An essay by Yvain that I enjoyed and sometimes link to appears to have fallen victim to url-rot. An archived version is here., but rather than requiring people use the Internet Archive (which is sometimes overtaxed), I’ll just copy it below.
I usually blog about a mix of philosophy, medicine, and random things that go on in my personal life. According to my LiveJournal Statistics page, a typical blog post of mine from last month when I was blogging every day and about writing really interesting stuff like meeting a guy possessed by demons got eight hundred page views per day by about a hundred fifty LiveJournal users a day. As soon as I started writing about gender, it shot up to about twenty-five hundred page views by three hundred fifty users a day. On the one hand, I like popularity as much as anyone else. On the other hand, I feel like by writing on a hot-button issue and taking a side on the object-level debate, I’m kind of doing something sort of dirty; like now I’m only one or two levels above those blogs that write “The Democrats suck, because they love Big Government! LOL!” and get a million subscribers a day. So I will make one final object-level post today, a meta-level post tomorrow, and then try to limit myself to at absolute most one culture war per week from now on.
Sometimes people complain that it’s scary how oblivious the other side is to their arguments. But I know something scarier.
On r/atheism, a Christian-turned-atheist once described an “apologetics” group at his old church. The pastor would bring in a simplified straw-man version of a common atheist argument, they’d take turns mocking it (“Oh my god, he said that monkeys can give birth to humans! That’s hilarious!”) and then they’d all have a good laugh together. Later, when they met an actual atheist who was trying to explain evolution to them, they wouldn’t sit and evaluate it dispassionately. They’d pattern-match back to the ridiculous argument they heard at church, and instead of listening they’d be thinking “Hahaha, atheists really are that hilariously stupid!”
Of course, it’s not only Christians who do that. I hear atheists repeat the old “I believe the Bible because God said it was true. We know He said it was true because it’s in the Bible. And I believe the Bible because God said it is true” line constantly and grin as if they’ve said something knee-slappingly funny. I’ve never in my entire life heard a Christian use this reasoning. I have heard Christians use the “truth-telling thing” argument sometimes (we should believe the Bible because the Bible is correct about many things that can be proven independently, this vouches for the veracity of the whole book, and therefore we should believe it even when it can’t be independently proven) many times. If you’re familiar enough with the atheist version, and uncharitable enough to Christians, you will pattern-match, miss the subtle difference, and be thinking “Hahaha, Christians really are as hilariously stupid as all my atheist friends say!”
Sometimes even the straw-man argument is unnecessary. All you need to do is get in a group and make the other side’s argument a figure of fun.
There are lots of good arguments against libertarianism. I have collected some of them into a very long document which remains the most popular thing I’ve ever written. But when I hear liberals discuss libertarianism, they very often head in the same direction. They make a silly face and say “Durned guv’mint needs to stay off my land!” And then all the other liberals who are with them laugh uproariously. And then when a real libertarian shows up and makes a real libertarian argument, a liberal will adopt his posture, try to mimic his tone of voice, and say “Durned guv’ment needs to stay off my land! Hahaha!” And all the other liberals will think “Hahaha, libertarians really are that stupid!”
Many of you will recognize this as much like the Myers Shuffle. As long as a bunch of atheists get together and laugh at religious people who ask them to read theology before criticizing it, and as long as they have an easily recognizable name for the object of their hilarity like “Courtier’s Reply”, then whenever a religious person asks them to familiarize themselves with theology the atheist can just say “Courtier’s Reply!” and all the other atheists will crack up and think “Hahaha, religious people really are that stupid!” and they gain status and the theist loses status and at no point do they have to even consider responding to the theist’s objection.
This tendency reaches its most florid manifestation in the “ideological bingo games”. See for example “Skeptical Sexist Bingo”, feminist bingo, libertarian troll bingo, anti-Zionist bingo, pro-Zionist bingo, and so on. If you Google for these you can find thousands, which is too bad because every single person who makes one of these is going to Hell.
Let’s look at the fourth one, “Anti-Zionist Bingo.” Say that you mention something bad Israel is doing, someone else accuses you of being anti-Semitic, and you correct them that no, not all criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic and you’re worried about the increasing tendency to spin it that way.
And they say “Hahahahahhaa he totally did it, he used the ‘all criticism of Israel gets labeled anti-Semitic’ argument, people totally use that as a real argument hahahaha they really are that stupid, I get ‘B1’ on my stupid stereotypical critics of Israel bingo!”
You say “Uh, look, I’m not really sure what you’re getting at. I recognize that there is real anti-Semitism and I am just as opposed to it as you are but surely when when see the state excusing acts of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank we…”
And they say “Hahahhaha G1, I got G1, he pulled the old ‘I abhor real anti-Semitism’ line this is great, guys come over here and look at what this guy is doing he’s just totally parroting all the old arguments every anti-Semite uses!”
So it may be scary when your opponent is unaware of your arguments, but it is much scarier when your opponent has a sort of vague dreamlike awareness of your arguments, which immediately pattern-match cached thoughts about how horrible a person you would have to be to make them.
But this is still not the scariest thing.
Because if your opponent brings out the Bingo card, you can just tell them exactly what I am saying here. You can explain to the pro-Israel person that they are pattern-matching your responses, that you don’t know what strawman anti-Zionist they’re thinking of but that you have legitimate reasons for believing what you do and you request a fair hearing, and that if they do not repent of their knee-slapping pattern-matching Bingo-making ways they are going to Hell.
No, the scariest thing would be if one of those bingo cards had, in the free space in the middle: “You are just pattern-matching my responses. I swear that I have something legitimate to tell you which is not just a rehash of the straw-man arguments you’ve heard before, so please just keep an open mind and hear me out.”
If someone did that, even Origen would have to admit they were beyond any hope of salvation. Any conceivable attempt to explain their error would be met with a “Hahahaha he did the ‘stop-pattern matching I’m not a strawman I’m not an inhuman monster STOP FILLING OUT YOUR DAMN BINGO CARD’ thing again! He’s so hilarious, just like all those other ‘stop-pattern matching I am not a strawman’ people whom we know only say that because they are inhuman monsters!”
But surely no one could be that far gone, right?
“I’m not racist, but…”
If you are like everyone else on the Internet, your immediate response is “Whoever is saying that is obviously a racisty racist who loves racism! I can’t believe he literally used the ‘I’m not racist, but…’ line in those exact words! The old INRB! I’ve got to get home as fast as I can to write about this on my blog and tell everyone I really met one of those people!”
But why would someone use INRB? It sounds to me like what they are saying is: “Look. I know what I am saying is going to sound racist to you. You’re going to jump to the conclusion that I’m a racist and not hear me out. In fact, maybe you’ve been trained to assume that the only reason anyone could possibly assert it is racism and to pattern-match this position to a racist straw man version. But I actually have a non-racist reason for saying it. Please please please for the love of Truth and Beauty just this one time throw away your prejudgments and your Bingo card and just listen to what I’m going to say with an open mind.”
And so you reply “Hahahaha! He really used the ‘look I know what I’m saying is going to sound racist to you you’re going to jump to the conclusion that I’m a racist and not hear me out in fact maybe you’ve been trained to assume…’ line! What a racist! Point and laugh, everyone! POINT AND LAUGH!”
And of course “sexist” works just as well as “racist” here, even though the latter is more familiar.
This is what I mean by “conceptual superweapon”. This is what it looks like to stare into the barrel of a gigantic lunar-based death ray and abandon all hope. This is why I find feminism and the social justice community in general so scary.
Let’s switch topics. Let’s switch to medical testing. Although Medical Testing For Biochemists is complicated and involves scary words like “pharmacokinetics”, Medical Testing for Doctors is much easier and goes like this:
A Magic Mystery Box fell to Earth during an eerie thunderstorm. If we wave the Magic Mystery Box over a patient, it beeps and displays a number from one to one hundred. Now sometimes low-numbered patients have cancer, and sometimes high-numbered patients are healthy, but in general the higher the number the more likely the patient is to have cancer. Sometimes.
Suppose the doctor has two choices. She can refer the patient to surgery, where surgeons will cut him open, look to see if there really is a cancer, and if so try to take it out. This surgery is expensive, unpleasant, and there’s always the chance the surgeon’s hand will slip and cut something important and the patient will die.
Or the doctor can say “Oh, you don’t really have cancer” and do nothing.
If she tells a patient who has cancer that he’s healthy, the patient will die, sue the doctor, or both. If she tells a patient who is healthy that he needs to go to surgery for further cancer investigation, she makes the patient needlessly terrified, wastes the surgeon’s time, risks complications from the surgery, and costs the health system thousands of dollars.
So she waves the Magic Mystery Box over the patient, and it beeps and says “22”. Now what?
In practice, doctors establish a threshold. The threshold will be a number like “40”. If the test is above 40, the patient gets surgery. If the test is below 40, they send the patient home.
How does one choose the right threshold? A low threshold means means that doctors will catch almost all cancer, but they’ll also end up sending a lot of healthy people for dangerous unnecessary surgery. A high threshold means that few healthy patients will ever suffer the risks of unnecessary surgery, but probably a lot of cancer will go undetected.
If the surgery is really dangerous but the cancer isn’t that bad, the doctors will choose a high threshold. If the surgery is quick and safe but the uncaught cancer would be fatal, the doctors will choose a low threshold. But no matter what number they choose, all they can do is minimize the harm. Unless they sent every single patient of theirs to surgery, there will always be a few cancers that are uncaught. Unless they never send anyone to surgery, there will always be a few false alarms. As long as the test itself is imperfect, the doctors’ decision will always unfairly harm a few patients. They just need to figure the threshold that harms as few as possible.
(If you’re familiar with statistics, you already recognize this situation as Type I and Type II errors. If you’re familiar with utilitarianism, you already recognize the solution as setting the threshold to maximize total utility across all patients. I’m not saying anything new here.)
If a doctor uses the established thresholds and refers a patient to surgery that turns out to be unnecessary, there are laws preventing that patient from suing her. The same is true if all the tests came back below the threshold, she said he was fine, and he later turned out to be super unlucky and have a totally undetectable form of cancer. The doctor did everything right. She just got unlucky. Those laws are really good. If they didn’t exist, it would either be impossible to practice medicine, or else doctors would be optimizing for not being sued rather than for doing good medicine even more than they already are. If they only existed in one direction (eg doctors who did unnecessary surgeries couldn’t be sued, but doctors who missed cancer could), that would be even worse – any doctor not heroic enough to go against her own self-interest would refer every patient to surgery.
Politics is nowhere near as rational as medicine. Politicians don’t think in terms of thresholds. No one ever says “The more regulations we put on businesses, the fewer customers will get scammed by shady con men. But also the more likely it is that we unnecessarily penalize honest businesses. So we need to find the threshold value that minimizes the total unfairness to businesses and customers.” Instead they say either “We need to fight for more regulations and anyone who says otherwise is in the pay of Big Business!” or “We need to cut through all the red tape and anyone who says otherwise is in the pay of Big Government!”
No one ever says “The more restrictions we place on welfare, the more certain we’ll be that no one is abusing the system. But the more restrictions we place on welfare, the more certain we will be that some poor people who desperately need it can’t get it. Therefore, we should determine the relative disutilities of people defrauding us and of needy people not being able to use the system, and act to maximize total utility.” Instead they say “Anyone who opposes tight welfare restrictions is a welfare queen trying to scam you!” or “Anyone who wants any welfare restrictions hates poor people!”
Gender issues also involve thresholds.
A man who wants to know whether it is okay to ask a woman out can try to read her social cues and appeal to lists of known social norms. This is his Magic Mystery Box. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. He needs to set a threshold for action: how open to an advance does she has to look before he asks her or flirts with her or whatever. If the threshold is too low, he will be a creep and she will feel harrassed. If the threshold is too high, no one will ever ask anyone else out and everyone will die alone and unloved.
Another man is in love. He wants to know if he can express his love to a woman without worrying that it is “creepy” or “coming on too strong”. Again social cues give him a Magic Mystery Box. Again he must set a threshold. If the threshold is too low, he will end up creeping people out. If the threshold is too high, then no one can ever be in love and all couples must be formed by deciding the other person is good-looking and so you will settle for them.
We need to dismantle social structures that favor men aka patriarchy. It’s kind of hard to figure out which ones those are – is the preponderance of male math professors because of the patriarchy, or something else? We can run studies and surveys of women in the math field and try to get some preliminary conclusions – our Magic Mystery Box. But we need some threshold for intervention like fixing a quota of 50% women mathematicians in every college. If our threshold is too low, we end up with tokenism and promoting unqualified people. If our threshold is too high, we end up perpetuating the patriarchy.
Some men (and women!) express political positions whose consequences could hurt women. It’s unclear whether they support those positions because they honestly believe they are good for society, or because they are evil people who deliberately aim at misogyny. We can psychoanalyze them – our Magic Mystery Box – but we must decide a threshold. If the threshold is too low, evil misogynists can get away with their evil misogyny and no one will call them on it. If the threshold is too high, we will end up demonizing a bunch of random people, giving feminism a reputation as “those people who go around demonizing innocents”, and totally destroy any chance at friendly political discourse.
No threshold should ever be set at zero. If a doctor sets the Magic Mystery Box threshold to zero, then she will end up referring every single patient for dangerous surgery. “Doctor, I’ve been having a bit of a sore throat these past few….SURGERY! NOW!”
But if one side has a superweapon, it’s impossible to argue for the other. If the threshold starts at forty, and one doctor says “But we can’t be the sorts of monsters who would refuse a potential cancer patient live-saving surgery!”, and this argument is a deeply-ingrained part of medical culture and the other doctors don’t want to be tarred as cancer-sympathizers, then the threshold goes to 30. Then another doctor brings up the same argument, and the threshold goes to 20. Soon the threshold is at zero and they’re referring rashes and hay fever for surgery and no one can protest because they don’t want to look Pro-Cancer.
If it is impossible to ever say “You know, the social justice people make some good points, but on this issue here they’ve gone too far,” then the threshold on all of those questions above just keeps inching downward until it hits zero.
And if people are punished for their results rather than their actions – if you can get called a creep even though you did your best to take her hints and followed all the rules – then that’s like only suing the doctors who miss cancer. It’s going to bring the threshold down to the zero “operate on everyone” level even faster.
When I Googled for good examples of those bingo games to post above, it was pretty hard to find the Zionism ones and so on. Almost every ideological bingo game out there was feminist. This is not a coincidence.
For those who have absorbed the associated memes, feminism is a fully general conceptual superweapon. It has attempted and probably completed the task of making every possible counterargument so unthinkable that any feminist can refute it just by reciting the appropriate bingo square, then pointing and laughing.
If a man thinks women are less oppressed than she claims, she can say “male privilege!” and point and laugh.
If a man thinks there are some areas where the threshold has moved too far toward women, she can make a grave expression and intone “What About Teh Menz?” (now the name of a major blog, which is actually pretty good) and point and laugh.
If a man thinks parts of the reason why some men are jerks toward women is because women actually are more likely to date jerks than people who are respectful, she can gleefully declare “You’re a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM)!” and point and laugh.
If a man tries to explain his own perspective to her or provide any alternative theory to men-being-horrible, she can say he’s “mansplaining again!” and point and laugh.
If a man asks not to be immediately pattern-matched to the nearest hostile cliche when he tries to present his opinion, she can say he’s using a variant of the old “I’m not sexist, but…” line. And point. And laugh.
During the past few days, some people have criticized me for nonstandard use of terms. They have tried to tell me that the legitimate definition of a feminist term isn’t a bingo-square demonization that can be used to shut down debate, but [complex legitimate reasonable definition]. Well, okay. I agree all of these words have possible legitimate definitions and uses and were created for good reasons. The same is true of the word “Communist”. It means a person who supports a classless society with common ownership of all goods. This has nothing to do with “communist” the way it is used in actual American political discourse eg “Obama is a communist because he wants universal health care!” If I criticize the Republicans for using the word “communism” as a debate-stopper, saying “But in this here dictionary Communist has a legitimate and useful meaning” is not a response. People created the word because it was useful and meaningful. Then it got picked up and placed into the fuel chamber of a superweapon. Now it is ten million degrees and radioactive and bears no resemblance to its former self. You might not find the terms above used in exactly the way above in the Official Oxford Dictionary Of Gender Relations, but I did check Google and urbandictionary.com to make sure that I wasn’t completely generalizing from my own experience here.
My view on feminism isn’t really driven by my view on gender relations or women or men or society. It’s driven by my view on applause lights, on inability to urge restraint, on death spirals, on anti-charity, on zero-threshold medical testing, on superweapons, and most of all on epistemic hygiene. I don’t care how righteous your cause is, you don’t get a superweapon so powerful it can pre-emptively vaporize any possible counterargument including the one asking you to please turn off your superweapon and listen for just a second. No one should be able to do that.
I apologize for this post being so long. I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t fit on a bingo board.