Saturday, July 9, 2016

Dumb Arguments and Superweapons

There is a type of dumb argument that happens on the internet hundreds of times a day. It goes something like this:
Person A: "I had a horrible run-in with a cranky feminist who pretty much accused me of looking down at her before I had said anything more than my name."

Person B: "That's so unfair, feminists are good people and if they are cranky that's only because men treat women like dirt all the time, you sexist pig."

Person A: "Wait, a minute, I said nothing about women in general or even feminists in general, there was just this one woman!"
Person C: I met this really dumb guy from Montana. . . .

Person D: Most people in Montana are plenty smart, and you coastal elitists are going to get what's coming to you one day.
The argument slides instantly from the individual to the category.

Have you ever wondered why people respond like that? Scott Alexander has an explanation:
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 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.
This makes perfect sense to me. We bristle when anyone in our own group is criticized because we don't want the idea to spread that all people in our group are like that. Most people think in categories; we can't help it. We just naturally extend the characteristics of one member of a group we happen to know to the rest that we don't know. To avoid this takes a lifetime of effort, and we obviously can't rely on our fellow citizens of earth to make that effort. So we have to work constantly to keep the reputation of our own group shiny and spotless.

So statements like, "some cops are killers who should be in jail" or "some black men are dangerous criminals and cops are right to be nervous around them" must be met by angry rebuttals. It doesn't matter if they are true or false; they are against my group, so I must rebut them. If they are allowed to remain unchallenged, they will poison the whole society against my group, and I can't afford that.


G. Verloren said...


"So statements like, "some cops are killers who should be in jail" or "some black men are dangerous criminals and cops are right to be nervous around them" must be met by angry rebuttals. It doesn't matter if they are true or false; they are against my group, so I must rebut them. If they are allowed to remain unchallenged, they will poison the whole society against my group, and I can't afford that."

And yet, -how- you challenge these superweapon notions is what ultimately matters the most.

If someone says, "Some cops are killers who should be in jail", sure you could respond by giving a speech purely about how selfless and noble police are as a whole, but that seems to me like it will just be ignored and anger people, because it is a response to a serious concern which seems to simply dismiss said concern outright.

There has to be some measure of recognizing legitimate grievances where they exist. You actually could probably successfully give your entire speech about how selfless and noble police as a whole are, if only first, before you said anything else, you stopped and replied "Yes, you're absolutely right - police brutality is a serious issue and we need to clamp down on it... but while doing so, it's vital that we make the effort to distinguish between the vast majority of selfless and noble cops, and the small minority of crooked and violent ones."

It's such a small thing, but it's a courtesy that I think all of us fail to give frequently enough for our own goods. And it's the sort of thing that applies everywhere - not just in major social discourse, but even in one on one relationships.

People simply want other people to listen to them, and want to be reassured that whatever they're saying is being heard, paid attention too, respected, and given a proper chance. We want our thoughts and words to have value, and when it seems like other people aren't ignoring them or simply don't care about them, that hurts us on an almost instinctual level - even if they actually do care, and we simply wrongly perceive their actions.

This is why we find prefer to have people look at us when we talk, rather than bury their nose in a book, or lock their gaze on a video screen, or otherwise appear to be paying attention to something else. This is why sometimes very simple, even trivial things can start fights between friends, family, and loved ones - it's not about the fact that you forgot to do the dishes, it's about the feeling (real or perceived) that you weren't listening or didn't care enough when they asked you to do them.

G. Verloren said...


Stopping to demonstrate that you actually are paying attention, and that you actually do care about what someone is saying to you, can make a world of difference to how they feel about something, even if absolutely nothing else changes.

And there are simple ways to perform such demonstrations, that take next to no effort or extra thought. Probably the simplest, most effective change you can make to how you approach discussions is to employ the "Echo Effect" - repeat back to people what they've just said in one form or another, either directly by literally speaking their own words again, or indirectly by through tacit language or agreement.

All it really takes is that first echo and people feel like you've heard them somewhat, and are then much more likely to listen to your own counterpoints or more nuanced opinions. And if you then follow your echo with inclusive speech which makes the other person feel solidarity rather than isolation, you're more likely to sway them to consider a less all-or-nothing viewpoint - even if you mostly, or even completely disagree with what they're saying.

"Cops in this country are completely out of control!"
"They sure are! ...or at least, enough of them are for it to be a very serious problem for everyone, cops included."

"The police are murdering blacks in the streets, and no one cares!"
"It's absolutely awful! ...but don't worry, huge numbers of people very much do care - and in fact, lots of police officers are just as outraged as we are.

"The sky is falling! It's the end of the world! Obama is a Kenyan lizardman alien! Ahhhhh!"
"The sky is falling? It's the end of the world? Obama is a Kenyan lizarman alien? ...are you uh... sure about that? Because none of that sounds quite right to me..."

leif said...

Verloren, we need more of you. When cloning becomes available, please go donate at a clinic...