Cathedral Round-Up #20: The Ideological Cult of the SJW

Let’s talk about cults.

I. In Educating Teachers: Harvard gets serious about training its graduates to teach in the classroom, Sophia Nguyen writes:

This is something that’s interesting about HTF,” Quan Le ’15 said. “We literally cry every day.” …

Note: Quan Le is male.

Sometimes the crying became infectious. On one morning in early June, the fellows sat in a basement classroom for their daily “teaching lab,” where they studied and rehearsed classroom management strategies that they could try out on the high-schoolers later that day. They broke up into two discussion groups, and, while debating last night’s reading on cultural sensitivity, one-half of the room broke down. Voices rose: I just want to push back a little on what you said. I think this is very problematic. I’d like to ask you to unpack this point. I don’t think that’s the culture of low-income people—I think that’s a deficit-based model. The fellows, freshly graduated from the College, were fluent in left-leaning liberal-arts classroom etiquette. Yet the conversation grew tenser, then tearful, even as everyone insisted they had no real conflict. Someone burst out, frustrated, “I agree with you!”

“It’s not like class,” one of them said, finally, face in hands. “It really matters to me. I feel really attacked. I care so much about this stuff, and when the whole group disagrees with me, I can’t take it.”

Noah Heller, HTF’s master teacher-in-residence for math, interceded gently. “We need to work on tuning together. I don’t hear people disagreeing with you, I really don’t. We’re having a robust discussion.”

“It’s so exhausting. I’m so sorry, I cry all the time.” The fellow took a breath. “I’m getting really defensive. I think we all really need to remember that we’re all here to help kids.” At some point, everyone in the circle of chairs had begun holding hands. “There’s not always agreeing or disagreeing,” someone offered helpfully. “Sometimes it’s just—this stuff is really hard, and we’re just trying to figure out what we feel.”

The students in this article are not recruits going through Basic Training in the military. They are not doctors enduring 48 hour hospital shifts. They are Harvard grads learning to be teachers. I have a great deal of respect for teachers and know they work hard, but there is absolutely no reason they should be weeping every day.

Seriously, if anything in this excerpt sounds like your real life, please get help immediately. THIS IS NOT EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY OR NORMAL.

 

II. One of the things I appreciate about memetics is that it allows us to think about the spread and propagation of ideas independent of the intentions of the people who hold them. Or as Wikipedia puts it:

Memetics is the theory of mental content based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution, originating from the popularization of Richard Dawkins‘ 1976 book The Selfish Gene.[1] Proponents describe memetics as an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer.

The meme, analogous to a gene, was conceived as a “unit of culture” (an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc.) which is “hosted” in the minds of one or more individuals, and which can reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind. Thus what would otherwise be regarded as one individual influencing another to adopt a belief is seen as an idea-replicator reproducing itself in a new host. As with genetics, particularly under a Dawkinsian interpretation, a meme’s success may be due to its contribution to the effectiveness of its host.

Memetics is also notable for sidestepping the traditional concern with the truth of ideas and beliefs. Instead, it is interested in their success.[2]

In other words, “memes” (ideas) act like viruses or, as I wrote previously, “mitochondria.” (Note: unlike real viruses, most ideas you believe are probably beneficial.)

We like to think of ourselves as logical, rational beings who believe things because we’ve concluded that they make sense, but taking the example of religion, the idea that millions of people in North Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia, etc., have all independently and logically decided that there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet, every generation, for over a thousand years–and people in Europe have decided similarly that God is a Trinity, became man, and was sacrificed for your sins; people in India have believed that your soul can be reincarnated; and people in Central America once decided that the most logical thing was to rip people’s still-beating hearts out of their chests in order to keep the sun in the sky (I mean, sure, maybe the world won’t end even if we don’t sacrifice 400 virgins, but do you really want to take the chance?)–defies logic.

If we can look at religions as memeplexes–networks of interrelated ideas–that exist over time independent of the particular people who believe in them, we can similarly interrogate political ideologies. Like your religious beliefs (or non-belief,) your professed political ideology likely has a good deal to do with factors entirely outside of “logical thought,” like genetics, social class, or the region of the country you live in (otherwise it is strangely coincidental that the Deep South has been “conservative” relative to the rest of the country for hundreds of years.)

As we discussed in the previous Cathedral Round Up, You are the Hope of the World, what we see as “modern” Progressivism existed back in 1917. 1917 is not some special year–Progressivism actually began long before then, but we’re not tracing the idea’s history; you can get your fix of that from Moldbug.

Moldbug (and many others,) also suggests that Progressivism is really a religion, just stripped of the explicit references to God. Whether or not this is literally true, from a memetics perspective, both religions and political ideologies function similarly. As Jonas Kaplan states:

Perhaps this is due to some underlying aspect of human cognition or social structure, or perhaps successful memes all share certain features that enhance their spread and temporal persistence. Either way, we can productively use the same vocabulary and concepts to discuss both.

 

III. Most people recognize that cults exist and that cults are bad, but few people who are actually in cults believe that they are in a cult. As Boze Herrington notes in The Atlantic, The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult:

For three weeks, Hannah and I had been trying to contact leaders at [International House of Prayer; no relation to the restaurant] about a prayer group that we, Bethany, and many of our friends had been part of—a small, independent community that drew on IHOP’s teachings. In February, I had been formally excommunicated, and Hannah had left in June. Looking in from the outside, both of us saw the group differently than we had when we were part of it: We saw it as a cult.

Several years ago, the founder of IHOP, Mike Bickle, created a list of seven ways to recognize the difference between a religious community and a cult. Written down, the signs seem clear:

1. Opposing critical thinking
2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving
3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture
4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
5. Dishonoring the family unit
6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)
7. Separation from the Church

But when it’s your friends, your faith, your community, it’s not so obvious. For several years, roughly two dozen people, all younger than thirty, had been living together in Kansas City, Missouri, and following the leadership of Tyler Deaton, one of our classmates from Southwestern University in Texas. In the summer of 2012, Tyler had married Bethany; by the fall, she was dead. What started as a dorm-room prayer group had devolved into something much darker.

You can find many different definitions of “cult” out there; obviously “Crossing Biblical boundaries,” does not apply so much to political ideologies.

Reminder: some people actually think this way

Personally, I’d say that among the critical defining characteristics of cults:

  1. Cults teach people that their self-worth (the salvation of their souls, their essential goodness, etc.,) is dependent on adherence to the cult’s teachings
  2. They use of social ostracism to punish even slight deviation from a very rigid set of beliefs.
  3. They isolate their members from everyone outside the cult.

People who have been convinced to cut off contact with friends and family end up far more vulnerable to ostracism by the cult because they now have nowhere left to go nor anyone to help them if they leave.

If you were a real SJW, you’d pay $35 for this sweatshirt

Note, though, that there is no particular thing cultists need to believe, besides in the absoluteness of the cult. Memetically speaking, cults typically do not generate their own ideologies, but rather are metastisized versions of regular ones. Cults work, in part, because the people in them already believe in the importance of the basic ideas the cults are based on–there wouldn’t be much point in joining a cult you didn’t believe in.

Christian cults therefore draw in people who already believe in Christianity; New-Agey cults draw in people who believe in New-Agey sorts of things; Islamic cults draw in people who believe in Islam. This pre-existing belief primes people to believe the cult’s message, and also makes it hard to distinguish between the cult and regular, non-cultish believers of the same memeplex. The cult essentially hides behind the legitimacy of regular believers while simultaneously attacking them for being insufficiently rigorous in their beliefs.

Let’s take Marie Shear’s oft-repeated adage, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

Pretty much everyone agrees that women are people. I wager that even under the most female-oppressive regimes on Earth, the vast majority of people agree that women are “people,” not unicorns, glorified fungi, or inanimate objects. Talk to someone from Saudi Arabia, and they’ll tell you that their country is great for women, because they protect women from rape and sexual objectification.

(I have actually read an academic article arguing that female genital mutilation can be seen as pro-women in certain contexts.)

The quote’s appeal is two-fold: first, it implies that “feminism” is a mainstream belief because everyone who believes that women are people are feminists, and second, it implies that anyone who doesn’t identify as a feminist doesn’t believe that women are people. All sensible, right-thinking people, therefore, are clearly feminists–and feminists are sensible, right-thinking people.

In reality, though, we know that this is not a useful definition of feminism.

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex has helped popularize Nicholas Shackel’s phrase “Motte and Bailey doctrine” to refer to the practice of using an easily defended but not very useful (to the feminist) rhetorical position, eg, “Women are people” to protect a large swathe of much harder to defend but more useful positions, like “abortion should always be legal,” or “college campuses aren’t doing enough to prosecute rape.”

A motte-and-bailey is a kind of Medieval fortress in which an earthenwork tower (the motte) is used to defend a large field with a wall around it. The field is difficult to defend, but a good place for farming; the hill is easy to defend, but bad for farming.

Cults use this same technique to portray their beliefs as reasonable–things all good members of members of Group X believe, and aren’t you a good member of Group X?–while hiding their unreasonable beliefs and the harm they do to their members.

 

IV. You have probably already figured out that I think modern Social Justice Warrior ideology is effectively a cult.

Now, there are some folks around these parts who see any liberalism as dangerous or inevitably leading in a bad direction. I tend to see both “liberalism” and “conservatism” personality types, heavily influenced by genetics, independent of the particular politics of the day. A functional society benefits from the strengths of both types, so long as everyone is behaving themselves and not behaving like cult members out to crush any and all deviation from their particular version of the One True Truth.

In his post titled “Untitled,” Scott Alexander discusses feminists’ reaction to a comment by quantum computing genius Scott Aaronson. We’ll start with an excerpt from Aaronson’s original comment:

I check Feministing, and even radfem blogs like “I Blame the Patriarchy.” And yes, I’ve read many studies and task force reports about gender bias, and about the “privilege” and “entitlement” of the nerdy males that’s keeping women away from science. …

I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year. …

I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. … I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. …

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused…

To repeat my comment from the beginning of this post, if anything in this excerpt sounds like your real life, please get help immediately. THIS IS NOT EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY OR NORMAL.

People who are not familiar with modern feminism (this includes many of my liberal friends, who are too busy with jobs, kids, friends, etc., to keep up with the Outrage du Jour,) might feel tempted to write off Aaronson’s experience as just one weird guy’s absurd, abnormal reaction–surely normal people don’t become suicidal or try to castrate themselves after reading about microaggressions. After all, feminism is just the idea that women are people, right? Surely feminists, being reasonable people, reacted to Aaronson with the explanations he’d been looking for (or at least links to them) and some compassion for his suicidal state.

Alexander quotes famous feminist Amanda Marcotte’s response:

[Aaronson’s post] is the whole “how can men be oppressed when I don’t get to have sex with all the hot women that I want without having to work for it?” whine, one that, amongst other things, starts on the assumption that women do not suffer things like social anxiety or rejection…It was just a yalp of entitlement combined with an aggressive unwillingness to accept that women are human beings just like men. [He is saying that] “having to explain my suffering to women when they should already be there, mopping my brow and offering me beers and blow jobs, is so tiresome…I was too busy JAQ-ing off, throwing tantrums, and making sure the chip on my shoulder was felt by everyone in the room to be bothered to do something like listen.” Women are failing him by not showing up naked in his bed, unbidden. Because bitches, yo.

The eternal struggle of the sexist: Objective reality suggests that women are people, but the heart wants to believe they are a robot army put here for sexual service and housework.

Alexander notes, “Anyway, Marcotte was bad enough, given that she runs one of the most-read feminist blogs on the Internet. But much of the rest of the feminist “discussion” on Tumblr, Twitter, and the like was if anything even worse,” then discusses an article by Laurie Penny in New Statesman, called “On Nerd Entitlement: White Male Nerds Need To Recognize That Other People Had Traumatic Upbringings Too And That’s Different From Structural Oppression”:

Feminism is not to blame for making life hell for “shy, nerdy men”. It is a real shame that Aaronson picked up Andrea Dworkin rather than any of the many feminist theorists and writers who manage to combine raw rage with refusal to resort to sexual shame as an instructive tool. Weaponised shame – male, female or other – has no place in any feminism I subscribe to.

Alexander responds:

I live in a world where feminists throwing weaponized shame at nerds is an obvious and inescapable part of daily life. Whether we’re “mouth-breathers”, “pimpled”, “scrawny”, “blubbery”, “sperglord”, “neckbeard”, “virgins”, “living in our parents’ basements”, “man-children” or whatever the insult du jour is, it’s always, always, ALWAYS a self-identified feminist saying it. Sometimes they say it obliquely, referring to a subgroup like “bronies” or “atheists” or “fedoras” while making sure everyone else in nerddom knows it’s about them too. …

But it’s not just that. Try to look up something on Iron Man, and you get an article on Iron Man-Child and how “the white maleness of geek culture” proves they are “the most useless and deficient individuals in society, precisely because they have such a delusional sense of their own importance and entitlements.”…

Let’s recap, because this has gotten a little long. Aaronson states that he is “97%” on board with feminism, and explains that his 3% reservation is due to feminism making him feel suicidal for the sin of finding women attractive. Feminists respond with incredible cruelty. One feminist claims that in her universe, feminists aren’t cruel. Alexander responds, with evidence, that feminists are constantly cruel, at least toward people like him and Aaronson.

Ms. Penny, I’m pretty sure gaslighting and lying are also signs of being in a cult.

Just how bad is the left? And are they actually any worse than the right? Perhaps both sides just have their bad apples…

Trump supporter beaten by protestors
protester beaten with hammer by Black Lives Matter protesters
Trump supporter attacked by protesters

Ah, those happy college days!

And let’s not forget the recent violent riots at Berkley, which according to CNN caused $100,000 in damages, (mostly to innocent nearby businesses like refugee-supporting Starbucks,) nor the recent incident at Middlebury, in which a mob of students attempted to shut down a speech by Charles Murray and violently assaulted a professor, who ended up in the hospital:

The more exclusive the university, the richer and more liberal the students. The less exclusive, the poorer and more conservative. Ironically, it’s these elite students (who benefit most from “privilege”) who are violently opposing speakers in the name of “equality,” not conservatives at little podunk-Us.

Here’s an excerpt from Help-giving and moral courage on the Internet, by Suna P. Kinnunen1, Marjaana Lindeman2, Markku Verkasalo3:

(In other words, folks like Amanda Marcotte and the instigators of online Twitter mobs are probably sociopaths. The internet has created an environment where sociopathic behavior can thrive under the guise of “morally courageous action”)

So, to answer our question… No.

 

V. Here’s some more cultish material from the SJWs:

“Everybody to the right of us is literally Hitler.”

Dozens of media outlets all using the exact same language:

Meanwhile, one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country would like you to know that Super Mario Run is sexist and bad for children.

Yeah, there’s nothing at all creepy or harmful about preventing your children from consuming completely innocuous children’s media, cutting them off from the common cultural knowledge of their peer group.

Oh, and by the way, 1985 wasn’t some Dark Age of sexism–we are talking about the era of Great Britain’s first female Prime Minister, after all.

Meanwhile, from the “bodypositivists,” “we don’t understand how attraction works”:

Meanwhile, Ivy League University Penn is apparently a hotbed of racism:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And for students whose professors are insufficiently racist, SJWs have put together a handy guide to making family gatherings as unplesant as possible:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VI. Let’s have some conclusions.

Regardless of what you think of leftists in general–and I know many leftists who are basically good-hearted, well-intentioned people–the extreme left, born of academia and particularly active on the internet, works like a cult.

This is a difficult position to explain to someone who has not experienced it personally, or seen a loved one affected by it. During the long process by which this blog came to exist, I struggled to reconcile my own morality–my sense of myself as a “good person”–with the statistical data I was reading. How could a good person believe in statistical differences between groups in criminal offending rates, or measured IQ scores? Did merely believing such a thing make me a bad person?

I tended to keep such ideas to myself; far more innocuous statements in conversation with friends and acquaintances were often responded to with anger, threats, or explicit shunning. I lost most of my college-friends due to shunning, and I’ve had it far better than some.

Since abandoning my identity as a leftist, I’ve also abandoned the idea that my morality is based in believing the correct things. If tomorrow I discovered that there are no group-level differences in IQ or criminal behavior, this would change nothing about how I see myself. (In fact, I’d be perfectly pleased by such a discovery.) Rather, I see my morality in how I treat those around me–family, friends, random strangers I meet in everyday life.

When ideas spread because they are true or useful, they make life better. The Germ Theory of Disease has saved billions of lives. Belief in Santa Claus makes children happy, even if he isn’t real.

But sometimes ideas spread even though they fundamentally lack utility. The classic example of this is the chain letter, which people spread because it tells them to, even though it contains nothing of worth. The modern version of the chain letter are Facebook Memes that say things like, “99% of people don’t love Jesus enough to repost this meme” or “If you really love your relative with cancer, you’ll repost this meme,” or “90% of people can’t answer this simple math problem!” It’s easy to see how #activism slides into pure meme re-posting.

These sorts of memes are annoying but fairly harmless. It’s when memes mutate into ideologies that judge the essential goodness of their believers on their willingness to devote their lives to spreading the meme that they become dangerous. You end up with purity spirals that end in martyrdom–self-sacrifice for the spread of the meme. The spread of such ideas through society can be see, quite reasonably, as cancerous.

One final excerpt, from the LA Times:

Easy Nofemela remembers the evening Amy Biehl died. … a mob of angry young men was looking for symbols of white rule to destroy.

Then the men spotted Biehl, blond and blue-eyed, as she drove through the township in her yellow Mazda.

“Rocks were being thrown at Amy’s car. She got out and ran, and she was stabbed right over there,” Nofemela says, pointing to a patch of grass next to a service station, now planted with a small cross.

Nofemela remembers, 15 years later, because he was part of the mob that killed Amy Biehl.

What he didn’t know then was that Biehl was hardly a symbol of apartheid. She was a Fulbright scholar studying the lives of women in South Africa, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate with a plane ticket for home the next day, from an airport 10 minutes away. …

Today, Nofemela, a compact 37-year-old with a shaved head and a quick wit, is the father of a young girl. And, in an improbable tale of forgiveness and redemption, he and Ntobeko Peni, another of the men convicted of the murder, now work for the charity Biehl’s parents founded here after she was killed. …

An engaging woman of 65 with a blond bob and a warm smile, she has grown exceptionally close to her daughter’s killers. “Easy and Ntobeko are fascinating and I really do love them,” she says. “They have given me so much.”

Linda Biehl and her late husband, Peter, launched the Amy Biehl Foundation in 1994 with donations that arrived, unsolicited, from strangers moved by the news of their daughter’s death. Today, it runs after-school programs for youngsters in Guguletu and other townships and squatter camps that took root during the apartheid era on the Cape flats, about 10 miles east of Cape Town.

Guys, if anyone ever murders me, I encourage you to murder them back.

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Southern Election Data

Picture 13

Picture 8

(I divided the spreadsheet so it would fit comfortably on your screen.)

So I got curious about trends in the Southern election data, (see yesterday’s post on Northern election data and last week’s post about my migration/Civil War theory,) thinking to myself that perhaps an opposite trend happened in the South–maybe poor sods who couldn’t catch a break in slavery-dominated states decided to go test their luck on the frontier, leaving behind a remnant population of pro-slavery voters.

Methodology/discussion:

I took as the “South” all of the states south of the Mason-Dixon. This turned out to be incorrect for Delaware and Maryland, which both tended to vote against the Southern states; Delaware, IIRC, voted with Massachusetts more often than “Northern” New Jersey.

The practice of having the legislators rather than citizens vote for president persisted for longer in the South than in the North, especially in SC, which did not have popular voting until after the Civil War; all of SC’s votes here, therefore, come from the legislature.

A “yes” vote means the state voted with the Southern Block during the age before individual vote counts were recorded or the state did not allow individual voting. A “no” vote means the state voted against the Southern Block under the same circumstances.

Originally I had planned on using VA as my touchstone for determining the “Southern” candidates, but VA did not always vote with the rest of the South. So I decided which candidates were the “Southern” ones based primarily on how badly they polled in MA.

A few of the elections had some weird anomalies.

Four candidates ran in the 1824 election. Only one of them was popular in NE, so that was easy, but the other three each won electors in the South, which resulted in the election being decided by the House of Representatives. In this case, Jackson carried most of the Southern states, but not VA or KY, so I decided to count only votes for Jackson.

In 1832, SC decided to cast all of its votes for the “Nullification” (State’s Rights) party. Since “States Rights” is the more polite form of Civil War grievances, I decided to count this as SC voting in line with pro-slavery interests, even though it was not in line with the other Southern states.

In 28 and 32, the states of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama seem unsure how this “voting” thing works, and returned unanimous or near votes for their chosen candidates. Many Northern states also had anomalously high percents in those yeas, IIRC, so this may not be voter fraud so much as everyone just feeling like they ought to vote for the same guy.

In 1836, the Whigs ran four candidates in hopes of throwing the election to the House again, resulting in a fragmented Southern block. I counted all Whig candidates as part of the MA/Puritan side, and so give here the vote percents for Van Buren, the Democratic candidate.

In 1856, the Whig party had disintegrated, and two parties took its place. The Republicans, soon to be very famously anti-slavery, emerged in the North but do not appear to have run at all in the South; I don’t think they were even on the Southern ballots. In the South, an anti-immigrant/nativist party sprang up to balance the Democrats. It won few states, but performed well overall. I couldn’t decide whether to count the Democrats or the nativists as the more pro-South / pro-slavery party, so I wrote down both %s, Dems first and then nativists.

This oddity persists in 1860, when again the Republicans do not appear to have even been on the Southern ballots. The Democrats split in two, with one candidate running in the North against Lincoln, and another candidate running in the South on an explicitly pro-slavery platform, against the the “pro-union” party whose main platform was opposing the civil war. The Union party polled decently throughout the South–taking VA, KY, and Tenn.–but received very low %s in the North. The North, it appears, was not as concerned with trying to stop the Civil War as Virginia was.

Conclusions:

The data does not support my suspicion that less-slavery-minded people moved out of the Southern states. In fact, the most ardently pro-slavery, pro-secession states were Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas, who also happen to be the last 5 Southern states admitted to the Union, with last but not least Texas outstripping them all at 75%. In that same election, Virginia, the first Southern state, voted for the pro-union party.

So it looks like the same pattern appears here as in the Northern data: more conservative people have moved Westward.

However, the %s voting for the Southern candidates held fairly steady once the era of unanimous voting ended. Georgia, for example, went from 48% 1836 in to 49% in 1860. Mississippi went from 59% to 59%. VA hovered around 55%-50% until the last election. So I don’t see any clear trend of coastal states becoming more liberal over time, aside from maybe VA.

The “Other” is but a Foil for the Self

The “other”, somewhat by definition, is not someone you are particularly well-acquainted with. This is not generally a matter of malice–there are about 7.5 billion people in this world, and you’re only capable of really getting to know a couple hundred, at best. Even if you spent years of your life living in different countries, you’d still only manage to sample a small selection of the world’s people. For better or worse, most people out there are strangers.

People profess to care a lot about strangers. In a recent example, lots of people who aren’t gay and do not live in Indiana or run bakeries became very worried about laws affecting gay people and bakeries in Indiana. Your particular opinion on the subject is, I’m sure, absolutely the correct one, but that’s beside my point–the point is, it’s highly unlikely that you, the reader of this post, are actually affected by the legislation or even know anyone who is, just because the chances that you live in Indiana and are a baker or are gay are low. Your opinions are basically in support of (or against) someone else–total strangers.

There are three reasons to be skeptical of just about any conversation that hinges heavily on professed interest in the well-being of strangers:

1. Low information: We aren’t there; we aren’t on the ground; we don’t know these people and what they’re really going through. We’re getting our information second or third or more-hand. There is always a good chance that we are completely wrong.

2. No negative impact from being wrong: If I advocate for a water-conservation strategy for California that turns out to be totally wrong, Californians will suffer, not me. If I advocate a bad foreign policy position, foreigners will suffer, not me. If I advocate for laws that harm people or businesses in Indiana, I remain unharmed.

3. People don’t really care about strangers: Most people care deeply about their close friends and family, their pets, and some groups they identify with, like “Harley riders,” “Linux users,” or Muslims. They don’t actually care that much about strangers. The average American, for example, spends more money feeding cats than feeding starving children in Africa.

All of which means that even the best-intentioned people are often completely wrong, and factors other than rationally constructed, reasonably cautious, genuine concern for others tends to motivate us without us even noticing.

The myth of the “Noble Savage” is a fine example. It is generally credited to Rousseau, though probably someone else thought of the idea before he did, but the idea didn’t really gain too much currency while Euros while still busy killing “savages.” Other or not, you’re unlikely to be inclined to romanticize people you’re killing, and some folks–headhunters, cannibals, the Aztecs, King Gezo of the Benin Empire–were actually pretty horrifying. The notion that life in the “state of nature” was “nasty, brutish, and short,” had a lot of merit.

Still, neither Hobbes nor Rousseau (nor Locke) was actually advocating policies meant to affect “savages”; they utilize notions of the primitive “other” to advocate policies for their own societies.

Between lurid tales of head-hunting cannibals and depictions of dire, third-world poverty, it is pretty easy to see how people used these ideas to boost notions of Euro-exceptionalism and justify slavery, colonialism, war, and other horrors.

After WWII, people were justly pretty horrified at Euros and stopped believing Euro culture was all that–noble, enlightened Europeans looked just as bad as everybody else on the planet, except that now some of us were armed with nukes instead of pointy sticks and rocks, which is a pretty worrying situation.

So the savages got re-written. Anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, even commercials urging people not to litter began pushing the new narrative that non-Euros were, to put it plainly, better than Euros. American Indians became spiritual curators of nature; stone-age people became peaceful matriarchists; ethnographies were written portraying hunter-gatherer tribes as bastions of non-violent cooperation.

Many of the new narratives were total, factual nonsense. Indians don’t have an exceptional environmental record (though they did historically lack the tech and density levels to do too much damage.) There was no universal stone-age matriarchy. And most hunter-gatherers actually have pretty high murder rates.

But that’s all beside the point; that was never the point. No one wrote ethnographies about the Bushmen with the intention of somehow affecting the Bushmen (who couldn’t read them, anyway.) The point of all these stories is to change the self; to influence one’s own society to rise to the level of these mythic, noble savages.

This is the purpose of most myths: to instruct people in proper morality and inspire them to behave well. Done well, myths probably aren’t particularly problematic.

There are some problems to watch out for, though:

1. The “other” isn’t actually mythic. They are real people, and claiming total nonsense about them can have real effects on them (good or bad).
2. A mythos of self-hate can do actual harm to yourself/the people you were trying to inspire to be better.
3. I have an irrational affection for honesty.

(I suppose, 4. Saying really incorrect things about other people can make you sound dumb, but this is a minor issue.)

A lot of our tribal signaling (ie, “politics”) is conducted via expressing opinions about the other. Homosexuality, as previously referenced, is a good example of this; gay folks are only about 3% of the population (and gay people who want to get married are an even smaller %,) so most people expressing opinions on the subject don’t actually know that many gay people. If they turn out to be wrong, well, it’s not them and it’s not their friends, so there’s not that much incentive to be correct. But if socially signalling group membership is of direct benefit to the individual (which it generally is,) then people will signal group membership by saying whatever is useful to say about others–and reality be damned.

A complicating wrinkle of uncomplicating insight via two images:

So I happened to be browsing Stanford Magazine, and happened across two articles immediately in a row on religious issues. Each had a picture:

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The contrast between the level of respect for the religion/religious believers in question really couldn’t be starker.

The respectable lady is Jane Shaw, Stanford’s new Dean of Religious life, notable for being both the first woman to hold the position and the first gay person. A few quotes from her article:

“Q. At Grace Cathedral and at Oxford, you led programs far afield from what might be considered religious: Hosting forums with politicians, activists and authors; bringing in atheists and believers; and commissioning artists-in-residence to create plays and installations. What’s your guiding light?

A. I don’t think I am a very churchy person, if that makes sense. I have always been interested in how you engage people in discussing questions of ultimate meaning, really—values, ethics, spirituality, all that stuff.

Q. But do you also value the “churchy” side of faith?

A. Ritual and liturgy? I love it.

Q. What new directions will you bring to Stanford?

A. …It is certainly my desire to make sure that Memorial Church is a place for extremely lively intellectual engagement, a place where possibly difficult issues can be discussed, a place where ethical and spiritual issues can be discussed. I am hoping we’ll have different sorts of people preaching here as guest preachers, not just clergy.”

The second photo is most likely a van owned by an unmedicated schizophrenic. You’d be forgiven if you therefore assumed the second article had something to do with mental illness.

It’s actually an interview with Stanford alum Kathryn Gin Lum about her new book, “Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction.”

Right. So whoever put the picture on this article equates the faith of the Founding Fathers (and many Americans today) with literal mental illness.

To be clear, Lum herself does not appear to be condescending toward the people/beliefs she studied, but her interview reveals that respect for the views of 60% of Americans is not common in our nation’s most respected centers of academic thought:

“Separate from any personal considerations, hell seemed to offer the best intellectual grist. ‘People in the academy,’ says Lum, tend to dismiss the notion that any consideration of hell could drive ‘how rational people think.'”

“Does hell have contemporary relevance, despite its lousy reputation in higher education?

“Strongly, thinks Lum. Much of her analysis highlights the connection between ‘people who believe in hell’ and their impulse ‘to damn other people to it.’ It’s that sensibility about calling out the world’s evils, says Lum, that suffuses today’s hot-button issues, including abortion and same-sex marriage.”

(Note that whatever insights she may have about rational people who believe in hell, or any potential good sides to the belief, the article does not mention them. It only mentions the ways in which people who believe in hell are problematic for the rest of the country. Those darn hell-believers, mucking things up for everyone else.)

“Writing about hell’s pertinence, Lum notes in her epilogue, ‘is to invite raised eyebrows.’ Her interest in the subject, she adds, has stirred reactions like ‘But you look so well-adjusted!'”

All right, so let’s review:

According to Stanford, a gay woman who isn’t very “churchy” but likes discussing ethics is one of the country’s best religious leaders, and the 60% of Americans who believe in Hell are literally insane and make trouble for everyone else.

One set of religious views is respected. The other is not.

Now, let’s try to imagine a contemporary article from any sort of respectable college or university (not one of the ones that make you mutter and stare at your feet while admitting that one of your relations was interested in the school,) that conveys the inverse: respect for people who believe in hell; disrespect for gays, women, and people whose faith isn’t based on Biblical inerrancy.

Can you? Maybe Harvard? Yale? Oberlin? CalTech? Reed? Fine, how about BYU? No, probably not even them.

I can’t imagine it. A hundred years ago, maybe. Today, no. Such notions are completely incompatible with the beliefs of modern, upper-class people.

I know many perfectly decent folks who believe in hell, and think they should be respected, but “be decent to people who hold denigrated religious beliefs” is not actually my point. My point is that the American upper class, academia, and the people with a great deal of power and influence over the beliefs of others clearly agrees with Pastor Shaw’s religious beliefs (when it is not outright atheist). Upper-class liberals in America are their own ethnic group with their own religion, culture, morality, and endogamous breeding habits. Conservatives are the out-group, their religious views openly mocked by the upper class and banned from the halls of academic thought.

Thing is, we happen to live, more or less, in a democracy.

One of the intended effects of democracy is that even groups with no real power can still express themselves via voting. If you have the numbers and bother to go to the polls, you can get someone in who more or less kinda sorta might represent your views.

As a result, even though conservatives are low-class and not cultural or intellectual movers and shakers, they can still influence who gets to be president or in Congress, and thus pass laws on things like abortion and stem cell research.

As a result, a group that has very little power in real life may end up with a fair amount via elections.

Think of it as a for of political power redistribution.

Has Australia gone Totally Nuts?

Is having a loving family an unfair advantage? from ABC Radio National–the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Or is it just philosophers?

Western moral philosophy is completely broken because “academics” do not understand the basics of how morality works.

Normal people understand morality. People who were dropped on their heads as infants generally understand morality. Philosopher Adam Smith, however, thinks,

‘What we realised we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children’.

The test they devised was based on what they term ‘familial relationship goods’; those unique and identifiable things that arise within the family unit and contribute to the flourishing of family members.

For Swift, there’s one particular choice that fails the test.

‘Private schooling cannot be justified by appeal to these familial relationship goods,’ he says. ‘It’s just not the case that in order for a family to realise these intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships you need to be able to send your child to an elite private school.’

“I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally,”

Jesus effin’ Christ, this guy is an idiot.

Of course, anyone who studies inequality and sets themselves up as an expert on the issue and says things like, “I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families,” is an idiot. We have studies on these nifty people called “identical twins” and what happens when they are adopted by two different families and raised in different environments.

What happens is not very much. Within the normal range of parenting (like, not beating your children and locking them in the closet,) measurable life outcomes like criminality, IQ, income, etc., have more to do with the kids’ genes than with their adoptive parents’ parenting.

(Where parenting probably does matter is how much your kids like you. If you’re a jerk to them, they probably won’t call you very often.)

So, no, inequality is not caused by people reading bedtime books to their kids. It’s not caused by sending them to private school, and parents sure as hell don’t need philosophers to come up with complicated theories to justify being nice to their kids, because normal people don’t suffer these delusions.

“According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.

‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’”

Riiiight. Remember, you pay actual money to send your kids to university so they can be taught by these people.

“‘When we talk about parents’ rights, we’re talking about the person who is parenting the child. How you got to be parenting the child is another issue. One implication of our theory is that it’s not one’s biological relation that does much work in justifying your rights with respect to how the child is parented.’

For Swift and Brighouse, our society is curiously stuck in a time warp of proprietorial rights: if you biologically produce a child you own it.”

This is because most humans would knife you before letting you take their children away from them, because the instinct to take care of our children is a basic biological drive honed by thousands of years of evolution. Morality is an evolved instinct for taking care of our children. If you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand morality, though you might get by simply by listening to the collective wisdom of thousands of generations of your ancestors who managed to successfully raise children.

“Then, does the child have a right to be parented by her biological parents? Swift has a ready answer.

‘It’s true that in the societies in which we live, biological origins do tend to form an important part of people’s identities, but that is largely a social and cultural construction. So you could imagine societies in which the parent-child relationship could go really well even without there being this biological link.’”

I am normally a peaceful person, but this guy actually inspires a deep, burning hatred, but that might just be my fear that this guy is going to try to kidnap my children speaking.

Rights are a social construct. Ethnicity is kind of a construct, and kind of a biological reality. Identifying with and getting along with one’s parents is based entirely in reality. It has to do with things like “are my parents jerks?” and “Do my parents understand me?”

So let me tell you a little secret of some relevance: I was adopted. My adoptive family was very loving and very kind. I am now, as an adult, in contact with my biological family, from whom I was, shall we say, unjustly removed. My biological family is also very loving and kind. No one here was jerkfaces; I am grateful to everyone.

I have a much, much stronger connection with the biological family I only met as an adult than I have with the adoptive family that actually raised me. I can’t help it. These people are like me in deep, fundamental ways. They have the same or similar hobbies as I do. They struggle with similar problems. They reason about the world in the same ways. We have instant shortcuts to understanding each other.

So, even though my adoptive family was super-loving and awesome and I love them and so on, the idea of trying to run a whole society like this, the idea of depriving everyone in society of that basic instinctual connection with the people around them that you non-adopted people don’t even realize you have, is kind of horrifying.