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The Sixth Meditation on Superweapons [Sep. 16th, 2012|02:34 am]
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Let's talk about the US missile defense shield.

Right now it can only shoot down a few missiles some of the time. But maybe one day it will be able to shoot down many missiles all of the time. The balance of power between the United States and Russia depends on mutually assured destruction. For either country to gain the ability to shoot down many missiles all of the time would upset this balance. Therefore, Russia opposes the US missile defense shield.

The United States tries to reassure Russia. "We're just building this shield to protect ourselves from Iran and North Korea", they say. This is super reasonable. The United States really does face a serious threat from Iran and North Korea. Building a missile defense shield is a great idea for reasons that have nothing to do with Russia. If Russia starts threatening to attack the United States if they don't stop building their shield, Russia looks like an aggressive jerk meddling in matters that don't concern it.

But say the United States finishes its defense shield, and then happens to disagree with Russia over some minor issue like the Syria conflict. "I think you better do what we say," says America. "We could crush you like a bug." And Russia says "But you told us your shield had nothing to do with us!". And the US answers "And we were telling the truth. We didn't intend it against you. But here we are, disagreeing with you and having a spare superweapon. It wasn't our original intent. But now, we own you."

Now let's talk about anti-Semitism.

Suppose you were a Jew in old-timey Eastern Europe. The big news story is about a Jewish man who killed a Christian child. As far as you can tell the story is true. It's just disappointing that everyone who tells it is describing it as "A Jew killed a Christian kid today". You don't want to make a big deal over this, because no one is saying anything objectionable like "And so all Jews are evil". Besides you'd hate to inject identity politics into this obvious tragedy. It just sort of makes you uncomfortable.

The next day you hear that the local priest is giving a sermon on how the Jews killed Christ. This statement seems historically plausible, and it's part of the Christian religion, and no one is implying it says anything about the Jews today. You'd hate to be the guy who barges in and tries to tell the Christians what Biblical facts they can and can't include in their sermons just because they offend you. It would make you an annoying busybody. So again you just get uncomfortable.

The next day you hear people complain about the greedy Jewish bankers who are ruining the world economy. And really a disproportionate number of bankers are Jewish, and bankers really do seem to be the source of a lot of economic problems. It seems kind of pedantic to interrupt every conversation with "But also some bankers are Christian, or Muslim, and even though a disproportionate number of bankers are Jewish that doesn't mean the Jewish bankers are disproportionately active in ruining the world economy compared to their numbers." So again you stay uncomfortable.

Then the next day you hear people complain about Israeli atrocities in Palestine, which is of course terribly anachronistic if you're in old-timey Eastern Europe but let's roll with it. You understand that the Israelis really do commit some terrible acts. On the other hand, when people start talking about "Jewish atrocities" and "the need to protect Gentiles from Jewish rapacity" and "laws to stop all this horrible stuff the Jews are doing", you just feel worried, even though you personally are not doing any horrible stuff and maybe they even have good reasons for phrasing it that way.

Then the next day you get in a business dispute with your neighbor. If it's typical of the sort of thing that happened in this era, you loaned him some money and he doesn't feel like paying you back. He tells you you'd better just give up, admit he is in the right, and apologize to him - because if the conflict escalated everyone would take his side because he is a Christian and you are a Jew. And everyone knows that Jews victimize Christians and are basically child-murdering Christ-killing economy-ruining atrocity-committing scum.

He has a point - not about the scum, but about that everyone would take his side. Like the Russians in the missile defense example above, you have allowed your opponents to build a superweapon. Only this time it is a conceptual superweapon rather than a physical one. The superweapon is the memeplex in which Jews are always in the wrong. It's a set of pattern-matching templates, cliches, and applause lights.

The Eastern European Christians did not necessarily have evil intent in creating their superweapon, any more than the Americans had evil intent in their missile shield. No particular action of theirs was objectionable - they were genuinely worried about that one murder, they were genuinely worried about Israeli atrocities. But like the Americans, once they have that superweapon they can use it on anyone and so even if you are a good person you are screwed.

This rule of "never let anyone build a conceptual superweapon that might get used against you" seems to be the impetus behind a lot of social justice movements. For example, it's eye-rollingly annoying whenever the Council on American - Islamic Relations condemns a news report on the latest terrorist atrocity for making too big a deal that the terrorists were Islamic (what? this bombing just killed however many people, and all you can think of to get upset about is that the newspaper mentioned the guy screamed 'Allahu akbar' first?), but I interpret their actions as trying to prevent the construction of a conceptual superweapon against Islam (or possibly to dismantle one that already exists). Like the Jew whose best option would have been to attack potentially anti-Jewish statements even when they were reasonable in context, CAIR can't just trust that no one will use the anti-Muslim sentiment against non-threatening Muslims. As long as there are stupid little trivial disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims over anything at all, that giant anti-Muslim superweapon sitting in the corner is just too tempting to refuse.

This is also one reason (of at least three) why I have serious reservations about feminism.

Sometimes I read feminist blogs. A common experience is that by the end of the article I am enraged and want to make a snarky comment, so I re-read the essay to pick out the juiciest quotes to tear apart. I re-read it and I re-read it again and eventually I find that everything it says is both factually true and morally unobjectionable. They very rarely say anything silly like "And therefore all men, even the ones who aren't actively committing this offense I'm arguing against, are evil", and it's usually not even particularly implied. I feel like the Jew in the story above, who admits that it's really bad the Jewish guy killed the Christian child, and would hate to say, like a jerk, that Christians aren't allowed to talk about it.

But like him I am uncomfortable. Like him I can't shake the worry that they are building a conceptual superweapon that could be used against me.

Feminism is a memeplex that provides a bunch of pattern-matching opportunities where a man is in the wrong and a woman is in the right. To give a very personal example, I mentioned a few days ago how I was close friends with a woman until I asked her out and she then decided to have a fit and cut off all contact with me. Normally everyone would agree I was in the right and try to console me and maybe even her own friends would tell her she was overreacting. But thanks to feminism she has a superweapon - she can accuse me of being a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM). The appropriate cliche having been conveniently provided, enough people decide to round to the nearest cliche and decide that I am in the wrong that the incident raises her status and decreases my own.

And aside from my own experience I just keep seeing the superweapon turned on innocents. The awkward guy who asks a woman out in the wrong way, who to me is a figure of pity, gets superweaponed and turned into a figure of public vituperation. When a woman gives a guy a bunch of obvious hints and so he tries to kiss her or something and then gets yelled at and called a creep, he can't protest "I'm really sorry, but she was giving me a bunch of obvious hints" or else he will get superweaponed and everyone will pattern-match him to a rapist. And if anyone disagrees with the feminist position on any political issue, from free contraception to affirmative action, then even if they have reasonable philosophical arguments they get superweaponed and everyone completes the pattern as "misogynist".

Or in general, everyone agrees we need to do a certain number of things to deal with prejudice against women, but people generally disagree on exactly how far we should go, and if any two people disagree the one who supports less action risks superweaponing.

Also, whenever someone accuses feminists of being trigger-happy with their superweapon, they tend to turn their superweapon on the accuser. It creates kind of a vicious cycle.

Now the feminists would say that I too have a superweapon called "patriarchy", and that they're just continuing the arms race. This is true, but it doesn't lead to a stable state like what the guns rights advocates claim would happen if everyone had guns where we would all be super-polite because nobody wants to offend a guy who's probably packing heat. It leads to something more like a postapocalyptic anarchy where everyone has guns and we're all shooting each other. If there's a conflict between a man and a woman, and the people involved happen to be old-fashioned patriarchalist types, then the man will automatically win and everyone will hate the woman for being a slut or a bitch or whatever. If there's a conflict between a man and a woman, and the people involved happen to be feminists who are familiar with the memeplex and all its pattern-matching suggests, then the woman will probably win and everyone will hate the man for being a creep or a bigot or whatever. At no point does everyone become respectful and say "Hey, we're all reasonable people with superweapons, let's judge this case on its merits instead of pattern-matching to the closest atrocity committed by someone of the same gender".

It also seems to me that the patriarchy is sort of an accident, where men ruled because they were big and strong and couldn't imagine doing otherwise and their values just sort of coalesced over time, and the struggle seems to be getting them to realize it's there. Whereas the feminists know all about discourse and power relations and so on and are quite gung ho about it and they're staying up late at night reading books with titles like How To Build A Much Deadlier Superweapon (I assume this book exists and is written by Nikola Tesla).

I'm all for mutual superweapon disarmament, but I'm not sure I like the whole mutually assured destruction thing as much. My history, and I think the history of a lot of people who are liberal and pro-choice and so on and so forth but really wary of feminism and social justice - is that we spent our college years totally supporting social justice and helping out in the superweapon factories because it's our duty to fight rape and racism and so on and since we were nice respectful people obviously the superweapon would never be used on us. Then we got in some kind of trivial disagreement with a woman or a minority or someone, or we didn't want to go far enough. Then they turned the superweapon on us, and it was kind of a moment of "wait, this was sort of the plan all along, wasn't it?"

I have an ambiguous respect for the white males who continue to be serious parts of the feminist and anti-racist movement - not just "well obviously I'm against discrimination but I'm not sure I'm drinking your Kool-Aid" people like myself, but the sort of who major in the appropriate college courses and write for the blogs and totally identify with the movement. It's ambiguous because I'm not sure if they're really naive ("Oh, they would never use this superweapon unless they had a really really good reason, and certainly not on the nice people like me") or whether they are really selfless ("I know this superweapon will eventually be used against me and other innocent people, but it's so important to arm this group against real enemies that I will help them build it anyway for purely consequentialist reasons.")

But I myself am not going there. The United States has mostly reassured Russia by promising them that their missile shield will be able to deflect the few and weak Korean/Iranian missiles it might face, but not the more numerous and more advanced Russian varieties. I think it's probably possible to create forms of social justice that would actually be focused against real threats and not provide free superweapons to anyone who wants to vaporize a few unattractive nerds before dinner. I just don't think the community in its current form is very good at pursuing them.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: twoswords
2012-09-16 09:15 pm (UTC)

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Yeah, this. I identify as a feminist, and while I can understand that super-weapon feminists are pretty pervasive (especially online), I find it well outside the scope of my experience, and certainly it conflicts with my mandate.

Also, can someone explain what social justice feminism is? The term "social justice" seems to be used in a different context to what I'm familiar with.
[User Picture]From: pw201
2012-09-16 10:07 pm (UTC)

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Also, can someone explain what social justice feminism is?

As it presents itself online, it's an elaborate code of etiquette (see point 16 in this essay) and some shared language/concepts ("patriarchy", "privilege", "mansplaining" (what I'm doing now), "de-railing", "problematic" and so on). I'm not sure where the concepts come from, but I think it might be American academic feminism. I get the impression that the elaborate etiquette has developed over time as a way of working out the practical consequences of these concepts.

On LJ and other places where media fans hang out, it's a big thing: check fanlore. There are quite a few blogs discussing things from the point of view of this feminism. It's also the sort of feminism adopted by Atheism Plus (q.v.).

I think cartesiandaemon's point might be that it's possible to be a "ridiculous notion that women are people" feminist without reifying "privilege" as the secular equivalent of Original Sin or banning the use of the word "crazy" on your blog. It's not obvious that the big system of concepts and etiquette follows automatically from accepting that women are people, to say the least.
[User Picture]From: twoswords
2012-09-16 10:51 pm (UTC)

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Re: "ridiculous notion that women are people" feminism - yes, understand. I took issue with the point that Scott said "I have serious reservations about feminism" as if feminists are the borg, & I was surprised to see that hiccup in such a thoughtful series. What worries me is that it suggests the stuff he's describing is so pervasive that it's the only kind of feminism he's been exposed to (or maybe it's the only stuff he identifies as "proper" feminism).

Thanks heaps for the explanation and links. Re: mansplaining (what I'm doing now) - pff, whatevs! I've had my share of mansplaining, and yours wasn't.

And *now* what concerns me is that there's liberal use of nearly all those terms in my circles (I don't hear the word "patriarchy" very often any more)! A comment of mine on a previous post was challenged, one I'd thought was relatively innocuous, and I believe my using the word "explain" was a trigger. It's pretty frustrating that the language has become so loaded in such different ways to different people. Even writing this post I found myself thinking "wait - does 'problematic' mean something else now?"

Ultimately I guess the problem is that gender politics are so... relevant. They affect all of us, and they have a high-stakes emotional impact on all of us. I totally understand the super-weapon analogy because it's such an accurate way to describe some people. I think the problem with feminism and terminology is nothing to do with feminism (or any equal rights platform) being an inherently bad thing (after all, there *is* institutionalised inequality and unhealthy cultural conditioning that needs to be addressed) - it's that there's a subset of people with a whole swathe of different issues - some external, some internal, all legitimate - that have found a tool and a platform by which they can externalise *all* their issues - to make every frustration or fear they have into somebody else's fault.

However, I just don't think I'm prepared to put away my language because it's been misappropriated.

* this has been general sounding board moment, rather than directly addressing the previous comment. Cheers!

Edited at 2012-09-16 10:57 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-17 01:21 pm (UTC)

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Well, the word "explain" is often used with the connotation that obviously the explainee is the ignorant one, and the explainer the wise, so there is no possibility that the explainee is right about anything or has anything to contribute but should merely listen until enlightened, a. k. a. comes to agree with the speaker.

Frequently so used by feminists.
[User Picture]From: twoswords
2012-09-17 04:12 pm (UTC)

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Ah yeah, understand. I was just using it in terms of, eg, "explain my position" - I'm really big on feeling confident that others have an accurate representation of me. In the course of wondering whether then I need to modify my approach to online debate - ie, maybe not use certain words (how long would that list get?) - it suddenly became really obvious that developing relationships with people (online or off) is far, far superior to just indulging in drive-by commenting. At least then I have context on my side, not to mention that someone that already knows/likes me will be more willing to cut me some slack if I say something stupid.
[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-09-17 06:32 am (UTC)

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"mansplaining" (what I'm doing now)

I don't see how even the loosest notion of "mansplaining" could include what you are doing in that comment seeing as an explanation was explicitly requested.

Edited at 2012-09-17 06:33 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: pw201
2012-09-17 08:57 am (UTC)

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I don't see how even the loosest notion of "mansplaining" could include what you are doing in that comment seeing as an explanation was explicitly requested.

You're not trying hard enough :-) I'm a man explaining something about a women's movement to a woman, and I'm implicitly saying the movement is doing it wrong. I wouldn't try that on your favourite feminist blog, if I were you.
[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-17 07:37 am (UTC)

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Thank you, yes, that's about it, thank you for putting it into words!

FWIW, I think it's important that there's a difference, but I personally also do agree with a lot of SJ type stuff.
[User Picture]From: eyelessgame
2012-09-18 07:57 pm (UTC)

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Likewise.
[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-17 04:24 am (UTC)

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There is a sizeable and baffling 'social justice' culture that's emerged on Tumblr in the last few years that is...pretty much completely insane. It reads like a cartoonish and insulting parody of social justice ideology, but it's real and active.

I enjoy following it because I enjoy Internet kook culture. http://wtfsocialjustice.tumblr.com/ is a good introduction/best-of.
[User Picture]From: mantic_angel
2012-09-17 09:41 am (UTC)

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I'm really not sure which, if any, of the most recent wtf tumbls is kooky or insane. Trans people want to use the bathroom, and people discussing their sexual abuse don't want to be mocked. This doesn't seem like an unreasonable philosophy...

If that's the worst of the social justice community on tumblr then I suspect the issue is less the SJ philosophy and more the ability of the SJ tumblr community to communicate politely with outsiders.

Did I just hit an odd clump of posts, or are those attitudes genuinely considered kooky?
[User Picture]From: twoswords
2012-09-17 10:40 am (UTC)

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Yeah, I have to say it took a long time to work out what the author was posting for agreement vs lulz. And she seems to really dislike trans people and asexuals.
[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-17 10:54 am (UTC)

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There's some context but it gets to be very inside baseball very quickly. Very short version: there's a lot of ongoing friction between trans* and feminist communities, which translated into Tumblr terms results in mottos like 'Die cis scum' and pronoun wars. Regarding asexuals, I think the author is less concerned with them than some of the Tumblr-only offshoots like 'demisexuals'.

But as I said below, it's not as good or useful (or entertaining) as I remembered it being.
[User Picture]From: twoswords
2012-09-17 05:21 pm (UTC)

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Yeah, I had to look up demisexual. Try as I might to be understanding, I'm having a hard time taking them seriously (as an oppressed minority, at least). In fact, I'm trying hard not to snigger right now. Shameful.
[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-17 06:18 pm (UTC)

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I'm only physically attracted to people I feel an emotional connection to! Just like 60% of humanity! AM I QUEER YET?

The question of when political advocacy is sincere and when it's empty signalling is complicated, but these people are waaaaaaaay over that line.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-17 07:32 pm (UTC)

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Wait, is that true?

I would only want to have a serious relationship with someone I feel an emotional connection to, but I'd be very happy to have sex or cuddle with random beautiful people. Am I atypical here?
[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-17 08:27 pm (UTC)

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It's the definition of 'demisexual'. I pulled 60% out of thin air. Suffice to say that a) it's fairly common and b) people exhibiting the trait aren't oppressed under any sane standard.
[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-17 10:41 am (UTC)

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Hm, yeah, now that I look at it carefully, that site has gotten harder to follow lately without context. Less WTF and more drama and fragments of arguments from elsewhere. The FAQ gives a bit of an overview, but it's not as useful a site as I remembered it being a couple of months ago.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-17 01:24 pm (UTC)

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Personally I've never figured out people who want their justice either limited (if "social" modifies to a subset, like, say "black diamond") or unjust (if it means something like "fake diamond").
[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-17 05:15 pm (UTC)

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I'm not convinced by social justice ideology, but a lot of people I respect are, and I try to engage it seriously. However, there's a subgroup that's just...hooooooooooo boy. LiveJournal used to be a nexus for the crazy ones, but they've mostly moved on to Twitter and Tumblr.
[User Picture]From: twoswords
2012-09-17 05:52 pm (UTC)

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I've only ever heard the term in relation to politics - society as a whole being responsible for tackling poverty and inequality - basically left-wing ideology. As such it's not so much a subset of justice (ie, the set of rules defined by government and natural law, and their application), as an extension of it. I expect the term was coined deliberately to frame the action as a good thing (kind of Worst Argument In The World in reverse - progressive taxation is Social Justice). The political party I support loosely define themselves on the two platforms of environment and social justice.

The first link I found about social justice feminism was that it related to trying to understand/address unique issues faced by women in other minority groups (trans, non-white, poor), which sounds like a pretty reasonable exercise to me. It also kind of acknowledges foremost that women enjoy "privilege" as well, which I found interesting. It does kind of look like the tumblr flavour of social justice you've all alerted me to includes a bunch of women defining themselves as a minority in order to feel more oppressed, which I think is kind of insulting to the original intent.