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The Ninth Meta-tation on Meta [Sep. 18th, 2012|02:49 am]
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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.

[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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