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.
I felt it was worth another post just to clarify that my [last post] (https://rejectingrationality.org/blog/gay-cakes-and-conservative-hens/) doesn’t indicate that I’m joining up with Sara Huckabee Sanders and Trump in this recent civility fight. Their behavior in calling out incivility and trying to use it as a political weapon (and lying about it) is worse than anything the Red Hen did to her and these are small potatoes relative to the normal harms they inflict.
I just tend to see them as beyond the moral pale and there is no use to excoriate them once again. And just because they are bad actors isn’t any reason for us to lose sight of the fact that denying people service is a big deal even when it’s merely based on partisan affiliation and we need a good justification to do it. Nowhere near as good a justification as separating families at the border or enacting a Muslim ban and the like but we don’t have to sink.
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 …
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.
When it is revealed that a public figure said something with racist/sexist overtones criticism piles on fast. Even if it is clear that the figure doesn’t really have these racist/sexist attitudes the common refrain is that its still extremely harmful because it normalizes racism/sexism/etc.. Presumably the theory being that if other people believe that high status people commonly behave this way they will think its ok for them to as well.
Is this just a lie (or self-deception) for partisan purposes? I mean consider the implications if you really believed the following back when Bush was President (No one will plausibly believe Trump isn’t saying sexist things whatever you do):
G. W. Bush isn’t really a racist/sexist (replace with Clinton if you prefer) but he sometimes uses racist/sexist language without thinking in the privacy of the white house.
If people realized the president was saying these racist things they too would think that racism was ok and it would have bad consequences.
First, you should be much more angry at whatever staffer leaked the fact that the president used racist language than at the president himself. The staffer who leaked it had time to contemplate it and still choose to make the country think the president uses racist slurs while the president has a slip of the tongue from time to time. Indeed, you should be most angry if the staffer is a minority themselves who claims to be leaking the information because of his concern for racial justice. Even if you give the leaker some kind of pass for ignorance1 at the very least you should be trying your damnedest to (quietly) discourage any future such leaks.
Second, you should be archenemies with the liberal activists and members of the social justice community who spin stories about how racist/sexist the president is even, perhaps especially when it is true (excepting perhaps the very rare case where you believe it will do enough to affect the balance of power to outweigh the harms to race relations). Even with Trump it should be inexcusable to make allegations about dog whistle racism without absolutely rock solid evidence such as staffer testimony of intent and recognition in the community.
Third, you should be worried about maximally racist/sexist interpretations of a public figure’s comments. Even if it is plausible they meant them in the worst possible way you should favor the least racist/sexist interpretation that is plausible just so you don’t further normalize racism/sexism.
Yet, while I see people make the ‘this normalizes X’ argument all the damn time I’ve yet to see them get angry upset or even remonstrate people who are working to push marginally plausible theories of racist/sexist intent or dubitable claims of racist/sexist language. I’ve certainly never seen anyone making such an argument even suggest that it was bad/wrong for someone to leak that information. To the contrary they usually suggest it was in the national interest.
So how should one understand such claims? They can’t really believe the harm from normalization is that big a deal or they wouldn’t be on board with accusations that offer only minor political benefit at the cost of normalizing such behavior. My best guess is what they really mean is: how dare you break this social norm which I feel is very important. Even though your action only had a really tiny harmful effect the norm is really important because without it people would come to believe it was normal and acceptable to engage in racism/sexism.
That’s a fair statement but notice the implication: since any particular incident only does minor harm to this norm and barely nudges people’s sense of what is normal only a minor penalty is appropriate. After all, the benefit to the speaker is presumably virtually nothing from the slur and its sufficient if everyone takes relatively weak action to ensure they don’t utter any slurs so a small deterrent should suffice. In other words we still can’t interpret the speaker as making a cogent complaint as their intent in raising the specter of normalization was to show why this kind of behavior was so serious we couldn’t just let it go with a slap on the wrist but the speaker’s own disposition to prioritize a modicum of political advantage over avoiding further instances of normalization shows that he can’t coherently believe that the possibility of normalization shows the seriousness of the offense.
Shouldn’t the speaker get the very same pass if he hasn’t worked harder to control his occasional slips of the tongue because he isn’t aware that it has any negative effect on others? Often racist phrases are picked up simply from hearing them said so the speaker isn’t in any way morally more responsible than the leaker…indeed arguably a better position as the leaker has to sit down and think over if he should leak while the speaker may have never even done that regarding his slips of the tongue. ↩