The Social Signaling Problem

People like to signal. A LOT. And it is incredibly annoying.

It’s also pretty detrimental to the functioning of the country.

Take Prohibition. The majority of Americans never supported Prohibition, yet it wasn’t just a law passed by Congress or a handful of states, but an actual amendment to the Constitution, (the 18th) ratified by 46 states (only Rhode Island and Connecticut declined to ratify. I assume they had a large Irish population or depended on sales of imported alcohol.)

Incredibly, a coalition driven primarily by people who couldn’t even vote (women’s suffrage was granted in the 19th amendment) managed to secure what looks like near-unanimous support for a policy which the majority of people actually opposed!

Obviously a lot of people voted for Prohibition without understanding what it actually entailed. Most probably thought that other people’s intemperate drinking should be curbed, not their own, completely reasonable consumption. Once people understood what Prohibition actually entailed, they voted for its repeal.

But this is only part of the explanation, for people support many policies they don’t actually understand, but most of these don’t become disastrous Constitutional amendments.

What we have is a runaway case of social signaling. People did not actually want to get rid of all of the alcohol. People wanted to signal that they were against public drunkenness, Germans (this was right after WWI,) and maybe those Irish. Prohibition also had a very vocal group of people fighting for it, while the majority of people who were generally fine with people having the occasional beer weren’t out campaigning for the “occasional beer” party. It was therefore more profitable for a politician to signal allegiance to the pro-Prohibition voters than to the “occasional beer” voter.

Social signaling leads people to support laws because they like the idea of the law, rather than an appreciation for what the law actually entails, creating a mess of laws that aren’t very useful. For example, on Dec. 12, 2017, the Senate unanimously passed a bill “to help Holocaust survivors and the families of victims obtain restitution or the return of Holocaust-era assets.”

In the midst of increasing crime, an opioid epidemic, starving Yemenis, decimated inner cities, rising white death rates, economic malaise, homelessness, and children with cancer, is the return of assets stolen 75 years ago in a foreign country really our most pressing issue?

No, but do you want to be the guy who voted against the Justice for Holocaust survivors bill? What are you, some kind of Nazi? Do you want to vote in favor of drunken alcoholics? Criminals? Sex offenders? Murderers? Racists? Satanic Daycares?

Social signaling inspires a bunch of loud, incoherent arguing, intended more to prove “I am a good person” or “I belong to Group X” than to hash out good policy. Indeed, social signaling is diametrically opposed to good policy, as you can always prove that you are an even better person or better member of Group X by trashing good policies on the grounds that they do not signal hard enough.

The Left likes to do a lot of social signaling about racism, most recently exemplified in the tearing down of Civil War Era statues. I’m pretty sure those statues weren’t out shooting black people or denying them jobs, but nonetheless it suddenly became an incredibly pressing problem that they existed, taking up a few feet of space, and had to be torn down. Just breathe the word “racist” and otherwise sensible people’s brains shut down and they become gibbering idiots.

The Right likes to social signal about sex, which it hates so much it can’t shut up about it. Unless people are getting married at 15, they’re going to have extra-marital sex. If you want to live in an economy where people have to attend school into their mid-twenties in order to learn everything, then you either need to structure things so that people can get married and have kids while they are still in school or they will just have extra-marital sex while still in school.

Right and Left both like to signal about abortion, though my sense here is that the right is signaling harder.

The Right and Left both like to signal about Gun Control. Not five minutes after a mass shooting and you’ll have idiots on both sides Tweeting about how their favorite policy could have saved the day (or how the other guy’s policy wouldn’t have prevented it at all.) Now, I happen to favor more gun control (if you ignore the point of this entire post and write something mind-numbingly stupid in response to this I will ignore you,) but “more gun control” won’t solve the  problem of someone buying an already illegal gun and shooting people with it. If your first response to a shooting is “More gun control!” without first checking whether that would have actually prevented the shooting, you’re being an idiot. (By contrast, if you’re out there yelling “Gun control does nothing!” in a case where it could have saved lives, then you’re the one being an idiot.)

This doesn’t mean that people can’t have reasonable positions on these issues (even positions I disagree with.) But yelling “This is bad! I hate it very much!” makes it much harder to have a reasonable discussion about the best way to address the issues. If people can personally benefit by social signaling against every reasonable position, then they’ll be incentivised to do so–essentially defecting against good policy making.

So what can we do?

I previously discussed using anonymity to damp down signaling. It won’t stop people from yelling about their deeply held feelings, but it does remove the incentive to care about one’s reputation.

Simply being aware of the problem may help; acknowledge that people will signal and then try to recognize when you are doing it yourself.

In general, we can tell that people are merely signaling about an issue if they don’t take any active steps in their own personal lives to resolve it. A person who actually rides a bike to work because they want to fight global warming is serious; someone who merely talks a good talk while flying in a private jet is not.

“Anti-racists” who live in majority white neighborhoods “for the schools” are another example–they claim to love minorities but mysteriously do not live among them. Clearly someone else–maybe working class whites–should be forced to do it.

Signalers love force: force lets them show how SERIOUS they are about fighting the BAD ISSUE without doing anything themselves about it. The same is true for “anti-abortion” politicians, eg Kasich Signs Law Banning Abortions After Diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome. Of course Kasich will not be personally adopting or raising any babies with Down’s syndrome, nor giving money to their families to help with their medical bills. Kasich loves Down’s babies enough to force other people to raise them, but not enough to actually care for one himself.

Both sides engage in this kind of behavior, which looks like goodness on their own side but super hypocritical to the other.

The positions of anyone who will not (or cannot) put their money where their mouth is should be seen as suspect. If they want to force other people to do things they don’t or can’t, it automatically discredits them.

Communism, as in an entire country/economy run by force in order to achieve a vision of a “just society,” ranks as the highest expression of social signaling. Not only has communism failed miserably in every iterations, it has caused the deaths of an estimated 100 million people by starvation, purge, or direct bullets to the head. Yet communist ideology persists because of the strength of social signalling.

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Guest Post: How the Winds Change, by Zephyr

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Hello, everyone! Today we have a guest post, How the Winds Change, about social signaling, the Federal Government, the Cathedral, and Title IX–and how these things may change:

After the election we’ve seen a lot of liberals express the fear that LGBTQ people and Muslims and other minorities will be rounded up and become victim to horrible things, as this blog has noted. It’s kind of a weird paranoia. Even if Trump was as evil as they say, liberals still have a solid 47% of the populace opposed to him – even up to 90% in their cities. How would you get the people on board with stigmatizing minorities when so, so many people oppose it? In order to enact this sort of draconian social change, you’d really need the masses to buy into it.

I think this fear comes from social justice advocates realizing, somewhere deep down, that their hold on the Cathedral is in some ways quite tenuous. There are a lot of true believers, but there are even more people just along for the ride, who see the best way to get status is to play along with progressive orthodoxy. If the best way to get status and to protect your position becomes “follow the Trump party line,” then those activists currently in the vanguard could find themselves losing a lot of their influence.

The government can do that. Usually in the culture wars the government is a passive beast, something to be fought over and not really a driver of people’s opinions. This is particularly true in liberal democracy, which used to be one of the best things about the US democracy. But, the government has a lot of money, and a lot of power, and if it wants to start really, seriously swaying the elites, status-seeking people will follow it.

Here’s an example. How many of you have heard of the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights? Not many of you probably, as it’s a fairly small office. It’s headed by the Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights. No one famous, not someone you see in endless clickbait articles or cable news debates. She doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia page! She’s just in charge of making sure that schools that receive federal funds (mostly universities) are in compliance with civil rights laws.

But with this administration, the Assistant Secretary of this office cares a lot about progressive social change. And she believes very strongly that sexual assault in our culture is a major problem, and she wants to raise awareness of it (backed by a White House Task Force) . This is no grand conspiracy, this is one person caring about a cause a lot, with only a little bit of federal power behind them, all out in the open.

Now, if found in violation of their civil rights requirements, a university could lose Title IX funding, which is a lot of money. But that sort of hammer can only be used so much, and it’s not even clear how you could prove harassment on campus was the fault of the university in such an investigation.

So instead, the OCR has taken a much more ambiguous approach. Whenever a sexual assault investigation on campus is in the news, they would send a Dear Colleague letter to the university, announcing it was investigating their response. Eventually, the OCR publicly released a list of 55 schools under investigation for how they handle sexual assault accusations.

There is no way that the federal government could pull Title IX funding from 55 major institutions. As a whole the threat was entirely a paper tiger. But whooo boy, no university wants to be on that List. No admissions counselor wants to explain to student’s parents what that List means. No fundraising officer wants to explain to alumni why they are on this List of schools under investigation, before asking them for five figure donations.

So the school does everything they can to comply with the OCR, and make clear they are on the right side of history. In practice, this means putting the rights of the accused last, the rights of the victim second, and the interests of the OCR first. It also means a lot of campus publicity that isn’t shown to reduce sexual assault, but looks like they are doing something.

You may have noticed that within feminism, the problem of “sexual assault on college campuses” has received a ton of attention. Part of the reason for that is universities falling over themselves to appease this office with its vague requirements. As the old saying goes “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

That’s the system. The government vaguely threatens people who get a lot of money from them. Those people with a lot of money jump in line. Other elites look to the people with money as sources of moral authority and take their cues from them. And the masses worry about what the elites are chattering about so much. This is pretty much the definition of the Cathedral after all.

Ordinarily the US government isn’t very involved in the culture wars, so the cultural opinions of the elite are unlikely to turn on a dime. But as we’ve seen, with some issues the federal government does get involved. And I think a lot of the social justice fear is that a Trump administration will get much more actively involved in trying to sway opinion on his issues.

First of all, they’ll stop doing what the current OCR is doing. They may even do the reverse, and starting making a list of schools who they think have been too hard on defendants. Then other bureaucrats in their various niches can begin pursuing investigations designed to “raise awareness” of their pet issue. And before you know it, all the high status intellectuals in your society are apologizing for their past stances and trying to sound like they agreed with Donald Trump all along.

It’s a pretty frightening image, and a good wake up call to just how much power the government has to bend the course of our moral culture when it wants to. No political group on either side should be comfortable with this.

Why do Patriotic Americans like the Confederate Flag?

or, in-group cohesion and the Stars and Bars

Oh, look, fieldwork.

In my further attempts to understand different segments of American society, I’ve been trying to listen to what folks in the army are talking about.

Observation one: They like boobs.

Observation two: a higher than average (at least, compared to the people I normally encounter) percentage of them like or do not hate the Confederate flag.

To the lay observer, this seems like a contradiction. After all, isn’t the Confederate flag symbolic of a traitorous, break-away nation that opened fire on the US military installment at Fort Sumter? Wouldn’t everyone in the US army, under such circumstances, be compelled to open fire on those rebels?

Something more than superficial logic must be going on.

 

Possibility one: Freedom of Speech.

Maybe people who sign up to defend American values at home and abroad are just really strong supporters of Freedom of Speech.

While certainly some army folks do cite this line of reasoning, they seem no more inclined to it than anyone else. The general sentiment towards flag-burning, another case of protected but offensive speech, appears much less positive. They might vaguely tolerate flag burning, if they have to, but virtually none of them would actually burn the US flag. By contrast, some of them (sorry I have no hard stats,) actively *like* the Confederate flag.

Possibility two:

Out-migration of liberals leaves a remnant population in which conservatives come to represent what “America” “stands for,” and this remnant, increasingly conservative population uses the Confederate flag to symbolize its conservativeness.

Eh… Certainly there is a physical overlap between the part of the country that produces most army grunts, hard-core patriots, and people who like the Confederate flag, and people may not actually think through their cultural symbols but just kinda like stuff they grew up with.

This line of thought feels inelegant.

Possibility 3: Signaling In-Group Preference.

If there’s anything that differentiates conservatives from liberals, preferring one’s in-group over the out-group ranks pretty high. Liberals are so fond of the out-group, they’ve literally taken to calling themselves “allies.”

If there’s anything that probably inspires people to join the army, it’s preference for one’s in-group (country, state, city, etc.,) over folks in one’s out-group. After all, the entire purpose of the army is to defend one’s in-group by killing or threatening to kill one’s out-group. This is about as literal as it gets.

Obviously the Confederate flag only has any kind of significance to people from the American South–I wouldn’t expect in-group oriented folks from Saudi Arabia to start flying it, for example. Symbols probably can’t be totally random. But we already know that the US army draws more from the US South than from Saudi Arabia.

A lot of people claim that the Confederate flag symbolizes racism. That’s probably true, but almost no one thinks of themselves as “racist.” No one thinks of themselves as “dumb,” either, even though 50% of people are, by definition, below average. Most mentally healthy people resist applying insults to themselves, and “racist” is an insult.

As such, I think it more functional to claim that the Stars and Bars represents in-group preference/cohesion to those who fly it, and “fuck you” to those not in the group. As people may have multiple layers of group identity, I suspect people in the army may simultaneously identify with the US, their specific sub-region of the US (the South), their state, home city, local sports teams, their friends/family/religious group, the army, etc.

Many people claim the Confederate flag has less to do with anti-black sentiment as with anti-Yankee sentiment. To be frank, it’s not like an army of black people ever invaded the South and burned a large swath of it to the sea.

I wouldn’t really know, because I’ve never hung out with Confederate flag fans long enough to do a comparative study of how they react to different groups of outsiders.

Regardless, the flag’s offensive reputation may not matter so much as the fact that it has an offensive reputation: your in-group signalling may be more effective if it imposes some cost on signalers. This makes it harder for non-group members to trick you into extending the benefits of group membership. For example, you can’t just call yourself a Jew and get a free ticket to Israel; you have to do things like keep kosher, which is an enormous pain in the ass for people who aren’t used to it. There are legal ramifications to having one’s conversion declared invalid due to inadequate adherence to kosher laws and other Orthodox Jewish legal standards. This may come across as anal-retentive, but in the long-run, it keeps the privileges of in-group membership for people who are actually devoted to the in-group.

Likewise, the offensiveness of the Confederate flag keeps the benefits of southern in-group membership for those willing to deal with the social stigma attached to flag, or at least willing to say “fuck you” to everyone outside their social group.

The “Other” is but a Foil for the Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some problems to watch out for, though:

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

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

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

A complicating wrinkle of uncomplicating insight via two images:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. Ritual and liturgy? I love it.

Q. What new directions will you bring to Stanford?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All right, so let’s review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think of it as a for of political power redistribution.