If epigenetics does introduce scientific novelties to the conventional understanding of biology, then according to the model it also has equally significant ethical and political implications.
What responsibility do I–as an egg-bearing person–have to ensure the health of my children and grandchildren’s epigenenomes? Society affirms my right to smoke cigarettes, even though they may give me cancer down the road–it’s my body and I am allowed to do what I wish with it. But what if my smoking cigarettes today causes cancer in a future, as yet unborn grandchild whom I never meet? What about her right to chose not to be exposed to carcinogens? Who am I to take that from her–and what right has society, the government, or anyone else to tell me what I may or may not do with my own body in the interests of some future people who may never come into existence?
I am summarizing, perhaps badly; you may read the whole post over on Dr. Robison’s blog. (Of course Robison is himself trying to summarize an argument I am sure he lays out in much more detail in his book.)
Here is my hastily written response, in the interest of clear conversational threading:
I’m not sure epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental shift in our understandings of genetics and inheritance as to actually warrant much change in our present policies. For example, you question whether policies should be enacted to restrict a 12 yr old girl’s right to eat what she wishes in defense of her unborn grandchild’s epigenome, but we today don’t even restrict a pregnant woman’s right to drink or smoke. Cocaine is illegal, but last time I checked, women didn’t go to prison for giving birth to crack babies. For that matter, women are allowed to kill unborn babies. I’m not commenting pro or against abortion, just noting that it is legal and most people consider death kind of a big deal. So I don’t think society is about to start outlawing stuff because of its negative effects two generations down the road.
On the other hand, if you look at the data on smoking, rates have definitely been falling ever since the tobacco-cancer link became news. The gov’t didn’t have to outlaw smoking for a lot of women to stop smoking for their children’s health.
But let’s return to the philosophical argument. All men are created equal… or are they? I do not think the Founding Fathers ever meant equality in a genetic sense. They could see with their own eyes that some men were tall and others short, some wise and others foolish, some virtuous and others criminal. They could see see that sons and daughters took after their parents and that a great many people started life in horribly unfair circumstances while others lived in luxury. They could see the cruel unfairness of disease, disability, and early death. Their rejection was not of biological or factual inequalities but of spiritual inequality. They rejected the notion that some men are created special by God to rule over others, and some men are created inferior by God, to be ruled over.
You state, “However, the evidence emerging from epigenetics suggests this is not the case. Instead of individuals of each generation being born with a pristine copy of their biological essence, they are inheriting a genetic endowment riddled with markers of the experiences of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. And these inherited epigenetic markers, as more and more research is showing, are having direct effects on the physical and mental health of individuals from causes not actually experienced by these individuals.”
I think there is a mistake here in regarding genetics as “pristine” in some form. What if my mother is an anxious person, and I, through environmental exposure, grow into a similarly anxious person? What if my mother has a gene for anxiety, and I inherit it? What if I possess a de novo genetic mutation that causes me to be anxious? And what if I suffer a genetic deletion in one of my chromosomes that causes anxiety? How is any of this different, functionally, from some trauma my mother suffered (say, a car accident) causing epigenetic changes that are subsequently passed on to me?
What is pristine about Down’s Syndrome, Williams’, or Klinefelter’s? Or just having the random bad luck to get genes for short, dumb, and ugly?
“For example, research in epigenetics shows that the choices and experiences of individuals in one generation are conditioning the basic nature of individuals of subsequent generations, which indelibly affects how those new individuals will exercise their own rights. ”
It can’t be indelible. For starters, you only inherit half of each parent’s genome–thus half their epigenome. So right there’s a 50% chance you won’t inherit any particular epigenetic marker. By gen two we’re talking 25% chance, and that’s not counting the constant re-writing of our epigenomes. However, I don’t think the policy implications for countries are all that different from our current thinking. We can say, for example, “If we have X level of pollution in the water, then Y number of people will get cancer,” and it’s a public health problem even if we don’t know “they’ll get cancer because of epigenetics.”
So let’s broaden the inquiry a bit. Not how does epigenetics impact classical liberalism (which is behind us, anyway,) but how do genetics, epigenetics, heritability, et at all influence our modern sensibilities? Modern liberalism is built almost as a reaction against former racialist notions of “blood”, with a consequent belief that people are, on average, about genetically equal. This butts up against the realization that some people are gifted and talented from birth, which many people quietly rationalize away while knowing they are being a bit dishonest, perhaps on the grounds that this is tantamount to statistical noise.
But the whole notion of “meritocracy” becomes more problematic if we admit that there’s a large genetic (or accidental, or environmental, or anything outside of free will,) contribution to IQ, educational attainment, mental illness, your chances of getting a good job, how other people treat you (because of attractiveness,) etc. Should a person who is dumb through no fault of their own suffer poverty? Should an ugly person be denied a job or a date? There’s an essential unfairness to it, after all.
But by the same token, what are you going to do about it? Declare that everyone under a certain IQ gets free money? What sort of incentives does that set up for society? And what does it do to someone’s self-image if they are Officially Delcared Stupid?
But this is all focused on the negative. What if we find ways to make people smarter, healthier, stronger? I think we’d take them. Sure, we’d have a few hold-outs who worry about “playing god,” (much as today we have people who worry about vaccines despite the massive health improvements public vaccination campaigns have cause.) But in the end we’d take them. Similarly, in the end, I think most people would try to avoid damaging their descendants’ epigenomes–even if not through direct public policy.
Addendum: while I am skeptical of most claims about epigenetics, eg, people claiming that epigenetic trauma can be transmitted for over a century, there do seem to be some things that cause what we can here characterize as multi-generational epigenetic effects. For example, the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages back in the 70s, not only causes cancer in the women it was given to, but also in their daughters. (It also results in intersex disorders in male fetuses.) In the third generation (that is, the sons daughters of the fetuses that were exposed to DES their mothers took during pregnancy,) there are still effects, like an increased risk of irregular periods. This is not necessarily “epigenetic” but similar enough to include in the conversation.
Homo sapiens is about 200-300,000 years old, depending on exactly where you draw the line between us and our immediate ancestors. Printing (and eventually mass literacy) only got going about 550 years ago, with the development of the Gutenberg press. TV, radio, movies, and the internet only became widespread within the past century, and internet in the past 25 years.
In other words, for 99.99% of human history, “mass media” didn’t exist.
How did illiterate peasants learn about the world, if not from books, TV, or Youtube videos? Naturally, from each other: parents passed knowledge to children; tribal elders taught their wisdom to other members of their tribes; teenagers were apprenticed to masters who already knew a trade, etc.
A hundred years ago, if you wanted to know how to build a wagon, raise a barn, or plant corn, you generally had to find someone who knew how to do so and ask them. Today, you ask the internet.
Getting all of your information from people you know is limiting, but it has two advantages: you can easily judge whether the source of your information is reliable, (you’re not going to take farming advice from your Uncle Bob whose crops always fail,) and most of the people giving you information have your best interests at heart.
The internet’s strength is that it lets us talk to people from outside our own communities; it’s weakness is that this makes it much easier for people (say, Nigerian princes with extra bank accounts,) to get away with lying. They also have no particular interest one way or another in your survival–unlike your parents.
In a mitochondrial memetic environment (that is, an environment where you get most of your information from relatives,) memes that could kill you tend to get selected against: parents who encourage their children to eat poison tend not to have grandchildren. From an evolutionary perspective, deadly memes are selected against in a mitochondrial environment; memes will evolve to support your survival.
By contrast, in a viral meme environment, (that is, an environment where ideas can easily pass from person to person without anyone having to give birth,) your personal survival is not all that important to the idea’s success.
So one of the risks of viral memes is getting scammed: memetically, infected by an idea that sounds good but actually benefits someone else at your expense.
In the mitochondrial environment, we expect people to be basically cautious; in the viral, less cautious.
Suppose we have two different groups (Group A and Group B) interacting. 25% of Group B is violent criminals, versus 5% of Group A. Folks in group A would quite logically want to avoid Group B. But 75% of Group B is not violent criminals, and would logically not want to be lumped in with criminals. (For that matter, neither do the 25% who are.)
In an ideal world, we could easily sort out violent criminals from the rest of the population, allowing the innocent people to freely associate. In the real world, we have to make judgment calls. Lean a bit toward the side of caution, and you exclude more criminals, but also more innocents; lean the opposite direction and innocent people have an easier time finding jobs and houses, but more people get killed by criminals.
Let’s put it less abstractly: suppose you are walking down a dimly-lit street at night and see a suspicious looking person coming toward you. It costs you almost nothing to cross the street to avoid them, while not crossing the street could cost you your life. The person you avoided, if they are innocent, incurs only the expense of potentially having their feelings hurt; if they are a criminal, they have lost a victim.
Companies also want to avoid criminals, which makes it hard for ex-cons to get jobs (which is an issue if we want folks who are no longer in prison to have an opportunity to earn an honest living besides going on welfare.) Unfortunately, efforts to improve employment chances for ex-cons by preventing employers from inquiring directly about criminal history have resulted in employers using rougher heuristics to exclude felons, like simply not hiring young African American males. Since most companies have far more qualified job applicants than available jobs, the cost to them of excluding young African American males is fairly low–while the cost to African Americans is fairly high.
One of the interesting things about the past 200 years is the West’s historically unprecedented shift from racial apartheid/segregation and actual race-based slavery to full legal (if not always de facto) racial integration.
One of the causes of this shift was doubtless the transition from traditional production modes like farming and horticulture to the modern, industrial economy. Subsistence farming didn’t require a whole lot of employees. Medieval peasants didn’t change occupations very often: most folks ended up working in the same professions as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (usually farming,) probably even on the same estate.
It was only with industrialization that people and their professions began uncoupling; a person could now hold multiple different jobs, in different fields, over the span of years.
Of course, there were beginnings of this before the 1800s–just as people read books before the 1800s–but accelerating technological development accelerated the trends.
But while capitalists want to hire the best possible workers for the lowest possible wages, this doesn’t get us all the way to the complete change we’ve witnessed in racial mores. After all, companies don’t want to hire criminals, either, and any population that produces a lot of criminals tends not to produce a whole lot of really competent workers.
However, the rise of mass communication has allowed us to listen to and empathize with far more people than ever before. When Martin Luther King marched on Washington and asked to be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, his request only reached national audiences because of modern media, because we now live in a society of meme viruses. And it worked: integration happened.
Also, crime went up dramatically:
While we’re at it:
Integration triggered a massive increase in crime, which only stopped because… well, we’re not sure, but a corresponding massive increase in the incarceration rate (and sentences) has probably stopped a lot of criminals from committing additional crimes.
Most of these homicides were black on black, but plenty of the victims were white, even as they sold their devalued homes and fled the violence. (Housing integration appears to have struck America’s “ethnic” neighborhoods of Italians, Irish, and Jews particularly hard, destroying coherent communities and, I assume, voting blocks.)
From the white perspective, integration was tremendously costly: people died. Segregation might not be fair, it might kill black people, but it certainly prevented the murder of whites. But segregation, as discussed, does have some costs for whites: you are more limited in all of your transactions, both economic and personal. You can’t sell your house to just anyone you want. Can’t hire anyone you want. Can’t fall in love with anyone you want.
But obviously segregation is far more harmful to African Americans.
Despite all of the trouble integration has caused for whites, the majority claim to believe in it–even though their feet tell a different story. This at least superficial change in attitudes, I believe, was triggered by the nature of the viral memetic environment.
Within the mitochondrial meme environment, you listen to people who care about your survival and they pass on ideas intended to help you survive. They don’t typically pass on ideas that sacrifice your survival for the sake of others, at least not for long. Your parents will tell you that if you see someone suspicious, you should cross the street and get away.
In the viral environment, you interact far more with people who have their own interests in mind, not yours, and these folks would be perfectly happy for you to sacrifice your survival for their sake. The good folks at Penn State would like you to know that locking your car door when a black person passes by is a “microaggression:”
Former President Obama once said in his speech that he was followed when he was shopping in a store, heard the doors of cars locked as he was walking by, and a woman showed extremely nervousness as he got on an elevator with him (Obama, 2013). Those are examples of nonverbal microaggressions. It is disturbing to learn that those behaviors are often automatic that express “put-downs” of individuals in marginalized groups (Pierce et al., 1977). What if Obama were White, would he receive those unfair treatments?
(If Obama were white, like Hillary Clinton, he probably wouldn’t have been elected president.)
For some reason, black people shoplifting, carjacking, or purse-snatching are never described as “microaggressions;” a black person whose feelings are hurt has been microaggressed, but a white person afraid of being robbed or murdered has not been.
This post was actually inspired by an intra-leftist debate:
Shortly after the highly successful African-star-studded movie Black Panther debuted, certain folks, like Faisal Kutty, started complaining that the film is “Islamophobic” because of a scene where girls are rescued from a Boko Haram-like organization.
Never mind that Boko Haram is a real organization, that it actually kidnaps girls, that it has killed more people than ISIS and those people it murders are Africans. Even other Black African Muslims think Boko Haram is shit. (Though obviously BH has its supporters.)
Here we have two different groups of people with different interests: one, Muslims with no particular ties to Africa who don’t want people to associate them with Boko Haram, and two, Black Muslims who don’t want to get killed by folks like Boko Haram.
It is exceedingly disingenuous for folks like Faisal Kutty to criticize as immoral an accurate portrayal of a group that is actually slaughtering thousands of people just because he might accidentally be harmed by association. More attention on Boko Haram could save lives; less attention could result in more deaths–the dead just wouldn’t be Kutty, who is safe in Canada.
Without mass media, I don’t think this kind of appeal works: survival memes dominate and people take danger very seriously. “Some stranger in Canada might be inconvenienced over this” loses to “these people slaughter children.” With mass media, the viral environment allows appeals to set aside your own self-interest and ignore danger in favor of “fairness” and “equality” for everyone in the conversation to flourish.
So far this post has focused primarily on the interests of innocent people, but criminals have interests, too–and criminals would like you to make it easier for them to commit crime.
Simon Mol (6 November 1973 in Buea, Cameroon – 10 October 2008) was the pen name of Simon Moleke Njie, a Cameroon-born journalist, writer and anti-racist political activist. In 1999 he sought political asylum in Poland; it was granted in 2000, and he moved to Warsaw, where he became a well-known anti-racist campaigner. …
In 2005 he organized a conference with Black ambassadors in Poland to protest the claims in an article in Wiedza i Życie by Adam Leszczyński about AIDS problems in Africa, which quoted research stating that a majority of African women were unable to persuade their HIV positive husbands to wear condoms, and so later got caught HIV themselves. Mol accused Leszczyński of prejudice because of this publication. …
Honorary member of the British International Pen Club Centre.
In 2006 Mol received the prestigious award “Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression”.
In February 2006, further to his partner’s request for him to take an HIV test, Mol declined and published a post on his blog explaining why not:
Character assassination isn’t a new phenomenon. However, it appears here the game respects no rules. It wouldn’t be superfluous to state that there is an ingrained, harsh and disturbing dislike for Africans here. The accusation of being HIV positive is the latest weapon that as an African your enemy can raise against you. This ideologically inspired weapon, is strengthened by the day with disturbing literature about Africa from supposed-experts on Africa, some of whom openly boast of traveling across Africa in two weeks and return home to write volumes. What some of these hastily compiled volumes have succeeded in breeding, is a social and psychological conviction that every African walking the street here is supposedly HIV positive, and woe betide anyone who dares to unravel the myth being put in place.
On the 3rd of January 2007 Mol was taken into custody by the Polish police and charged with infecting his sexual partners with HIV. …
According to the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, he was diagnosed with HIV back in 1999 while living in a refugee shelter, but Polish law does not force an HIV carrier to reveal his or her disease status.
According to the police inspector who was investigating his case, a witness stated that Mol refused to wear condoms during sex. An anonymous witness in one case said that he accused a girl who demanded he should wear them that she was racist because as he was Black she thought he must be infected with HIV. After sexual intercourse he used to say to his female partners that his sperm was sacred.
In an unusual move, his photo with an epidemiological warning, was ordered to be publicly displayed by the then Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro. MediaWatch, a body that monitors alleged racism, quickly denounced this decision, asserting that it was a breach of ethics with racist implications, as the picture had been published before any court verdict. They saw it as evidence of institutional racism in Poland, also calling for international condemnation. …
After police published Mol’s photo and an alert before the start of court proceedings, Warsaw HIV testing centers were “invaded by young women”. A few said that they knew Mol. Some of the HIV tests have been positive. According to the police inspector who had been monitoring the tests and the case: “Some women very quickly started to suffer drug-resistant tonsillitis and fungal infections. They looked wasted, some lost as many as 15 kilograms and were deeply traumatized, impeding us taking the witness statements. 18 additional likely victims have been identified thereby”. Genetic tests of the virus from the infectees and Simon proved that it was specific to Cameroon.
In other words, Simon Mol was a sociopath who used the accusation of “racism” to murder dozens of women.
Criminals–of any race–are not nice people. They will absolutely use anything at their disposal to make it easier to commit crime. In the past, they posed as police officers, asked for help finding their lost dog, or just rang your doorbell. Today they can get intersectional feminists and international human rights organizations to argue on their behalf that locking your door or insisting on condoms is the real crime.
Politico recently ran an article titled “What if you could get your own immigrant?” which was so terrible, I don’t even know where to begin. (Even they now realize their headline was atrocious, so they changed it to “Sponsor an immigrant yourself”.)
Politico wants to know: why do only corporations get to sponsor immigrants? Why not individuals? What’s so good about companies that they get special rights that we mere plebian humans don’t? That’s not a terrible question, but then they rip off the mask of decency and show their complete misunderstanding of, well, everything:
Right now, special classes of citizens—mostly corporations (and in practice, big corporations) and family members—can sponsor temporary or permanent migrants, benefiting shareholders mainly, as well as ethnic enclaves.
This system should be wiped away and replaced with a system of citizenship sponsorship for immigrants that we call a Visas Between Individuals Program. Under this new system, all citizens would have the right to sponsor a migrant for economic purposes.
Here’s how the program would work: Imagine a woman named Mary Turner, who lives in Wheeling, West Virginia. She was recently laid off from a chicken-processing plant and makes ends meet by walking and taking care of her neighbors’ pets. Mary could expand her little business by hiring some workers, but no one in the area would accept a wage she can afford. Mary goes online—to a new kind of international gig economy website, a Fiverr for immigrants—and applies to sponsor a migrant. She enters information about what she needs: someone with rudimentary English skills, no criminal record and an affection for animals. She offers a room in her basement, meals and $5 an hour. (Sponsors under this program would be exempt from paying minimum wage.) The website offers Mary some matches—people living in foreign countries who would like to spend some time in the United States and earn some money. After some back and forth, Mary interviews a woman named Sofia who lives in Paraguay.
In no particular order:
1. Mary is not an “individual” in this scenario, she is a small business owner looking to hire employees, so we are right back at square one: a company hiring immigrants. Now, maybe Mary hasn’t filed all of the paperwork to become a proper corporation–in which case she is running tremendous legal risks.
Look, corporations don’t exist because someone needed to split the cost of a big building. They exist to minimize the legal risks to individuals from running a business.
Corporations enjoy what is called “limited liability.” This means that while a corporation can be sued for all it is worth, the corporation’s owners get to keep whatever money they have in their personal bank accounts. If Donald Trump’s hotels get sued for, say, hiring discrimination, they can go bankrupt, go out of business, and get converted into very tall waterslides by a new round of developers, but the money in Donald Trump’s personal wallet is untouchable. (Which is why Trump is still wealthy after numerous bankruptcies.)
If Mary is just an individual and not a corporation, she bears personal liability for anything she or her employees do. For example, if a client’s prize-winning akita chokes on a chew toy and dies while at doggy daycare, she can be personally sued for the full $15,000 her clients paid for the pooch. If Sophia crashes the company car while on the way to a client’s house to pick up a dog, totaling another car in the process and putting a four year old girl in the hospital with crushed femurs and a punctured lung, Mary will be sued for every last penny while Sophia skips bail and hightails it out of the country.
In other words, once your small business is at the point where you are looking to hire employees and wondering how to do payroll taxes, you should be filling out that incorporation paperwork for your own benefit. “What if we let people who haven’t incorporated their small businesses and so face a lot more legal risks personally sponsor immigrants for economic gain?” is not good logic.
2. Dog walking business in West Virginia. Let me repeat that: Dog. Walking. Business. In. West. Virginia.
Yeah, after the chicken processing plant laid off all of its workers, apparently Mary’s neighbors discovered that they had tons of cash lying round just waiting to be spent on luxuries for their pets.
(Clarification for the stupid: normal West Virginians either walk their own dogs or just let them poop in the backyard. Professional dog-walkers are a New York thing, where urbanites assuage their guilt about leaving their surrogate children alone in tiny apartments for 14 hours a day while they file biglaw briefs by hiring other people to actually care for them.)
3. Mary is already barely making ends meet at an extremely low-income job that not many of her neighbors need done with zero barriers to entry, and her idea for making more money is to find someone who can live on even less income than herself? Is Sophia expected to eat in this scenario? Don’t forget that you now have to keep track of payroll taxes and deductions–most businesses hire a payroll service to do this for them, because legal compliance is tricky and doing it incorrectly can get you into very expensive trouble with the IRS.
4. If Sophia can make enough to live on, why would she give Mary any of the money? It’s not like dog walking is a complicated business that requires a professional to handle all of the client information. Sophia can just negotiate with the clients herself and give Mary nothing.
5. Oh, wait, Sophia lives in Mary’s basement and is required to give Mary the money she makes? We have a word for that: SLAVERY.
No, really, that actually happened under slavery. People who didn’t have slaves or needed a worker with a particular skill that a slave happened to have would hire slaves from the people who had them. The slaves received a certain amount of wages, most of which went to the owner but a certain percent of which went to the slaves themselves, who could save up money for pleasant things like new clothes or freedom.
Here’s a quote from the article:
According to our calculations, a typical family of four could boost its income by $10,000 to 20,000 by hosting migrants. The reason is that migrants to the United States usually increase their wages many times, allowing them to pay as much as $6,000 to hosts for sponsorships (and our average family could sponsor up to four visas, one for each member).
Where exactly are these four extra people sleeping in a household of four? The sofa?
Most slaves who worked for South Carolina College were “hired” on a short-term basis. Hiring out, or hiring, referred to a system in which a hirer would temporarily lease a slave from an owner. In doing so, owners generated revenue from their slaves’ labor without having an investment in the actual work itself. Slaves were more likely to face weekly, monthly, or yearly hiring than being permanently sold. Each year, five to fifteen percent of the slave population was hired for outside work. Conversely, less than four percent of slaves permanently exchanged hands. Hired slaves performed all kinds of labor: women worked domestic jobs such as laundering and wet-nursing, while men labored on roads, canals, and railroads. Others worked in industries such as mining coal, smelting iron, and processing tobacco. Skilled slaves might work as carpenters or blacksmiths. The number of hired slaves and the variety of jobs reflected not only the flexibility of slavery but also the importance of slaves as capital for owners and hirers.
6. You economists should realize that under a scenario like this, with unlimited visa supply, the equilibrium price of visas will drop to the cost of the visa and families will make nothing.
7. No minimum wage, but only for the immigrants. Sure, let’s just make Americans unemployable.
Look, I understand if you want to do away with the minimum wage for everyone. There are coherent arguments you could make in favor of letting everyone work for whatever wage they can get and letting the market work it out. But this is legally creating two classes of people in which one group is more expensive to hire than the other–which obviates the entire point of having minimum wage laws and just doesn’t work.
8. There used to be a group of Americans who could be hired for slightly below minimum wage for small jobs: teenagers.
Teenagers mowed lawns, babysat, walked dogs, even picked fruit and flipped burgers. We still have teenagers in West Virginia who can walk and groom dogs–even 10 year olds can probably be convinced to walk dogs for a dollar a dog per hour. Teenagers also have the benefit of having low living expenses because they still live with their parents, and the work experience they acquire in their highschool years can translate into a sense of accomplishment, real jobs, and eventually, allow them to pay for real expenses. There is no sensible reason to import people from the third world to do the same job Mary’s 13 year old neighbor could do equally well, unless you just hate children.
The elimination of jobs teenagers traditionally did (through the influx of low-wage immigrants who end up doing the jobs instead,) means that modern teens no longer get that early experience with working, sense of accomplishment, and gradual transition to productive, working life. Instead, they graduate from college with no work experience and start looking for jobs that require 3-5 years of previous experience in the field.
9. The article seems to think that American society is some kind of bottomless money pit that can keep growing if we just put more poor people at the bottom. There’s a technical term for this: pyramid scheme.
“We can get richer if we just find more poor people to exploit” is not a long-term economic policy. It’s more like someone read Marx and thought “Wow, extracting Surplus Value from the proleteriat sounds awesome!”
10. You might be thinking, “What if people just want to hire someone to be their personal servant?”
As the article notes, that’s already a thing. If you need a gardener, chef, maid, or live-in nanny, you can already find plenty of hireable people (immigrants included) to do these jobs–and these are not jobs that ordinary, working-class Americans are hiring anyone to do.
11. Enforcement. Say what you will for Google, at least I don’t have to worry about it keeping H1-Bs chained up in its basement, feeding them nothing but table scraps in between coding projects.
I have much less confidence in the sorts of people who think it would be a good idea to have 4 immigrants sleeping in their basements in order to reap their visa fees. In fact, in think these people will strongly resemble the sorts of people who take in foster kids for the fees, adopt orphans to get another pair of working hands, and generally thought indentured servitude was a great idea.
And who is going to pay federal agents to comb people’s basements in search of immigrant mistreatment? Me.
However, the article suggests that the primary reason abuses won’t happen is that if people like Sofia don’t like their treatment, they’ll just use their extensive savings to buy an international plane ticket and hop back home.
12.Sofia, who grew up in a village, has endured hardships that few Americans can imagine.
A village. A VILLAGE, I TELL YOU. You cannot imagine the horrors of growing up in a a clustered human settlement or community, larger than a hamlet but smaller than a town, with a population ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand.
I mean, just look at this Hungarian village:
Overall, I don’t think the author was totally crazy when he thought, “Hey, why do corporations get special rights that individuals don’t? Why let corporations pick immigrants and not ordinary people?” I, too, am uncomfortable with the idea of corporations having special rights. But trying to preserve the part of immigration that is based on “hiring people to do jobs” while doing away with the part where corporations are doing the hiring is missing the point of what corporations are: organizations that we route hiring through. The logic here is thus completely garbled.
But garbled logic aside, there is a much deeper problem. I’ve been saying for a long time that the demand for low-wage immigrants skirts perilously close to the logic behind slavery. “Americans are too good for these icky jobs; let’s import some brown people and make them do it.” This article strips away all pretense of valuing immigrants for their skills, perspectives, or can-do spirit: they are nothing but mobile economic units, cogs in an increasingly post-industrial machine.
So I’ve been doing a long project on crime/criminals. So far I’ve read about pirates, Angola Prison, horseback outlaws, outlaw motorcycle clubs, and currently, the mafia.
The books are good, but this is not light reading. After reading about meth whores abusing their kids for a chapter or two, you find yourself wanting to head over to the nearest church.
And I’ve got two and a half books left to go.
Obviously I don’t like crime. Few people do. I’d like for criminals to go away.
I also don’t want non-criminals accidentally imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. I don’t want petty criminals over-punished for minor crimes that don’t warrant it. I don’t want a system where some people have access to good lawyers and a shot at “justice” and some people don’t.
I wish we could talk about crime, and the police, and the justice system, and how all of that should work, and subjects like “do the police shoot people inappropriately?” without getting dragged into the poison of tribal political bickering. I especially don’t like the idea that as a result of people trying to prevent one form of murder (police shootings), far more people have ended up being murdered by common criminals. (At least, that’s what the data looks like.)
Obviously we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people in which there may in fact be a trade off between level of police / justice system violence and level of criminal violence. If you have 10 suspects and you know 5 are serial killers but you don’t know which 5, imprisoning all 10 will get the killers off the streets but also imprison 5 innocents, while freeing all of them will result in a bunch more murders. It would be nice to be perfect, but we’re not. We’re humans.
I think there are a lot of problems with the way the legal/justice system operates, but I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere with fixing it. People need to be genuinely motivated to make it better, not just tribally interested in taking a side over BLM. And most people really aren’t interested in fixing it.
I’m often reminded of a passage in Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day (which I read ages ago) in which he expressed frustration at his fellow academics. You see, Venkatesh was doing street-level, real live research in–I think it was Chicago–by actually going into ghetto neighborhoods and making friends with the people, interacting with them, seeing what their lives were really like. At the same time, Venkatesh was a university student studying “poverty” or something like that, and so would frequently attend lectures by academic types talking about ways to address poverty or fight poverty or what have you, and it was obvious to him that many of these lecturers had no idea what they were talking about.
And really, people do this a lot. They propose a bunch of feel-good solutions to problems they don’t actually understand.
This is pretty much all of politics, really.
I remember a conversation with a well-meaning liberal acquaintance that occurred shortly after I finished Phillipe Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in el Barrio. She suggested that better public transportation networks would help poor people get to resources like public museums, which would enrich their lives. I thought this was a stupid response. People trying to make ends meet by acting as lookouts for crack gangs or struggling to find a job after getting out of prison do not care about museums. I said something to that effect, and I don’t think she likes me anymore.
Deep down inside, I wish we lived in a kumbaya-world of happy bunnies frolicking in the forest and children holding hands and singing about how happy they are. I wish people were honest, and pure, and well-intentioned. I wish we could go to the museum, experience beauty, and feel connected to each other and history and culture. I wish none of us had to wear suits and that jobs didn’t grind up people’s souls and spit them out. I wish people could see the humanity in each other, because when we stop seeing that, we stop being human.
And to a large degree, we live in a very nice world. We live in a world with medicines and antibiotics. Where child mortality is low and mothers rarely die in childbirth. Where surgery is done with anesthesia. I have a comfortable home, lots of books, and plenty of food. I spend much of my time reading about times and places where these weren’t the norm, which makes me quite grateful for what I have. It also sometimes keeps me up late at night when I should be asleep.
It’s a good world, but it isn’t kumbaya world. It’s a world with criminals and idiots and mal-intentioned people. It’s a world that got to be good because people worked very hard to make it that way (many people died to make it that way) and it’s a world that doesn’t have to stay that way. We can ruin it.
While researching the previous Cathedral Round-Up, I came across what I think is a professor’s old Myspace page. Suddenly this professor went from “person who wrote really pretentious-sounding dissertation” to “human being.” They were a kid once, trying to figure out their place in this world. They looked sad in some of their pictures. Were they lonely? Outcast? Bullied?
I hate “dissertation language” and hate how simple (sometimes even reasonable) ideas get wrapped up in unnecessarily complex verbiage just to make them sound astonishing. I hate it on principle. I hate how the same people who talk about “privilege” use a writing style that is, itself, accessible to and performed by only an extremely privileged few. Much of it is self-centered drivel, and pretending it has anything to do with uplifting the pure is unadulterated hypocrisy.
All of this internet-driven SJW political signaling is really performative morality. When you are in the context of a real flesh and blood human being in your own community whom you’ll have to interact with repeatedly over the course of years, you’ll try to be faithful, honest, dutiful, loyal, dependable, etc., and you’ll value those some traits in others. Put us on the internet, and we have no need for any of that. We’re not going to cooperate in any meaningful, real-world way with a bunch of people on the internet. Morality on the internet becomes performative, a show you put on for a 3rd-party audience. Here the best thing isn’t to be dependable, but to have the best-sounding opinions. Status isn’t built on your long-term reputation but on your ability to prove that other people are less moral than you.
I noticed years ago that people on the internet often did not debate honestly with each other, but would lie and distort the other person’s argument. Why would they do this? Surely they couldn’t hope to win by lying to someone’s face about their own argument! It only makes sense if you assume the goal of the discussion isn’t to convince the other person, but to convince some other person watching the debate. If you get lots of approval from your adoring Tumblr/Twitter/whatever fans for saying all the right things and accusing your opponents of being all of the wrong, immoral sorts of things, then who cares what the person those remarks are actually directed at thinks of them?
And who cares if you are actually a good, decent, reliable, honest person?
As someone who writes a blog that often discusses other people’s work for the sake of my own audience, I must admit that I, too, am guilty here.
But hey, at least I haven’t put a meathook up anyone’s ass.
So I guess I’ll just end by encouraging everyone to go and be decent people.
People seemed to like this Twitter thread, so I thought I would go into some more detail, because trying to compress things into 140 characters means leaving out a lot of detail and nuance. First the original, then the discussion:
Back around 2000-2005, I hung out in some heavily Muslim forums. I learned a few things:
1. Muslims and Indians do not get along. At all. Hoo boy. There are a few people who try to rise above the fray, but there’s a lot of hate. (and yes there are historical reasons for this, people aren’t just random.)
2. I didn’t get to know that many Muslims very well, but among those that I did, the nicest were from Iran and Pakistan, the nastiest from Britain. (I wasn’t that impressed by the Saudis.)
3. Muslims and Westerners think differently about “responsibility” for sin. Very frequent, heated debate on the forum. Westerners put responsibility to not sin on the sinner. Hence we imprison [certain] criminals. Islam puts responsibility on people not to tempt others.
Most obvious example is bikinis vs burkas. Westerners expect men to control their impulse to have sex; Muslims expect women not to tempt men. To the Westerner it is obvious that men should display self control, while to the Muslim it is obvious that women should not tempt men. (Don’t display what you aren’t selling.)
Likewise w/ free speech vs. offense. Westerners expect people to control their feelings over things like Piss Christ or Mohammad cartoons. Islam blames people for offending/hurting other people’s feelings; the onus for non-offense is on the speaker, not the hearer.
Obviously this is simplified and exceptions exist, but it’s a pretty fundamental difference in how people approach social problems.
Back in my early days upon the internet, I discovered that you can join forums and talk to people from all over the world. This was pretty exciting and interesting, and I ended up talking people from places like India, China, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, etc. It was here that I began really understanding that other countries have their own internal and external politics that often have nothing at all to do with the US or what the US thinks or wants.
1. The rivalry between India and Pakistan was one such surprise. Sure, if you’ve ever picked up a book on the recent history of India or Pakistan or even read the relevant Wikipedia pages, you probably know all of this, but as an American whose main exposure to sub-continental culture was samosas and music, the vitriolic hate between the two groups was completely unexpected.
As the Hindu and Muslim populations were scattered unevenly in the whole country, the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947 was not possible along religious lines. Nearly one third of the Muslim population of British India remained in India. Inter-communal violence between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims resulted in between 500,000 and 1 million casualties. …
This war saw the highest number of casualties in any of the India-Pakistan conflicts, as well as the largest number of prisoners of war since the Second World War after the surrender of more than 90,000 Pakistani military and civilians. In the words of one Pakistani author, “Pakistan lost half its navy, a quarter of its air force and a third of its army”.
Please note that India and Pakistan both HAVE NUKES.
I don’t know if any disinterested person has ever totaled up the millions of deaths from invasions and counter-invasions, (you can start by reading Persecution of Hindus and Persecution of Buddhists on Wikipedia, or here on Sikhnet, though I can’t say if these are accurate articles,) but war is a nasty, violent thing that involves lots of people dying. My impression is that Islam has historically been more favorable to Judaism and Christianity than to Hinduism because Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all monotheists whose faiths descend from a common origin, whereas Hindus are pagans, which is just right out.
Anyway, I am not trying to give a complete and accurate history of the subcontinent, which is WAY TOO LONG for a paltry blog post. I am sure people on both sides could write very convincing and well-reasoned posts arguing that their side is the good and moral side and that the other side is the one that committed all of the atrocities.
I am just trying to give an impression of the conflict people are arguing about.
Gandhi’s vision of an independent India based on religious pluralism, however, was challenged in the early 1940s by a new Muslim nationalism which was demanding a separate Muslim homeland carved out of India. Eventually, in August 1947, Britain granted independence, but the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. As many displaced Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs made their way to their new lands, religious violence broke out, especially in the Punjab and Bengal. Eschewing the official celebration of independence in Delhi, Gandhi visited the affected areas, attempting to provide solace. In the months following, he undertook several fasts unto death to promote religious harmony. The last of these, undertaken on 12 January 1948 when he was 78, also had the indirect goal of pressuring India to pay out some cash assets owed to Pakistan. Some Indians thought Gandhi was too accommodating. Among them was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, who assassinated Gandhi on 30 January 1948 by firing three bullets into his chest.
The American habit of seeing everything through the Cold War lens (we sided with Pakistan against India for Cold War Reasons) and reducing everything to narrow Us-Them dynamics is really problematic when dealing with countries/groups with a thousand or so years of history between them. (This is part of what makes the whole “POC” term so terrible. No, non-whites are not a single, homogenous mass unified entirely by white victimization.)
Obviously not all 1 billion or so Hindus and 1 billion or so Muslims in the world are at each other’s throats. Many save their rivalry for the annual India-Pakistan cricket game:
At the same time, India-Pakistan cricket matches have also offered opportunities for cricket diplomacy as a means to improve relations between the two countries by allowing heads of state to exchange visits and cricket followers from either country to travel to the other to watch the matches.
(Gotta love the phrase “erstwhile shared a common cricketing heritage.”)
And some Hindus and Muslims are totally chill and even like each other. After all, India and Pakistan are next door to each other and I’m sure there are tons of good business opportunities that enterprising folks would like to take advantage of.
But there’s a lot of anger.
BTW, there’s also a rivalry between India and China, with both sides accusing each other of massive educational cheating.
2. I should note that the people I talked to definitely weren’t a random distribution of Muslims from around the world. When I say “the Muslims” here, I really mean, “the particular Muslims I happened to talk to.” The folks you’re likely to meet on the internet are high class, educated, speak English, and come from areas with good internet connections. So this definitely isn’t a good way to learn what the Average Moe’ in most Muslim countries thinks.
Note: People in countries colonized by Britain (like India and Pakistan) tend to speak English because it’s taught as a second language in their schools, while people in Indonesia (the world’s biggest Muslim country) probably learn Dutch (they were colonized by the Dutch) and folks in Morocco learn French. The nicest Muslims I met were from Iran and Pakistan and the least pleasant were from Europe. (The Saudis were the kind of folks who would sweetly explain why you needed to die.)
Why? Aside from the vicissitudes of colonial languages and population size, Iran and Pakistan are both countries with plenty of culture, history, and highly-educated people. The Persian Empire was quite an historical force, and the ruins of some of the world’s oldest cities (from the Indus-Valley culture) are in Pakistan (the Indians would like me to note that many of these ruins are also in India and that Indians claim direct cultural descent from the IVC and Pakistanis do not.) Some of the Iranians I met were actually atheists, which is not such a great thing to be in Iran.
Pakistan, IMO, has been on a long, slow, decline from a country with a hopeful future to one with a much dimmer future. Smart, highly-educated Pakistanis are jumping ship in droves. I can’t blame them (I’d leave, too,) but this leaves behind a nation populated with the less-capable, less-educated, and less-pro-West. (Iran probably has less of a problem with brain-drain.)
Many of the other Muslim countries are smaller, don’t speak English, or more recently started down the path to mass literacy, and so don’t stand out particularly in my memories.
The absolute worst person lived in Britain. The only reason he was even allowed to stick around and wasn’t banned for being a total asshole was that one of the female posters had a crush on him and the rest of us played nice for her sake, a sentence I am greatly shamed to write. I’ve never met a Muslim from an actual Muslim country as rude as this guy, who posted endless vitriol about how much he hated Amerikkka for its racism against blacks, Muslims, and other POCs.
Theory: Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries have no particular reason to care what white males are up to in other countries, but Muslims in Britain do, and SJW ideology provides a political victimology framework for what would otherwise be seen as normal competition between people or the difficulties of living in a foreign culture.
3. Aside from the issue of white men, this was before the days of the Muslim-SJW alliance, so there were lots of vigorous, entertaining debates on subjects like abortion, women’s rights, homosexuality, blasphemy, etc. By “debate” I mean “people expressed a variety of views;” there was obviously no one, single viewpoint on either side, but there were definitely consistent patterns and particular views expressed most of the time.
Muslims tend to believe that people have obligations to their families and societies. I have read some lovely tributes to family members from Muslims. I have also been surprised to discover that people whom I regarded as very similar to myself still believed in arranged marriage, that unmarried adult children should live with their parents and grandparents to help them out, etc. These are often behavioral expectations that people don’t even think to mention because they are so common, but very different from our expectation that a child at the age of 18 will move out and begin supporting themselves, and that an adult child who moves in with their parents is essentially a “failure.”
The American notion of libertarianism, that the individual is not obligated at all to their family and society, or that society should not enforce certain behavior standards, but everyone should pursue their own individual self-interest, is highly alien throughout much of the world. (I don’t think it’s even that common in Europe.) Americans tend to see people as individuals, personally responsible for their own actions, whereas Muslims tend to think the state should enforce certain standards of behavior.
This leads to different thoughts about sin, or at least certain kinds of sin. For example, in the case of sexual assault/rape, Westerners generally believe that men are morally obligated to control their impulses toward women, no matter what those women are wearing. There are exceptions, but in general, women expect to walk around wearing bikinis in Western society without being randomly raped, and if you raped some random ladies on the beach just “because they were wearing bikinis,” you’d get in big trouble. We (sort of) acknowledge that men find women in bikinis attractive and that they might even want to have sex with them, but we still place the onus of controlling their behavior on the men.
By contrast, Muslims tend to place the onus for preventing rape on the women. Logically, if women are doing something they know arouses men, then they shouldn’t do it if they don’t don’t want the men to be aroused; don’t display what you aren’t selling. The responsibility isn’t on the men to control their behavior, but on the women to not attract male attention. This is why you will find more burkas than bikinis in Afghanistan, and virtually no burkas anywhere outside of the Muslim world.
According to Brian Lokollo, a lawyer who was hired by the woman’s family, Laura was at a hotel bar having drinks with a friend in the Qatari capital, but then had a drink that made her feel “very unwell.”
She reportedly woke up in an unfamiliar location and realized “to her great horror” that she had been raped after her drink was spiked, Lokollo said.
When she reported the rape to the police, she herself was imprisoned. …
No mention was made of the rape accusation during proceedings. Neither defendant was present in court, in what was the third hearing in the case. …
At a court hearing in Doha Monday, the 22-year old, whom CNN has identified only as Laura, was handed a one-year suspended sentence and placed on probation for three years for the sex-related charge, and fined 3,000 Qatari Riyals ($823) for being drunk outside a licensed location.
A British tourist has been arrested in Dubai on charges of extramarital sex after telling police a group of British nationals raped her in the United Arab Emirates, according to a UK-based legal advice group called Detained in Dubai.
“This is tremendously disturbing,” Radha Stirling, the group’s founder and director, said in a statement. “Police regularly fail to differentiate between consensual intercourse and violent rape.
The stoning of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was a public execution carried out by the Al-Shabaab militant group on October 27, 2008 in the southern port town of Kismayo, Somalia. Initial reports stated that the victim, Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, was a 23-year-old woman found guilty of adultery. However, Duhulow’s father and aunt stated that she was 13 years old, under the age of marriage eligibility, and that she was arrested and stoned to death after trying to report that she had been raped. The execution took place in a public stadium attended by about 1,000 bystanders, several of whom attempted to intervene but were shot by the militants.
There’s a similar dynamic at work with Free Speech/religious freedom issues. The average Christian westerner certainly isn’t happy about things like Piss Christ or Jesus dildos, yet such things are allowed to exist, there is definitely a long history of legal precedent on the subject of heretical and morally offensive works of “art,” and last time I checked, no one got shot for smearing elephant dung on a picture of the Virgin Mary. The general legal standard in the West is that it doesn’t really matter if speech hurts your feelings, it’s still protected. (Here I would cite the essential dignity of the self in being allowed to express one’s true beliefs, whatever they are, and being allowed to act in accordance with one’s own moral beliefs.) I know there are some arguments about this, especially among SJWs, and some educe cases where particular speech isn’t allowed, but the 1st Amendment hasn’t been repealed yet.
By contrast, Muslims tend to see people as morally responsible for the crime of hurting other people’s feelings, offending them, or leading them away from the true faith (which I assume would result in those people suffering eternal torment in something like the Christian hell.) Yes, I have read very politely worded arguments for why apostates need to be executed for the good of society (because they make life worse for everyone else by making society less homogenous.) I’ve also known atheists who lived in Muslim countries who obviously did not think they should be executed.
Basically, Westerners think individuals should strive to be ethical and so make society ethical, while Muslims believe that society should enforce ethicality, top-down, on society. (Both groups, of course, punish people for crimes like theft.)
The idea of an SJW-Muslim alliance is absurd–the two groups deeply disagree on almost every single issue, except their short-term mutual interest in changing the power structure.
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:
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.
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.
Personally, I’d say that among the critical defining characteristics of cults:
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
They use of social ostracism to punish even slight deviation from a very rigid set of beliefs.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
(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.
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.
In Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers: Reindeer Economies and their Transformations [PDF,] Ingold describes the social distribution of food among hunter-gatherers. In normal times, when food is neither super-abundant nor scarce, each family basically consumes what it brings in, without feeling any particular compulsion to share with their neighbors. In times of super-abundance, food is distributed throughout the tribe, often quite freely:
Since harvested animals, unlike a plant crop, will not reproduce, the multiplicative accumulation of material wealth is not possible within the framework of hunting relations of production. Indeed, what is most characteristic of hunting societies everywhere is the emphasis not on accumulation but on its obverse: the sharing of the kill, to varying degrees, amongst all those associated with the hunter. …
The fortunate hunter, when he returns to camp with his kill, is expected to play host to the rest of the community, in bouts of extravagant consumption.
The other two ethnographies I have read of hunter-gatherers (The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and Kabloona, about the Eskimo aka Inuit) both support this: large kills are communal feasts. Hunter gatherers often have quite strict rules about how exactly a kill is to be divided, but the most important thing is that everyone gets some.
And this is eminently sensible–you try eating an entire giraffe by yourself, in the desert, before it rots.
Even in the arctic, where men can (in part of the year) freeze food for the future, your neighbor’s belly is as good as a freezer, because the neighbor you feed today will feed you tomorrow. Hunting is an activity that can be wildly successful one day and fail completely the next, so if hunters did not share with each other, soon each one would starve.
Whilst the successful hunter is required to distribute his spoils freely amongst his camp fellows, he does so with the assurance that in any future eventuality, when through bad luck he fails to find game, or through illness or old age he can no longer provide for himself and his family, he will receive in his turn. Were each hunter to produce only for his own domestic needs, everyone would eventually perish from hunger (Jochelson 1926:124). Thus, through its contribution to the survival and reproduction of potential producers, sharing ensures the perpetuation of society as a whole. …
Yet he is also concerned to set aside stocks of food to see his household through at least a part of the coming winter. The meat that remains after the obligatory festive redistribution is therefore placed in the household’s cache, on which the housewife can draw specifically for the provision of her own domestic group (Spencer 1959:149). After the herds have passed by, domestic autonomy is re-establisheddraws on its own reserves of stored food.
But what happens at the opposite extreme, not under conditions of abundance, but when everyone‘s stocks run out? Ingold claims that in times of famine, the obligation to share what little food one has with one’s neighbors is also invoked:
We find, therefore, that the incidence of generalized reciprocity tends to peak towards the two extremes of scarcity and abundance… The communal feast that follows a successful hunting drive involves the same heightening of band solidarity, and calls into play the same functions of leadership in the apportionment of food, as does the consumption of famine rations.
I am reminded here of a scene in The Harmless People in which there was not enough food to go around, but the rules of distribution were still followed, each person just cutting their piece smaller. Thomas described one of the small children, hungry, trying to grab the food bowl–not the food itself–to stop their mother from giving away their food to the next person in the chain of obligation.
Here Ingold pauses to discuss a claim by Sahlins that such social order will (or should) break down under conditions of extreme hunger:
Probably every primitive organization has its breaking-point, or at least its turning-point. Every one might see the time when co-operation is overwhelmed by the scale of disaster and chicanery becomes the order of the day. The range of assistance contracts progressively to the family level; perhaps even these bonds dissolve and, washed away, reveal an inhuman, yet most human, self-interest. Moreover, by the same measure that the circle of charity is
compressed that of ‘negative reciprocity* is potentially expanded. People who helped each other in normal times and through the first stages of disaster display now an indifference to each others’ plight, if they do not exacerbate a mutual downfall by guile, haggle and theft.
I can find no evidence, either in my reading of circumpolar ethnography, or in the material cited by Sahlins, for the existence of such a ‘turning-point’ in hunting societies. On the contrary, as the crisis deepens, generalized reciprocity proceeds to the point of dissolution of domestic group boundaries. ‘Negative reciprocity’, rather than closing in from beyond the frontiers of the household, will be expelled altogether from the wider social field, only to make its appearance within the heart of the domestic group itself.
Thus the women of the household, who are allowed to eat only after the appetites of their menfolk have been satisfied, may be left in times of want with the merest scraps of food. Among the Chipewyan, ‘when real distress approaches, many of them are permitted to starve, when the males are amply provided for’…
In situations of economic collapse, negative reciprocity afflicts not only the domestic relations between husband and wife, but those between mother and child, and between parent and grandparent. If the suckling of children is the purest expression of generalized reciprocity, in the form of a sustained one-way flow, then infanticide must surely represent the negative extreme. Likewise, old or sick members of the household will be the first to be abandoned when provisions run short. Even in normal times, individuals who are past labour have to scavenge the left-overs of food and skins (Hearne 1911:326). In the most dire circumstances of all, men will consume their starving wives and children before turning upon one another.
Drawing on Eskimo material, Hoebel derives the following precepts of cannibal conduct: Not unusually . . . parents kill their own children to be eaten. This act is no different from infanticide. A man may kill and eat his wife; it is his privilege. Killing and eating a relative will produce no legal consequences. It is to be presumed, however, that killing a non-relative for food is murder. (1941:672, cited in Eidlitz 1969:132)
In short, the ‘circle of charity’ is not compressed but inverted: as the threat of starvation becomes a reality, the legitimacy of killing increases towards the centre. The act is ‘inhuman’ since it strips the humanity of the victim to its organic, corporeal substance. If altruism is an index of sociability, then its absolute negation annuls the sodality of the recipient: persons, be they human or animal, become things.
This is gruesome, but let us assume it is true (I have not read the accounts Ingold cites, so I must trust him, and I do not always trust him but for now we will.)
The cold, hard logic of infanticide is that a mother can produce more children if she loses one, but a child who has lost its mother will likely die as well, along with all of its siblings. One of my great-great grandmothers suffered the loss of half her children in infancy and still managed to raise 5+ to adulthood. Look around: even with abortion and birth control widely available, humanity is not suffering a lack of children. ETA: As BaruchK correctly noted, today’s children are largely coming from people who don’t use birth control or have legal access to abortion; fertility rates are below replacement throughout the West, with the one exception AFAIK of Israel.
Furthermore, children starve faster and are easier to kill than parents; women are easier to kill than men; people who live with you are easier to kill than people who don’t.
“Finally, as the footsteps stopped just outside the igloo, it was the old man who went out to investigate.
“He emerged to see a disoriented figure seemingly unaware of his presence. The being was touching the outside of the igloo with curiosity, and raised no protest when the old man reached his hand out to touch its cheek.
“His skin was cold. …
The figures, of course, were the last survivors of the Franklin Expedition. They had buried their captain. They had seen their ship entombed by ice. They had eaten the dead to survive. …
Inuit nomads had come across streams of men that “didn’t seem to be right.” Maddened by scurvy, botulism or desperation, they were raving in a language the Inuit couldn’t understand. In one case, hunters came across two Franklin Expedition survivors who had been sleeping for days in the hollowed-out corpses of seals. …
The figures were too weak to be dangerous, so Inuit women tried to comfort the strangers by inviting them into their igloo. …
The men spit out pieces of cooked seal offered to them. They rejected offers of soup. They grabbed jealous hold of their belongings when the Inuit offered to trade.
When the Inuit men returned to the camp from their hunt, they constructed an igloo for the strangers, built them a fire and even outfitted the shelter with three whole seals. …
When a small party went back to the camp to retrieve [some items], they found an igloo filled with corpses.
The seals were untouched. Instead, the men had eaten each other. …
In 1854, Rae had just come back from a return trip to the Arctic, where he had been horrified to discover that many of his original Inuit sources had fallen to the same fates they had witnessed in the Franklin Expedition.
An outbreak of influenza had swept the area, likely sparked by the wave of Franklin searchers combing the Arctic. As social mores broke down, food ran short.
Inuit men that Rae had known personally had chosen suicide over watching the slow death of their children. Families had starved for days before eating their dog teams. Some women, who had seen their families die around them, had needed to turn to the “last resource” to survive the winter.
Infanticide, cannibalism, and human sacrifice were far more common prior to 1980 or so than we like to think; God forbid we should ever know such fates.
“Many Neolithic groups routinely resorted to infanticide … Joseph Birdsell believed that infanticide rates in prehistoric times were between 15% and 50% of the total number of births, while Laila Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15% to 20%.:66… Comparative anthropologists have calculated that 50% of female newborn babies were killed by their parents during the Paleolithic era. Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism. …
“Three thousand bones of young children, with evidence of sacrificial rituals, have been found in Sardinia. Pelasgians offered a sacrifice of every tenth child during difficult times. Syrians sacrificed children to Jupiter and Juno. Many remains of children have been found in Gezer excavations with signs of sacrifice. Child skeletons with the marks of sacrifice have been found also in Egypt dating 950-720 BCE. In Carthage “[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith.”:324 …
“According to Shelby Brown, Carthaginians, descendants of the Phoenicians, sacrificed infants to their gods. Charred bones of hundreds of infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites. One such area harbored as many as 20,000 burial urns. …
“… the exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece, it was even advocated by Aristotle in the case of congenital deformity — “As to the exposure of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” …
“The practice was prevalent in ancient Rome, as well. … A letter from a Roman citizen to his sister, or a pregnant wife from her husband, dating from 1 BC, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:
“I am still in Alexandria. … I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it.” 
“In some periods of Roman history it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to die by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. …
“Philosopher Han Fei Tzu, a member of the ruling aristocracy of the 3rd century BC, who developed a school of law, wrote: “As to children, a father and mother when they produce a boy congratulate one another, but when they produce a girl they put it to death.” …
“Buddhist belief in transmigration allowed poor residents of the country to kill their newborn children if they felt unable to care for them, hoping that they would be reborn in better circumstances. Furthermore, some Chinese did not consider newborn children fully “human”, and saw “life” beginning at some point after the sixth month after birth.
“Contemporary writers from the Song dynasty note that, in Hubei and Fujian provinces, residents would only keep three sons and two daughters (among poor farmers, two sons and one daughter), and kill all babies beyond that number at birth.”
“It was not uncommon that parents threw a child to the sharks in the Ganges River as a sacrificial offering. The British colonists were unable to outlaw the custom until the beginnings of the 19th century.:78
“According to social activists, female infanticide has remained a problem in India into the 21st century, with both NGOs and the government conducting awareness campaigns to combat it. …
“In the Eastern Shoshone there was a scarcity of Indian women as a result of female infanticide. For the MaiduNative Americans twins were so dangerous that they not only killed them, but the mother as well. In the region known today as southern Texas, the Mariame Indians practiced infanticide of females on a large scale. Wives had to be obtained from neighboring groups.”
In 2005 a mass grave of one- to two-year-old sacrificed children was found in the Maya region of Comalcalco. The sacrifices were apparently performed for consecration purposes when building temples at the Comalcalco acropolis. …
Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrificed to Tlaloc (and a few to Ehecátl Quetzalcóatl) in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. In every case, the 42 children, mostly males aged around six, were suffering from serious cavities, abscesses or bone infections that would have been painful enough to make them cry continually. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, if children did not cry, the priests would sometimes tear off the children’s nails before the ritual sacrifice.
It is perhaps more profitable to ask which cultures didn’t practice some form of infanticide/infant sacrifice/cannibalism than which ones did. The major cases Wikipedia notes are Ancient Egypt, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (we may note that Judaism in many ways derived from ancient Egypt, and Christianity and Islam from Judaism.) Ancient Egypt stands out as unique among major the pre-modern, pre-monotheistic societies to show no signs of regular infanticide–and even in the most infamous case where the Egyptian pharaoh went so far as to order the shocking act, we find direct disobedience in his own household:
3 And when she [Jochebed] could not longer hide him [the baby], she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.4 And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.
5 And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.
6 And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?”
8 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” And the maid went and called the child’s mother.
9 And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, “Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.” And the women took the child, and nursed it.
10 And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”
I don’t know the actual infanticide numbers in modern Muslim countries (le wik notes that poverty in places like Pakistan still drives infanticide) but it is officially forbidden by Islam.
Today, between the spread of Abrahamic religions, Western Values, and general prosperity, the infanticide rate has been cut and human sacrifice and cannibalism have been all but eliminated. Abortion, though, is legal–if highly controversial–throughout the West and Israel.
According to the CDC, the abortion rate for 2013 was 200 abortions per 1,000 live births, or about 15% of pregnancies. (The CDC also notes that the abortion rate has been falling since at least 2004.) Of these, “91.6% of abortions were performed at ≤13 weeks’ gestation; … In 2013, 22.2% of all abortions were early medical abortions.”
To what can we attribute this anti-infanticide sentiment of modern monotheistic societies? Is it just a cultural accident, a result of inheritance from ancient Egypt, or perhaps the lucky effects of some random early theologian? Or as the religious would suggest, due to God’s divine decree? Or is it an effect of the efforts parents must expend on their few children in societies where children must attend years of school in order to succeed?
In ecology, r/K selection theory relates to the selection of combinations of traits in an organism that trade off between quantity and quality of offspring. The focus upon either increased quantity of offspring at the expense of individual parental investment of r-strategists, or reduced quantity of offspring with a corresponding increased parental investment of K-strategists, varies widely, seemingly to promote success in particular environments. …
where r is the maximum growth rate of the population (N), K is the carrying capacity of its local environmental setting, and the notation dN/dt stands for the derivative of N with respect to t (time). Thus, the equation relates the rate of change of the population N to the current population size and expresses the effect of the two parameters. …
As the name implies, r-selected species are those that place an emphasis on a high growth rate, and, typically exploit less-crowded ecological niches, and produce many offspring, each of which has a relatively low probability of surviving to adulthood (i.e., high r, low K). A typical r species is the dandelion Taraxacum genus.
In unstable or unpredictable environments, r-selection predominates due to the ability to reproduce quickly. There is little advantage in adaptations that permit successful competition with other organisms, because the environment is likely to change again. Among the traits that are thought to characterize r-selection are high fecundity, small body size, early maturity onset, short generation time, and the ability to disperse offspring widely. …
By contrast, K-selected species display traits associated with living at densities close to carrying capacity, and typically are strong competitors in such crowded niches that invest more heavily in fewer offspring, each of which has a relatively high probability of surviving to adulthood (i.e., low r, high K). In scientific literature, r-selected species are occasionally referred to as “opportunistic” whereas K-selected species are described as “equilibrium”.
In stable or predictable environments, K-selection predominates as the ability to compete successfully for limited resources is crucial and populations of K-selected organisms typically are very constant in number and close to the maximum that the environment can bear (unlike r-selected populations, where population sizes can change much more rapidly).
Traits that are thought to be characteristic of K-selection include large body size, long life expectancy, and the production of fewer offspring, which often require extensive parental care until they mature.
Rushton’s book Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1995) uses r/K selection theory to explain how East Asians consistently average high, blacks low, and whites in the middle on an evolutionary scale of characteristics indicative of nurturing behavior. He first published this theory in 1984. Rushton argues that East Asians and their descendants average a larger brain size, greater intelligence, more sexual restraint, slower rates of maturation, and greater law abidingness and social organization than do Europeans and their descendants, who average higher scores on these dimensions than Africans and their descendants. He theorizes that r/K selection theory explains these differences.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that the article states, “Rushton’s application of r/K selection theory to explain differences among racial groups has been widely criticised. One of his many critics is the evolutionary biologistJoseph L. Graves, who has done extensive testing of the r/K selection theory with species of Drosophila flies. …”
Genetics or culture, in dense human societies, people must devote a great deal of energy to a small number of children they can successfully raise, leading to the notion that parents are morally required to put this effort into their children. But this system is at odds with the fact that without some form of intervention, the average married couple will produce far more than two offspring.
Buckley (in case you missed parts 1 and 2 of our adventure,) was an English convict sent to Australia in the early 1800s. He escaped from the prison ship, hoping to make it to Sydney, which turned out to be about 1000 miles away. He had nearly died of thirst before some friendly Aborigines found him, saved his life, and, believing him to be a recently deceases relative returned from the grave, adopted him into their tribe.
Unfortunately, life in the “state of nature” was horribly violent, with tribes frequently attacking each other. Buckley blames most of the violence on fights over women, but occasionally notes the ways local animist beliefs also contribute to unending cycles of murder and revenge, in this case after a man who’d joined their community died of a snake bite:
“The cause of this sudden unprovoked cruelty was not, as usual, about the women, but because the man who had been killed by the bite of the snake belonged to the hostile tribe, and they believed my supposed brother-in-law carried about with him something that had occasioned his death. They have all sorts of fancies of this kind, and it is frequently the case, that they take a man’s kidneys out after death, tie them up in something, and carry them round the neck, as a sort of protection and valuable charm, for either good or evil.”
EvX: Note that Buckley’s adoptive family, his sister and brother-in-law, who’ve been helping him since the tribe saved his life years ago, was killed in this incident.
I recently read an account of Florence Young’s missionary work in the Solomon Islands (which are near Australia.) I haven’t been using these Christian Heroes books for Anthropology Friday sources because they aren’t first hand sources and I have no capacity to judge their accuracy, but they are still pretty interesting if you’re a middle schooler hankering to read about Christian missionaries. Anyway, the book recounts an identical justification for the cycle of violence on the Solomon Islands (which was quite threatening to Florence herself.) Every time someone died of any natural cause, their family went to the local witch doctor, who then used magic to determine who had used malicious magic to kill the dead guy, and then the family would go and kill whomever the witch doctor indicated.
The advent of Christianity therefore caused a power struggle between the missionaries and the witch doctors, who were used to being able to extort everyone and trick their followers into killing anyone who pissed them off. (See also Isaac Bacirongo’s account of the witch doctor who extorted his pre-pubescent sister as payment for a spell intended to kill Isaac’s wife–note: Isaac was not the one buying this spell; he likes his wife.)
Returning to Buckley, after the death of his friends:
“I should have been most brutally unfeeling, had I not suffered the deepest mental anguish from the loss of these poor people, who had all along been so kind and good to me. I am not ashamed to say, that for several hours my tears flowed in torrents, and, that for a long time I wept unceasingly. To them, as I have said before, I was as a living dead brother, whose presence and safety was their sole anxiety. Nothing could exceed the kindness these poor natives had shown me, and now they were dead, murdered by the band of savages I saw around me, apparently thirsting for more blood. Of all my sufferings in the wilderness, there was nothing equal to the agony I now endured.” …
“I returned to the scene of the brutal massacre; and finding the ashes and bones of my late friends, I scraped them up together, and covered them over with turf, burying them in the best manner I could, that being the only return I could make for their many kindnesses. I did so in great grief at the recollection of what they had done for me through so many years, and in all my dangers and troubles. ”
After this, Buckley cares for his deceased relatives’ children, a blind boy and a little girl. This goes about as depressingly as expected:
“Our small community remained in perfect harmony for many months, until, unfortunately, a young man about twenty years of age, belonging to another tribe, arrived. This youth was taken seriously ill a few days after joining us, and although we did all we could for him he died. This event created great distress, and by way of changing the scene, our small party broke up, and left the Karaaf on a short hunting excursion. After a time we fell in with the deceased young man’s family, who, on being informed of his death, expressed great astonishment and rage, fancying it had been brought about by some unfair means on our part. This excitement arose to such a height, as to approach what it would be mercy to describe insanity. After a time, they forced the poor blind boy away from me, and killed him on the spot, because he had happened to be in the same hut in which the young man died, believing he had been in some way the means of his death.
“After this, they roasted the body in the usual manner; but whilst this was going on I left, with the little girl, moving on, and on, until meeting the tribe to which the man belonged to whom in her infancy she had been promised; I explained all the particulars of the sacrifice of her poor blind brother. They immediately vowed vengeance, and two or three of them set out for the purpose of murder, returning in a few days with the intelligence that they had killed two
of the children of their enemies. …
“Having transferred her to the care of these people, I set off alone, determined to live by myself in order to avoid a repetition of the scenes I had witnessed, and all further intercourse with the natives.”
EvX: Buckley didn’t live entirely alone–he got married twice in this period–but he did try to avoid large tribal gatherings for a long while, and lived mostly alone for some time, out of both grief and a practical desire to avoid danger. During that time he built himself a couple of huts and a fishing weir that served him well. After several years it appears he resumed interacting more with others, as he reflects later:
“I had seen a race of children grow up into women and men, and many of the old people die away, and by my harmless and peaceable manner amongst them, had acquired great influence in settling their disputes. Numbers of murderous fights I had prevented by my interference, which was received by them as well meant; so much so, that they would often allow me to go
amongst them previous to a battle, and take away their spears, and waddies, and boomerangs. My visits were always welcomed, and they kindly and often supplied me with a portion of the provisions they had, assuring me, in their language, of the interest they took in my welfare.”
EvX: Despite his friends and remaining family, at the first news of English ships in the area, Buckley rushed to the spot. He attempted to make contact, but couldn’t swim out to the ship and couldn’t convince the ship to send a boat to him (Buckley had, at this point, forgotten how to speak English.) Buckley was again heartbroken until another ship showed up, and he found the English colonists and tried to approach them:
“Presently some of the natives saw me, and turning round, pointed me out to one of the white people; and seeing they had done so, I walked away from the well, up to their place, and seated myself there, having my spears and other war and hunting implements between my legs. The white men could not make me out–my half-cast colour, and extraordinary height and figure [Buckley was around 6’5” or taller,]–dressed, or rather undressed, as I was–completely confounding them as to my real character. At length one of them came up and asked me some questions, which I could not understand; but when he offered me bread–calling it by its name–a cloud appeared to pass from over my brain, and I soon repeated that, and other English words after him. …
“Word by word I began to comprehend what they said, and soon understood, as if by instinct, that they intended to remain in the country; that they had seen several of the native chiefs, with whom–as they said–they had exchanged all sorts of things for land; but that I knew could not have been, because, unlike other savage communities, or people, they have no chiefs claiming or possessing any superior right over the soil: theirs only being as the heads of families. I also knew that if any transactions had taken place, it must have been because the natives knew nothing of the value of the country, except as hunting grounds, supplying them with the means of present existence. I therefore looked upon the land dealing spoken of, as another hoax of the white man, to possess the inheritance of the uncivilized natives of the forest, whose tread on the vast Australian Continent will very soon be no more heard, and whose crimes and sorrows are fast fading away amongst other recollections of the past.”
EvX: Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on the Wathaurong people, with whom Buckley lived, claims that they did have chiefs:
Prior to European settlement, 25 separate clans existed, each with an arweet, or clan headman. Arweet held the same tribal standing as a ngurungaeta of the Wurundjeri people.
Ngurungaeta is a Woi-Wurrung word meaning ‘head man’ or ‘tribal leader’. Used by Clans of the Woi-Wurrung tribes and Taung Wurrung Ngurai-illum Wurrung ref First Peoples, GaryPresland. Ngurungaeta held the same tribal standing as an Arweet of the Bunurong and Wathaurong people. The current Ngurungaeta is Murrundindi.
Bebejan – one of the seven ngurungaeta who signed the 1835 treaty with John Batman
John Batman is the leader of the colonists Buckley is here discussing. By all accounts, Batman was not a nice guy–he massacred villages, kidnapped children, and negotiated treaties with people who had no hope of understanding what he really meant.
According to Buckley, the Aborigines had intended to murder Batman and take all of his trade goods–something was definitely opposed to. Despite his friendships with the natives, Buckley longed to be rescued and return to English society. He therefore worked hard to convince the Aborigines not to kill Batman, and likewise, tried to stop the settlers from killing the Aborigines (including acting as an interpreter in a capital murder trial, successfully preventing an Aborigine man from being executed for a crime he didn’t commit.) In the end, of course, there was nothing Buckley could do about white treatment of the Aborigines, a subject matter far too vast for me to deal with it here.
I find it interesting that throughout these sorts of accounts–and I include here Napoleon Chagnon’s account of the Yanomamo, famed for their violence–people still tend to believe in the essential goodness of their companions. Buckley does not say, “Oh, these Aborigines, they’re evil people who kill people and eat them!” No, he repeatedly states his gratitude to them for saving his life, taking them in, and treating him kindly. His feelings of grief upon the loss of his Aborigine family appear quite genuine. He does not think they should murder and eat each other, but he does not seem to attirbute these behaviors to character flaws. Likewise, though Buckley criticizes the English for their mistreatment of the Aborigines, he does not declare them evil, either.
Nor does Napoleon Chagnon dislike the Yanomamo tribesmen he’s lived with, despite the fact that he knows full well that a great many of them are murderers!
If “evolution” is a word that comes up a lot in the late 1800s (even before Darwin,) “degenerate” is the word of the 1930s and 40s.
In Kabloona, (1941) an ethnography of the Eskimo (Inuit) of northern Canada, de Poncins speaks highly of the “pure” Eskimo, whose ancestral way of life remains unsullied by contact with European culture, and negatively of the “degenerate Eskimo,” caught in the web of international trade, his lifestyle inexorably changed by proximity and contact with the West.
The Northwest Coast Indians felt the ill effects of too much contact with British, Russian, and American traders. The rum of the trading schooners was one of several factors contributing to the degeneracy of those not actually exterminated.
In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, (1939) Dr. Price argues that modern foods are low in nutrient value and inferior to many native, ancestral diets, and that the spread of this “white man’s food” caused an epidemic of disease, tooth decay, and skeletal mal-formation, which he documents extensively. Dr. Price refers to the change in appearance from one generation to the next, coinciding with the introduction of modern foods, as “interrupted heredity.” The parents represent “pure racial type,” with strong teeth and bones, while the children, bow-legged and sick, suffer physical degeneration.
(This kind of language that Dr. Price uses sometimes confuses us moderns, because we flinch reflexively at phrases like “racial type” when in fact his argument is the inverse of the racist arguments of his day.)
Now, there is something twee about anthropologists (and historians) who long for the preservation of other peoples’ cultures when the people within those cultures seem to prefer modernity. Igloos and teepees may seem fun and exotic to those of us who don’t live in them, but the people who do might genuinely prefer a house with central heat and a toilet. Obviously the whole anthropologist schtick involves people who really like studying cultures that are distinct from their own, and if the people in those cultures adopt Western lifestyles, then there just isn’t much to study anymore.
(Imagine if we found out tomorrow that all of what we thought were variations in human DNA turned out to be contamination errors due to local pollen, and vast swathes of this blog became moot.)
It is easy to write off such notions as just feel-good sentimentalizing by outsiders, but these are at least outsiders with more first hand knowledge of these cultures than I have, so I think we should at least consider their ideas.
The degeneracy described as a result of contact with the West is not just physical or cultural, but also moral. A culture, fully-fledged, is one of humanity’s greatest technologies, a tool for the total transmission of a group’s knowledge, morals, and behaviors. Your ancestors, facing much the same environment as yourself, and armed with similar tools, struggled to obtain food, marry, raise children, and survive just as you do. The ones who succeeded passed down the lessons of their success, and these lessons became woven into the tapestry of culture you were raised in, saving you much of the trial-and error effort of reproducing your ancestors’ struggles.
Some people claim to believe that all cultures are equally valuable and important. I don’t. I think cultures that practice things like cannibalism, animal sacrifice, and child rape are bad and I don’t cry for their disappearance. But virtually every culture has at least some good features, or else it wouldn’t have come about in the first place.
Cultural lessons stem from the practical–“Ice the runners of your sled to make it run more smoothly”–to the moral–“Share your belongings in common with the tribe”–to the inscrutable–“don’t eat the totem animal.” (Some of these beliefs may be more important than others.) Throughout all of recorded human history, most of us have passed on bodies of moral teachings under the name of “religion,” whether we believe in the literal truth of mythic stories or not.
Rapid cultural change–not the gentle sort that percolates slowly across generations, but massive variety precipitated by an industrial revolution or the sudden introduction of a few thousand years’ worth of technological advancement to a long-isolated people–outstrips a society’s ability to provide meaningful moral or practical guidance. Simply put: people don’t know what to do.
Take alcohol. People have probably been producing fermented beverages for at least 10,000 years, or for about as long as we’ve been trying to store pots of grain and fruit. The French have wine, Mongolians have fermented horse milk, the Vikings fermented honey and the Founding Fathers drank a lot of apple cider.
Alcohol has beneficial effects–few pathogens survive the fermentation process–and obviously harmful effects. Societies that traditionally produced large quantities of alcohol have evolved social norms and institutions to help people enjoy the beneficial effects and avoid the bad ones. France, for example, which in 2014 produce 4.5 billion liters of wine and consumed 2.8 billion liters of the same, is not a nation of violent, wife-beating, car-crashing drunkards. French social norms emphasize moderate wine consumption accompanied by food, friends, and family.
By contrast, in societies where alcohol was suddenly introduced via contact with whites, people don’t have these norms, and the results–like rampant alcoholism on Native American reservations–have been disastrous. These societies can–and likely will–learn to handle alcohol, but it takes time.
Our own society is undergoing its own series of rapid changes–industrialization, urbanization, post-industrialization, the rise of the internet, etc. Andean cultures have been cultivating coca leaves for at least 3,000 years, apparently without much trouble, while the introduction of crack/cocaine to the US has been rather like dropping bombs on all of our major cities.
The invention of fairly reliable contraception and the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s led to the spread of “free love,” which in turn triggered skyrocketing gonorrhea rates. Luckily gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics (at least until it becomes antibiotic resistant,) but it’s still a nasty disease–one internet acquaintance of mine caught gonorrhea, took antibiotics and thought he was in the clear, but then doctors discovered that the inside of his penis was full of scar tissue that was dangerously closing off his bladder. They had basically cut him a new urethra once they were done removing all of the scar tissue, and he spent the next few months in constant, horrible pain, even while on medication.
And to add insult to injury, everyone in his social circle just thought he was bitter, jealous, and trying to make his ex-girlfriend look bad when he tried to warn them that they shouldn’t sleep with her because she gave him gonorrhea.
Degeneracy isn’t just a sickness of the body; it’s a falling apart of all of the morals and customs that hold society together and give people meaning and direction in their lives. You don’t have to waste years trying to “find yourself” when you already have a purpose, but when you have no purpose but to feed yourself, it’s easy to become lost.
I should note that Dr. Price didn’t just examine the teeth of Eskimo and Aborigines, but also of Scots, Swiss, and Americans. His conclusion–nutritional degeneracy due to contact with modern foods–was the same regardless of culture. (Note: nutrition and food production have changed since 1939.) Or as Scott Alexander recently put it:
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
Well, that sounds a fair bit more dire than Dr. Price’s assessment. Let’s assume Scott is being poetic and perhaps exaggerating for effect. Still: massive cultural changes can sweep the normative rug out from beneath your feet and leave you injured and confused. It will take time–perhaps centuries–for society to fully adjust to the technological changes of the past hundred years. Right now, everyone is still muddling through, trying to figure out what will kill us and what will save us.
One of the more amusing responses to my post on the recent Moldbug/Lambdaconf affair was Orthosphere‘s objection that conservatives cannot make an anti-homosexuality argument that appeals to atheists because, “if God doesn’t oppose homosexuality then there’s ultimately nothing wrong with it.” In other words, the only argument against homosexuality is religious, ergo, atheists will always be pro (or at least neutral) on the subject.
Yes, I recognize that this does not actually have anything directly to do with the Moldbug/Lambdaconf affair. Don’t worry; it doesn’t matter. My relevant bit was:
Take the most common argument against homosexuality: “God says it is a sin.” Young people are fairly atheist, believe in separation of church and state, and think a god who doesn’t like gay people is a jerk. This argument doesn’t just fail at convincing young people that gay marriage is bad; it also convinces them that God is bad.
By contrast, a simple graph showing STD rates among gay people makes a pretty persuasive argument that the “gay lifestyle” isn’t terribly healthy.
A further argument (made elsewhere, I believe, but on the same subject,) is that atheists simply do not believe in moral absolutes, because only god can command belief in moral absolutes, and since the argument against homosexuality is a moral absolute, therefore, atheists cannot be convinced.
So I thought this would make for an interesting bit of rumination: do there exist any arguments that can convince atheists that homosexuality is bad? And if not, why have Republicans harped on a guaranteed losing issue?
(Since my original post was only using the arguments for and against homosexuality as a means of illustrating a broader point germane to the Moldbug/Lambdaconf topic, I attempted to treat the matter quickly and without much depth. The version of those paragraphs I hashed out originally went on for much longer, but little of that could fit in the post without overtaking it and distracting from the actual point.)
First, can atheists hold absolute moral values?
As a practical matter, we do. We might not be able to justify why we believe something, but that doesn’t stop us from believing it.
For example, I believe that child abuse/neglect/rape/murder is absolutely, 100% morally wrong. I am normally a peaceful, tree-hugging person who feels guilty about eating animals, but harm a child, and I want to see you drawn and quartered.
I feel no compelling need to justify to myself why I believe that. It is obviously true, in the same sense that scraping my knee on the sidewalk is obviously painful.
I also believe other things in a fairly absolutest way, like “don’t torture puppies” and “don’t poop on the sidewalk.”
But to use a source with possibly a little more authority than me, the Spring 2006 volume of Religious Humanism, published by the Unitarian Universalists contains an article titled, “Theistic Moral Intuitions in a Secular Context: A Plea for Ficionalism in Moral Philosophy,” by Loobuyck, which essentially proposes that atheists should “fake it till they make it”:
Some essential ideas about the nature of morality are survivals of Judaic-Christian ideas, and function now outside the framework of thought that made them intelligible. Our ideas of the moral self, human dignity, and the Kantian summum bonum also survive from an earlier conception of theistic ethics. All these ideas became “self-evident” and essential elements of our secular moral discourse, but they belong to theistic metaphysics and do not easily fit into secular metaphysical naturalism.
Secular moral philosophers are confronted with the following dilemma: since the moral discourse is useful and confirms our deepest moral intuitions, doing away with it incurs a cost; a price is also paid for keeping a flawed discourse, for “truth” is a very valuable commodity. … the stance of moral fictionalism makes it possible to keep a discourse while knowing it is inherently flawed. …
Nietzsche seems to be suggesting that the acceptance of the death of God will involve the ending of all our accepted standards of morality, but if we look around, this has not proved correct. As for losing our European morality, the opposite is true. We still think about morality as theists did: as a system of objective prescriptive laws with special authority, and many of the so-called universal secular values are values we can find in the Judaic-Christian tradition. We did not reject the slave-morality, and most people will not see the Nietzschean superman as a paragon of moral excellence. We still believe in the intrinsic and equal value of human being, and moreover, we build a whole construction of human rights on these fundamental but religious ideas. …
some intuitions can be so successful that they can persist as self-evident even when the philosophical context that gives meaning to those intuitions vanished. … Secular ethics is modeled upon theological ethics and talks abut a moral agent in such terms that it structurally parallels the notion of God… someone who argues that morality is a “myth” is seen frequently as maintaining not merely a counter-intuitive position, but also a pernicious or dangerous position. …
we can suggest the stance of “fictionalism”: the possibility of maintaining the discourse but taking an attitude other than belief towards it (disbelieving acceptance.) … atheistic Darwinists live as if their life has and ultimate meaning, we look at our child as if it is the most wonderful baby in the wold, and we think as if there is a real difference instead of a gradual difference between animals and human beings. … We could say that we must live and think as if there are absolute prohibitions, intrinsic values, human dignity and act as if morality is not a Sartrian passion inutile. … fictionalism… helps to save morality in our age of secularization, science, and deconstruction.
Now, I understand that religious folks might not be comfortable with the philosophy of “If we’re all going to act like we have a coherent theoretical basis for our moral intuitions, then let’s just go ahead and pretend we have one,” but as a practical matter, I think that’s what most atheists are basically doing.
Consider that about 20% of Americans are pretty openly atheists, (and about half of the “religious” people seem like they’re just going through the motions.) And yet, these 20-50% of Americans don’t have higher than average rates of murder, theft, abuse, or public defecation than the rest of the country. We also don’t have higher than average rates of sins like gluttony, premarital sex, drug use, or divorce.*
When you encounter an atheist, do you feel a sudden surge of fear that here is someone who might randomly stab you in a fit of Nietzschean ubermenschen glory? Or are you generally pretty confident that this person will act a lot like a normal person who believes in the principles laid down in the Ten Commandments?
To turn this around, to many atheists, the Christian reliance on an outside source for their morality makes their morality seem less absolute. Atheists see, “Do not sacrifice your children to Moloch,” as obvious, not something that needs to be spelled out multiple times. Suppose those verses had not made it into the Bible: would it then be acceptable to sacrifice one’s children to Moloch?
Consider the story of Abraham, Isaac, and the ram. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham obeyed. God stopped him, not Abraham’s own moral conscience.
To an atheist, this story is horrifying. You do not murder your children. It does not matter if human sacrifice is common in your neighborhood; it does not matter if god told you to. Murdering your children is always immoral.
I can hear your objection: I’ve misunderstood the story; the point is not that sacrificing your kid is good, but human sacrifice was common in Abraham’s time and God changed this by showing Abraham a new, better way. Yahweh was not like those other gods; Yahweh’s morality is superior to those other gods’.
But this is at odds with the text, in which “the Angel of the Lord” praises Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son:
“Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. … I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,18 and through your offspring[b] all nations on earth will be blessed,[c] because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22)
I don’t think moral absolutes are supposed to have exceptions.
Nevertheless, every religious person I’ve ever met treats “don’t sacrifice children” as a moral absolute; I certainly don’t feel any fear upon meeting a Christian that they might sacrifice me as a result of an awkwardly worded and poorly thought-out vow.
As far as daily life interactions are concerned, Christians and atheists perform remarkably similar moral actions.
We ascribe, however, different origins to our beliefs. Atheists attribute theirs to “common sense,” Christians to “God.” Perhaps common sense is actually God or was created by God, allowing atheists and theists alike to act like moral beings, or perhaps religious people have just as much common sense as everyone else.
Personally, I think morality is basically instinctual.
First, most people–atheist or theist–tend not to think too much about philosophical issues like, “What if we had a 2-ton Hitler on rollerskates to push in front of the trolley? Then would it be moral?” We all use mental shortcuts that make dealing with 99.99% of everyday life easier rather than spend time thinking about the 0.01% exceptions. Likewise, I am content to proclaim that it absolutely morally wrong to torture babies without wasting my time trying to think up extremely rare exceptions.
Second, people who murder their own children have historically probably been evolutionary failures, while people who have a strong urge to nurture and protect their children have had better luck at actually passing on their genes to the next generation. As a result, any genes that lead to murdering one’s own children probably get selected against, while genes that lead to caring for one’s children are selected for.
The result is an instinctive desire to protect and care for your children. This desire to care for your children is so strong that it can even be triggered by baby animals, cute toys, and other people’s unborn fetuses.
Obviously there is some cultural variation on this; some groups today still practice ritual child sacrifice, though typically apparently not of their own children, but of other people’s children whom they’ve kidnapped. But I don’t live in one of these societies; I live in a society where human (and animal) sacrifice has never been practiced. So for me, at least, child sacrifice is a giant NO.
We can extend this argument to all sorts of behaviors, like not stealing from your neighbors, that have lead to evolutionary success over the generations. In short: if your morals lead to you dying out without descendants, then your morals die with you. If your morals lead to you leaving lots of descendants, then lots of people end up believing in your morals. We don’t even need a genetic mechanism to cause this, but there is plenty of evidence in favor of one.
“Evolutionary morality” (and “game theoretic morality”) are the keys Loobuyck needs to unlock why atheists still have moral intuitions.
Second: Having established that atheists do basically act like they believe in moral absolutes, do there exist any arguments against homosexuality that would actually work on atheists?
Now, obviously, the argument, “God says so,” does not work with atheists. (It doesn’t always work on Christians, either, given that the New Testament forbids women from braiding their hair or wearing pearls, and commands them to keep their hair covered.) When atheists do engage in moral reasoning, they tend toward utilitarian arguments–X makes people happy, Y makes people sad, therefore X is good and Y is bad.
There are many critiques of utilitarianism, especially when it comes to experiences outside of people’s normal, everyday lives, but it’s not a bad way of articulating why you shouldn’t hit your brother. Therefore:
Potential Argument A: “Homosexual Happiness”
If you can demonstrate that homosexuality causes harm/suffering and that somehow convincing people not to be gay prevents this harm/suffering, then you have a good chance of convincing the atheists.
So far, people have not convincingly made this argument. Yes, gay folks have high suicide rates, but no one has convincingly argued that being gay causes this and that, say, outlawing gay marriage or convincing gay people that homosexuality is wrong lowers their suicide rate. By contrast, the other side argues pretty loudly that gay people are less happy when you tell them they’re immoral, and more happy when you say they aren’t.
Of course, you do not actually have to prove a point so much as argue it loudly and effectively. Most people are not strict utilitarians who check the statistical validity of other people’s arguments–they just react to the funny pictures they see on TV and process things in a fairly instinctual way. If they are surrounded by the narrative that gay people are happy being gay and that only meanie pantses who make them sad are opposed to them, then they will be fine with gay people. If they are surrounded by the narrative that gay people are miserable, rape children, and die of AIDS or suicide unless convinced to reject homosexuality, then they will (probably) view homosexuality as a weird aberration.
Outside of San Francisco and a few scattered neighborhoods across the US, most people encounter very few gay people in real life, just because gay people are a relatively small % of the population that is highly concentrated in a few places. (The 10% statistic turns out to be false.) Perhaps you know 2 or 3 gay people–of those, maybe one reasonably well. What do you know, genuinely, about them? How happy are they? How productive? How much do they give back to their community or civic organizations? By contrast, how many gay people have you encountered in books, TV shows, movies, or newspapers?
I’ll go ahead and admit it: far more of my “knowledge” of gay people comes from fiction of various sorts than from real life. The random vagaries of life simply have not led to me knowing that many gay people.
(Which means that that my entire conception of “what gay people are like” could be wrong.)
You will point out that there are practical issues with influencing the media narrative. So there are. No one ever said convincing people was easy. But conservatives do get enough opportunities to share their point of view that people are amply familiar with their arguments on the subject of homosexuality–so I don’t see this as a good reason to use arguments that don’t work.
Potential Argument B: “Disease Rates”
Whether you are concerned for gay people themselves or just concerned about diseases, gay people do catch STDS at a higher rate than straight people. Personally, I happen to really dislike being sick, so anti-disease arguments work pretty well on me.
An anti-disease argument doesn’t have to be rational. My fear of Ebola may not be rational, because I worry about it even though no one in my entire continent, to my knowledge, has the disease. I just think Ebola is really scary. Likewise, put some disease statistics and quotes from “bug chasing” forums on TV or in the papers every so often, and you’ll completely disgust and horrify people. Even atheists will want to hear about “gay rights” about as much as the average person wants to hear about poop.
Yes, a libertarian would argue that it’s gay people’s business if they want to engage in high-risk activities, but it does not follow that lots of people would therefore go out of their way to advocate in favor of gay peoples’ rights to do risky things. I believe that people have the right to bathe in pudding if they feel like it, but I don’t spend much time advocating it.
Further, most people are not libertarians, which is why the libertarian candidate never gets to be president.
Someone partial to gay people would point out that bug chasers are not representative of the gay population as a whole and that non-promiscuous gay people who use condoms don’t get a bunch of diseases, but since this is an argument based on triggering peoples’ instinctual disgust mechanisms, they’re probably not going to hear anything over their brains going “EW EW EW.”
Most people act on instinct, and one important instinct that’s pretty solidly embedded in most people is to avoid disease vectors. This is why poop and rotting corpses are icky–so icky, you might actually throw up from being near them.
So, even though someone could make all kinds of reasonable counter-arguments about personal liberty, medical advances, safe sex, monogamy, etc., you can may be able to hijack people’s instinctual fear of disease to make them completely unwilling to even listen to counter-arguments.
Potential Argument C: “So Few Homosexuals”
Americans vastly overestimate the number of gay people–when Gallop asked people to estimate the % of people who are gay, 33% of responders estimated that more than 25% of people are gay; 20% of responders estimated that 20-25% of people are gay. Only 9% of people got the correct answer, “Less than 5%.” (Actually, about 3.8% of people are gay.) Of these, about 60% say they would like to get married–or 2.3% of Americans.
Let’s step back for a moment and wonder at the fact that liberals and conservatives alike have devoted untold hours and dollars to fighting over the legal marriage status of 2.3% of Americans while 8% of people are unemployed; in 2013, 2.5 million American children were homeless, and 15% of Americans live in poverty and face “food insecurity.” 52% of Americans will be victims of multiple violent crimes in their lives; 1 in 30 black men will be murdered. About 50% of marriages end in divorce; the Iraq war cost between 2 and 6 trillion dollars (not to mention the continuing cost of fighting ISIS). And if you are the kind of person who cares about people in other countries, there are a few billion poor people in the third world who would appreciate some help.
In other words, there are a lot of problems in this world that a reasonable person might consider higher priority than whether or not gay people should be allowed to “get married” or have “civil unions.”
Why let the other side take the moral high ground? Whenever the subject comes up, just divert to something else that affects far more people and claim that your opponent is trying to use an obscure, tiny issue to distract from the real problems facing America.
Potential Argument D: “Functional Purpose”
This is very close to an argument that conservatives do make, which is that the purpose of marriage is to produce children. This, of course, sounds like total nonsense to young people, who don’t think marriage has a function other than to serve as a means of saying “we like each other.”
Skipping over the potential misunderstanding, let’s talk about things like insurance benefits. Why does one spouse working entitle the other spouse to health insurance?
So that one spouse can work while the other takes care of the children. “Taking care of children” and “making socks” are both activities that someone has to do for society to keep functioning, but we recognize that factories produce better socks and parents produce better children, so we try to keep sock-making in factories and child-rearing at home.
Sometimes people get confused on this point, so I’m going to spell it out in more detail: not all valuable work is paid. You could pay someone to wash your dishes, sweep your floors, cook your meals, and take care of your children, or you could do all of these jobs yourself and get the exact same benefits. These are all things that have to get done; sweeping the floor does not become “legitimate work” just because you pay someone to do it and stop being “legitimate work” the moment you do it yourself.
100 years ago, most people lived on farms and did almost all of their work themselves–they planted their own crops, built their own houses, installed their own plumbing (or outhouses), sewed their own clothes, cooked their own food, and raised their own children. Few people were formally employed. The vast majority of economic production occurred–and was consumed–within families or small communities.
But this does not mean the economic production did not occur.
Today, the locus of employment has shifted outside the home–to factories, offices, shops, etc.–and we have decided to route many valuable social functions–like health insurance–through paid employers.
This runs into a problem, because some people (mainly women) are still engaged in the valuable economic work of raising children and running households. Moms get sick, too, so the health insurance men get through work extends to cover their non-working spouses.
The same is true of various other legal/inheritance benefits accorded by marriage–they basically exist to protect the non-working spouse who is raising children instead of engaging in paid employment.
Health insurance is not some special perk society decided to give people just because they’re in love. You’re not supposed to marry someone just to get health insurance benefits. That is an abuse of the system. If you have no intention of having children (or cannot have children,) then there is no reason for you to stay home while your spouse works: you can get your own job and qualify for your own health insurance.
Of course, some gay people do have children, whether biologically or through adoption, and I see no reason to deny these children health insurance, inheritance, etc. But even fewer gay people want children than want to get married–only about 16% of gay people have children.
The point of this post has not been give any of my own, personal opinions on the morality of homosexuality or gay marriage, but to explore potential arguments on the subject besides “God doesn’t like it.”
Some of these arguments are appeals to emotion or otherwise dishonest, but they still exist; people could have used them. Instead, Republicans have chosen for the past 20 years to focus primarily on an argument that comes across to young people as violating the establishment clause of the Bill of Rights, which I suspect has done more to alienate young people than convince them.