Self-Reflection and Self-Loathing: Welcome to the High Holy Days

Who among us hasn’t turned a blind eye to our own faults? Who among us hasn’t known or suspected that we were acting badly, but never taken the time to contemplate it? Don’t so many of us think better of ourselves than we deserve, need help finding a better path, or hurt others without thinking?

Assuredly. And so, thank goodness for the High Holy Days, the two days…or ten days…or month and a half Jews are asked and encouraged to reflect on our faults and sins, all the ways we’ve fallen short, to confess and ask for forgiveness, both from others and from God, all in the hopes that we will be written in the Book of Life, and secured for another year.

But what of us who reflect on our faults throughout the year, and not just during the Days of Awe? Every month, or every day, or all the time? Who are susceptible to scrupulosity,  or simply excessive self-criticism and blame? What if you already don’t like some or all of the person you are? What do we do with the High Holidays? To borrow from another holiday, why should these days be any different from any others?

When you are keenly aware of your faults, when you notice when you do wrong, and think you do wrong more than you do, when you’ve worked on worrying *less* about your flaws, what are you supposed to do during this time, how are you supposed to feel?

Appropriately for a Jewish question, there are approximately 613 possible responses.

Here are some of mine, based on what I struggle with.

Excessive self-blame, it turns out, isn’t actually mutually exclusive with doing things wrong. Feeling overwhelmed by guilt isn’t an excuse for not facing our faults and striving to do better. The High Holy Days are a good time for that.

In fact, the excessive guilt thing isn’t all that Jewish at all (though, that’s the kind of thing that could make someone in this mindset feel even worse about themselves). “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” To drown or wallow in self-recrimination prevents us from actually taking positive steps to improve and do better.

One of those positive steps is asking for forgiveness, one of the most powerful things I do on a regular basis as a part of being Jewish. It’s a way to move forward, a positive step, that doesn’t involve weaponizing weakness or talking about how horrible you are. It’s a way of focusing on others, not yourself.

Focusing on how you, yourself, have done wrong is part of the process, but not all. Ashamnu, the confessional prayer, is stated in the collective. We have gone astray, we have given bad counsel, we have rebelled. It’s not about you. We have all done wrong, and we stand together to ask for forgiveness. And we have probably all done many of the things on that list, so we are not alone. But we haven’t done all the things on that list, so we are standing in solidarity with others who have done wrongs we have not, and so they are standing for us, and our wrongs.

On Kol Nidre, the evening service on Erev Yom Kippur in which we renounce all our vows, we say, admit, that we will be saying the same thing next year. It might be mightily depressing, to think that inevitably, another year of sins will accrue. Even in the time that we are most fixated on changing our ways, our focus drifts to the ways we’ll fall short. But the inevitability of failure should also be a comfort, to know that we are all flawed, and our tradition accounts for that. It, or God, doesn’t expect us to be perfect.

Not only does our tradition know we will fail and falter and fall short, but it has a process in place for us. This might make it worse (if you’re the anti-inductive type); why do it all if you know you’re bound for failure? I happen to like the finiteness of the process and how much is externally ordained. You do the right things, in the right order, and it might not make it better, but then it’s over. You don’t have to think of what the right things are, they’re right there in your machzor, or in your family tradition. You pray, or think, or reflect; you ask forgiveness, connect with those around you; you confess; you try to do better.

Believing in God might make things worse. Perhaps for his anger, jealousy and viciousness, his demands on our thoughts and behavior. Or, oppositely, because he is the moral arbiter, a Judge, and our King, and we are being held to account in ways we might wish we weren’t. After all, we are told in the Unetanah Tokef that God plans the manner of our deaths at the same time he counts up our sins.

Not believing might make things worse. If there’s no God to keep us accountable, what’s the point? If there’s no god to love us, how do we escape from our self-hatred? Having god in your life can be a comfort and a help, whether the model is of a monarch or a parent, a judge or a caregiver, or something else besides. We are lucky (others might say blessed) to be part of a religion uniquely accepting of atheism and doubt).

But a situation which is lose-lose is also a win-win, so maybe we can feel lucky for what we do get, atheist or believer: the comfort of boundaries or the joy of freedom, ethics divinely inspired or humanistically molded. God will think of our good deeds as well as our bad, and look upon us mercifully. We can do the same, and recall our achievements as well as our faults. We are made of dust, but we are also made in the image of God.

Whatever helps you, the following are true:

Yes, you’ve sinned, but here you are, atoning.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and we have time to do better.

Yes, you’ve sinned, but it’s not all on you.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and our community stands together to proclaim it.

Yes, you’ve sinned, but maybe not as much as you think.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and will sin again, but maybe we will get to make new mistakes instead of old ones.

Yes, you’ve sinned, but still you are loved.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and you can ask for forgiveness.

Yes, you’ve sinned, and so what?

Yom Kippur will come regardless.

It might be difficult or easy, painful or lovely, empty or meaningful. I hope the latter for all of you, but the former are just as fair and legitimate.

I will be praying and fasting and atoning and self-berating and apologizing and hurting. It will be hard. I will prostrate myself and beat my chest and feel the fear and agony of the gates of heaven closing.

And then they will close. And then it will be evening and morning, a new day.

Saving the Steelman


Steelmanning is addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented, but Ozy points out that in practice, it doesn’t work as well as intended. Perhaps Alice doesn’t understand Bob’s argument as well as she thinks she does, and ends up with a steelman that is, in fact, Bob’s original argument (I haven’t seen this myself). Or, and I have seen this, Bob comes up with the version of Alice’s argument that makes most sense to him, based on his premises and worldviews. But that’s still pretty valuable! It’s the skill of translating an argument from one basis to another, one worldview to another. Of course, not everything will translate, but it’s great if people push themselves to see if their premises allow them to accept an argument instead of just rejecting any argument built on different assumptions.

From Ozy’s comment section:

People don’t have to be stupid to be wrong, nor (and this is the heart of steelmanning) do they have to start with the same premises to come up with a worthwhile argument, even if it’s not great as presented.

While that’s a good personal habit, though, it might not be particularly useful in conversation, and neither is saying “I hear your argument. Here’s a better one.” All of that has some significant probability of conveying condescension.

Perhaps “real steelmanning is being able to put other people’s viewpoints in words they themselves find more compelling than their own arguments”, and that certainly sounds great. It’s a restatement of Rapoport’s first rule:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

As Ozy says, that’s hard and rare in conversation. And where Luke Muelhauser is seeing it is in papers written not from one thinker to another, but written by each to a general audience. So I think we’re eliding a set of important differences.

As always, things depend on context and on your goals.

  • Are you interested primarily in truth-seeking or a compassionate and full understanding of your interlocutor’s position?
  • Do you want to improve your model of the world or have access to new ones?
  • Do you want to improve your hedgehog skills or your fox skills?
  •  Are you in a conversation with the person you’re steelmanning or thinking about something you’ve read or heard or explaining something you’ve read or heard to a third party?
  • Are you interested in the best argument for a position from *your* perspective or *their* perspective?

There’s a flowchart waiting to be made.

IF you want to understand what an argument feels like from the inside, and appreciate the beauty and special-ness of someone’s position, and want to be able to engage really compassionately – whether in active conversation or in explaining a view to someone else – the Ideological Turing Test is for you. Do you really know what it’s like to believe that fetuses are morally equivalent to people? To believe that AI Risk is existentially important? To want to vote for Donald Trump? To really like Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and not be voting for her as a lesser evil?

I agree with Jonathan Nathan that anyone explaining a philosophical or religious position to someone for the first time, or who is in a position of the teacher, ought to present those positions as genuinely compelling, and the ITT can help. (Though it’s worth noting that in conveying that a position is actually plausible, affect and pathos may be as or more important than content) .(Also, you can absolutely convey the wonder of a belief from the outside, with lots of appreciative language – “The ritual observances of Orthodox Judaism have a beauty stemming from their long history”, but that may not make it sound plausible).

For your own thinking, ITT gives the chance to expand your thinking, have access to more models and generate new hypotheses, but it’s probably more important for your compassion, and the way it gives you a sense of what it’s like to think like someone else. It is a very good thing to understand where others are coming from, but it is also a good thing to not assume that the most understanding view is the correct one. ITT is less truth-seeking, more understanding-seeking. It’s about the value of other people’s beliefs and thought patterns, even if they’re not correct or true.

IF you hear an argument you think is wrong, but you don’t want to discount the possibility of the position being true, or there being value somewhere in the argumentation, steelmanning is your choice.

From Eliezer Yudkowsky’s facebook:

“Let me try to imagine a smarter version of this stupid position” is when you’ve been exposed to the Deepak Chopra version of quantum mechanics, and you don’t know if it’s the real version, or what a smart person might really think of the issue. It’s what you do when you don’t want to be that easily manipulated sucker who can be pushed into believing X by the manipulator making up a flawed argument for not-X that they can congratulate themselves on skeptically being smarter than. It’s not what you do in a respectful conversation.

From Ozy’s comment section:

tl;dr: IMHO, “steelmanning” is not great if you’re interested in why a particular person believes something. However, it is actually pretty great to test one’s own preconceptions, and to collect strong arguments when you’re interested in the underlying question.

Worth noting that in this case, you can work on creating or constructing better arguments yourself, either from your own position or from someone else’s (so closer to ITT), OR you can simply be charitable (I’ve often wondered how charity and steelmanning intersect) and assume better arguments exist, and then go find them. As Ozy says, “You don’t have to make up what your opponents believe! As it happens, you have many smart opponents!” Both are valuable. The former pushes you to think in new ways, to understand different hypotheses and think critically about the causal and logical consequences of premises. If you are very good at this, you might come up with an argument you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. The latter inculcates more respect for the people who disagree with you and the body of knowledge and thought they’ve already created, and is likely to lead to a more developed understanding of that corpus, which will probably include arguments you would never have thought of. Both protect you from the inoculation effect.

More importantly, both push you to be a better and deeper thinker. Charity gives you an understanding of others’ thoughts and a respect and appreciation for them, but the bulk of the value is for yourself, and your own truth-seeking as you sort through countless arguments and ideas. If you start with different premises, you might make other people’s arguments better, but mostly this is about what makes the most sense to you, and discovering the most truthful and valuable insights in the midst of noise.

IF you thought, as I claimed originally, that this was all a way to have better conversations and you’re wondering where it’s all gone wrong, perhaps you are seeking collaborative conversations. If you’re finding that your conversations are mostly arguments rather than discussions, all the charity and steelmanning and ITT-ing in the world might not help you (though I’ve found that being really nice and reasonable sometimes seriously de-escalates a situation). It depends also on how willing your interlocutor is to do the same kind of things, and if the two (or more) of you are searching for truth and understanding together, many magical things can happen. You can explain your best understanding of their position from both your and their perspective, and they can update or correct you. They can supply evidence that you didn’t know that helps your argument. You can “double-crux” , a thing I just learned about at EA Global that CFAR is teaching. You can be honest about what you’re not sure about, and trust that no one will take it as an opportunity to gloat for points. You can point out places you agree and together figure out the most productive avenues of discourse. You can ask what people know and why they think they know it. This is probably the best way to get yourself to a point where you can steelman even within conversations. It’s both truth-seeking and understanding-seeking, fox-ish and hedgehog-ish, and if I’m making it sound like the best thing ever, that’s because I think it is.

There are many reasons to have less fun and less compassionate and less productive and less truth-finding conversations than these, because we live in an imperfect world. But if you can surround yourself with people who will do this with you, hold on tight.


Empaneled again! Critical Thinking in Education

I actually got to be on *two* wonderful panels for FTBCon, quite different from each other! In this one, Matt Lowry, Dan Linford, Jason Thibeault and I just chatted free-form about how we teach critical thinking in our classrooms.


  • Important: When I say math here, I mean high school math, not logic or model theory.
  • The truth is I am incredibly conflicted about things like this (and really education as a whole). My thoughts go something like this: teaching breaks up into four categories: skills, conceptual understanding, love of math, meta.
    • The first is most important if you think students should need to know those skills and be able to use them or remember them in the future. That goes for everyone when you’re talking about addition and number skills, and engineers or other applied scientists or mathematicians for the advanced stuff. Since I don’t think most of my students need this, I’m ok with saying that dropping a negative is not a big deal and doesn’t necessarily warrant points off. BUT there is of course value in, you know, getting the right answer, and maybe this focus is taking away from actually being able to do the problem, as this Atlantic piece argues.
    • Conceptual understanding is important for mathematicians and anyone hoping to do complex math, but it’s also important for grasping connections and getting a sense of how math describes the world. I think it’s the coolest and most interesting part, and so it’s what I focus on. Being able to perform skills is subordinate to this, largely. If you can’t intersect lines well and smoothly, you won’t get what’s so cool about parametric equations. If you have trouble with mental math, integration is going to be a slog, and not for good reasons. I also tend to think, but maybe this is the Typical Mind Fallacy, that the better you understand something, the easier it is to perform skills, since everything flows and makes sense, rather than being a rote list where you’re racking your brain for what happens next. BUT you can focus on conceptual understanding to the detriment of skill building, which can lower confidence since students don’t even know where to start. Giving them systematic approaches (i.e. rules)
    • Love of math is half selfish, half not. I think math is cool and beautiful, and I want other people to think so. I also think math is so amazingly capable of describing the world around us that it’s valuable for educated people to have an appreciation for it, and a general sense of how it works. (things move in parabolas when thrown, it has to do with earth’s gravity; if you know how many tickets to the interview sold and how much money you made, it is a solved question how many were $6 tickets and how many were $15 tickets). I *also* think that if you have to sit through school-mandated math you might as well enjoy it and have enough understanding and care to find things in it that interest you.
  • I, and many other teachers, can talk all day about all the cool strategies we use and all of our lofty goals, but I certainly don’t know what the outcomes are. I don’t have data. I got a lovely card from a student last summer that said “thanks for teaching me a new way to think” but I also had students fail their final exam, possible because we did so much “sure it works in practice, but how does it work in theory” that they couldn’t actually use equations and formulae. At least, that’s my fear.

I hope to write more in 2015 about education and my teaching experience, but if you want to find some cool gifs and general ramblings, my math tumblr is here. But now I’ll turn it over: what are your thoughts on the panel or about critical thinking in education?

Rational Relationships: Video and Thoughts

I was very lucky to be an invited panelist for FTBCon 3’s panel: “How Does Our Skepticism Influence our Romantic or Non-Romantic Relationships?” with Wesley Fenza, Miri Mogilevsky and Franklin Veaux.

Wesley did a great job moderating, framing the discussion as a jaunt through several cognitive biases and how they affect our relationships and relationship choices. Enjoy!

Additional thoughts:

  • We talked a lot about how cognitive bias affects our choices to get in or stay in relationships at the beginning, and towards the second half talked more about cognitive bias *in* relationships, but I think you can apply all of them to both. For instance, if you’re trying something new with a partner, especially if it’s an attempt to improve the relationship, it’s easy to be subject to the sunk cost fallacy, where you’ve already tried this thing for so long you might as well keep going. I also like the idea of a partner as someone you can bail out with, where it’s safe to say “this isn’t working, let’s quit”
  • As has been said before (and Miri said in the panel), many of these biases are or can be adaptive in interesting ways.
    • Just as we are happier when we have a slightly inflated sense of our worth or value, I’d imagine we are happier when we let the halo effect work its magic, letting us overlook unimportant flaws in our partners and keeping the relationship on happy ground.
    • If you’ve invested time and effort into a relationship, it’s true that that cost has already been spent, no matter what happens now, but it means that you also have a relationship “for free”, as it were, since you’ve already paid the cost, and that really can be better than investing all of that again. It’s a framing I find helpful – for instance, if you paid 20,000 for the first year of college and you’re deciding where to go, it’s true that that money is gone, but now your choice is between a free year of college or doing something else, which matters.
    • I brought up the idea that the scarcity model vs the abundance model of love might just be an empirical question for some people. Nonconventionally attractive people with unusual kinks or very specific attractions might genuinely have a lot of trouble finding people. But I do want to emphasize that while as a thought experiment that’s true, it’s probably true for a vanishingly small proportion of the population, and Franklin was probably right that a more optimistic approach will, in and of itself lead to better outcomes.
    • I really like thinking of things like this – what are other ways cognitive biases can be adaptive in relationships?

For me the most important takeaways were:

  • The idea of a game-changing relationship that raises the bar for all future ones is both nerdy/rationalist and really heart-warming
  • Not a new idea, but one worth repeating – if you think it would be the worst thing in the world to not be with your current partner, you are probably wrong. You would probably be ok, and everything would probably work out.

Your thoughts? What would you have said if you were on the panel?

Feminism and The Search for Truth

Part 1: Pain is bad; also, it’s data Social justice and feminism, like every other intellectual movement, should be about truth. They can and are and should be about other things as well – solidarity, encouragement, emotion, commitment, action – but truth must be at the center, or we will find we are fighting for, and perhaps more frighteningly, against, the wrong things. I was pained by the internet’s response to Dr. Scott Aaronson’s comment on his blog, detailing the pain he underwent as a self-described nerd, wholly committed (to the point of asking for castration) to never acting towards women in a way that could ever be interpreted as an assault or unwelcome advance. The worst was about what you’d expect from the worst of any group, with the multiplier of the internet and a pile-on mentality: cruel in its dismissal of Dr. Aaronson’s vulnerability and pain and vicious in its unfounded attacks. Even the article in the New Statesman by Laurie Penny, lauded in several corners for its empathy and compassion, was to me, a terrible disappointment. There are more and more whispers coming from disparate places that echo what Dr. Aaronson said. It is becoming emprically and ethically questionable to doubt that feminist messages make the lives of some men (and others attracted to women, and others period), specifically those in the nerd camp, harder, and not in a productive way. The New Statesmen piece barely addressed any of this. It acknowledged that being on the social outskirts is difficult, and then tied everything back to traditional feminist ideas by pointing out the struggles that women face, and how they are more, or harder, or more important. But to address someone expressing the pain they felt as a result of trying to take feminist ideas seriously by offering them yet more of the same is a failing, in ethics and in thinking. As Aaronson himself said in edits to his original comment:

[My comment] is not, insanely, to suggest a lack of misogyny in the modern world! To whatever extent there is misogyny, one could say that there’s also “male privilege.” Rather it’s to suggest that, given what nerdy males have themselves had to endure in life, shaming them over their “male privilege” is a bad way to begin a conversation with them.

Not only that, but the angle was kind of a non sequitur, since Dr. Aaronson didn’t bring up anything about patriarchy or privilege(1) unhelpful to me. Dr. Aaronson did seem to misunderstand  privilege, feeling like he didn’t have it since his life was so hard, and that it would have been easier to be a woman or gay. He even suggested, though did not necessarily stand behind, the idea that being a shy male nerd might “have put me [Dr. Aaronson] into one of society’s least privileged classes.” However, while there’s certainly room to engage with that misunderstanding, I saw Laurie Penny addressing primarily the question of whether Dr. Aaronson was less privileged than his female counterparts (no, and I’m glad she pointed that out) rather than the bigger question of feminism’s role in making his life more difficult, and whether privilege is a useful concept in this context.  I can tell Laurie Penny was trying to do a good job, but the formulation of “being a woman means you have less privilege than a ceterus paribus man, full stop”, while largely or entirely true, is incredibly common, and did not move the conversation forward. It reminded me of a Fixed Argumentation Pattern, wherein people make the same arguments in the same ways regardless of what ideas they’re actually confronting.

A facebook group

A facebook group

What would I have liked to see? I would liked to have seen the kind of feminism that I and a (small? but hopefully growing? it’s so hard to know) community of people adhere to, one that goes hand in hand with our goals of truth and accuracy. We attempt to utilize all of the tools of science and aspiring rationalism to collect evidence, think critically about ideological claims, and land wherever the data and best argumentation takes us, even when it’s inconvenient or unpalatable. It’s a feminism that is willing to use explanations of ideas in place of potentially unproductive jargon. It’s a feminism that acknowledges it does not have the only useful model and the only claims to truth. It’s a feminism that sees critiques of its claims as reasons to do more research and argue better (or change its mind), rather than as attacks from The Enemy. Such a feminism would have taken Dr. Aaronson’s pain seriously and been more compassionate, because it would have known that he was not the enemy. (A guy who is on board with 97% of feminism (possibly more than me) is not doing a particularly good job as an enemy of feminism.) It would have asked itself, if it believed in feminism so strongly, why good ideas were leading to bad outcomes and what that meant about feminist strategy. It would have acknowledged that the growing body of confessions of people, specifically nerdy men, in pain, is data, and that data needs to be incorporated if the theory is to remain robust. Part 2: Alternate Responses: Some suggestions My first response to reading about all this was a veritable stream of consciousness of questions. In a more organized fashion, here are some thoughts I would want my feminism to explore What’s going on with this pain?

  1. Is it just that the feminist ideals of consent and respect for women’s autonomy have been badly conveyed or communicated?

No doubt that this is true in some cases, since not everyone in the world is a good communicator, but is that enough to explain all of it?

  1. Is it an issue of strategy, where we have focused on what bad consent looks like and not enough on what good men and good consent look like?

I can think of several examples of positive discussion, but perhaps they are not widespread enough, or are not being communicated well (see #1)

  1. Are the men suffering from this simply over-scrupulous, that is, they suffer from the sense that they must achieve moral perfection and lambast themselves if they fail?

If so, this has relatively less to do with feminism. Such scrupulosity (and over scrupulosity) can be found in Effective Altruism circles and highly religious environments (where the term comes from), to name just a few. That said, Effective Altruists are at least trying to undermine that aspect of their messaging, and I am on record saying that purity, and its attendant request for perfection, is a shitty moral foundation and we should eschew it whenever possible. Feminism can and should do the same. Not least, it’s worth adding, if some of the people most hurt by feminist messaging are the people trying the hardest to do good and hating themselves for not getting it right enough, something is probably going wrong. Scrupulous people are the best, let’s please not make them hate themselves.

  1. Is it an unfortunate but necessary side effect of spreading the right messages to everyone else?

Every social message engages with the tension between who it will reach and who the optimal audience is. If your social circle really needs to be more X, and so you start spreading X messages far and wide, you might be hitting people who ought or could be less X. It’s possible that the optimal way to spread feminism sadly involves the pain of the more scrupulous (if we combined this with #3, someone might point out that scrupulous people are most at risk for bad effects from any message imploring people to do better).  If that’s true, so be it, but arguing that the current equilibrium constructed on the base of passionate, angry, self-interested actors + the internet (i.e. Moloch’s playground) is optimal, like, the actual highest point on the highest mountain of what feminism could be would take some serious work and my prior for it is somewhere around 10%.

This may also just be a question of competing access needs, in which there is no way to make a safe space for everyone, because people have different needs. Feminists might need spaces to be communally harsh and critical of injustices. Scrupulous people might need a safe haven from that kind of criticism, which will harm them more than help them. Aspiring rationalists might need a place where everything can be criticized, including feminism itself. And people at the intersections are probably going to have a hard time. In fact, this issue is evidence that they are having a hard time, and I hope this opens up the space a little.

  1. Is there a vicious undercurrent of feminist thought and thinkers that don’t take seriously the pain of people they consider privileged?

Many seem to think so, some of whom are dedicated to battling feminism in ways just as if not more unproductive and obnoxious than what they’re criticizing, and some of whom may have more of a point. It only takes looks at some of the ways that feminists are themselves attacked by other feminists to feel uneasy about some of the discourse. And of course this may just be a human problem, not a feminism problem, though feminism might still want to clean house. It’s also worth pointing out that feminism and social justice sometimes argue for the reasonableness of uncivil argumentation. My natural inclination to steelman means that that doesn’t end the conversation for me, but it does suggestively point out a problem.

Part 3: The Future I wanted to write a response to the Laurie Penny article as soon as I was asked what I thought and ended up writing a four paragraph Facebook comment. But I wanted to write this particular piece, wherein I have tried to outline the feminism that makes sense to me and bring others on board for an additional reason. In the comments of a blog post discussing these events, I saw a call to action, asking for feminists to speak up and demonstrate their allegiance to compassion and evidence and self-criticism. It’s anyone’s guess how necessary that is; I don’t feel that all the feminism that has come before me has been uncommitted to truth or evidence or rationality, and it is utterly ridiculous to believe that I am starting or leading something completely new. All of us are thoroughly indebted to the people who have been doing feminist and other justice-related work all along, but there’s also an evolving need for a different kind of space. Something is happening, and I want to be part of the group that stays a part of feminism, that remains embedded in the same issues and fights, but also changes and adapts more readily, using tools of thinking that already exist. My feminism will be accurate, or I can’t do it anymore.

(1) I was wrong here. I focused on the parts of Dr. Aaronson’s posts that I found most important, that I thought were most important to respond to, and forgot about the others. Laurie Penny oviously responded more to the privilege aspects, which I still argue is unhelpful, but is a reasonable choice. Mea Culpa. Possibly related posts

Pictures of cute animals make things better

One Year in Pittsburgh

I like it here.

I didn’t really expect to.

But I really like how downtown looks from the highway.

I like the bridges, in all their shapes and forms.

2013-08-20 16.03.40

2013-08-20 16.00.21

I like the constant Christian rock on the radio.

I like the Moth and City of Asylum

I like the politics, whether or not I always agree with them

2013-10-20 13.39.56

2014-03-15 15.29.49

2014-03-15 15.31.04

I love the neighborhoods: Italian Bloomfield, hip Lawrenceville, bar-filled South Side

I like how green it is, how close national parks are

2013-09-02 13.16.05

2013-10-02 07.38.43

I like the flowers

2013-08-26 13.09.53

I like the east coast parts – diners, things happening every night, the city-feel, a good bit of economic and racial diversity

I like the midwest parts – the casual dress code and short buildings and helpful strangers and the fact that people never seem to want to leave

I like how nice everyone is. The number of conversations I’ve had with strangers in coffeeshops is unreal, and it has made my life so much better.

I like the Indian and Thai restaurants all over

I like that it gets cold, but not as cold as Chicago

2014-01-06 10.52.212013-12-07 11.06.31

2014-02-05 09.42.13

I like that it gets hot and humid, but not as hot and humid as Miami

I like that I can drive to Detroit and DC and New York if I want to

2014-01-18 18.46.48

I like the bookstores and cafes all over the place.

I like the bars, even! (Some)

I like the beautiful, beautiful parks

2013-08-31 16.23.49

I like that there’s vegan and vegetarian food everywhere

I like the murals you can find all around the city

2013-08-21 17.11.13

2013-08-26 13.18.20

2013-08-26 13.18.16

I like the thrift stores where I shop for clothes and apartment things

I like my apartment, a lot

I like that my landlord speaks Italian

I like the little treasures – a cafe with a crawl space for children, a dessert place with an in-home library, dog-walking parks near my school that double as low-key hiking trails, a vegan-friendly wings and pizza place that’s most frequented by punks, a diner that’s 24/7, but only between Wednesday and Sunday

2014-01-11 21.08.48

I like the Saturday morning farmer’s markets.

2013-08-26 13.07.40

I like the natural history museum, and the fact that it’s in the same building as the art museum. Who says such things have to be separate?

2014-09-21 15.39.23

2014-09-21 15.39.29

And I like all the things I haven’t done yet – visit the Frick, played trivia in a bar, taken pictures at the Phipps Conservatory

I didn’t think I’d end up here, but I can’t say I’m disappointed.

Liberal Purity

Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, implores all of us, but especially liberals, to try to expand our moral intuitions to include dimensions they might not have before. He categorizes the six relevant axes as: Care/Harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation, and has found in his research that the last three don’t really resonate with liberals.

I wrote last time about what it might be like to try to make those qualities more morally relevant, and in thinking and reading about it (for instance my wonderful comments section), some weaknesses in Haidt’s theory have come to light. For instance, it seems that liberals do have glands for loyalty, authority and sanctity, though they take a different form than they do in conservative thought. And secondly, in my view, it is where liberals have these senses activated that their politics are worst. It is a very good thing to understand where others are coming from, but it is also a good thing to not assume that the most understanding view is the correct one.

Examples of Liberal Purity

  • Leah Libresco has discussed the way the Effective Altruism movement “can feel more like a “purity” decision than other modes of thought people have used to date”, in exactly Haidt’s sense. For those not familiar, Effective Altruism is a movement of people dedicated to doing the most good they can with their charitable dollars, and sometimes their whole lives. From a utilitarian standpoint, what that ends up meaning is that there is a maximally good thing you could be doing, and everything else is not that. In fact, utilitarianism itself, generally associated with liberalism because of its universalism (and to be fair to Haidt, its anti-authoritarianism and anti-tribalism), is generally going to lead to a purity ethic, since things are not just good, they are quantifiably good, and other things are usually better.
  • Environmentalism, similarly, advances “clean energy”, and speaks of coal companies not only as evil, but as disgusting, contrasting the pristine atmosphere with the black fumes belching from smokestacks.

Clean eating sadly doesn’t seem to involve a lot of cheesecake

  • Lefty spiritualism tends to make great use of the purity ethic; there is much talk of cleansing one’s self of toxins, and raw and non-meat foods are spoken of as cleaner than their alternatives (think “clean eating”). This is sometimes as narrowly applied to kale and quinoa, and sometimes as broad as not eating fast food or processed food. In either case, the higher, cleaner, greener things are purer than dirty, fatty, mass-produced food.
  • As in all political disputes, liberals speak of their opponents not only as wrong, but as disgusting. Bigotry and prejudice are dirty, and they tar anyone accused of them. This is by no means limited to liberals, but it certainly does not pass them by.

Perhaps in contradiction with Haidt’s hope that in understanding the moral foundations of one’s political opponents, we will all come a little closer together, it seems to me that these purity-based progressive communities come under some of the most fire from conservatives. Spiritualism and environmentalism are soundly mocked, and it might be precisely because they make use of the purity ethic. It’s one thing if liberals just don’t get the need for purity (they fail to recognize the decay of the social fabric, they have no respect for the sanctity of human life, etc.), but it might be all the worse if they claim to understand, only to get it drastically wrong. Heresy and false idols are sometimes worse than atheism.

One of the weaknesses of the purity ethic, as this showcases, is that it doesn’t allow much room for pluralism or diversity, since any step away from the highest and holiest is wrong and bad. It’s telling, for instance, that effective altruists may not want to be seen the way described above. And I wouldn’t either. The purity-based ideologies in liberalism are some of those I’m most embarrassed to see on my team. I think environmentalism is great, but if you sacralize the environment, it becomes impossible to make even beneficial trade-offs for other valuable things, like economic development that improves and saves lives. Environmentalism is at its best when it emphasizes the people hurt by climate change and polluted resources (care/harm), not when it makes you a disgusting person for not driving a Prius. Purity is a blinding force, making it harder, not easier, to compromise (as Haidt himself says, morality “binds and blinds.” Haidt wants liberals to understand purity, but when they do, they tend (as all humans do) to see themselves at the top of the scale and others, like conservatives, at the bottom. I think I’d prefer less purity-based thinking rather than more.

(Certainly, it is valuable to understand the sanctity ethic to be able to empathize and steelman and model other people’s minds better. But that might not be worth going so far as to weave that ethics further into our politcs).

The problem is, if you don’t sacralize anything, and everything is up for discussion, it’s much harder to form extremely cohesive, effective units. Haidt found, for instance, that religious experiments in communal living were about 6 times more effective than secular ones, even when the secular cause was based around shared ideas and beliefs. Furthermore, the more sacrifice was asked for (body modifications, rejection of material goods), the more successful the group, a phenomenon easily seen in fraternity hazing rituals and larger and larger fur caps in Satmar Jewish communities.

It’s still bad, but it does seem to work. Community building is a bizarre art.

Many liberals I know have long been aware of this fact, and as a result have a deep respect for the religious left and fervent moral thinkers of all stripes. Atheists, humanists and rationalists have long been involved in moral communities which approach sacralization of some virtues, from the Ethical Culture society, to humanism itself and to newer approaches, like Solstice. Powerful political communities can take on this flavor all on their own, as anyone who’s sung “We Shall Overcome” at a political rally can attest. But they do largely see their sacred virtues as slightly less ultimate and unquestionable than their more orthodox counterparts.

Nonetheless, these expressions of human community and morality are beautiful and important. Insofar as these are expressions of purity (they aren’t much) or sanctity (this a bit more), this axis has been part of the liberal framework for centuries, and it should continue to be. Making morality concrete and surrounding one’s self with people who ferociously fight for the things you find important is exactly the way to become a more active moral agent, and to become the kind of person you want to be. Hopefully, these approaches can be compromises between the disaffected abstractions that fail to invigorate and inspire and the hyper-self-righteous purity rhetoric that pushes groups apart and undermines our ability to empathize with others and universalize our morality.

Any more “purity” than that, and the benefits of understanding stop being worth it.