I don’t know much about gay history, but the heavily mythicized version of it I heard goes like this:
At first open homosexuality was totally taboo. A few groups of respectable people with hilariously upper-class names like The Mattachine Society and The Daughters Of Bilitis quietly tried to influence elites in favor of more tolerance, using whatever backchannels elites use to influence one another. They had limited success, but they comforted themselves that at least they were presenting a likeable and respectable face for homosexuality that was improving the lifestyle’s public reputation.
Then a few totally-non-respectable outsiders with nothing to lose – addicts, drag queens, men with lots of chest hair who dressed in leather and called themselves “bears” – publicly came out as gay, held pride parades, shouted things about “WE’RE HERE, WE’RE QUEER”, et cetera. They were very easy to dislike and most people easily disliked them. But once they did this enough, people who were maybe 10% of the way to being respectable – people not addicted to quite so many drugs, men without quite so much chest hair – felt comfortable joining in. Once enough of them were out, people who were 20% of the way to being respectable felt comfortable coming out, and so on. Then 30% respectable people, then 40% respectable people, all the way up to the present day where there are a bunch of openly gay members of Congress.
I know there are lots of debates over whether this kind of “respectability cascade” is the way it really happened, but it’s a neat model of a way that these things can happen.
And it’s especially interesting because it’s the opposite of the way I usually think about these things.
When I did pre-med in college, I learned physiology from a distinguished professor whose focus was herpetology – the study of reptiles and amphibians. His pet issue was endocrine disruption – hormone-like pollutants that were changing the sexual maturation of frogs and other animals, and which were suspected to have deleterious effects on humans. He made us read a bunch of papers on this, all of which demonstrated a clear scientific consensus that this was a well-known environmental problem and all the respectable environmentalists and herpetologists were concerned about it.
After college I went about a decade without thinking about it. Then people started making fun of Alex Jones’ CHEMICALZ R TURNING TEH FROGZ GAY!!! shtick. I innocently said that this was definitely happening and definitely deserved our concern, and discovered that this was no longer an acceptable thing to talk about in the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand And Whatever. Okay. Lesson learned.
We can imagine a world where endocrine disruptors proceeded the same way gay rights did. A few distinguished scientists sounded the warning in acceptable elite language to other elites, but they were a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Then 0% respectable conspiracy theorists took to Twitter to make all-caps posts about TURNING TEH FROGZ GAY!!! At first they were roundly despised, but a few 10%-respectable people saw the taboo was broken and joined in, and then 20% respectable people saw the taboo had weakened even further, and so on. Finally, the cascade catches up to members of Congress, who ban the polluting chemicals. The distinguished scientists thank God for sending Alex Jones to accomplish what they could not.
But in this world, my impression is that the scientists were making slow-but-non-zero progress, doing really good work, and then Jones’s adoption of the cause destroyed it. Now it’s much harder for the scientists to convince anyone to care, because caring has become a signal that you’re a conspiracy theorist or otherwise a disrespectable person. Jones hasn’t just failed to contribute to the fight against endocrine disruptors, he’s shot it in the foot. My professor should send him a private email asking him to shut up for the good of the cause, and to leave the issue to people who can wage it non-counterproductively, ie 100% respectable elite scientists.
This is the worldview I was trying to get across in Trump: A Setback For Trumpism. Polls show that ever since Trump entered the national stage, support for tariffs and border control have fallen. Probably this is for the same reason that concern about frog hormones would have fallen if anyone did a poll on it – the issue became associated with disreputable people, so the respectable people fled from it lest they be contaminated with low status.
It’s also related to the point I make about Voat here. Reddit makes some unpopular moderation policies. It has all sorts of users, from 0% respectable racist trolls to 100% respectable academics in AskHistorians who will answer your oddly specific questions on medieval Swiss dentistry. Maybe all of them have some concerns about the new moderation, but the 0% respectable trolls have the most concern and are vocal in the fight against it. This leads to opposing the moderation policies getting coded as “racist troll”, and means the other discussion sites that spring up as possible alternatives are so disreputable that nobody with any kind of a reputation dares to go there. Again, the 0% respectable people taking up a theme discourage anybody else from following, lest they be associated with toxic people.
So we have two opposite lessons.
In the first, 0%-respectable-people taking up a cause is a good and necessary first step, and means that soon 10% and 20% respectable people will take it up. It is the beginning of a respectability cascade that will redeem the cause from the pit of taboo-ness permanently.
In the second, 0%-respectable-people taking up a cause dooms it forever. It is the beginning of a disrespectability cascade that will make the cause too toxic for anyone above that respectability level to ever dare associate with.
So what does one do?
I’m particularly thinking here of one of my own hobbyhorses, the fight to protect scientific integrity from regressive leftism. My strategy so far has been to let Stephen Pinker and Jonathan Haidt do all the talking, and only talk myself if I feel like I can speak with the same level of dignity, respectability, and scientific backing they do. As for random people on Twitter who are likely to speak in ALL CAPS, on the rare occasions when they seek my opinion, I give them the advice of the great poet John Milton, who wrote “They also serve who only stand and wait and keep their idiot mouths shut”.
Yet I can’t help but notice that this is pursuing the same kind of strategy as the Mattachine Society and all of those other elite groups who never made more than the tiniest contribution to gay rights. “Get your most respectable members to serve as public spokespeople, and keep your least respectable members quiet so they don’t ruin your image” sounds like a good strategy. But it’s the opposite of the respectability cascade theory, and that theory is convincing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since that New York Times article on the “Intellectual Dark Web”, because those people seem like the second level of the respectability cascade. None of them are Congressmen yet, but all of them are a step beyond Milo Yiannopoulos. This has made me wonder if maybe there’s something to this after all?
Even beyond the strategic perspective, it’s just sort of embarrassing to have two good theories of how society and politics work that make opposite predictions from each other. What are some heuristics for when one would work rather than another?
Homosexuality started out as already maximally taboo; endocrine disruptors and immigration started out as merely under-discussed. Maybe disrespectable people can’t hurt an already-maximally-taboo cause, but can harm an under-discussed one?
Gay people – even 0%-respectable drug-addicted gay people – seem more sympathetic and likeable than Alex Jones or his fans, so maybe their visibility was more of a positive. But is this just me projecting my 2010s post-gay-victory values back on the past?
People leaving Reddit went to a specific alternative community – Voat – whereas people coming out as gay kept some of their existing relationships intact. Maybe socializing in a specific community made up of disrespectable people is a hard sell, but admitting to a lifestyle practiced by disrespectable people is easier?
Gay people had no choice but to be gay, whereas environmentalists (and conservatives) could pivot from caring about endocrine disruptors and immigration to some other environmental or conservative cause that might have mattered just as much to them. Maybe respectable people with lots of equally good alternatives are more likely to be repulsed by disrespectable people rather than throw their lot in with them?
But keeping all that in mind, what advice would you give Jonathan Haidt? Should he tell random disrespectable anti-SJW Twitter trolls to shut up? Or should he tell them to shout even louder? It still seems like a hard question.