Can crimes be discussed literally?

Suppose I were to say that the American legal system is a criminal organization. The usual response would be that this is a crazy accusation.

Now, suppose I were to point out that it is standard practice for American lawyers to advise their clients to lie under oath in certain circumstances. I expect that this would still generally be perceived as a heterodox, emotionally overwrought, and perhaps hysterical conspiracy theory.

Then, suppose I were to further clarify that people accepting a plea bargain are expected to affirm under oath that no one made threats or promises to induce them to plead guilty, and that the American criminal justice system is heavily reliant on plea bargains. This might be conceded as literally true, but with the proviso that since everyone does it, I shouldn't use extreme language like "lie" and "fraud."

This isn't about lawyers - some cases in other fields:  Continue reading

When to Reverse Quarantine and Other COVID-19 Considerations

A lot of people in my social network have been trying to track news about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, which seems like a global pandemic that's going to kill a lot of people. I've found some of this overwhelming and difficult to figure out how to use, until I sat down with a few friends, over the phone, and worked out a simple analytic framework for thinking about some basic decisions.  Continue reading

Simulacra and Subjectivity

In Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra, following Baudrillard, Jessica Taylor and I laid out a model of simulacrum levels with something of a fall-from grace feel to the story:

  1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.
  2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity - people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there's a lion over somewhere where I know there's food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.
  3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren't even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. "There's food over there" is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
    But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or "aboutness." For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.
  4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you're trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

There is some merit to this linear treatment, but it obscures an important structural feature: the resemblance of levels 1 and 3, and 2 and 4.  Continue reading

Approval Extraction Advertised as Production

Paul Graham has a new essay out, The Lesson to Unlearn, on the desire to pass tests. It covers the basic points made in Hotel Concierge's The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment. But something must be missing from the theory, because what Paul Graham did with his life was start Y Combinator, the apex predator of the real-life Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment. Or it's just false advertising.  Continue reading

Judgment, Punishment, and the Information-Suppression Field

There are a lot of senses in which I or the people around me can be considered unsafe. Many-tonned hunks of metal whiz by us on the same streets we have to navigate on foot to buy our groceries. The social infrastructure by which we have access to clean drinking water is gradually being adulterated. Our country is run by increasingly nasty white nationalists. And, of course, The Bomb. But when I hear people talk about feeling unsafe, they are almost never describing a concrete threat to their physical well-being. (As usual, life may be different for the less privileged classes, who have reason to fear the authorities, and behave accordingly.) "Safety" does not come up as a motive for actions taken or avoided in order to mitigate such threats. Instead, it seems that "safety" nearly always means a nonjudgmental context (the exact opposite of what I would naively expect to be able to ensure clean drinking water or keep the cars from colliding with us), and "feeling unsafe" is generally used to explain only why they're trying to withhold information (mainly "vulnerable," i.e. relevant-to-their-interests, information) in a way that seems out of proportion to actually existing risks and opportunities.  Continue reading

Alarm fatigue vs systematic critique

We suffer from alarm fatigue. Targeted alarm of the kind, "Hey! This person is blatantly lying!" is for finding the occasional, rare bad actor. The kind of alarm that needs raising for self-propagating patterns of motivated reasoning is procedural or conceptual. People are mistakenly behaving (in some contexts) as though certain information sources were reliable. This is often part of a compartmentalized pattern; in other contexts, the same people act as though, not only do they personally know, but everybody knows, that those sources are not trustworthy.

To take a simple example, I grew up in a household with a television. That means that, at various times in the day, I was exposed to messages from highly paid expert manipulators trying to persuade me to consume expensive, poor-quality, addictive foods that were likely to damage my mind and body by spiking my blood sugar and lowering my discernment. I watched these messages because they were embedded in other messages exposing me to a sort of story superstimulus with elevated levels of violence and excitement, but mostly devoid of messages from my elders about what sorts of time-tested behaviors are adaptive for the community or individual.

If you try to tell people that TV is bad for kids, they'll maybe feel vaguely guilty, but not really process this as news, because "everybody knows," and go on behaving as though this was fine. If you manage to get through to them that TV ads are Out to Get You,  this might get their attention, but only by transmitting an inappropriately concentrated sense of threat - or an unproductive general paranoia. Continue reading

On street violence

A lot of people, including me, are worried about the punching of Fascists, real or imagined, because it sets a bad precedent. But I'm also worried about the arguments being offered for this point of view.

Here's how it goes. They say that "we" have a fragile norm against punching people for political reasons, that engaging in street violence threatens to shatter this norm, and that this could get very bad.

Here's what they (and I used to) leave out:  Continue reading

Blatant lies are the best kind!

Mala: But then why do people get so indignant about blatant lies?

Noa: You mean, indignant when others call out blatant lies? I see more of that, though they often accuse the person calling out the lie of being unduly harsh.

Mala: Sure, but you can't deny - you've seen yourself - that people actually do get more indignant when they say that, than when they're pointing out a subtle pattern of motivated reasoning. How do you explain that, if "blatant lie" isn't a stronger accusation?  Continue reading

Reason isn't magic

Here's a story some people like to tell about the limits of reason. There's this plant, manioc, that grows easily in some places and has a lot of calories in it, so it was a staple for some indigenous South Americans since before the Europeans showed up. Traditional handling of the manioc involved some elaborate time-consuming steps that had no apparent purpose, so when the Portuguese introduced it to Africa, they didn't bother with those steps - just, grow it, cook it, eat it.

The problem is that manioc's got cyanide in it, so if you eat too much too often over a lifetime, you get sick, in a way that's not easily traceable to the plant. Somehow, over probably hundreds of years, the people living in manioc's original range figured out a way to leach out the poison, without understanding the underlying chemistry - so if you asked them why they did it that way, they wouldn't necessarily have a good answer.

Now a bunch of Africans growing and eating manioc as a staple regularly get cyanide poisoning.

This is offered as a cautionary tale against innovating through reason, since there's a lot of information embedded in your culture (via hundreds of years of selection), even if people can't explain why. The problem with this argument is that it's a nonsense comparison.  Continue reading