site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of December 26, 2022

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.

What's policy starvation?

One of the observable mechanisms of social decay.

Long ago, I promised to write an effort post about this, but then I kinda lost the ability to write effort-posts. Here's the short version:

People want a thing. People clamor for the thing they want. Lots of different would-be leaders step forward offering to help organize the getting of the thing. These would-be leaders each have a different plan for how they'll get the thing. The plans tend to differ a lot their projections of how much effort and extremity will be required to get the thing.

As a rule, people don't want effort or extremity, so they tend to go with the plans that promise the easiest solutions first. When those don't work, they grudgingly accept the plans involving a little more pain and effort, and so on. Ideally, they reach a plan that gets them at least an approximation of what they want without too much pain and hardship. The people get what they want, the successful leaders are lauded for their excellent work, and everyone goes home happy.

But suppose people decide they want something that can't actually be gotten? The process above is carried out, starting with the easy plans, then the moderate plans, then the serious, hard-nosed plans. One by one, these plans are attempted, fail, and are discarded, but the people are still unsatisfied. Failed plans might be tweaked, but after a number of attempts grow discredited, and people stop backing them. If the thing people want isn't achievable by the means available, and people won't stop wanting it, you get policy starvation: people gravitate to to solutions and the leaders proposing them that under better circumstances would never be given the time of day, but now amass credibility as the only people offering solutions that haven't already obviously failed, if only because they haven't been tried yet. In the same way that physical starvation drives people to the extremity of eating spoiled food, and ultimately grass, shoe-leather or human flesh in an attempt to satiate their physical need for sustenance, starvation of policy drives people to extreme political acts: insurrection, revolution, civil war, democide.

Look around you, and you'll see it everywhere, on both sides. In this case, troll or no, Liberalism's promise was that once we adopted its norms, everyone would just sorta chill out, everything would work out, reason would carry the day, mumble mumble you get the Federation from Star Trek. It hasn't worked out like that. His generation did not, in fact, get it right, and they were, in fact, making promises, promises they were powerless to fulfill. And so they gifted us a world where people have lost confidence in the moderate Skokie solutions, and turn to Zunger's extremist zealotry instead.

What did liberalism promise that it hasn’t fulfilled though? You say people haven’t chilled out but then again we haven’t had a major war or civil unrest for decades.

Also we have done a decently good job of living together in a diverse society. It’s not perfect, but I doubt it ever was. Dissidents were just silenced in the past or didn’t make it into the history books. Now we’re letting that frustration out, which is on balance a good thing if we can figure out how to address it.

Rather famously, we spent and continue to spend a ton of money on the liberal promise of education for everyone, and it turns out that they can't do that; FCFromSSC had a pretty entertaining post on CultureWarRoundup about it when DeBoer finally admitted to the writing on the wall, though given he got modhatted for linking it contemporaneously I'm a little hesitant to link it now.

More broadly, though, there was a short time where people said "live and let live", and even if you couldn't exactly believe they meant it, they at least were willing to put more than a little lip service to the concept. And then theory encountered practice, and it was easier to believe in Santa Claus.

Firing people for their bad speech or associations was so beyond the pale that we built entire structures and train every teenager with stories of how important it is to resist, until it turns out that this was a useful power to have, and then an entire administrative infrastructure was developed to provide corporate liability should sufficiently large businesses not do it fast enough. We've found that protest is the voice of the unheard, until the wrong unheard do it, and then when countries declare martial law and confiscate bank account there's just a bit of a shrug. We've found that political abuses of law enforcement powers were so unacceptable to earn consent decree after consent decree, until it could happen to someone who 'deserved' it. We've found that government pressures to restrict free speech were awful, until they happened in ways people liked and then became a nothingburger. Freedom of religious belief was absolutely vital for two decades, then turned into lacite, and then every so often even the mention of those beliefs becomes its own violation.

And this goes on for even the small stuff, in a thousand different ways, on a thousand different topics. Anything that could be remotely read as celebrating violence was so unacceptable as to result in new reddit rules... and people who should have noticed patterns just keep missing these certain occassions. Taking kids from their own flesh and blood was to be a last-resort, even under violations of some criminal law, the sort of atrocity that left people walked in dazed horror, and also perfectly acceptable as an administratively-designed ad-hoc threat against someone using their constitutional rights. There's been a few places like EFF that at least drop a mention to their principles against their politics every few years, but the fall of the ACLU and other core institutions has been legendary; where they could once at least use a fig leaf and pretend they merely ignored rights that they didn't like because other groups focused on them, they now highlight individual people they don't like.

You're right that dissidents were silenced in the past, but the liberal movement was built, in no small part, about protecting the rights of those dissidents to speak more publicly! And then it turned out, no matter how much we avowed generalized principles that would protect everyone, the people actually making decisions and a worrying number of hangers-on either (charitably) designed their reference classes in such specific ways as to carefully exclude everyone not on their side or (less charitably) just wanted their dissidents freed.

This may not be especially severe by some historic standards -- and I agree we're pretty far from the KKK-era South, at least -- but if you wanted to do a hard comparison to the McCarthy era it's at least within an order of magnitude, and the McCarthy era is far from what the liberal movement considered a best alternative to negotiated agreement.

Rather famously, we spent and continue to spend a ton of money on the liberal promise of education for everyone, and it turns out that they can't do that; FCFromSSC had a pretty entertaining post on CultureWarRoundup about it when DeBoer finally admitted to the writing on the wall, though given he got modhatted for linking it contemporaneously I'm a little hesitant to link it now.

I'm not. @FCfromSSC's comment was amazing and deserves to be spread. Context.

FCFromSSC had a pretty entertaining post on CultureWarRoundup about it when DeBoer finally admitted to the writing on the wall

Though I disagree with Freddie on a ton of stuff, I do respect him for things like this: he sees and has seen the reality on the ground, and pushes back against the idea that all that is needed for every kid to go to Harvard is moar money. He acknowledges that - gasp! cover your ears from the horrid notion! - there is indeed a range of intellect and intelligence, and not every kid is as bright as the others. That you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

This does not mean ignoring the less academically able kids, but it does mean facing up to the truth: some kids are never going to go to any sort of college at all. That is a truth that can't be accepted, however, because we've constructed society (or are being swept along by the whirlwind of technological progress) where in order to get any kind of decent life you need that degree. Permanent, pensionable jobs have pretty much gone by the wayside as what you expect to do: get a good job, stay with one company for most of your career, retire from there. The world of work is much more fragile, transient, and vulnerable to shocks and upheaval now, and you have to be constantly re-inventing yourself, upskilling, keeping on top of new tech, jumping from company to company to get promotions, and so on. Even the white collar world is not immune to this, and unless you have a good education in the desirable skills that will land you a decent job where you can be fairly sure you can sell your skills for good salaries and have a career, then you are looking at the uncertain world of the gig economy, the temporary contract, the freelancer, and now the threat of being replaced by AI.

So to get on the career ladder, you need a college degree (let's put aside all the Caplan stuff about signalling for the moment). In order to do that, there is the idealistic notion of "everyone can go to college" and the practical realisation that if you admit that not all can or should go, and that merely having a degree is no longer in itself the guarantee of upward mobility and security that once it was, then you are saying "a lot of kids are going to be, for all intents and purposes, on the scrapheap once they are adults, unwanted by society since they can't contribute anything useful to the new knowledge economy".

That last is political suicide and also possibly setting the scene for widespread social upheaval and unrest. So you put pressure on the schools and the education system to pass everybody, to put them all on the college (any kind of college) track and you ignore or bury any evidence to the contrary that yeah, you do need streaming in schools because not everyone is equally able for the subjects and yeah, not everyone is fit for college so how about we tailor their education to what they can do?

That blue-collar work (unless you're a tradesman, and even that is hard work and no guarantee that everyone is going to be an independent small businessman) is diminishing, that we've outsourced it overseas for cheaper labour, and that there aren't the traditional manufacturing industries to soak up labour around anymore means that a lot of people in the lower half of the population are facing a future that is grim; possibly go into service work, which is low-paid, low-status, and biased towards shift work and cutting down hours so that employees don't hit the limits at which legal entitlements kick in. For a section of the upper half of the population, in certain white collar jobs, that future is already there (journalism) or looming with the threat/promise of AI.

Freddie sees this because he's been at the coalface. But there are a lot of people in power in the existing system for whom it is imperative that they turn a blind eye to all that, hence "all kids are equally smart and capable, it's down to grit and growth mindset, and if that doesn't work then it's the fault of systemic racism, and all must have prizes".