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This post is set up to float to the top. I'm getting a bunch of new readers lately, so I figured a welcome/orientation post is appropriate.

Welcome to my journal! (Yeah, yeah, I know, the cool kids call it a blog these days.)

I post intermittently, sometimes at length, usually about personal topics, sometimes about controversial ones. I love thoughtful comments, even (sometimes especially) when they disagree with me. Anonymous comments or private messages are OK, too.

I expect politeness, though -- especially to my other commenters. If you can't be civil, be silent. If I start getting a wave of hostile anonymous commenters, I will likely change my policy.

Some links I keep here for convenience:

Protecting speech.

West's response to Chait is pretty good, too.

I mean, look, I'm sympathetic to the desire to encourage a free exchange of ideas without fear of reprisal. It's important. Yes, on college campuses, but really everywhere.

But West is entirely right: we're not starting from an environment that encourages a free exchange of ideas without fear of reprisal. Certainly not equally, and certainly not everywhere. We're at best trying to create it.

And part of that birth process is protesting existing conventional systems that get in its way, that create and preserve inequality.

And when we push back on those protests, however indirectly or conventionally or innocently... well, sure, we're just expressing ourselves. They're just speech acts. Sure. And the desire to encourage a free exchange of ideas moves us to defend those speech acts, and I get that.

But such acts also suppress the speech of others. So a desire to encourage a free exchange of ideas should move us to defend the protesters as well.

And when disproportionate power levels are involved, it's really not enough to nominally acknowledge the right of the relatively powerless to say what they're saying, which, y'know, might have consequences, and we wash our hands of those consequences. If we actually want to encourage a free exchange of ideas without fear of reprisal, that won't cut it. If one set of voices is routinely silenced or ignored while others are listened to without threat of reprisal, that's not a free exchange of ideas.

Now, maybe we're OK with that. In some cases we clearly are... some voices really are differentially silenced and ignored and condemned, with our full collective support. I'm sure you can list a few as readily as I can.

And maybe we collectively believe that the voices of various marginalized communities among us fall in that category. In which case, well, OK, we're acting on our collective belief, much as I may disagree with it.

But actually, that's not the impression I get. I see relatively few people arguing explicitly that, say, POC getting differentially mistreated should just shut up about it, for example. It's more that we (collectively) don't notice the mistreatment until it's brought to our attention.

(Relatedly: in the context of the recent terrorist bombings across the world, there's been a lot of explaination of why it's perfectly natural to notice mistreatment of the in-group more than we notice mistreatment of the out-group. And it's true, that is perfectly natural. Like a lot of perfectly natural things, it causes a lot of suffering, and if we wish to reduce suffering in the world, we do best to attend to it and mitigate it.)

So, anyway, no, I don't think we're actually collectively OK with differential silencing of most of the voices Chait and his fellow travellers are carrying on about. We just don't tend to notice the situations that drive those voices to speak.

But here's the thing: if we differentially notice impediments to the free expression of some people and not others...

...for example, if we notice that Black Lives Matter protesting the status quo makes white people uncomfortable or silenced or attacked or threatened, but we don't notice that the status quo itself makes black people uncomfortable or silenced or attacked or threatened...

...or if we notice that feminists protesting rape culture makes men uncomfortable or silenced or attacked or threatened, but we don't notice that the culture itself makes women uncomfortable or silenced or attacked or threatened...

or if we notice that marginalized religious communities protesting the ubiquity of Christian symbolism makes Christians uncomfortable or silenced or attacked or threatened, but we don't notice that that Christian ubiquity itself makes non-Christians uncomfortable or silenced or attacked or threatened...

...and so on, and so forth...

...if we differentially notice impediments to the free expression of some people and not others, we end up with a systematically distorted view of what's going on.

Which means we may discover, when the time comes to defend free expression, that we're fighting to supprt a cause we oppose.

Attempting a stress dream.

I don't normally post about dreams, but I wanted to capture this one.

So, in my dream I'm backstage.
No idea what show I'm doing.
I clearly am supposed to be anxious about this.

Screw that. I sit there quietly for a while.

Eventually, the opening act (some kind of modern dance thing, very evocative, I don't understand it, but the dancers are pretty) ends, the audience goes wild, my usual T@F peeps trickle backstage and start to get ready.

Still have no idea why I'm there.
Still refuse to stress out about this.

Shit! I don't have my costume on and my cue is coming up soon!

Oh... I have a costume?
Cool. That means I know what show I'm doing, right?

Um... no, apparently not.
But apparently it involves a suit jacket and a hat.
And suspenders, maybe.
None of which I have.
Oh well. I roll up my sleeves instead. Clearly my character took his jacket off and hung it on the back of a chair somewhere, because he's too warm.

Andy Lebrun comes over. "Do you have the thing?"
I shake my head. What thing?
"They told me you had the thing I was supposed to be holding."

Oh, yeah, that sounds right.
But no, I don't have the thing.
We're just going to have to do the show without the thing.
"Oh. All right."

Eventually, I wake up.
I can practically hear the anxious, hormone-drenched parts of my brain crying on the porch, demanding to be let in.

This feels like a good sign.

Oh, and also, I'm doing a show next weekend! (I wasn't, a few days ago.)
I often say, when it comes to questions of how we coordinate right action across multiple autonomous agents, that I'm holding out for our robot overlords.

That said, I also observe that most people's reaction to questions of automation operationalizing right action in the face of tradeoffs is to find some more tractable definition of "right action" to apply to that problem and solve for that special case. E.g., discussions of how self-driving cars choose among possible accidents to have are irrelevant, because the actual goal is to drive safely and not have any accidents. And also, they're irrelevent because the automation will simply follow existing traffic laws, and if those laws are inadequate to reflect our preferences about how vehicles should behave, then we should fix the laws. And also a hundred other reasons.

This is unsurprising. IME most questions about right action in the face of tradeoffs are handled this way, automation notwithstanding. Most people reject trolley problems, often with extreme prejudice. The justifications for rejecting them vary, and mostly don't matter. Giving either reply to a well-formed trolley problem involves asserting either a willingness to cause suffering or a willingness to stand idly by and watch people suffer, and both of those choices have social consequences. It's unsurprising when people treat such problems as a social trap and look for a third option.

So I expect that we will automate a variety of systems the way various people are now advocating for treating autonomous vehicles: treat the question of how we make these sorts of moral trade-offs as irrelevant, and instead automate the system to do something else (e.g., follow the law as written).

As our automated systems become more capable and ubiquitous, the result will most likely be an inconsistent emergent morality implemented implicitly by a thousand different task-specific systems, none of whose designers take seriously the idea of addressing moral questions transparently in their designs.

This is analogous to how our own moral sense evolved, which is why we're so very inconsistent about it.

I'd really _prefer_ it if we didn't do that, and if we instead took the moral questions seriously in the simple toy cases that we're working with now, so we could extend and generalize that framework smoothly as more complex cases arise, and so the resulting global system stood a chance of having a transparent and consistent moral framework.

But I don't expect it.

So, y'know. I'm holding out for our robot overlords, because I think it's already too late for human brains to have any sort of transparent coherent moral framework, and we haven't yet fucked that up for automation.

But don't misunderstand me... I fully expect that we will. It's not that I have high hopes for our automation, it's just that I have higher hopes for our automation than for our brains.

Trigger warnings and censorship

So, "Coddling the American Mind" came up again on my feed, and despite having commented earlier on this style of essay at some length, I went off on it again, so I figure I might as well own it here.

Look, I recognize that censorship is a thing that happens, and that the sorts of people who want to control other people's speech don't conveniently restrict themselves to any particular ideology. There are censorship-happy liberals and censorship-happy conservatives and censorship-happy Christians and censorship-happy atheists and censorship-happy fill-in-the-blank.

So, yes, I agree that some people use the idea of trigger warnings as an excuse for censorship, just as some people use the idea of community norms, Biblical mores, toxic memes, etc. as an excuse for censorship. Of course we do.

But it's ridiculous to treat any of those larger structures as being primarily about censorship, any more than they're primarily about breathing or getting laid.

Yes, some atheists and Christians want to restrict various forms of religious and secular speech and expression; no, that's not what atheism or Christianity is about. Yes, some conservatives and liberals want to restrict various forms of political speech and expression; no, that's not what conservatism or liberalism is about.

(I can just hear all the keyboards clicking now, typing "Actually, $thing IS about restricting..." for various things the typist opposes.)

And, sure, therapeutic interventions can be hugely valuable for traumatized people, including students.

If we could take all the energy that gets spent on fulminating against trigger warnings and spend it on actually identifying and opposing cases of censorship, or on making counseling services that might accomplish something. I mean, it does happen, and it is a problem.

That said, mostly the sorts of people who write articles venting about how trigger warnings are infantilizing everyone don't actually seem very interested in limiting their focus to problematic censorship cases, or in focusing their efforts on providing traumatized students with support.

It's almost like they have an entirely different agenda.

The last time I brought this subject up, the agenda that bubbled out of the topic was a perceived power struggle between teachers and students over control over the class itself, what topics it addresses, how it addresses them, and so forth. Which is broader than censorship, but relevant to it.

Words, racism, white supremacism

(This started life as a response to someone saying they prefer the term "white supremacist" to "racist," because they consider it a more accurate description of the phenomenon. It got too long and deraily, so I moved it here.)

Yeah, I dunno.

I mean, in general I'll use whatever language the folks around me are using, in the hopes of communicating.

But I hold out little hope for the value of this sort of linguistic shift.

It seems to me that a lot of people in the U.S. think the word "racism" refers to overt hostile speech or behavior directed at people based on their skin color. So they recognize the KKK as "racist." They recognize yelling racial epithets at people as "racist." They recognize white supremacism as "racist" by extension.

But they don't recognize the social pattern of systematic differential worse treatment of POC as "racist". They don't recognize differential educational and economic opportunities as "racist." They don't recognize differentially dismissive speech patterns as "racist."

I suspect most of those people are politically conservative. That said, I don't think all conservatives fall into that category. For now, I'm going to refer to the sorts of people I'm thinking about here as Bs, just to avoid tripping against pre-existing label definitions.

Anyway, when progressives call that stuff out as racist, Bs sort of vaguely conclude that we must think any differential speech or behavior contingent on race is "racist". So they often adopt a tu quoque rhetorical stance, pointing to examples of speech or behavior contingent on race that targets white people and say "well, that's racist too, then!" And when progressives deny it, Bs get to conclude that progressives are just being anti-white.

This is the same pattern whereby Bs get to conclude progressives (and feminists) are anti-male, anti-straight, anti-Christian, anti-traditional-marriage, etc.

As far as I can tell, Bs don't have a word for what progressives mean by "racism." The social pattern of systematic differential worse treatment of people based on their skin color just doesn't seem very important in the B ideological frame, doesn't seem to need a name at all, any more than Christians need a word for acts of which Zeus disapproves.

So, I dunno.

Seems to me that if we start referring to the social pattern of systematic differential treatment of people based on their skin color as "white supremacism," we will see the same pattern. Bs will still generalize it in a way that ignores power relations, and start talking about "black supremacists" and "Hispanic supremacists" and they won't recognize the social pattern of systematic differential worse treatment of POC as "white supremacism" any more than they recognize it today as "racism."

In other words, I agree that there's a problem here, but I don't think shuffling tokens around will engage it.

Mostly, I think the way to engage it is to highlight the importance of social patterns of systematic differential worse treatment of people based on skin color and other demographics until people notice it. Along the way we can call it whatever we want; it won't make a lot of difference. What matters is the referent.


I think my favorite quote from this recent Politico interview with House Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy was:

“I think that’s just [the Democrats’] MO: If you can’t attack the facts, you can attack the investigators [..] just attack, attack, attack and something will take hold [..] at some point, maybe something will stick, or maybe you get them off track or you get them to do or say something stupid, then you can seize on that.”

(nods solemnly) Yeah, that's a real problem.

Whereas by contrast, when the House Intelligence Committee investigated the Benghazi attack, they gave their report, and that was the end of it.

And when Issa's House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigated the Benghazi attack, they just held their hearing, and their second hearing, and their third hearing, and gave their report, and moved on to the next thing.

Ditto The House Committee on Armed Services Majority Interim Report on Benghazi.

And the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Majority Staff Report on Benghazi.

And of course the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence's ongoing investigative work.

I mean, each of these Republican-led groups just investigated the facts, reported the results of their investigation, and moved on. They certainly didn't keep pounding on the issue in the hopes something would stick.

And no doubt the same will be true of Gowdy's current investigation as Chairman of the House Benghazi Committee, and of whatever Benghazi investigation follows it.

That said, the quote has competition:

“Attacks on your character, attacks on your motives, are 1,000-times worse than anything you can do to anybody physically — at least it is for me.”

Yeah, that must be awful.
(nods solemnly again)

"The people who know me appreciate the fact that it is an impossible job [...] to run a serious factcentric investigation in a political environment,”

Actually, even the people who don't know Gowdy appreciate this.
This is what we've been saying for a while, actually.
That's why we don't think that's what's happening.

“When I hear that ‘it’s about her,’ it is so hard for me,” he said, before addressing Clinton directly: “You are not worth 18 months of my life, with all due respect. Four dead people are, but you’re not.”

Mm. Yes. It's important to remember that this is what the Benghazi hearings are really about: four dead people.

Because, of course we spend millions of dollars investigating the deaths of four people, just because we care about their deaths. That's far more important than any political or partisan considerations.

Because that's just how we roll.
(A comment from a discussion elsewhere.)

It's not clear to me that Dave has actually given its endorsement to any particular coalition in a particularly consistent or coherent fashion; it seems to much of me that what Dave endorses and even how Dave thinks of itself and its environment is a moderately variable thing that depends on what's going on and how it strengthens, weakens, and inspires and inhibits alliances among us. Further, it seems to many of me that this is not at all unique to Dave; it's kind of the human condition, though we generally don't acknowledge it (either to others or to ourself) for very good social reasons which I ignore here at our peril.

That said, I would certainly agree that this is a matter of degree; there are some things that are pretty consistently endorsed by whatever coalition happens to be speaking as Dave at any given moment, if only because none of us want to accept the penalties associated with repudiating previous commitments made by earlier ruling coalitions, since that would damage our credibility when we wish to make such commitments ourselves.

Of course, that sort of thing only lasts for as long as the benefits of preserving credibility are perceived to exceed the benefits of defecting. Introduce a large enough prize and alliances crumble. Still, it works pretty well in quotidian circumstances, if not necessarily during crises.

Even there, though, this is often honored in the breach rather than the observance. Many ruling coalitions, while not explicitly repudiating earlier commitments, don't actually follow through on them either. But there's a certain amount of tolerance of that sort of thing built into the framework, which can be invoked by conventional means... "I forgot", "I got distracted", and so forth.

So of course there's also a lot of gaming of that tolerance that goes on. Social dynamics are complicated. And, again, change the payoff matrix and the games change.

All of which is to say, even if my various component parts were to agree on a gold standard version of how we want the world to be, and commit to an alliance to consistently and coherently enforce that standard regardless of what coalition happens to be speaking for Dave at the time, it is not at all clear to me that this alliance would survive the destabilizing effects of seriously contemplating the possibility of actually implementing those values.

We may have an uneasy alliance here inside Dave's brain, but it really doesn't take that much to convince one of us to betray that alliance if the stakes get high enough.

By way of analogy, it may be coherent to assert that the U.S. can "speak as" a single entity through the appointing of a Federal government, a President, and so forth. But if the U.S. agreed to become part of a single sovereign world government, it's not impossible that the situation that prompted this decision would also prompt Montana to secede from the Union. Or, if the world became sufficiently interconnected that a global economic marketplace became an increasingly powerful organizing force, it's not impossible that parts of New York might find greater common cause with parts of Tokyo than with the rest of the U.S. Or various other scenarios along those lines. At which point, even if the U.S. Federal government goes on saying the same things it has always said, it's no longer entirely clear that it really is speaking for Montana or New York.

In a not-really-all-that-similar-but-it's-the-best-I-can-do-without-getting-a-lot-more-formal way, it's not clear to me that when it comes time to flip the switch and implement "our" wishes, the current Dave Coalition continues to speak for Dave.

At best, I think it follows that just like the existence of other people (hereafter referred to as "Jerks") whose values are in opposition to those of the current Dave Coalition suggests that Dave should prefer implementing Dave's values over the values of a larger group of people (which might include Jerks), the existence of subsets of Dave whose values are in opposition to those of the current Dave Coalition suggests that Dave should prefer implementing the current Dave Coalition's values over the values of Dave as a whole.

But frankly, I think that's way too simplistic, because no given subset-of-Dave that lacks internal conflict is rich enough for any possible ruling coalition to be comfortable letting it grab the brass ring like that. Again, quotidian alliances rarely survive a sudden raising of the stakes.

Mostly, I think what really follows from all this is that the arbitration process that occurs within my brain cannot be meaningfully separated from the arbitration process that occurs within other structures that include/overlap my brain, and therefore if we want to talk about a value-implementation process at all we have to bite the bullet and accept that the target of that process is either too simple to be considered a human being, or includes inconsistent values (aka Jerks). Excluding the Jerks and including a human being just isn't a well-defined option.

Of course, Solzhenitsyn said it a lot more poetically (and in fewer words).
A friend recently shared What You’re Saying When You Use the Phrase “Politically Correct”, which I rather like, and agree with as far as it goes.

That said, I think if there was a conventional concise way to signal:

"I recognize that I'm walking into a minefield here, and I'm doing so because I think the topic is important to discuss. I'm trying my best to avoid spraying shrapnel on people, but the odds are I will fuck that up sooner or later, and I encourage people to call attention to my fuckups when that happens, and I will engage with those corrections as productively and genuinely as I can, and make amends as best I can, because that's what justice demands.

Also I acknowledge that I won't necessarily be judged entirely by my own actions, but also by the past actions of other members of demographics to which I belong, and I acknowledge that I routinely receive the benefits of that, so justice requires that I receive the costs of it as well.

All of that said, I'd also like not to be judged _entirely_ by the failures, but also by my successes and by whether or not the topic was worth raising in the first place. And while nobody is under any obligation to reassure me that they will do so, it remains true that I would appreciate some reassurance along those lines."

...which hadn't been coopted to mean "I don't care who I hurt, I just don't want to be held accountable for it," that would be really useful.

Especially if there were a conventional concise way to signal in response that "No, actually, I'm not willing or able to offer that reassurance right now; you're on your own."

In speech I sometimes use "So, can I ask a difficult question here?" for this.

In social media, I usually move the thought into my own blog, and either comment with a link or don't comment at all. (As, indeed, I just did.) That way, I'm at least not intruding my perspective into someone else's space.


So, I'm in a play!

One night only, Theatre@First's staged reading of Proof, this Thursday (10/8).
Details here.

It's been interesting working with the role of a man whose sanity is unreliable, but whose mind is at the same time sufficiently exceptional that the boundary between sane and insane stops seeming like the right standard to use in the first place.

It's a kind of "there but for the grace of genetics" thing for me, as I am often thankful that I didn't end up there. Sure, I'm not exactly typical, but I'm at most two or three sigmas out on the smart-and-crazy curve. And, yes, that has certain giant-spider implications from time to time, but it's maintainable.

Whereas it seems when you get out to the one-in-a-million-minds level quotidian reality is a lot harder to synchronize with.

Anyway... Proof is an awesome script and we're not too bad ourselves and we might perform "i" for y'all after the show if you ask nicely.
So you should come see it.

Details are still here.


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