a few months later, the vast majority of sailors in Odysseus’ fleet died horribly, eaten by cannibals. One might think a few readers would wonder if, really, the guy who dragged galley slaves back to their galleys only to get them killed a few months later was really such a good guy. In fact, nobody asks this question, because Odysseus is Very Smart. It’s no coincidence that the Odyssey came out in the generation of the invasion of Iraq War – if Very Smart people declare that dying horribly was the right thing to do, and then it turns out it wasn’t, at least they were benevolent technocrats with your best interests in mind.

Odysseus then goes on to have sex with various sorceresses and sea-nymphs while protesting that he doesn’t want to have sex with them and is loyal to his far-off wife. This is portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. Also, his sailors get turned into pigs, eaten by sea monsters, and drowned in a giant whirlpool. This is not portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. In one scene, some starving sailors eat a sacred cow belonging to the Sun God; this is portrayed as clearly justifying their deaths.

We can start to sketch a psychological picture of the sort of person who could enjoy the Odyssey. They identify with Odysseus, that’s obvious. They want to feel like they’ve suffered – after all, suffering is ennobling! – but they don’t want to actually suffer. They imagine the “suffering” of having to have sex with lots of sea nymphs they’re not super-interested in, all while their friends and subordinates are massacred all around them (but only for good reasons, like them stealing cattle, or them not being Very Smart). At the end of all of it, much like the rich kids attending the Fyre Festival, they can show up on their front doorstep and say “Oh, what suffering I have seen – and I the only survivor!”

The Odyssey is a book for rich individualist aspirational Very Smart narcissists who simultaneously want to outsource their ennobling hardships to the lower classes, and remain so contemptuous of those lower classes that they imagine them literally getting turned into swine by a sorceress, and end up having sex with that sorceress, who is unable to resist them because they are Very Smart.

I weep for the modern generation.

That modern pathology, the Aristotelian theory of virtue

You see, perfect virtue in all things approaches the mean. The traditionalist who wants to make the system more conservative is unvirtuous. And the radical who wants to make the system more progressive is exactly equally unvirtuous. The virtuous person is the liberal intellectual who considers both positions, then places himself exactly in the middle.

Anybody who seems too fiery, too deep, or too sincere is automatically wrong. You can reject both the grandparents who urge clean and sober living, and the hippies who tell you that drugs are the only way to break outside the system and achieve true consciousness, in favor of having a joint or two whenever you feel like it. You can reject both the ascetic who urges simple water, and the aesthete who urges fine wine, in favor of the bottle of Diet Coke already in your fridge.

Aristotle reduces virtue to abandoning the highs of ecstasy and the lows of misery in favor of the comfortable neoliberal plateau of watching Mad Men on TV and ordering off Amazon Echo. No wonder his message resonates so well with millennials.

That modern pathology, Catholicism

The Old Testament God demanded adherence to hundreds of rules and rained down collective punishment on entire nations for breaking them. But you are a yuppie with an hour a week for religion, tops, and consider yourself part of a different species from anyone who doesn’t go to a Starbucks at least twice a week. You get your coffee in packets from Keurig, your razors in packets from Dollar Shave Club, and your juice in packets from Juicero. If only there were some large corporation that would package religion and send it to your doorstep for one low price.

Enter Catholicism. God loves you, just for being you. He suffered and died for you two thousand years ago, granting you redemption. All you have to do to pick it up is sign on the dotted line and pay ten percent of your income.

Consider eg the ritual of confession. You eliminate your sin in a standardized dyadic interaction no harder than eliminating your muscle tension at the massage parlor, or eliminating your back pain with a chiropractor. It’s quick, impersonal, and completely tailored to your individual sinner profile.

Or consider the Eucharist. The Prozac generation has already had personal change reduced to the process of swallowing a pill, and the Catholic Church is eager to comply, reducing finitude to a DSM-V ailment curable with correctly prepared bread products. The Church is a corporation the same as Coca-Cola and McDonalds, and we already know the sacred ritual for interacting with corporations. And so our consumer culture reduces the human relationship with the Divine to literally consuming God.

And like all good corporations, you can rest assured that the whole thing is organized in a very logical top-down chain under the absolute command of an incredibly rich guy who lives in a house covered in gold. “Father, am I forgiven now?” “Um, one second, let me check with the manager in branch headquarters”. And why shouldn’t he? The word “Catholic” means “universal”; we’re so separated from our own neighbors that we’d rather our religion come in the form of Standardized Religion Product shipped in from Rome than anything which forces us to confront people near us as individuals, or trust our local communities for anything more than naming the parish church.

Let’s be honest: the recent success of Catholicism is the ultimate sign of our inability to deal with the world through anything other than a late capitalist lens of standardizaton, corporatism, and carefully-packaged pablum. It’s the perfect religion for the Age of Trump.

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150 Responses to Those Modern Pathologies

  1. Sonata Green says:

    Hermione Granger’s straight A’s

    Straight O’s. To Hermione Granger, Acceptable isn’t.

  2. The Obsolete Man says:

    You need to take your post: Is Everything a Religion?
    and make a corollary called:
    Is Everything a Reaction?

  3. Vercingetorix says:

    I still can’t tell if the mini-section on Aristotelian virtue theory is a joke or not. The first paragraph could easily be read as a genuine statement of solidarity with people who are dissatisfied with how things currently are. The second and third paragraphs could very easily be read as either a sincere statement (a criticism of the idea that the middle way is better or superior to more aberrant ideals) or as a sardonic statement (a criticism of the criticism that the middle ground is better or superior to aberrant ideals on the grounds that the middle ground really is, in some senses, the wise position).

    I feel similarly about the sections on sex, Catholicism and the Odyssey. Is this a demonstration of how the same line of reasoning that is typically used to decry the declension of Millenials can be used to indict the position of those who typically issue such condemnations or is it meant to be read as a critique of how modern modes of thinking can pollute or mischaracterize the positions of people hewing to older ideals?

    Really, the only section that reads as fairly straightforward satire is the first section, although I suppose I could make an argument for that section also being satire.

    I think this raises a broader point about satire and argumentation in general, viz. that it presumes some familiarity with the reader, who’ll grant some basic assumptions to the author so that the latter can make the point that is the crux of the article. I’m guessing this is the point the post is trying to get at, but I’m not really familiar enough with this blog to say for certain.

  4. Luke Somers says:

    So far as I can recall, none of Odysseus’s sailors get drowned in giant whirlpools. They took Scylla’s side to avoid Charybdis. Or is there another giant whirlpool I’ve forgotten?

  5. benf says:

    We need a Random Hot-Take Generator.

  6. Peffern says:

    this thread seems to be pretty politically balanced – it seems like Scott’s intention was to parody right wing ‘moral panics’ but it also applies to the ‘your fave is problematic’ left wing Tumblr style. Comments seem pretty balanced.

    • ItsGiusto says:

      Not that I read too much of the fidget spinner article, but my first impression of something comparing a phenomenon to Trump, as a symptom of some horrible ill of society, is that it’s coming from a left-leaning source, these days.

    • dufu says:

      You seem to be assuming that right wing and left wing moral panics are based in separate principles, rather than being separate sides of a single coin.

      See also: alt right and SJWs.

    • Vercingetorix says:

      Yeah, I agree with this. I think you could try to interpret this post as sympathetic to a certain view either way. For example, the Odyssey section can be read as criticism directed at conservatives for idolizing a past that is rather barbaric or it can be read as a criticism of leftist critiques of the Odyssey.

  7. lambdaphagy says:

    This post seems like pure lambda-bait, so capital-T Temperance urges me not to bite. Nevertheless.

    I’m not sure whether the intention is to show that the arguments for disdaining ~modern degenerate and desacralized neoliberal culture~ prove too much or too little. Are you saying that the same form of argument also rules out some of humanity’s greatest physical, social and intellectual achievements, and hence fail to make definite pronouncements on open marriage or fidget spinners? Or are you saying that this form of argument is misapplied to open marriage and fidget spinners, just as it could be misapplied to any other cultural norm?

    Or, to come at the question a different way, what changes in psychology and self-conception should we expect to flow downstream from the broader cultural medium, material or philosophical? You could reasonably disagree about what those changes are, but the very idea doesn’t seem obviously wacky?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think the two claims are contradictory. It’s saying that this style of reasoning has no ability to distinguish truth from fiction – so we’ll expect it to have high levels of both Type 1 and Type 2 errors.

  8. Stezinec says:

    You can reject both the grandparents who urge clean and sober living, and the hippies who tell you that drugs are the only way to break outside the system and achieve true consciousness, in favor of having a joint or two whenever you feel like it.

    This reads like a line from a Woody Allen comedy 🙂

  9. Conrad Honcho says:

    Bravo. Needed something in the Catholicism section about “The Body of Christ, now gluten-free!”

  10. lvlln says:

    This reminded me of How Internet Porn Caused the Rise of Donald Trump. I would hope that parodies like this would help to inoculate people from these types of nonsense sociology, but considering what’s happened in the 2 decades since the Sokal Affair, I’m rather pessimistic.

  11. Freddie deBoer says:

    Years ago I realized that I was capable of writing almost any argument and its exact opposite with equal strength, and that I could both get either or both published and could convince people with either or both. Which I know sounds like I’m bragging, and partially is, but more is a statement about The Discourse or whatever.

    • Vercingetorix says:

      Even more telling is the fact that the same essay or post or article or whatever can be read in two diametrically opposite ways, like this post. I maintain that this is a reflection of a kind of problem with writing itself rather than the Discourse. Every writer presumes things about his/her readers and requires the acceptance of certain elementary propositions as givens. In many cases, the writer has so deeply assimilated these propositions he/she is him/herself unaware of these presumptions. This is partly why it is so difficult to make progress in philosophy, whereas mathematics (a substantially more limpid language) has made progress in leaps and bounds.

  12. Timandrias says:

    Question: Is Catholicism making a revival in the US somehow? I think I get the analogy Scott is making from the woes of Catholicism (not very original there, I’m pretty sure Luther was saying essentially the same thing) to those of modern society, but the phrase “the recent success of Catholicism” got me curious about whether is based on some truth.

    Hum… I wonder if the Reformation would be a good metaphor for the solution. Wish I had the time and mental energy to make the metaphor stick.

    • Nornagest says:

      Francis is probably the most popular Pope in the US for quite some time, but I’m not sure that’s hashing out to actual church attendance. Googling brings up a lot of stories about Catholicism’s decline, but most of them are from 2015 or earlier.

      (The top hit is Salon waxing lyrical about the political implications, because we are all sinners and we deserve this.)

  13. The original Mr. X says:

    Imagine the horrors of a world where poor galley slaves can leave behind their unpaid labor to live on a tropical beach and enjoy their lives!

    Odysseus’ ship wasn’t crewed by slaves, but by his soldiers (“companions”, I believe Homer terms them). Galley slaves are really more of a Renaissance thing.

  14. j r says:

    Good show! It is common among the far right to talk about how all the cultural and educational institutions of the west have been infiltrated by Cultural Marxists. And it’s common for those on the left to then sneer, in turn. And they should, because anyone who uses phrases like Cultural Marxism or New World Order as proper nouns deserves a good sneer.

    That said, there is a truth hidden among that mostly idiotic position. Much of the contemporary far left is influenced, if not an outright offshoot, of a certain type of post-structuralist thinking. And much of post structuralist thinking is obsessed with methods, mostly methods of deconstruction. This makes sense, since post-modernism emerged primarily as a critique of both the modern and classical traditions. Of course, the modernists and the first generation of post structuralists spent a whole lot of time first understanding the traditions that they set out to critique. These days, not so much.

    Today, the ultimate end of almost all post structuralist thinking is the mastery and application of theory (be it Marxist, feminist, critical race, whatever) to all manner of social, economic, cultural, psychological phenomena, without the benefit of too much time spent trying to understand those phenomena. And the result is batch after batch of quite sloppy and not very good attempts at cookie cutter critiques.

    • lemmycaution415 says:

      Is post-structuralism really what is going on?

      people are interested in new things and fads and want to link them to the general political and social situation.

      Lots of times that is off base but some times it is not.

      looking back it is pretty obvious that at least some cultural products reflect their time:

  15. Anonymous says:

    Great bait, mate.

  16. Ghatanathoah says:

    I’ve noticed the kind of thing the OP is parodying a lot recently. I tend to call it “depressive leftist criticism.” The common features seem to be:

    1) Crapping on some form of entertainment that other people enjoy. Sometimes it is something merely fun and harmless, sometimes it is something other people find deep and meaningful.
    2) Tying the criticism of the entertainment into left-wing politics of some sort (though I have seen some rather similar pieces written by redpillers)
    3) Claiming that said entertainment represents the entertainment preferences of the Privileged Ruling Class, whereas some competing entertainment that the author prefers represents Marginalized People. (This claim is usually false and easily disproven)
    4) An extremely depressed and pessimistic worldview, usually the “everything is maggots” sort Scott discussed in his review of that Muggeridge book.
    5) Accusations that the entertainment is childish in some way and that liking it shows a lack of sophistication.

    Examples I can think of off-hand (both recent and historical) include Michael Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh,” this article about how science fiction writer’s squandered the genre’s promise by failing to slavishly imitate the tropes and cliches of literary fiction, and some elements of this roundtable about DC comics.

    I personally find depressive leftist criticism to be excruciatingly annoying, and I have trouble grasping the sort of mindset that generates it. Why do so many “everything is maggots” people gravitate towards leftism?

    • blacktrance says:

      I’d guess that there’s a comparable amount of right-wing “everything is maggots”, you might just not see it.

      • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

        I definitely see it, though it’s usually restricted to lower profile blogs and the like. “Harry Potter as a symptom of modern liberal pathology” is a genre of its own by now (and I say it as someone who agrees that it’s creepy how much they latch to a meh children’s book).

        • Aapje says:

          Children’s books are grade-A material for conservative Christians due to the ‘corrupting the children’ narrative.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Why do so many “everything is maggots” people gravitate towards leftism?

      Because there are many of them, so a certain fraction are going to gravitate towards leftism– just as Muggeridge gravitated the opposite direction? (We also have a right-wing commenter here who’s known for his maggoty outlook.)

      • onyomi says:

        Level 1: Naive Conservatism, aka “The great men of old and the world they built are gradually being eaten by maggots.” JRR Tolkien and almost all premodern civilizations.

        Level 1.5: Naive Modernism, aka “No more maggots because Science!!” Le Corbusier. Mostly extinct.

        Level 2: Jaded Leftism, aka “Everything was always maggoty and anyone who says otherwise is hopelessly blinkered or naive, especially given that anything that appears non-maggoty was built on the backs of slaves, colonialist exploitation, by capitalists inciting false desires, etc.” Most of academia.

        Level 3: Libertarianism, aka “Actually, things were maggoty in the past but have gotten exponentially better ever since we learned to stop worrying and love the capitalists.” Stephen Pinker, Flynn Effect, etc.

        Level 4: Slatestarcodexism, aka “The maggots are curiously persistent; statistics may possibly help us beat them back, however.”

        I think Level 2 is largely what people are complaining about when they complain about hopelessly jaded postmodernism. I long found 2 quite perplexing; I wanted to say that the problem was that they were so long on ways to “problematize” everything, but short on solutions.

        But I don’t think simply pointing out problems without having good solutions is necessarily bad, per se, and I don’t think that’s the core of the issue. The explanation which makes the most sense to me, if a bit Bulverish, is that academic types fear nothing more than looking dumb–and not just dumb, but a particular kind of dumb I’d describe as “naive,” “parochial,” “un-nuanced,” or, God forbid, liking popular bands.

        Due to this phenomenon, as well as the fact that making positive, testable claims opens you up to being proven unambiguously wrong in a way that convoluted problematizing does not, intellectuals are strongly drawn to 2. But most of all I think they want to signal “not naive,” because claiming to be unable to see the emperor’s maggots is very socially and intellectually risky.

        • ItsGiusto says:

          Woah, I love this! I gotta save this leveled breakdown of perceived maggot-infestation (also known as the LBPMI index) somewhere so I can remember it in the future.

        • Peffern says:

          4 seems like 1.5 ust with better science.

          And I say this as one of the few remaining (apparently) naive modernists.

      • DrBeat says:

        (We also have a right-wing commenter here who’s known for his maggoty outlook.)

        Is it me? Because I’m not right-wing, if the right wing were culturally ascendant they would be doing exactly the same things for exactly the same reason and I would be just as despondent over them, and I point it out when it happens

    • Deiseach says:

      I’ve seen that more in the “your fave is problematic” critiquing that gets both posted and parodied on Tumblr, but at least there the excuse is that these are young people whose main introduction to activism was via online interaction in fannish spaces, and they are full of the condemnatory zeal of youth who are sure what is the right thing to do, think and say in every situation and those who don’t live up to their standards are wrong and need to be educated/scolded/”called out”/a mix of all three.

      It’s one of those faults of youth for which the cure is time, when they get a bit of real life experience under their belt, make some whopping mistakes of their own, and realise that some things should be attributed to stupidity rather than malice 🙂

  17. hnau says:

    Weird… it’s almost as if modern culture owes something to past cultural successes.

  18. zmpster says:

    This week in Scott proves too much.

    • hnau says:

      Do you mean “proves too much” as in “shows that arguments deducing modern pathologies from random cultural artifacts prove too much”?

      Or do you mean “proves too much” as in “meta-proves-too-much by ridiculing a particular way of critiquing modern culture, when *any* critique of modern culture could be subjected to the same ridicule whether or not its conclusions are correct, since culture is inherently subjective and hard to pin down”?

      Now that I’m thinking about it, I could go either way. Or possibly both.

  19. ItsGiusto says:

    I’ve been talking to my friends for years about how I feel that a part of post-modernist thought involves the notion that if you can claim on any level that there exists​ a connection between two phenomena, that necessarily proves correlation between the phenomena – no real proof necessary. Any viewpoint on a subject is completely valid, and any argument to be made on any a subject is completely valid. I see this stemming from literary critics claiming that any interpretation of a text is valid, even if the interpretation is something entirely not intended by the author.

    And the proliferation of post-modernism has caused millions of wannabe literary critics to go out and apply their literary critiques to real life, claiming ridiculous ideas as fact, like for example, fidget spinners are a modern narcissistic pathology, or millenial women drink so much because they’re oppressed and self-medicating, or millennials don’t eat cereal because their parents didn’t make them do chores and as a result they don’t want to do dishes.

    And now, from ItsGiusto, that modern pathology, post-modernist wannabe-literary critic bloggers.

    • eyeballfrog says:

      Hmm, as a millennial (I think? I’m a little unclear on the categorization.), I seem to have missed the memo on not eating cereal. When did this start?

  20. onyomi says:

    I haven’t much noticed the fidget spinners yet, but I am chronically unhip.

    As someone born with a constant need to move some part of my body, especially when attempting to think (often getting up and pacing helps me think more clearly about a problem; a long, brisk walk is even better), however, I have always resented that school of thought which sees fidgeting as a character defect of some kind (and it’s not just Anglo Puritans, Chinese and Japanese, and probably other cultures I don’t know as well have pejorative terms for it as well).

    But I would like to point out to them that fidgeting is an ancient contemplative practice which enhances concentration. Fidgeting with something which doesn’t necessary take your attention away from whatever else you’re doing is probably far superior to the nervous cell phone check.

  21. TomA says:

    The modern pathology, the egotist’s conceit

    Everyone is wrong, except for me of course.

    • hnau says:

      Uh… wouldn’t the egotist’s conceit work the other way?

      Modern people (myself included) are about the last people I’d expect to be good at identifying modern pathologies. We can be pretty sure that we’re ignoring some things about our society that are deeply wrong (after all, every previous generation did). We can also be pretty sure that fidget spinners are *not* one of those things.

  22. Tarpitz says:

    I enjoyed the post. I appreciate the point being made. But not even the gag about heroic epithets was remotely worth the trauma of reading that Medium article. My brain still hurts.

    I mean, I grant that what you’re talking about is a problem with it. It’s just not, I would venture to say, the problem.

  23. publiusvarinius says:

    The Old Testament God demanded adherence to hundreds of rules and rained down collective punishment on entire nations for breaking them.

    Oh, but Millennials love that! The legal code (of my birth country) is seventeen times longer than the Old Testament, and it’s all rules. And it’s not even the only law Millennials observe: most of them willingly sign additional terms and conditions every week, and regularly protest for more stringent rules. Millennials are not impressed by the Jewish God’s feeble attempt at regulation. No wonder they gravitate towards Catholicism. 🙂

    Let’s interpret the New Testament.

    It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man: food that gets to your mouth should go through a strict temperature regime, get controlled for cross-contamination, and obey hygiene regulations that make the Kashrut look like a short pamphlet.

    but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man: you should have strict laws against free speech. People should be harassed, fired and ostracized for their beliefs.

    It’s the perfect religion for the age of HuffPo.

  24. MawBTS says:

    The fidget spinner article is a puff piece with no reason to exist beyond the fact that an article with “Trump” and “fidget spinner” in the title will get a lot of clicks. I don’t know why we’re talking about it like it’s a serious argument instead of an SEO exercise.

    These sorts of articles are like 19th century carnie barkers, telling the rubes anything to get them to go into the tent. A few months ago it would have been about Harambe or Ken Bone.

    • MawBTS says:

      A few days ago, one YouTuber broadcast himself sitting in a chair and spinning a fidget spinner for twenty-four hours straight. By the final half hour—as he flicked the infernal spinner listlessly, like an addled victim of some exquisite form of torture—he had attracted a live audience of more than twenty thousand viewers; the video has since had more than two million views. (As if to underscore the rank idiocy of his enterprise, he occasionally leaned in to the camera to show off a row of stitches on his cheekbone—the consequence of another fidget-spinning video he had made a few days earlier.)

      Why does she castigate someone for doing basically the same thing she’s doing? Is she aware that people monetize their Youtube channels? That guy probably made way more money spinning a fidget spinner for 24 hours than she did writing an article about it.

      • cthor says:

        Jealousy. I doubt her puff pieces have ever gotten close to a million views.

        • Deiseach says:

          Eh. The genre of “why oh why” opinion pieces is a tradition in journalism but agreed, the (seeming) lack of awareness that she is doing the same thing as the Youtuber does grate (then again, she may well be aware, but the necessity of churning out these kinds of articles to make a living means she has knowingly to ignore the similarities and implications).

  25. thepenforests says:

    So between this, and things like Reporter Degrees of Freedom, The Pyramid and the Garden, and of course all of freakin’ Unsong, I can’t help but notice a trend in Scott’s thought over the past few years. If I had to summarize the main theme, it would be “Man, it’s way easier to make false things sound true than one would naively think. Like, crazy easy. This is probably a bad thing.” Which I guess is not exactly new territory for him, but…I don’t know, the more recent articles seem different, somehow – more urgent, maybe. After reading them I’ve become more and more convinced that this isn’t just some run-of-the-mill, “oh yeah, people are biased, what are you gonna do” thing. I’ve started to view the, uh, let’s say disturbing malleability of truth as one of the most pressing issues our society faces today, period. The idea of what seems truthful becoming more and more decoupled from what is truthful (if that is indeed what’s happening) really alarms me.

    I think this is an idea that needs to be more widely promulgated outside of SSC.

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      My question, then, is: What can you do about this? If I can be persuaded of any sufficiently realistic falsehood by a skilled debater or propagandist, how the hell do I find out what’s actually true?

      • Ninmesara says:

        I mostly just stick to my priors now :p

        • thevoiceofthevoid says:

          Still lost in the dark on the “how to have good priors”–wait, someone’s probably written a sequence about this on LessWrong, haven’t they.

          Seriously though how the heck do I set a prior for a concept I had never previously though of?

          • Ketil says:

            Calibrate yourself, use Fermi estimates, and assign probabilities or confidence intervals to everything. Don’t have the link handy, but the book “How to measure anything” and Scott and LW’s regular surveys (perhaps not the latest ones?) should give good starting points.

      • Mengsk says:

        This article offers an interesting take on how developing technology will change the way people stay informed.

        It’s basically arguing that large, centralized sources of information, like news networks and major newspapers, will become broadly discredited as sources of Accurate Information About the World (TM), and persist mainly as sources of entertainment or validation, which is what the people who read them are primarily interested in in any case. The bright side is that people who actually are interested in true, actionable information will turn to other more specialized sources about the domain of their interest, which will be cheaper and more accessible than before.

        This is a related article about changes in the works for local news

        • Linvega says:

          This is pretty much already current reality except for a small twist: Most people still think of the major newspapers as mostly true of anything they believed beforehand anyway, and for everything they disagree with, they go to specialized(read:highly biased) sources that tell them whatever they want to hear. There are also some minor sources that actually try to find out the truth, but only a small amount of people directly reads it and otherwise it’s mostly used as ammunition by both the major newspapers and the ‘specialized’ sources.

          The big problem isn’t just a few evil, manipulative networks telling people lies. It’s that so few people actually are willing to put any amount of work into finding out what’s true, and instead prefering to be told that everything they already believe in is the truth.

    • Ninmesara says:

      The idea of what seems truthful becoming more and more decoupled from what is truthful

      Really? What about that time when people said the the Gods traveled through the sky in chariots of fire, and Beetles carried the sun on their back while protected by Hawk headed gods?

      I think this problem is old and not necessarily becoming worse.

    • JulieK says:

      I can’t tell if the point of the article is “look how easy it is to make good things sound bad” or “You think moderns are pathological? So were the ancients!” The Odyssey critique fits #2 better…

    • Deiseach says:

      This is what I was trying to get at with my comment about the TIME cover (and apparently failing, since it seems to have been interpreted as me yelling about religion yet again): “the idea of what seems truthful becoming more and more decoupled from what is truthful”.

      Does it really matter if people think St Basil’s Cathedral is the same thing as the Kremlin? After all, the point there is “recognisable image of Russianness”, not “familiarity with foreign buildings”.

      On one level, no, it’s nothing, it’s no big deal, it’s not worth kicking up a fuss over.

      On another level, yes, it matters. Because if there isn’t a basis for “this is true, this is fake”, but rather we’re going on “people’s impressions of stuff”, then we all know that “people’s impressions of stuff” covers a lot of ground that just ain’t so. We can see the truth of this in big things (people’s impressions of homosexual men being predatory paedophiles keeping them barred from leadership in the Boy Scouts of America) but the little things matter, too. Maybe even more, because it’s the little things, the small details, the stuff we think we know is so that is not so, that makes up a lot of the foundations on which we form impressions and make decisions.

      And that’s why I think TIME adjusting an image to make it conform with what people’s expectations are of something (what seems truthful) rather than use an image of the correct building (what is truthful) does matter, as a bellwether if nothing more.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      I’ve started to view the, uh, let’s say disturbing malleability of truth as one of the most pressing issues our society faces today, period

      I believe that so did many others, including one Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name “George Orwell”. It’s one major theme in his works. (Aside from the attached trappings of totalitarianism. Maybe the the observation we need today is that the truth may die very well without the traditional totalitarian state, by actors acting with more finesse.)

      You could even spin it as a catchy phrase:

      They do say that truth is the first victim of war. We have witnessed how she was slain. The question remains, where’s the war and who is waging it?

  26. phoniel says:

    I’m reading my first delivered installment of The Baffler, and this is very accurate. Every argument is an exercise in metaphorically connecting a thing you don’t like with some things you assume your readers also do not like, throwing in a supporting example or two, and then declaring the case made.

    • sconn says:

      So many thinkpieces are like this. I recently read a conservative one linking tattoos with divorce. (People get tattoos because they long to make a lifelong commitment to something but are too busy getting divorced all the time. The author interviewed 0 people with tattoos or divorces to draw this conclusion.) You could probably make an app that would randomly generate one fad and one broader cultural trend to jumpstart your thinkpieces. Zombie movies + birth control? Pokemon Go + trans acceptance? You can do it, bloggers, I believe in you!

      • Peffern says:


        As is well known, people like zombie movies/games/etc. because they allow people to experience the dramatic of effect of human characters being gorily and violently dismembered without showing any actual human characters experiencing anything. The wanton pushing of zombie movies by the Hollywood liberal elite is a clear sign that they have an agenda. they’re trying to devalue human life in the minds of yiung, impressionable consumers by showing replacement humans (zombies) getting bloodily exterminated. this causes them to lose the inherent value that a mother’s pregnancy is supposed to carry, so we see them going around using birth control. they’re being brainwashed.


        Pokemon go is yet another attempt to take something sacred and valuable (the experience of going outside and enjoying nature) and turning it into yet another me-me-me millennial entitlement by making a game out of basic tasks like walking around. nobody respects nature for it’s own sake amymore, only if they can use to boost their own fragile snowflake egos. this mirrors the trans acceptance movement, wherein another sacred and beautiful value (the natural roles for men and women) is twisted and perverted by millenials into being something that can be all about me! and my important and self-aggrandizing journey. nevermind the irreparable societal damage I caused.

        /s, if it isn’t obvious.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Bad things all cause each other.

  27. summer says:

    is the conflation of criticism from a leftist perspective and from an anti-millenial kids-these-days perspective intentional? its kind of weird to me

    • Nornagest says:

      Looks perfectly natural to me, but then I read the SF Chronicle for years before giving it up in disgust.

      Anti-millennial kids-these-daysism is thoroughly bipartisan. Scott probably sees more of the leftist flavor, because Scott’s a Blue Tribe kind of dude.

    • CthulhuChild says:

      Anti-millenialism isn’t exclusively a right-wing phenominon. Millenials are held in contempt by both sides, only the flavour differs. Right-wingers point the finger of blame at kids, left wingers use the kids as a prop while they point the blame at everyone else. Neither seem to have any interest except inasmuch as the issues faced by millenials can be used to support their own pet politics.

    • aesthete says:

      Out of sick curiosity, anyone here want to venture a steelmanning of the millenial worldview*? There are roughly 1.3 critiques of millenials for every non-millenial out there, and the only defenses I’ve heard of them are those which have become infamous as evidence contra millenial culture. I’d try it myself, but I’m fresh out of charity for that particular project, heh.

      *Whatever the hell that might be, exactly

      • Nornagest says:

        “Owning an iPhone doesn’t actually make you a vapid narcissist?” I think that covers most of them. Fuck if I know what this avocado toast thing is about.

        • aesthete says:

          Fair warning: googling “avocado toast” and clicking the USA Today link will tempt you to have Mencken-like levels of despair for all involved.

        • Eli says:

          Avocado toast is what us Millenials hold up as the crowning example of what other people think is everything wrong with Millenials, as an example of how thoroughly old people are missing the mark.

          Things that Millenials think are problems with Millenials tend to be waaaaay more concrete problems with our actual lives.

        • yodelyak says:

          On the question of avocado toast, I can say that it is tasty. I had half an avocado on a bagel this morning, across from my gf, who had the other half on her bagel. It was an excellent breakfast, and as first-world food budgets go, ours is not large, and this was not an outlier meal.

          • Nornagest says:

            No, see, you’ve eaten the avocado, and now you’re cursed to live in squalor six months of the year.

      • rlms says:

        What is the millennial worldview?

      • SEE says:

        There’s no “millenial worldview” that these articles are actually criticizing to be steelmanned, just griping about kids these days.

        Take an old newspaper article about “Generation X”, replace “Generation X” with “Millenials”, update the dated reference nouns to modern equivalents, and you’ve got an article on what’s wrong with Millenials you can publish on a website today. Going back a generation to update “what’s wrong with Baby Boomers” articles often works, too, though there’s been enough linguistic drift that you’ll have to rephrase some sentences rather than just substitute nouns.

      • beleester says:

        This Penny Arcade post (and the associated comic) is a good defense of millenials (or rather, since nobody knows what “the millenial worldview” is, maybe I should say it’s a good criticism of their attackers).

        “People build tools to live, and they make them from novel materials. I don’t recognize them but they seem to work for you. The only advice I would give is to start seeing yourself in this continuum sooner than later, because it’s going to help you a lot when the generation after you is injecting Yeezys into their eyeballs to get high. It’ll give you a ground floor to help you process your obsolescence.”

      • WashedOut says:

        Maybe the “Millenial worldview” is something like the following?

        1. If it’s not on the first page of a google search, it doesn’t exist.
        2. Anything that leads to greater equality among citizens is great and should be mandatory.
        3. If you don’t have photos or videos, it didn’t happen.
        4. If you offend or upset me, your speech or action was a hateful lie.
        5. I can become anything I want to be if I try hard enough and/or if the unfair restrictions imposed on me by others can be broken though.

      • gemmaem says:

        Defenses of the “millenial worldview” that I have seen include:

        — Millenials don’t buy [houses/cars/whatever it is that millenials are ruining capitalism by not buying] because they don’t have any money because hello, there was a massive recession not so long ago.
        — It was the parents of millenials who gave out all those participation trophies in the first place, so why blame the kids who had no choice but to receive them?
        — Receiving participation trophies doesn’t actually make you think you deserve an award for showing up. It makes you think people will praise you even if you don’t deserve it. It’s not like the kids can’t see that everyone gets one. So it leads to insecurity as much as (or more than) entitlement.
        — Millenials don’t think they owe their employers any more than their job description, and this is absolutely fine. The job is what you are paid for, after all.
        — If employers want employees who feel deep loyalty to the company and who go above and beyond, then perhaps they should be willing to give an equivalent loyalty to those employees in return.
        — Social media is a great way to keep in touch! Particularly when parents are less willing to let their kids go out and meet each other in person. If we want teens to go out and meet each other in real life, we have to be willing to let them out by themselves.
        — Relatedly, for all you know, that “self-absorbed” person on their phone on the train might be messaging their Mom happy birthday. You’re in no position to judge.
        — Before smartphones, people were complaining about how everyone on the train is always absorbed in the newspaper. Things haven’t really changed all that much.

        And so on. The so-called “worldview” here seems to me to be more like a collection of largely unrelated traits, but there are good defenses for most of them.

    • beleester says:

      No, I’ve seen it before, usually under the heading of “Late Stage Capitalism” or “This is what’s wrong with Capitalism.”

  28. okgreene says:

    The biggest problem with capitalism is that it solved too many damn problems. And now that everyone has forgotten about them, they turn their attention to what remains: the neoliberal narcissism of fidget spinners. The horror.

    The depravity of Aristotelian virtue made me chuckle/hit close to home. I’ve heard that exist critique of my centrist views. There might even be something to it…

  29. sovietKaleEatYou says:

    This post reminded me of (a slightly more in-depth version of) these cartoons, which also kinda unbelievably are a pretty accurate representation of the sort of thing a fraction of America reads on a daily basis.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve never understood the Onion editorial cartoons. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be object-level funny, supposed to be making fun of real political cartoons by being deliberately unfunny, or a mixture of the two. They seem to fail equally on both levels.

      • moridinamael says:

        I think they’re just directly making fun of The Outgroup by implying that The Outgroup would take the cartoon literally, and therefor you’re supposed to laugh at how stupid they are.

        • eh says:

          Here’s an example where that isn’t the case.

          There’s definitely some laughing at the outgroup, but the main idea is building up a persona of a fictional cartoonist through his work, where his life and personality are revealed through what he thinks are universal problems. You could probably do the same thing with a blue-tribe persona (“military-industrial complex” watching as “redneck mother” hands “naive child” a water pistol, Ghandi crying, cartoonist saying “happy birther-day”) and keep most of the magic.

          • Deiseach says:

            I read (and liked) that cartoon as ribbing the types who like to complain about fake geek girls (as in the cosplay winner there), especially as seen in this type of article from 2012:

            Pretentious females who have labeled themselves as a “geek girl” figured out that guys will pay a lot of attention to them if they proclaim they are reading comics or playing video games. Celebrities are dressing up as geeks to reach a larger audience. Richard Branson labeled himself a geek for crying out loud.

            This from some young girleen who has taken care to establish her Real Geek cred in the first paragraph before taking a careful pot-shot at the marketing of geekery (geekness? geekdom?) for profit (the irony of her writing an article about Real Geeks and Fake Geeks in Forbes seemingly escapes her).

            Listen, kid, if we’re gonna be whipping it out and measuring it as to who’s the bigger geek here, I was geeking as a female back in the days before “building that computer in the basement” was ever a thing and I’m nowhere near as cool as you with your “obsessive deep-diver” husband and memes and Twitter, so don’t teach your grandma to suck eggs 🙂

      • Tatu Ahponen says:

        It goes deeper than that, really. At the surface level it’s making fun of real political cartoons (at least those of curmudgeonly conservative variety). At the deeper level it’s a character analysis: the cartoonist (Kelly) is revealed as a deeply unhappy, divorced man who hates almost everything about the modern world (except for a select few things that give him pleasure) and uses his cartoon as a very transparent way of expressing his own pathologies and displeasures of life, whether related to wife and kids, “sickos” and “modern teens” etc., run-ins with the law due to drunk driving (and other clear signs of alcoholism) etc.

        There’s a remarkable consistency to some things, such as Kelly being a fan of Star Trek, regularly confusing fictional figures with real-life figures, having a select few liberal opinions in addition to conservative ones (such as being pro-choice due to believing that women trap men with pregnancy) etc.

        Of course, there are also elements of general political cartoon parody, such as unnecessary use of labels, heavy-handed symbology like crying Lady Liberty, little cartoonist mouthpiece in the corner, dead celebrities being drawn in Hell (as a contrast to normal cartoonists making trite cartoons about celebs arriving to Heaven, whether they were even Christian or not) and so on.

        Kelly’s one of the best regular features Onion has, but fully getting into it requires following it practically from the beginning.

        • phoniel says:

          Exactly right. The joke is that the cartoonist is incredibly sad and petty, and is totally incapable of separating his neuroses from actual problems faced by the country.

        • Luke Somers says:

          So it’s sort of like the Political Cartooning version of

      • Nornagest says:

        You can’t be a serious political news service if you don’t have editorial cartoons that suck. The Onion is trying to be a ha-ha-only-serious political news service, which is close enough.

      • MawBTS says:

        Radio personality Ron Bennington has a saying: “tell a joke, or be the joke.”

        In these comics, the artist is the joke.

      • abc says:

        BTW, that is also a good description of my reaction to the OP.

    • sovietKaleEatYou says:

      I think the cartoonist is spoofing a real (though maybe becoming dated) demographic that people in liberal circles don’t frequently encounter. See: (not viewable with adblock)

      • sovietKaleEatYou says:

        See e.g. for a particularly egregious example. I’m not the biggest fan of the Onion cartoons: usually they’re a little too much. But I think they are often fairly successful at satirizing a certain kind of aesthetic. They’re not supposed to be funny: on the contrary, they’re supposed to mimic this heavy-handed, pitifully aggrieved and comically unfunny style.

        • Deiseach says:

          There are genuine political cartoonists for papers here in Britain and Ireland who are every bit as heavy-handed but with no underlying self-awareness (I’m thinking of Martyn Turner in the “Irish Times”, for one, who apparently likes to think of himself as some kind of scourge of Irish politicians who are not as liberal and with-it as himself and the paper he works for).

  30. says:

    Well done. As you’ve demonstrated, if you want to rail against the depravity of X, you can easily find some popular thing and argue that it is a symbol of the depravity of X. For any X. And for any popular thing, you can find some X and argue that said popular thing is a symbol of the depravity of X.

    It’s sorta like kabbalah. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you were the one to notice this and point it out.

    • says:

      This is not to say that things aren’t sometimes depraved, and that they don’t often have symbols. They are and do.

      Also: The above is just what I got out of the post; I already see that there are other ways to interpret it…

    • JulieK says:

      I’d like to point out for the record that the way you are using the word “kabbalah” here has as much to do with genuine kabbalah, as Scott’s various descriptions of things in this post have to do with what those things really are.

  31. reasoned argumentation says:

    Even worse – Odysseus practices one penis polyamory. If only someone had sent him to a workshop where he could learn that was not ok then Penelope could have enjoyed consensual sex with all of the suitors and Telemachus could have had the benefit of that many more parental figures.

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      No, he practices being repeatedly raped. The thing it is called when a person holds you prisoner and has sex with you against your will is “rape”.

      • Orual says:

        Thank you Ozy. This is correct.

        Nonetheless, I would fully expect an article railing against _x_ modern pathology as exhibited by the Odyssey to skate right over that inconvenient little detail as I’ve seen them do countless times. With this precise issue.

        I might be a little peeved at what might charitably be termed virtue signalling on the part of the people who write these expletive deleted articles.

        • rlms says:

          Wait, are you saying there are genuine articles railing against the Odyssey as a modern pathology?

          • Evan Þ says:

            AIUI, Orual’s talking about articles on the Odyssey that don’t necessarily treat it as a modern pathology, many of which I’ve also seen ignore just that point.

          • mjk1093 says:

            There’s an entire section of “The Dialectic of Enlightenment” devoted to that very argument.

            And… despite being no Marxist, I actually think there’s something to it. The development of civilization and a certain form of early individualism go hand-in-hand. I know this article was meant to be a parody, but there is a line you can draw between the pyramid and the McMansion.

      • Eli says:

        It’s a sick modern pathology that Odyssey readers clearly consider all that sex to be erotic rather than sickening and harmful.



      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Does it make more sense to file the sex in the Odyssey under rape or rape fantasy? Or a sort of cluelessness which makes it impossible to distinguish them?

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          Homeric sexual mores are pretty different from ours and often things we would find horrific: for instance, the inciting incident for the plot of the Iliad is our heroes fighting over who gets to rape a slave girl. The only objection the narrative appears to have to anyone raping a slave girl is that Agamemnon doesn’t accept the ransom for Chryseis, which is bad form (and it’s probably somewhat unwise to rape the daughter of Apollo’s priest, anyway). But then “rape” is certainly less anachronistic than “one-penis polyamory.”

        • sconn says:

          I think it’s a rape fantasy. As in, “Oh, he’s not responsible for having sex with these goddesses, since of course he was forced to, so he wasn’t cheating on his wife. BUT, he had fabulous sex with goddesses and don’t you wish you were him?”

          Unsurprising the Greeks would find it sexy. Most people do find it sexy … to read about. Not so much to actually have happen to them.

          • alethenous says:

            Well… Calypso at least is a goddess. Odysseus has no power to escape her at all. Athene describes him as κρατέρ᾽ ἄλγεα πάσχων, “suffering cruel pains” and that Calypso μιν ἀνάγκῃ
            ἴσχει, “imprisons him by force”. The first time we actually encounter Odysseus, Hermes finds him sobbing and staring out to sea, and it’s said that νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
            ἐν σπέσσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ᾽ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ

            “At night he is forced to sleep in the hollow cave, unwilling next to the willing woman”

            Odysseus clearly isn’t happy with his situation at all, and there’s not much to suggest that the situation is supposed to be erotic. Hell, when Calypso tells him that the gods are forcing her to give him a raft to escape, Odysseus thinks she’s going to drown him.

            The sexual mores of the time were definitely very different, but crazy serial-rapist god-lady isn’t exactly supposed to be a protagonist.

      • Ninmesara says:

        Having never read the book, I have to ask: was the sex really against his will? Did he ever say “No”? Or something like: I know you’re an all powerful goddess and I can’t refuse, so I won’t even bother resisting. I had this idea that while obviously a prisoner he retained enough agency to refuse sex if we wanted and was a dirty hypocrite perfectly happy to have sex with whoever goddess he happened to be with to pass the time, while waiting for some other god to free him or something. However, the power imbalance makes it hard to be sure he actually consented, but now I’m curious on how it played out in the book.

        As I’ve written above, I’ve only read some very simplified adaptations and I’d like to know how it is in the original

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          The sex doesn’t really happen on screen, but I think it’s a reasonable inference that if a person is really unhappy about being held as a sex slave they will probably also be really unhappy about the sex part.

          • Ninmesara says:

            Thanks. Yes, your interpretation makes sense. I was just talking about the adaptation I’ve read (where sex definitely happens on screen). If sex never happens on screen, I’d assume rape given the circumstances, his unhappiness, and the fact that he’s always trying to go home.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Even if it does happen onscreen, our Very Smart protagonist might decide it isn’t Very Smart to even point out to Circe that he might want to refuse.

        • Michael Watts says:

          According to the professor of the Greek classes I took, the verb used for Calypso having sex with Odysseus makes it explicit that he is unwilling.

          This is hearsay; I have never read a classical Greek text, don’t know what verb is at issue, and couldn’t tell you where else it might have been used.

      • hyperboloid says:

        No, he practices being repeatedly raped

        Does he though?

        Calypso falls in love with Odysseus and imprisons him on her island Ogygia for seven years in the hope that they will become lovers for all entirety. As far as I can tell it’s the imprisonment rather then the sex that he has a problem with, as he is both a virile Greek warrior and a loyal family man, and being held on the island keeps him separated from Penelope.

        I’m pretty sure the Greeks had no cultural concept of a man being raped by a woman, and to be more than a little controversial, I’m not sure to what extent we should either.

        I bring it up because I was just watching the Errol Morris film Tabloid about a 1977 incident in which a woman named Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming and according to Morris S&M call girl, who was accused of sexually assaulting her boyfriend. The man in question, one Kirk Anderson of Salt Lake City, Utah left her to travel to England as a Mormon missionary. McKinney respond to this by deciding that the Mormons had brainwashed him, traveling to the UK, and depending on who you believe, either seducing him into consensual kinky sex, or kidnapping him at gun point (the weapon was apparently fake), chaining him to a bed, and having her way with him.

        The British papers at the time had a field day with the story, treating it not as an awful sex crime but as a hilarious comic soap opera. McKinney was arrested before jumping bail and fleeing back to the US, with nobody in the UK including the allegedly violated missionary raising too much of a stink about it.

        Now how should we respond to McKinney’s antics? Is Kirk Anderson a violated and helpless victim who still lives with the trauma and shame of those horrible days in 1977, or is he a conservative family man who views the incident as more embarrassing then painful? As Anderson is not talking, either is possible. but speaking as a heterosexual man I consider the latter much more likely then the former (On a somewhat darker note I actually suspect that he might be afraid of a seriously unhinged woman going all Glenn-Close-in-fatal-attraction on him, and hurting his wife or kids, but that’s kind of tangential to my point).

        The question is this: why do we think rape is such a serious moral violation?
        Is it because it violates our norms of consent? Well, almost all crimes , including property crimes, violate the consent of their victims, and we don’t consider theft to be abhorrent in the same way as rape. You couldn’t for instance imagine Hollywood making a light hatred adventure film about a gentleman rapist.

        Is it because it violates the bodily integrity of it’s victim? I Think that’s closer to being right, but then again so does assault , and a myriad of lesser transgressions. Senator Rand Paul was apparently involved in an incident where he and a fraternity brother “kidnapped” a friend and fellow student, tied her up, blind folded her, and “forced” her to take hits form a bong. When interviewed The woman in question described the indecent as bizarre, and said that it led the end of their friendship, but otherwise did not seem to view it as more than a dumb collage prank.

        The reason we view rape in such serious terms is that we view the subjective experience of being a female victim of rape as especially horrible, more akin to being tortured then punched in the face. Men and women are different, and experience sexuality differently, and for the average woman being coerced into a sexual act by a member of the opposite sex is a degrading, humiliating, torturous experience in way that it’s just not for the average man.

        I have an honest question for any straight men reading this, out of following scenarios, which do you prefer?

        A) You pass out drunk at a party and awaking to find that your idiot friends have thrown you outside in your underwear with a pennis drawn on your face in magic marker. A small crowd has gathered and is taking pictures and laughing.

        B)You pass out drunk at a party and awaking to find that an attractive woman has pulled down your pants and is now mounting her self in the “cow girl” position on top of your erect manhood.

        A)You are waiting outside a club and out of nowhere a drunken Ronda Rousey cold cocks you, knocking you to the ground.

        B) You are waiting outside a club and out of nowhere a drunken Ronda Rousey grabs you, whispers into your ear, “I know you want this”, before dragging you into back alley and forcing herself on you.

        Now submissive sexual fantasies have never been remotely my thing, but even still, sex is sex, and as a red blooded heterosexual man I would overwhelmingly prefer option B in both cases. Am I unusual in this preference?

        • CthulhuChild says:

          1) You may not be unusual in your preference, but I suspect you are being highly selective in your selection of scenarios.

          2) You are not considering secondary effects: even if I didn’t find scenario B personally traumatic, my wife WOULD.

          3) How do you feel about homosexual rape? Is it that WOMEN feel sexual coercion to be particularly degrading? Or that male sexual coersion is degrading to the victim, regardless of victim’s gender. Certainly the greeks would agree that being penetrated is always shameful while there is no shame in doing the penetrating.

          Ultimately, even if men and women experience sexuality differently “Sex without consent is rape and rape is bad” is a pretty good starting point. Remember, if the man doesn’t feel agrieved by what happened, he doesn’t have to press charges.

          • Squirrel of Doom says:

            Is it that WOMEN feel sexual coercion to be particularly degrading?

            I’d be really surprised if evolution hadn’t favored that kind of women. Because only they can get pregnant from it, which is an enormous evolutionary setback in a premodern environment.

            I sometimes wonder if the expression “matter of life and/or death” used to include childbirth and even sex back when it was minted?

        • SchwarzeKatze says:

          Actually, there are more male rape victims than female. Most rapes happen in male prisons which are full of males on the far end of the sexual dimorphism spectrum that score high enough on psychopathic traits to have an interest in rape. Forced sodomy on a male, that’s how it’s done.

          I would say that rape is physical assault with added psychological torture. I think it’s pretty much equivalent to bullying. And it doesn’t usually happen to males that are high on psychopathic traits. The psychological damage of rape and bullying can result in suicide. But since perhaps most victims of bullying are male, they’re supposed to suck it up.

          • Besserwisser says:

            That and rape of men by women is more common than most people think. Studies which consider both women forcing themselves on men and men raping women find similar numbers for both, though I haven’t found a study calling the former rape. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough.

        • WashedOut says:

          The only one of the scenarios I would definitely not be OK with for a long time after is the one where I get punched in the face unexpectedly by Rousey.

          The question is this: why do we think rape is such a serious moral violation?

          Because a woman’s agency over her own sexual activity is prime.

          Part of a woman’s identity is to develop a structure of rules, limits, boundaries and preferences around what type of people she has sex with and under what circumstances. Rape bypasses this entire structure, and in doing so completely upturns a woman’s view of herself and her life. The resulting emotional upheaval is far worse than from simple physical assault.

          • Aapje says:

            That is an interesting theory, although some/many men also find it important to have sex with the right kind of women, due to status reasons. ‘Trophy wife’ would not exist it this wasn’t true.

            And in general, I think that all people value agency.

        • jeqofire says:

          Typical Mind Fallacy?
          aWhen you say “Sex is sex,” I recall that I’ve summed up my feelings on the subject over the past 3 months as “Sex is Ghosts.” Or rather, quasi-symmetrical to ghosts.
          According to Velma Jinks, there’s no such thing as ghosts. According to the Ghostbusters theme, “I ain’t ‘fraid o’ no ghost!” Lessons which I believed explicitly in spite of being too easily frightened by imagining a ghost strolling through the door at night. Fast-forward a few years, and suddenly it turns out that lots of people, possibly including my parents, seem to explicitly believe in ghosts, even though they are just as infrasound-in-a-mask as ever. And in the middle of the “ghosts XD” period, some weird, not-at-all ghostly thing happened that fit the narrative well enough as to be kinda terrifying.
          Sex was not even in hypothesis space for a decade, then suddenly adults admit that it’s a thing and all the nigh-pubescent people around will talk of almost nothing else. Yet it wasn’t until actually being in earshot of someone I know unambiguously doing it that I realized I might not have really believed it wasn’t just a weird cultural thing. More or less identical emotional response as to the not-ghost incident.
          1A, I’d not be very thrilled. 1B, I’d probably have a panic attack. 2A and 2B, I like to think I’d fight back in both, but realistically I’d probably freeze up and wind up in the same position as 1, except with more injuries and less money.

          Would it seem as soul-warpingly awful as the narrative makes rape out to be? I kinda doubt it, but I have a hard time thinking of anything that fits that mold, with the whole victim/shame/violN/defilement type reactions. Maybe if I was mind-controlled into saying/doing things very opposed to my actual beliefs? Except that’s only slightly hyperlobic as a description of sex hormones in the first place. But the volition vs chemicals discussion is not where I intended to take this.
          I’m going to go look for 1970s Scooby Doo episodes, now.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Part of the situtation is that people don’t always get PTSD from potentially traumatic events, or it resolves in (I think) few months. People are more likely to get PTSD if they have a history of traumatic events.

            Society has switched from thinking that people shouldn’t suffer long term effects from traumatic events to thinking that everyone does.

          • Aapje says:

            I’ve seen figures of 10% of trauma victims getting PTSD.

            Humans seem to have a decent capability to handle such events, although I worry that giving wrong information to people is not helpful in this regard.

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          Well, sure, there are lots of things the Greeks wouldn’t have considered to be rape that we do consider to be rape. I’m not a cultural relativist; I’m happy to extend my moral standards to the past.

          The research appears to suggest that men who have been raped experience negative psychological consequences.

          • j r says:

            You may be burying the lede:

            This paper also outlines findings from experimental studies that have shown that reactions towards male sexual assault victims depend on both the victim’s sexual orientation and the perpetrator’s gender.

          • You can extend your moral standards to the past, but don’t expect the psychological research to necessarily hold.

        • wiserd says:

          “You pass out drunk at a party and awaking to find that an attractive woman”

          Why ‘attractive?’

          Lets say we go with scenario B1, except the person is unattractive. And you get an STD. And they get pregnant, don’t want an abortion, and sue you for child support. Heck, lets add in CthulhuChild’s comment where you were in a committed relationship and your partner considers your behavior to be cheating.

          Did you change your mind at any point in that rewriting?

          • Uncorrelated says:

            The fact that different details lead me to feel differently about the examples, and that I think the same would be true of many other people, aligns me more with than against hyperboloid’s post. Maybe in spirit more than literally. I read (paraphrasing) “that was rape” with an implied “and rape is bad on a scale from 1 to “. Its the later that I disagree with if it is meant inflexibly. So I can imagine, not remembering the details of the book, that Odysseus was raped and that it wasn’t as bad as we typically think rape is.

            However, while I’m allowing for the possibility that a particular rape might not be the horror that we typically think rape is, I also expect that if we checked empirically into the distribution of rapes that actually occur we’d conclude that, on average, rape is in fact bad on a scale from 1 to .

        • Deiseach says:

          My God, I think I remember that case! And yes, while there was newspaper treatment of it being a wacky hijinks kinky sex case, the evidence that I vaguely recall in the accounts I read was that the man did claim it was against his will and that he was a captive.

          Plainly, for the defence, they’d have to argue that no no, this was all consensual kinky fun (as well as the idea not being established, as you say, that a woman can rape a man) but going on cloudy memories (I was a young teenager who wasn’t at all sure what this story was about, as the ‘respectable’ newspapers avoided the salacious details) he did indeed seem unwilling; he talked about being handcuffed to the bed so he couldn’t get away or stop her. I think this was also where the famous Mormon underwear was referred to, at least this must be where I first heard about it (part of his evidence being that she removed this before assaulting him sexually); naturally, this was yet another detail that made the British and Irish papers treat the whole thing as “weird American kinky stuff”.

          • Aapje says:

            British law also doesn’t consider forced coitus by a woman on a man to be rape, so the police might not even consider it a crime in the first place. I’ve read about cases where male rape victims in Britain were told ‘off with you.’

        • Deiseach says:

          Since you mention you are heterosexual, then the obvious thought experiment here is, if “sex is sex”, would you still prefer option B if in both cases it were:

          (B) You pass out drunk at a party and awaken to find an attractive man has pulled down your pants and is now rubbing his erect manhood against your erect manhood

          (B) You are waiting outside a club and out of nowhere a drunken Conor McGregor grabs you, whispers into your ear , “I know you want this”, before dragging you into a back alley and forcing himself on you

          If your reaction to that is “hey, no, that’s not fun!” well, “sex is sex”, right? And if not, then maybe you have a better idea why women (and men) might not like non-consensual/forced consent sex even without the use of violence and force that causes injury.

          I think the effects of rape can be experienced on a spectrum, but I also think that anything that sounds like “well, if you don’t have the most traumatic reaction possible and are getting over this and don’t regard it as the worst thing that ever happened to you, then plainly you weren’t really raped” is a bad idea. Rape is not an event in the Oppression Olympics where we decide who was ‘really’ raped and what the ‘worst’ rape is, and here’s our Gold Medal Winner.

          I also agree that some things that are, in the current climate, being touted as rape or every bit as bad as rape are not actual rape, but that still unfortunately leaves a wide field of sexual assault and coercive tactics that people experience.

        • alethenous says:

          Odysseus is explicitly described as unwilling to share a bed with Calypso. Even to an Ancient Greek, being raped by a goddess is not a pleasant thing for Odysseus.

        • carvenvisage says:

          On a somewhat darker note I actually suspect that he might be afraid of a seriously unhinged woman going all Glenn-Close-in-fatal-attraction on him, and hurting his wife or kids, but that’s kind of tangential to my point

          Is it though? If you do something that demonstrates that you’re crazy, sometimes people fear you afterwards, based on your demonstrated willingness to be crazy. That makes sense.

          edit: would definitely prefer A in case 2.

        • AnonYEmous says:

          The problem with this framing is that the most popular romantic fantasy for women is a rape fantasy

          in other words, maybe it’s fun to fantasize about, but I wouldn’t be into it for real?

  32. sovietKaleEatYou says:

    Is this supposed to be a spoof of Nathan Robinson?

    • Scott Alexander says:


      I previously started with a link to this article by Nathan Robinson, which was condemning some articles calling fidget spinners a modern pathology. I thought it would help explain where I was coming from.

      Since it apparently looked like I was criticizing Robinson, I deleted the link and linked directly to the anti-fidget-spinner article. I agree there’s a weird sense in which Robinson sometimes also sounds a little bit like this, but I think he’s more careful than most people and this is most fun if I stick to easy targets.

      • sovietKaleEatYou says:

        Aah – I didn’t initially see your [related]s headers, so I was confused for a minute. But yeah, there’s certainly a style here that, if not directly associated with Robinson is associated with the strawman “paleo-liberal” in the same brainspace

      • Deiseach says:

        Good God, that snotty line in the anti-fidget spinner article about tweens: “oh no young children are behaving like young children, how awful!”

        All you have to do to pick it up is sign on the dotted line and pay ten percent of your income.

        Not even ten percent! We don’t have formal tithing in Catholicism! Yeah, maybe in the USA they’ve picked up the habit from the Protestants, but over here it’s “whatever you want to put in the collection envelope/the collection basket” every Sunday, and a heck of a lot of people are not putting in anything like 10% of their weekly wages.

        • Nornagest says:

          Most Protestants don’t, either. I think the Mormons are the major denomination that comes the closest.

          • ragnarrahl says:

            Mormons specifically require 10% of your income. (It’s not resolved whether this is before or after taxes, the Church says “God will be as stingy or not with you as you are with him.”)

            Apparently the 10% figure started as a Jewish thing a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away before Jewish stereotypes completely incompatible with that popped up.

          • Loquat says:

            I can’t find a video link, but The Simpsons’ Reverend Lovejoy favors the first:

            And once again, tithing is 10% off the top. That’s gross income, not net. Please people, don’t force us to audit.

          • Tarhalindur says:

            I don’t think denomination is the right frame to use here (for the US, at least); my understanding is that tithing in the US is predominantly a fundamentalist/(tele)evangelical phenomenon (with the Mormons being the most obvious exception), and that movement has pretty heavy overlap with nondenominational churches. (My working hypothesis is that the concept arose out of the Latter Rain movement.)