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Welcome!

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:

Human privilege

As regular readers know, I talk a lot about the rising tide of automation, and how I'm basically in favor of it (despite expecting it to cause significant suffering in the short to medium term).

A recurring pattern I see in opposition to such automation involves pointing to real or anticipated task failures under automation and saying, essentially, "see? we can't trust computers to do this; they'll screw up."

To which my usual reply is to point to real or anticipated task failures under human governance and saying, essentially, "we can't trust humans, either, for the same reason. and given that the task will be performed by an unreliable error-prone system, I'd prefer it be performed by a more reliable, less error-prone system... which is humans for fewer and fewer tasks."

Few people find this compelling, unsurprisingly.

Also, a recurring theme in those discussions is the common counterargument that widespread automation of certain tasks like research and government and civil engineering and so forth will remove human self-determination and free will and stuff.

And I've always found that position puzzling. I mean, speaking personally, my self-determination and free will and stuff is not significantly more actualized living in social systems built out of other humans' brains than built out of nonhuman brains. I don't really care whether the system that designed my house, or my phone network, or the voting districts in my neighborhood, or etc., is human or not; I care what the house, phones, etc. look like.

So, in a recent conversation on this topic I kind of mused in passing that really, this was all just an expression of human privilege, similar in spirit to the way white people see the prospect of POC having equal political and economic power as a threat to them, or men see female equality as a threat, etc. etc. etc.

I think, when I said it, I meant it as somewhere in between a metaphor and a joke.

But hearing it come out of my mouth I found myself agreeing with it literally. Humans experience the prospect of nonhuman intelligence as a threat, because much of our sense of being entitled to the current benefits of being human is constructed around our concepts of intelligence. (Relatedly, many of us try to justify the uneven distribution of those benefits to varying groups of humans by attributing differential intelligence to those groups.) This isn't just analogous to the process whereby we become frightened of out-groups gaining status equal to ours because we fear losing privilege, it is an example of that process.

I'm not quite sure what I want to do with that realization.

When it involves groups of humans, my usual reply to that sort of resistance is "yes, you may be right that as we treat group X more like human beings, group Y will lose social privilege to which it is accustomed, and that means Y will be worse off than they were, at least relatively and possibly absolutely as well. If the alternative is continuing to not treat X like humans, I endorse that trade; Y benefiting on the backs of X isn't actually OK just because it's conventional."

But when X isn't actually human, I don't actually endorse that reply.

I mean, yes, as we develop machines that take over the managerial and governance functions of our society, human managers and governors will lose the privileges to which they are accustomed, and that means they'll be worse off than they were, at least relatively and possibly absolutely as well.

But if the alternative is continuing to not treat machines as humans, well, I'm basically OK with that. This is no doubt provincial of me, and I may well change my mind over the decades to come, but it's where I am now and I don't choose to pretend otherwise.

My current response is that as we develop machines that take over the managerial and governance functions of our society, we potentially improve the situation for the non-governing class. But that feels an awful lot like I've arrived at the conclusion first, and am now looking for an explanation for why my preferred conclusion is correct.

I don't trust that sort of reasoning.

So I'm still sitting with this.

Two wolves and a sheep.

So, I keep having this discussion piecemeal in other people's comments, so I suppose I should probably say this here in my own voice.

First of all, let me clearly say that I applaud the people of Ireland for their recent 8:5 vote in favor of legally recognizing and protecting same-sex marriages. That's great, that's wonderful, I wish my own country were capable of that level of support, y'all rock and are an inspiration to the world and to me in particular. Way to go!

And I recognize that the nature of the Irish Constitution was such that this had to be a popular referendum.

All of that said, let me also clearly say that minority rights ought not be put to majority vote in the U.S. They ought to be protected and defended as a matter of legal principle.

"But don't you trust the people to do the right thing, Dave?"

Well, in general no, but that's really not the point. I mean, in general I don't trust SCOTUS to do the right thing, either. (And regular readers already know that I basically don't trust human brains not to routinely blow ourselves out of our own skulls, let alone manage anything more complicated, and am ultimately holding out for our robot overlords.)

But the important issue here isn't actually about who Dave trusts to do the right thing, much as I enjoy carrying on about that.

It's about what kind of question this is, and what kind of people the system is intended to rely on to answer those kinds of questions.

When we want houses built, for example, we rely on architects. When patients are recovering from strokes, we rely on neurologists. When we're interpreting the U.S. Bill of Rights, we rely on Supreme Court Justices. When we're empowering legislators, we rely on voters. When we're deciding on how to have Bar Mitzvahs, we rely on rabbis. Etc.

So when questions of civil rights in the U.S. come up, the question arises: what kind of question is this? Are civil rights in the U.S. constitutional guarantees derived from the Bill of Rights? Are they a matter of popular preference? Are they a legislative matter? Are they a religious matter?

Because if it's a matter of popular preference, then voting on civil rights directly makes sense. In that case, for example, if the majority votes to ban private gun ownership, or Islamic religious practices, or anal sex, or legal recognition of same-sex marriages, or what-have-you, well, that's perfectly OK because it's the will of the people and the will of the people ought not be fettered. And if the majority wants to permit these things, that's OK too... and if the majority changes its mind over time, or from one jurisdiction to another, that's OK too.

And if, instead, they are legislative matters, then Congress should vote on them, and the people's voice is reflected through the desire of Congressfolk to avoid unpopular decisions that make their re-election more difficult.

And so on, and so forth.

And if minority civil rights in the U.S. are constitutionally guaranteed -- and personally, I believe they are -- then it's up to Supreme Court Justices to make these decisions... that's just how our system works.

So, yeah, I endorse relying on judges rather than voters when it comes to issues of minority civil rights, and I consider same-sex marriage equality an issue of minority civil rights.

(Admittedly, it also helps that I have more confidence in the current SCOTUS to uphold my family's legal right to exist, than I do in the majority of my fellow citizens to do so. So I'm not impartial here. Still, I think I'd be reluctantly making the same argument even if I trusted the U.S. population to uphold my family's right to exist 8:5. And perhaps more to the point, if I didn't, I think I'd be in the wrong.)
(A comment in a discussion about that Medium piece from last year about "cutoff culture" and the spot-on Captain Awkward takedown of it, which I decided I should probably own in my own voice.)

I remember reading the original piece when it came out and needing a shower in the worst way. And reading the author's replies to some of the responses to it... ugh.

I mean, I empathize. I'm definitely one of those people who holds on to relationships long past their sell-by dates and who wants "closure" and plays overdone breakup songs for friggin EVER and worries all his friends and all of that jazz. Or at least, I have been, and that scared lonely kid is still in here somewhere, along with all the rest of me.

So the whole "but no, everyone has to like me, nobody can walk away ever!" tone of that piece feeds some of the creepiest spiders living in some of the darkest bits of my soul.

But "You are not entitled to someone else’s attention" is EXACTLY the right response to it. People can choose to walk away. People don't have to love me. They don't even have to like me. It's not any kind of obligation; that's not how relationships work.

And the flip side of that is that *I* can choose to walk away, too! Which was actually enormously empowering once I wrapped my brain around it. I can choose to disengage from relationships that aren't what I want. I'm not obligated to keep trying to "fix" them (that is, turn them into something different). I don't have to keep reorganizing the pieces of them in my head to form a more aesthetically pleasing or morally defensible narrative. I don't have to keep trying to animate a corpse.

I can let the past be what it is, both good and bad and beautiful and ugly. I can thank it for its service and keep moving.

And the consequence of that isn't that I wind up alone and unloved, as my younger self feared so palpably. Not hardly! It's that I create space in my life for people who love and value me, and I create space to grow into. I can even stay in relationship with the same people, sometimes, once we start engaging as who we actually are in the present.

The consequence is a life filled with love that scared kid couldn't have begun to imagine.

And the other flip side is that when people like me, and love me, and give me their time and attention and energy, EVEN THOUGH THEY DON'T HAVE TO... oh, fuck, that's like reaching dry ground after a lifetime clutching driftwood, every time.

Being valuable.

(A comment in a discussion elsewhere, about how we can continue to be of value as our ability to do things degrades, which seemed of more general applicability.)

"Value" is such a tricky word.

We like to talk as if value were some property of a thing that exists independent of observers. So when we talk about "creating value" we usually mean it in the sense you mean here... we build value with our work, and that value exists out there somewhere, and we receive the dividends of that value. Which of course allows for the opposite, the concept of "lives devoid of value," to seem sensible.

We move so readily into marketplace-speak; we so easily adopt marketplace assumptions about value.

But that's not the only way to think about value.

I mean... most of what we consider valuable can become suddenly valueless when our lives change, even though the things themselves don't change at all... only we change. An impressive trick, when you think about it... we're changing the world with only the power of our minds!

I'm being silly, of course. The value was never in the world to begin with. It was always in our minds. The value was always value-to-me, and value-to-you, and on and on and on.

And when our minds change, the value of things to us changes.

So, you ask how do we continue to be of value as senior citizens, as injured warriors, as people whose lives have changed, as victims of traumatic or degenerative brain damage?

And I ask: of value to whom?

To the people who love us, we continue to be of value because they love us. Which was our primary value all along, to them.

To the people invested in our community, we continue to be of value because they are invested in our community.

Of course, to the people who see value only in marketplace terms, we're of no value at all. Whatever assets we've established control over are of value, and for as long as we can retain control over those assets we can benefit from them. Afterwards, we're valueless.

And to ourselves... well, that's the question, isn't it?

Do you value yourself? Why? Why not?

For my own part I often don't, and it's been my great good fortune to be surrounded by people who value me for love and community, not just market productivity, and that helps me remember. But still, I invest so much in market productivity, and that makes it easy to forget.

Mostly, I endorse remembering.
(A response to a comment elsewhere from a conservative concerned about how conservatives will suffer social injury at the hands of "social justice warriors" and the like, using Memories Pizza as an example.)

I agree that in our present society, a lot of people are not "Smart, Principled, and Not-Vindictive," as you put it. Indeed, I think this has always been true, and will probably be true for all of our lifetimes. And I agree that this can result in unnecessary and unjustified suffering on the part of people, be they the owners of pizza parlors or same-sex families or anyone else, when our society condemns them.

Whether we call the mechanism that mediates those effects "the free market" or "society" or "kyriarchy" or something else doesn't matter very much. Regardless of the label, it's a pattern that exists, and one of the systemic consequences of that pattern is unnecessary and unjustified suffering on the part of people who lack social power.

This is not new, of course. And it's certainly not a function of legally recognizing same-sex families. It has always been true.

That you and I are talking about it now is not because it's new. We're talking about it because the tides of social power are changing, such that (for example) the owners of Memories Pizza suffer social consequences for expressing unpopular opinions, and you identify with the social community they represent in a way you don't identify with same-sex families.

So unfair treatment of Memories Pizza catches your attention and strikes you as a problem worth solving, or at least warning about. Whereas by contrast, the social consequences suffered by generations of same-sex families just didn't matter to you very much.

(Which, just for the record, and however "Smart, Principled, and Not-Vindictive" you may consider me, pisses me the fuck off. My family is one of those families you don't really give a shit about, and it's very hard to contemplate that fact without getting FURIOUS at you and the entire social structure you represent, ESPECIALLY when you suddenly get all worried about the prospect of suffering the same fate yourself and expect me to care.

Oh, and incidentally, Memories Pizza is currently open and has additionally collected over $800K from people who support them. If that's what being the victim of social prejudice looks like to you, I can only say that you have very little experience with real prejudice.

But I digress.)

Anyway, I totally understand how in such an environment, a community that is accustomed to having social power can look at that change with genuine fear. Because if that's the way the world is, then all they can look forward to is being oppressed and abused in the same way that others have historically been oppressed and abused.

All I can say is, in that situation we have a choice. We can either work to preserve a system in which the powerful oppress the powerless and work to ensure that everyone we care about is powerful (perhaps simply by refusing to care about the powerless), or we can work to create a system in which we all work together for our mutual benefit.

For the most part, we choose the former. Unsurprising... it's a lot easier, and we know how to do it.

Oh, one other thing: I do find it's helpful to separate thinking about the law, from thinking about the prevailing culture.

As a queer Hispanic Jew, for most of my life the prevailing culture has at best ignored me and at worst condemned me. I haven't really expected that to change, though it's been nice to be wrong about that.

But the law has often served to protect my rights, even in the midst of a conservative culture that condemned me and my family in the most abusive conceivable terms.

The distinction isn't complete, of course. The culture is able to change the law, and to influence how that law is enforced. But it's still a distinction.

Maybe the social tide is changing such that discrimination against people and families based on their genders and the genders of their spouses is no longer socially acceptable. That would be nice, frankly; having borne the brunt of that discrimination all my life, I'd like it to no longer be acceptable.

And if that creates social oppression for conservatives I'll feel bad about that.

Regardless, the law can still serve to cushion the fall.

It's a good reason to support principled laws.

KosherSwitch

(What started out as a comment trying to explain the Jewish custom prohibiting turning on light switches on the Sabbath, in the context of this blog post, and got way out of hand. YIKYS.

So, first of all, it really helps to understand that this custom is a religious practice, not a practical one. Which means the point of it is the social and psychological and spiritual effects of engaging in it and being part of a community that engages in it. It has nothing at all to do with the pragmatic effects of the action itself.

Said differently: nobody is actually trying to minimize the number of light-switch-flips in the world through this tradition, or trying to prevent the lights from coming on or off, or anything remotely like that. There's no moral condemnation of the lights turning on or off which we are addressing in consequentialist fashion by passing rules against flipping the switch. It ultimately has nothing at all to do with light switches, really, any more than playing "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" at a children's birthday party has to do with donkeys.

So, OK, if the point isn't to actually prevent the lights from being turned on and off, then what is the point then?

Well, in general, the point of Sabbath practice is to create a sacred space in our lives devoted specifically to contemplation of our relationship to God. As part of that process of sanctification, we abstain from certain activities, collectively labelled "מְלָאכָה", which is generally translated as "work."

But this translation can be misleading, because there are other words, such as "עֲבוֹדָה‎", which are also translated as "work" but which are not forbidden on the Sabbath. So while work is forbidden on the Sabbath, work is also not forbidden on the Sabbath. Which may seem contradictory, but then again we Americans are perfectly OK with taking vacations from work in which we expend a lot of effort in order to get lots of things done before we have to go back to work, so it's a contradiction that perhaps we can appreciate.

Anyway.

There's no simple English translation of "מְלָאכָה" that I can think of. It sort of connotes work that actually creates something... that is, not just effort, but practical concrete crafting. Kind of. Not really.

Anyway.

In the context of the Sabbath tradition "מְלָאכָה" denotes a particular set of tasks which are prohibited, so that's a place to start.

Perusing that list is bewildering as hell if we're trying to build some kind of taxonomy of natural kinds of labor... it's somewhat reminiscent of Borges' delightfully absurd Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. But that's not what we're about, here. Again, this is a religious practice, not a practical one; to analyze that list of forbidden tasks from a practical perspective is rather like pointing out that a baseball player who slides into home has merely ended up right back where they started, and thereby accomplished nothing at all. It's true, as far as it goes, but someone who sincerely raises that as an objection can fairly be accused of having missed everything even remotely important about what's actually going on at a baseball game.

Anyway.

One of those tasks is "מכה בפטיש"... another hard-to-translate phrase. It literally means to hit with a hammer, but it's understood to mean performing the last step in making something practically useful, and by convention closing an electrical circuit is understood to qualify as "מכה בפטיש".

So flipping a light switch is a forbidden act on the Sabbath, for reasons that have essentially nothing to do with the specific hand movement involved, or for that matter with the presence or absence of light in the room. It simply is a forbidden task on the Sabbath, and as Orthodox Jews we can either follow that custom and refrain from the task, or violate that custom and perform the task.

Said differently: the existence of a light-switch creates an opportunity to demonstrate the sanctity of the Sabbath by not flipping it.

So, now we have the KosherSwitch. Actually, we've had it for years; this is not a new idea. The basic logic is that if we create enough ambiguity and uncertainty between the act of flipping the switch and the actual light turning on, then flipping the switch stops being an act of "מכה בפטיש", in much the same way that asking someone else to turn the lights on is not an act of "מכה בפטיש", even though in both cases it ultimately results in the lights turning on.

Put differently: by replacing the switch with something different, we remove the opportunity to demonstrate the sanctity of the Sabbath by not flipping a switch. Having done so, it no longer matters whether we flip the switch, nor whether the lights turn on and off, none of which was actually the point in the first place.

Does that logic hold water? Well, unsurprisingly within the Jewish tradition, there are multiple positions on the subject. "Two Jews, three opinions," as the saying goes.

The primary counterargument is that regardless of what's inside the switch, if we model the switch as a black box it obviously controls the light, that's the whole point of it, so it's an an act of "מכה בפטיש", because duh. (Here's a less glib version of that argument.)

So how do we resolve that argument? Well, mostly by sitting with the contradiction and waiting for a consensual practice (or several) to emerge, both from the community and from our individual consciences.

A digression: there are superficial similarities between the KosherSwitch reasoning and the secular tradition of having two people "flip the switch" during executions, with one of the switches deactivated, so that each individual executioner can legitimately doubt whether they killed the prisoner. In both cases we seek to complicate a causal link to the point that our intuitive sense of causality is confused.

Which of course reminds me of the Trolley Problem. All of these traditions ultimately rely on the fact that humans have nonconsequentialist and somewhat inconsistent moral intuitions which are rather easily confused by manipulating the setting.

Said differently: when reasoning morally, we generally consider committing an act that causes someone's death to be different from refraining from committing an act that would have prevented someone's death.

When it comes to issues of genuine moral impact, such as executions, I'm enough of a consequentialist to reject those intuitions... it simply doesn't matter, says I, whether I shove someone onto the tracks, or pull a lever, or refrain from pulling a lever, or whatever. What matters is how confident I am that the person will die in each case, and whether I prefer that they die or not die?

But the KosherSwitch isn't like that. There's no consequentialist moral question here; there's nothing wrong with lights turning on and off. So none of that reasoning actually applies here.

Observant readers will note that I have yet to answer the question.

How about that?
(A comment from a discussion elsewhere, which I wanted to capture, with minor edits, because it applies far more broadly than the original conversation.)

If people were reasonable, I'd be more inclined to agree that prejudice doesn't really matter that much.

E.g., if some group is statistically more likely to injure us in some way, hypothetical reasonable prejudiced people might be more wary around individual members of that group than around members of other groups, but they're unlikely to overreact in ways that (e.g.) get those individuals killed.

That hypothetical world isn't ideal, but it's orders of magnitude better than the current reality, in which (a) people's unreasonableness causes all manner of pain and suffering and loss and (b) the combination of unreasonableness and ubiquitous prejudice against certain demographics causes those demographics to disproportionately bear the costs of that pain and suffering and loss.

And in the real world, there's quite a lot of unreasonable prejudice going on that is hella problematic because of those things.

Is prejudice against Tea Party conservatives problematic in the same way?
It sure doesn't seem to be resulting in their death or suffering or injury or systematic disenfranchisement, so I'm inclined to doubt it, but I'm willing to listen to better-informed people who claim otherwise.

But that doesn't really seem to be your claim.

What you seem to be doing instead is divorcing your understanding of prejudice from the hella problematic stuff -- the deaths, the torture, the systematic disenfranchisement, etc. -- and then observing that this nicely sanitized version of prejudice is not in and of itself much of a big deal, and gets applied to Tea Party folks as much as young black men.

Which, well, yes, I agree. And I agree that this sanitized version of prejudice in the hypothetical world of reasonable people is no big deal at all, and is in fact mostly a distraction from discussions of actual prejudice in the real world and the ways in which it's problematic.

Which, incidentally, is something that happens a lot in conversations about the problematic nature of prejudice, often because people deliberately seek to derail such conversations. Which is why a lot of people have started to treat such distractions as a deliberate derailing tactic with the intention of preventing those conversations.

Of course, you'll no doubt point out that drawing that conclusion is itself prejudiced. For my part, I don't think that's a problem worth worrying about.

Flipping the script

With respect to my last few posts, I was challenged recently by a friend to think less like an engineer and more like a politician... to stop worrying so much about how I think the system ought to be optimized for various things I value, and more about what the right political intervention is to make things better in the system as it is right now.

I am not good at thinking this way. I'm not a politician; the kind of system-modelling it involves makes me want to curl up into a ball and whimper.

That said, I've been trying. And here's one thing that occurs to me.

It's a small, local, probably inconsequential in the larger scheme of things thing, but I suppose I have to start somewhere.

So, not too long ago, the national conversation about queer rights in my part of the world was framed such that liberals were perceived as arguing that queer people should be supported in forming loving and committed families, while conservatives were perceived as arguing that we should be prevented by law from doing so.

And that was a difficult fight, but we were winning it, in part because the conservative position was rhetorically weak. That is, not only was it wrong, but it sounded mean, and fence-sitters could easily be convinced to lean away from it.

It seems to me that my political adversaries have managed to flip the script to the point where instead, liberals are now being perceived as arguing that we should be forced by law to cater queer weddings, and conservatives are perceived as arguing that we ought not be. And, well... even leaving aside the whole question of whether people should be forced by law to cater queer weddings, which is precisely the sort of "engineering" question I'm trying to get away from asking here... I just don't see how this is a win for us.

"We want equal treatment before the law" has legs in a way that "We want access to the same goods and services everyone else gets access to" simply doesn't.

And "Those queers over there don't get to marry" sounds mean in a way that "We want to choose our own customers" simply doesn't. People who would be embarrassed to endorse the former, however much they might want to, can endorse the latter with their heads held high. (Again, I'm not asking here whether they're correct to endorse the latter. I've been writing about that question a lot lately. I'm saying that our culture doesn't shame the latter the same way it shames the former.)

And of course the real issue is bigger than caterers. For that matter, it's bigger than marriages.
Ultimately it's about being treated equally in all walks of life.
Still, from a political perspective it seems like it matters which fight we fight now, and how that fight is framed.

Which makes that a very skillfully executed, or perhaps simply lucky, PR move on the part of my political opponents.

Or am I missing the point here? I mean, does anyone feel like reassuring me that no, actually, we're being tactically clever, and our right to receive catering (or services in general) from people who don't want to provide that service is the fight we ought to be fighting right now, on political grounds? (Again, I'm not asking whether we actually have that right in reality; I understand y'all think we do. I'm asking whether that's the fight we ought to be fighting right now.)

Conversely, folks who agree with me (if anyone does, which after the last couple of weeks I'm inclined to doubt): any suggestions for how we can flip the script back?

I mean, worst case I think we could go with some version of "You know, you guys are right: you should get to pick what weddings you cater. We apologize; we got carried away. You need to understand, this whole "we don't want to serve your kind" thing feels to us like just another attempt to turn us into second-class citizens. It felt for a while there like we'd rolled the clock back to a couple of decades ago when it seemed everyone agreed that our families didn't deserve to even exist, let alone be permitted to purchase goods and services. But of course the world we actually live in is one where most Americans want the same thing we do: equal treatment before the law for all families. So, anyway, sorry about over-reacting: if a restaurant can't stomach the idea that we might eat their pizza while celebrating the formation of our families, well, honestly that seems kind of mean, but we're not trying to stop anyone from doing that if they feel that's what they have to do. We just want to form those families in the first place without the law stopping us."

That might work.
But actually apologizing loses a lot of valuable momentum.
It would be better to find a way to get to the same place without actually having to apologize, to flip the script like the conservatives have been able to.

Any better ideas?

(A recent conversation suggested as an alternative "Remember that by forcing service providers to service queer customers, we're making America more uncomfortable for radical Muslims who hate queers. They don't want that! Don't fall for Islamofascist propaganda: support legally mandated service for queers!")

(I should also note that of course "queer" is the wrong word to use for this kind of messaging.)

(Another tack someone suggested was this one, which I actually really like, but I mostly feel like that's a tack that can only be taken by someone who is perceived as a Christian thought-leader, and can't effectively be adopted by secular liberals. I feel the same way about the similar "render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar's" argument, and more generally the "these conservative homophobes are just not being good Christians" line of argument. But I dunno... maybe there's a way to make that work?)

Accommodating ideological differences, part 3

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority (in fact, I think, all) of the responses to my last couple of posts have been arguing the "No Dave, that's ridiculous" side of the accommodate-ideological-differences question, which has left me mostly holding up the "It's really not" side of my ambivalence.

Which in general I'm OK with. I'm not playing devil's advocate here; I legitimately am ambivalent, I see reasonable arguments on both sides of that divide, and I endorse thinking my ambivalence through carefully... or at least, I endorse doing so in my own space. That said, it's probably a good idea for me to argue the other side myself as well, lest I somehow convince myself that I've picked a side by default.

So, there are several lines of reasoning here I find at least compelling, if not necessarily convincing.
  • Power issues.
    Or privilege issues, if we prefer that language.
    This one was articulated by da_lj, and I'm not sure I entirely understand it, but I think the argument goes like this:
    1. It may seem to me that a system accommodates the civil servant's prejudices in a way that doesn't negatively impact the service recipient, but I'm not in a position to have a reliable opinion, since I have enough power/privilege to shrug off whatever impact may exist and am therefore less likely to notice it.
    2. So really, it's unreasonable for me to try to engage in this sort of analysis. Far safer to build the system to prevent any sort of potentially harmful practice (such as, for example, requiring the recipient be serviced by a different employee) being applied to members of protected classes.
    3. Also, the class membership of the employee doesn't really figure into this, because by virtue of being government employees, civil servants are in a position of significant "official" power with respect to the service recipient, regardless of how much power the individuals involved may have as individuals, and the "official" power is far more relevant to this question than the "unofficial". So even if a lower-class black female clerk is dealing with an upper-class white male service recipient, it's the recipient's needs that take precedence.


  • Practicality issues.
    Several people have raised this one.
    The primary concern is that certain problematic ideologies are just too popular, so my original requirement (that the system should not exhibit X, but should accommodate employees who do) is just unimplementable... any real-world attempt to accommodate homophobia, for example, is really de-facto normalizing homophobia instead, with the predictable result that the system as a whole will demonstrate homophobia, which I said I didn't want.
    The consensus seems to be that this is just too hard a problem to solve, so it's best not to try and solve it, or even to think about it much, because we'll just waste our time and effort to no good result.

  • Moral issues.
    Nobody has explicitly raised this, which surprises me, though I get the impression that it's implicitly underlying and motivating a lot of other arguments. Simply put, the idea is that some ideologies are not only limiting, but also wrong, and our systems ought not accommodate wrong ideologies.
    So it's OK to accommodate my physical disabilities, because physical disabilities aren't immoral, but it's not OK to accommodate my bigotry, because bigotry is immoral.

  • Political issues.
    As above, nobody has explicitly raised this, though it seems to be swimming around in the subtext. The idea here is that there are certain real-world political relationships between ideas, and because of those relationships the effect of advocating, for example, that homophobes be permitted to avoid serving queer people (with the caveats above) is that queer equality initiatives will be set back or altogether tanked. So if I support the main stream of queer equality, for example, I should shut the fuck up about this weird 'homophobe rights' tributary I've gotten lost in.


There have been various other arguments presented that I either don't understand or find uncompelling and in either case I don't think I can fairly present here, so I don't present them here.

My current take on the above:

  • The power/privilege argument I'm taking seriously, but haven't yet either decided to embrace or reject.
    I agree with the general point about the people affected by the system having a better understanding of what the real costs are than, for example, me.
    But my instinct in most cases is to include the actual workers themselves in that category, not just the service recipients... which is precisely what's being rejected here.
    Point #3 justifies that rejection by arguing that the workers are also in an overly powerful position, so it's only the service recipients whose perceptions are reliable.
    I'm really uncomfortable with that, but it's not obviously false, so I'm still mulling it over. It may be that civil servants are a special case for this reason. I don't really buy it right now, though.

  • I have very little patience for "this problem is so hard we shouldn't think about it."

  • The practicality issues I'm very sympathetic to.
    And actually, I think similar concerns apply to physical disabilities... accommodating 1% of my workforce being blind requires very different system management than accommodating 20% of my workforce being blind, let alone 80%. It's just that the issue doesn't come up.

    My take-away from this is that when thinking about what qualifies as a reasonable accommodation, anticipated scale matters. An accommodation might be reasonable for one person, but not for 10 (or vice-versa).

    And, sure, maybe that means we simply can't accommodate popular prejudices (e.g. anti-Arab sentiment) in the same way that we can accommodate idiosyncratic prejudices (e.g. anti-Canadian sentiment). That seems plausible.

    This also reminds me of the tiresome "why is it OK to say nasty things about men, but not women?" refrain. (Ditto white/black, Christians/Jews, etc, etc, etc.)

  • I'm sympathetic to the moral issues(1), as well.
    That said, in practice I don't know how to build systems that can distinguish between moral and political issues when communities disagree (or pretend to disagree) on moral questions. This question of how we deal with genuine moral disagreement without resorting to politics is a long-time problem for me, I've never made much progress on it, and I don't expect to resolve it this week.

    So from a systems perspective this is really just a subset of the political objection, to which my response is mostly "Yeah! Whose side am I on, anyway?"






(1) Digression moved to footnotes: I mean, I'm not a deontologist; I don't really buy into "this is just wrong regardless of its actual effects on the world" kinds of moral reasoning in a deep sense. But I accept that we often establish moral principles to account for a hard-to-quantify recurring cluster of consequential patterns. I accept, for example, that "don't kill people" is in practice a better rule for everyone to follow than "only kill people when the consequences of doing so are net-positive," even though I believe the latter is the correct rule. This may seem paradoxical, but the reality is I expect what we actually do when trying to follow "don't kill people" to better approximate the correct rule than what we do when trying to follow the correct rule, because human brains are a ridiculous kludgey hack made out of self-organizing SOUP and what do you expect from us anyway?

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