site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of March 25, 2024

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Health, Fitness, Obesity, and Politics

Something that’s been bouncing around in my head for quite some time is how people relate their politics to their personal health. This story from The Daily Beast on Wisconsin Senate candidate Eric Hovde has resurfaced this for me by providing a clear illustration of what I perceive as a current difference between the American left and right on this issue:

“Look, we have an explosion of Type 2 diabetes right now. Explosion. Obesity is off the charts. You know, we’re removing people from being responsible for their own health,” Hovde said.

“If they all of a sudden started to realize that they’re going to pay more for their health care by consuming, you know, by consuming massive amounts of soda every day or fatty foods and not exercising, maybe they would change their behavioral patterns.”

Hovde then claimed obesity was a “personal choice.”

“It’s a personal choice,” he said, “but there should be consequences to those personal choices. Fine, you want to do that, you become obese, your health care is going to cost more. Or, the quality—or not the quality, but the amount of health care may go down, because you may not have the money to afford it.

“You have to force personal responsibility back to people, and also make them smart consumers.”

The Daily Beast helpfully loops in a putative expert on the matter, a professor at NYU:

Jay said that Hovde’s comments singling out obesity as something that should raise people’s insurance rates reveals that “either you’re not understanding or you’re really discriminating against people who have a chronic disease.”

“It’s assuming that obesity is some sort of moral failing that people need to be punished for,” she said. “That’s not true.

She added: “It’s a pretty awful and dangerous thing to say.”

This is the latest spat about these sorts of things and probably lays the dichotomous beliefs out about as clearly as possible. There is a policy angle (some people think insurance should be risk-based, some don’t), but that is comparatively dry relative to the beliefs in personal responsibility and how those views extend into political beliefs. There was an old throwaway post from the dissident right blog Dividuals that stuck with me a decade later because of how clearly it captured something that I felt when I read the left-leaning positions:

One realistic way to parodize liberals / lefties / Progressives / feminists / SJWs etc. would be to present them as narcissistic, solipsistic, self-absorbed people with huge and fragile egos who demand that everything should revolve around themselves.

The simple fact that feminists tend to be fat would only make, in itself, a weak joke. But when you find they run around parading their fatness, and make it a political goal to make men somehow adore it – imagine it, human beings making it a political goal that other should have a positive opinion of their own personal fsckups! “I have crap for character, now praise me for it, oppressor!” Imagine programmers making it a political goal to convince people that bugs are actually good!

At the time, I wasn’t particularly right-aligned, so this wasn’t really an ingroup-outgroup thing, but an articulation of a growing frustration I had with people on the left, this absolute refusal to ever tell people to own up to their situations, take responsibility for where they are in life, and fix it. Everything, always, forever is just contingent on circumstances, completely outside of their control. While I could understand the arguments about this sort of thing when it comes to wealth accumulation or crime, to be so extreme as to not grant that people have agency over what they eat was the kind of thing that was just steadily pushing me away from having any inclination to share goals with the economic left.

Since then, there has been a steady (if not particularly large) genre of articles characterizing fitness as a right-wing phenomenon. Some of these are really silly things about how gyms are gateways to far-right extremism, but let’s look at one example that’s a little more self-serious and not obviously ridiculous:

The study found a significant correlation between those men who were heavier and stronger and the belief that some social groups should dominate others. These men were also less likely to support the redistribution of wealth, a typically left wing principle.

Specifically, the researchers found a specific correlation between the number of hours spent in the gym and having less egalitarian socioeconomic beliefs.

Dr Michael Price, a senior lecturer in psychology at the university and the lead author of the study, suggested the findings could come down to three things: The result of the men “calibrating their egalitarianism to their own formidability”, that less egalitarian men strive to become more muscular or there could be a third variable at play.

“Our results suggest that wealthier men who are more formidable physically are more likely to oppose redistribution of wealth,” he said. “Essentially, they seem more motivated to defend their resources. But less wealthy men who are still physically formidable don’t seem more inclined to support redistribution either. They’re not demanding a share of the wealth.

Vice covers the same thing, but with an oddly smug glee:

To all you gym-bro haters amongst us, come, be seated. This one's for you. Science—objective, empirically tested science, the science that tells us that the ice caps are melting—has confirmed what many of us have long suspected: Gym bros are right-wing jerks.

Price's findings? That rich muscle dudes are the worst! Under those rock-hard abs lie the rock-hard souls of men who doesn't believe in spreading their riches around. "It's basically your tolerance to the idea that wealth shouldn't be redistributed," Dr. Price explains. "Some people thought it was horrible; some people thought it was fine."

If there was ever a line that called for a YesChad.jpg response, it’s that one. While I am not a particularly big guy, I will self-report that I do believe my work as an endurance athlete has substantially shifted my views against egalitarian perspectives and more towards personal responsibility. Rather than modeling that as being about domination and aggression, I would propose that the mechanism is the personal sense of accomplishment and mastery coupled with knowing how much of it is a direct product of your internal locus of control. I’m not decently fast because of some random freak accident of nature - I wasn’t fast when I started running, I’m much faster now, and I keep getting faster in almost perfect concert with how much work I put into the sport. Others will fare better with less work, such is life, but we all have a great deal of control over our outcomes. So, yeah, I am inclined to believe that pursuing fitness as a hobby will tend to lead one to the right of their current positions.

The belief that fitness is a right-wing thing doesn’t stop with this sort of relatively modest claim about egalitarian tendencies though. The Society for Cultural Anthropology has a weird writeup on Gym Fascism. To go nutpicking a bit, the Manitoba University newspaper has Fitness culture and fatphobia are fascistic - Our obsession with looking the same is culling joy and body diversity:

Prof. Brian Pronger points out that almost everything that we stress about physical education centres around maximizing the body’s performance. It’s the way that we are all expected to structure our lives around our fitness regimens, and those five days a week when we’re supposed to work out must be in service to making ourselves as strong as possible.

Fitness fanaticism constipates our personal growth. Think about what it means to “work on yourself.” It often means to work out, as if your character is tied to your physical strength and muscle tone.

OK, too much nutpicking. Back to a serious journalistic outlet, Time magazine. Just before the New Year, Time published a story that might dissuade people from making an ill-advised resolutions for 2023 titled The White Supremacist Origins of Exercise, and 6 Other Surprising Facts About the History of U.S. Physical Fitness:

It was super interesting reading the reflections of fitness enthusiasts in the early 20th century. They said we should get rid of corsets, corsets are an assault on women’s form, and that women should be lifting weights and gaining strength. At first, you feel like this is so progressive.

Then you keep reading, and they’re saying white women should start building up their strength because we need more white babies. They’re writing during an incredible amount of immigration, soon after enslaved people have been emancipated. This is totally part of a white supremacy project. So that was a real “holy crap” moment as a historian, where deep archival research really reveals the contradictions of this moment.

Oh dear.

Anyway, to return to that Hovde story that kicked things off, I find it pretty interesting to think about how these things play with different crowds. Something that’s kind of obvious is that Red Tribe America is not actually very fit at all, while Blue Tribe power centers consistently have quite a few fitness-minded individuals. Nonetheless, when Hovde says that fat people are responsible for their own bodies, it seems to me that most Red Tribers basically agree and accept that they’re fat because they like burgers and beer a little too much, while the Blue Tribers recoil at the suggestion that people are responsible for eating themselves into Type 2 diabetes. This reminds me of how discussions of marriage and morality play out as well - educated elites, regardless of political persuasion, stay married at very high rates and seem to be well aware that this is the correct way to live, but are hesitant to say this about the underclass. They hold standards for themselves that they believe don’t apply to others. As far as electoral politics goes, I doubt this little newscycle item means much of anything, but it does provide a fun case study and litmus test for perspectives on the topic.

A place where I've noticed the whole "self-improvement is right-wing" meme being true has been in fictional media. In recent years, a number of films (e.g. Star Wars, Captain Marvel) and TV shows (e.g. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Rings of Power) - all of them made by openly progressive people openly pushing a progressive agenda - have been criticized for what some have disparagingly called the "HER-o's Journey," wherein the heroine, often fairly boring or unlikeable from the start, goes through a character arc where she discovers that she was actually always as awesome as she always believed she was, realizing that all her problems were the fault of everyone else who couldn't see her innate awesomeness that was always within her. This is obviously meant to contrast with the classic "Hero's Journey," which tends to involve a hero going through a character arc where he struggles with and overcomes some flaw he has, allowing him to overcome some obstacle at the climax. It'd be easy to say that this is a projection of how women and men relate to each other IRL, where women judge if men are good enough for her while men improve themselves to become good enough for women, but I don't think it's that simple, since, AFAICT, fictional media that follow this type of narrative tend not to be particularly liked by women any more than they are by men. But to add on to this whole "refusal to self-improve" phenomenon, when these works underperform commercially, usually the creators of these works tend to blame the fans for failing to understand their value, rather than blaming themselves for failing to deliver something that fans would want to give money for.

More broadly, these phenomena both tie into something Jonathan Haidt has talked about with respect to modern leftist politics, which is that he sees it as "reverse-cognitive behavioral therapy." One well known trope in CBT is that one reframes "this person caused me to feel this way" to "this person did this, and I responded by feeling this way," which obviously shifts the locus of control from external to internal. Much of the modern left is informed by the idea of discovering one's true self and being in touch with one's emotions, which often rounds down to just trusting every feeling that goes through one's mind as true and valuable and projecting it onto the world - this is something we obviously see coming from all sides all the time, but the modern left particularly encourages this as virtuous for people who have been deemed oppressed.

Another disparate thought I have is that the left has long been associated with support for religious and sexual minorities, who have traditionally been oppressed by a society that would treat them as second class citizens for believing the things they believe. In such a setting, trusting one's own feelings over what society tells you is considered a righteous act of rebellion, and it's not at all a leap to go from that to the belief that any sort of belief in improving oneself is actually an internalized form of the oppressive standards that society imposes on you. I also wrote in another comment that the connection to postmodernism makes it so that it's easier to disconnect one's beliefs from base reality, which in this case is the belief that any negative health effects of being fat or obese are purely imposed by society and disconnected from biology or physics. This also connects with beauty standards, where the notion that skinny, fit women being considered attractive is deemed to be a purely arbitrary societal invention.

I don't know that there's any theory that neatly ties all this together. I'll just say, as someone who's been a leftist Democrat all my life, seeing Democrats whine about Republicans for so many decades without taking responsibility to improve themselves has largely made me check out of politics over the past half-decade to a decade. The idea that it's our responsibility and only our responsibility to shape our message to win over Republicans and independents to our cause, and that these people who disagree with us have no responsibility to be convinced by a message they don't find convincing just doesn't seem to occur to them. That said, I'm seeing this from the inside of just one side, and so maybe this exact same type of passing-the-buck phenomenon happens just as much in the other side.

This seems connected to the more recent idea that competency isn't real, and that all jobs are rewards/punishments that grant privilege/status and nothing more. The idea is that we can just redistribute status by just giving members of oppressed groups prestigious jobs to do, and that will work out fine because nobody is more competent than anyone else at anything. It's not even believing that people might have equal capacity for competence when brought up with equal privilege, but that they actually do have equal competence regardless of their life history. There is no need to improve or work hard to earn something; we just need privileged people to get out of the way.

This comment from back when we were on the reddit by @SerenaButler (not sure if they're still with us) discusses the idea you're talking about, and is imo very insightful. Original:

Text: As a somewhat aside, for the longest time as a kid and/or student I never understood why "Access to jobs" was a cause celebré for advocacy campaigners. Jobs are shit and no sane person would ever want one (at least, absent The Man's omnipresent conditioning that you must work for his profit). Money, sure, everyone wants that. Jobs, no. It's like campaigning to be given sickle cell anemia rather than a malaria vaccine: you are asking for a horrible things that coincidentally happens to be upstream of the result you want, rather than asking for the result you want.

The solution to this problem became apparent the first time I'd worked a few jobs: to wit, many jobs are sinecures where you doss about with your work friends, get paid mostly for "presence", and are not actually required to exert your muscles (intellectual or literal) at all. So that's why people want """jobs""". Government's promising to deliver """jobs""" is really a promise to deliver what people actually want, money-for-nothing, with merely the most tissue-thin sop of "labors to be performed" in exchange for these monies to keep up appearences.

To bring this back around to the quoted point: yes, having understood the above logic, campaigners absolutely would have no problem pushing for unqualified people to get jobs, because, outside of a very limited subset of jobs, like, nuclear power plant technician or something, the accomplishment of the task is irrelevant because the task is essentially a fiction. It does not really need to be completed and no-one will suffer if it is not completed so it doesn't matter if the people assigned to it are unqualified. Most jobs (especially public sector ones) are just dolled-up wealth-transfer programmes, and campaigners understand this, and governments understand this, and """generate jobs for the X community""" is a dog-whistle for "free money for X".

EDIT: Through this rubric, lots of (apparently very irresponsible) Blue Tribe campaigns suddenly snap into focus as perfectly reasonable. Women in front line infantry? Well, if you believe that government jobs are all sinecures and tasks to be performed are fictitious and everyone knows this, therefore all these Red Tribers complaining about "upper body strength" or whatever probably are dealing in bad faith misogyny; they just wanna keep the wealth transfer in the hands of /their guys/ burly dudebros rather than letting women sup from the greenback firehouse. Affirmative action Ivy League admissions? Why not, qualifications = credentialism = fake, there's no real tasks to be performed at Harvard or in post-Harvard employment, so therefore all these Red Tribers complaining about "meritocracy" probably are dealing in bad faith racism; they just wanna keep the wealth transfer in the hands of /their guys/ Good Old Boy WASPS rather than letting minorities sup from the credential spigot.

If you really believe in the bullshit jobs thesis, and you really believe that everyone else is in on the open secret too, then when someone makes the "muh objective competence qualifications" against you, it is perfectly reasonable to believe it's an argument that could only ever be made in bad faith.

because, outside of a very limited subset of jobs, like, nuclear power plant technician or something, the accomplishment of the task is irrelevant because the task is essentially a fiction.

Except that’s very definitely not true; most jobs have actual accomplishments that need to be done. Sure, diversity coordinators are figures no one would miss if they all called in for months at a time, but almost all of the common jobs need to actually do something. Even the HR lady could perhaps be routed around but there are actual things she does; if she quit on short notice management would have to do it until they found a new one.

It seems like this idea is limited to very high status jobs- and truthfully I don’t know if replacing CEO’s with a block of wood in a suit would make any difference, I suspect it depends on the company- and we only notice it when it applies to things like ‘surgeon’ and ‘airline pilot’, where, not knowing how to do there jobs even in very broad strokes, I can tell you that a block of wood in a uniform powered by chat gpt could not do it. Honestly I’m not actually sure if diversity advocates believe these jobs are less skill-heavy than commonly assumed or if they’re just high on their own supply about the massive untapped potential of black women.

I think the government/academic jobs vs private sector jobs is doing most of the divide there. As Ghostbusters said, "You don't know what it's like out there! I've worked in the private sector. They expect results."

I've worked government jobs (low level ones) and I've worked private sector, and in the government job I just had to do the minimum required and follow the rules and I could be sure not to be fired. Private sector there have been times I've worked my butt off and still went home scared that I'd be unemployed next month because the company went belly up.

The wider concept of bullshit jobs also includes jobs that need to be done quickly and well because your employer is competing with other employers, not so much because the job would demand efficiency and high competence even in a vacuum (such as a nuclear plant operator).

This is a textbook example of someone failing the intellectual Turing Test.

Jobs are shit and no sane person would ever want one (at least, absent The Man's omnipresent conditioning that you must work for his profit)

But we live in a world where the Man and/or thermodynamics requires you to work in order to avoid death. Where jobs confer economic benefits (getting paid) and social status (not being an unemployed loser). Certain jobs confer not only money and status but a non-trivial amount of societal level power. Maybe we shouldn't value jobs but we absolutely do. And thus it makes perfect sense for someone to be concerned with access to jobs*. As an individual, you want your peers and broader society to stop humiliating you. As an advocate, you're trying to break generational poverty and what you see as inequities in the distribution of wealth/power in society.

In short, it doesn't require you to think that competence or effort are fake. It requires you to believe that discrimination is real.

If you really believe in the bullshit jobs thesis, and you really believe that everyone else is in on the open secret too, then when someone makes the "muh objective competence qualifications" against you, it is perfectly reasonable to believe it's an argument that could only ever be made in bad faith.

They seem to be confused about both what the bullshit jobs thesis is and how popular it is. As near as I can tell, SerenaButler subscribes to the theory more closely than their imagined blue triber.

In general, I don't think this post is insightful. It makes a number of assumptions about the beliefs and motives of the people it is attempting to describe that just do not track. Or it hits on surface level beliefs but fails understand the underlying content, e.g. it is probably correct to say that a lot of blue tribers don't think much of arguments from meritocracy, but it isn't because they think qualifications are fake. It's because they think we don't have a functioning meritocracy.

*there certainly seem to be no shortage of red tribers concerned with protecting their jobs.

In short, it doesn't require you to think that competence or effort are fake. It requires you to believe that discrimination is real.

This is not credibile. If it were true, I would expect progressives to participate in efforts to measure skill, qualifications, and merit. In fact, despite the many difficulties of doing so (Good heart's law, etc ), the urgency should inspire tireless ingenious effort to that end. Instead, everywhere I look, the opposite is true: progressives direct their energy towards frustrating the project of improving meritocracy, often enough ridiculing the goal itself.

The historical treatment of black Americans is a stain on our country and the progress we've made combatting discrimination fills me with pride. The job is not complete, but is close.

Certain jobs confer not only money and status but a non-trivial amount of societal level power.

Being valuleless in the sense of not accomplishing anything isn't the same as valueless in the sense of you not getting anything from it.

So there's no contradiction between thinking a job is valueless, and wanting the job because it provides you with money and power. But if you think the job is valueless (in the first sense), you'll think of being "unqualified" for a job as just an excuse to deny you money and power.

I haven't read this comment before, but I've had thoughts similar to this rattling around in my head for a while. I think the thought first occurred to me with respect to affirmative action, that the justifications were based around the notion that individuals belonging to demographics deemed as oppressed had been treated unfairly and therefore, at the individual level, deserved benefits to be tilted in their favor in things like school and job applications*. Obviously, the point of these filtering mechanisms is to select for individuals with the skills, ability, wherewithal, motivation, etc. to make the most out of the school and/or perform the job well, which are not dependent on whether or not someone belongs in a demographic group deemed as oppressed. So the benefit that we get better be worth the tradeoff of taking away these educational or employment opportunities from more qualified people to give them to less qualified ones.

But what is the benefit? Ultimately, it's mostly money. There's little benefit people get out of being assigned homework or going into lecture halls to take tests or sitting in front of computers to crunch numbers. People do these things so that, in the long run, they end up making more money. So why not just give these individuals money and let the work be done by people who are qualified?

Well, the problem there then is the "dignity" of the thing or whatever. People don't like to feel like charity cases; they like to believe that they earned the things that they have, through their own hard work, will, resilience, talents, etc. And so we have to get them to play-act the part, to go to classes and offices, to give them the plausible deniability that they actually earned the money that they're getting. This is also why AA is framed as helping people who are disadvantaged, rather than giving people bonus points for happening to belong to particular demographic groups, even though those are literally the exact same things.

And it's this dishonesty that gets me. I wish the left would just say that we should give people free money as a way to make up for injustices we presume they must have suffered due to belonging to certain demographics. We can then discuss and argue about which individuals deserve free money and how much, and there will be plenty to disagree about there, but at least everyone would have an open and honest understanding of what is at stake here. Trying to launder the free money through subverting our ability to put competent people in positions where they can contribute the most to society seems strictly worse than this.

I think this sort of enforced kayfabe is also at play with, say, the whole "transwomen are women" thing. I think it was Scott Alexander who argued that, regardless of how we see things, we should respect transwomen's identities by using their pronouns and such, because it's just the nice thing to do, and we ought not contribute even more to the suffering that they clearly must experience merely for believing that they were born in the wrong sex. I'm not sure if I agree with this, but I'm sympathetic to it, at least. But that kind of honesty is unacceptable in the modern left - the only line that's acceptable is that transwomen are women in every way that matters. This necessarily comes with it many implications about things like sports or pregnancy that many/most people aren't willing to accept. Like how AA only makes sense if you believe that competency isn't relevant in school/work, this kayfabe only makes sense if you believe that sex differences are purely socially mediated, and if we just twist society enough, then transwomen could live lives that are indistinguishable from females.

Again, I just wish people would state these honestly so that everyone can, with informed consent, place their votes on how they want society to be run instead of constantly obfuscating with this sort of play-acting fakery. But I suspect that, to some extent, the fakery is an essential component of the whole structure, and perhaps even the entire point.

* There are multiple justifications, of course, one of which is that, due to systemic oppression, our current filtering mechanisms erroneously judge individuals who belong to demographics deemed as oppressed as being less qualified than they actually are. However, assuming this were true, this, in no way, can support affirmative action; rather, what it would support is fixing our filtering mechanisms to make more accurate, more precise assessments of individuals, which is the opposite of the blunt tool of AA.

This strikes me as a great example of something passing the intellectual Turing test. I think this is exactly how a woke person would justify their opinion. Their opinion is misguided because it's based on an inappropriate generalisation, but I think a woke person would read the description above and think "yes, that's what I'm getting at". And of course, you're right to point out that the opinion contains a grain of truth: competency really isn't a core requirement for some jobs. and many jobs really are sinecures.