Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.
So there is a long-standing inclination on the left to morally condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. In response many jews allege this reflects anti-semetic prejudice which in turn is criticized by more moderate elements who argue that criticism of Israel should be seen as legitimate, e.g., this piece. Ultimately, I agree that the criticism of Israel isn’t a result of anti-semitism in that it doesn’t reflect a personal animosity towards jews or those of jewish descent but I think it’s important to point out that this isn’t a position the left-leaning groups responsible for the strident moral criticism can themselves adopt.
It very much is true that Israel is subject to strong moral condemnation disproportionate to it’s moral culpability and that the same people who call Israel (and often jews who support Israel) monstrous won’t even admit that much worse behavior by other nations is just as wrong much less call them out on it. The reason Israel is subjected to this kind of special criticism is easily explained by factors besides animosity towards jews. Unlike many muslim countries Israel is seen as part of the liberal western world and thus evaluated against higher standards (same way people go crazy on twitter about seeing anti-gay prejudice in the US even while Russia and Uganda have enshrined such prejudice into law). Also, the widespread awareness and outrage about the issue among Muslims worldwide (substantially facilitated by authoritarian regimes in Arab world for self-serving and anti-Semitic reasons) combined with the left-wing view of Muslims as a victimized minority (largely true in west even while Muslims are the oppressors of non-Muslim minorities through much of the world) explains why this issue is salient to many people on the left in a way that other kinds of bad behavior are not. So the individuals making the criticisms aren’t driven by any animosity of their own to Jews. Indeed, part of the reason Israel comes in for so much criticism is partly the fact that many people on the US left implicitly regard Jews as just another type of white person (while opinions are split on whether semites are white the stereotypical Jew looks like Seinfeld for most Americans).
So it is true that Jews and Israel come in for a degree of criticism similarly situated non-Jews and non-Jewish countries do not. Some of that is purely accidental (other western countries don’t live next to people committed to killing them and willing to resort to terrorism, existence of a US Muslim community), some is a result of arguably positive stereotypes of Jews as just another white person rather than a vulnerable minority and some is downstream of genuinely anti-Semitic attitudes prevalent in Arab countries and pushed by their governments. I personally don’t think that this makes those criticisms anti-Semitic simply because those offering them lack the animosity towards Jews that would make them particularly morally blameworthy.
However, I think it very much does matter that by the standards publicly accepted by the left this does render this criticism of Israel anti-semetic.. The left isn’t willing to accept a similar explanation of motives as exculpatory in other contexts, e.g., spouting (even accurate) critiques of black culture that you don’t apply to similar situated behavior by whites isn’t excused by pointing to the fact that it’s just the criticisms that were made salient to you growing up or being a teacher who gives Asian students lower effort grades because you assume they are inherently smarter even though it’s a positive stereotype. So at the very least those making the accusations of anti-semitism are on solid ground relative to the norms that are apparently endorsed in the contexts they usually live and work in.
I agree this, if accepted, has the unacceptable consequence of insulating Israel from deserved criticism. That’s why we need to abandon this absurd moral standard and just expect people to update without bias. That’s a world in which you aren’t anti-Semitic for not realizing many of the properties you critique Israel for are far more widely shared or for not being aware of the role the Arab states (or the UK and other WWII allies) played in the current quagmire nor even for focusing criticism where you think it will be most effective. However, you are expected to agree that other countries are equally morally culpable (and other people) when you discover they are similarly situated.
For instance, if you argue that the Israeli state is deeply unjust because the right of return applies only to Jews or because Hebrew is given a special status in Israel (though until 2018 Arabic was also an official language) then you should be expected to condemn countries like Japan or Latvia when you find out about the special status they give to either ethnic status or native language and how they treat their minorities. Similarly, when you hear about Egypt’s role in keeping trade out of Gaza or other Arab states interests in perpetuating, not solving, the conflict you should be furious with them. Reasonable people can disagree about where criticism would be more effectively directed or argue about the total level of suffering inflicted by each such policy. Unreasonable people can confuse the total degree of suffering the Palestinians are subject to with the degree of moral culpability without being anti-semitic (e.g. Japan’s treatment of people who aren’t ethnically Japanese is far more morally outrageous than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians because it doesn’t even plausibly motivated by a desire to save lives even though the Palestinians surely endure much more unpleasant circumstances) but there is something at least pernicious about refusing to update on such information. It might not be anti-Semitic if your refusal is motivated just by a desire to culturally conform (then again I’m sure many German nazis weren’t anti-Semitic in this sense either…though I don’t mean this as a criticism merely a remark on the limitations of racist as a proxy for dangerous or harmful).
My basic view is that treating different races or ethnic groups differently is far more common than we want to believe and we should calibrate our level of disapproval more appropriately but there is something really disturbing about applying the rules to one group that’s been treated really badly in the past and not another.
Why Roe Skepticism Doesn't Make One A Judicial Extremist
So I think that a right to have an abortion isn’t just a good idea but a vital component of maintaining a modern, egalitarian and free society. It’s important enough to our way of life and makes so much difference in outcomes that it should be enshrined in our constitution with other fundamental principles like free speech or freedom of religion.
Problem is that it wasn’t. Certainly not explicitly. Since I believe that it’s an appropriate function of the US supreme court to expound new legal theories, rights and remedies (as part of the great tradition of common law as the founders intended) in itself this isn’t a problem. The court certainly could have validly developed a theory of personal autonomy which coherently marked the right to receive medical treatment to terminate a pregnancy as protected in much the same way as it has coherently developed the theory of personal autonomy interests in people’s private sexual liaisons (accepting the consequences even when it reaches results like protecting fundamentalist mormon derived polygamy despite the unusual partisan valence).
Unfortunately, the court simply hasn’t done that. If banning medical treatments that would let someone terminate a pregnancy implicates personal autonomy then banning medical treatments that might let save me from dying of cancer must do so to an even greater degree. Yet the court does not recognize a constitutional right to try medication that hasn’t been approved by the FDA even when the approval was denied merely because the FDA judges the harmful side effects too severe or the evidence for efficacy too weak or not yet fully presented. In other words even when the government merely thinks my fully informed (and not mislead into fakery) judgement about what risks to take or harms to endure for a chance at a cure is unwise or ought not to be encouraged this isn’t seen as infringing on my right to personal autonomy. Even though those who want to ban abortive medical services are similarly expressing a value judgement about the relative merits of the consequences of doing so.
Nor is this some narrow exception justified by the compelling governmental need to incentivize efficacy trials or exclude quackery. Even when the government bans use of Marijuana as medicine the court doesn’t require any showing from the government that it’s not denying citizens the personal autonomy to effectively treat their medical condition as it would if it felt that any true constitutional right were implicated. It might not fall on identity based fault lines but surely being forced to lose one’s sight to glaucoma is rather than take an intoxicating medication, if not on par with having carry a child to term1, still an undeniably substantial infringement on personal autonomy. The court isn’t any more sympathetic when individuals seek to assert a constitutional right to drugs like peyote even when, as in Employment Division v. Smith, the individual is seeking access to peyote as part of a deeply felt belief in the religious principles of the Native American Church.
Intuitively, maybe you feel this is all silly. Surely none of this crap is important the way abortion is. How dare I suggest denying some wacky religious use of peyote is comparable to forcing women to carry a child to term. Indeed, I agree with you. These aren’t anywhere near as important and retaining women’s right to choose. But that’s the point. Constitutional protections for abortion don’t flow from any generally applied/developed theory of a right to personal autonomy or anything else. They flow from a value judgement about the importance (and correctness) of protecting a women’s right to choose. Even on a liberal living constitution theory of jurisprudence that’s not kosher. The supreme court is supposed to articulate general theories/conceptions of constitutional rights not weigh in individually on policy judgements simply because they happen to be really important or bad.
Having said all this I still believe that reliance interests favor respecting stare decisis when it comes to Roe. Personally, I actually believe they should respond by actually taking seriously the idea of a right to personal autonomy that is infringed by government restrictions on what medical treatments or drugs one can access. However, there is surely a strong argument that even someone who has a liberal judicial philosophy should react to the strong policy considerations that animated Roe and vote to reverse this outlying opinion.
Now, I don’t expect most people who read this to agree with this last conclusion. However, if you at least found these worries/arguments cogent, serious and requiring a substantive rebuttal you certainly can’t join the howling masses in suggesting that an unwillingness to uphold Roe v. Wade is indicative of a right wing judicial extremists. If you really believe that the Senate should confirm any academically/judicially qualified candidate without disqualifying extremist views then you can’t simply insist that Kavanaugh must be such an extremist because he happens to hold a non-crazy position that you’re convinced is not only really wrong but also really important.
It’s still perfectly reasonable to think that abortion is important enough that the Senate shouldn’t confirm anyone who will vote to overturn Roe. I hold such a position myself. But let’s not confuse that straightforward disagreement with the claim that somehow the conservatives have violated a norm of judicial non-extremism. Just admit that some principles can be important enough to vote against nominees who don’t support them no matter how reasonable or even mainstream (relative to the political landscape) their views are.
Note that even if it turns out no one actually is faced with that choice, e.g., the commercial drugs now manage equal effect, the point is that the court obviously wouldn’t even require the government to demonstrate such a point to uphold the restriction of Marijuana. ↩
So in all the discussion about denying Sara Huckabee Sanders service at the Red Hen I’ve seen several places argue that it wasn’t a big deal to deny her service because they were very polite about the incident. While it’s surely better to be asked to leave politely this fails to grasp what’s upsetting about it and is completely inconsistent with our attitude about the harm in Masterpiece Cakeshop where the customers were denied service because they were gay1. Whether or not you think it’s warranted any honest analysis should admit that it is still likely very upsetting and, should it spread, has the potential to be a very big deal.
Don’t get me wrong. The long history of discrimination against homosexuals and their status as a vulnerable minority in much of the country makes it much worse to deny someone service based on sexual orientation. Also, I firmly believe it should be legal to deny someone service because of their partisan affiliation2. However, just because it’s less bad doesn’t mean it isn’t still plenty unpleasant. Note that I also think Sara Huckabee Sanders is a pretty awful person and spokespeople are surely different than random Trump supporters but I’ve seen many people defend such partisan denials of service generally not just for high ranking officials and that is what I feel deserves comment.
Humans are acutely sensitive to exclusion. It’s bad enough not to be invited to a party or know that you aren’t attractive or cool enough to be waived into a club. It’s much worse to be overtly told you don’t belong and asked to leave. This is especially true when you are asked to leave a place of public accommodation such as a restaurant and doubly true when one is there with family (especially children who might not understand).
Of course there isn’t the same history of discrimination as with race, sexual orientation or religion but surely the immediate emotional response of feeling hurt, confused and angry will share a fair bit in common. If you are skeptical imagine a Bedouin who has lived his entire life out of the reach of modern technology or history on his first visit to the United States who is politely asked to leave a restaurant because of his race or his religion. Do you doubt the very real pain and humiliation that will cause — even though that diner’s lack of contextual knowledge means that our fraught racial and religious history can’t play a causal factor?
At this point I’m sure that many liberals are marshaling reasons why it’s not at all similar. Partisan affiliation is a belief not an immutable characteristic, they aren’t a minority almost half the country is on their side, it doesn’t have the same potential to normalize harmful discrimination.
But religion is every bit as much a belief people choose (in both cases many people simply believe what their peers do) and people do identify very strongly with their partisan affiliation. Whether or not it is objectively different in some sense being excluded for partisan affiliation feels like being excluded for who you are to many people.
It’s certainly true that Trump supporters are hardly a minority in America but they are very much a minority in many areas (including large parts of DC). It’s also true that there are large swaths of the country where there is strong, vocal support for homosexual equality but we don’t feel that merely knowing that this would never happen in San Francisco obviates the harm to the couple denied service in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Nor would this intuition change if 40 of the 50 states were strong and vocal defenders of homosexual equality. Besides, you don’t really think the question turns on the fact that Trump supporters are 40 some percent of the population rather than 15% (the percentage of African-Americans in the US) and you’d surely never accept the response in the racial case.
Moreover, in terms of normalizing harmful discrimination, it is surely far more likely that (as many people openly suggested following the incident) people wearing MAGA hats will be denied service in a wide range of establishments in blue parts of the country sometime in the near future than homosexuals will face similar widespread denial of service (if for no other reason than the stronger norm against such discrimination). Note that if you want to argue this isn’t truly harmful discrimination you need to challenge one of the points above about this being a very painful and unpleasant experience.
Again, it’s not as bad as discrimination based on sexual orientation but we’re being hypocrites if we don’t recognize that it’s still a pretty intense and humiliating experience which we should avoid inflicting on people unless we have a very good reason.
Ok, technically because they planned to use the cake at a gay wedding. ↩
I’m unsure about legal protections based on gender identity since that turns on tough questions about how fast norms are changing versus the long term harms from such legislation but this uncertainty doesn’t stem from any doubt about the degree of pain imparted by such denials of service but merely from concern about the long term costs of such legislation and the hopeful belief that such denials of service will quickly become the kind of silly extremism (like refusing to sell to people with bare knees in the US) that is so rare as to no longer be seen as a threat. ↩
We Can Be Civil Without Letting Trump Tell Us What That Means
I’m really disappointed by the responsesfromthe left to the recent kerfufle about Sara Huckabee Sanders being denied service in a red hen restaurant. These responses all seem to have the following structure:
If we let those in power define what is civil and uncivil we allow them to silence protest.
Historical protests like the civil rights movement we now revere were often seen as uncivil.
Trump and his supporters are deeply uncivil and have no respect for these norms.
Therefore we should accept or even cheer incivility towards Trump voters.
But this makes two big logical errors.
Just because we shouldn’t let Trump and those in power dictate a self-serving standard of civility doesn’t mean that the concept itself is flawed or that it’s an inappropriate ideal to aspire towards. It just means we should apply the concept correctly not let those in power dictate a self-serving conception of civility.
It conflates the desirability of showing civility and respect with the appropriateness of criticizing people for not doing so. There are plenty of things, e.g., chewing with your mouth open, that it’s both inappropriate to do as well as to call others out for doing.
Now a valid takeaway from this argument is that overly mechanistic rules of civility (e.g. never mention a politician’s personal life) shouldn’t be followed blindly but that’s not the same as the conclusion that it should be seen as appropriate or even desirable to simply abandon civility all together.
Just Don’t Be A Dick
The right answer here is pretty simple. All we need to do is treat people, even those whose political views we see as harmful, as if they are human beings who we, ceterus parabus, don’t want to suffer.
This doesn’t mean we place their feelings ahead of the welfare of the country. If the next democratic president finds the best way to respond to Trump’s personal attacks is in kind then they shouldn’t let their concern about hurting Trump’s feelings stand in the way (though I suspect the voters who aren’t already deep in Trump’s camp are more likely to be swayed by statesman like restraint). If the same congressmen and staffers who are working to undermine a woman’s right to choose are having abortions themselves we shouldn’t let the personal impact stop us from exposing such facts.
What it means is that we shouldn’t be mean to them or refuse them service just because it makes us feel good or because they somehow deserve it. Refusing to serve Ms. Sanders doesn’t score any political points, it risks losing them. Even those on the left skeptical that such behavior will galvanize Trump supporters admit it’s a possible risk while identifying no corresponding benefit.
The right definition of civility doesn’t require rolling over and showing your belly it merely demands we refrain from needless petty antagonism and rudeness.
However, just because that’s what we aspire to doesn’t mean we should excoriate those on the left who fall short. That risks giving the misleading impression that their behavior is somehow worse than that of the administration. It isn’t. Ms. Sanders behaves plenty badly herself and any discussion of the restaurant’s choice not to serve her should keep that firmly in focus. However, just because she behaves even worse doesn’t mean we can’t urge our own side to take the high road and avoid unnecessary rudeness and incivility.
Real World Applications
Now this still leaves open two big questions.
When are we simply being rude and mean to satisfy our emotional desires as opposed to engaging in a necessary form of protest which unfortunately might hurt some Trump supporters.
At what point does the harm from violating norms about civility outweigh the short term tactical gains from some kind of protests that might be seen as uncivil.
While these are hard questions in the abstract in practice I think they are actually pretty damn easy.
Regarding 1, I think deep down we know the answer in 99% of cases if we just take a step back and think about it. Just imagine the person you are about to be rude to or insult is an old friend from High School who fell in with a bad crowd in college. Would you still do it? Or better yet imagine the person you’re attacking is actually a liberal from a parallel universe who just switched places with their double in this universe. Just put yourself in a position where you see the harm you’re doing to the Trump supporter as a negative (like it would be for anyone else) and ask if the benefit outweighs the harm. If your too emotionally involved to step back like this your probably also too compromised to know if you’re actually helping or making the situation worse so you probably shouldn’t do it anyway.
Point 2 is a serious concern when it comes to civil rights movements demanding recognition for groups that society has seen as unworthy. In such cases there is a real tradeoff between the moral potency and enthusiasm offered by making it clear that the equality or moral worth of your group isn’t up for debate and engaging in civil dialog with norms that call that into question. For instance, advocates of LGBT rights had (have) to choose between being seen as being deliberately provocative and uncivil by forcing their sexuality into the public square in ways that were seen as inappropriate and putting it in people’s faces even though the analogous heterosexual conduct wasn’t. One choice risked jeopardizing the support of moderates while the other risked undermining the momentum and moral force of the movement,
However, in the Trump context it’s Trump supporters who are pushing aside existing cultural norms while it’s the left who are desperately trying to defend (what was previously) the mainstream. When Trump’s trying to break up families at the border, eliminate Obamacare or undermine Roe. v. Wade we don’t gain anything by pushing positions which make mainstream Americans feel insulted or uncomfortable. Now isn’t the time to suggest, however true it might be, that normal everyday behaviors make one a racist or transphobic. It’s time to talk about how taking children from their parents is wrong and unamerican and that the rich don’t deserve more tax cuts and in this context there’s just no real payoff to insulting or alienating the moderates we need to persuade to stop Trump.
So I’ve long been skeptical about the 1st ammendment right not to be blocked on twitter by Donald Trump. It seemed to me th
e fact he was president and even talked about official policies in his tweets in no way meant his actions on his twitter account were taking in his public capacity. As Prof. Volokh points out in the link it’s is common for presidents to discuss policy, promise governmental action and even announce new programs during their stump speeches which are clearly and unequivocally understood to be made in their capacity as private individuals.
But Prof. Volokh finally convinced me on this point by observing that Trump uses white house staff to manage and post on his twitter account in ways that would be illegal if it was a political or even purely personal concern.
Nicely, this means we don’t have to worry that it will become impossible for government officials to campaign via social media. Donald Trump can have @RealDonaldTrump as his personal twitter but he then has to run it out of Trump tower or his political staff and not the white house (though he will probably be far too lazy to do that).
More broadly, rather than the harms I feared would come from either treating all presidential social media as official or unofficial we get an incentive for politicians to more carefully separate their official and personal roles.
President Trump has been blocking some Twitter users from his @RealDonaldTrump account, apparently because of their viewpoints. (The President apparently stipulated, in this lawsuit, that “[s]hortly after the Individual Plaintiffs posted the tweets …
Reading Reich’s book (Who We Are And How We Got Here) really drives home to me just how tempting it is to collapse into tribal based cheering (e.g. cheering on your genes/genetic history/etc as the best) and how important our norms against racism are in limiting this.
It makes me wonder if we couldn’t develop similarly strong norms about not cheering on your political/social tribe in the same manner. It’s a more delicate situation since we need to preserve the ability to disagree and offer useful criticism. However, it still seems to me that we might be able to cultivate a norm which strongly disapproved of trying to make the other side look bad or implying they are improperly motivated/biased.
I mean, of course, we won’t actually get rid of hypocrisy or self-serving beliefs but if it required the same kind of extreme caution to allege bad faith to the other ideologies that we require to make claims about racial differences it might make a big difference.
So I see people posting this vox article suggesting Trump, but not Clinton, supporters are racist and I want to advise caution and urge people to actually read the original study.
Vox’s takeaway is,
All it takes to reduce support for housing assistance among Donald Trump supporters is exposure to an image of a black man.
Which they back up with the following description:
In a randomized survey experiment, the trio of researchers exposed respondents to images of either a white or black man. They found that when exposed to the image of a black man, white Trump supporters were less likely to back a federal mortgage aid program. Favorability toward Trump was a key measure for how strong this effect was.
If you look at the actual study its chock full of warning signs. They explicitly did not find any statistically significant difference between those Trump voters given the prompts showing black or white aid recipients degree of support for the program or degree of anger they felt or blame they assigned towards those recipients. Given that this is the natural reading of Vox’s initial description its already disappointing (Vox does elaborate to some extent but not in a meaningfully informative way).
What the authors of the study did is asked for a degree of Trump support (along with many other questions such as liberal/conservative identification, vote preference, racial resentment giving researchers a worryingly large range of potentially analysises they could have conducted). Then they regressed the conditional effect of the black/white prompt on the level of blame, support and anger against degree of Trump support controlling for a whole bunch of other crap (though they do claim ‘similar’ results without controls) and are using some dubious claims about this regression to justify their claims. This should already raise red flags about research degree of freedom especially given the pretty unimpressive R^2 values.
But what should really cause one to be skeptical is that the regression of Hillary support with conditional effect of black/white prompt shows a similar upward slope (visually the slope appears on slightly less for Hillary support than it did for Trump) though at the extreme high end of Hillary support the 95% confidence interval just barely includes 0 while for Trump it just barely excludes it. Remember, as Andrew Gelman would remind us the difference between significant and non-significant results isn’t significant and indeed the study didn’t find a significant difference between how Hillary and Trump support interacted with the prompt in terms of degree of support for the program. In other words if we take the study at face value it suggests at only a slightly lower confidence level that increasing support for Hillary makes one more racist.
So what should we make of this strange seeming result? Is it really the case that Hillary support also makes one more racist but just couldn’t be captured by this survey? No, I think there is a more plausible explanation: the primary effect this study is really capturing is how willing one is to pick larger numbers to describe one’s feelings. Yes, there is a real effect of showing a black person rather than a white person on support for the program (though showing up as not significant on its own in this study) but if you are more willing to pick large numbers on the survey this effect looks larger for you and thus correlates with degree of support for both Hillary and Trump.
To put this another way imagine there are two kinds of people who answer the survey. Emoters and non-emoters. Non-emoters keep all their answers away from the extremes and so the effect of the black-white prompt on them is numerically pretty small and they avoid expressing strong support for either candidate (support is only a positive variable) while Emoters will show both a large effect of the black-white prompt (because changes in their opinion result in larger numerical differences) and a greater likelihood of being a strong Trump or Hillary supporter.
This seems to me to be a far more plausible explanation than thinking that increasing Hillary support correlates with increasing racism and I’m sure there are any number of other plausible alternative interpretations like this. Yes, the study did seem to suggest some difference between Trump and Hillary voters on the slopes of the blame and anger regressions (but not support for the program) but this may reflect nothing more pernicious than the unsurprising fact that conservative voters are more willing to express high levels of blame and anger toward recipients of government aid.
However, even if you don’t accept my alternative interpretation the whole thing is sketchy as hell. Not only do the researchers have far too many degrees of freedom (both in terms of the choice of regression to run but also in criteria for inclusion of subjects in the study) for my comfort but the data itself was gathered via a super lossy survey process creating the opportunity for all kinds of bias to enter into the process not to mention. Moreover, the fact that all the results are about regressions is already pretty worrisome as it is often far too easy to make strong seeming statistical claims about regressions, a worry which is amplified by the fact that they don’t actually plot the data. I suspect that there is far more wrong with this analysis than I’m covering here so I’m hoping someone with more serious statistical chops than I have such as Andrew Gelman will analyze these claims.
But even if we take the study’s claims at face value the most you could infer (and technically not even this) is that there are some more people who are racist among strong Trump supporters than among those who have low support for Trump which is a claim so unimpressive it certainly doesn’t deserve a Vox article much less support the description given. Indeed, I think it boarders on journalistically unethical to show the graphs showing the correlation between increasing support for Trump and prompt effect but not the ones showing similar effects for support of Hillary. However, I’m willing to believe this is the result of the general low standards for science literacy in journalism and the unfortunate impression that statistical significance is some magical threshold.
All it takes to reduce support for housing assistance among Trump supporters is exposure to an image of a black man. That’s the takeaway from a new study by researchers Matthew Luttig, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine, set to be published in Research & Politics.