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The Ninth Meta-tation on Meta [Sep. 18th, 2012|02:49 am]
Scott
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I sometimes play with the idea of self-defeating arguments. A self-defeating argument is one whose very existence provides evidence that it is false. The classic example is the postmodernist "There's no such thing as truth", to which one clever answer is "Oh, you think that's true, do you?"

A self-defeating argument of a slightly different class is "This country has turned into a Stalinist dictatorship!" I hear that from people sometimes. But of course if the country had turned into a Stalinist dictatorshop, people wouldn't be saying "This country has turned into a Stalinist dictatorship!" They'd be saying "All hail glorious Comrade Stalin, protector of the people's freedoms!" and looking around nervously.

I feel like I've been making a self-defeating argument the past couple of days. "These people are trigger-happy with their conceptual superweapon, and they're everywhere!" Okay, but if you say that, and everyone either agrees with you or else disagrees in an excruciatingly polite and rational manner, that sort of undermines the arguments.

And everyone commenting on this blog including people who have disagreed with me pretty strongly has been excruciatingly polite and charitable, probably moreso than I have been. I would say Eliezer's right when he talks about how much better rationalists are than everyone else, except that I think a good chunk of readers here are non-LWers. Maybe people are nicer than I gave them credit for. In any case, thank you.

As I said before, I notice what I can only describe as "feeling dirty", partly because I'm taking a strong position in a hot-button object-level political debate, and partly because I find myself writing while angry, which is always a bad sign. And so I tried to re-read what I had written and figure out if anything I was saying was wrong, and...

...yeah, the aleithometer came up "meaningless". It turns out I never actually made any concrete statements. No moral prescriptions. No suggestions for things that would be better. I'm not sure I have them, either - I was planning on making some, but now I'm not sure about them. And now that a bunch of people have posted this all over the Internet I'm trying to figure out what the heck I thought I was doing.

First, there's not a lot of doubt I was getting out some repressed rage. Some people I identified as feminists have kind of been mean to me in the past, and I didn't feel at the time like I could protest without just getting demonized further, so I repressed it, and then people encouraged me to write about it so I did and then I couldn't stop.

Second, I was trying to explain some of my own experience. Just as the First Meditation was meant to help men understand the female experience, I don't know if women understand the male experience, or if suave attractive men understand the geek male experience. I'm sure I'm not the first person to try to explain it, but I hadn't seen a few particular points mentioned. Of course, just explaining my experience doesn't mean that anyone has an obligation to care or try to make other people's experiences less unpleasant.

Third, I really do dislike bad arguments for their own sake. I have already noticed a bad tendency in myself to care more about arguments than people. If there is a side using horrible flawed logic to support a good cause, and another side using clear beautiful logic to support a bad cause, I will go with the clear beautiful logic every time (luckily, there's a limit to how good your logic can be if you're wrong). I have tried to attack some arguments I think are especially bad.

Fourth, I was trying to prove that it is possible to disagree with feminists on various individual issues for good reasons, without being misogynists or sexist pigs or part of a War on Women. This reminds me of my goal in the non-libertarian FAQ, which was not to say that government intervention is always great, but to say that government intervention needs to be argued for or against on a case-by-case basis rather than just assuming government is always evil. I kind of wanted to prove it is possible that feminists might be wrong on some things, or that one could believe feminists were wrong on those things without being a sexist. Of course it's hard to keep proofs of possibility separate from proofs of existence, both as a reader and as a writer.

Fifth, I wanted a record of my opinions available in print, so that if I get in trouble later for some reason and have to make one of these arguments, I can prove it's something I really believe and not an impromptu motivated attempt to defend myself from sexism charges by making something up.

I sort of worry that arguments like these are doomed to be either worthless or unfair. I can either strike out at individual arguments and people whom I know to be wrong, but leave untouched the power source that will produce a million more like them. Or I can tar everything with the same brush, have a generalizable counterargument, but also end up dealing collateral damage to people associated with them who are in the right. And of course that is exactly the entire reason I was complaining about feminists - that in attempting to defend themselves against Bad People they accidentally developed a system that could be used to attack any man ever no matter how innocent.

I am usually pretty happy to use this blog as a brain-dump for things that may or may not be coherent. That is why I blog on a livejournal with an incomprehensible title and a five-year-old silly photo of me that is advertised exactly nowhere. If this were something I was pretty confident was reasonable, or where I had reached conclusions I thought were valuable, it would go up on Less Wrong or my website or somewhere. Instead I just stuck it here to let my thoughts develop in writing because they coalesce quicker that way.

I did not particularly intend to learn anything from the experience, but thanks to several people's convincing arguments I actually did learn some things like:

-- Actually I have no idea where a lot of these threshold values should be set and I can't even prove they're in the wrong place.
-- Elevatorgate was actually pretty complicated and not just about the elevator and also the woman involved had specifically asked people to stay away from her.
-- There is not actually a social rule against asking out strangers. Sort of.
-- It is also considered okay to try to get to know a woman you want to ask out, or to ask out a friend. If it goes bad, some feminists may still agree your actions were acceptable and say that doesn't necessarily make you a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM).
-- That whole Soviet spy thing isn't nearly as creepy as I thought and is actually how lots of okay people do things. Huh.
-- Apparently a lot of the feminism I don't like is "social justice feminism". There are a bunch of other strands of feminism which are probably not as bad.
-- People who discuss the "war on women" or who seemingly uncharitably oppose people who make various policy proposals as "misogynist" are not just unreflectively failing to exercise charity. They have actually considered the situation and decided that charity is not deserved. I don't know if that's better or worse.
-- my girlfriend is awesome and more tolerant than I deserve.
-- Some feminists are fully aware of the Type I/Type II error dynamic and sometimes just disagree on the prevalence of the disease.
-- I continue to underestimate the universality of the law that there is no argument so dumb or straw-mannish that someone somewhere has not made it.
-- Several other things I lost in the comment threads.
-- I was pretty sure I had some positive policy proposals that would have made things better for everyone, but for the life of me I can't remember what they were and I'm starting to think maybe that was another one of those dreams.

On the other hand, a bunch of commenters said that they changed their minds about some things too. So, uh...I just spent a week discussing gender and culture, and people on both sides rationally updated their opinions, and there were no flame wars or hard feelings whatsoever.

Either this is another one of those weird dreams, or you are all the best people ever.
linkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: DRMacIver
2012-09-18 11:56 am (UTC)
For what it's worth, I've found the posts useful. They articulate a lot of things I have felt and complained about in private, but does so significantly more thoroughly than I have or probably would.

I agree that they don't in themselves propose any useful solutions, but I think that was inevitable. It's pretty hard to actually "solve" complex social problems, except by getting people to think differently and consequently behave differently. Hopefully the fact that they exist will in some small way improve things.

RE rationalists: I'm a small r rationalist in the same way I'm a small f feminist. Broadly supportive of the general idea, disagree on a few of the specifics, sufficiently put off by the community that I don't feel particularly inclined to join in as a semi-heretical member. I suspect there are a lot of us.
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-18 12:05 pm (UTC)
"These people are trigger-happy with their conceptual superweapon, and they're everywhere!" Okay, but if you say that, and everyone either agrees with you or else disagrees in an excruciatingly polite and rational manner, that sort of undermines the arguments.

ROFL! Thank you. And yes, I've been very impressed at how very high the signal to noise ratio was.

I disagreed with some of it, but I thought it had some very good ideas, and very amusing writing, and a lot of interesting responses. I think getting a lot of attention is a perk of writing interesting things about a controversial topic. It's an abuse if you just write the same things again and again and pretend they're interesting. But if you're saying something interesting, you have no reason to feel guilty because surprisingly many people were interested :)

That said, I did expect some vociferous disagreement. I think your criticisms of social-justice-type feminism are apt (and I know many feminists who I think would agree), but I also think social-justice-type feminism does identify many real problems that most other people don't recognise, and your post sounds dismissive of them (even if that's not what you meant), which is indeed likely to piss many people off.

At one of the Cambridge UK less wrong meetings we had a conversation about introducing feminist concepts to rationalists and vice versa, which wasn't perfect, but went better than I expected and was surprisingly interesting.
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[User Picture]From: mstevens
2012-09-18 01:05 pm (UTC)
I've long been hoping someone will write a series of "feminism for lesswrongers" posts for the site.

I guess I need to work on my telepathy, as it hasn't happened yet. I did an extremely limited amount of research intending to have a go myself, but didn't find any good sources.
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[User Picture]From: palmer1984
2012-09-18 01:41 pm (UTC)
I need to come to one of the Cambridge LW meets again sometime :).
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-09-18 01:56 pm (UTC)
"-- I continue to underestimate the universality of the law that there is no argument so dumb or straw-mannish that someone somewhere has not made it."

I think you want to link to a specific comment about bad Bible arguments?

I hadn't heard of "social justice feminism" before, though I knew there were many strains of feminism; now I'm a bit annoyed because I associate "social justice" with economic equality concerns like _The Spirit Level_.

It's been an interesting series, though I'll be thankful to not have a long post on feminism in my friends page every day, it was starting to feel "oh no not another one already".

But you might make one last post indexing the series for handy reference.
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-09-18 02:22 pm (UTC)
Possibly this for the bad Bible argument.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-09-18 02:19 pm (UTC)
"Has been arrested for a violent crime" isn't the same thing as "is a rapist". One is about perception and the other other is about actual behavior.

I'm moderately sure that that the sort of attack (at least about race) you've been working on undermining is more likely to happen to sf authors. More generally, I think think it might be fair to say that the social justice conceptual superweapons have been spreading, but the influence of those superweapons is much less than it feels like if you happen to hang out in places where they're common.
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-09-18 04:01 pm (UTC)
Either this is another one of those weird dreams, or you are all the best people ever.

You too. :)

<3
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[User Picture]From: Douglas Scheinberg
2012-09-18 05:47 pm (UTC)
-- People who discuss the "war on women" or who seemingly uncharitably oppose people who make various policy proposals as "misogynist" are not just unreflectively failing to exercise charity. They have actually considered the situation and decided that charity is not deserved. I don't know if that's better or worse.


Oh, I'm sure there are plenty of people who are indeed unreflectively failing to apply charity, too.
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[User Picture]From: Douglas Scheinberg
2012-09-18 06:03 pm (UTC)
...yeah, the aleithometer came up "meaningless". It turns out I never actually made any concrete statements. No moral prescriptions. No suggestions for things that would be better. I'm not sure I have them, either - I was planning on making some, but now I'm not sure about them. And now that a bunch of people have posted this all over the Internet I'm trying to figure out what the heck I thought I was doing.


What you did do, however, is describe the problem very well, which is valuable. If it were an easy problem to solve, it would have been solved already. As H. L. Menken once said, for every complex problem, there's a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-09-18 06:14 pm (UTC)
"If it were an easy problem to solve, it would have been solved already."

(Abstract tangent)

Depends on what you frame as the problem. Lots of social problems have easy solutions on their own merits; the problem is implementing solutions against opposition, not designing solutions. So arguably the real problem is "how do we do X given opposition", because *it* is the real political problem, but the political opposition is often complicating what's a simple utilitarian problem with a simple, neat, and correct -- but unpalatable -- solution.

(See slavery as an extreme example. Simple neat and easy: ban slavery. But slaveowners had power. Reforming economic privileges and rents in general is often similar: good economic policy would be simple, but lots of people can block implementation out of self-interest.)
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From: siodine
2012-09-18 07:44 pm (UTC)
Not meaningless, this should be a prerequisite for anyone wanting to have a productive discussion with an identity politician (and who isn't an identity politician?). Most everyone gets stuck at the object level in these types of discussions, and they go nowhere. It's important to understand at the meta-level what you're actually doing and where you are, otherwise you'll end up somewhere you never intended or sputtering about in circles. I'd sum up these posts as "hey, let's take a step back and examine this like rational adults, because too often we miss the forest for the trees."
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[User Picture]From: eyelessgame
2012-09-18 07:55 pm (UTC)
You learned something from it. That's awesome.
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-09-19 12:06 am (UTC)
I hope this doesn't come off as patronizing, but your list of things learned was somewhat surprising to me-- it's partly evidence of how much people can miss because they're panicking and/or are getting information from other people who are panicking. (Ok, I'm guessing about the motivation, but it's the only guess I've got.)

You're intelligent and benevolent, but it still took a lot of thought and sticking your neck out to discover both that there are many sorts of feminism and that the current round of SJ feminism is a response to some actual problems.

I don't think you're mistaken about the existence of conceptual superweapons (thanks for the terminology), and I do think that there are feminists and anti-racists building new ones.
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[User Picture]From: jannytruant
2012-09-19 01:45 am (UTC)
+1 enlightening. Just looking through all my previous comments, I don't think I mentioned just how educational this whole conversation has been. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: Katie Hartman
2012-09-19 05:42 pm (UTC)
I found the use of 'Nice Guy (TM)' throughout these posts somewhat uncharitable, given that in every other context that I can recall seeing the term (which, admittedly, may be an inadvertently biased attempt at recall) it has been used to refer to the type of person who expects that his nice behavior will be rewarded with romance or sex. The implied problem isn't being interested in a romantic relationship with a friend, it's supplying friendship and building emotional dependence as a means of eventually making someone feel obligated to follow through with a relationship they don't really want.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-19 06:39 pm (UTC)
I think I've addressed that point already, but part of the problem is that the phrase was co-opted from men who used it in a completely different way, and then used to prove that the men who were using it in a different way were wrong and bad people.
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-09-20 09:23 am (UTC)
Hmm... I just realized that with these posts, you may actually have provided a superweapon against superweapons. In other words, if somebody accuses somebody of "mansplaining" or "privilege" or whatever, the other can resort to "superweapon!" and a link to these posts.

Which, in turn, gives me the belated realization that what you call "superweapons" is what Paul Graham is talking about when he talks about heresy, and that "using a superweapon against superweapons" is basically the same as his "political correctness" defense:

One way to do this is to ratchet the debate up one level of abstraction. If you argue against censorship in general, you can avoid being accused of whatever heresy is contained in the book or film that someone is trying to censor. You can attack labels with meta-labels: labels that refer to the use of labels to prevent discussion. The spread of the term "political correctness" meant the beginning of the end of political correctness, because it enabled one to attack the phenomenon as a whole without being accused of any of the specific heresies it sought to suppress.
(Apologies if this has already been pointed out somewhere in your comments, or is just otherwise incredibly obvious.)

Edited to add:

Graham also points out one encouraging thing about superweapons - they tend to become overused and then lose their power over time:
In every period of history, there seem to have been labels that got applied to statements to shoot them down before anyone had a chance to ask if they were true or not. "Blasphemy", "sacrilege", and "heresy" were such labels for a good part of western history, as in more recent times "indecent", "improper", and "unamerican" have been. By now these labels have lost their sting. They always do. By now they're mostly used ironically. But in their time, they had real force.
The word "defeatist", for example, has no particular political connotations now. But in Germany in 1917 it was a weapon, used by Ludendorff in a purge of those who favored a negotiated peace. At the start of World War II it was used extensively by Churchill and his supporters to silence their opponents. In 1940, any argument against Churchill's aggressive policy was "defeatist". Was it right or wrong? Ideally, no one got far enough to ask that.

And he also suggests that if a group is in a position where it ends up employing conceptual superweapons, it's in a position of weakness, so their victory is not inevitable. Even if the group wins, that may lead to an eventual decline in the power of their superweapon:
To launch a taboo, a group has to be poised halfway between weakness and power. A confident group doesn't need taboos to protect it. It's not considered improper to make disparaging remarks about Americans, or the English. And yet a group has to be powerful enough to enforce a taboo. Coprophiles, as of this writing, don't seem to be numerous or energetic enough to have had their interests promoted to a lifestyle.
I suspect the biggest source of moral taboos will turn out to be power struggles in which one side only barely has the upper hand. That's where you'll find a group powerful enough to enforce taboos, but weak enough to need them.

Though of course, by the time that the superweapon of one group loses its power, the mad scientists of another are busy putting the finishing touches on their own...

Edited at 2012-09-20 09:34 am (UTC)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-20 11:56 am (UTC)

more people need to read this

I'm an MRA (boo, hiss, I know) and I've just spent the past hour or so reading your last 9 posts in this series (I found the link here (http://www.reddit.com/r/MensRights/comments/106ftc/for_those_who_have_absorbed_the_associated_memes/)) in case you were curious). When I saw this was a Livejournal blog, I was expecting another piece of crap because, well, Livejournal is filled with crap...instead I found brilliance. I decided to leave a comment because I wanted to let you know how much I appreciated what you've written...not only for your well-reasoned criticisms of the people who hate me, but also because you've led me to reconsider some of my own reactions/etc. as well as some of what I see emerging in the MRM. I am, and will continue to be, an antifeminist -- the reasons for which I've outlined here (https://femintology.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/why-im-an-antifeminist/) -- however, I'm going to try to be a bit more cautious about "super-weapons", as I do see something like that coming together within the MRM (though, as far as I know, we don't have any bingo cards...yet).

I also wanted to touch on something else: I agree with everything you've written from this (http://squid314.livejournal.com/327849.html) to this (http://squid314.livejournal.com/329561.html)...except for "patriarchy". I don't think it's a useful term for describing modern western cultures. First, there are major issues with falsifiability. Specifically, there are a bunch of different definitions for the term "patriarchy" ranging from the extremely vague and unfalsifiable, to the very specific and falsifiable...and the more falsifiable it gets, the more it gets falsified (http://www.reddit.com/r/MensRights/comments/e2vme/im_trying_to_put_together_a_solid_refutation_of/), while the vague and unfalsifiable definitions (e.g. "an unjust social system that is oppressive to women") are useless and don't really support much of the rhetoric criticizing "patriarchy" (especially those criticisms which closely resemble conspiracy theories).

Anyway, "patriarchy" is just a pet-peeve of mine. I really did enjoy reading your posts, and appreciate you taking the time (and risk) to share your thoughts on this complicated and controversial grouping of inter-related subjects.



P.S. I think you should consider compiling all of these posts into a single essay, and perhaps releasing an e-book version. I'm not sure of the "right" way to make an e-book, but if you have Open Office and Calibre, you can export a PDF from Open Office and convert it to a usable .mobi/.epub in Calibre.
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[User Picture]From: naath
2012-09-20 01:54 pm (UTC)
I found this series interesting, and respectful-whilst-disagreeing; others may disagree but I think your thoughtfulness is a reason you didn't get superweaponed all over the shop (also the way you said these things *in your own space* not as a direct response in someone else's space where they may have looked more like a direct attack on an individual).

I always think there's things to be learned from sitting down and listening to people one disagrees with; but it does take a degree of patience and courage that not everyone is fortified with at all times (or even ever).
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[User Picture]From: pktechgirl
2012-09-20 04:24 pm (UTC)
People who discuss the "war on women" or who seemingly uncharitably oppose people who make various policy proposals as "misogynist" are not just unreflectively failing to exercise charity. They have actually considered the situation and decided that charity is not deserved. I don't know if that's better or worse.

Third option: they believe that women were and are expected to exercise the Principle of Charity more than men. In the most extreme form, this means that refusing to be charitable while female is itself a blow against the patriarchy. In a milder form, it manifests as requiring serious evidence your opponent has thought through your position in a charitable manner first, before doing the same. Social justice feminists are more likely to believe this and more likely to take a more extreme form.

I think it's hard to deny that this was true historically, and is still at least somewhat true today, especially when it comes to dating. That is why I reacted so strongly to the comment thread on how to schedule a date. "I know this pattern matches with people who are stalkerish or boring, but you should investigate before turning me down." is essentially demanding the principle of charity be applied, and I resented the implication that women were bad people if they didn't bear that investigation cost.
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[User Picture]From: Julia Wise
2012-09-21 10:34 pm (UTC)
This series of posts was the first critique of feminism that actually made me considering distancing myself from the term. Thanks for that. But in the end, I'm not willing to surrender feminism to unreasonable people.
http://jdwise.blogspot.com/2011/08/between-rock-and-crunchy-place.html
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-11 04:15 am (UTC)
On a tangent related to your link here: I think it actually was appropriate to respond to Larry Summers in approximately the way he got responded to.

It's reasonable to respond to a series of arguments in a manner fitting the worst argument made, and that IQ argument was REALLY BAD. So, a strong response was appropriate, even though most of what he said was perfectly reasonable.
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From: vnesov
2012-09-24 10:56 am (UTC)
Of things you've discussed, conceptual superweapons seems like a particularly useful idea. This concept is another powerful heuristic for activating rationalist taboo, perhaps powerful enough to navigate mindkilling topics (it also partially overlaps the less clear heuristic from the Worst Argument in the World). It seems worth extracting from the context and writing up as an article.
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[User Picture]From: roryokane
2012-09-30 08:59 pm (UTC)

another self-defeating argument

Another self-defeating argument – or statement, rather – is “It goes without saying that [whatever]”. If it really went without saying, you wouldn’t have to say it. It is more accurate to say “It should go without saying that [whatever]”.
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