As I’m certainly the least-popular and least-educated Sweet Talker, my ideas aren’t formed from a deep dive into the academic literature, they’re based on experience and observation. I won’t deny having read my fair share academic tomes, and like any good nerd I do read journal articles for pleasure. But that’s just my evening gig; by day, I’m a regular old beer-chugging Joe Sixpack who finds himself caught up in a volatile world, and who has occasionally been known to articulate his thoughts well. For my money, one won’t find real explanatory pay-dirt shoveling through the literature. Instead, we’ll find it in a person’s ability to fuse a workable and ever-updating narrative out of the details of his or her life. The more consistently one’s narrative anticipates and produces good real-world results, the more accurate it is.
She’s sitting across from me in a pub. It’s well after dark and the shadows are closing in around her. It’s cool outside, so she has elegantly wrapped a thick, black, impeccably embroidered Kashmiri shaal around her shoulders. Her hair is pulled back, as she used to wear it back then, and she’s leaning into the back of her seat. The smile on her face is perfect: it’s the final second of a closed-mouth smile, before her mouth comes open and she gives me that big, bright, loving smile that I’ve seen so many times since then. Her lips are pursed, her head angled to the side, and her eyes are absolutely gleaming at me.
It is a vision of pure beauty.
Not quite eight years ago, through dumb luck, I managed to capture a photograph of the exact moment – the precise second – I realized that my wife is the most beautiful woman I had, and have, ever seen in my whole life. I don’t mean that the photograph is a favorite photograph I have of her. No, I mean that even had I not snapped that photograph, that moment would still be the moment I came to that appraisal of her. It was just my dumb luck that I happened to be taking her photograph when I realized it. Lucky me.
There are two reasons why I’m not including that photograph in this blog post. First, I’m not going to plaster my personal life all over a public forum. Take that, Kim Kardashian! Second, even if I did, nobody else would see in that photo the same image I just described. They’d see only a pretty young woman smiling for the camera. It’s not that you had to be there, it’s that you couldn’t have been there – you weren’t me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
You have to take your own photograph.
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?
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:
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.
If you hated this post, boy, are you going to hate these:
Featured image is “The Fortune Teller,” by Simon Vouet.
The “rainbow ruse” is a cold reading technique in which the reader first assigns the subject a personality trait, and then assigns its opposite. For example, one might say, “You can be a spontaneous person, but in your private life you tend to stick to a routine that works.” Or, “You see yourself as an open-minded person, but you tend to dispense with bad arguments quickly.”
Crude examples of the rainbow ruse are easy to spot as nonsense, but the more skilled a person is in cold reading, the better that person can craft tailor-made rainbow ruse statements to gain the subject’s confidence and leave him or her with the impression of having been deeply and profoundly understood. Continue reading “The Rainbow Ruse”
Featured image is Lord Byron On His Death-Bed, by Joseph-Denis Odevaere.
I’m not looking forward to the process of dying. Whatever one’s beliefs about the afterlife, my thoughts will inevitably turn to the course of my life – my accomplishments and failures, regrets and reprisals, triumphs and shortcomings. It’s the final act of accounting for oneself – for every good deed and praiseworthy act I can think of, it’s guaranteed that there was an equal and opposite instance of personal or moral failure. We all want to make peace, and allow ourselves to rest, in hope that our final thoughts will be positive, happy. The harder we think about life, though, the less sure we are that we are good people. No one wants to die a failure.
This line of thinking inspires a great deal of humility. No matter how right you think you are, how much good you think you’ve done, if you were twenty minutes from dying you might worry that you weren’t right enough, or good enough, to die at peace with yourself.
This kind of humility is, in my opinion, important and positive. Taken to the extreme, though, it is paralyzing, and the one thing worse than dying in a state of philosophical uncertainty is living in one. Continue reading “Certainly”
It surprises me the extent to which people recoil at the idea of a President Donald Trump.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Donald Trump would be a terrible president. But to hear the way some people talk about it (and I don’t just mean David or Adam), he’s an entirely new level of monster. He’s something we’ve never before encountered in American politics, at least not recently. One Sweet Talker even suggested to me that those who vote for Donald Trump are more morally culpable than those who don’t.
And it’s not just us. Everywhere you go in the media, there’s some dumb article about which public figure recently vowed to move to Canada (or wherever) if Donald Trump wins the election. Many of my personal friends – especially the Muslims among them – think that The Donald’s rhetoric toward practitioners of Islam is many orders of magnitude over and above what we’ve seen in politics up to now.
Forgive me, I just don’t see it. But let’s be clear: I’m not saying Donald Trump isn’t terrible, I’m saying all those other politicians that nobody ever worried about have been exactly as terrible as Donald Trump all this time, and nobody really batted an eye at that. And they’re still not batting any eyes.
We don’t disagree about Trump. We disagree about everyone else. While everyone seems shocked and scandalized by Donald Trump’s ideas, I’m not seeing anything new or alarming that I haven’t been witnessing for the past twenty years. (Incidentally, I see that David R. Henderson has scooped me on this by a few hours.) So, I must ask: What makes Donald Trump uniquely morally reprehensible here?
Consider the proposed wall. We’re supposed to believe that building a wall along the US-Mexico border is a “Donald Trump thing.” If so, how would we explain the fact that recent interest in such a wall seems to have peaked almost ten years ago?
Doubtless Trump has been a large part of recent interest in the topic, but this is not a new idea. Arizona lawmakers were tackling this issue two years ago. Mike Huckabee was calling for such a wall as early as 2007, for example. Arnold Schwartzenegger was criticizing border wall proposals from the U.S. House of Representatives a year earlier. I could go on, but I won’t. Donald Trump doesn’t own the border wall issue, and any recent indignation thrown at Trump for his taking a stance no different than Mike Huckabee’s or the 2006 U.S. House of Representatives is silly. Trump’s bad, but this issue has always been bad. Trump isn’t adding anything new here.
Or, consider the question of banning Muslim immigration to America. To articulate such a thing is to make most Americans’ skin crawl, but one has to wonder about the intellectual honesty of many of those whose skin is crawling. Before my wife got a new passport and started using my last name, she was subject to more “random” airport security checks than I’ve ever seen. Her father, a well-traveled man, an expert in his field, and a Fulbright Scholar, was placed on the “no-fly list” for sharing the name of a suspected terrorist; but if you know anything about Muslim names, you know that virtually every Muslim shares the name of a “suspected terrorist,” because there are over two billion Muslims worldwide and only several thousand Muslim names. Do the math. Anyone comfortable with the state of Muslim profiling in America, but uncomfortable with Trump’s immigration ban, isn’t thinking straight.
But let’s set aside my personal experience any appeals to logic and look at the facts. Three years ago, The Atlantic reported:
The Associated Press brought the NYPD’s clandestine spying on Muslims to the public’s attention in a series of vital stories. Starting shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, officers infiltrated Muslim communities and spied on hundreds or perhaps thousands of totally innocent Americans at mosques, colleges, and elsewhere. These officers “put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity,” the news agency reported, citing NYPD documents. Informants were paid to bait Muslims into making inflammatory statements. The NYPD even conducted surveillance on Muslim Americans outside its jurisdiction, drawing a rebuke from an FBI field office, where a top official charged that “the department’s surveillance of Muslims in the state has hindered investigations and created ‘additional risks’ in counterterrorism.”
The author of that piece ends his article with a good question:
What does it say about American liberalism today that two of the most significant municipal programs abrogating the civil liberties of racial and ethnic minorities thrive in a deep blue city that also happens to be the media capitol of the country … and the guy presiding over it remains popular?
He’s talking about Bloomberg, and let’s make this as clear as possible: Bloomberg isn’t popular among alt-right racists; he’s popular among the urban elite who see themselves as tolerant, diverse, and enlightened. The very people who react with indignation at hearing Donald Trump’s proposed ban have virtually no problem at all with local law enforcement enacting a ubiquitous surveillance apparatus to ensure that innocent American citizens who happen to be Muslims aren’t actually up to something. And that’s not even considering the profiling that has been done to blacks and Latinos for decades. Trump is beyond the pale? Not hardly.
We could take a long look at the semblance of economic policy Donald Trump seems to espouse and poke all kinds of holes in it. But: trade restrictions, investments in domestic manufacturing, lukewarm support of minimum wage increases, and so on… Would it really be shocking to discover that this set of policies is common to a fairly large swath of both Democrat and Republican politicians?
Wrack your brain, pore over the platforms, the advertisements, the interviews, the media articles, and the research. Once you set aside Trump’s rather abrasive personality – an abrasive personality that is not only no secret to anyone (nor has it been at any time over the past 40 years of Trump’s fame), but that has succeeded in creating a rather successful brand of business for him – the actual policies we’re left with really aren’t that different from what we’re getting from any other politician in the landscape.
So what is everyone complaining about?
Nota bene, my point here is not to suggest that there aren’t people out there who have disagreed with these policies all along. Of course there are. But the visceral reaction against Donald Trump is many orders of magnitude above and beyond our reaction to politicians who support Trump’s policies (or worse) in deed, even if they fall short of doing so in words.
Regular readers will understand why I choose to focus on this: It’s because, in my opinion, results matter much more than words. That politicians lie is nothing new, and the results of our politics are there for all to see. Why, then, all the indignation over a politician whose rhetoric is, for once, consistent with the results?
What do we make of a society that reacts angrily to being told the truth? Is the problem that it prevents them from being able to lie to themselves about what’s going on out there? This isn’t a politics problem; it’s an ego problem. The solution here is not to lambaste Trump, but to lambaste ourselves and our own failure to recognize any of these horrors when they come out of the mouths of pretty much anyone else. If it takes someone like Donald Trump for you to recognize how abominable these policies are, then perhaps a re-calibration of your abomination-detection-device is in order.
Until we realize that, it’s plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
I think every thought experiment should conducted n times, where n is the number of unique moral agents contained in the experiment. Doing so might help mitigate the risk of our inborn proclivities toward The Fatal Conceit.
(Finally – finally – I have been given an excuse to invoke Hayek on these pages, a rarity for the pulpit-pounding Misesian of the group. But that is just what impact Samuel’s recent argument against free trade had on me.)
Re-conducting the thought experiment n times will hopefully provide us with a certain moral weight.
Let n = k + s, where k is the number of kings, gods, aristocrats, wonks, and watchmakers in the world and s is the number of serfs, plebes, average joes, peons, and Trump voters. Let us further note that in every system across the totality of human history, including the present system, s > k. And not just “>,” but “much >.”
Let us further acknowledge that, at the time of this writing, the only person who stands to profit in the near term from terra-forming Mars is the most vocal proponent of doing so:
Humanity could colonize Mars with a few key technological advances, Elon Musk said. Chief among them are fully and rapidly reusable rockets, and the ability to produce rocket propellant from local materials on the Red Planet….
For example, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket costs about $16 million to build, but the fuel for each of the booster’s liftoffs costs just $200,000, Musk said Tuesday. So finding a way to fly rockets again and again has the potential to slash the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100, he added.
Musk hopes to be a key player in the spread of humanity to another planet, but he doesn’t expect to be around to see the full fruits of his labor.
Emphasis mine. $16 million (plus margin) is a lot of cheddar. You can bet that’s going to show up in the marginal tax rates and rates of inflation borne by s. To be sure, k will also bear some of this cost… but then again, it was their choice to do so. (They’re the k‘s, remember?)
And while I’m banging away at libertarian hobby-horses, let’s briefly tackle “what is unseen.” The chief cost of terra-forming Mars is the opportunity cost of spending hundreds of billions of dollars and countless human lives mitigating against a risk that never comes to pass. (Yes, Elon, such as superintelligent killer robots.) There is a whole other trajectory of human progress that may unfold if we choose to do pretty much anything other than protecting ourselves from non-existent killer robots. That trajectory will impact the quality of life for both the k‘s and the s‘s, but it will make the best and most important impact on the s‘s.
Okay, now go ahead and re-run the thought experiment n times. Run through the billions of poor people who will continue to die in the streets for lack of improved economic development. Run through the billions of dollars that could have been spent on increasing the number of cancer screenings in the world, or on reducing the cost of insulin analogues, or on increasing the wage rates of the desperate, or etc., etc. Do this s times, for every s alive in today’s world, and for every s that will ever live over the course of the development of Musk’s Mars plan. Then do it again for every s living on both Earth and Mars, who could easily trade with each other and improve their lots in life, but for the k‘s who just happen to “know” that the hypothetical risk of an imaginary killer robot or et cetera is too great to justify raising the total amount of calories consumed by an abandoned Bangladeshi child.
Then, when you’re done with all that, go ahead and run through the k‘s. They probably won’t save themselves (no matter how rich they get) because they’ll be long dead before the plan ever comes to fruition. But they do get a substantial utility boost, after all. It’s not just the money, it’s the knowledge they have that they’re saving humanity – perhaps not today’s starving child, but some child who never would have existed otherwise! Just think of how many lives are saved or created by this process! And since “humanity” is infinite (especially if “we” save it), and “starving child” is finite, that’s a whole lot of salvation the k‘s get for their money.
Still, after all this, I have a difficult time believing that anyone who went through the thought experiment n times would walk away concluding that, yep, we gotta break a few eggs and cook ourselves an omelet. That is likely why Samuel ended with the Tyler Cowen quote that he did: when our growth plan involves redirecting calories from the mouths of today’s starving to the future of humanity many generations from now, the decision just doesn’t make sense.
This, too, is part of the “neoreactionary” ethos – an important part. We can deride them for being “populists” or “anti-elite” (sometimes called “anti-intellectual”), but when our thought experiments place us in the position of k‘s, while they can only ever be s‘s, their criticism sticks. It’s not as if it’s irrational to think that the elites might cook up a plan that comes at a terrible cost to the rest of us. It’s happened before. If we are to take neoreactionism seriously, we’ll have to acknowledge this.
Now, I’m not an unreasonable man. If a few eccentric k‘s want to spend their own money, combined with voluntary donations, on interplanetary colonialism, I say more power to them! Fair is fair: I spend my disposable income on too many guitars and too much cognac, they spend theirs on space ships. But that’s a choice any n can make, be she a k or an s.
But if we succeed in colonizing Mars, then I’m already in favor of MEFTA. Free trade is fair trade. No moat!
I’m working on my brevity these days, so I’m going to try to write this post in twenty minutes or less.
In Adam’s recent post about context, he writes (emphasis mine):
Ryan’s recent post relies on an optimistic hermeneutic. At least, it is optimistic in the sense of holding that it is possible to know the relevant context for understanding something, if pessimistic that most people will bother. I share his optimism.
But in discussing the post with him, it seems that he believes a lot of meaning is radically historical, where most believe there to be more general meaning outside of the most contingent of context.
I may indeed be radically historical, but I haven’t ever considered that. In fact, the mere notion of a “radically historical perspective” is an entirely new ingredient not initially contained in my post about frames of reference. It’s entirely possible that Adam is correct about my perspective – but I honestly don’t know about that, and it doesn’t directly pertain to my point.
The reason I’m writing about this is to highlight a risk in the consumption of ideas: Not only is it possible to lack context, it is also possible to import context that was not or should not be there.
I see this quite often. The news is replete with stories of well-meaning university faculty whose innocuous emails receive an identity-politics reevaluation, and next thing we know, a scandal has erupted. Scarcely can any major crime occur that the media begins saying things like, “We don’t know yet if the suspects are tied to terrorist groups,” which is a factually correct statement that nevertheless imports the context of terrorism to a situation that might not actually involve real terrorists.
I see this also in the marketplace for ideas. For example, Paul recently wrote a blog post about capabilitarianism that I quite liked. I felt that he was correct in the main, but Paul references the ideas of Amartya Sen in absence of the context of the Indian partition, the Pakistani genocide of Bangladeshis, the subsequent Bangladeshi war of independence, and the resulting martial law and systemic bifurcation of Bangladeshi society between “rich” and “poor.” In that context, the context in which Sen’s ideas actually emerged, the comparison to American civil liberties is much weaker. And because I know a bit about Bangladeshi history, I found that part of Paul’s otherwise excellent blog post less strong than the balance of it.
In short, it is possible to universalize something that is not truly universal. It’s possible to bend the language of the civil rights movement so that it can be deployed against campus faculty emails, it’s possible to use emerging market societies’ theories to attempt to explain developed-market social trends, and so forth.
My view is that we should be very cautious about generalizing intellectual principles. In some cases they can indeed be generalized, but in some cases not. What you include in your frame of reference can affect your conclusion every bit as much as what you exclude. The goal should always be not to be “right in a manner of speaking,” or “right from a certain perspective,” but to simply be right.
I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m just saying that’s the goal.
Some people read Moby Dick and think it’s a story about hunting whales.
There are people out there who have read and have loved The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without having ever known that Robert Louis Stevenson had bipolar personality disorder.
There are people who find Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to be powerfully moving despite having absolutely no idea that Wilde was not heterosexual.
There are people who claim to love the works of Franz Kafka. They talk about their love for The Castle or The Trial, but they know almost nothing about German bureaucracy in the decades leading up to the rise of the Nazis. They love The Penal Colony, but they have never read The Bible in depth. They love The Metamorphosis, but they have never witnessed the slow decline of a person suffering from a serious disability or a chronic illness.
A lot of people love Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture despite not knowing what was happening in the year 1812.
There are people who are converted to Islam upon reading The Qu’ran, but who have never read the Old Testament. There are people who read The Bible and are converted to Christianity without having ever read about the competing religions of the period and the area, without having studied the Torah and Talmud.
I have encountered folks who quote Gandhi fondly, even though they’ve never been to a remote Indian village and have no thorough understanding of the lives lead by the lower castes there. Nor have they ever fought for freedom under a genocidal occupying government. And their closest frame of reference is the disadvantaged groups they’ve seen in North America. That’s the kind of thing that they think Gandhi was talking about.
I once met a woman who traveled to remote and poverty-stricken villages in Latin America and then came home to the comfort of her house, her smart phone, her law degree, her steady income, and her habitual drug use, and told me with a straight face, “I really envy their way of life.”
I asked her why. She told me that she thought their lives were simple.
Never before has so much human knowledge been placed in the hands of virtually everyone. The result is that anyone can start learning at any point in the stream. We can hear The 1812 Overture before we learn about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. (Some of us don’t even know that it happened.) We can be assigned to read a story like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without ever having been taught about bipolar personality disorder. We can watch Hollywood films like The War of the Worlds without having to confront its Marxist thematic elements. We can convert to religions in absence of any understanding of their historical contexts or supporting-but-peripheral canon.
We can espouse the political or philosophical beliefs of people from distant times and places without having to bother about understanding how those beliefs, when initially proposed, were influenced by the specific context in which they first arose. We can think and learn anything in absence of context, of a correct frame of reference, because the information is simply everywhere, and readily available on a smart phone.
And, so long as we talk about them theoretically rather than in their original context, we can completely redefine what the intent of those theories was in the first place.
It all depends on our frame of reference.