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Why I defend scoundrels [Oct. 6th, 2012|03:07 pm]

With depressing regularity, I find myself arguing on the side of Horrible People.

Start with an extensional definition of Horrible People. Racists, anti-feminists, libertarians, creationists...

Okay, starting with an extensional definition was a terrible idea. Every single group on that list is probably super offended to be categorized with the others. So now I have to try an intensional definition.

Um...groups that are so loathed that they have become, at least to mainstream culture, a "boo light", someone whom it would be weird to even argue against because that would be going too far in granting the legitimacy of their position. People who should be treated not as legitimate debating partners but as figures of evil and punching bags.

Why do I find myself supporting these people so often?

I ought to admit that I have a pretty reactive personality. I'm not motivated to go out and fight because I am vaguely aware that the world is less optimal than it should be. I do get motivated when I see some particular horrible thing that needs fighting. I get motivated to stop that one horrible thing, and then go back to what I was doing before.

And it pretty much has to be something I encounter myself. I used to have the same reaction to horrible things on the news, until I realized the news was basically a plot to take horrible things out of context, exaggerate them, and throw them at people in the hopes they would react ("Republican dogcatcher makes remark that sounds racist out of context! Does this mean you should HATE ALL REPUBLICANS??!?!?!") At some point I reached Peak Outrage, the remaining outrage is locked beneath shale deposits that are too expensive to drill, and now my ability to be motivated by things in the media is pretty low.

So my ability to get motivated mostly comes from seeing people doing horrible things in real life. And lucky for me, this happens almost never. I'm introverted enough that I can afford to choose who I hang out with, I usually choose people who aren't evil and abandon them at the first sign of evilness, and I rarely hang out with people even after they have been selected in this way. So I have (literally) never seen an act of violence in real life. I don't think I can remember an incident of any of my friends being the victims of violent crimes while I've known them. I've never been falsely charged with a serious crime, I've never had the government oppress me, I've never...you can fill in the rest.

I was looking on OKCupid the other day, and one woman's profile says that if you want to message her, you need to think of a time you stood up for someone and include it in the message. I am not sure I can do that. I mean, I've written some letters to Congressmen and even done some very weak political campaigning in favor of Free Tibet type causes, but that's a very bloodless and impersonal form of "standing up" and no doubt not what she's after. I've argued with people on the Internet who are unfairly attacking people, but that's the same.

I would like to be able to give a good solid example of seeing someone being bullied for their race or their gender or their sexual orientation, and me stepping in and saying "Hey guys, don't do that." And I don't really have that example - not because I'm too cowardly to step in, but because I've managed to go 27 years without ever encountering that situation.

There was one time when people were saying really mean things about an overweight acquaintance of mine, and I did step in and ask them to stop. But I count that as a very hollow victory because to be honest that acquaintance had some serious social issues, had earned himself a lot of criticism, and it was just unfortunate that in the middle of launching a relatively justified tirade against the hundred things that were genuinely wrong with him people had to interject some cheap shot at his weight.

Likewise, one time I told someone off for saying terrible things about pagans. But the guy turned out to be a schizophrenic who was only against pagans because he kept hallucinating seeing them turn people into animals, so once again this ended up with less of me being a hero and more me being a jerk to a poor schizophrenic guy who couldn't help it.

So in reality, the terrible things I find myself reacting against aren't violent criminals or even insensitive bullies. It's usually terrible arguments. Anyone who uses Facebook knows that people just post incredibly stupid things on there. And so I go into full-blown "someone on the Internet is wrong" mode and try to correct them, and I'm usually pretty good at it.

So who makes terrible arguments?

I don't know if anyone's ever asked that exact question before. The natural tendency is to say that the more accurate the position, the more reasonable its supporters and therefore the more accurate the arguments for it. This is probably true in cases like the Pythagorean Theorem where there's a simple proof of its correctness, and likely true in the case of evolution where at least there's a scientific fact of the matter.

However, there are also very many reasons to expect that arguments for socially dominant beliefs (which correlate highly with truth) to be worse than the arguments for fringe beliefs (which probably correlate highly with falsehood).

I. Because the reasons for making the arguments are different

Suppose a creationist shows up and starts making arguments for creationism. Most people are going to argue back, but not because they are actually hoping to convince the creationist, or even because they're hoping to convince neutral third parties. They're arguing back because they want to be the hero who stood up to the evil enemy of reason and science.

If you're standing up to the creationist, everyone's already on your side. There is almost no argument so stupid that people wouldn't cheer you on as you make it. You just have to go through the motions of being a person who argues, and then everyone high-fives you and bans the creationist from the forum for not giving up when he was "obviously beaten in a fair argument".

On the other hand, the creationist has a strong incentive to come up with a good argument. She's trying to actively convince a hostile audience.

II. Because the signaling incentives are different

Imagine if you actually tried to do a really good job arguing with a Klansman. You read some KKK literature to try to find out where he's coming from. Then you try to get into his mind, think like him, and maybe try to incrementally convince him that a few of his less tenable points were wrong to begin with.

It might look something like "You know how in 1967, Grand Wizard Jones declared that all minorities were stupid? Doesn't that conflict with the existence of various minority doctors and lawyers and scientists? Do you think maybe that, even if some minorities are stupid, there might be others who are actually just as smart as white people?"

This wouldn't signal to your friends that you were going above and beyond in your efforts to argue against the Klansman. It would signal that you were sympathetic, that you could see where he was coming from, that maybe you're racist yourself.

On the other hand, the dumber and louder and more strident an argument you make, the more it signals how much you hate him and how little you respect him.

III. Because your ability to model each other is different

All your life you've probably been exposed to straw man versions of creationists. If there is a creationist literature, you have not read it and probably have no idea what it says. If creationists have been coming up with debating points in their dark lairs for decades, you have not heard any of them. You are still boggling at the fact that you are meeting an actual creationist, something that seems only slightly less fantastic than having Hitler rise from his grave and start shambling towards you.

On the other hand, if the creationist has ever turned on a TV, she knows exactly what the state of the non-creationist world is. She knows what arguments they use, she knows what culture they have been brought up in. She's probably argued with hundreds, maybe thousands of evolutionists before. She knows exactly what debating points they use.

You have no expectations beyond that she is going to shout "Duurrrrr, the Bible says it so it must be true!" When she starts talking about the amino-acid structure of the bacterial flagellum, you are totally confused and discombobulated and your most likely response is "You people always just say if the Bible says it it must be true! But that's wrong!" because you had been waiting to say that line to the first creationist you met and you actually don't know anything about flagella.

IV. Because goalposts will naturally move to a poorly defensible spot.

I once had a discussion with some people on Bastion about why there were such weird pedophilia convictions. For example, if you are caught with hand-drawn pictures of children having sex, that's a pedophilia conviction. If you get a video feed of a normal, clothed child singing a song, and you dub it with new audio so that it looks like the child is saying dirty sexy words, that's a pedophilia conviction.

The explanation I came up with - and the other Bastionados agreed - was that people gain status by attacking pedophilia. And you gain the most status if you go the furthest attacking pedophilia, if you can separate yourself from the pack by attacking it more, if you can say "My opponents think this marginal case is okay, but I am so against pedophilia that I oppose even the marginal cases" so on even further into the margin. And it's really hard to say "Okay, you've gone too far with the attacks on pedophilia", because then the other person can just say "I notice my worthy opponent is trying to defend pedophilia" and you lose whatever debate you were having.

So if everyone agrees pedophilia is bad, the battle line in the debate on pedophilia will move to a less defensible spot, one where the pressure from people who want to gain status opposing pedophilia is exactly counterbalanced by the opposite pressure from people following common sense. This doesn't happen anywhere in Reasonableville because no one wants to speak out against an applause light, so the goalposts get moved all the way to Crazytown.

That means that our society's position on pedophilia will naturally be pretty stupid. However, it will be stupid in a direction such that the only people who have any personal incentive to fight particularly hard against it will be pedophiles (I appreciate on an intellectual level that jailing people for hand-drawn child porn is stupid, but as a non-pedophile it hardly seems worth crusading about).

But that means that anyone who values reason for reason's sake will naturally have to ally with the pedophiles, which will be super-awkward.

V. Because people will tolerate worse arguments for better causes

Suppose a white supremacist said "All black people should be under suspicion because of the actions of some black criminals."

If this were posted on a forum, it would probably be deleted, or the thread would be locked, or so many people would have condemned it by the time you saw it that there would be nothing left to condemn. If it were posted on Facebook, you would un-friend the poster. If it were on a blog somewhere, you would just never read that blog, and you would assume no other decent person would read that blog so it isn't even something you need to worry about. But most likely of all, even if some closet white supremacist thought this, they would just never mention it.

Now suppose a feminist said "All men should be under suspicion because of the actions of some men who assault women."

This is the exact same argument. However, if it were posted on a forum it would stay open and probably get praised. If it were posted on Facebook, it would probably be by someone you liked and wouldn't just un-friend for this reason alone. If it were on a blog somewhere, that blog would probably be super-popular, even among decent people you interact with.

The first argument would never even reach your "Okay, let me evaluate this argument" filter. It would either be censored by other people, or you would internally judge it not worth your time to evaluate and respond to. It wouldn't even register as an "argument" so much as "an idiot troll"

That means you are more likely to see the bad arguments for good causes than you are to see bad arguments for bad causes.

VI: Because real debates generally produce better arguments than echo chambers

All of this has been assuming there is an actual Klansman or creationist or pedophile around somewhere. But that's rarely the case; the demand for Klansmen and creationists to pick on and be heroic against is much greater than the supply. So what really ends up happening is that people on Facebook post what they're sure are knockdown arguments against these positions, when in fact they're tailor-made to be as insulting a straw man as possible and to depend on the fact that no representative of the hated position will be around to protest (or be willing to reveal herself and get hated on if she is).

The best example I can think of right now is this flowchart. Whoever made it obviously had never met an actual Christian. How do you live in an 80% Christian society for your entire life without meeting any? I have no idea. But this person clearly managed it, somehow. And there is an entire horde of people going around carrying this flowchart and expecting that if they ever meet a Christian this stuff is going to be devastating.

I have met people who are pretty sure they are experts in debating creationism who have never met a creationist in their life. What the mean by "an expert in debating creationism" is that they've read a bunch of evolution blogs that talk about how dumb creationists are, and they say "I'm less dumb than that! I could debate a creationist!"

VII: Because you never bother to learn about anything you disrespect too much

See for example my post on the Courtier's Reply. Usually people who dismiss one side of an argument as "pseudoscience" will read one article in Popular Science denouncing it, think it sounds reasonable (hint: any well-written article can convince you of its position if you have a somewhat-high prior and never read anything on the other side) and then just assume anyone who disagrees with you is just unaware of the insights in that Popular Science article, even if they are a professor in the field or something.

I came across an interesting story by a committed Velikovskian (note: I do not endorse Velikovsky):
Thereafter, I encountered a colleague who, learning that I was interested in the thesis of Dr. Velikovsky, informed me that in Broca's Brain was an essay by Professor Sagan that demolished Velikovsky and his thesis. When he informed me that he had not read any of Velikovsky's books nor any criticisms of Sagan's article I asked, "How can you make a proper judgment if you haven't read both sides of the issue." To my astonishment he replied, "I don't have to read both sides to know which side is right!" His closed-minded attitude made discussion futile and I let the remark pass. Several days later I received a letter in which he presented citations from Sagan's paper and posed, "What possible arguments could be raised on Velikovsky's behalf?"

In response I composed a long letter which dealt with merely one of Sagan's criticisms. This posted I awaited his response-none came. A few weeks later at a monthly conference, we ran into each other. In a very friendly manner he approached me, smiling broadly, he shook my hand. "What did you think of my reply to your letter?" I asked. He admired the scholarship of my reply to Sagan and admitted frankly, "There are two sides to this Velikovsky business." This I followed up by asking if there were any other aspects of Sagan's criticism which he wished to clarify. He shook his head 'no' and I dropped the matter.

I could keep going in this vein, but for now I just want to conclude that in my opinion, the worst arguments are likely to be on the side of people who are convinced of their own correctness, convinced of the overarching moral rightness of their cause, surrounded by friends who agree with them, and almost never exposed to the opposite side. And unfortunately, these are likely to be the causes that are correct, popular, and morally important.

That means that the best causes are often going to have the worst arguments for them. At the very least, the best causes are going to have the worst arguments that reasonable people are cheering on and supporting.

H.L. Mencken, a famous defender of civil liberties, once noticed that he always seemed to be on the side of horrible people - communists, anarchists, basically the NAMBLAs of his day. This made sense: no one was going to try to take away decent people's freedom of speech, but they would very often try to take away the liberties of horrible people. He said that "the trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. "

The trouble with being in favor of good reasoning, as opposed to with getting the "right" results, is that you will generally spend most of your time picking apart terrible arguments by the good people, the righteous people, because they are the only people who are making bad arguments that haven't already been picked apart ad nauseum (Todd Akin makes bad arguments, but by the time you hear about him you would be repeating exactly what ten million other people have said without adding anything to it. As the saying goes "It's not worth an intelligent person's time to be in the majority; by definition there are already enough people to do that.")

The good, righteous people are not used to being argued against. They round you off to a Bad, Unrighteous Person. It is unpleasant. And when this has happened enough, you start viewing the Good Righteous People as your enemies. You start feeling like even when they haven't said anything too objectionable yet, it's just a matter of time. You live in fear of waking up every day, seeing a smug self-congratulatory image macro about how stupid everyone who opposes feminism is on your Facebook feed, and having the whole thing start over again.

And once you view the Good Righteous People as your enemies, you start viewing the Bad Unrighteous people as a sort of friend. Bad, unrighteous friends. But at least they sometimes stand up for you when no one else will.

And then you start to become Bad and Unrighteous yourself.

I have yet to find a good solution to this besides letting terrible Facebook reasoning pass unopposed, which is not something my brain will permit me to do.

[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-10-08 10:00 pm (UTC)
"So the "don't trust blacks" argument is strictly weaker than the "don't trust men" one; if you accept the former you must accept the latter."

I don't think this reasoning is correct. Consider "non-paralyzed people" and "axe murderers". All dangerous axe-murderers are non-paralyzed; even if there were a paralyzed axe murderer, he would not be dangerous.

But your argument seems to imply that one could say that a "don't trust axe murderers" is strictly weaker than a "don't trust non-paralyzed people" one.

While it is true that non-paralyzedness is an absolutely necessary requirement for dangerousness, "don't trust non-paralyzed people" is still overly paranoid, whereas "don't trust axe murderers" is still reasonable.
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