Category Archives: Discourse norms

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

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

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

Towards optimal play as Villager in a mixed game

On Twitter, Freyja wrote:

Things capitalism is trash at:

  • Valuing preferences of anything other than adults who earn money (i.e. future people, non-humans)
  • Pricing non-standardisable goods (i.e. information)
  • Playing nicely with non-quantifiable values + objectives (i.e. love, ritual)

Things capitalism is good at:

  • Incentivising the production of novel goods and services
  • Coordinating large groups of people to produce complex bundles of goods
  • The obvious: making value fungible

Anyone know of work on -

a) integrating the former into existing economic systems, or
b) developing new systems to provide those things while including capitalism's existing benefits?

This intersected well enough with my current interests and those of the people I've been discoursing with most closely that I figured I'd try my hand at a quick explanation of what we're doing, which I've lightly edited into blog post form below. This is only a loose sketch, I think it does reasonably precisely outline the argument, but many readers may find that there are substantial inferential leaps. Questions in the comments are strongly encouraged.

Any serious attempt at (b) will first have to unwind the disinformation that claims that the thing we have now is capitalism, or remotely efficient.

The short version of the project: learning to talk honestly within a small group about how power works, both systemically and as it applies to us, without trying to hold onto information asymmetries. (There's pervasive temptation to withhold political information as part of a zero-sum privilege game, like Plato's philosopher-kings.) Continue reading

Should Effective Altruism be at war with North Korea?

Summary: Political constraints cause supposedly objective technocratic deliberations to adopt frames that any reasonable third party would interpret as picking a side. I explore the case of North Korea in the context of nuclear disarmament rhetoric as an illustrative example of the general trend, and claim that people and institutions can make better choices and generate better options by modeling this dynamic explicitly. In particular, Effective Altruism and academic Utilitarianism can plausibly claim to be the British Empire's central decisionmaking mechanism, and as such, has more options than its current story can consider.

Context

I wrote to my friend Georgia in response to this Tumblr post.

Asymmetric disarmament rhetoric

Ben: It feels increasingly sketchy to me to call tiny countries surrounded by hostile regimes "threatening" for developing nuclear capacity, when US official policy for decades has been to threaten the world with nuclear genocide.

Strong recommendation to read Daniel Ellsberg's The Doomsday Machine.

Georgia: Book review: The Doomsday Machine

So I get that the US' nuclear policy was and probably is a nightmare that's repeatedly skirted apocalypse. That doesn't make North Korea's program better.

Ben [feeling pretty sheepish, having just strongly recommended a book my friend just reviewed on her blog]: "Threatening" just seems like a really weird word for it. This isn't about whether things cause local harm in expectation - it's about the frame in which agents trying to organize to defend themselves are the aggressors, rather than the agent insisting on global domination.  Continue reading

Authoritarian empiricism

(Excerpts from a conversation with my friend Mack, very slightly edited for clarity and flow, including getting rid of most of the metaconversation.)

Ben: Just spent 2 full days offline for the holiday - feeling good about it, I needed it.

Mack: Good!

Ben: Also figured out some stuff about acculturation I got and had to unlearn, that was helpful

Mack: I'm interested if you feel like elaborating

Ben: OK, so, here's the deal.

I noticed over the first couple days of Passover that the men in the pseudo-community I grew up in seem to think there's a personal moral obligation to honor contracts, pretty much regardless of the coercion involved. The women seem to get that this increases the amount of violence in the world by quite a lot relative to optimal play, but they don't really tell the men. This seems related somehow to a thing where the men feel anxious about the prospect of modeling people as autonomous subjects - political creatures - instead of just objectifying them, but when they slap down attempts to do that, they pretend they're insisting on rigor and empiricism.

Which I'd wrongly internalized, as a kid, as good-faith critiques of my epistemics. Continue reading

MeToo is good

In Locker room talk, I suggested that apparent coordination to shield sexual assaulters, harassers, or abusers might be much more local than it seemed. Since then, Donald Trump won the presidential election with a narrow majority, and the MeToo movement took off. The way the two phenomena have played out seem like strong evidence for the hypothesis that there were multiple strong coalitions with very different priorities, hidden from each other.

Half the country was at least willing to hold their noses for Trump, which I felt was a somewhat surprising display of tolerance for unambiguously awful behavior, but the apparently entrenched Harvey Weinstein was quickly dethroned, and a sitting Senator was removed, suggesting that in some places the coalition against sexual abuses has great power.

What's amazing to me, though, is how discriminating the MeToo phenomenon has been, and how resistant it's been to spurious scapegoating dynamics.

Continue reading