Accountability, For Good or Ill

Featured image is the Execution of Admiral Byng – anonymous

It is the nature of elites that they cannot be eliminated, but only replaced and contained. Elites compete with each other for power and influence in their sphere, and whomever has the most influence is the most elite. Those who opt not to struggle quickly find themselves on the outside looking in, as other hungrier competitors overtake them. Politics is the art of determining the rules that the competition will follow.

To the left, the triumph of the common man over distant elites, to the right distant elites trampling the common man.  In the centre – everything good and right and just. h/t Paul Fairie @paulisci

This is something we mostly grasp intuitively in the world of commerce. Businesses compete amoungst themselves for profits and market share, identifying or creating needs and filling them. When the customers care mostly about price we get business elites competing to cut costs and wring out efficiencies. When customers care mostly about quality and reliability we get competitions around warranties and MTBF. When customers care about novelty or function we get competitions around product development and research. Mostly we get competitions involving trade-offs between all three and more besides. The world is full of stories of firms who let themselves get flabby and were overtaken by lower cost competitors, or became sloppy and lost business to more careful enemies, or made bad bets about what customers really wanted and found themselves cut down by more responsive firms.

When the system works well we get benefits for everyone, as some of the smartest hardest working people in the world turn all their brainpower and organisational know-how into shaving 3% off the cost of widget by reorganising the work floor, or the best algorithm builders in the world compete with each other to fine tune music recommendations for the masses. But not all the competitions are socially beneficial, and so we have developed rules which ensure that the competitions are contained within socially beneficial channels. You can’t shave costs by dumping your untreated waste into rivers or water basins, or by not paying your workers, or refusing to make reasonable changes to improve their safety.

An executive at an pipeline firm wants to be environmentally responsible and build his pipelines in a manner that keeps product from leaching into groundwater, but the cost of upgrading is higher than the cost of lost product and the resulting price increase in transport fees will drive business to his less scrupulous neighbour who runs an even leakier operation, and so the executive does nothing. His leakier neighbour also wants to run a leaner operation, but he has activist shareholders who won’t let him make such a large capital expenditure with no prospect of return. A tax on leaked petroleum or a rules about maximum leakage means that though they will still compete on price, that competition won’t be in the form of indifference to the environment, which neither of them really want to compete on anyway.

The danger is that there’s lots of things the executives don’t really want to compete on, many of which are actually socially beneficial. The market forces them to compete on cost, but they would much rather keep prices relatively high. The market forces them to compete on quality, but they would much rather force their customers to buy a replacement regularly. Absent some accountability, rules quickly come to serve the elites instead of the customers.

Now this is a very familiar story to a largely libertarian audience, but of course governance is largely the same. One function of democracy is to tie the game of power to the interests, goals and expectations of the body politic. An electorate that cares mostly about inequality, and which votes accordingly, will produce a politic class obsessed with inequality. An electorate that cares about the state of the economy, or crime, or protecting the culture against outside influence will result in a political class obsessed with being seen to do the same, or again a mix of all those and more.

Ultimately however, many of these competitions will not be socially beneficial. Two politicians, both fully aware of the costs of tariffs will none-the-less be forced to campaign for high tariffs by an electorate that falsely believes helping incumbent firms is the same as helping the economy. Despite knowing the electorate is giving in to dark impulses they would do better to avoid, they none-the-less are forced by the logic of zero sum competition to try to out do each other in denouncing an unpopular ethnic minority, or people with disfavoured religious beliefs. Perhaps fully aware that the public does not possess the expertise to assess the technical aspects of monetary policy, they are none-the-less forced to campaign for crank gold bug schemes, or below (or above) socially optimum interest rates. The solution, from the perspective of the elites, is, by norm or law to effectively prohibit certain kinds of competition that they would rather not be doing in any case.

Instead of setting tariffs in congress or parliament on a country by country basis they sign treaties that bind themselves to the level they wanted anyway. Instead of seeking to crush faiths that their constituents find unsettling, they invent a right to worship, enforced by a third a party, which effectively allows them to ignore faith in practice. Instead of setting monetary policy amoung themselves they give a mandate to an independent third party, which again allows them to compete along axes they find more amenable. Once again of course, it is often the case that elites will bind themselves in ways that serve themselves and not any greater social purpose. The practical effect is that elites can launder their preferences, good and bad, through a judicial and legislative system which insulates them from accountability for the decisions made.

This is the key, to the extent possible to ensure that competition happens on issues where elites should be competing, with enough democracy (and intra-elite accountability mechanisms) to hold elites accountable for the outcomes of their decisions. The problem is that, above a low baseline, calls for more democracy almost always have the opposite effect. A politician who runs and is elected on a platform cannot be held accountable for implementing the contents of the platform, no matter how poorly thought out – it is after all the will of the voters, whether the voters voted the way they did because of or in spite of or indifference to that particular plank. Trump, being elected directly by the primary voters, cannot be held accountable by official party organs for his performance. Jeremy Corbyn, being directly elected by the party members, and so owing nothing to his caucus, cannot be held accountable by them for his failures of leadership. Rather than risk the direct fallout of a decision to leave the EU, or the continued damage of a refusal to do so, David Cameron calls a referendum so that he cannot be held directly responsible for the decision to stay or leave. It is this shirking of responsibility for the governance of the nation that leads to an elite culture devoid of consequence for failure, and complete disconnect between the governors and the governed.

Jean-Claude Juncker
I assure you the people responsible are over there, I had nothing at all to do with the disintegration of my political union

Acceptance as Accepting Responsibility

Featured image is In Love, by Marcus Stone.

Last year, while struggling to come to terms with some ugliness close to home, I wrote about acceptance.

Of its opposite, rejection, I said this:

Rejection is to deny either the existence or the legitimacy of what is rejected. The idealist rejects the argument of the economist that the optimal number of murders, rapes, thefts, and traffic accidents is greater than zero. He denies the existence of fundamentally ineradicable problems.

And on acceptance:

Let us say that we are human beings who strive for order, but also for justice, for generosity, but also for prudence. Acceptance means recognizing that there are fundamental gaps in what we can accomplish in this striving, and that those gaps are often enormous—but having a heart that is at peace, nevertheless.

Recently I came across a discussion by Charles Taylor of Dostoyevsky on this very topic, in the former’s terrific book Sources of the Self. I find I’m unable to get it out of my head.

Dostoyevsky’s vision of rejection is something that people who have the highest moral sensibilities are the most vulnerable to, precisely because they are most sensitive to the ugliness in the world.

Rejecting the world seals one’s sense of its loathsomeness and of one’s own, insofar as one is part of it. And from this can only come acts of hate and destruction. Moreover, these radiate out from one in a chain, a kind of negative apostolic succession, as one inspires others through this loathing to loathe in their turn.

He continues:

Dostoyevsky’s rejectors arc “schismatics” (raskolniki), cut off from the world and hence grace. They cannot but wreak destruction. The noblest wreak it only on themselves. The most base destroy others. Although powered by the noblest sense of the injustice of things, this schism is ultimately also the fruit of pride, Dostoyevsky holds. We separate because we don’t want to see ourselves as part of the evil; we want to raise ourselves above it, away from the blame for it. The outward projection of the terrorist is the most violent manifestation of this common motive.

But acceptance is the only way to heal from the wounds inflicted by an ugly world:

What will transform us is an ability to love the world and ourselves, to see it as good in spite of the wrong. But this will only come to us if we can accept being part of it, and that means accepting responsibility. Just as ‘no one is to blame’ is the slogan of the materialist revolutionaries, so ‘we are all to blame’ is of Dostoyevsky’s healing figures. Loving the world and ourselves is in a sense a miracle, in face of all the evil and degradation that it and we contain. But the miracle comes on us if we accept being part of it. Involved in this is our acceptance of love from others. We become capable of love through being loved; and over against the perverse apostolic succession is a grace-dispensing one[.]

Acceptance means accepting responsibility.

The idea that greater transparency will make the world a better place is pretty popular these days. And yet it seems that massively expanded access to information has largely turned public discourse more vitriolic, and less forgiving.

Rather than shining a light on the darkness, it seems to me instead that we have closed ourselves off, afraid of allowing the darkness in. Yet there is already darkness within, and to close ourselves off is to leave ourselves alone with it.

To be exposed to so much of the ugliness of the world would be challenging in any time. But I think our current situation makes us particularly vulnerable. We are ideologically inclined to let “failure set the agenda,” and we lack a shared framework to justify wholeheartedly loving the world.

Growing up is a process of moving from earnest naiveté to accepting responsibility for being a part of the world. Few of us get to the wholehearted loving of the world, ugliness and all, that Dostoyevsky’s most saintly characters manage to achieve. And all of us feel the pull of rejection when we are faced by the world’s ugliness.

But each of us is capable of accepting the world, with its wonders and its horrors.

Scott Adams and the Anti-If-By-Whiskey

If-By-Whiskey is a beloved rhetorical device dating from the decline of the prohibition era in 1950s Mississippi. It was a strange, transitional time when whiskey was still officially banned, and yet widely consumed, sold and even taxed. As the saying went at the time, people staggered to the polls to vote dry.

Thus when Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. delivered his famous speech in the state legislature he could not simply come out and call for an end to prohibition. That would have been political suicide. Instead, he recited what has come to represents a quintessential example of the double doctrine; of saying two seemingly contradictory things at once to appease multiple audiences.

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty …” he began, pausing for applause from the temperate in the audience, “then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes … then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

As a blog in large part about persuasion and rhetoric, Sweet Talk has published versions of If-By-Whiskey on contemporary subjects of controversy, including If-By-Feminism, If-By-Child-Labor, and If-By-Open-Borders.

Overtime, I have come to think of it less as an act of deception, and, on the contrary, more of an exercise in good faith discourse. A well constructed If-By-Whiskey ought to pass the Ideological Turing Test by demonstrating that one can articulate his or her opponent’s view as forcefully and convincingly as they could. That encapsulates the persuasive method, and reveals persuasion’s direct connection to empathy, sympathy, and perspective taking.

If-By-Whiskey is therefore in a sense an anti-troll. Trolls are good at perspective taking, too, but use it to know the precise things to say that make partisans the most angry. Why? Because vitriol in the face of someone who doesn’t give a damn can be quite amusing. Whereas irony is a bridge between absurdism and righteousness, trolling is purely nihilistic, the act of bashing the absurd over the righteous’s head and laughing all the way.

Scott-AdamsEnter Scott Adams. He is the man best known for the absurdist office cartoon Dilbert, but has made a new name for himself through his blog as an internet troll extraordinaire. Behind the guise of quixotic psychoanalysis, Adams has essentially perfected the Anti-If-By-Whiskey: esoteric posts which somehow manage to piss off everyone who reads them.

Take his recent post, “Why Gun Control Can’t Be Solved in the USA.” At its heart is a fairly valid and almost banal point: The groups that either support or oppose gun control generally belong to different demographics with different relationships to the risk of being shot. As he puts it, “Our situation in the United States is that people with different risk profiles are voting for their self-interests as they see it.”

But that’s not how he begins his piece. No, he begins it in the most hilariously incendiary way possible:

On average, Democrats (that’s my team*) use guns for shooting the innocent. We call that crime.

On average, Republicans use guns for sporting purposes and self-defense.

If you don’t believe me, you can check the statistics on the Internet that don’t exist.

Democrats use guns to shoot the innocent? Wow.

Of course, he’s referring to the fact that, comparatively speaking, inner city gun violence is committed by a demo who tend to vote for Democrats, while the archetypical Republican gun owner sits peacefully in his castle, gun loaded. There’s just a lot nicer ways to say that. Ways that don’t end up pissing off Republicans and Democrats alike.

And whereas the classic If-By-Whiskey is conciliation bookended by proclamations of embracing controversy (“I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be”), a typical Scott Adams post is outrageous bridge burning bookended by claims to being totally noncommittal and disinterested in anything but the science of persuasion.

As a self-described persuasion expert himself, Adams surely knows the story behind If-By-Whiskey. So what then is the goal behind his trololololing?

The lulz, for one: Adams clearly has fun at the expense of the righteous.

Selling books, for another: Not a post goes by that doesn’t include a link to his Amazon page. Stoking controversy with a veneer of plausible deniability is just expert #content marketing.

Third, and more speculatively, I also think Adams wants to impart real opinions to a knowing audience by using a trick pioneered by Nigerian email scammers.

Ever wonder why that email from the Nigerian Prince is so full of basic spelling errors, and so obviously suspicious on its face? Far from a sign of incompetence, it’s in effect a gullibility sorting mechanism. If you make a scam obvious the only people dumb enough to respond are also likely the same cohort who will be wiling to hit send on a money transfer down the line.

Who remains on the other side of Adams’ troll-sensitivity filter? Sociopaths, rationalists, nihilists, comedians, individualists, neuro-atypicals, and fellow trolls. All of which overlap to a degree. And each of which is an important and underrated audience, insofar as the least partisan and most discerning thinkers represent a swing vote, both literally and in the larger battle of ideas.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Democracy


There are a lot of ways to tell people to shut up. A good one, in the wake of a large vote is to say “democracy” loudly and repeated, and to accuse your opponents of anti-democratic tendencies. This is a shitty rhetorical trick.

Democracy is not a process designed to arrive at the “right” decision. Like any political process, it’s both far more and far less than that. Mostly, it’s a mechanism for delivering legitimacy to the instruments of state that wield power over our lives. (And notwithstanding the totalizing power of “democracy” in our discourse, it’s hardly the only one.[1]) Democracy seeks to deliver, in both the classic and modern senses, authority. To assume that it is some kind of mathematical formula by which we arrive at a correct solution is to miss the point so completely, so thoroughly, and so obviously, that it smacks of sophistry.

If you need a reductio to help drive this point home, just imagine racist or sexist measures—say, the internment of Japanese Americans—passed by referendum. Such measures do not by dint of majority support suddenly become right.

So, if democratic decisions aren’t simply “right”, what then?

What about “respecting the decision”? There’s a thin sense in which this is legitimate. Refusing to act on the will of the people is both a practical and political problem. While this is neither legal nor ethical advice, you should not start forming a militia in the woods of Wimbledon Common.

However, it’s something else entirely to suggest that young, educated, metropolitan voters should calmly nod while their futures are set ablaze. Respecting the decision is allowing it to proceed; it is not disengaging your mental faculties. Democracy is not a pact of silence for the minority, as the Leave campaign well knew.

What then, about “respecting the voters”? Calls for civility have a long and checkered history. (The American left—particularly the feminist left—likes to call it “tone policing”.) Surrounding the Brexit vote, there’s been much hand-wringing about the tendency of the “elites” to talk down to the working classes. In Britain, there’s an overlay of class consciousness that is worth keeping in mind, but there’s still something perverse about this.

First, Leave voters are not children to be coddled. The assumption that one must play nice with them is a symptom of the very phenomenon that’s the subject of criticism. The public can handle some cut and thrust, and they do plenty of it on their own. There’s just as much punching up going on as punching down. In fact, as you may have noticed, the elites are losing.

Second, sometimes people are wrong. Voters are entitled to their own opinions (and hence their own vote), but they are not entitled to their own facts. Pointing out factual errors is entirely legitimate. In fact, it’s probably a core function of a healthy democracy. This is true even if some of those people are offended by the suggestion they have their facts wrong.

Third, sometimes people are awful. People often make choices for the wrong reasons, and some of those reasons—like racism—are genuinely reprehensible. There’s as little reason to assume the best of people as to assume the worst. Sure, some people may be responding to the concentrated losses and diffuse benefits of globalization. Others may just be racists.[2] Assuming either without evidence is no way to proceed. Asking others to temper their arguments based on your assumptions is a layer cake of wrong.[3]

If you wish to kvetch on Facebook about Brexit—or any other democratic decision for that matter—have at it. Despite what others might tell you, you have not transformed into a totalitarian.

This much is fairly straightforward, so let’s ask one more question about democracy: is the rise of anti-elite sentiment a democratic triumph or a democratic failure? There’s been some interesting, almost prophetic, analyses of recent events – the Twilight of the Elites and the The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium both come to mind.[4] Sometimes, there’s an almost triumphal, sticking-it-to-the-man quality when discussing this phenomenon. Finally, we hear, the zombie elites will get their comeuppance for failure to provide any vision of the future.

This is all well and good, but it’s only half a story. The failings of the status quo are not an argument for radical change, in whatever form it might present itself. To imagine that things can’t get worse is the most self-indulgent of political failings. Things can absolutely get worse. And when spiting the elites means little more than the public harming itself, there are no winners. That is no triumph.

[1] At the risk of triggering flashbacks to Political Science 101, I’d remind readers that most Western democracies are actually fusions of liberalism and democracy, which are in tension. Constitutionalism, which has a particular grip on the American imagination, is also far from democratic.

[2] The motivations of Trump voters, for example, seem to be far more than just economic malaise.

[3] Caveat: this is not intended a license to be an asshole. Do not be an asshole.

[4] I have only read about these books, not actually read them, so have your salt shaker on hand.

Discourse of Free Cities

Every political change must be accepted by the populace, either tacitly or explicitly. On a more granular level, different types of political change require different levels of acceptance from different networks of people. Therefore, types of political change can be categorized by the intensity with which they affect networks of people. Given my interest in free cities, cities with a degree of legal autonomy, I thought I would take Adam Gurri’s kind invitation to discuss the discourse on free cities.

My interest in free cities stems largely from my understanding of political change. Politics is highly path dependent. Free cities offer a way to break that, potentially accelerating institutional improvements. However, there remains a great deal of hostility to free cities.

First, there are three groups with interest in free cities, libertarians, Silicon Valley, and developers. Libertarians largely have the ideas right. Some focus on outlandish Rothbardian ideas of property rights unlikely to work. However, a strand of libertarians has focused on best practices for institutions and how to recreate them in the developing world. Paul Romer largely fits this description, though I expect he would deny the association with libertarians. Unfortunately, while libertarians have the ideas, they lack the influence and money to build free cities. Hopefully Honduras can break this generalization.

The second group is Silicon Valley. They have some overlap with libertarians, but are distinct enough to justify a second category. Initially led by Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman, Silicon Valley focuses more on achieving the best institutions, rather than improving those in the developing world. Y Combinator is a welcome recent addition to Silicon Valley discussions about cities. Silicon Valley largely has the ideas, as well as some of the money, but lacks the influence to implement free cities.

Much of the difficulty that libertarians and Silicon Valley have faced in their quest to build free cities is their aversion to politics. A free city is seen as opting out of politics, rather than an inherently political act. They want a blank slate on which to build a city, but don’t fully understand how to achieve the autonomy required for a blank slate. Luckily, they have also been realizing this over the past several years, and will hopefully have more luck in the future.

The third group is international developers, a group which should be interested in free cities, but isn’t yet. The New Cities Foundation has an annual forum, Cityquest, which brings together developers building new cities. These are multi-billion dollar projects, but they, by and large, conceive of cities as construction projects, not realizing the value of legal institutions. Luckily, again, based on conversations with development groups, they are slowly realizing the value of legal institutions.

The last relevant question is, what prevents the emergence of free cities? Of course, countries are still reluctant to allow such high levels of autonomy, but what are the particulars? My current understanding is that the primary barriers are McKinsey and World Bank types. They are often presidential advisors in countries that could host free cities. However, they are unimaginative and risk averse. When presented with free cities, their response is to suggest a special economic zone with slightly lower taxes.

Building free cities means changing the mind of McKinsey and World Bank types. Free cities have to be normalized. As such they can no longer be fevered dreams to create a libertarian utopia or a techno-futurist city. Instead, free cities must be seen as adopting the best practices of governance, as an addition to the existing world order, not an attempt to opt out from it. Institutional change requires the ruling elite. Advocates of free cities should heed that lesson.

Roles of Authority

Why are people in authority allowed to do things that the average person is not? What exactly is authority, apart from the use of organized force to pursue some agenda?

We have trouble forming a clear picture of concepts like these because we are trapped by inwardness. The modern turn toward the inner life as the center of human experience has been, as Charles Taylor puts it, a real epistemic gain. But it exacted a price, often in the form of impoverished theory.

Continue reading “Roles of Authority”

Lessons from Daddy: There’s Nothing Shameful About Trying to Get Above Your Raising

“It’s hard to be brilliant and stunning and still feel lower class – even when you aren’t really.”

Those words knocked the wind out of me. I was gchatting about Eve Peyser’s essay on Daddies with my, well, my Daddy.

Our current conception of “daddy” is, in part, derived from “daddy issues,” a pejorative way to categorize a certain type of unmanageable woman, as in, “She’s a crazy slut because she has daddy issues.” The concept of “daddy issues” stems from from Jung’s Electra complex, a feminized Oedipus complex. The trope appears again and again in pop culture, used to identify the root of psycho-bitch promiscuity. By the mid-aughts, it became ubiquitous, frequently referenced on the bro-beloved sitcom How I Met Your Mother by its most misogynist character, pickup artist BarneyStinson.

If you grew up with an absent father like I did, hearing boys and bros describe daddy issues as the cause of any bad girl’s slutty or unhinged behavior — and malign her for said issues — always stung deep.

“I do not sense that our particular kink together comes much from actual things about your father,” he said to me.

Yes, and no.

My father (and mother) gave me the world all the most important ways. The thing they could not give me, however, was a comfortable sense of place. I grew up between two worlds, one I rejected, and the other I felt rejected me.

People don’t like it when people try to claw outside their place. It makes them uncomfortable.

We like to pump up people who’ve done it, who’ve made something of themselves, who’ve overcome the odds through hard work and sheer determination. Because once someone is there, it’s clear they belong. But we don’t like it when someone who probably doesn’t belong tries to elbow their way in.

Watch someone’s face when they see the elbowing happening in real-time. When someone with less power asks the powerful for a favor, an introduction, a contact. If you manage to get there, you’re a hero. But it’s all so distasteful when it’s happening. While you’re clawing your way up, you’re a wannabe. Striving isn’t a good look on anyone.

It’s not like the people at your level are necessarily any more supportive. “Who does she think she is?” “You think you’re better than me?” Even now I struggle with this. I feel two conflicting things.

It’s hard to admit that yes, I do think, all else equal, richer is better than poorer, more influence is better than less. But at the same time, I believe that preference is entirely subjective. Who the fuck am I to judge?

I am not better than the people I grew up with. But they are not the people I aspire to be.

Continue reading “Lessons from Daddy: There’s Nothing Shameful About Trying to Get Above Your Raising”

Moral fault and culpability

Our exalted Founding Fathers owned slaves. And of course they were founding “fathers” because they didn’t recognize the moral or political equality of women. Our ancestors perpetrated genocides, enslavement, torture, war, rape, forced conversions, mass sterilization, etc. You know the drill. The perennial question is What kind of judgment can we pass on our forebears? How could they have been so evil? Especially since we are keenly aware that our own grandchildren may look back on us with cold condemnation. Debates around this question rarely get anywhere. We want to avoid the cultural relativism that would exonerate our ancestors completely but also remain able to criticize what they got wrong.

In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker offers a novel way out of this jam. She distinguishes between culpable fault and non-culpable fault. I’ll let her explain it below. A bit of background for her example: Fricker refers to the Talented Mr Ripley, a play in which Marge has critical information that could prove Ripley murdered Mr Greenleaf’s son (and Marge’s philandering lover), but Greenleaf allows himself to be drawn into Ripley’s portrayal of Marge as merely a “hysterical woman”.

In the case of Herbert Greenleaf, we see this historical contingency played out in respect of the absence of a critical awareness of gender prejudice in the society in which his ethical and epistemic second nature were formed. While the Herbert Greenleafs of this world were always at fault in failing to exhibit the virtue, I suggest they were not culpably at fault until the requisite critical consciousness of gender became available to them. As we might put it, they were not culpably at fault until they were in a position to know better. There is no precise answer to the question at what point a Herbert Greenleaf comes to be in a position where he should know better than to neglect the possibility that Marge is right. And this question is surely best construed as a matter of degree, not least because the requisite collective gender consciousness is something that is likely to dawn only gradually. But no doubt a figure such as Herbert Greenleaf would be in that position long before he actually lived up to it by taking on board the gender-critical insights made newly available to him. Thus there will tend to be some period of historical transition in which a Herbert Greenleaf, well-intentioned as he may remain, moves from non-culpable fault to culpable fault. He lacks the virtue of testimonial justice with regard to gender prejudice throughout, but the relevant advance in collective consciousness is needed to render the shortcoming in his epistemic conduct blameworthy. Under the historical circumstances, then, my suggestion is that Greenleaf is not blameworthy for the testimonial injustice he inflicts on Marge.

There are some important points here. Fricker abjures relativism but doesn’t thereby advocate anything like a simplistic moral realism. Phrases like “historical contingency,” “critical consciousness,” and “collective gender consciousness” all point to the idea that the individual requires some kind of social resources or tools in order to understand and practice morality, however objective that morality might be. For example, it would be unreasonable to expect a 19th century man to understand or practice gender equality given his historical context. Mary Wollstonecraft had advanced her arguments in the end of the 18th century that women are educated in a way that undermines their rationality and dignity, but those arguments weren’t yet widely accepted by thought leaders. When John Stuart Mill wrote the Subjection of Women in the middle of the 19th century, he was writing in direct opposition to essentially the entire Western philosophical canon. There were of course radicals who advocated gender equality, but they were, well, radicals. Gender equality is not a simple idea to construct on one’s own when gender norms were so deeply entrenched and there wasn’t even the concept of “gender norm” with which to probe the issue.

Or for an example with a different political valence—this isn’t really a post about feminism—take free trade. It’s intuitive that we want to protect our country from shady foreigners. Buy American. But of course lobbying for protection against trade with foreigners wrongs both native customers and foreign producers, especially poor foreigners whose economic prospects are significantly diminished by being forcibly cut off from lucrative markets. Understanding the moral case for free trade requires concepts from both cosmopolitan ethics (or just universal equality) and the discipline of economics that explains technical concepts like division of labor and comparative advantage. In contexts where these resources aren’t readily available, free trade is going to be a hard sell.

Fricker further distinguishes between routine and exceptional “discursive moves in moral discourse.” Mill’s argument that there should be equality between women and men was an exceptional move. His contemporaries can hardly be morally condemned for failing to grasp this exceptional move. In contrast, Mill’s contemporaries could be condemned for, say, murder or other violence. The moral understanding that violence (absent some overriding justification) is wrong was and is routine.

However, our ancestors aren’t entirely off the hook for things like slavery, Jim Crow, unjust war, etc. And we’re not off the hook with our grandchildren either. Mill’s contemporaries who participated in the subordination of women were wrong after all. And Fricker allows we may justifiably feel some resentment toward those sexists of the past who just didn’t get it. As we move forward in time and the basic arguments of feminism have gone mainstream, that resentment of the masses transforms into condemnation of misogynist holdouts. To the skeptics of feminism in the audience, I’m not being controversial here, and you’re free to insert your own moral example to bring home the point. I’m thinking of misogynists who believe women shouldn’t vote and shouldn’t be given the same education as men. These are exceptional holdouts who mirror the exceptional reformers from before the moral paradigm shift.

Hopefully it’s clear that this is a continuous process. There’s no magic moment when the heavenly trumpets sound and a person goes from merely wrong to condemned. In the historical moment most of us are just doing the best we can in the collective—and internal, for that matter—moral discourse. These moral paradigms can shift rapidly and catch non-culpably wrong people up in the maelstrom. I’m thinking about the folks who participated in the common exclusion of GLBT people in, say, the 80s and 90s and failed to keep up with the rapidly shifting moral understanding of the last couple decades.

Now let’s get to the burning question. With Fricker’s distinction, can we both respect George Washington and condemn Adolf Hitler? It seems that we can. George Washington owned slaves. But so did most people in his landowning class in his time. He was wrong to do so, but he wasn’t exceptionally wrong. His failure to respect the dignity of these human beings by freeing them was in line with the routine moral understanding that slavery was a part of the natural order since biblical times. Indeed, if the stories are true (I haven’t done the research here because it’s not critical to my point), Washington treated his slaves as humanely as was consistent with the existence of slavery, and he provided for their manumission in his will, suggesting he was at least thinking critically about the justice of the peculiar institution. Washington was wrong about slavery, but the man was not evil.

What about Hitler? It seems as though the moral understandings available to Hitler at the time were sufficient to prevent not only genocide of Jews but also aggressive war. The understanding since the Treaty of Westphalia, since the bloodshed of the Napoleonic Wars, and since the horrors of the Great War all pointed to the clear moral evil of aggressive war. Jews meanwhile were citizens who had been participating peacefully and productively in civic life amidst their fellow citizens for centuries. The principles of religious freedom and tolerance were widely available since Europe’s centuries of religious warfare. Hitler and his Nazis were straightforwardly evil.

I Am So Sorry

I would like to apologize for the role my behavior played in recent events.

As I was saying recently, we have a tendency to adopt certain identity-segmentation paradigms as mental models to try to explain the world around us, but those paradigms aren’t necessarily very good.

When the news hit that “Orlando gunman” Omar Mateen had a profile on a gay dating app and that he was a regular of the very club he ultimately attacked, many of my friends on social media responded very predictably. Many of them said something to the effect of, “Yet another conservative homophobe who is actually a repressed, self-hating person.” There’s an almost snide tone to it, as if some are satisfied, in a way, to note that anyone who hates the LGBTQ community is actually gay himself/herself. It’s a reaction that leaves me very unsettled, because it seems so nasty to try to score a point for one’s ideological narrative when real people’s lives are on the line.

For the record, my reaction was a terrible and profound sadness for Mr. Mateen. Who really knows what he had to endure? Who knows what sort of emotional pain would drive him to this? Indeed, this is similar to how I react whenever I hear about an on-the-record homophobe who is ultimately outed as gay. How sad. These people must be in such pain.

Needless to say (I hope), none of this excuses terrible people from doing terrible things, but when tragedy strikes, some of us immediately start angling for their version of “justice,” while others (like myself, I hope) feel only grief.

(It’s also worth mentioning that, as of the time of this writing, we still don’t really know if he was genuinely gay, or just “casing-out” a target location.)

Yes, I readily admit it: I felt sorry for the perpetrator of the crime, and in truth I also felt guilty.

The first time I really remember feeling this way was back in 2003, when all-around-bad-guy Rush Limbaugh publicly admitted to being addicted to oxycontin. His critics were not kind. Here is but one example. If one has a taste for schadenfreude, then there is a rich temptation to punch down here. After all, there is this:

“Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country. And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. … And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up,” Limbaugh said on his short-lived television show on Oct. 5, 1995.

During the same show, he commented that the statistics that show blacks go to prison more often than whites for the same drug offenses only illustrate that “too many whites are getting away with drug use.”

In reality, it’s sad. Like so many other people, Rush Limbaugh accidentally acquired an opioid addiction as a result of fairly routine surgery. There’s nothing to feel triumphant about. Limbaugh’s addiction doesn’t validate the position of people who are kinder to addicts, it’s simply a sad reminder of how dangerous these newer opioids are.

But, the paradigm problem cuts both ways. It cuts in Limbaugh’s direction: he was painting all addicts with the same brush, but unbeknownst to him, modern opioids can lead even the best of us down the path to addiction. It cuts against his critics too: it doesn’t work to call him a hypocrite without conceding Limbaugh’s implied point that it’s the addict’s fault that he’s addicted. “Two legitimate but contradictory beliefs, one held consciously, one unconsciously, alternating variously.” (See what I mean now?)

Now, in Orlando, the ideological positioning is in full effect, with many people calling for stricter gun regulations, and many others calling for stricter immigration regulations, and others still calling for an eradication of intolerance. There are many reasons why each of these narratives fall flat, but while we’re busy calling each other names, a true gaping cultural hole has been exposed in America that can’t be filled with “better laws” or “fewer foreigners” or “more liberalism,” at least not without the same kind of contradiction we saw with the Limbaugh schadenfreude. 

I helped rip this hole open, and for that I am so incredibly sorry. I don’t think I did it alone, but I can only apologize for my own part of it.

Mr. Mateen was a first-generation American, and this is a demographic that we already know struggles to identify both with their native culture and their parents’ culture. Combine this struggle with the conservatism of Mr. Mateen’s parents’ culture, especially regarding homophobia, and then combine it again with the struggles of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants in American culture as it stands. If it’s true that Mateen was a gay – comma – Muslim – comma – first-generation American – comma – from a South Asian family then none of our politically or identity-driven narratives begin to do justice to the multitude of struggles a person in his position would have to endure. Relaxing any one of those assumptions still leaves Mateen with a hefty emotional bag to carry.

We will never see that kind of narrative presented in the popular press, in the “blog-o-sphere,” or in our political discourse. It is far too satisfying – an indulgence far too tempting – to simply double-down on the familiar words: intolerance, radial Islam, terrorism, gun control, immigration, mental illness, the patriarchy, illiberalism. These ills are social, and we latch-on to them because they socialize the problem.

On Stationary Waves, I call it shared guilt: It’s our tendency to see social problems when the problems are in fact individual ones. We all do it, including myself, and for that I am sorry and I am ashamed.

Omar Mateen wasn’t “a Muslim.” That is, he wasn’t a guy who went on a shooting spree because he was a Muslim. He doesn’t fit that profile. Mateen wasn’t “a homophobe,” either, at least not in the sense that he went on a shooting spree because he couldn’t bear to live in a world with gay people. For that matter, he wasn’t even “a terrorist,” at least not in the sense that he had a clear political message to impart to the Government of the United States of America.

The problem with the various social-ills narratives is that no one of them is strong enough to account for the full force of the situation Mateen must have found himself in – a situation to which we all contribute, all of us.When we pin it on that particular thing, we grant ourselves permission to overlook this particular thing, and this particular thing is probably something to which we ourselves contribute. I know it’s true, in my case.

It’s surprising to me, however, because I would expect a pervasive social problem like misogyny, or homophobia, or gun control, or etc., to be a much more difficult to solve than solving our own individual shortcomings. Yet people are so quick to invoke shared guilt and thereby evade responsibility for producing an environment where one of our own neighbors wants to go on a shooting spree.

So for my cowardice, my weakness, and my inability to fully account for those shortcomings I wish to offload onto the shared guilt of identity narratives, I can only apologize, and try to make amends.

I’m writing all this because I happen to know what it feels like to be an outsider, and I have learned over the years just how rare true outsiders are. Even a very small team is a team. Most “individuals” feel individualistic because their team is very small. Very few of us just don’t fit in anywhere. I don’t expect many to understand it, so I am compelled to write. I don’t write this for the benefit of those of us who already know, but for the benefit of those who have always had a social group to belong to, and thus struggle to understand the motives of a person who is simply lone.

There are probably many reasons why Omar Mateen did what he did. We cannot overlay any narrative paradigm, no matter how personally appealing it is, because like everyone, Mateen must have experienced a wide variety of different kinds of antagonism and marginalization over the course of his life. Which one of them was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Was it any one of them? Was it any one in particular? Is it the combination of three or more that turn someone into a killer?

No, please. It’s all of them. At any point in time, you may belong to this segment or that segment, and at any point in time you may find yourself the brunt of some social force that pains you deeply. Remember that feeling. We all feel it, all of us, yes, even the privileged white males like myself who find ourselves on the outside more often than you think.

Remember that feeling, because the moment you feel it, you know what you need to heal. You don’t need identity politics, you don’t need new laws or new immigration policies. You don’t need better philosophy or more liberalism.

A person can only take so much hate before they break, and when they do, it might be a suicide or a homicide, a drug bender, a car accident, or anything else. A person might find a healthy outlet for their pain, or they might never. But it’s you and I that are causing this pain – and by “you and I,” I mean literally YOU and literally ME .

We speak and write and laugh and sing and act at the expense of each other, and we do it all the time. We even do it right here on this blog. We come out of tragedy with an “other-ing” mentality, where Those Who Commit Heinous Crimes are always them and never us. It doesn’t matter whether them is “bigots” or “gun nuts” or “homophobes” or “immigrants” or “conservatives” or “the patriarchy.” Whoever it is, it’s them. And because it’s them, we exonerate ourselves, even if we share some vague sense of responsibility for eradicating our favorite root social cause. The point is, we’re one of Those Who Know Better, even if that means we must indict our segment.

My hope here is that, in reading this, you think back to someone you’ve known who didn’t deserve what you gave them. Think of someone you unfairly ganged-up on, and think about what a lifetime of receiving such treatment would do to a person.

Would it turn someone into a killer? Maybe not. But what if it could? Would you change your behavior – your individual behavior – then?

Identity Segmentation

Part of what I do professionally involves attempting to identify groups of people who act a certain way, so that businesses can meet their specific needs. The marketing term for this is “customer segmentation,” and it’s a powerful set of tools for setting marketing strategies.

One problem with customer segmentation, however, is that when we carve out a particular segment of customers because they exhibit Behavior X on average, we accidentally include a bunch of customers who do not exhibit Behavior X, because they diverge from the average. Sometimes they even exhibit precisely the opposite behaviors. Just because you own a smart phone and an Xbox and happen to be a male aged 27 years doesn’t mean you’re going to watch the Super Bowl this year, even though most people who are like you on paper probably will.

Or, to put it pictorially:

Go ahead, punk, book me to speak at your next marketing conference.

If you run a business, then you don’t actually care who gives you money (for the most part), you just want them to give it to you. Finding out what your key customer segments are is a means by which you attempt to identify people who have a high probability of giving you money, subject to the assumption that demographic data is predictive of a person’s giving you money. It also helps give you a language with which to communicate to them.

But that’s all it is. Your prediction may very well be wrong.

In business, this means that a lot of the people who get your direct-mail-or-whatever will completely ignore it and not give you any money. That’s because, despite your smart phone and Xbox ownership, your sex, and your age, you might not want to watch the Super Bowl; or, despite your looking a lot like the average childless male gunfighter, you might actually be a female customer service rep who is raising her grandchild; or, etc., etc.

Notice: It is quite often the case that many individual members of the nebulous group of people we believe to have a certain set of characteristics do not actually have any of those characteristics at all. Our customer segment includes both groups of people.

The error a lot of marketeers make occurs when they observe the multitude of behaviors exhibited by a particular segment that do not seem to cohere in a way that can be exploited through marketing strategies. They first think that they didn’t get the marketing message right, so they invest a lot more money into getting it right. When that doesn’t work, they decide that they got their segmentation wrong, and then go looking for “the real segment.” (When they find it, the process starts over again.)

Either way, for a long time, they’re stuck in their segmentation paradigm. Whatever else they choose to change, they don’t change the paradigm. The problem here is that, at a certain point, the marketeers have conflated their customer segment with what they really want to know. They don’t really want to know “Who is in Segment A?” Instead, they want to know, “Who is going to give me more money?” Segmentation is just a means to an end. It’s just a paradigm.

So it goes with all forms of segmentation. It’s tempting to describe the world – and especially human interaction – in terms of “people segments,” subsets of the population who we believe, on average, to behave a certain way. As I stated before, though – and I don’t want to belabor the point, but it bears repeating just one more time – any time you choose to create a segment, you include large swaths of people who behave very differently than the segment itself is said to behave. What this means is that, when you aim to talk about a segment – even your own – you wind up being terribly wrong about a good number of people in that segment.

So, what good is a segment?

Segmentation can be useful as a sort of mental model: If all individual behavior more or less corresponded to the behavior we wish to assign to a group, then what does the world look like? Once we’ve answered that question and come up with a rudimentary view of the world, we can then think about relaxing some of our assumptions, making the “segments” a little fuzzier, and assessing what that does to our basic world view.

This only works, however, if we agree to at least two rules.

First, we shouldn’t make the mistake of conflating our segment-oriented mental model with the actual state of the real, physical world. It might be useful to pare things down a little bit to gain some grasp over the broadest strokes, but the simple fact of the matter is that the real world is more complex than our mental models.

Second, as we relax our assumptions – and we must relax them – we must also agree to test how relaxing them impacts not only the behavior of our model, but also its credibility. If your model of how Purple People related to Blue People only explains, say, 30% of the interactions between Purples and Blues, and only does so if we agree to use the loosest language possible, then perhaps its time to reconsider whether Purple-versus-Blue is the right cut of the data. Maybe it’s Purple-versus-Green. Maybe it’s Triangles and Circles instead. Purple-versus-Blue might be the story with the most emotional power, it might be the story that wins you the highest number of friends or blog followers, it might be the story that wins the largest quantity of grant money, and it might be the one that everybody wants to hear about.

But it might still be wrong nonetheless. As one who puts people into boxes, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your boxes are worth anything.

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