Saturday, February 18, 2017

Why the contemporary usage of "privilege" is analytically inadequate, morally dubious and socially harmful

In a period of increasing polarisation, where thinking differently is sadly often not merely seen as a matter of having a different perspective, but taken to being a marker of being evil/malicious/stupid/ignorant etc, where there is an apparently ever-increasing plethora of destructive ideas to push such polarisation along, one of the more invidious is the notion of privilege.

A privilege is a typically unearned and separating advantage allocated to you. It might be by laws or regulations, it might be by insulation from common risks or costs, but privilege in that sense has a clear, useful meaning. When it is said that someone has had a privileged upbringing we know what folk mean. It gains pejorative effect by the implication of being unearned and of being a separation from others.

The problematic use of privilege is to take this usage and expand it way beyond what it can bear. In particular to conflate it with the notion of advantage and apply it in a way which systematically diverts attention from the trade-offs, expectations, information costs and risks of social life.

Welcome to the world of trade-offs
Consider an example that was offered to me of a highly educated middle class single white woman inspecting various rental prospects in a tight rental market with other folk, many of whom were non-white, and the white woman being offered every property.

You have a rental property, renting of which involves various risks. A well-spoken, single woman without kids who exudes expectations of adherence to middle class norms without any issue of missed ethnic cues or expectations: of course they are an excellent rental prospect. Likely, somewhat more so than an equivalent male, for example. To talk of this being a case of "privilege" is to reduce the interaction to something morally arbitrary, even malicious, when it is a perfectly rational, and entirely understandable, playing of the odds.

Offer the same rental agents a choice between a polite, well-spoken, single South Asian woman and a poorly educated, ill-spoken white man with lots of conspicuous tats and one can be confident who will be offered the property. Any so-called white or male "privilege" would be inoperative. That, in the US, various ethnic groups have higher incomes on average than white Americans (in some cases, significantly higher) indicates how much more important the trade-offs, expectations, information costs, risks and so on of social life are compared to any notion of "privilege".

One of the better popular presentations of the notion of privilege is a May 2012 post (with two follow-ups) by SF writer John Scalzi using the analogy of gaming systems to talk in terms of relative levels of difficulty in playing the reality game. In Wen Spencer's book Eight Million Gods (published in June 2013) there is a rather nice statement of this idea by a character apprenticed to a master potter who is also a major kami:
He's playing the reality game at the easiest setting: god level. I'm playing at hard setting: five-foot tall female bisexual combat medic. Now, if he was playing hardcore, he'd be an African-American lesbian midget Marine.
Actually, in global terms, no one who is American is playing at anywhere near the hardest setting our world has to offer. Which immediately points to a problem with the concept of privilege, even when recast as social difficulty--it so completely context-laden. Being an out-and-proud Christian, for example, is an advantage in Alabama, a disadvantage in much of contemporary academe and a serious burden in most Muslim-majority countries. Any advantage to being white comes down to being member of a majority (usually an advantage anywhere) and a citizen of wealthy countries (also an advantage). It is not some inherent quality of whiteness which is the key, it is being a member of the majority group in rich countries.

But if you put it like that, there is an obvious problem--democratic principle says being the majority is good while being citizen of a wealthy country is an advantage to all citizens; black, white or brindle. Far from talking of white privilege as being a mechanism of social revelation, it is actually a mechanism for social evasion. Particularly when, for example, having a white mother apparently wipes out most of the indicators of African-American disadvantage (while not making one other than "black" or any less potentially subject to stranger-racism--and talking as if such folk have some sort of "contagious" "white privilege" just points to the evasive nature of the white privilege construction).

The point applies even more strongly to queer and straight. The overwhelming majority of people are heterosexual, of course social mores reflect that. That monotheist priests and clerics have taken advantage of how easy queer folk (growing up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus) are to target to justify, and push, isolation and oppression of queer folk is reprehensible, but it also receding dramatically in Christian- and Jewish-heritage countries (not so much in majority-Muslim countries). Again, talking of heterosexual privilege focuses on an innate characteristic, rather than the causative (and changing) social dynamics.

A sign how much more important social dynamics are than immutable characteristics is that the ethnic groups with the highest median household incomes in the US are (in order) Indian-Americans, Taiwanese-Americans and Filipino-Americans (followed by Australian-Americans and Israeli-Americans: a feature of the US is that every ethnic group has a higher average income in the US than it does back in the old country). Whatever '"white privilege" there is, is clearly remarkably easily trumped by other factors. Not only does privilege-talk divert attention from the causative effects of underlying social dynamics, but, in doing so, it invites people to exaggerate the effect of the identified factor.

Changing gender trade-offs
As for male privilege, that is particularly problematic. Males in Western societies have shorter average life spans, are much more likely (over 10 times more likely) to be killed at work and twice as likely to die violently. Women in Western societies are not only much better off than women in non-Western societies, they are much better off than men in most non-Western countries.

As social psychologist Roy Baumeister points out, setting up arrangements for males to transfer resources to women and children has always been a fundamental requirement of human cultures. Indeed, the more males dominated the key productive assets in a society, the more that was true. The motherhood role tends to vary less among cultures than fatherhood does (pdf), suggesting that fatherhood is the more culturally plastic concept, and so the more subject to variation, depending on what patterns of trade-offs are operating in different cultures and at different times.

Given the length of human pregnancies and childhoods, and that any woman can bear and raise less children than any man can potentially father, it is hardly surprising that the motherhood role should be less culturally dependant than fatherhood. Nor that, historically, the pattern of gender differentiation in productive activities is overwhelmingly determined by whether the role is compatible with childminding. Add in the principle that it is convenient for adjacent stages in a production process to be done by the same person (so of the same gender) and almost the entire pattern of anthropologically observed patterns of gender differentiation can thereby be explained (pdf).

So, if the patterns of production change profoundly, will that affect gender roles? Obviously it will. Add in making childbirth much safer and female control of fertility (due to the Pill and abortion) and the effect will be transformative. As it has been (pdf). So transformative that, once again, talking in terms of privilege obscures rather than reveals.

Not only does the concept of privilege divert attention from actual social dynamics, it tends to have a historically frozen perspective precisely because it diverts attention away from actual social dynamics.

In particular, calling contemporary Western societies patriarchal is a whopping display of historical and anthropological ignorance. As Baumeister also points out (Chapter 5), when households were the basis of most production, then they were firms as much as families, so had the hierarchical tendency of firms. (In matricentric societies--yes, they have existed; overwhelmingly in hoe-based farming societies because such farming is compatible with childminding--with a woman as CEO, but, in ploughing and pastoralist societies, usually with males as CEOs.) Nowadays, households have minimal connection to production and so families can be, and are, much more easily egalitarian.

Yes, men (mostly) built culture
Camille Paglia (in)famously wrote:
Let us stop being small-minded about men and freely acknowledge what treasures their obsessiveness has poured into culture. ... If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts (Pp37-8).
And:
Contemporary feminists, who are generally poor or narrowly trained scholars, insist on viewing history as a weepy scenario of male oppression and female victimization. But it is more accurate to see men, driven by sexual anxiety away from their mothers, forming group alliances by male bonding to create complex structures of society, art, science and technology (p.23).
She was quite wrong: men didn't invent culture to get away from their mothers, they invented it to get laid.

Yes, men overwhelming created culture (though women have been central in maintaining and transmitting it). Building culture is significantly about dealing with strangers--not a task to allocate to child-minders. (Which also points to why queer men have been wildly disproportionately important in building human cultures--as the group least likely to be participating in raising children but who can exchange cultural services for resources, even in childless old age.)

Men and women are equally social; women tend to be primed for being social in intimate contexts, men to be social in more public contexts and, moreover, contexts that involved negotiation with folk you were not intimately connected to (though the difference may in part be about how connections are conceived [pdf]). Which likely encouraged selection of the negotiating-with-strangers sex so as to be less emotionally expressive (because that is a negotiation advantage, particularly in dealing with strangers) but more willing to display anger (because that can also be negotiation advantage).

Across our evolutionary history, a much higher proportion of women reproduced than men (links here: it is possible that the imbalance got very high with the development of early agrarian states). So, men were selected for a higher sex drive, to be more competitive and more willing to take risks--hence building culture in order to get laid. (Or, more precisely, there was selection for genes which had those characteristics when expressed as male.) Clearly, if culture is developed in male-dominated spaces, it will tend to reflect male perspectives.

How male dominated will also depend on what trade-offs and constraints are operating. Hence, for a given level of technology, social niches tend to be less gender-differentiated in lower population density societies (because the men might be away) and more gender-differentiated in higher population density societies (because more intense competition for social niches will operate against the sex stuck with the kids). Thus, Celtic, Germanic and steppe societies had warrior women, but Roman, Greek, Indian, Chinese societies not so much. Hence also Saxon women in C8th England had wider range of social possibilities (including leading armies) than women in C18th England. If the trade-offs changes, the social patterns change, and the norms shift to keep up.

While there are some differences in the patterns of male and female abilities, they overlap more than they vary. In particular, they don't vary enough to explain very much. (And even when they do vary considerably--as with physical strength--the difference explains remarkably little [pdf] about social roles.)

Where there are much bigger differences is in interests (notably men being more interested in things versus women being more interested in people) and motivation and in variance across traits, including abilities--variance among males is much higher. Men are much more likely to be risk-takers, to be competitive and much more likely to be (obsessively) driven. Driven, competitive risk-takers are the sort of folk who end up as, for example, company CEOs. Even in our world of legal equality and equal access to education, there will be more male CEOs because women are much less likely to be appropriately driven than men (which hardly seems a fault). Even more spectacularly, men suffer about 90% of workplace deaths because they are much more likely to engage in the more dangerous occupations.

Even given that there are issues with, for example, mismatches between career optimising and marriage signalling for single women and between women getting CEO jobs and marriage expectations (pdf), we still have about as much chance as getting an even sex spread of male and female company CEOs as we have of getting an even sex spread of workplace deaths. The mad way of conceiving feminism that apparently will only be happy when women have the same level of screwed up life-work balance as many men through (selectively) setting male patterns as normative, and calling the failure to achieve that evidence of "male privilege", is just daft. As sexual neuroscientist Debra Soh puts it:
In my experience, proponents touting the “blank slate” view are willing to agree, in private conversations, that neurological sex differences do exist, but they fear that acknowledging as much publicly will justify female oppression. This is backward. As it stands, female-typical traits are seen as inferior and less worthy of respect. This is the real issue the movement fails to address: Nobody wants to be female-typical, not even women.
Nor does it seem remotely sensible to have an even spread of workplace deaths between the sexes as a social goal.

Private intensity, public contestability
It is a recurring feminist trope that women were socially situated in relationship to some male (as wife, daughter, mother). But the other way to look at that is that these are intimate relationships grounded in an individual person, where they are valued in themselves. Public roles, by contrast, are typically impersonal, competitive, and transitory where the particular individual is eminently replaceable (to adapt a point Baumeister makes [Chapter 8]). The female placings are emotionally "privileged", the public (previously male) ones are very much not, but are publicly "privileged". Which of these can we really see as privileged if we view them from this, more complete, perspective?

When the patterns are shifting because the trade-offs are shifting, there will be resistance due to the persistence of past norms and expectations. But, once the point is largely won, differences between the sexes--including differences in social distributions--will not disappear, because (at times apparently intensely) differentiated reproductive possibilities have ensured they won't. Indeed, there is evidence (pdf) that prosperity increases rather than decreases the differences in psychological patterns between the sexes, as prosperity makes people more able to (pdf) be themselves. There is a certain deep irony in that societies where what a supporter describes as:
the left’s viewpoint of sexual-difference-as-illusion
is most entrenched are the societies where it is least true. Part of us being a cultural species is that we construct cultural stories (including about gender) on a biological platform of sex, the denial of which is another cultural story about gender, though one at war with the underlying science.

As we increasingly became a cultural species, selecting for motivation/cognitive patterns would tend to have greater reproduction pay-offs than selecting for specific physical characteristics. Looking at the archaeological, anthropological and other evidence, our hominid ancestors had already been selected for a "big brain" strategy. Our ancestors apparently adopted a pair-bonding strategy relatively early on, as the degree to which males were bigger than females has declined significantly down the hominina line (and such sexual dimorphism is strongly correlated with polygynous and other multi-mate strategies). As one study noted (pdf):
Examining sexual dimorphism in deep evolutionary time, it is notable that changes in height among Homo species are accompanied by a decrease in sexual dimorphism (Frayer & Wolpoff, 1985). Gray (2013) notes that Australopithecus afarensis (4 to 3 Mya) males are believed to be around 44% bigger than females, whereas this figure is 26% for Homo habilis (2.4 to 1.6 Mya), 13% for Homo erectus (1.7 to 0.7 Mya), and a very moderate 9% for modern humans.
Such pair bonding may have been a response to (pdf) male infanticide of the children of rival males. The effect of such pair-bonding was to permit even longer pregnancies and childhoods, allowing further development down the cultural evolution path (and, as it happened, less need for female grouping [pdf]). As cultural pay-offs increased, selection for genes that, when expressed as male, expanded culture (given that was so much about dealing with strangers) would also be increased. While farming itself was likely originally a female invention (since hoe-farming can be done while child minding and likely grew out of female-gathering rather than male-hunting), it led to more (and more deeply) status-differentiated societies, hence polygynous pair-bonding societies, hence increased selection pressure for culturally effective (in getting laid) motivation for the male expression of genes. (Including some extreme cases, such as 8% of the men in Central Eurasia being descended from Genghis Khan and Muhammad having tens of millions of living descendants.)

Given that nowadays we have these things called schools, hugely reducing in-household childminding, and that (particularly in prosperous Western societies) the risks of dealing with strangers are very low, Western societies have been shifting to much more female participation in culture-building. A trend which has increased markedly since the advent of the Pill, as women can now invest in higher education much more effectively because they can control their fertility.

The personal invading the political
A way to read the fight over PC (including trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc) is between a female-dominant perspective that people must fit in and not offend ("it is about civility") and a male-dominant perspective that we must be willing to take risks and be competitive to find the facts, to find what works ("it chills speech and distorts debate"). With the phenomena being particularly intense in universities because they have become female-dominated institutions and because the focus on ideas is intense without commensurate experience of consequences. The perspective may, indeed, have become sufficient unmoored from consequences as to be teaching students to (literally) think pathologically. (Philosopher Dan Dennett makes a nice pithy comment that confronting folk is his job as a teacher of philosophy and raises what is a central contemporary moral dilemma.)

A classic male response to women--"you are taking this too personally"--is precisely about the different demands of private and public spheres. PC personalises words, ideas and politics in ways which are very unfortunate for the functioning of public spheres. It turns what should be much more impersonal matters into the dynamics of a huge, highly personalised, "bitch fight" where the social justice "mean girls" (of both sexes) strip people of moral standing for transgressing various "in-group" markers in the highly personal way that the mean girls of the schoolyard strip fellow students of social standing.  With social media, HR departments and camus grievance mechanisms giving them institutional levers.

It would be useful if there was a little less talk of toxic masculinity and a little more talk of functional masculinity, especially for public spaces. Particularly as what is being identified as toxic is often the transfer of patterns which are functional in one sphere into another where they are highly dysfunctional. Thus we might also consider the possibility of toxic femininity--wrapping people in a cocoon of positive feelings so that any significant conflict is illegitimate, an impossible demand in any society and which, like any impossible demand, can only be enforced dysfunctionally.

The attempt to abolish impersonality in ideas and politics in the name of personal respect has the consequences of making both culture and politics viciously personal. Both because the social ambit of such politics is utterly unlimited--it will and does invade every aspect of life, as every aspect of life can be conceived as being about "respect"--but also because if you declare yourselves to be practisers and owners of the politics of respect, then any dissent becomes politics of dis-respect, so of personalised attack. Hence the solution of trying to banish any dissent: for to abolish impersonality is to poison contestability. The "no-platforming" and similar attempts to block dissenting speech is not a perversion of a good idea, it is the natural outcome of toxic personalisation of spheres that should be impersonal in order to function. Really folk are taking, and making it, too personal.

Being reductive
Returning to the overarching issue, talking of male privilege is a ludicrously reductive and misleading way to frame what has been going on in Western societies. Trying to give privilege some analytical resilience by focusing on immutable characteristics both misses and evades the point that the significance of said characteristics is deeply socially and historically contingent--not only in themselves, but also in their interaction with other factors.

Listing ways in which social outcomes are not perfectly evenly proportioned does not, in itself, support the concept of privilege, it merely creates the pattern of facts to be analysed--which include all those countervailing patterns of social outcomes that contradict the notion of privilege, such as the income-by-ethnicity patterns and gender death patterns already mentioned, and that, for example, women are significantly advantaged in (pdf) criminal sentencing. The very same life story can be told as a story of privilege or the lack of it, depending on what one focuses on, as writer Marti Leimbach points out, using her own case.

Even the patterns within particular societies that go the "correct" way are typically nowhere near strong or consistent enough to justify being regarded as "privileging". In particular, they are unlikely to be evenly, or even universally, distributed across the category of people in question and, even if they are both (highly unlikely), a, say, 10% advantage in social arena X is not privileging in any useful sense. Add in the countervailing effects, and the actual patterns are nowhere near enough to justify notions of privilege.

Why go there?
So, why engage in such privilege-talk? Some of it is ignorance, some of which is wilful ignorance. People are either not aware, or don't want to see, social dynamics in these ways.

But a great deal is just cognitive convenience--privilege-talk tells a very convenient story, a very convenient narrative. Even better, a goodies-and-baddies, boo-and-cheer narrative; the most appealing kind.

For example, considering gender dynamics as changing trade-offs contradicts the implicit analysis that women lacked social agency until feminism came along and ripped it from men. Even if this background analysis is not stated baldly, it is remarkable how often it is ignored or downplayed that convincing men was the basis for almost all the success of the women's movement and that large numbers of men have proved willing to be convinced. The willingness to let go of remarkable amounts of "privilege" (and that, at all stages, many women opposed change) suggest that something else was going on--that privilege is either not what men were giving up or that, if they were, they weren't very attached to it.

Which is another problem with the notion of privilege; just because you see things as framed in a particular way, does not mean others do. The notion of privilege tends to license not considering that other framings may be more salient, or that trade-offs you have not considered are in operation. The concept of privilege being about what other people don't see or consider can become a license for one's own blindnesses and not-considerings.

The pattern of (1) negatively focusing on up-status occupations where men significantly outnumber women as a problem, but (2) not treating up-status occupations where women significantly outnumber men as any sort of problem, while (3) also negative focusing on down-status occupations where women significantly outnumber men as a problem, but (4) not treating down-status occupation where men significantly outnumber women as any sort of problem, also helps give the concept of privilege factually unwarranted resonance. If female advantages in social goods, and male disadvantages in social bads, are glossed over or ignored, a simplified narrative is much easier to push.

For once one starts looking at social dynamics as trade-offs, expectations, risks, things become much more complex. More complex in terms of analysis, response and, above all, moral judgement. Who knows who might turn out to have legitimate concerns or perspectives, how dispersed responsibility and agency might be. The notion of privilege does, after all, remarkably easily lend itself to discounting the agency of the "oppressed" and exaggerating the agency of the "privileged", just the thing for simplified, goodies-and-baddies, social narratives.

Furthermore, the notion of privilege undermines the notion of agency in general, but particularly for those deemed to be lacking privilege. Which is potentially unfortunate for the psychological health of those that buy into it, as the less sense of agency one has, the weaker one's locus of control, the more unfortunate the likely effect on psychological well-being. But the (selective) undermining of agency is very useful to pushing simplifying narratives.

It can, however, be highly destructive if put into social policy, as seen in the disastrous slide of the St Paul School system into increased violence and mayhem after the disproportionately high rate of suspension of black students was blamed by the (now departed) system administrator on teachers as instruments of "white privilege". In fact, as a 2014 study indicates (pdf), prior behavioural problems are much much predictive of suspension than race; problems which (in the St Paul's case) are more likely to be connected to 87% of the black kids in the school district being born out of wedlock (so likely living with single mothers with uninvolved fathers, so being more likely to have the low levels of social capital that are conducive to delinquency) than inbuilt public school teacher racial bias.

Muslim matters
The undermining of the notion of agency inherent in privilege-talk has wider consequences. It is standard among folk inclined to buy into privilege-talk to treat Muslims as moral mascots, as sacred victims, who definitely lack privilege, and so have seriously discounted agency. Which bedevils wrestling with the serious issues that Islam, being a very different civilisation, with very different presumptions and patterns, raises. To start, it leads directly to the "jihadism/Islamic State/terrorism has nothing to do with Islam" nonsense.

Which is nonsense at so many levels. The Ottoman Empire spent 230 years (1299-1529) advancing from central Anatolia to Central Europe, precisely because it turned jihad into a system:
(1) ghazi, holy warriors, aka akinji, raided the infidel borderlands, killing, enslaving, driving away and economically degrading;
(2) at an opportune moment, the main Ottoman army (whose rulers explicitly claimed title and standing as ghazi) moves in and conquers the borderlands, which are re-settled;
(3) ghazi move to new border; rinse and repeat.
A process only brought to a halt by the creation of what became the grenzer militia system and the Military Frontier.

Islam is built to be imperial. Its marriage and membership rules--believers cannot leave Islam (historically often incurring the normal penalty for treason against God), Muslim women must marry Muslim men, the children of a Muslim father are Muslim--if followed, ensure that, given comparable rates of fertility, any rate of interfaith marriage will eventually lead to a majority Muslim country (unless other migrants continue to raise the total population faster than overall the Muslim population increases).

Sharia is an imperial legal system, not only in:
(1) claiming to be rules issuing from the Sovereign of the universe deemed to be binding on everyone; but
(2) being set up to justify, extol and promote Muslim supremacy; and
(3) being created to serve an imperial order.
Furthermore, being a polygynous system, Islam had the normal consequences of elite polygyny--creating a pool of low status men with no marriage prospects. Islam has the extra twist of Sharia explicitly sanctifying and encouraging taking infidel women as a response.

Sharia sets up tax, status and opportunity advantages for believers, which a Muslim male could offer to a infidel woman (and their putative children) who already lived under Muslim rule, raising the rate of interfaith marriage. Sharia sanctifies the abduction, enslaving and sexual use of infidel women ("those who one's right hand possesses" in the language of the Quran) who have not submitted to Muslim rule, with any previous marriage to a non-Muslim man being overridden (a sanctification which is alive and well in the Islamic state and the Sudanese regime).

Hence the endless ability of historical Islam to generate ghazi as a way for low-status Muslim men to get laid. With the added bonus of dying while fighting to extend Muslim rule is the only guaranteed path to Paradise, so they can get eternally laid. (A shortcut to Paradise which is also alive and well; hence it is often not rule-observing pious Muslims who are so much an issue, but "bad" Muslims seeking said shortcut to Paradise: and if you have wondered about the 72 virgins, remember it's a polygynous system.)

The cultural shifts in Western and other modernising soceties towards far more female contribution to building culture apply much less within Islam, due to the deep historical legacy, and entrenched cultural consequences, from Sharia effectively denying women legal protection against rape. The lack of legal protection was profound--even under ordinary Sharia rules, if it was "he said, she said", he won; but rape specifically required male witness evidence, while a failed accusation was a confession of fornication outside marriage, which was subject to punishment, as various Western women have found when they have attempted to bring rape charges in countries where Sharia is still law of the land.

The consequences was that, under Sharia rule, predatory males did not have to worry about legal protections for women, they had to worry about her male relatives (while elite polygyny increased the number of men for whom predatory behaviour was more likely). Hence Islam generating strong chaperone cultures, though they still left a woman separated from her kin at risk: Islam was a giant "stranger danger" culture for women, both for Muslim women and even more for non-Muslim ones; a pattern that has far from completely disappeared, as US TV journalist Lara Logan infamously experienced, along with some recent unpleasantnesses in Cologne and other German cities and the various "sex gang" cases of which the most notorious was centred in Rotherham in the UK.

That Muslim women were safer, the more thickly they were embedded in kin networks might be a factor helping to account for the very high prevalence of consanguineous marriages in countries under Sharia rule for long periods of time. And it is cousin marriage, rather than Islam specifically, which is antipathetic to democratic rule.

As modern employment and education leads Muslim women to be away from the local neighbourhoods and kin-protections, veiling has been a response to signal adherence to (pdf) religious norms (i.e. that one is a "good girl"), hence the revival of veiling since the 1970s, led by educated, middle class women, and its spread to places that did not previously use it. Given that the headscarf proclaims acceptance of traditional monotheist religious norms, indeed the specific rejection of contemporary Western mores, they have not been a good basis for women to make anywhere near as much headway in Muslim countries and communities as have Western women.

Thus, the sea of headscarves (and veils) on Muslim women proclaim the (reviving) strength of monotheist conceptions of sexual and gender correctness within contemporary Islam (pdf); the monotheist conceptions of sexual and gender correctness that Western progressivists demand Western Christians shed themselves of any public manifestation of. A case of privilege-talk creating a clear moral caste system between the religion of alleged privilege and a religion of the under-privileged.

Evidence suggests that it is the development of effective secular authorities in high trust societies which has had most to do with declining religious belief. (Though, in the West, the effect of the Pill on massively reducing the utility of sexual norm signalling through church attendance shouldn't be underestimated--an effect that, as mentioned, has gone the other way in Islam, with a massive increase in religious signalling via headscarves and veiling.)

Islam gives great normative resonance to membership of the umma, the community of believers, but little or none to citizenship (as law was religious, not political) while notions of Muslim supremacy and Sharia as an expression of God's sovereignty undermine social bargaining politics (one can hardly bargain over the laws of God). So Islam provides a range of impediments to secular trust-and-bargaining alternatives to religious belief. An effect which is much stronger if there are also high rates of consanguineous marriage, which in itself undermines commitment to broader institutions. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most problematic Muslim migrants tend to be from high cousin marriage societies.

There is a huge amount of, to be polite, problematic historical and doctrinal baggage within Islam. Add in that mainstream Sunni Islam holds that revelation is the only grounding for morality and that the universe has no inherent structure outside the will of God (so there is no inherent causality, there is only, the habits of God in His--at every moment--constant recreating of the universe; habits which He can change at any time, an outlook not helpful to science within Islam, part of a set of problems [pdf] regarding Science within Islam) and there are a host of non-trivial issues about promoting significant Muslim migration to any country. But the privilege-framing, the moral mascotsacred victim status of Muslims, and consequent discounting of Muslim agency, essentially rules all of this outside the realm of morally acceptable discussion.

And if discussion of some issue is not morally acceptable to a sufficiently large and well-placed group, then one has effectively closed down debate, no matter how much noise there may be in the wider community. Indeed, penalties will and are attempted to be inflicted on those who engage in what are deemed to be morally illegitimate discussion of problematic issues within Muslim communities.


Being of Muslim heritage oneself is no protection: as Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud found when he attempted to draw attention to problems regarding status-of-women and gender relations in the Arab world, and that that may raise issues within Western societies receiving significant flows of migrants from the Middle East, only to get publicly denounced for daring to suggest any such thing. Ex-Muslim Sarah Haider talks of the ad hominem pressure from (white) progressivists against criticising any aspects of Islam, or problems within Muslim communities or even writings of Muslim intellectuals.

Of all the migrant groups to Western societies, it is only among Muslims that there is significant push back against the structures and achievements which make Western societies attractive to migrants in the first place. The pushback is most broadly-based within Muslim communities against the shifts in gender and sexual mores in Western societies but is at its most violent in a rejection that extends from cultural issues to democracy itself:
Here, for example, is what Ali Benhadj, one of the leaders of the Islamic Salvation FrontFront Islamique du Salut, or FIS—the party created in Algeria by the Islamists in the aftermath of the 1988 social riots in the capital—had to say in an interview that nicely captures the kind of teachings that were making their way to France: “Democracy is a Greek word imported from the world of infidels that hides corrupted beliefs and licentious practices. There is no democracy because the sole source of power is Allah, through the Koran, not the people. When the people vote against God’s law, it is nothing but a blasphemy and, in such a case, you must kill them all.” (Links added.) 
Not a particularly surprising statement to anyone familiar with jihadi literature.

Meanwhile, folk who have not embraced the metaphysical principle of discounted Muslim agency and barred critique because, sacred victims, are likely to find these issues not only worthy of discussion, but requiring discussion. Yet the very notion of sacred victim has to be, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out, protected by motivated ignorance. Thus does the gulf of mutual incomprehension between the more ardent adherents of privilege-talk and the wider citizen community intensify.

Hence polls find that 49% of Australians (where public opinion is very pro-immigration [pdf]) want to block further Muslim migration and 55% of citizens in 10 EU countries (where public opinion is rather less favourable to immigration) want to do so. It is also worth noting that having 2% of your population Muslim in countries with varied migrant communities (where the key thing is to fit in), as in the Anglo-Settler societies, is a very different social dynamic than having 5%, 10%, 15% of your population being Muslim where they are a major, or even dominant, migrant group, so that Islam forms a salient counter-identity, with communities large enough to shield activist political-Islam networks, as in various European countries.

A noxious framing
For the real noxiousness of the privilege concept is not, however, from its simplifying and flattening effect on social analysis and moral judgement. Where it becomes truly poisonous is in the moral caste system it sets up and the vicious-in-effect discounting of fellow citizens it naturally engenders.

While it is all very well to piously say the concept of privilege is not about blame (particularly not blaming people on the basis of immutable characteristics), the reality is that the term privilege is pejorative, and the "more" of it you are deemed to "have" the more of a pejorative burden one is loaded with. When a candidate for DNC Chair can say, in an open forum, that her job would be to tell white people to know their place, even shut up, we can see the noxious pejorative effect of privilege is well in operation.

The recurrent sneering at Dead White Males is clearly privilege-pejorative in operation--and, btw, a mark of the discounting of reason, as the value of an argument or analysis is only graded on the basis of the characteristics of the utterer if "authenticity", "experience" and emotion are taken to trump logic and evidence (that is, trump the use of reason). It is also a wildly anti-historical perspective to try and put some pejorative spin on the fact that, prior to the dramatic changes in patterns of production, and thus social possibilities, set off by the Great Enrichment (beginning with the industrial revolution), cultures of "white" folk had men as their pre-dominant culture-builders, as was true in all human cultures.

If the rhetorical impact of the pejorative inherent in the term privilege was not the point, the term advantage would have been used instead. While the Dead White Men rhetoric indicates how much stripping away of any notion of historical achievement is involved--which is particularly alienating for those who sense of social placement involves identifying with a specific cultural history, and the achievements thereof. Those achievements which are, of course, precisely why so many folk want to move to Western countries.

With the privilege framing, one ends up creating a moral caste system, with the more privilege-pejoratives one "bears", the higher the moral discount, and the more oppression-virtue markers one has, the higher the moral boost. Provided, of course, one expresses the correct perspectives, as the moral rankings sit there, able to be pulled out as convenient (obviously against those with "privilege", but also against those "without" it who fail to toe the line).

A US graduate student struggling with not using terms such as privilege and lived experience that blames and excludes notes the problem with:
a conversation being had among an elite intelligentsia diverting time and resources to righteously silencing one another.
And so:
we might want to pause and consider whether our language serves a purpose beyond a self-interested performance.
She wants to retain the notion of privilege but, in effect, strip it of its pejorative, moral-caste-system effect: but the pejorative, moral-caste-system effect is precisely what gives it such power and utility.

A Princeton student has rather nicely captured the divisive assault on notions of common humanity involved. Having had a minister at an induction-to-Princeton ceremony get people to stand up in various demographics groups to "identify their community" (of course religion-substitute save-the-world politics develops its own rituals), the student experiencing this notes that:
In compressing us into isolated communities based on our race, religion or gender, the minister belittled every other piece of our identities. He faced a crowd of singular young adults and essentially told them that their heritage outweighed their humanity. The message was clear: know your kind and stick to it. Don’t risk offending people from other backgrounds by trying to understand their worldviews.
The moral nonsense that, of course, African-Americans and Hispanics "should" vote tribally, but if white people do, it's evil and noxious flows directly from the moral mountains of "privilege" built upon molehills of evidence (and selective molehills at that). The celebration of "good" identities as basis for action, and attacks on "bad" identities as a basis for action, is an attack on a notion of a common humanity, or common citizenship, moralised in a way which is positively Orwellian.

The reductio of this is when working class men--as inherently morally burdened straight white males--end up being implicitly or explicitly lectured on their "privilege" by highly educated middle class (or higher) women with far more social advantages than any working class man is ever likely to experience. (An updated version of Victorian or Gilded Age ladies preening about their moral and cultural superiority over working class oafs.) Meanwhile, working class women are blamed for showing solidarity with their families and communities, not (as required) their gender (so voting on the basis of white "privilege" not gender "oppression"), a striking example of privilege being about which aspects are focused on and when.

And when folk arc up about being treated with arrogant condescension which sneers at, and discounts, any inconvenient concerns or experiences they may have, their concerns get dismissed as those "losing" privilege and so experiencing "equality as oppression"--that's why they are angry; it's all about the loss of "privilege" (privilege which is, nevertheless, still their moral burden even as they are losing it). And we know that folk notice the arrogant condescension, as many observers, including Thomas Frank, tell us so:
What did crop up persistently when I talked to this group was a disgust with the perceived moral haughtiness of liberals. More than one member of the club referred to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”, for example. There was resentment of “Ivy League graduates” who felt entitled to “micromanage the rest of the country”. The man who told me that – a fellow wearing a US Army Retired cap – also told me that “if you want to be an obnoxious slob, you have a right to be one”.
This right-to-obnoxiousness raises a fascinating point: these men saw liberals as loudmouthed Pharisees, intolerant moralists who demanded that the rest of the nation snap into line – an exact reverse of the John Ashcroft stereotype liberals used to hold of conservatives.
Given that, in the US, votes for women is almost a century old, protection of legal rights for black folk a half-century old, explicit assistance for black folk via affirmation action is also a half-century old, those straight white males have taken a remarkably long time to get angry over the loss of "privilege", over the burden of equality; especially as many of them voted twice for a black President. (Somehow, between 2012 and 2016, it all just hit them.)

Vicious winners needing endless moral strife
In reality, if one takes a step back (and perhaps a deep breath), what is remarkable is how well most people have coped with stunning amounts of cultural change in a remarkably short period of time. But these are included in the various inconvenient facts one is not supposed to pay much (or sometimes any) attention to. As privilege-talk rests on a (albeit somewhat subtle) aversion to (inconvenient) facts, it is hardly surprising that privilege-talk buttresses a politics of hostility to raising inconvenient facts, or that it is so very much about the politics of (convenient) narrative.

The salient problem is not ordinary folk, nor the conservative Christians who have lost every major cultural battle for decades; the salient problem is progressivists being such vicious winners. Vicious winners who are contemptuous of giving people time to adjust--yes, we will drive you out of business, get you sacked, if you don't keep up (and if we can do it to a CEO in a business they helped found, we can do it to anyone); yes we will engage in ritual public humiliations. Vicious winners too often determined to double-down so that no part of people's lives--not their job, use of language, clothing, games, entertainment, or whatever is chosen to be picked on next, will not be under public assault. With the open intolerance of dissent on campuses--notionally the homes of intellectual freedom and debate--easily looking like an ambit claim to drive dissent out of all public spaces. Or not only an ambit claim, given some of the shenanigans on social media and within the SF community.

Meanwhile, much of this social and cultural aggression relies on using a notion of privilege as a key justification; something which the concept is not remotely sufficiently well factually-grounded to do.

A pattern of liberalising (so, at least notionally, progressivist) success in the culture wars gives no respite because so much of contemporary progressivism is about feeling moral superior, which requires generating endless targets to pick on; so ever-higher decibels of moral shrieking over ever-smaller matters. While to treat those who disagree as well-intentioned defeats the status-game point. Until, of course, folk subject to this unending moral crusade of unlimited intrusion start deciding they are really, really over it and push back across a now pathologically polarised social landscape where it is increasingly difficult to escape from politics.

The "they are angry over equality" is a nonsense analysis, offered with no evidence (indeed, against the evidence). But it is how the noxious notion of privilege so easily lends itself to discounting other people's framings based on a notion that any so-designated disagreement from the ostentatiously morally entitled (because they are fighting "privilege") is inherently illegitimate; a meta-framing which, not coincidentally, encourages smug feelings of moral and intellectual superiority among those pushing them. They are morally justified, so morally entitled, social justice "mean grrls".

Hence the smug style is alive and well. To the extent that people engaged in wrongtalk and wronghumour about the Islamic State killing homosexuals can be front page news but someone being convicted in a local court for actually killing gay folk for Islamic reasons is not print worthy news.

As the aforementioned Princeton student notes, it is a matter conforming to the approved moral perspective. And a deadening conformity is the result:
And so the administration chose to celebrate our cultural diversity as a student body, at the cost of our individual diversity as students.
Like many other schools, Princeton has become disturbingly homogeneous because of this phenomenon. Not only that, but the pressure to respect other groups on and off campus is pushing my generation into left-wing uniformity. We are encouraged to mind our own business by mimicking politically correct values without ever thinking them through on our own. No one questioned the students and faculty members who disrespectfully walked out of Charles Murray’s lecture hall after he was invited to speak on campus this winter.
My teachers and classmates openly referred to Trump’s voters as uneducated bigots throughout the election season, while taking any criticism of Clinton as an attack against women. Anyone who dares to voice a religious opinion is regarded as unintelligent. The fear of being called racist draws our attention to a black woman’s skin instead of her character, and the fear of being called homophobic emphasizes a gay man’s sexuality over his personality. We have been trained to tiptoe around each other and distribute trigger warnings with generosity.
It is part of a wider (and destructive) pattern where ostentatious moral commitment is used as a cognitive club to discount and devalue alternative framings and inconvenient experiences by attacking the moral standing of people holding or having such. Which has almost infinite capacity to irritate and enrage people: in the case of Pepin County in Wisconsin, the influx of such folk apparently shifted a county that had voted against Reagan twice, and for Obama twice, into voting The Donald a landslide county victory.

It is, as economist Steve Randy Waldman puts it, even at its most tentative, at the very least a political problem:
The question of who are the authoritarians, who are the bullies, is actively contested in American politics, and not just by Rush-Limbaugh-types shouting “Feminazi!” When Trump supporters complain about “political correctness”, they are claiming that contemporary liberal norms have rendered it socially costly for them to speak freely and candidly even when they mean no harm. They may be wrong to complain. Perhaps stigmatizing all but the most careful forms of expression around matters of race and sexuality and gender is in fact the best way to prevent severe harms to vulnerable people, and is a development that should be celebrated. Regardless, many Americans, whether they are right or wrong and even if they are mostly white, perceive a cost in personal freedom to these norms. They have not been convinced that those costs are just or necessary, especially in light of their own increasing vulnerability and grievance. Whether or not their discontent is legitimate, whether or not they are right to assert an ethical problem, their perception constitutes a political problem.
It is striking that it is precisely those who are most willing to pontificate about privilege who tend to be most into privileging--privileging some perspectives over others, some framings over others, some experience and groups over others. The entire "check your privilege" nonsense is all about morally privileging, hence the one-upping games to see who has the least privilege, so the most moral standing. The pattern of poor reporting about sexual assault on campus, including some dramatic cases of false accusation, comes directly from progressivist privileging of some voices over others which, as Jonathan Haidt points out, leads to, on campuses where it becomes entrenched, a systematic attack on free enquiry (inculcated particularly by grievance study departments--women's studies, queer studies, black studies, etc--combined with grievance punishment structures).

Those wrapped up in such moral privileging then project their own privileging onto society at large. Not least by "privileging" some social patterns over others to give the concept of privilege a degree of plausibility that is not factually warranted. 
The notion of privilege may be one that applies to categories of people, but it is instantiated in persons, so becomes a personal characteristic that authorises and emboldens the personalising of the public.

In personalising the political, one politicises the personal; both expanding the ambit, and raising the stakes, of politics. In having the emotional depth of the private sphere enter the public sphere, the public sphere is rendered both more dysfunctional and more vicious. There is no relief from the politics of protecting personalised "oppressed" identities; no acceptable ground for, nor protection of, cognitive difference that is in tension with its demands in any realm where people interact.

The smothering of dispute and conflict in the name of respect thereby smothers, or attempts to smother, intellectual enquiry, free speech, religious freedom and political choice and does so in a way that strips standing from those who disagree, creating a contemptuous, condescending and pervasive intrusion that both offends and enrages. The politics of resentment need not be the politics of illegitimate or ungrounded resentment: assuming that there is nothing to legitimately resent is another manifestation of moralising politics creating an overweening sense of moral entitlement.

The use of privilege as a way for people with much better social prospects, far more access to social levers, who are much more insulated from the costs of their preferred policies, than so many of the folk they use the concept as a weapon against is where the contemporary usage of the notion of privilege moves from the destructively overblown to the utterly contemptible.
The concept of privilege is poor analysis, poisonous politics and profoundly morally deficient framing of social issues and events. And no amount of clever gaming metaphors can rescue it from that. 



Friday, January 13, 2017

Hitler defeated Lenin, Chiang defeated Mao

It is a commonplace that the victors write history. But which victors? The victors that are claimed to write history are normally taken to be those who win wars and other conflicts. But just because one side wins a war or conflict, it does not follow that its ideas triumph in the longer term.

Consider contemporary China. Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kai-shek in their epic decades-long conflict, driving him and his Kuomintang forces to exile in Taiwan. Now, look at contemporary China--is it closer to Mao's vision or Chiang's?

Obviously Chiang's. As a wit observed, the story of post-1979 politics in both "Chinas" (the People's Republic and Taiwan) is the Communist Party of China trying to become the Kuomintang and the Kuomintang trying to become the Democratic Progressive Party. Mao may have won the military struggle, but Chiang's vision won the wider social war. It turns out that social reality is not entirely plastic to our visions, and Chiang's proved to be more human and achievable than Mao's. That matters, in the end.

Lenin's successor Stalin, with huge help from the Anglo-Americans (who provided trucks, rolling stock, canned food, and munitions crucial to the Red Army while their bombing campaign diverted the Luftwaffe and many thousands of tank-killer 88mm guns from the Eastern Front), defeated Hitler on the Eastern Front. But consider contemporary postmodern identity progressivism (PIP), with its concern for authenticity, identity, emotion over reason, environment, obsessions with the Jewish state, dismissive treatment of workers and belief that a sufficiently interventionist state does not have to own firms to control them: whose obsessions does it better reflect, Hitler's or Lenin's?

Obviously Hitler's (though also obviously not with his identity rankings). As post-Enlightenment progressivism turns out to be the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted (which is why it is so easy for more openly Counter-Enlightenment politics to adopt the political tropes of PIPism), this is less shocking than it appears.

For the triumph of Chiang's vision over Mao's, and Hitler's obsessions over Lenin's, is, in a deep sense, the same triumph (or, more accurately, the same failure). In both cases, the Radical Enlightenment (the belief that humans and society could be utterly transformed by applied social reason) turned out to be triumphant in direct military struggle and a failure thereafter.

Winning the war ...  
The Radical Enlightenment instanced by Leninism and Maoism was triumphant in direct military struggle because it both motivated and mobilised. It provided a vision, a goal, of such transcendent power that it could motivate enormous, focused efforts. Moreover, efforts that could not only motivate intensely but mobilise broadly. Since every aspect of society was to be transformed, every aspect of society was up for being contested and mobilised without inhibitions, moral or conceptual. No aspect of society, or social group, was beyond contesting or mobilising for a future that seemed to epitomise modernity. Mao could count on much more motivated allies and fellow-travellers than Chiang, including broader sympathy within the US State Department, for example--and not from communists or crypto-communists but from liberal/progressive folk repelled by the corrupt inefficiencies of Chiang's regime.

During the struggle on the Eastern Front, Hitler threw away potential allies on race-theory grounds while diverting resources to genocide. Stalin was even more willing to engaged in megacidal slaughter than Hitler, but was much better at sequencing slaughter than Hitler. Mobilising for the current struggle always came first.

Within Weimar Germany, interwar politics demonstrated that class theory was worse at alliance building than race theory. As a direct consequence, once in power being ruled by Hitler in peacetime was generally far safer than being ruled by Stalin: a typical German was much less threatened by Hitler than a typical Russian was by Stalin.

Internationally, it was the other way around--class theory was better at alliance building than race theory. While Nazism and Stalinism were even on the motivation stakes, Stalinism was better at allies and breadth of mobilisation.

... but failing human and social management 
Hence, Stalinism won (with help from its allies). But won the war, not history for, again, social reality is not entirely plastic to our visions. As political economist Mancur Olson pointed out, you can make Stalinism work (in the sense of providing a high proportion of social resources for the purposes of the ruler)--provided you are willing to engage in regular purges to break up the resource diverting and suppressing "self-help" (i.e. patronage and corruption) networks that command-and-control systems naturally generate. But as the people purges need to threaten (those in the power apparat) in order to work are precisely the people with the greatest ability to end them, they are not likely to be a permanent feature of any society. (Well, there is a way around that--have a hereditary ruler.) Once the purges end, then the self-servicing networks build up and the (now unchecked) pathologies of command-and-control begin to spread until the system is buried by them.

Nanjing, China
Unless you do as Deng Xiaoping did, and allow other social mechanisms (specifically those of markets and private property) to operate across wider and wider range of social space. You are still left with attempting to manage command-and-control mechanisms, but across a narrower span of social action supported by an expanding economy rather than a stagnating, or even contracting, one.

Hitler's obsessions, on the other hand, are much less directly destructive of economic activity while equally representing a rejection of the Sceptical Enlightenment (the belief that human nature and social dynamics--such as the problems of knowledge and incentives--provide a permanent constraints on what applied reason can achieve). The rebooted identity obsessions of the Counter-Enlightenment provide motivating purposes and grounds for social mobilisation compatible (mostly) with market mechanisms. In the face of the collapse of command economics as a plausible social model, they were a natural place for salvationist politics (i.e. politics that provides a substitute for religion in imparting a sense of meaning, importance and path to a transcendent future) to move to, and so it has.

It turns out, being good at military success is not enough; being compatible with longer run social success counts more. In the failure of the Radical Enlightenment because people and society are not as plastic to our visions as it claims--indeed, requires--we can see why Chiang's vision defeated Mao's and Hitler's obsessions overtook Lenin's.


[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Sunday, December 18, 2016

How the rhetoric of denunciation distorts public affairs

During a post on how the US Democrats need to get their act together for the good of the United States, IT guru and long-time blogger Eric. S. Raymond makes the following observation about constant harping on about racism:
It is irrelevant whether an actual plurality of American voters actually are as racist and sexist as you think. They don’t think they are, and they’re fed up with being hectored about it. This isn’t 1965, and your ability to tap into a substratum of guilt by white people who deep down know they were in the wrong is gone. What that same move brings up now is resentment.
Quite so. That racial resentment is then characterised as racism (or a proxy for racism: see here) then generates a self-reinforcing feedback loop. 

The constant pointing-and-shrieking of racism!, sexism!, misogyny!, homophobia!, transphobia!, xenophobia!, Islamophobia! etc is what I have called the rhetoric of denunciation. It is based on what we might reasonably call the PC-principle: 
a person's moral standing is determined by their opinions
This is in contrast to the liberal principle:
a person has inherent moral worth and so should be free to express their opinions
The PC principle, or what we might call the grading-by-opinion principle, has various implications. One is "gotcha!". If a person's moral standing is dependent on their opinions, then any error or mistake is likely to be interpreted as a moral or character failing. If said words transgresses against the current opinion-grading norms (and so is subject to point-and-shriek), then their lack of moral character, their lack of moral standing, is taken as demonstrated and so profoundly contaminates anything else they have to say.

Another consequence is the downgrading of achievement. If moral standing is determined by conformity to opinion-grading norms, then past achievement is irrelevant. It doesn't matter if one was a pioneering voice in feminism, or of transgender film making, a prominent gay and civil rights activist, or was clever enough to land a spacecraft on a comet, or got a Nobel Prize in biology, or even if the original claims were false or misleading; all that counts for naught against (apparent) failure to keep up to current opinion status-grading norms.

A third is pervasive moral arrogance: both from the belief that one is entitled to grade people in such a way and in the belief that one partakes in a moral and cognitive understanding so pervasive that such grading is unproblematic. There is no place for Millian humility about truth being discovered through dispute. On the contrary, the sense of moral grandeur and entitlement is part of the appeal of the grading-by-opinion principle to adherents (and, conversely, what makes their consequent antics so infuriating to others).

Distorting information flows
But there will also be a range of (invidious) effects on the flow of information and opinion within the wider society and politics. Those who have views or concerns that fail to conform to the opinion norms (themselves set by those most willing to protest and vilify) and for whom vilification imposes relatively high costs (for instance, due to career or personal reasons), will be pushed out of participating conversations and debates; both personal and public. Their concerns and views will not disappear, and are unlikely to be changed, but will simply persist in a largely unseen fashion. So, all the problems of preference falsification begin to build up.

Those who dissent yet remain active in conversation and public debate will be those willing and able to put up with the vilification costs. Which will often be the more ideologically motivated. So, the paradoxical effect of trying to restrict diversity in opinion will to make the more stridently non-conformist more publicly salient. Worse, the more that the more ideologically motivated have a monopoly in expressing concerns prevalent among the reluctantly silent, the more capacity the ideologically motivated will have to build support among such.

Given that contemporary grading-by-opinion principle within the cultural "commanding heights" is profoundly progressivist, that will create a tendency to de-stabilise centre-right politics, as more moderate politicians are pushed into failing to respond to concerns among their voters, and so begin to lose out to less conformist political entrepreneurs. Conversely, the (quite accurate) sense of being ignored and hectored by arrogant and condescending elites will give the counter-identity of populism so much to work with.

So, the effect of conformity-enforcing pointing-and-shrieking, and the rhetoric of denunciation, of imposing social costs on dissenting opinion, will to increase polarising extremity in public debate.

Including via the effect on the proponents of the opinion-dominates principle. Both their sources of information, and their capacity to use information, will degrade. If transgressing the opinion norms determines your moral standing, then information coming from those deemed to lack moral standing will be massively discounted. The reluctant silence of those unwilling to bear the costs and risks of dissent will give a false impression of the actual patterns of opinion. Moreover, entertaining thoughts that might lead to oneself transgressing against the opinion norms becomes dangerous to one's standing and sense of identity, as does paying attention to any facts that might lead one to such thoughts.

The more one's social milieu is made up of people who grade people's moral standing via their opinions, the more opinion-conformity there will be within that social milieu, as the penalties of transgression mount, and the connection between opinion and identity increase. The increasing-conformity social mechanisms nicely set out in Cass Sunstein's Why Societies Need Dissent come into play. The effect will be to create increasing opinion "bubbles" where dissent will seem even more outlandish and aberrant and so even more subject to vilification and loss of moral standing. The "I can tolerate anyone except the outgroup" effect becomes that much stronger.

This is nowhere clearer than in the debate over political correctness itself. To claim that there is a problem with PC is to put oneself outside the cognitive tribe of those adhering to "proper" opinion; or, at least, to put one's tribal membership, as a person with good moral standing, at risk. Conversely, those most likely to publicly criticise the dynamics of PC are those mostly likely to already diverge from "proper" opinion, so be already discounted. So, "good folk" are blocked from listening to, or giving any substantive consideration to, such critiques.

Hence a feature of the debate, which is gay men in particular of a certain age (such as Andrew Sullivan, Peter Tatchell, Stephen Fry and David Rubin--Fry and Rubin discussed the issue together) being critics of PC. First, their being gay gives them some protection. Second, the dynamics of PC are essentially the same as those of the traditional gender and sexual correctness that they grew up being oppressed by: deriving from claims to be protecting the moral order against those who would destroy it, vilification of divergence, treating the divergent as evil in intent, suppression of inconvenient facts, being insulted by the notion that such "awful" people should be treated as having moral standing equivalent to "decent" folk (what I call the insult of equality), and so on. Both opinion-grading-conformism (aka PC) and traditional sexual and gender correctness are forms of moral bullying; and those who have no wish to be moral bullies themselves, but suffered from moral bullying in their own lives, are often more motivated to call it out when it comes around in a new form.

Decaying institutions
There are also wider institutional effects from the grading-by-opinion principle. If an industry which exists on conveying information (most obviously, the media) is increasingly pervaded by the conformist operation of the grading-by-opinion principle, then its members will increasingly become an unreliable conveyor of information--either due to suppressing facts, or suppressing implications. (Note that suppressing facts does not require lying: it just requires either not covering inconvenient facts or covering them in a way which discourages taking the "wrong" implications from them.)


A pattern which will become stronger, via the echo chamber effect (and the other social mechanisms nicely set out in Cass Sunstein's Why Societies Need Dissent), the more the norms of opinion grading become dominant in their organisation or industry. Which, as the alternative sources of information available to the wider public expand, creates a widening disconnect between the purveyors of information and large sections of their audience. The effect is likely to be particularly strong where the information content typically conveyed is lower (say, because the visual content is higher and pieces are shorter--i.e. TV media) and so remaining words have more potential normative weight.

Thus the effect of accepting opinion-grading norms, based on opinion determining moral standing, will be to depress the public standing of any information-conveying industry the more it becomes pervaded by it. Particularly among those most distant from the opinions within the industry.

Polarising opinion, growth of more "extreme" forms of political dissent, creating of opinion bubbles and loss of standing by mainstream media with rising populism. Does this sound anything like the world we live in?

Degrading democracy
A society where the costs of participating in public debate are extremely uneven, so preference falsification becomes increasingly widespread, is a society where basic processes of social bargaining will be damaged. This is very unhelpful for the long term health of any polity, but particularly democratic ones.

As the performance of democracies as vehicles for broad social bargaining degrade, and as the notion that citizens are people who are of inherent worth, such that they are entitled to express their opinions, becomes less and less adhered to (particularly among those who inhabit the cultural "commanding heights"), then one can expect that confidence in democracy, and adherence to democratic norms, will also degrade. As is happening.

The PC principle, the grading-by-opinion principle, is disastrous in both theory and practice. It is morally offensive to reduce the moral standing of a person to some subset of their opinions (in much the same way as it is to reduce their moral standing to their gender, religion, sexuality, etc). It is particularly meretricious to do so according to ever-shifting norms of acceptability.

Moreover, the patterns of thought and behaviour involved are deeply politically and socially corrosive. The deeply illiberal (indeed, incipiently totalitarian) nature and social dynamics of conformist grading-by-opinion dominating the information industries (media, IT, academe, entertainment) is not a minor issue at all, it is a very serious corrosive factor within Western democratic societies.


ADDENDA. And now Margaret Atwood, novelist and author of The Handmaiden's Tale, is being called "an enabler of rape culture". 

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]