Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Two Kinds of Criticism

Scott Siskind has an essay this week that I think makes an important point about our age. He takes off from the Effective Altruism movement, the people who try to calculate exactly how many lives are saved or how much suffering reduced by donations to this or that cause. (The winners are all medical charities working in very poor places doing simple things like deworming or malaria nets.)

You might think that people doing this kind of work would dislike being criticized over how they do it. But no; if you look at the EA Forum where insiders exchange messages, the top posts are all #criticism of EA.

At this point, reading an article like this one, you already know what the next “narrative beat” has to be. Despite Their Superficial Openness To Criticism, People In EA Are Only Willing To Engage With A Narrow Selection Of Critiques That Flatter Their Preconceptions, While Truly Threatening Criticisms Are Excluded From The Window Of Acceptable Discourse. People Who Are Able To Speak The Language Of Power And Criticize EA Legibly In Its Own Terms Get Flattered And Rewarded With Trivial Changes, While People Who Genuinely Challenge The Establishment Are Dismissed As Beyond The Pale Of “Respectable” Criticism And Ignored Or Punished.

But actually that is utterly wrong. The criticisms that get upvoted are the most fundamental, the most sweeping, the ones that say EA is based on utterly wrong premises (western, individualistic, racist, sexist, capitalist) and needs to be restructured from the ground up.

Siskind is a psychiatrist, and he notices the same thing in psychiatry:

Psychiatry has its own stock criticisms of itself. We rely too much on pills. We don’t get to know patients enough as individuals. We only treat the symptoms, not the real disease of [insert wild speculation]. We are probably systemically racist somehow, details to be filled in later. Something something Thomas Insel’s RDoC program. Non-psychiatrists in the popular media have stolen these criticisms and made them dumber, but we had them all first. 

Siskind lists some papers from the 2019 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association: "Disrupting The Status Quo: Addressing Racism In Medical Education And Residency Training;" "Grabbing The Third Rail: Race And Racism In Clinical Documentation;" "The Pervasive Role Of Racial Bias In Mental Health;"  "Inequity By Structural Design: Psychiatrists' Responsibility To Be Informed Advocates For Systemic Education And Criminal Justice Reform."  And so on.

But, says Siskind, none of these supposedly deep and fundamental criticisms ever draws a strong reaction. Everyone nods and says, yes, that's true, we need to fundamentally rethink our approach. "Your whole field is racist and wrong" sounds like a biting attack, but somehow it has no bite. If you want to get a reaction, says Siskind, ask a really specific question about actual treatment choices. Like, "why they prescribe s-ketamine instead of racemic ketamine for treatment-resistant depression."

I agree with this completely. In the museum world, radical critique is the daily bread and butter. The day doesn't really begin until someone launches the first attack on how racist, classist, neocolonialist, and exploitative the whole idea of museums is, to which everyone nods, agrees, and looks thoughtful for a minute before going about their business.

Most of the time, the more "fundamental" and "far-reaching" the criticism is, the less meaningful it is, and the less likely to lead to any kind of change.

I wrote here several times about the strange campus protests of 2016, in which students expressed a sort of generalized frustration with everything about the university that they often had trouble putting into words. Eveything was just bad, bad, bad. When they did write lists of grievances they were often strangely petty, the particulars not justifying the overall sense of anger and resentment.

I think this has become a terrible problem with our politics. The best example came in 2011, when we had raging fights in Congress, accompanied by accusations of communism and fascism and attempts to destroy America, over whether the top tax rate would be 35% or 38.5%. The constant resort to the fundamental, deep attack, the insistence that your enemies are wrong root and branch and need to becompletely wiped out, is poisoning everything. And for nothing, because the US economy is not going to be fundamentally changed.

The whole contemporary discourse about race is, I think, poisoned by this problem. Maybe it would be nice if we could eradicate racism root and branch and fundamentally change how Americans think about each other. But since we can't, why waste all our breath shouting about it and making everyone mad? Why not work on some concrete reforms of how police forces operate, how housing policy is set, and so on?

"America is a racist society that needs to be razed and rebuilt from the ground up" is a foolish, counterproductive thing to say. "Capitalism grinds up souls and needs to be destroyed so we can build a just society" is equally foolish and counterproductive. Better to argue for things like minimum wage laws and mandatory vacations that might actually happen.

Fundamental change is very rare in history, and it usually happens because of vast social forces that we can hardly understand, much less control. Your demanding it will not make it happen. Better to think of something good that we might actually achieve and spend your breath arguing for that.


David said...


"America is a racist society that needs to be razed and rebuilt from the ground up" is either a foolish, counterproductive thing to say . . . or dangerous, violent, and revolutionary. The same with the comment about capitalism grinding up souls. It's not that nothing can be done, but that what could be done, and what the comments ultimately call for, is apocalyptic and terrifying. It brings up gulags, guillotines, struggle sessions, cultural revolutions, and all the rest. You yourself have said that in some cases such things might be "necessary" (I'm thinking of your review of Wild Swans). But surely what is good for the anti-old hierarchies goose is good for the anti-racist, anti-capitalist gander.

Perhaps the structures of our society are simply too strong, in a purely amoral, power sense, for such a revolution to happen. (If so, I say bravo.) But arguably, this is what makes a revolution from the right so dangerous. It can take over the structures that exist and turn them to its own terrifying purposes. Sorry to bring up the inevitable, but I think Nazi, Fascist, and Iranian Islamist examples are apposite here.

Anonymous said...

Might this account for the vilification of JK Rowling who in one of her first twitters on the topic of transgender said essentially “I am an ally. I’m on your side. But I disagree about X.” It seems to be she gets more hate than Ted Cruz or DeSantis

Anonymous said...

Ps. Lisa

John said...


Well, sure, sometimes people calling for radical transformation mean it. But the thing about contemporary revolution talk it that it is so far removed from Lenin-style thinking about what a revolution would actually entail. What would replace capitalism? How are you actually going to abolish intolerance? The impression I get from a lot of more-or-less leftist people is that they want a kinder, less stressful, less grinding sort of life. How, exactly, is revolution suposed to help with that?

The people calling for razing and rebuilding have no idea what they want, except for their perceived enemies to magically disappear. (Lenin had some actionable ideas about that, too.)

I agree that there is a sort of American rightism that might succeed by taking over the existing government and military instutions. But what do they want? More suburban houses? Cola-fired power plants? The freedom to beat up annoying trans kids? Mandatory football for all boys?

I suppose they want to expel a few million immigrants, but good luck with that when the biggest supporters of immigration are corporations and rich conservatives like Musk and Thiel.

When their guy Trump was in office, what changed?

I don't mean that nothing would change; a total abortion ban would be a big thing. I just don't see any agenda on the right that would come close to my idea of revolutionary razing and rebuilding.


David said...

Yes, in the sense you mention, leftist anti-capitalist and anti-racist talk can be pretty otiose.

But as for the right: doesn't that petty stuff sound bad enough? Do you think the freedom to beat up trans kids is just a little, tolerable thing? Beating up target groups, mandatory aggressive sports and a de-emphasis on intellectuality (which, incidentally, Blogger doesn't seem to think is a word) in education, party-symbols and leader-portraits everywhere, not to mention book-burning--these all sound pretty familiar and ominous to me, as well as horrible in themselves. The historical echoes . . . well, no matter how cliched they sound, they're there. It's like asking what did Khomeini's revolution do? Change women's fashion? What does Putin want to do in Ukraine? Control fifth-grade history books? I think here you have an example of the proverbial power of rhetoric to make the bad seem good (or at least trivial)--with an emphasis on "seem."

David said...

If you want to hew to the question of whether the right is revolutionary, I would say yes. Those petty things would amount to a wedge. And the fact that they start with the seemingly petty is part of what makes them so dangerous and effective, so much more dangerous, in our society, than the left.

szopeno said...

@David I am not american but I think I could find plenty of book-burning, refusing to engage in intellectual discussion, beating up dissidents on the left too. I am not saying there aren't some dangerous rightwingers or dangerous ideas; I am saying you can also pick some on the other side. The question is who has more power now. For example, long standing result is that both conservatives and liberals in US academia are more or less equally ready to sensor opposing views. But it's liberals who wield real power there, so it's only natural to pay attention more to their fringes and vices, thatn to conservatives.


Maybe y'all should sometimes watch some popular light right popular podcast or read rightwing pundit. I watch some in order to polish my English. I must say if I would take my view only from those podcast, I would think leftists are dangerous totalitarian lunatics wanting violent political change. I guess if I would just watch leftwing podcasts/read leftwing press I would have the same opinion about american right.

But then, I came from a country when accusing your political enemies of being fascists is well-grounded tradition (soldiers from underground Home Army were routinely even put in re-used German concentration camps), so I guess I am have some ingrained resistance against this.

szopeno said...

BTW, given how many people are affraid of the opposing party, there is also question of Democrats funding the most extreme Republicans (wasn't even Trump initially being propelled by Hillary's team?). I've read on some blog recently nicely put argument that each party should do the opposite. You should support your enemies - help them change, encourage to be moderates.

David said...


I respect your post and the place it comes from. I agree there are dangerous and annoying left-wingers, and I'm certainly tired of woke domination of academia. I'm not sure watching right-wing media would help me be more open-minded. The thing is, I see the problems on the liberal side (and you're right, one of them is that obnoxious game of trying to back extreme right-wing candidates on the theory that they'll be easier to beat in the election). But I see those problems, and it doesn't make me fear the right any less. I'm just not open to a lot of what the right is and wants. I'm not open to Stop the Steal, Starve the Beast, America First, QAnon, withdrawing from NATO, banning gay marriage, or saying America is a Christian nation. I'm not open to the Proud Boys, Trump, or Tucker Carlsonism. I'm sure they feel they and their way of life are under siege the same way I do, but that doesn't actually make me willing to accept their proposals or fear them less.

I realize all this makes me part of the problem. That's me, and I don't think there's much possibility that I will become more open to the right or less fearful of them. Sometimes I think I should learn to think about politics less, be quieter about the whole thing, stop mouthing off on Bensozia, and learn to go along so that others will think of me as a good guy and not a bigot. Sometimes I make an effort in that vein. I still have a ways to go.

szopeno said...


I do not think you are part of the problem. It's only natural that there are some differencs which are simply insurmountable. However, not every leftwinger is woke, not everyone supports antifa - and not every rightwinger wants to ban gay marriage.

As for mouthing off - come on. Why do you think I comment on politics of USA? Because I can't stand politics in my own country. I used to read a lot more of Polish political commentary, but nowadays it's just making me angry. American politics is safer, because I have no stakes besides some vague feeling of tribal relatedeness :) Besides, some venting is good. I have few friends from the other sides of political spectrum, including one socialist (not an epithet. She is socialist.). We have a rule not to talk about politics. But sometimes you just have to let a bit of steam off, right?

(speaking of letting steam off.. f* those pious socialists and their insane welfare handing to everyone, and then acting as surprised picachu when inflation kicks off)

David said...


Lol about your steam. But seriously, are you sure welfare causes inflation? I find economics to be completely mysterious. Inflation might as well be caused by angry tree spirits, as far as I can tell.

szopeno said...

Well, that depends. In that case it was ocmbination of external factors exacerbated by incompetence of our our government. Sorry, there will be a lot of steam letting :)

In our case first it was 500+ program, basically: handing out money to everyone with children. Then 300+ (giving money to buy school books to everyone with schoolchildren). Then 13th and 14th pensions for people on retirements. Some of those were actually worth its cost - 500+ reduced poverty and the amount of hungry children. Another thing it brought those question back into public attention. Before PiS got into power, when I was discussing with leftwingers on the internet they were making fun of me, saying "hungry children, in Poland? You rightists are deluded" - and when poverty started to getting back to the pre-PiS level, the same people are talking about huge problems.

Of course it caused _some_ inflation, but again - I think it was worth it, and it seemed it was manageable. It was suprisingly only 3.4% annual inflation by 2019 (I really expected it to be much, much higher) compared to zero inflation or deflation before PiS got into power.


PiS continues to shower money on everyone. The breaking point was covid. Now, i do not condemn them for lockdowns: while in hindsight lockdowns were errors, no one has a future-predicting mirror, so in the circumstances going with policies endorsed by Europe probably was reasonable. But ever-changing rules caused problems for business, and PiS decided to save them by more money showering.

And then you have invasion of Ukraine.

In addition to the external causes resulting in inflation everywhere, we have our government imposing sanctions on our own, which were easily circumvented by Russia. We punished our our companies, while the western of Europe did mostly a lot of angry talking. RIght now in Kaliningrad there is coal which is already bought by Polish companies, but which will either stay there, or will be bought half-price by someone else, because without any warning our government decided we have to sanction Russia and cut coal import. Which is not bad - if Germany and other would heed our warnings issued decades ago, Russia wouldn't now be so brave. ANd if everyone would be ready to sanction Russia as much as we, maybe Russia would treat that more seriously. But the way it was done caused even more problems for the industry.

Which means price of coal goes up. Which means now government decides to give people extra money to buy coal. Obviously only to those, who still have old heating systems, not to folks like me who invested in modern gas stoves.

A result? 15.5% inflation. Sure, some of it was inevitable (Germany has 8.2%). But not all of it.

They are stealing my savings. The bastards. I hoped I could retire in ten years or so.

Sorry, I know it was long.

David said...

Very interesting. Not too long. I'm sorry to hear about your troubles, and Poland's.

(BTW, I hope it's clear that in my last post I was just making a stupid joke about my inability to understand economics.)

szopeno said...

@David yup.