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

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Oh, The Hedgehogs You’ll See!

Maybe I was too mean to hedgehogs when I first talked about hedgehogs and foxes and what types of thinking they represent, and then when I described how I’d been only a pupa as a hedgehog, but blossomed out of the chrysalis into a fox.

(Mixed animal metaphors are the crocoducks of writing)

Anyway, while I stand by what I said in that piece, I do want to give a more nuanced account of the roles of hedgehogish and foxish thinking, and how important they both are to the history of thought and to all of our quests to understand our complex world.

Here’s the lineup:

  1. Low level hedgehogs
  2. Low level foxes
  3. High level hedgehogs
  4. High level foxes

1. Low level hedgehogs

Now I’m beating up on the hedgehogs again. But if you’re going to have a Big Governing Principle, it seems like it would be worthwhile to know it well, and to be able to defend it. Any hedgehog who defends their Big Idea badly is a low-level hedgehog. This kind of thinking leads to: totalizing political ideologies which cannot respond effectively to criticism, simplistic religious views which nonetheless encompass someone’s entire worldview, inconsistent ideological approaches which fail to examine their own lack of coherence, and so on and so forth.

A brilliant argument. I’m always thrilled when this gets brought up.

These are the kind of people we tend to call stubborn and closed-minded. While they may provoke some thought in others, it is not the kind of high level inspiration we would hope productive disagreement would create. I am reminded of the sneering, uncharitable, unnuanced Republicans I knew in high school, who I made it my business to prove wrong at every possible turn. I learned a great deal in the process, but I was given none of the understanding of thoughtful and high level conservatism that I gained in college.

2. Low level foxes

These foxes can be thought of analogously to low-level hedgehogs; they attempt to balance many facts and ideologies, and do so clumsily or inconsistently. For one reason or another, they fail to effectively negotiate the complexities of the issues they are engaging with. But in contrast to the low level hedgehogs, they have at least decided that a sole guiding principle is not enough.

Simplistic understandings of progressivism and feminism have always fit in here for me. The focus on choice and everyone being supported in what they want is a valiant attempt to balance the competing desires of moral people (as opposed to the hedgehog, who would generally classify those people more strictly as moral and immoral, based precisely on those desires). When critiqued by hedgehogs, high or low level, they tend to shy away from the attack and claim that their worldview already encompasses the desired elements.

When kink critical feminists criticize liberal feminists on the basis of say, the glorification of violence against women, the low level foxes tend to say only that BDSM is about consent and if everyone is happy, it’s fine. That’s great, and I think it’s true, but it is an ineffective and inadequate response to the critique. Similarly, so-called “choice feminists” tend to ask, “Isn’t feminism about choice?” and expect that their choices always be respected. But as has been pointed out many a time, this is a self-defeating and unhelpful approach.

A beautiful sentiment, but is this really enough of an argument?

Low-level foxes are also frequently overwhelmed by the complexities of the world around them. Many intelligent people I have known have been like this, and I was as well (and often still am); it results in trying to take into account a great number of things, but never coming out the other side with clearer thinking. For instance, such a fox might look at the fact that buying sweatshop goods ensures that sweatshop labor will continue but that not buying them will harm all of the people who work for sweatshops and be flummoxed. Which is fair, it’s a totally flummoxing thing. But that approach means that more information can lead to indecision and frustration rather than clearer understanding, which is what we’d hope more and better data would do.

3.     High level hedgehogs

Now, high level hedgehogs are where things get interesting, They are brilliant thinkers, far more nuanced than their low-level brethren, but still adhere to a single guiding principle to explain the world. And it’s for that reason that their ideas change the world. Marx changed the world by injecting totally new strains of thought into dominant conceptions of society and economics, and he did it because he was a hedgehog, because he fought on the basis of the unique all-encompassingness of his ideas. I cannot imagine he would have had the same effect if he had said, “Well, I have this new idea, but I’m sure it can be accommodated into the existing capitalist framework.” No, the point was that he was a revolutionary thinker, and not just because he wanted a revolution. His clarion and focused demands forced everyone to think differently, especially the foxes, who depend in large part on hedgehogs to give them the raw material that they combine into their complex and nuanced worldviews. He made everyone update what they thought was true and tinker with their understanding of the world to accommodate him.

He definitely looks like a hedgehog

This is the glory and birthright of the high level hedgehogs, even if, in being hedgehogs, they are almost certainly wrong (at least about something ). Plato, Cornel West, Robert Nozick, Yeshayahu Liebowitz , Robert George – I cannot help but find their worldviews totally compelling, because they seem so sure, and because they force me to think differently. I have had to grapple and engage with their writings, because they left me no way out, no comforting caveats or seductive shortcuts. They said, this is the truth, and you’d better figure out why you don’t agree with it.

4.     High level foxes

Then why do I place high level foxes at the top? They certainly aren’t always right; I imagine Obama’s political ideology to be fairly foxish, but not entirely correct. But based on my previous argument, if someone were to be correct, it would almost certainly be a high level fox. These are the people I trust to amass huge amounts of knowledge and then carefully assess the data, ideas and ideologies they’ve found, take out the best parts of each, and assemble them into a novel, consistent whole. People like Nate Silver, Eliezer Yudkowsky and Luke Muelhauser, while perhaps not always exactly right, certainly are right more than they ought to be because they have that capacity. I have a friend who I’ve described as someone who, when asked what his political position on a topic is, will go to Google Scholar and tell you in ten minutes. He has that kind of openness to evidence, that kind of ability to sift through the data to find what’s important, and that kind of clarity of thought.

And a crucial part of doing this intellectual work is examining the thinking of high level hedgehogs, assimilating what is brilliant and true, and discarding what is overreach and folly. If we are not only to seek foxishness, but excellence in foxishness, then we must cultivate a healthy respect for high-level hedgehogs and the novel ideas they have forced us all to reckon with. Dismissing Marx because he was empirically wrong or because Stalin was a mass-murderer might prevent gaining a deeper understanding of honest and incisive critiques of capitalism. Ignoring Robert George because he’s an anti-marriage equality Catholic leaves no opportunity for coming to a clearer opinion on what marriage really is and what it’s for. (And of course, understanding high level thinkers you don’t agree with is an excellent way to have better arguments). Hedgehogish ideas must be among those that foxes should make it their solemn duty to seek out and respond to, so that everyone can learn from these thinkers. If we want to be the best foxes we can be, hedgehogs are too important to ignore.

He’s happy that he’s important

Blogathon Wrap Up

I know this is a few days late, but I think it’s nice to have a place where all the posts are in the same place. I also really wanted to have a place to put this beautiful word cloud I made on wordle. It has all the words from all my blogathon posts, scaled to reflect the frequency of their use. I love that I seem to talk about people a lot. The other top words are pretty broad: think, just, know, like, good. They’re my go-to verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But there’s also: math, religious, questions, atheists and argue, and that all seems to describe me pretty well.

blogathon word cloud

For those looking for what I wrote, here are the posts:

My Blogathon Announcement: Where I said I was doing it and explained why I thought it was important.

Beginning Blogathon: Where I talked about why the Secular Student Alliance is so important and wonderful (and also how I got lost getting to where I was going)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: Just a bunch of thoughts on what makes groups succeed and thrive.

On Challenging Religious Beliefs: On why I’m working on not seeing challenging religious beliefs in social settings or online as so cringe-inducing, and why I’m glad people actually do it. (Big honking caveat: All normal social conventions like appropriateness and respect obviously need to apply)

Maaaaaaaath: How and why math is so freaking great. Includes crocheted hyperbolic spaces and some light cursing.

Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community: On my suspicion that arguments about infighting and about accomodationism vs confrontationism might be based more on emotional bias than on good arguments.

Safe Spaces for Racists: On what a space where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions without hurting people might look like. Note: title is meant to be catchy/provocative, not an accurate description of what I’m hoping for. By the way, if you like that post, you might like this one, called, “You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It“, in which I announce I’m actually trying to create this space.

Brain Crack: A bunch of silly random ideas I’ve had floating around, like getting kids to teach their own classes and having churches serve as homeless shelters.

That’s all! Thanks so much for reading.

A Personal Journey to Rationalism

(Reading my last post on hedgehogs and foxes is useful, but not at all required, to understand this post)

When I was younger, I used to be obsessed with the phrase “logically consistent worldview.” I really, really wanted one. It seemed like the kind of thing that good intellectuals needed to have if they were going to properly navigate the world. How could you even begin to respond to an event if you didn’t have a fully integrated ethics, metaphysics and epistemology? Sounds silly, I know, but the wikipedia article on Weltanschauung (worldview) became very important to me. I constantly made lists of what I believed at any given time, and what I was still working out. I even began trying to fill out this set of required building blocks for a worldview:

    1. An explanation of the world
    2. A futurology, answering the question “Where are we heading?”
    3. Values, answers to ethical questions: “What should we do?”
    4. A praxeology, or methodology, or theory of action: “How should we attain our goals?”
    5. An epistemology, or theory of knowledge: “What is true and false?”
    6. An etiology. A constructed world-view should contain an account of its own “building blocks,” its origins and construction.

I actually tried to have an answer for every single one of these. And what I figured out quickly was that it was incredibly hard. I would literally be kept up nights worrying about how I was going to reconcile environmentalism and a progress-appreciative attitude towards human society and civilization, or how I as a feminist was supposed to feel about breast augmentation surgery. “The environment matters!” I would say to myself. “But we can’t take a conservationist attitude,” I would also say.” It’s inherently conservative and stops us from making bigger and more technologically advanced cities! And maybe technology would make things more environmentally-friendly, if given the chance!” And then choice! Feminism is about choice! So women (/transmen, but I wasn’t that sophisticated then) should be able to do what they want with their bodies! But feminism can’t accept all choices, or what would be the point? Shouldn’t stop women from objectifying themselves? How can I support a cosmetic surgery that just makes women more sexually available to men? But also shouldn’t they be able to do that if they want?

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

It was an all-consuming, constant intellectual project. I would apply my model to new things, and it would work, and then work, and then every so often, not work, and I would watch it crash and burn. Then I would be uncomfortable and agitated until I came upon an epiphany wherein I could bring all of the parts together and once again have a unified model.

What was my problem? I was trying to be a hedgehogTrying very, very hard, in fact. I wanted a perfect, consistent model to explain and respond to the world. I wanted to understand it.

But in being beholden to a fundamental idea like “feminism is about choice”, I was either stuck when I hit things I would really rather not call feminist, or I had to somehow incorporate more than one fundamental idea together, which almost always causes problems.

(For people who know ring theory: It’s like trying to have a principal ideal with two generators. Doesn’t make sense)

If feminism is about choice, it partitions the world into two categories, feminist and not feminist. And if feminism is fundamentally about some other thing as well, we have another partition, which generally doesn’t map perfectly onto the first one (or there would be no point in having two). So now we have things that aren’t feminist in either sense and things that are feminist in both senses. Easy enough. But what about the things that are feminist in one sense but not in another? Either you have to start creating complicated rules about how the rules interact with each other, or you give up the crystalline, rule-based way of looking at things. Then you get to say that, according to your values, this kind of approach is X amount important, and this policy, according to the facts, helps women Y amount, and so on, and then form reasoned opinions about what will work out best, instead of what fits the model best.

File:Venn0001.svg

What should the venn diagram look like?

And that’s my concern with all hedgehogish systems. Now, maybe I just didn’t alight upon the perfect model, or I didn’t work hard enough. But hedgehogs seem to want dichotomies and trichotomies, things that are in the set or not, ideas and facts that play off each other in rigid, predictable ways. And while I’d love those things too, they haven’t presented themselves to me.

The world, instead, seems to be far better modeled by spectrums, where things are mostly different in degree and not in kind, where ideas can be balanced against each other, where multiple seemingly contradictory facts can be true, if they’re carefully defined and discussed. Instead of irreducible descriptors like “liberal”, “just”, “feminist” and “environmentalist”, switches that are either on or off, I have knobs and sliders, continuous things that can be sort of true, or mostly right, and I am so much more comfortable with that. New things I didn’t know before make me update my position, shifting knobs bit by bit, sliding along continuous functions until I’m just where I want to be, with the full knowledge that I’ll have to move again. Say what you will about it, it’s much more comforting than the worry that one new idea could bring my entire palace crashing down around me as I plummet into the chasm between discrete points.

The right color is somewhere in here….

I’m reminded of something a friend said to me once:

“If Osama bin Laden and I met each other, we would have nothing to say to each other.”

That is, hedgehog systems, totalizing systems that have something to say about everything, can’t interact with each other. They agree on some things, disagree on others, but there aren’t really ways to combine them fruitfully. The best you can hope for is non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), where each system just stays within its own sphere and no one unbuckles their seatbelts and starts poking their sister.

(If people want to hear my model theory analogy for this, they’ll have to ask for it 🙂 ).

Plug in whatever appropriate for “religion” or “science”

That’s not enough for me. I want all the facts and values to get together and party. I want to knock down the jenga towers of ideology, and make every building block of every belief pay rent. I want to see which ones are true, or better yet, how true each one is.

I guess this is really all to say that I have become much happier and more comfortable in my beliefs since I became a rationalist and a utilitarian. I am now beholden to no specific thought structure or approach. Anything that gets the right answer goes. (Ideally speaking, of course. In reality, I am as flawed in my thinking as anyone else). And that means I’m so much more comfortable changing my mind, since I’ve linked my identity, not to a position, but to the pursuit of the right answer.

What’s especially great is that I don’t feel that I’ve lost anything. All the beliefs I had before, I can have now. Mostly, I have to ensure that they are suitably translated into empirical statements, so that each part of each belief can be examined separately. But their content remains the same. And as it happens, I don’t have any obligation to translate them that way. If the hedgehog form of atheism works for me, if I like it, if it gives me true and correct beliefs about the world, great. It’s mine for the keeping. Hell, I spend a lot of time immersed in religious thinking, and it works for me. But there’s nothing I’ve had to give up in my quest for foxishness, except what was untrue to begin with. And of course:

Some might say that rationalism and utilitarianism might themselves be the kind of Big Idea I claim to be trying to avoid. But I don’t see them that way. They are lenses through which we see things, certainly, but as I’ve just said, they don’t prevent us from seeing things in other ways. For instance, I find that utilitarianism allows me to still acknowledge that I care about fairness, beauty, and other fuzzy values in a way that other moral systems don’t. Furthermore, they don’t bind us to the narrative-based way of looking at things that has struck me as so problematic throughout this and the last post. Accuracy of belief depends on relying on more strategic, more empirical approaches, and that’s what matters to me.

I want the right answers to all the questions about the world: small ones, big ones, ethical ones. And for those, it seems, we follow the fox.

I mean, he seems to know what he’s doing.

Stop FAPing!

If a female Graylag Goose sees an egg outside of its nest, she will initiate a series of behaviors intended to get the egg back into the nest with her beak. She will complete these same actions if she sees an egg-shaped object outside its nest, like a golf ball or a door-knob. But far more hilarious than that, if the goose starts bringing the egg into her nest, and the egg is taken away during the process, the goose will not stop until she is done bringing the invisible egg into her nest. It’s behavior that simply does not adjust to new stimulus. This is what’s called a fixed-action pattern (FAP).

You may think you’ve never seen such a bird in your life, but I assure you that you have seen a very similar behavior, which I call a fixed-argument pattern (FAP). You see, if a FAPer sees a conversation or argument taking place about a topic on which s/h/ze has a strong opinion, s/h/ze will make their favorite argument. Even if the argument is actually only shaped or colored like the argument they thought it was. Even if the argument ends, or becomes about something entirely different. It doesn’t matter. A FAPer will continue to make the same argument they always make, bravely undeterred by the inappropriate context or situation. Now I bet you’ll agree that you’ve seen this kind of FAPing going on in all kinds of arguments and discussions, on-line and off-line.

That guy on facebook who comments on every atheist-related status or discussion with an extended analysis of how you are sure to find God eventually or why the dinosaur bones are there to trick us, even if you were talking about North Carolina trying to institute a state religion or the importance of Bayes’ rule?

FAPer.

The woman in your social circle who always manages to work into a discussion that the Democratic and Republican parties are identical, corporate-owned cesspools of hypocrisy and mendacity, even if you were talking about comparing the intervention in Libya to that in Bosnia, or whether or not Hillary Clinton will run in 2016?

FAPer.

The genderqueer person you know who, seemingly upon hearing just the phrase “power of suggestion” will start quoting Tim Minchin’s Storm at full volume and railing against New Age things, even if you were having an utterly different conversation about the incredibly interesting world of nocebos, or harmful placebos?

FAPer.

What all these people have in common is that when they see a discussion going on about a particular topic, they seem to think to themselves “I know an argument about that topic!” and then proceed to give it, whether or not it’s appropriate or relevant. FAPers see making their argument as so important that it doesn’t matter whether it adds to the discussion or not.

It’s often with good intentions. I’m sure that the Christian in the first example really wants to save my soul, even at the cost of my conversation, which he’s just irritatingly derailed. I see feminists on the internet all the time giving Feminism 101 lectures in cases where it wasn’t appropriate, or where it would have been better to address more specific or nuanced points. Of course they want to convince others of their entirely valid points, and for good reason, too. It just may not have been the occasion.

In fact, we’re probably all guilty of FAPing at some time or another, because we thought we had a point that was too important not to say, even if it was only tangentially related to the argument at hand. But even when it comes out of good intentions, FAPing is a bad habit.

Why FAPing is Bad

1. It is selfish. It makes the discussion entirely about the argument the FAPer wants to make instead of what has organically come out of the group up to that point.

2.  It confusingly and irritatingly violates the Gricean Maxim of Relevance, in which we all tacitly agree to only add to conversation with relevant things.

3. It’s really bad and unproductive arguing. FAPers fail to listen to what other people are saying, and as a result, don’t address any of their arguments. People tend not to get convinced that way. FAPing also often demands an all-or-nothing approach, where the opponent must agree immediately or be subject to a repeat of the fixed and unchanging argument.

4. FAPing is way less interesting than thinking about how to address the specifics of a particular argument. FAPing may as well be just copy pasted from a google doc, or a playing of a voice recorder. As a result, FAPers tend not to learn new things from arguments, since they’ll say the same thing no matter what.

4.b. I think FAPing can add to burnout, since FAPers are guaranteed to have the same arguments over and over again, since they’re making the same arguments over and over again. People who are responding to the particulars of the argument they’re in are probably going to be less frustrated with the miserable and unproductive monotony of never having a novel argument.

How to Fix It

If you notice yourself making the same arguments over and over, or being accused of saying things irrelevant to the argument, try to stop yourself. Even if you think what you have to say is really important, if you find yourself thinking of how to shoehorn your point in, rather than thinking about to respond to what’s going on, take a step back. You might be FAPing. How to stop yourself? Think about what’s going on in this argument, not all the similar ones you’ve seen and been in, even if you know exactly where the argument is going. Try to respond to the argument this person is making, not all the ones it sounds like. I promise it’s more interesting that way.

If you notice others FAPing, ask them (charitably, kindly) to respond to the arguments that you or others have made that they haven’t responded to. Make sure to ask people on “your side” as well! Ask them what their opinion on the particular issues at hand are, and ask them to stay on topic. If they continue not to, delete!

So let us go forth, and FAP no more!

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For another random animal-related piece of rationality advice, check out Julia Galef’s video about Sphexing.

Why I Support the Open Letter to the Secular Community

I am really thrilled that a group of secular organizations came together and wrote an open letter to the secular community about online communication. They’ve called for a change of tone and substance in online argumentation, in the hopes that arguments will become less personal and more productive. Like everyone else, I have no idea whether it will make any difference, but I’m really glad to see more and more people and organizations publicly supporting a certain type of discourse. I happen to believe that productive and useful discussion is a good idea on a practical level, helping us win arguments and learn more, and I also think there’s an ethical dimension to how intellectually honest we are about other people’s arguments and to how we’re treating other people. But more than that, this is a community issue. Everyone knows the internet is kind of a cesspool, but these organizations aren’t speaking out publicly to talk about the internet at large. They’re talking about to atheists, agnostics, the “nones”, we nonreligious folk who make up this community. It’s a motley crew, to be sure, and the community in online form is a very loose collection of secular, atheist and skeptic networks, blogs and forums. But it’s still there, and insofar as it’s a metaphorical space that we inhabit and use to interact with each other, meet people, plan events, engage in activism and talk about issues, it’s worth protecting. Right now, one of the threats to the ability of the community to act like a community is the way that online discussion is happening. Is this an existential threat? No. Is it the only threat? No. But it’s one we can and should do something about. So thank you to Jesse Galef and Dan Fincke, for talking about this stuff starting years ago, and thank you to these organizations, who are trying to get us all back on track.

I also happen to love a lot of the specifics they’ve put into their letter. I’m more and more coming to the opinion that moderation of blog comments is crucial. It simply creates a better space for everyone, and doesn’t allow support for trolls or harassers to accrue. Communicating privately with people to clear up misunderstandings before lambasting them online is brilliant, and it’s an idea I’ve loved since I heard Hemant Mehta talking about it at Chicago’s skepticamp. Why wouldn’t we want to clear up misconceptions before they adversely affect our opinions or writing? And of course, listening and being charitable are important practices that are very close to my heart. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Of course, there’s been plenty of criticism of the open letter, and that’s great. Nothing is perfect, and discussion helps us learn more and more. However, I think most of the criticism is off the mark, and I’d like to explain why, in a few posts.

But before I go into specifics, what I’d like to tell everyone who doesn’t like the letter is: The Open Letter is probably not talking about what you think it’s talking about.

That is, it probably (probably) isn’t calling for the end of the online comments you want to see around. Up and down the Friendly Atheist comment sections were people grievously concerned that they weren’t going to be allowed to criticize certain bloggers or ideas anymore. Leaving aside that this open letter and these secular organizations have no ability to forcibly stop anyone from saying anything on the internet, criticism isn’t the problem here. Content generally isn’t the problem. It’s not an issue that people want to say how much they hate Freethought Blogs or various prominent people or whomever. It’s that to do it, some people make false accusations, state claims based on rumors, call people feminazis, femistasis and worse, harass by email, comment and blog, and send illegal and despicable rape, death and other violent threats. If you’re not doing those things, you’re probably not the problem, and no one is trying to curtail your free speech.

(On that note, and I can’t believe I have to say this, blog moderation is only censorship under the broadest possible definition, and it’s a totally reasonable form of it, social disapproval doesn’t infringe on free speech and calling for a higher level of discourse isn’t fascistic. Everyone on board? If not, let’s talk in comments.)

Similarly, to those who felt the open letter didn’t support feminism strongly enough, you may be right, and I’ll address those specific concerns in my next post. But one concern I saw over and over again was that the kind of behavior the open letter wanted to see stopped was the kind of behavior that victims of harassment and marginalized people take on their own behalf, and so the open letter served to perpetuate both harassment and marginalization by criticizing those who speak against it. Again, I really don’t think that’s what these organizations are talking about. They’re not talking about people who get angry because people are awful to them. They’re not talking about people and ideas being called out for being insensitive or offensive or cruel. They don’t want people to stop standing up for themselves or stop pointing out problems or stop making legitimate criticisms. They want people to stop being considered enemies because of who they associate with, and people who are asking sincere questions (even if thoughtless) to not be treated as if they were malicious, and claims not to be trusted without verification. Generally speaking, if you’re not doing that, it’s not a problem. That, anyway, is my interpretation of the letter.

By the way, it’s a good place here to say that I DO NOT think these problems are on the same level. Insults and harassment and rape threats are orders of magnitude worse than being someone being misinterpreted and thought offensive when they meant no harm. What they have in common, though, is that they do harm to discussion and to the community.

That harm is what the writers of the open letter would like to see ended. And everything else they speak out against is what everyone should be against. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what “side” you’re on. There is a basic level of discourse which must be present for anything productive to take place. Of course skeptics should “trust but verify.” Of course as atheists, many of whom were once religious, we should all remember that not everyone knows what we do. I’ve argued before that of course all of us should be charitable, if not to our interlocutors, then to their arguments, and if not for their sake, then for all the observers. Of course we as internet users should care about the kind of space we create. And of course as intellectually honest people we should take care to only write things that are true and not spread misinformation.

For instance, yesterday, in the Friendly Atheist comment section about this very issue, the following exchange took place,

Me:

Person A, do you really think this is groupthink? I think the idea is to come together and really work on improving the community. Isn’t that the same kind of thing you write about?

Not Person A:

“i don’t need “improvement” thank you very much.

people tell me all the time that there is something wrong with me, and that i need “fixing.” you know who?

anti-gay religious groups and racists, to name just a few. do you really want to join those ranks? you’ve already made several statements on this thread that i disagree with, am i better positioned than you such that i should decide what is best for you, in the name of “the community?” it seems to me like that is what you, and this letter, proposes to do.”

This is the kind of thing the letter is talking about. I got compared to anti-gay religious groups and racists in a way that was ludicrously out of step with what I said. This is bad discourse. This is the kind of thing that should end. Not feminism, not standing for yourself, and obviously not free speech.

Whatever we believe, I think the ideas in the open letter are ones everyone should agree with. They’re basic due diligence. They’re the foundation of our ability to talk to each other. And I want to make sure we can keep talking to each other.

That’s why I support the Open Letter.

The Morality of Emotional Life

I kind of rambled the other day about how emotions matter and so changing them might be important. But I didn’t really address the fundamental question: what is the relationship between morality and emotions?

To clarify an important point from my last post: I did not make (or rather, did not intend to make) any independent moral claims about emotions, for instance some being morally better than others. The case I intended to make was that, if you already believe in morality or moral standards, or have any opinions at all on the morality of certain actions, then it’s reasonable for you to believe in the morality of cultivating certain emotions in yourself and other people. These emotions will not only make the moral activity easier and more likely, but they will also create social approval for the kind of activity that is desired. This analysis applies utterly regardless of what morality is at stake. Christians should (and do, by the way) want people to love God and therefore want to do what God commands of them. Utilitarians should want people to desire the most good, to feel that it’s the right way to think about the right thing to do. Pro-lifers want people to be disgusted by abortion, pro-choicers don’t, even though disgust (or a lack of disgust) isn’t required for being pro-life or pro-choice.

I cannot tell you how many tumblrs there are dedicated entirely to beautifully lit and faded pictures about god, Jesus and Christianity.

(Of course, part of this can be explained by the fact that some moral systems contain within them moral claims about emotions, like loving God or having a Good Will. All that means, as far as I’m concerned, is that other, smarter, people came up with my idea long before I did.)

This applies both to what we might call moral emotions and nonmoral ones. Certainly, moral emotions fit in very strongly here. What we’re attracted to or repulsed by makes up an enormous component of our morality. Murder, for instance, disgusts us, and we are highly disturbed (another moral sentiment) when it does not disgust others. We tend to call those people psychopaths. In fact, I would argue, though this is unrelated to the other claims made in this post, that it is that disgust which forms the basis of most of our morality in the first place. Of course, lots of other things disgust us as well, from vomit to incest, so we have to engage in both intellectual and emotive arguments about whether to feel that way about these things. And if we decide we shouldn’t, then we can work towards making ourselves not feel that way, through a number of methods. As a friend put it,

“For instance, there’s no moral value in being repulsed by a deformed child or a person with severe facial burns. On the contrary, that’s a (natural) impulse that we should try to overcome — and that we can overcome by educating ourselves. The same might pertain to differences in sexual identity or orientation. Educating ourselves, befriending people who differ from ourselves, and appreciating their humanity can go a long way toward overcoming revulsion.”

And we can certainly work on making others not feel that way. Citation:

So while we might object on a number of grounds, to the approach and methods of an organization like, for instance, PETA, I think it’s a matter of intellectual (and emotional) honesty that we acknowledge that videos and pictures meant to engineer disgust for the treatment of animals is an utterly reasonable, nay, obligatory, result of their beliefs. You don’t win public debates without winning hearts and minds, as so many others have noted. But more than that, part of what you want out of winning a public debate is that people feel the way you do. That’s part of what you’re fighting for.

But I also think that the analysis of moral questions applies to nonmoral emotions (if there are such things). If you have a morality already, then perhaps you’d want to be happy to follow it, not reluctant, and you’d want the same from others. You’d want a friend to be thrilled to help you in a time of need, not to seem unhappy or irritated at the prospect of performing an amicable duty. That’s partially because it would make you unhappy, and it might make you question the friendship, and those are nonmoral emotional considerations, but it’s also that case that many would think that it’s part of being a moral person to be happy to help others.

And, then, I think this entire approach is applicable to utterly nonmoral questions, questions that concern themselves only with utility and advisability. There are many reasons why some emotions are better than others, just as there are many reasons why some actions are better than others. It might be a good idea to like cleaning your room, just as it might be a good idea to clean your room on a regular basis. It might therefore also be a good idea to inculcate a love of cleaning into your children and anyone else you have an influence on. In this case, we can call the emotions people would rather have “adaptive”, a word I’m here borrowing from the mental health lexicon.

But just as a final note, I also think we shouldn’t jump too quickly to make the sharp distinction between moral and nonmoral questions. The case of polyamorous relationships clarifies this nicely (primer on polyamory here). Being polyamorous means, generally, having the understanding that your partner may have other partners. It does not, generally, mean that you lack jealousy. Thus, a lot of work often goes into cultivating a lack of (or at least a minimum of) the kind of jealousy that makes your life as a poly person harder to deal with. Now, this is not in and of itself a moral question. Jealousy isn’t necessarily good or bad. It can alert you to a problem in your relationship, which is valuable, or it can take over your life and make you miserable, which isn’t. It’s simply the case that if you’ve already decided to be in a polyamorous relationship, it’s very useful to you to not feel sick and violated every time your partner goes on a date with someone else. It’ll just make your life better. No one would fault you morally if you end up feeling jealous despite your best efforts. That said, since you are in a polyamorous relationship, and your partners, as well as your partner’s partners, are going to be affected by how you feel (from feeling guilty to being sad that you’re sad to being frustrated at not being able to help), it may be part of your obligation to them to work on jealousy, especially if it’s so severe as to be causing problems. All of a sudden, it’s a moral consideration. Our emotions are always going to affect other people, whether through our actions as a result of the emotions or simply the knowledge of those emotions becoming public. Anything that affects others will have a moral component, which means that the forms of analysis I’ve laid out here are not distinct, but rather inextricably intertwined.

Emotions give us our moral intuitions, they cause us to do moral things or immoral things, they can hijack our rational faculties, and as I’ve laid out here, they can themselves be up for moral critique. The question is really just, what kind of moral critique, and how do we make it?