Imagine that one night, an alien prankster secretly implants electrodes into the brains of an entire country - let's say Britain. The next day, everyone in Britain discovers that pictures of salmon suddenly give them jolts of painful psychic distress. Every time they see a picture of a salmon, or they hear about someone photographing a salmon, or they even contemplate taking such a picture themselves, they get a feeling of wrongness that ruins their entire day.

I think most decent people would be willing to go to some trouble to avoid taking pictures of salmon if British people politely asked this favor of them. If someone deliberately took lots of salmon photos and waved them in the Brits' faces, I think it would be fair to say ey isn't a nice person. And if the British government banned salmon photography, and refused to allow salmon pictures into the country, well, maybe not everyone would agree but I think most people would at least be able to understand and sympathize with the reasons for such a law.

So why don't most people extend the same sympathy they would give Brits who don't like pictures of salmon, to Muslims who don't like pictures of Mohammed?


I first1 started thinking along these lines when I heard about Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, and revisited the issue recently after discovering

I have to admit, I find these funny. I want to like them. But my attempts to think of reasons why this is totally different from showing pictures of salmon to British people fail:

You could argue Brits did not choose to have their abnormal sensitivity to salmon while Muslims might be considered to be choosing their sensitivity to Mohammed. But this requires a libertarian free will. Further, I see little difference between how a Muslim "chooses" to get upset at disrespect to Mohammed, and how a Westerner might "choose" to get upset if you called eir mother a whore. Even though the anger isn't being caused by alien technology, it doesn't feel like a "choice" and it's more than just a passing whim. And if tomorrow I tried to "choose" to become angry every time someone showed me a picture of a salmon, I couldn't do it - I could pretend to be angry, but I couldn't make myself feel genuine rage.

Muslims' sensitivity to Mohammed is based on a falsehood; Islam is a false religion and Mohammed is too dead to care how anyone depicts him. I agree with this statement, but I don't think it licenses me to cause psychic pain to Muslims. I couldn't go around to mosques and punch Muslims in the face, shouting "Your religion is false, so you deserve it!".

It is necessary to draw pictures of Mohammed to show Muslims that violence and terrorism are inappropriate responses. I think the logic here is that a few people drew pictures of Mohammed, some radicals sent out death threats and burned embassies, and now we need to draw more pictures of Mohammed to convince Muslims not to do this. But it sounds pretty stupid when you put it in exactly those words. Say a random Christian kicked a Muslim in the face, and a few other Muslims got really angry, blew the whole thing out of proportion, and killed him and his entire family. This would be an inappropriately strong response, and certainly you could be upset about it, but the proper response wouldn't be to go kicking random Muslims in the face. They didn't do it, and they probably don't even approve. But drawing pictures of Mohammed offends many Muslims, not just the ones who send death threats.

• The slippery slope argument: if we allow Muslims' concerns to prevent us from drawing pictures of Mohammed, sooner or later we'll have to accept every two-bit group with a ridiculous superstition and we'll never be able to get anything done. I take this more seriously than the previous three arguments, but I've previously argued that granting large established religions special rights is relatively immune to slippery-slope. And anyway, drawing pictures of Mohammed is such an unusual thing to do that we can stop doing it without giving up our right to keep doing something else that's actually useful if the situation comes up later.

None of these excuses really does it for me. So my provisional conclusion is that yes, people who draw pictures of Mohammed where Muslims can see them are bad people in the same way that people who go around showing photos of salmon to Brits are bad people.

So the big question is: why is this so controversial in the Mohammed example, when it seems so obvious in the salmon example?


I think several features of the salmon example trigger consequentialist moral reasoning, in which the goal is to figure out how to satisfy as many people's preferences as possible; several contrasting features of the Mohammed case trigger deontological moral reasoning, in which the goal is to figure out who is a good person or a bad person and to assign status and blame appropriately. These two forms of reasoning give different results in the two different cases.

The word that comes up a lot in discussions of this sort of issue is "offensive". When someone draws Mohammed, it is considered offensive to Muslims. When someone writes a story where all the sympathetic and interesting characters are male, it is considered offensive to women.

For me, the word "offensive" brings up connotations of "It was morally wrong to say this, and you are either inexcusably ignorant of this fact or deliberately malicious. You must immediately apologize, and it is up to the group you have offended to decide whether they accept your apology or whether they want to punish you in some well-deserved way."

This means that ever admitting you were offensive is a huge status hit implying you are some combination of callous, ignorant, and racist. Sometimes people may be willing to take this status hit, especially if upon reflection they believe they really were in the wrong, but since most people's actions seem reasonable to themselves they will not be willing to accept a narrative where they're the villain.

More likely, they will try to advance an alternative interpretation, in which their actions were not legitimately offensive or in which they have the "right" to take such actions. Such an interpretation may cast the offended party as a villain, trying to gain power and control by pretending to be offended, or unduly restricting the free speech of others.

The controversy over drawing Mohammed has several factors that predispose to this sort of interpretation. There is already a history of misunderstanding and some enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslims' status as a minority makes ideas of "political correctness" readily primed and available, making people likely to miss the trees for the forest. Muslims are often of a different race than Christians, so conflicts with them risk tarring a person with the deeply insulting label of "racist". And because there are reports of Muslims rioting and hurting other people because of Mohammed drawings, they are easy to villainize.

This risks embroiling everyone in an unproductive argument about whether an action was "legitimately offensive" or not, with much status riding on the result.


The British salmon example, on the other hand, was designed to avoid the idea of "offense" and trigger consequentialist notions of harm minimization2.

The example specifically refers to the displeasure that salmon cause the British as "psychic pain", priming ideas about whether it is acceptable to cause pain to another person. The British are described as politely asking us to avoid salmon photography as a favor to them, putting themselves in a low status position rather than demanding we respect their status. British are white and first world, so it's hard to think of this as a political correctness issue and wade into that particular quagmire. And because the whole salmon problem is the result of an alien prankster, there's no easily available narrative in which the British are at fault.

A consequentialist reasoner would consider how much disutility it causes not to be able to use pictures of salmon where the British might see them, then consider how much disutility it causes the British to see pictures of salmon, and if the latter outweighed the former, they'd stop with the salmon pictures. There's an argument to be made about slippery slope, but in this case the slope doesn't seem too slippery and other cases can be evaluated on their merits.

And a consequentialist British person, when considering how to convince a foreigner to stop using pictures of salmon, would try to phrase eir request in a way that minimizes the chances that the foreigner gets upset and confrontational, and maximizes the chances that they actually stop with the salmon.

If the foreigner refused to stop with the salmon pictures, the British person would try to shame and discredit the foreigner into doing so only if ey thought it would work better than any less confrontational method, and only if the chance of it successfully stopping the offending behavior was great enough that it outweighted the amount of bad feelings and confrontation it would cause.

This is a healthier and potentially more successful method of resolving offensive actions.


I post on a forum where a bunch of regulars recently denounced the culture of verbal abuse. The abusers, for their part, said that the victims were making mountains out of molehills: exaggerating some good-natured teasing in order to look holier-than-thou.

I was friends with some of victims and with some abusers; neither side were majority bad people, and it surprised me that people would view requests to stop verbal abuse as a Machiavellian ploy.

Not to say that asking for verbal abuse to stop can't be a Machiavellian ploy. In fact, as far as Machiavellian ploys go, it's a pretty good one - take something your political enemies do, pretend to be deeply offended by it, and then act upset until your enemies are forced to stop, inconveniencing them and gaining you sympathy. A conspiracy such is this is not impossible, but why is it so often the first possibility people jump to?

I think it has to do with something I heard one of the abusers say: "I would never get upset over something little like that."

I know him and he is telling the truth. When someone is verbally confrontational with him, he takes it in stride or laughs it off, because that's the kind of guy he is.

I am of Jewish background. I've had someone use an anti-Semitic slur on me exactly once. My reaction was the same mix of confusion and amusement I'd feel if someone tried a vintage Shakespearean insult. And yet I also know of Jews who have been devastated by anti-Semitic slurs, to the point where they've stopped going to school because someone in school taunted them. These people may differ from me in terms of Jewish identity, extraversion, demographics, social status, anxiety, neurogenetics, and some hard-to-define factor we might as well just call "thin skin".

The point is, if I use my own reactions to model theirs, I will fail, miserably. I will try to connect their reaction to the most plausible situation in which my mind would generate the same reaction in the same situation - in which I am not really upset but am pretending to be so for Machiavellian motives.

In the case of anti-Semitism, it's easy to see factors - like a history of suffering from past prejudice - that make other people's responses differ from mine. It's less obvious why someone else might differ in their response to being called ugly, or stupid, or just being told to fuck off - but if these differences really exist, they might explain why people just can't agree about offensive actions.

A thick-skinned person just can't model a person with thinner skin all that well. And so when the latter gets upset over some insult, the thick-skinned person calls them "unreasonable", or assumes that they're making it up in order to gain sympathy. My friends in the online forum couldn't believe anyone could really be so sensitive as to find their comments abusive, and so they ended up doing some serious mental damage.


Consequentialism suggests a specific course of action for both victims of offense and people performing potentially offensive actions. The victim should judge whether ey believes the offense causes more pain to em than it does benefit to the offender; if so, ey should nonjudgmentally request the offender stop while applying the Principle of Charity to the offender, and if ey wants the maximum chance of the offense stopping, ey should resist the urge to demand an apology or do anything else that could potentially turn it into a status game.

The offender, for eir part, should stop offending as soon as ey realizes that the amount of pain eir actions cause is greater than the amount of annoyance it would take to avoid the offending action, even if ey can't understand why it would cause any pain at all. If ey wishes, ey may choose to apologize even though no apology was demanded.

If the offender refuses, the victim should only then consider "punishment" by trying to shame the offender and make em appear low status, and only if ey thinks this has a real chance of stopping the offending behavior either in this case or in the future. Like all attempts to deliberately harm another person, this course of action requires of the victim exceptional certainty that ey is in the right.

Although people pretending to be offended for personal gain is a real problem, it is less common in reality than it is in people's imaginations. If a person appears to suffer from an action of yours which you find completely innocuous, you should consider the possibility that eir mind is different from yours before rejecting eir suffering as feigned.



1) Thanks to Kaj Sotala, Vladimir Nesov, and kovacsa-whose-LW-name-I-don't-know for originally encouraging me to turn the original essay into an LW post.

2) The deontological notion of offense doesn't really supervene on an idea of pain to other people. If two white people, talking where no black people could possibly overhear them, make a racist joke about black people, that is still "offensive", because racism is wrong no matter what. A consequentialist notion of offense could better ground such examples by theorizing that whites telling racist jokes to other whites creates a climate in which racism is considered acceptable, which eventually will end up hurting someone directly. Or it could decide not to, if it decided the link was too tenuous and hokey - but now any disagreement on the matter is honest disagreement about empirical facts and not philosophical disagreement about who's a bad person.

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The offender, for eir part, should stop offending as soon as ey realizes that the amount of pain eir actions cause is greater than the amount of annoyance it would take to avoid the offending action, even if ey can't understand why it would cause any pain at all.

In a world where people make decisions according to this principle, one has the incentive to self-modify into a utility monster who feels enormous suffering at any actions of other people one dislikes for whatever reason. And indeed, we can see this happening to some extent: when people take unreasonable offense and create drama to gain concessions, their feelings are usually quite sincere.

You say, "pretending to be offended for personal gain is... less common in reality than it is in people's imaginations." That is indeed true, but only because people have the ability to whip themselves into a very sincere feeling of offense given the incentive to do so. Although sincere, these feelings will usually subside if they realize that nothing's to be gained.

Beautifully put. So according to your objection, if I want to increase net utility, I have two considerations to make:

  • reducing the offense I cause directly increases net utility (Yvain)
  • reducing the offense I cause creates a world with stronger incentives for offense-taking, which is likely to substantially decrease net utility in the long-term (Vladmir_M)

This seems like a very hard calculation. My intuition is that item 2 is more important since it's a higher level of action, and I'm that kind of guy. But how do I rationally make this computation without my own biases coming in? My own opinions on "draw Mohammed day" have always been quite fuzzy and flip-floppy, for example.

One way is to try and compare similar countries where such offensiveness bans are enforced or not, and see which direction net migration is. This may be difficult since countries without such bans will in all likely become more prosperous than those with them. Another alternative might be comparing the same country before and after such laws, e.g. Pakistan.
"Look at the world". Always a good answer! I have a bad head for history. Do you know of anyone who has done this for me, ala Jared Diamond, for the case of free speech? It seems like it may still be hard to find someone who is plausibly unbiased on such a topic.
There are many other factors affecting migration. Is it possible to evaluate a single factor's direct influence?
I don't know. Perhaps "freedom of speech" (or whatever variable to call it) is so tightly bundled with other variables -- most of all affluence -- that it's impossible to asses properly. OTOH, if this bundling is evident across nations, cultures and time, it probably means that it truly is an important part of a net desirable society?

I'm not sure people can voluntarily self-modify in this way. Even if it's possible, I don't think most real people getting offended by real issues are primarily doing this.

Voluntary self-modification also requires a pre-existing desire to self-modify. I wouldn't take a pill that made me want to initiate suicide attacks on people who insulted the prophet Mohammed, because I don't really care if people insult the prophet Mohammed enough to want to die in a suicide attack defending him. The only point at which I would take such a pill is if I already cared enough about the honor of Mohammed that I was willing to die for him. Since people have risked their lives and earned lots of prison time protesting the Mohammed cartoons, even before they started any self-modification they must have had strong feelings about the issue.

If X doesn't offend you, why would self-modify to make X offend you to stop people from doing X, since X doesn't offend you? I think you might be thinking of attempts to create in-group cohesion and signal loyalty by uniting against a common "offensive" enemy, something that I agree is common. But these attempts cannot be phrased in the consequentialist mann... (read more)

If X doesn't offend you, why would self-modify to make X offend you to stop people from doing X, since X doesn't offend you?

It's a Schellingian idea: in conflict situations, it is often a rational strategy to pre-commit to act irrationally (i.e. without regards to cost and benefit) unless the opponent yields. The idea in this case is that I'll self-modify to care about X far more than I initially do, and thus pre-commit to lash out if anyone does it.

If we have a dispute and I credibly signal that I'm going to flip out and create drama out of all proportion to the issue at stake, you're faced with a choice between conceding to my demands or getting into an unpleasant situation that will cost more than the matter of dispute is worth. I'm sure you can think of many examples where people successfully get the upper hand in disputes using this strategy. The only way to disincentivize such behavior is to pre-commit credibly to be defiant in face of threats of drama. In contrast, if you act like a (naive) utilitarian, you are exceptionally vulnerable to this strategy, since I don't even need drama to get what I want, if I can self-modify to care tremendously about every single thing I ... (read more)

Do you have strategies for distinguishing between game theoretic exaggeration of offense vs. natural offense?

The question is better phrased by asking what will be the practical consequences of treating an offense as legitimate and ceasing the offending action (and perhaps also apologizing) versus treating it as illegitimate and standing your ground (and perhaps even escalating). Clearly, this is a difficult question of great practical value in life, and like every such question, it's impossible to give a simple and universally applicable answer. (And of course, even if you know the answer in some concrete situation, you'll need extraordinary composure and self-control to apply it if it's contrary to your instinctive reaction.)

I don't see the distinction you're trying to make.
Tentatively-- game theoretic exaggeration of offense will simply be followed by more and more demands. Natural offense is about a desire that can be satiated. However, there's another sort of breakdown of negotiations that just occurred to me. If A asks for less than they want because they think that's all they can get and/or they're trying to do a utilitarian calculation, they aren't going to be happy even if they get it. This means they're likely to push for more even if they get it, and then they start looking like a utility monster.
What do you mean by "satiated"? From a utilitarian/consequentialist point of view, a desire being "satiated" simply means that the marginal utility gains from pursuing it further are less than opportunity cost of however much effort it takes. Note that by this definition when a desire is satiated depends on how easy it is to pursue.
If you're hungry you might feel as though you could just keep eating and eating. However, if enough food is available, you'll stop and hit a point where more food would make you feel worse instead of better. You'll get hungry again, but part of the cycle includes satiation. For purposes of discussion, I'm talking about most people here, not those with eating disorders or unusual metabolisms that affect their ability to feel satiety. I think most people have a limit on their desire for status, though that might be more like the situation you describe. Few would turn down a chance to be the world's Dictator for Life, but they've hit a point where trying for more status than they've got seems like too much trouble.

Voluntary self-modification also requires a pre-existing desire to self-modify.

People have motives to increase their status, so we can check this box. Of course, this depends on phenotype, and some people do this much more than others.

I wouldn't take a pill that made me want to initiate suicide attacks on people who insulted the prophet Mohammed, because I don't really care if people insult the prophet Mohammed enough to want to die in a suicide attack defending him.

You can't self-modify to an arbitrary belief, but you can self-modify towards other beliefs that are close to yours in belief space. See my comment about political writers. You can seek out political leaders, political groups, or even just friends, with beliefs slightly more radical than yours along a certain dimension (and you might be inspired to do so with just small exposure to them). Over time, your beliefs may shift.

If X doesn't offend you, why would self-modify to make X offend you to stop people from doing X, since X doesn't offend you?

To protect/raise the status of you yourself, or of a group you identify with. I proposed in that comment that people might enjoy feeling righteous while watching out f... (read more)

Okay. I formally admit I'm wrong about the "should usually stop offensive behavior" thing (or, rather, I don't know if I'm wrong but I formally admit my previous arguments for thinking I was right no longer move me and I now recognize I am confused.)

I still believe that if you find something offensive, a request to change phrased in the language of harm-minimization is better than a demand to change phrased in the language of offense, but I don't know if anyone is challenging that.

I still believe that if you find something offensive, a request to change phrased in the language of harm-minimization is better than a demand to change phrased in the language of offense, but I don't know if anyone is challenging that.

"Request to change" is low status, while "demand to change" is high status. The whole point of taking offense is that some part of your brain detects a threat to your status or an opportunity to increase status, so how can it be "better" to act low status when you feel offended? Well, it may be better if you think you should dis-identify with that part of your brain, and believe that even if some part of your brain cares a lot about status, the real you don't. But you have to make that case, or state that as an assumption, which you haven't, as far as I can tell (although I haven't carefully read this whole discussion).

Here's an example in case the above isn't clear. Suppose I'm the king of some medieval country, and one of my subjects publicly addresses me without kneeling or call me "your majesty". Is it better for me to request him to do so in the language of harm-minimization ("I'm hurt that you don't consider me majestic"?), or to make a demand phrased in the language of offense?


I still believe that if you find something offensive, a request to change phrased in the language of harm-minimization is better than a demand to change phrased in the language of offense, but I don't know if anyone is challenging that.

I see at least two huge problems with the harm-minimization approach.

First, it requires interpersonal comparison of harm, which can make sense in very drastic cases (e.g. one person getting killed versus another getting slightly inconvenienced), but it usually makes no sense in controversial disputes such as these.

Second, even if we can agree on the way to compare harm interpersonally, the game-theoretic concerns discussed in this thread clearly show that naive case-by-case harm minimization is unsound, since any case-by-case consequences of decisions can be overshadowed by the implications of the wider incentives and signals they provide. This can lead to incredibly complicated and non-obvious issues, where the law of unintended consequences lurks behind every corner. I have yet to see any consequentialists even begin to grapple with this problem convincingly, on this issue or any other.

1Scott Alexander
We may be talking at cross-purposes. Are you arguing that if someone says something I find offensive, it is more productive for me to respond in the form of "You are a bad person for saying that and I demand an apology?" than "I'm sorry, but I was really hurt by your statement and I request you not make it again"?

It depends; there is no universal rule. Either response could be more appropriate in different cases. There are situations where if someone's statements overstep certain lines, the rational response is to deem this a hostile act and demand an apology with the threat of escalation. There are also situations where it makes sense to ask people to refrain from hurtful statements, since the hurt is non-strategic.

Also, what exactly do you mean by "productive"? People's interests may be fundamentally opposed, and it may be that the response that better serves the strategic interest of one party can do this only at the other's expense, with neither of them being in the right in any objective sense.

Maybe the most productive variant is just to ignore the offender/offence? On a slightly unrelated note, one psychologist I know has demonstrated me that sometimes it's more useful to agree with offence on the spot, whatever it is, and just continue with conversation. So I think in some situations this too may be a viable option.
So I can raise the status of my group by becoming a frequent complainer and encouraging my fellows to do likewise? I won't say that it never happens. I will say that the success prospects of that sort of strategy have been exaggerated of late.
Sure. See, for example, the rise in prominence of the Gnu Atheists (of which I am one).
Surely there are a great many reasons other than offense why, for various different things X, it might be (or seem) useful to me to stop you from doing thing X. For example, if thing X is "mocking my beliefs": if my beliefs are widely respected, I and people like me will have a larger share of influence than if my beliefs are widely mocked.
Status games. There's a satirical blog which addresses this, at least in the context of Western sophisticates: ETA: In the context of Islamic reaction to the Mohammed cartoons as well as the burning of a Koran, there may be some value for a demogogue to conjure up atrocities by some demonized enemy in order to unite his (and in this case, it will be "his") followers. Westerners have done the same sorts of things as well, most obviously in wartime propaganda.
I think such modification mostly happens on the level of evolution, especially cultural and memetic evolution. Individual humans are adaptation executers who can't deliberately self-modify in this way, but those who are more pre-modified are more evolutionarily successful.
I'm reminded of how small children might start crying when they trip and fall and skuff their knee, but will only keep on (and/or escalate) crying if someone is nearby to pay attention...
I agree with what you're saying and it sounds logical, and I'm just wondering if you (or anyone, actually) would have some experimental evidence from psychology (or any related field) that people do that. This view does seem to be somewhat intuitive to lesswrongers, but if you try to present it to outsiders, it would be nice if it's backed by evidence from experimental research. So anyone?
My real-world working theory on utility monsters of the type you describe is basically to keep in mind that some people are more sensitive than others, but if anyone reaches utility monster levels (roughly indicated by whether I think "this is completely absurd"), I flip the sign on their utility function.

Excuse me, but I think you should recheck your moral philosophy before you get the chance to act on that. Are you sure that shouldn't be "become indifferent with respect to optimizing their utility function", or perhaps "rescale their utility function to a more reasonable range"? Because according my moral philosophy, explicitly flipping the sign of another agent's utility function and then optimizing is an evil act.

My own real-world working theory is that if someone I respect in general expresses a sensitivity that I consider completely absurd, I reduce my level of commitment to my process for evaluating the absurdity of sensitivities.
So you consider it to be a major source of positive utility to antagonize them?
Tongue-in-cheek, yes.
The incentive is weaker than you seem to suggest. Surely, I gain nothing tangible by inducing people to tiptoe carefully around my minefield. Only a feeling of power, or perhaps some satisfaction at having caused inconvenience to my enemies. So, what is the more fruitful maxim to follow so as to discourage this kind of thing? * Don't feed the utility monster. or * Poke the utility monster with a stick until it desensitizes. Somehow I have to think that poking is a form of capitulation to the manipulation - it is voluntary participation in a manufactured drama.

The incentive is weaker than you seem to suggest. Surely, I gain nothing tangible by inducing people to tiptoe carefully around my minefield.

Yes, you do. If everything unpleasant to you causes you a huge amount of suffering instead of, say, mild annoyance, other people (utilitarians) will abstain from doing things that are unpleasant to you as the negative utility to you outweighs the positive utility to them.

What you say is certainly true if the utility monster is simply exaggerating. But I understood VM to be discussing someone who claims offense where no offense (or negligible offense) actually exists. Or, someone who self-modifies to sincerely feel offended, though originally there was no such sensitivity. But in any case, the real source of the problem in VM's scenario is adhering to an ethical system which permits one to be exploited by utility monsters - real or feigned. My own ethical system avoids being exploited because I accept personal disutility so as to produce utility for others only to the extent that they reciprocate. So someone who exaggerates the disutility they derive from, say, my humming may succeed in keeping me silent in their presence, but this success may come at a cost regarding how much attention I pay to their other desires. So the would-be utility monster is only hurting itself by feeding me false information about its utility function.

But I understood VM to be discussing someone who claims offense where no offense (or negligible offense) actually exists.

The crucial point is that the level of offense at a certain action -- and I mean real, sincerely felt painful offense, not fake indignation -- is not something fixed and independent of the incentives people face. This may seem counterintuitive and paradoxical, but human brains do have functions that are not under direct control of the conscious mind, and are nevertheless guided by rational calculations and thus respond to incentives. People creating drama and throwing tantrums are a prime example: their emotions and distress are completely sincere, and their state of mind couldn't be further from calculated pretense, and yet whatever it is in their brains that pushes them into drama and tantrums is very much guided by rational strategic considerations.

Only in the sense that a country with secure borders is hurting itself by forfeiting potential gains from trade. If what they want is to avoid being contaminated by your ideas, to avoid being criticized, that minefield is doing it's job just fine.

I think you are too quick to discard the Machiavellian ploy hypothesis. In particular, I think the term "Machiavellian" is misleading you. You (rightly) find a vast conspiracy of offense-pretending Muslims to be ridiculous. But the best way to run a conspiracy is not to run it, and the best way to pretend to something is not to pretend.

Have you stopped to ask why group X might find behavior Y of group Z offensive? I'm not doubting their pain, I'm not suggesting that group X cynically decides to find Y offensive, I'm just asking, how does offense arise in the first place? Why are human beings such that they take offense to things?

My view - taking offense begins as a response to a norm violation. "Not cool, dude," we say, because the dude has done something outside of what the group is prepared to accept. We feel uncomfortable when others violate norms, because if we just sit by and do nothing, we may be accused of being in on the norm violation.

But sometimes people take offense to things which are not norm violations. The general US norm is not that drawing the prophet Muhammed is forbidden, it's not that violent videogames are a sin, it's not that the ca... (read more)

The general US norm is not that drawing the prophet Muhammed is forbidden, it's not that violent videogames are a sin, it's not that the casual treatment of women as nothing but sex objects is unacceptable.

Either I'm being confused by a triple-negative, or we are living in very different contexts. Even people who are avowedly anti-feminist will usually say that casually treating women as nothing but sex objects breaks their norms. They might disagree that a model on a billboard is a sex object.

More generally, the problem is not manufacturing offense where none exists, but deciding where it can reasonably exist. And even if you don't think that this is a meaningful problem, and that the best answer is to simply not take offense, ever, note that this:

we risk emboldening the true villains, the hypocrite brains who are torturing people to score cheap political points.

... sounds suspiciously like another kind of offense, the offense of anti-offense backlash. This line of argument also makes out feminists and game-pacifists to be "inexcusably ignorant" or "deliberately malicious," and thus is wielding a very similar rhetorical club to the one that was just deno... (read more)

"The general US norm is not that drawing the prophet Muhammed is forbidden, " There do exist places other than the US, you know. Those places have cultural norms of their own but also have internet access.
The "Everybody Draw Muhammed Day" festival that offense was being taken over was started by an American, though, so it's America's norms that would have jurisdiction over her.
But not over the people who took offence, which I thought was the point.
You could just say, "Okay, I won't draw Muhammed anymore. It was my mistake, but you didn't need to be so outraged; you only needed to ask and I would have agreed." In other words, you're politely rejecting that you're a bad person because you violated the norm (that wasn't really a norm), but still avoiding a fight.

I notice that I would not support showing British people pictures of Salmon.

I notice that I would support showing Muslim people pictures of Mohammad.

These two situations seem nearly identical.

I notice that I am confused.

I see two analogous situations, and yet I come to two different conclusions. Therefore, there must be some difference between them, even if it only lies in my perceptions. Perhaps by carving these situations at their joints, I can find why it is I come away with different conclusions. Explicitly, I remember the stated differences.

1) Race/Culturism - The British are British and not Muslim

2) Blame - The British are not "at fault" as victims of a prank while the Muslims are "at fault" by virtue of being members of a religion

As a detirminist, I cannot say that the Muslims chose to be Muslims any more than British people chose to be waylayed by a prankster in the night. That seems very damning; this only leaves the option that I must be racist. However, there is perhaps a third option that is missing. Implicitly, I notice a number of unstated differences that can only be assumed.

3) Treatability - The British people have an electrode installed,... (read more)

This analysis seems be assuming that Muslims will deconvert if only they're shown a sufficient number of pictures of Muhammad.
This needs more upvotes.

Offense is a lot more cognitive than pain. How do I know that? Because I am a political writer (blogging at I show people what parts of feminism they get offended by, and what parts they should take seriously.

Political writers are offense-mongers. Why? Because on their own, people don't always know what they are supposed to find offensive.

Pain has a cognitive dimension, but many types of pain are non-cognitive. In complex social situations, offense is highly cognitive. There could be many ways to view a particular phenomenon, and political writers will choose the way that is most offensive to the group they are backing.

Offense doesn't always just swoop in and attack innocent people, people go looking for it. They seek out political writers they identify with to learn what they are supposed to be offended about today. In a complex social world, this behavior makes a lot of sense. You don't always know what might threaten your status, so you look to knowledgeable people to show you what to make into a Schelling Point. They tell you what you should be offended about, to inspire you to action that will protect the status of the identity group that you share.

Of cou... (read more)

I'm not convinced that "offense" is a variety of "pain" in the first place. They feel to me like two different things.

When I imagine a scenario that hurts me without offending me (e.g. accidentally touching a hot stovetop), I anticipate feelings like pain response and distraction in the short term, fear in the medium term, and aversion in the long term.

When I imagine a scenario that offends me without hurting me (e.g. overhearing a slur against a group of which I'm not a member) I anticipate feelings like anger and urge-to-punish in the short term, wariness and distrust in the medium term, and invoking heavy status penalties or even fully disassociating myself from the offensive party in the long term.

Of course, an action can be both offensive and painful, like the anti-Semitic slurs you mention. But an offensive action need not be painful. My intuition suggests that this is a principled reason (as opposed to a practical one) for the general norm of pluralistic societies that offensiveness alone is not enough to constrain free speech.

I'm not sure which category the British Fish thought experiment falls into; the description doesn't completely clarify whether the Britons are feeling pained or offended or both.


I'm not convinced that "offense" is a variety of "pain" in the first place. They feel to me like two different things.

Extremely important point. And the "offense" variety of feeling is the dangerous one - the one we shouldn't accede to.

(A side note: one of the most insidious forms of procrastination is taking offense at a problem, rather than actually solving it. Offense motivates punish-and-protest behavior, rather than problem-solving behavior.)

A side note: one of the most insidious forms of procrastination is taking offense at a problem, rather than actually solving it. Offense motivates punish-and-protest behavior, rather than problem-solving behavior

Wow, this is so true. My least constructive response to being told to do something by my boss is taking offense, and I have to wait hours (or sometimes days) before I don't feel offended anymore so that I can focus on figuring out how to do what I've been asked.


My least constructive response to being told to do something by my boss is taking offense, and I have to wait hours (or sometimes days) before I don't feel offended anymore so that I can focus on figuring out how to do what I've been asked.

A faster way: state your offense in the form of a "should" or "should not" that is being violated. (e.g. "I shouldn't have to do this stupid s...tuff."). Then, restate that in the form of a pair of statements about your preferences, first what you don't like, and then what you do.

e.g. "I don't like it that I have to do this stupid s...tuff", followed by, "I would like it if I didn't have to do this stupid stuff."

As you make the statements, pay attention to your emotional response to each one. The first should bring righteous agreement ("damn straight I shouldn't have to!"), followed by something more like, "Yeah, I really don't like it, but I guess I do need to do it" for the second one, and "Gosh, that really would be nice if I didn't have to do it. Maybe I could just try and get it over with quickly."

If you don't get responses like these, try playing with the... (read more)

Thanks. It seems like it would work, and I would be interested in being more introspective about the source of my indignation in any case. So now I'm looking forward to being offended.. which will also help.

Another unpleasant implication of the consequentialist attitude towards offense is that societies should be as homogeneous as possible with regards to people's values and beliefs. (And I'm not talking about Aumann-agreement here!) As the diversity of a society increases, the set of statements and acts that can be done in public without offending one group or another necessarily shrinks, which implies an inevitable trade-off between the pain of offense and the pain of people who have their freedom curtailed and are increasingly forced to walk on eggshells. I'll leave the more concrete implications in the context of today's politics as an exercise for the reader.

It also implies that a certain level of isolation between societies is desirable, in direct opposition to the present trends of globalization. What is regular business in one society may well be extremely offensive in another. So, if there's an intense mutual interest and exchange of information between societies, we get the same problem as within a single diverse society. This can be mitigated only by isolating these societies from each other so that their members are not exposed to the painful sight of the offensive alien customs.

All of this seems pretty true to me. There were even studies that showed pretty clearly that ethnically homogenous communities were happier than ethnically mixed ones.

There are lots of good reasons not to actually exclude different people from a society. Immigration's been shown to be a net good for most people involved, and of course uprooting people from a society they've grown accustomed to is harmful. But these only counterbalance the above claim, not disprove it.

I think it's pretty self-evident that anything that brings nudists together with those Arabs who freak out if every inch of a woman isn't covered by a burka is going to be a net loss for both groups.

Sounds like you are referring to Robert Putnam's research. I spun his results as a positive here.
Point of information: Although women from many ethnic/language groups (including Arabs) will wear burqas, It's mostly Pashtuns who require them to the point of freaking out.

I'm not clear on the relevant Muslim sensibilities/doctrine, but are they upset merely by seeing pictures of Mohammed, or by the existence of pictures of Mohammed? It may be that without actual policies/norms/etc. stringently forbidding drawing Mohammed, they will experience a non-negligible background level of upset based on the probabilistic expectation that someone, somewhere, is drawing Mohammed where they can't see. What does this model of offense etc. say to this situation?

I think you're right that the seeing vs. existing is a big part of why people's intuitions about salmon vs. Mohammed may differ in the example. British people (in the example) aren't trying to stop the existence of salmon pictures they can't see, whereas some Muslims are trying to stop the existence of Mohammed pictures they can't see. Even if only a minority of Muslims holds that attitude, it might be sufficiently annoying and scary to some non-Muslims that they are willing to annoy other Muslims by making pictures as a protest.

Yvain almost covers this case:

Say a random Christian kicked a Muslim in the face, and a few other Muslims got really angry, blew the whole thing out of proportion, and killed him and his entire family. This would be an inappropriately strong response, and certainly you could be upset about it, but the proper response wouldn't be to go kicking random Muslims in the face. They didn't do it, and they probably don't even approve. But drawing pictures of Mohammed offends many Muslims, not just the ones who send death threats.

Except kicking someone in the face violates Western notions of rights, while drawing pictures of Mohammed somewhere doesn't. Drawing p... (read more)

Analogously, If this theoretical scenario were to take place, I would be doing wrong if I were to force British people to look a salmon against their will, same as if I hurt them against their will buy punching them in the face. But they would have no justification for acting against say the "Australian Salmon photographers association" who happen to enjoy taking pictures of Salmon themselves but have no intention of exposing British people to them against their will. In the Danish cartoons example, they were originally given a very minor circulation in Denmark, they were not airdropped into Mecca or whatever. The objection to Muslim 'offense' is that they are attempting to restrict others self regarding actions that do no harm to them. [Also in that specific case there was deliberate political manipulations.]
I don't understand this use of Schelling point- could you explain?

I don't understand this use of Schelling point- could you explain?

When there is a potential for conflict over some issue, people can communicate and negotiate as much as they like, but the most important piece of information is hard to communicate reliably and credibly: namely, the line that one is committed to defend without backing off, even if the cost is higher than the value of what's being defended. (Such commitment is usually necessary to defend anything effectively, since if you defend only when the cost of defense is lower than the value defended, the opponent can force you to back off without fighting by threatening an all-out attack whose cost is disproportionate to the prize, and which would not be profitable if you defended at all costs.)

The key insight is that such commitment is easier to assert credibly by drawing the line at a conspicuous focal point, which will enable both parties to come to a tacit mutual agreement. However, if you're not really committed to defend a particular focal point and your opponent senses that, he has the incentive to mount an attack that will make defense too costly and make you back off. And you can't back off from a focal point by g... (read more)

From that essay: This is where all the slippery-slope arguments come from. Without "speech free from repercussion" as a Schelling point, there appears to the West be no other natural point until you reach complete submission to Muslim dictates. The Muslim tradition would prefer if the conflict was resolved on their side of the issue - in itself a strong strategy for moving towards more complete submission to Muslim tradition. (Given this, an unreasonable attachment to what the West perceives as the Schelling point is a sound strategy for the West - cue cries of free speech).
What Vladimir_M said. The line in the sand being defended in this case is the right of Westerners to create media that is offensive to the beliefs of some Muslims, even though it doesn't tangibly harm Muslims in any way.

In the case of your alien-hacked British, they would notice their mass modification and be able to search for a cause. They would be able to scan their own brains and see the electrodes that were implanted by aliens. The idea of repudiating their new emotional reactions would be cognitively accessible, and this would inflect much of their behavior and the politics around the phenomenon.

Even as they outlawed pictures of salmon, they could (for example) put time limits on the laws, fund medical research into safe electrode removal, and make efforts to ensure that their foolish emotional reactions weren't memetically passed on into subsequent generations.

In the case of Muslims, there are no electrodes, and no hope of removing the electrodes. The material cause of their psychological situation is thus distinct and raises many of the issues from the diseased thinking essay. In practice, the people with the relevant emotional reaction were brought into being by cultural practices that include a philosophic endorsement of their over-reactions. The religious leaders benefit from the installation of this craziness in their followers by cultivating and directing the emotions it produc... (read more)


This is an interesting post, but Yvain, your made-up pronouns hurt my head. Every time I come to one it disrupts my reading flow and feels like my train of thought crashes into a brick wall. It genuinely makes the post more difficult and less pleasant to read for me. Couldn't you just flip a coin for each new character you reference and give them male or female pronouns based on that?

Another option would be to use "they".

I always use "one" as an indefinite pronoun, similar to how I would do it in German. Is that wrong? or

I always use "one" as an indefinite pronoun, similar to how I would do it in German.

From what I've heard, these days there are attempts to condemn man in German as sexist.

In English, I also like using "one" but it's often too clumsy. As for those "ey" and "eir" pronouns, I find them not just extremely ugly, but also a very annoying obstruction while reading.

Is it worth working to eliminate that negative reaction? For what it's worth, alternate pronouns don't bother me. I don't love them-- I've never wanted to use alternate pronouns-- but I just treat them like new vocabulary in science fiction (deduce meaning from context) and proceed.
Oh? "It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again." I kid.
5Robert Miles
Is that what that was? I had assumed that the text had been copied from some typesetting system that made a 'th' ligature glyph which didn't survive the copying process. I actually stopped noticing it pretty quickly. That's what comes from reading a lot of poorly OCRed ebooks.
True (because it is pronounced the same way as "Mann"), but what can we do about such problems? It seems that using "made up" pronouns until they are integrated is the most natural way of fixing the problem? You could also work around the problem though, but it requires some effort: versus Or you simply use "an agent" so that you can use "it"...
In the grammars of Slavic languages, including my native one (Croatian), grammatical gender is so pervasive that it would be altogether impossible to speak without using the masculine gender as the default. For example, in the past tense even verbs have gender, so if you want to ask, say, "who was that?", you have to say "who masculine-was that?" Asking "who feminine-was that?" is ungrammatical, even if the answer is certain to be female. There are countless such situations where you simply have to accept that the male subsumes the female to be able to speak at all. Therefore, when someone claims that using masculine by default is evil, he (hah!) is thereby claiming that my native language is evil, and irreparably so. Should I get offended?

(shrug) "Evil" confuses the issue.

Just to get away from the politics around real-world examples, suppose I speak a language that genders its verbs based on the height of the object -- that is, there are separate markings for above-average height, below-average height, and average height.

It's an empirical question whether, if I'm figuring out who to hire for a job, asking the question "Whom should we tall-hire?" makes me more likely to hire a tall person than asking "Whom should we short-hire?" If it's true, it is; evil doesn't enter into it under most understandings of evil. It's just a fact about the language and about cognitive biases.

If the best available candidate for the job happens to be tall, but I ask myself whom I should short-hire, the way I'm talking about the job introduces bias into my hiring process that makes me less likely to hire the best available candidate. This also isn't evil, but it's a mistake.

If my language's rules are such that this height-based gender-marking is non-optional, then this mistake is non-optional. My native language is, in that case, irreparably bias-ridden in this way.

Suppose I want to hire the best candidates. ... (read more)

My above comment was made in a bit of jest, as I hope is clear. Still, some people do make a deep moral issue over "sexist" language, and insofar as they do, moral condemnation of much more heavily gendered languages than English is an inevitable logical consequence. Regarding the supposed biases arising due to gendered language, do you think that they exist to a significant degree in practice? While it's not a watertight argument to the contrary, I still think it's significant that, to my knowledge, nobody has ever demonstrated any cross-cultural correlation between gender-related norms and customs and the linguistic role of gender. (For what that's worth, of all Indo-European languages, the old I-E gender system has been most thoroughly lost in Persian, which doesn't even have the he-she distinction.) Also, when I reflect on my own native language and the all-pervasive use of masculine as the default gender, I honestly can't imagine any plausible concrete examples of biases analogous to your hypothetical example with height. Of course, I may be biased in this regard myself.
I agree that some people do treat as moral failings many practices that, to my mind, are better treated as mistakes. I also think that some people react to that by defending practices that, to my mind, are better treated as mistakes. I'm not sure. One way I might approach the question is to teach an experimental subject some new words to denote new roles, and then have the subjects select people to fill those roles based on resumes. By manipulating the genderedness of the name used for the role (e.g., "farner," "farness," or "farnist") and the nominal sex of the candidate (e.g., male or female), we could determine what effect an X-gendered term had on the odds of choosing a Y-sexed candidate. I have no idea if that study has been performed. So, for example, would I expect English-speakers (on average) selecting a candidate for the role of "farness" to select a female candidate more often than for the role of "farner"? Yes, I think so. Probably not a huge difference, though. Call it a 65% confidence for a statistically significant difference. What's your estimate? (Or, if you'd rather operationalize the question differently, go for it.)
I was going to write a more detailed reply, but seeing the literature cited in the book linked by Conchis, I should probably read up on the topic before expressing any further opinions. It could be that I'm underestimating the magnitude of such effects. That said, one huge difficulty with issues of prejudice and discrimination in general is that what looks like a bias caused by malice, ignorance, or unconscious error is often in fact an instance of accurate statistical discrimination. Rational statistical discrimination is usually very hard to disentangle from various factors that supposedly trigger irrational biases, since all kinds of non-obvious correlations might be lurking everywhere. At the same time, a supposed finding of a factor that triggers irrational bias is a valuable and publishable result for people researching such things, so before I accept any of these findings, I'll have to give them a careful look.
Agreed that attribution of things like malice, ignorance, error, and bias to people is tricky... much as with evil, earlier. This is why I reframed your original question (asking me whether I thought gendered language introduced bias to a significant degree) in a more operational form, actually. In any case, though, I endorse holding off on expressing opinions while one gathers data (for all that I don't seem to do it very much myself).
My understanding of the relevant research* is that it's a fairly consistent finding that masculine generics (a) do cause people to imagine men rather than women, and (b) that this can have negative effects ranging from impaired recall, comprehension, and self-esteem in women, to reducing female job applications. (Some of these negative effects have also been established for men from feminine generics as well, which favours using they/them/their rather than she/her as replacements.) * There's an overview of some of this here (from p.26).
I wonder if they tested whether individuals suffer similar negative effects from plural generics.
My understanding of the relevant research* is that it's a fairly consistent finding that masculine generics (a) do cause people to imagine men rather than women, and (b) that this can have negative effects ranging from impaired recall, comprehension, and self-esteem in women, to reducing female job applications. (Some of these negative effects have also been established for men from feminine generics as well, which favours using they/them/their rather than she/her as replacements.) * There's an overview of some of this here (from p.26).
Sometimes I wonder why it's called "grammatical gender" at all, when it so often has no connection to actual gender whatsoever. In your example, there's no gender information transferred at all! It may as well be called "grammatical colour" or "grammatical arbitrary class". On the other hand, you'd be lucky to be able to exert enough control on convention to make "he" into that kind of word.

Sometimes I wonder why it's called "grammatical gender" at all, when it so often has no connection to actual gender whatsoever. In your example, there's no gender information transferred at all! It may as well be called "grammatical colour" or "grammatical arbitrary class".

As it turns out, that's exactly the original meaning of the word "gender" -- of which the French translation is genre.

The Chinese and Japanese character for "sex" (as in, which reproductive organs you have) can also be translated as "a quality" or "nature": 性 is the same character used for "nature" in the expression "Buddha-nature", i.e. "the characteristic quality of a Buddha". The concept could possibly also be expressed as "distinction", as in the limerick of the young lady from Exeter; or as "difference" as in the French expression "Vive la différence" ("Long live the difference" between men and women). The concept of "grammatical gender" in linguistics is often taken to be a specialization of the more general concept of "noun class". Some languages, particularly African languages closer to the likely point of origin of human language, grammatically distinguish a large number of different noun classes, for particular kinds of things. Some European languages make a distinction between animate and inanimate nouns, but most preserve only the distinction between masculine and feminine nouns. This may be taken as indicating that as human languages continually diversify and mix in human societies, that the distinctions which are preserved are those which human societies find the most significant: distinctions of sex. Which isn't surprising, since humans do need language to talk about and perform mate selection, where (for almost all humans) sex is highly significant. English does not express grammatical gender on nouns in general, as French or German do. Indeed, even remaining feminizing suffixes such as -ess are falling out of use: uses such as "poetess" and "authoress" are now seen as dated (and sexist), and even "actress" is obsolescent. However, like other Indo-European languages (but unlike the Finno-Ugric languages, or many East Asian languages) English retains gendered pronouns. It is not at all clear that removing gender from pronouns is a step in the direction of a less sexist society. Japanese does not use gendered pronouns except for intimate relations; but few would a
Only partially true: the Japanese language has differently gendered versions of "I". Pronouns for "you" are indeed generally reserved for intimate relations, and third person pronouns don't seem to exist at all, as far as I can tell.
Well, that's interesting, although it still doesn't explain - or rather, justify - the use of the words masculine and feminine for a distinction that has nothing to do with sex. You'd just end up with people getting confused by the words and thinking words like feminine-was have genders or something (whatever it even means for a string of phonemes to have a gender).
Although I agree it's odd, it does in fact seem that there is gender information transferred / inferred from grammatical gender. From Lera Boroditsky's Edge piece
It's generally correct in English to use "one" as an indefinite pronoun, but it's not common casual usage and is not easy to do smoothly. Though I would nevertheless consider it preferable every time to using made-up pronouns. Singular "they" generally works more smoothly than either alternative.

"Say a random Christian kicked a Muslim in the face, and a few other Muslims got really angry, blew the whole thing out of proportion, and killed him and his entire family. This would be an inappropriately strong response, and certainly you could be upset about it, but the proper response wouldn't be to go kicking random Muslims in the face. "

Several times you seem to equate speech or illustration with a punch in the face. They don't seem interchangeable to me. The American founding fathers made a strong case for protecting speech, they argued that people should be able to say what they would without fear of violence in return. I'm pretty sure they never contemplated that face punching should be protected. I see the a bright line between the two behaviors.

Some of the people passing around pictures of Mohammed surely mean to insult. Others are demanding that a bright line between speech and physical harm be observed by all. They are appealing to more reasonable muslims to "police their area" and part of the plan is draw out the muslims who need policing.

I'm not defending that as an optimal plan but I sure think the bright line is a swell idea.

0Alex Flint
The whole point of Yvain's post was to call that bright line into question on consequentialist grounds. You may very well disagree, but you should engage with the arguments more than "they don't seem interchangeable to me".

To hold that speech is interchangeable with violence is to hold that a bullet can be the appropriate answer to an argument.

But the argument here is going the other way - less permissive, not more. The equivalent analogy would be: To hold that speech is interchangeable with violence is to hold that certain forms of speech are no more an appropriate answer than a bullet. The issue at stake is why. Why is speech OK, but a punch not? Presumably because one causes physical pain and the other not. So, in Yvain's salmon situation, when such speech does now cause pain should we treat it the same or different from violence? Why or why not? What then about other forms of mental torment, such as emotional pain, hurt feelings or offence? There are times I've had my feelings hurt by mere words that frankly, I'd have gladly exchanged for a kicking, so mere intensity doesn't seem the relevant criteria. So what is, and why is it justified? To just repeat "violence is different from speech" is to duck the issue, because you haven't answered this why question, which was the whole point of bringing it up.
No, I'm defending a bright line which Yvain would obliterate. If they are interchangeable it follows that answering an argument with a bullet may be the efficient solution. So which to which argument would you prefer a bullet? The brits are feeling the pain of a real physical assault, under the skin. That's not mental torment, it's electrodes. A crucial difference is that we can change our minds about what offends us but we cannot choose not to respond to electrodes in the brain and we cannot choose not to bleed when pierced by a bullet. It is not my comprehensive answer but I think it is a sufficient answer. They are not interchangeable. Many words would have hurt me deeply 15 years ago but hardly any can now because I've changed my mind about them. It is within my power to feel zero pain from anything you might say. People really can change their minds to take less offense if they want to. They cant choose to not be harmed by a punch or a bullet. Different.
What would you say to someone who replied "Many punches would have hurt me deeply 15 years ago but hardly any can now because I've studied martial arts. It is within my power to feel zero pain from any blow you might deliver. People really can change their physical capabilities to take less physical pain if they want to."?
A series of physical blows can endanger a person's life and, even more probably, incapacitate them for a prolonged period or permanently by breaking a bone, rupturing an internal organ, and the like. For this reason, a physical assault must be taken very seriously. If an action proximally causes psychological suffering, that does not make the action, merely for that reason alone, wrong in the slightest. Suffering of the sort caused by speech is caused by disappointment of our desires, and we typically do not have an inherent right to have the desires in question fulfilled. If we suffer, there are two causes of our suffering: (a) that we desired a certain state of affairs, and (b) that our desire was thwarted. Someone who is insulted, desired to be treated with respect, and his desire was thwarted. Someone who has been rejected romantically, similarly, desired acceptance, and his desire was thwarted. In neither of these cases did the person have any right to get what he desired. That he suffered on account of his disappointment does not in the slightest increase his right to get what he wanted. If it did increase his right, then a person could thereby gain the right to anything he wanted merely by wanting it very very much. Rights would then be assigned to whoever could throw the most impressive temper tantrum.
I agree, or at least close enough, with all of that. But none of it is unique to psychological suffering. For example, diseases caused by airborne pathogens can cause physical suffering. They can endanger a person's life, incapacitate them for a prolonged period or permanently, and I therefore endorse taking them seriously. However, if someone's immune system is so compromised that they cannot be around other people without becoming extremely ill, they don't thereby gain the right to go wherever they like and have everyone else leave. If your goal is to argue that suffering doesn't give me the right to get what I want, I'm right there with you... but you don't need to draw an artificial bright line between physically mediated suffering and psychologically mediated suffering in order to achieve that goal.
I'm not sure about that. Let's look at the example. This is true. But the obvious explanation is this: a person who is harmed may have harmed himself. He may be to blame. So it's not that there isn't any harm in the first place, but merely that he may be to blame for any harm that results to himself. Someone with a compromised immune system who goes out in public has only himself to blame if he's infected. In contrast, someone whose desires are disappointed hasn't typically been harmed to begin with. That's where it typically stops. It doesn't rise to the level of identifying a culprit, because there isn't anything to be a culprit about, because no harm has been done. If someone knowingly exposes himself to the possibility of infection, we typically think such a person deserves an Honorary Darwin Award and the ridicule that goes with it (with occasional exceptions, e.g. if he is being heroic). But if somebody deliberately exposes himself to disappointment - well, what's so terrible about that? That only means that he's shooting for the stars, etc. Usually it's the people who avoid disappointment by never striving for anything that we think are approaching life the wrong way. As far as I know, not even the Muslims who threaten the lives of artists who depict Mohammed are interpreting their own feelings of disappointment as a harm. They don't seem to be interested in their own psychological state. They seem to be interested in the act of depiction itself, which they evidently believe they have a right and a religious duty to stop. I am talking specifically here about those who threatened artists for depicting Mohammed. From Wikipedia: That doesn't seem particularly interested in the psychological suffering caused by the depiction of Mohammed. It's focused on the depiction itself, which is called "stupid". The word is not "hurtful", but "stupid". There is scant expressed interest here in the speaker's own psychological state. Okay, so we agree on that, and that'
I would like to second this and more generally point out that I am bothered by the focus on pain rather than damage from physical assaults. Of course, this is not LCPW; we can talk about attacks that are primarily about pain rather than damage, e.g. slapping someone. I just think we should be explicit about doing so.
This isn't entirely accurate. The thwarting of a desire may be required for suffering, but it isn't sufficient. One must also have an attachment to the object of desire - a belief that one should have the desire fulfilled, or that something bad will result if it is not. Desire and attachment are commonly conflated, but they are distinct. One can have attachment without desire, and desire without attachment.
Sounds like a Buddhist analysis.
Yes, but also one that does a good job of describing certain situations. For example: Alicorn has recently moved in with me. We have what should be a very agreeable situation when it comes to keeping the house clean: I don't care and strongly prefer not to clean; Alicorn cares slightly more and doesn't mind cleaning; we each clean only to the degree that we feel like cleaning or want the house to be clean, and so far that's actually working quite well. (The fact that normal fairness is mostly not relevant here probably helps, though Alicorn and I being unusually compatible as roommates go may be a larger factor.) However, I was raised with the idea that people will care about cleanliness to a degree that will cause them to consider the usual state of our living space unacceptable. This is not something I desire, but it is a thought to which I am attached, and as a result I find it mildly stressful to ignore that in favor of reality - I find myself worrying about whether it's really okay, or if Alicorn is just putting up with it and will eventually start complaining, or silly things like that. It's relatively minor in this case - I trust Alicorn enough in the relevant ways that I don't really think she thinks those things - but if I were more predisposed to that kind of worry I could certainly see it turning into a significant source of discomfort even in the face of evidence. (And yes, I'm working on it. She's only been here two and a half months and it's already significantly better than it was.)
Because I stole the word "attachment" from them, yes. But really, it's a matter of affective asynchrony -- i.e., the ability to have mixed feelings. Human motivational emotions aren't a single scale, where disutility is subtracted from utility to yield an output value. Instead, they're points on a plane, where utility and disutility are axes, and certain co-ordinates are unreachable. So, it's possible to have things whose absence causes pain, but whose presence doesn't cause any pleasure (aka "satisficers"), and things whose presence creates pleasure, but whose absence doesn't cause any pain. (Among other possible combinations.) The "axes" for these things seem relatively independently programmable - that is, you can usually remove an "attachment" (conditioned displeasure) without affecting the "desire". (I've never tried the reverse.) (Also, this is still a bit of a simplification, since "desire" is kind of vague -- we have things we feel driven to do, but which don't provide us any pleasure, and things which provide us pleasure, but which we don't feel driven to do. Human beings are seriously f'd up in the head. ;-) )
There is play there, but the ability to your ability to change your body is really not remotely close to your ability to change your mind.
It seems to follow that the "bright line" between physical and psychological harm is a quantitative difference. More precisely, it's not that people are able to "choose not to be harmed" by psychological influences but unable to do so for physical ones, but rather that people are more able to choose not to be harmed by psychological than physical influences. Based on that I conclude that the important factor here is how much ability the sufferer has to protect themselves from suffering, and what the cost to them of doing so would be. Whether the suffering is physical or psychological or neither is at best a stand-in for that; it is not important in and of itself. Obliterating the "bright line" you want to draw here (as you claim yvain does) and replacing it with a consideration for ability to protect oneself does not justify "answering an argument with a bullet." Sure, if in a particular case we're for some reason unable to come up with a better estimate of how much ability the sufferer had to protect themselves, we can select a prior based on a clumsy metric like "you can protect yourself from psychological harm but not physical harm." For example, if I know nothing more about a particular conflict than that person A was talking to person B and person B shot person A in response, I have a pretty high confidence that person B reacted inappropriately. But I don't have to embrace a misleading sharp line between physical and psychological harm in order to reach that conclusion.
But what it it's one person A who is committed to drawing cartoons which offend a billion muslims. He flatly refuses to stop over an extended period of time. Eventually one (or more) of them kills A.. Did the killer(s) act inappropriately in this case? It looks efficient under Yvain's calculus, doesn't it?
So, I'll emphasize that the point that you quote was tangential to this, and had to do with the implications of reasoning under conditions of incomplete information. But, to answer your question: I don't endorse murder as an appropriate response to offense. Why not? Well, one simple reason is that I would rather live in a culture where people offend one another without recourse than a culture where people kill one another without sanction over idiosyncratic grounds for offense, were those the only choices (which, of course, they aren't). That said, if you could convince me that no, actually, we'd all be better off if we established the cultural convention that killing people for drawing offensive cartoons was acceptable, I would (reluctantly) change my position. I can't imagine how you could actually convince me of that in the real world, though. Moreover, it seems to me that this sort of consequentialist reasoning for what is and is not an appropriate response is entirely consistent with Yvain's post, and I don't expect that he will disagree with my conclusion. (Though I'd be interested if he did.) And, just to be clear about this, the difference between physical and psychological harm that you started out arguing the importance of is completely orthogonal to my reasoning here. If instead of killing A, the hypothetical muslims put A in a sensory-deprivation tank until A goes irreversibly mad, my answer doesn't significantly change. (Does yours?) Digressing a little... note that when the grounds for offense are sufficiently endorsed by the mainstream culture, we have a way of no longer calling it "murder"... or, if we do, we create special categories to distinguish it from, you know, real murder. For example, there exist municipalities where, if I walk in on my wife having sex with another man and kill him in response, this is considered different from if I walk in on my wife serving ice cream and kill him in response... and this is completely independent of m
I think this is very nicely put, and is sort of what I was thinking when I commented, but couldn't articulate. Thanks!
Would you be willing to support/expand on that claim further? I have low confidence since I haven't spent a whole lot of time thinking about it, but this runs counter to my intuition.
That's clearly not the case. If they're interchangable, it merely means they'd be equally appropriate, but that doesn't say anything about their absolute appropriateness level. If neither are appropriate responses, that's just as interchangable as both being appropriate - and it's clearly that more restrictive route being advocated here (ie. moving such speech into the bullet category, rather than moving the bullet category into the region of such speech). So what distinguishes that from emotional pain? It's all electrochemistry in the end after all. Would things change if it were extreme emotional torment being inflicted by pictures of salmon, rather than pain receptors being stimulated? Eg. inducing an state equivalent to clinical depression, or the feeling of having been dumped by a loved-one. I don't see an inherent reason to treat these differently - there are occassions where I'd gladly have traded such feelings for a kick in the nuts, so from a utlitarian perspective they seem to be at least as bad. The intensity in this case is obviously different - offence vs depression is obviously a big difference, so it may be fine to say that one's OK and the other not because it falls into a tolerable level - but that certainly moves away from the notion of a bright line towards a grey continuum. This is a better argument (indeed it's one brought up by the post). I'm not sure it's entirely valid though, for the reasons Yvain gave there. We can't entirely choose what hurts us without a much better control over our emotional state than I, at least, posess. If I were brought up in a society where this was the ultimate taboo, I don't think I could simply choose not to be, anymore than I could choose to be offended by them now. You say "It is within my power to feel zero pain from anything you might say", but I'll tell you, it's not within mine. That may be a failing, but it's one shared by billions. Further, I'm not sure it would be justified to go around insulting rand
I don't understand this... the notion of a "more restrictive route" doesn't seem to make much of a difference to the objection - the suggested move involves placing a certain type of speech act into the realm of "bullets", and as such makes bullets an appropriate response to such acts, whereas they were not before. Is that right? Edit: That is, if speech B is now equivalent to shooting someone, it's not a case of "harmless speech A can now be responded to with bullets or B," but of "speech B can now be responded to with bullets."
Ah, I think I've misunderstood you - I thought you were talking about the initiating act (ie. that it was as appropriate to initiate shooting someone as to insult them), whereas you're talking about the response to the act: that bullets are an appropriate response to bullets, therefore if interchangable, they're an appropriate response to speech too. However, I don't think you can take the first part of that as given - many (including me) would disagree that bullets are an appropriate response to bullets, but rather that they're only an appropriate response to the specific case of averting an immediate threat (ie. shoot if it prevents killing, but oppose applying the death penalty once out of danger), and some pacifists may disagree even with violence to prevent other violence. However, it seems that it's the initiating act that's the issue here: is it any more justified to causing offence as to shoot someone. I think it could be argued that they are equivalent issues, though of lesser intensity (ie. back to continuums, not bright lines).
I'm only interjecting, if there is a misunderstanding, it's probably with jtk3. For my part I think the positions being argued are much clearer now, thank you!
2Alex Flint
Any for which the consequences of the alternatives are less desirable than the consequences of a bullet. Such situations are rare but not unheard-of in practice, though it's not hard to come up with hypotheticals to demonstrate this.
I wouldn't consider a picture of Muhammad to be an "argument", would you?

It is necessary to draw pictures of Mohammed to show Muslims that violence and terrorism are inappropriate responses. I think the logic here is that a few people drew pictures of Mohammed, some radicals sent out death threats and burned embassies, and now we need to draw more pictures of Mohammed to convince Muslims not to do this.

Of the motivations described above, I think this is the closest, but still not quite accurate. The point of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, as I saw it anyhow, wasn't to show that violence and terrorism are inappropriate responses, but that they are ineffective responses. It isn't about teaching Muslims not to threaten others, but teaching others to defy threats of censorship. It's a group exercise in defying threats of violence; it's one of those "the pen is mightier than the sword" things.

Another modern event dealing with the preservation of freedom of speech is Banned Books Week, which celebrates defiance against censorship, especially in libraries and schools. It's an event that celebrates your right to read Huckleberry Finn, Lolita, Slaughterhouse-Five, or Heather Has Two Mommies by encouraging people to read books that have been, in one context or another, banned or threatened with being banned.

Is Banned Books Week offensive to people who think these books should be banned, and that encouraging people to read them is evil? Yes, in fact it is.

I basically agree. The point is to show would-be intimidators that we will not be intimidated. The point is to resist those would would impose an unjust law. " if British people politely asked this favor of them" The problem is that the Muslims are not asking nicely. Fundamentally, this is no different from civil disobedience.
Well, "the Muslims" don't do anything at all. Individual people do. Some of them do violence; others do peaceful protest; others write letters-to-the-editor and blog posts. As Eliezer said way back here, and as many other advocates of the Enlightenment have said before: "Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever." The Enlightenment difference is not between "the Muslims" and "the West", or any other sectarian difference. It is between those who respond to bad argument with bullet, and those who do not.

It seems to me that on the whole Islam was a lot less fully engaged with the Enlightenment than Christianity.

Put another way, Christianity got it's balls cut off and Islam didn't. A lot of muslims are aware of this and recognize the Enlightenment as bent on cutting the balls off their religion. And they're right about that.

"Well, 'the Muslims' don't do anything at all. Individual people do" I disagree, sometimes people act in concert. For example, it's reasonable to say that the US invaded Afghanistan even though at another level, it was a few hundred thousand soldiers, all wearing the same uniform, who did so. To be sure, "Muslims" is a significantly less coherent group than the US. However, there seems to be reasonably broad consensus among Muslim leadership that their principle -- that Koran burning should be seen as a crime -- is more important than the Western principle that it should not be so. In any event, your point is a bit of a side point since the original post speaks of "British People" in the same group-oriented way. Reasonable people reading the original post will understand the phrase "British people asked politely" to mean some consensus of British leadership. I was referring to "Muslims" in the same way.
And sometimes people coerce or trick other people into supporting them or identifying with them. I'm in the US, and pay taxes to the US government, but I didn't invade Afghanistan. Joe Storeowner may pay "protection money" to the New York Mafia, but Joe didn't have a gang war with the New Jersey Mafia. Yet from the point of view of a Mafia historian, "New York had a war with New Jersey" and Joe's opinion is irrelevant; he is merely a citizen of the New York Mafia's territory. The original thought-experiment asked us to imagine that all British people suffered from salmon-phobia. This assumes a level of distinction that in real life, we would regard as a fallacy — because in the thought-experiment world, we could truly say that if someone wasn't offended by salmon, that proved they weren't British. In other words, in the world of the thought-experiment, the "no true Scotsman" fallacy is not a fallacy at all, but defined to be true.
I don't think the original thought experiment would change much if the aliens only hacked 85% of British people chosen at random rather than every single one.
"I'm in the US, and pay taxes to the US government, but I didn't invade Afghanistan." I agree, that's exactly the point. When I said that "Muslims are not asking nicely," I was not referring to every last Muslim. "The original thought-experiment asked us to imagine that all British people suffered from salmon-phobia. This assumes a level of distinction that in real life, we would regard as a fallacy" Agree, the original thought experiment would be more accurate if British people had the same sort of general feeling about fish which Muslims have about Koran-burning. And in that case, my original point still stands.

There are commenters who note that the use of "ey" and other gender neutral pronouns hurts their head. You may understand this and still use "ey" as part of a larger attempt to accustom people to language that is ultimately more convenient, even if it's worse in the short run. Which is a perfect example of what I was going to say:

When you do your harm minimization calculation, you really need to include the entire path over time, and not just the snapshot. It is often true that hurting people today makes them stronger in the future, resulting in a better outcome. It could be, for instance, that gay marriage today offends more people more deeply than it benefits, but that by pushing for its spread, many of the formerly offended people end up desensitized to it (see also any number of past civil rights issues). Or, if by showing the Brits enough pictures of salmon we could actually desensitize them to the pain, in the long run we may all be better off.

A big difference between the salmon and mohammed example is that you built into the first that Brits can't adapt to the pain. But some people may be imagining a future, better world where everyone has free sp... (read more)


I think the slippery slope you describe is not the correct slope to talk about. Rather, the argument I often hear is "if we accede to Muslims in this relatively trivial matter of pictures, they will see this as a sign of weakness, and expect stronger demands to be met as well."

While this might happen, isn't the nice thing to do to cooperate at least the first time? You can always later revise your position and refuse to concede further when pushed.
Where exactly do you draw the line, then? "I can quit whenever I want to" isn't much of a strategy. Consider two timelines: In A, the aggressive underdog starts by demanding a trivial concession under threat of violence, to which the complacent superpower accedes. Later, underdog wants a more significant concession, and again threatens violence. Superpower resists, underdog (considering superpower weak of resolve) follows through on the threat. People die, nothing is accomplished. In B, the aggressive underdog starts by demanding a trivial concession under threat of violence, which the complacent superpower rejects derisively. Later, underdog wants a more significant concession, but has had no success with previous threats of violence and so considers what other bargaining chips they have. Superpower negotiates, and a mutually-acceptable compromise is reached.
Well what I had in mind is that the superpower could attempt to negotiate a compromise right from the start. And to show that it's willing to compromise (not only in words), it might make the small concession first. Get the "moral high-ground", so to speak. Now this might not work depending on who they're dealing with. But I doubt that "Muslims" in general are a group that can't be influenced in such a way. It almost certainly isn't going to be good enough for the types of people who threaten violence and follow-up on it, but they themselves could be influenced by other Muslims. I could be expecting people to be more reasonable and rational than they actually are, so I might be wrong on how this will play out, I guess. Any (historical) real-world examples (or counter-examples)?

Neville Chamberlain.

By making a concession first, you are not starting a negotiation. You are, effectively, concluding a negotiation by agreeing to a minor variation on the deal they initially proposed: whatever they want in exchange for not getting hurt. The geopolitical equivalent of saying you 'don't want no trouble' and reaching for your wallet.

You may be thinking of Reciprocity in Cialdini's Weapons of Influence. AFAIK, that works better on a person to person basis; if you're trying to negotiate between nation-states and religions, you're probably better off basing your work on the Strategy of Conflict.

A couple points.

You miss an important issue, which is the western concept as speech as a right. The Folsom street fair can have a promo poster of the last supper as Jesus as a naked black dude surrounded by transvestites, dominatrixes, and sex toys, and no major Christian organization will propose that anyone should be killed. They may try to get funding taken away from the fair, but that's their right. Westerners have a concept of appropriate levels of conflict, and if someone violates them, we want to punish them. If someone asks me politely to keep it down, I probably will. If they tell mento shut up or they'll kick my ass, my instinct is to talk even louder (especially if they're bluffing). This is sensible as annoy of punishing improper behavior.

I also take issue with your characterization of offense as pain. In some cases - where it's directed at someone, like racial slurs, it is. But in cases of taking offense at untethered actions, pain isn't accurate. It's not exactly painful when, say, a Klansmen sees an interracial couple, even if he finds their behaviour offensive. And even if it were, it seems obvious to menthat the couple should not allow that to affect their behaviour. If the Brits in your example just got arbitrarily angry about seeing trout pictures, I'm not sure the same reaction follows. Perhaps if you taboo offense, you get a more coherent picture of two separate emotional reactions.

I would like to believe the Klansman (I was considering changing this to Klansperson, but political correctness is probably inappropriate in this situation) doesn't feel anything like real suffering when he sees an interracial couple, but I have no evidence for this except my desire to sweep his feelings under the rug so I don't have to use them in ethical calculus.

For example, I am strongly pro gay rights and gay marriage, but I admit that seeing public displays of affection between gays gives me a negative visceral reaction more than the same displays among straights do. If I could self-modify to remove this feeling I'd do so in a second, but given that I can't self-modify it seems like this preference is worthy of utilitarian respect; eg insofar as they want to be nice to me, gay people should avoid PDAs around me when it's not too inconvenient for them (and if gay people have the same feeling in reverse, straight people who are nice should avoid hetero PDAs around them).

I have no reason to think I can model Klansmen well, but when I try, I imagine their feelings around an interracial couple as being a lot like my feeling around gay people having PDAs.

Yes, except the feelings of the Klansman are far stronger - more similar in intensity to the feelings of many muslims toward depictions of Mohammed. From my own experience I suspect you could self-modify but have insufficient incentive to do so. (That's not intended as a criticism.) I once had a very strong revulsion to gay PDAs, now I have a very mild aversion to it, perhaps similar to what you describe: Since you are apparently behaving decently toward gays and not massively uncomfortable in most situations with them there's not much reason to change. No doubt you have bigger fish to fry. I feel similar to that but I'm confident that my mild aversion would decrease if I became close friends with a gay couple and spent a lot of time with them. My aversion would easily be swamped by more important values.
I agree. When I hear people say the equivalent of "I can't self-modify" I always want to ask "what have you tried so far," and "how long have tried for." Normally that answer is not much(only a few approaches) and not very long. It often comes from lack of incentives and a belief equivalent to "thats just the way I am."
That's consistent with the point I was making, but let me dial back a bit. I don't want to commit the Typical Mind Fallacy by generalizing too much from one example. In recent years I've realized more and more that my mind works in a fashion that is not typical of most people I've met. Some things which are very easy for me seem very difficult for others, and some things difficult for me seem easy for them. Options available to one are not necessarily available to others. It's fine to offer my experience but I'd do better to be more conservative about speculation on the options available to other particular individuals. Yvain is obviously a top poster here who I assume has done a lot of introspection and thought a lot about self modification so it was cheeky of me to assume I might know more about how he can self-modify than he does - in one of my first posts. Oops.
Interesting. If I am reading your post correctly, then I also might have committed a Mind Projection Fallacy when I read your post, projecting lack of assumption when there was some. From your post I thought you were expressing that at one point you reacted to gay affection similar to what he described and similarly thought that you could not self modify. You now know that you can so it makes sense to spread the news and method to someone who thinks they can not(who would probably want to if they could) and might be in a similar position you once were and might apply the same solution. Of course maybe Yvain is not in a similar situation and your solution would not apply. You might know more, but there is a better chance that the two experiences do no overlap. My response comes from the use of "can't self-modify" rather then "can't self-modify due to lack of time/resources," "my continuing efforts have not yet borne fruit," "I have tried all of my ideas and I am seek new ones," "other projects consume my time and it is not currently worthwhile to pursue," and etc. I have seen many people put road blocks in front of themselves by saying "can't" which often reenforces the belief in "can't" rather then staying cognizant of the conditions that make something unworthy of investment. It may be cheeky to assume that you know weather this particular self modification is worth the resource use to Yvain, but it is not cheeky ask for more details(which are only for Yvain to share at his discretion) or offer personal experiences that Yvain may glen some insight or solution from.
That's all correct. But... ...on reflection it seemed unlikely to me that pretty much all of this hadn't occurred to him. And I didn't have much more to offer - I changed my mind over time by thinking about it. Considering his involvement with LW, which is all about self modification, I think the reasonable interpretation of "I'd modify this in a minute but I can't" is approximately "I've tried to modify this without success", not " I think this kind of change is impossible". What I characterized as cheeky was my reading in of the latter interpretation. I don't have any further advice that shouldn't be obvious. And like I said I've developed an appreciation that some things are a lot harder for people than others. Weird little things in many cases.
How should this interact with people who are interested in seeing the display in question? (E.g. I once made out with a girl on a bus full of people and we got lots of, er, positive attention. How should I have weighted that vs. your discomfort with public displays of gay affection if you had been on the bus with us?)
6Scott Alexander
I just realized that when I said "gay", I meant "gay male". Although to answer your question, you'd have to sum up the positive and negative preferences of people who might see you. I expect you'd probably be in the clear at a college pub, less so at the Retired Baptist Womens' Convention.

I just realized that when I said "gay", I meant "gay male".

Yeah, I thought that might be it. (Of course, when I see gay guys being affectionate my response is "awwwwwww", so the same sort of question can be constructed.)

It seems to me that encouraging this sort of behavior has many, much larger consequences that you either aren't thinking of or are deliberately omitting. Consider, for example, the closeted classmate of the gay couple, who knows that they are gay and takes a bit of strength from seeing them express their love publicly--it gives him hope that one day he can do the same. Upon the gay couple taking your advice, however, he sees that even people who proclaim themselves his ally (you) don't actually want him to be affectionate with people of his sex (this is by far the most common interpretation of your request, in my ample experience. Recall that in this framework your intention doesn't matter, merely its effects). On the contrary, he sees you and people like you punishing gay behavior and not doing the same to equivalent straight behavior (note that you don't request straights not to have PDAs, you merely think it OK for others to do so, and in an environment where gay PDAs have already been shot down as inappropriate, this is an extremely risky request for the closeted fellow to make). Thus, this heavily encourages people to remain closeted, which is a very harmful condition. So much moreso than being offended that I venture to say that I cannot think of an offense I would not inflict if it meant that a frightened, closeted queer* could come out without negative consequences. Edit: I am leaving the following sentence here because it has provoked an interesting discussion, but please think of it as a separate post from the preceding one, as it seems to sharply change people's opinion of the rest of the post: *similarly to nigger, this is our word, not yours, and so my use of it is not offensive, but if you were to use it in a way other than by quoting me, it would be

Goshdarnit, I had you upvoted until you pulled the "our word" thing. That really irks me. I adhere to rules like that because I usually don't want words that "belong" to other groups more than I want to avoid the firestorm, but... Hey, I'm bisexual. Suppose I declare that it's okay with me if Yvain uses the word "queer" to describe people who identify as queer. Then is it okay? I mean, it's my word, right? Can't I share it?

I often use the term ‘queer’ as a catch-all term for LGBTetc (and much shorter than an ever-growing acronym); the definition is basically anybody who fails to conform to mainstream expectations of gender and sexuality. (The antonym of ‘queer’ is ‘straight’, which for me is rather more specific than ‘heterosexual’.) As a queer person myself, presumably I have the right to do this (although I'm not gay, so maybe not?), but actually I would like others to do so as well.
As far as I'm concerned you're free to do this. Then again, I started using "queer" instead of "gay" years ago precisely because I wanted my language to be more inclusive.
Haha, the ironing is delicious. I was throwing that in there not because I typically find it offensive, but to draw attention to yet another detail that was perhaps overlooked. Not that Yvain did so, but since the topic is things that offend people, I thought it worth bringing up. Do you have black friends who have decided that you can say "nigger"? It's the same issue, more or less. My actual opinion on the subject varies greatly depending on the context. Is it a bunch of non-hetero people talking? Then sure, fire away. Is it a heterosexual that I know personally to be supportive of lgbtqetc rights, has positive opinions of other sexual orientations, et cetera, and the group they're with takes no offense at their use of it? Then sure, absolutely. But what if it's a heterosexual that I don't know? Well, then it makes me a bit squicky. What if it's you and Yvain talking, and you've previously (before I arrived) said that it's okay for Yvain to say it? I show up, I don't know you're bisexual, Yvain does something that indicates he(?) is heterosexual, and then uses the word queer. I would be weirded out, feel significantly less comfortable, and depending on my prior mood, either push the issue or try to leave. What if it's just some straight guys talking? Then it has exactly the same problems as a bunch of white people using the word "nigger" amongst themselves. Even more, because there are people who appear to outsiders' glances to be straight, but really aren't, whereas there are very few people who appear to be white but are actually black. I think it is a very good general rule that if you are not part of a minority, you should not use words that have been specifically socioengineered to cause offense to that minority. White people shouldn't, in general, say "nigger" or "darkie", with rather few exceptions. Similarly, straight people shouldn't, in general, say "queer" or "faggot" or "dyke", with rather few exceptions. So to actually answer your question, I wo
Libertarian white straight male here. "Our word" is the map, not the territory. Everything is context and many people will fail miserably at using "nigger", "queer" etc. in even marginally appropriate contexts. Moreover, probably >99% of the time whites/straights use the words they're meant to be offensive. Which is all the more reason (for members of these groups) to avoid the use to avoid confusion. However, that also includes members of said minorities who belive that from their merely being members of such groups they have rights or sensibilities others don't. They don't. It's just that they're pretty much guaranteed not to be denigrating their own group*. So to me the issue is transparency. If I as a straight white male somehow could achieve the same level of transparency regarding my goals and intentions, I should be able to use such words just like black gays. My scheme allows for that; yours doesn't. Finally, many people take offence at "nigger" or "queer", even when used by the in-groups. I feel pretty uncomfortable when you guys do that, so would you please stop it?** ETA: would you yourself "use ["queer"] with carte blanche in all social situations"? *: At least in the way of the original haters. **: Semi-tongue-in-cheek.
In the realm of social interaction, the territory you're navigating is made up of other people's maps. I'm not sure what you mean here. They do have extra sensibilities, in the sense that they're sensitive to things others aren't: you aren't hurt (or at least, not in the same way) by the words "nigger" or "queer", whereas they are. They do have extra rights, in the sense that, if they clearly present as queer, they can be more confident about being transparent in their motivations and intentions for using the word, and so can expect to be able to use it in more social situations without repercussions. I mostly agree with this. I see two problems with it. The first is that there are people who have had extremely negative experiences with the word in the past and thus hearing it from anyone, regardless of the intentions of the person saying it, would hurt them. But that's mostly been addressed by your point about transparency, and the rest is addressed by: No, I would not, excellent point. My second issue is, if you don't have any sort of nefarious intentions, what is motivating you to use the word, instead of another one? Are you in a rap battle for the fate of the universe and you absolutely must complete the rhyme "drank a beer, jigger of rum//man that queer nigger was dumb"? Keen observation. Upon reading all of this conversation and thinking about this for several days, I have amended my policy to be more or less the same as yours. I now do not have a problem with people using those words if I, and everyone else present, has a very clear idea of what the person's intentions are. Upon reflection I believe that this is the policy I was actually basing my reactions on, yet it was not the one I was vocalizing. I am now curious as to why I was vocalizing the policy I was. Perhaps to increase my status among the minority I'm a part of? Hmm. I'll be thinking about this for a while. ....aaaand someone just walked by my room yelling "you're a nigger! A double nigger
I commend you for your amendment. Good for you, sir! I rarely use such words, because it's difficult to get it right. But my libertarian side does not like people telling me what I can or can't say. When I do use such words, it's most often to mock a racist/sexist/homophobic POV.
My impression was that (around New England at least!) "queer" has been pretty thoroughly stripped of negative connotations. I'm sure things are different elsewhere. But I really think that there's a huge difference between white supporters of racial equality and non-queer "allies" WRT their relationships with the respective groups in question.
Having never lived in New England I cannot comment from personal experience, and furthermore if I do live there in the future I'll be bringing my own emotional baggage with me, so I won't be able to judge even then. That said, I am very incredulous of this. May I take a guess as to the social groups I suspect you've encountered this in? I guess that they are primarily white, male, or perhaps a good mixture of genders (but not overwhelmingly female), several of whom are not-straight, almost all of them are relatively highly educated, very lightly religious if at all, and most were not raised in industrial working class households. Is this accurate? What do you think the differences would be if you were, for example, among a group of poorly-educated factory workers who are devoutly Catholic? I would be very curious for you to expound upon this.
It seems, if I am not mistaken, that I may have caused some offense. If so, I apologize, and I sympathize with you if you're in a situation where "queer" is an insult - my intended meaning was that: "straight people shouldn't, in general, say "queer"... with rather few exceptions" isn't the case everywhere. In fact, I'd expect that if one were to try to use "queer" as an insult around Cambridge, one would at least initially have difficulty conveying the intended meaning. We've even got queer straight people. Of course! I'd guess that a good first approximation of these social groups is the demographics of a good American college near a prominent body of water (for some reason, this seems to correlate with social liberalism). The only caveat beyond the implied racial re-calibration is that my social groups tend to be predominantly female. And certainly my experience would be different in other settings - as I noted in the grandparent. Well, that's a whole complicated issue, but the big thing that jumped to mind was that the "supporter" group in "alternative-sexuality" politics is often lumped in with the people they're "supporting" (gay-straight alliances, the addition of "allies" to the ever-expanding LGBTBBQ acronym...).
You are very optimistic. I expect that even in your area, you could easily accomplish the feat by making a disgusted face and preceding the noun with the modifier "fucking".
Speaking as a former queer Cantabrigian (who has since moved to a different town): your expectation is entirely correct. Indeed, the "fucking" is optional; tone of voice will do the job quite well. (EDIT: If the downvoters clarify, either in comment or PM, what it is of this comment they want less of, I might comply with their preferences.)
Well, yeah, I guess you're right about that.
As far as I can tell, from my reading of the feminist blogosphere (which has considerable overlap with what I might call the pro-LGBT blogosphere), "queer" is generally considered an acceptable catchall term for anyone with a sexuality that doesn't quite fit into any of what might be called "standard categories". Or, at least, I've never seen anyone ever say that it was a word that shouldn't be used.
Social pain and physical pain seem to be strongly linked. A dyed-in-the-wool racist may indeed experience actual pain at the sight of an interracial couple. "Speech as a right" is exactly how this appeared to me when it was all fresh and new, which casts the conflict as a bilateral jihad. Our sacred values are freedom of speech, and not being provoked to physical violence by speech. Islam's sacred value is not visually depicting Mohammed. Western civilization probably looks like Superhappies to them.
I've been offended once or twice in my life. It wasn't painful. It caused anger. I wouldn't call offense pleasant, but I would call it satisfying, to a certain degree. Pain generally isn't. Mental pain and physical pain may be related, but I don't think most offense (particularly of the generalized variety) is properly analogized.
Noticing this again, I feel I went much too easy in my other comment. This science you cite is completely irrelevant to the dispute. My objection was not that emotional pain and physical pain are different, but that offense is not pain in any sense. That I admit emotional pain is real is quite obvious because I said that targeted racial slurs cause pain. You cite a study to prove that emotional pain and physical pain are similar - a point that was never in contention. You then use a counterexample that simply assumes that offense is a form of emotional pain - assuming away the exact problem you are trying to address. My entire point is that the emotion of untargeted offense is distinct from the emotion of pain, which you haven't actually addressed. I wouldn't typically re-comment on something like this, but the "Citing science for a tangentially related point, then following it with an unfounded assertion that is implicitly (but not actually) supported by said science," really, really bothers me, even if you did this unintentionally.

Muslims' sensitivity to Mohammed is based on a falsehood; Islam is a false religion and Mohammed is too dead to care how anyone depicts him. I agree with this statement, but I don't think it licenses me to cause psychic pain to Muslims. I couldn't go around to mosques and punch Muslims in the face, shouting "Your religion is false, so you deserve it!".

This strikes me as a bad analogy. Seeing pictures of Mohammed is only offensive to Muslims because of their conviction in a poorly evidenced falsehood, whereas punching someone in the face is an offense regardless of what they believe. I think that a more apt comparison would be holding communion wafers hostage in order to offend Catholics.

If I thought that actions like these would discourage people from taking offense due to falsehoods, I would consider that to be a strong argument in their favor, but I don't see that they're actually doing much aside from fueling persecution complexes and feeding conflict.

This strikes me as a bad analogy. Seeing pictures of Mohammed is only offensive to Muslims because of their conviction in a poorly evidenced falsehood, whereas punching someone in the face is an offense regardless of what they believe.

I don't think this is completely true. Speaking as a former Orthodox Jew, the idea of someone desecrating a Torah scroll fills with me with deep emotional pain even though I know that there's nothing at all holy or sacred about it. Once that sort of offense becomes ingrained it is very hard to remove even when one understands that it isn't based on any actual part of reality.

Speaking as a former Orthodox Jew, the idea of someone desecrating a Torah scroll fills with me with deep emotional pain even though I know that there's nothing at all holy or sacred about it. Once that sort of offense becomes ingrained it is very hard to remove even when one understands that it isn't based on any actual part of reality.

I don't think this offense is without any basis in reality. If someone goes around desecrating Torahs, you would be completely rational to conclude that he probably has an issue with Jews in general and feel threatened. Even if you no longer believe in Judaism, and even if you no longer identify as a Jew, this doesn't mean that Jew-haters will leave you off the hook. You may disown your religious, ethnic, or tribal affiliations, but this doesn't mean others will stop perceiving and treating you as still bound by them. (As many found out the hard way in Germany in the 1930s, to give only the most dramatic example.)

To get back to the question from the original post, this also implies that it may be rational for Muslims to sense hostility and feel threatened by people who go around committing blasphemy according to their norms, and similar for eve... (read more)

If someone goes around desecrating Torahs, you would be completely rational to conclude that he probably has an issue with Jews in general and feel threatened.

Here's a possible litmus test: how would you feel about another former Orthodox Jew desecrating a Torah scroll as a symbol of eir change in belief.

6Eliezer Yudkowsky
Interesting. I seem to have the same flinch effect JoshuaZ described, despite believing that religion in general and Judaism in particular are great evils of the world which separated my family from me.
Can you tell how much of that flinch is because it's the Torah specifically, and how much is just because it's a book period? "Okay, so there's a run-away train bearing down on a copy of 'Godel, Escher, Bach', and a really fat copy of the Torah standing at the edge of a cliff above the track. You are standing behind the Torah, and it's immediately clear to you that if you push it, it will fall on the tracks, stopping the train and saving the copy of GEB..." Personally, I once found the B volume of some encyclopedia on top of a mountain while hiking, and carried it home through a thunder storm, even though I certainly wasn't expecting me or anybody else to ever actually read it.

A Torah scroll isn't the same thing as a book. It's hand-written on parchment, and it's a long rectangle (rather than on pages) wrapped around rollers. It will probably have an ornamented cover, and more ornaments on the ends of the rollers.

Simchat Torah is an annual holiday at the end of the cycle of reading it in which the scrolls are paraded around the synagogue. "On each occasion, when the ark is opened, all the worshippers leave their seats to dance and sing with all the Torah scrolls in a joyous celebration that often lasts for several hours and more." I have to admit things weren't that exuberant at the synagogue my family went to.

If a Torah is too worn out to be used, it is buried in a Jewish cemetery.

So we aren't just talking about reactions to a book being damaged. though they may certainly be part of what's going on.

One thing that's occurring to me is that you really can't make reliable guesses about the details of religions you aren't familiar with.

Oh right, I actually remember that thing about the 'book funeral' and all. They do the same thing in Sikhism with their own super special book, the... whichamacallit... ah yes, the "Sri Guru Granth Sahib". In fact, it's so similar that it leads me to suspect that there are some details about unfamiliar religions that you should be able to make reliable guesses about :P Anyway, the 'flinch' could still be produced for secular reasons. Not only is the 'preserve books' thing in force, but also the 'preserve works of art' thing. I mean, I definitely flinch at the thought of someone desecrating a Torah or an Adi Granth (different, shorter name), and that's certainly not due to a religious upbringing or any ingrained respect for it. I mean, I'd even forgotten about the 'book funeral' stuff with the Torah, and had to google to double check the spelling of the Adi Granth. And it's not even that I'm worried about offending adherents. I'd feel the same way if all religions were extinct and the books just museum material (what a wonderful world!). I guess it's just a flinch towards violently/hatefully wrecking things in general. So the idea of some deconvert burning one copy of a mass market paperback of their former holy book in some sort of secular ceremony, peacefully symbolizing that they're personally moving on, not intending to uselessly provoke anyone... that shouldn't bother me. And I don't think it does.
I think i have some further interesting datapoints to add here: I feel I'd flinch away from unbending a papperclip or disturbing a prime numbered heap of pebbles, much more strongly than before reading the LW material where those were used as examples.
I'm so glad I'm not the only one. Edit: Although now that I think about this, I feel this much more strongly about paperclips than heaps of pebbles. This is probably because of the more long-term influence of interacting with User:Clippy.
I used to unbend them all the time when I was a little kid, and use rubber bands to make em into little bows for shooting pencils. "Ka-twangers" I called em. So when the revolution comes and you guys are going, "Well I for one welcome our new paper-clip maximizing overlords!" I guess I'll be the first against the wall. Drat.
Yea, that seems likely. I do not but I have not had that much interaction with him.
4Eliezer Yudkowsky
Hm. I think it's fair to say that I would probably be about equally reluctant to wreck any other artwork containing an equal amount of painstaking effort. (Whew!)
I see it more in terms of economic value. A Torah is worth about as much as as a new Honda Civic at the low end and a luxury car at the high end. I would be reluctant to wreck anything worth $20,000 - $60,000... presumably the owner of said material object is going to be upset. And if you are the owner, why are you blowing up your own car? You'd almost always make a better statement by selling your Torah/car and giving the money to charity. Edit: You can get a refurb Torah for only $9,500! o.0
Do you think that would have the same degree of emotional satisfaction as a symbol of their break with the religion? Personally, I don't get that flinch thinking about a person desecrating their own Torah, but I'd caution anyone planning to do so to make sure that the symbolic action is actually worth tens of thousands of dollars to them, because it's a very expensive way to purchase fuzzies.
"Refurbished Torah?" That is hilarious. But when you say, "I see it more in terms of economic value", you mean, "economic value is another secular factor"? I mean that you also get the general "avoid wrecking painstakingly produced artwork" feeling regardless of its resale value :P
Yeah, I second that "whew!" I was afraid for a second there that I might be a secret jewish sikh, and I have a feeling that would be complicated.
That's an interesting test. My background (never belief, exactly) is Conservative (that is, intermediate between Orthodox and Reform), and that scenario makes me queasy. My first thought was that it represents a level of rage which I'm not comfortable with (and this isn't totally nonsense), but I do find it more distressing than imagining an ex-Christian doing the same to a Christian bible, even a hand-lettered bible.
7Paul Crowley
Wow, really? From an atheist background, to me I'm much more horrified by the thought of any unique hand-created book being burned than any printed thing for which there are endless copies.

Wow, really? From an atheist background, to me I'm much more horrified by the thought of any unique hand-created book being burned than any printed thing for which there are endless copies.

Er, Torah scrolls are hand-written. The scroll form is always made by a scribe, not printed.

8Paul Crowley
is enlightened thanks!
I think you missed what ciphergoth was reacting to-- I said that I'd be more upset at a Torah scroll being destroyed than a hand-written Christian bible. This doesn't mean that I'd have no reaction to the Christian destroying a hand-written Christian bible. What I was imagining for the hand-written bible was one without illustrations, but that probably wouldn't make any emotional difference for ciphergoth.
Is the emotion the same if someone made a sufficiently detailed scan of it before they burnt it?
4Paul Crowley
If it's detailed enough that sufficiently advanced technology could rebuild it indistinguishably, I'm happy. I'm curious how other people feel about this!
It's interesting that you find a hypothetical Torah scroll desecration to be indicative of rage. Before I lost my Jewish faith I, too, would have associated Torah-desecration with villainy and hate — partially because there were stories and legends about villainous Torah-desecrators, and partially because the Torah evoked such feelings of sanctity and purity that the idea of desecrating a Torah only made sense if there was rage or depravity involved. But of course, I can now easily imagine other emotions that would motivate hypothetical Torah desecrators, like trollishness.
I think it's more that I'm generally apt to underestimate the impulse to trollishness, though I do think it overlaps hate. Pissing people off for the lulz has something to do with malice towards those people, though I grant that rage has a lot of emotional intensity while trolling has some distance.
"Another"? I assume this question is directed at Joshua Z. I am not a former Orthodox Jew, nor any other kind of Jew for that matter. I'm Catholic. That said, as I wrote in my above comment, clearly the context of an offensive/blasphemous act or utterance matters a lot. As for the concrete scenario you list, I find it hard to imagine that a Jew who has left the religion would symbolically desecrate Torah -- the act has such a strong connotation of anti-Jewish pogroms that I'd imagine even a non-religious Jew would find it scary, almost like brandishing swastikas. That's my outsider's impression at least; I'd be curious to hear the opinion of someone more knowledgeable.
Just out of curiosity, in what sense are you Catholic (heritage, culture, belief)? (No need to answer if you prefer not to.)

Just out of curiosity, in what sense are you Catholic (heritage, culture, belief)?

Well, legally, I am a Catholic in good standing (I'm baptized, and I've never renounced it nor been excommunicated). In my practices, I am largely lapsed, though I value the heritage, the art, the community, and the folkways a lot. As for beliefs, obviously there is a lot that doesn't stand up to rational scrutiny, though like in any long-standing tradition, many things that may seem irrational or backward are in fact closer to reality than various modern fashionable beliefs. (Clearly, a simple blog comment can't do justice to this topic.)

What I would point out however is that I often find the North American (presumably Protestant) attitudes in this regard quite alien and strange. What I mean is the tendency to see one's belonging to a church as an either-or matter, and breaking with it as a grand and dramatic event. Among Catholics, the normal thing to do is simply to adjust the level of your practices and your closeness to the community to whatever you find to your liking. (ETA: Though conversion to a different religion, as opposed to merely neglecting one's own, would be a big deal.)

As for beliefs, obviously there is a lot that doesn't stand up to rational scrutiny, though like in any long-standing tradition, many things that may seem irrational or backward are in fact closer to reality than various modern fashionable beliefs. (Clearly, a simple blog comment can't do justice to this topic.)

I'd recommend Nick Szabo's essay Objective Versus Intersubjective Truth as a good first explanation of the topic.

Note: The website appears to be down at the moment, Google cache available here.

Yes, I second that recommendation. It's a magnificently good essay.
Any other recommendations in a vaguely similar vein? (I've already read Szabo's other stuff.)
I can't think of anything of similar quality right now.
Any other recommendations in a vaguely similar vein? (I've already read Szabo's other stuff.) Szabo's website is up as of May 4, 2012.
I assume you've read his blog as well. In that case there are several things I'd recommend. If you haven't read all of Paul Graham's essays, you should. There's also Walter Mead's essay of what he, rather anachronistically, calls the "Blue Social Model". He also talks about these ideas in more depth on his blog (along with all kinds of other stuff ETA: mostly on current events). Also possibly John C Wright's blog if you're more interested in religious stuff.
Yes, the question was for Joshua Z; I should have made that more clear.
Just to bring in the real world, I've never heard of an ex-Orthodox Jew desecrating a Torah to symbolize their break with the religion. I have heard of them eating emphatically non-kosher food.
I think I'd still feel emotional unpleasantness although probably not as much as in the generic case. This suggests that Vladimir's concern is partially correct but that that's not the whole thing and some really is just residual emotional feelings. There's another side issue that may also be involved, in that the burning of books of any form or similar objects (such as scrolls) makes me deeply pained regardless. But that connects to what Vladimir M was talking about in that part of that deep pain is the historical connection between book burning and censorship.
Particularly when the 'blasphemy' is committed for the express purpose of committing blasphemy. By contrast, a Jehovah's Witness considers it blasphemy when someone salutes a flag, but probably realizes that every act of reverence for a flag is not done for the express purpose of offending the JWs.
Even so, the offense in your case is still the result of your previous belief in a falsehood. If you had never been an Orthodox Jew in the first place, it's unlikely that you would feel the same indignation/offense/pain upon contemplating that particular sacrilege. This may be a case of your visceral reactions not having caught up to your conscious beliefs. So holding communion wafers hostage is still a better analogy than punching someone in the face (in fact, there are probably former Catholics reading this who would take some kind of visceral offense at the former, and I'd likewise encourage them to try to get over it if they can).
Agreed that communion wafers are a better analogy than punches in the face, and that the offense is a product of cultural indoctrination. (That said, the question of how offensive a punch in the face is is not completely separable from cultural indoctrination, either.) Disagreed that the truth or falsehood of the belief itself has anything to do with the issue, though. My getting offended if you disrespect my cultural icons has to do with my (true) belief that I am a member of the culture being disrespected. Someone who identifies as an American might be offended by someone urinating on an American flag in the same way that someone who identifies as a Jew might be offended by someone urinating on a Torah scroll or someone who identifies as the child of their parents might be offended by someone urinating on their parents' wedding photo; talking about any of that in terms of true or false beliefs seems unnecessarily confused.
Yes -- but my feeling is that if you no longer believe X, you should accept the fact that you're no longer a member of the culture-defined-by-belief-in-X. In general I am suspicious of the often-heard argument that religion is not really about belief. You only hear this from people looking for an excuse to remain in a tribe they've been in their whole life, because (understandably) it's psychologically difficult to leave a tribe. But sometimes it has to be done -- and I see religion, quite frankly, as one of the clearest examples of a case where one simply needs to let go and be over with it. That's not to say you can't embrace your identity as a former religionist. But that's a distinct cultural identity, involving your fond memories of formerly being offended by sacrilegious acts, as opposed to still currently being offended by them.
Trouble is, your identity is about much more than that in practice. It's deeply entangled with your way of life, your family, community, and social network, and also with the way others see and treat you. An offensively blasphemous act may (note: may, depending on the situation) be a credible signal that someone is hostile towards the group you identify with, and given the power to do so, would act so as to endanger your way of life, your community, and perhaps also your personal well-being. (This could range anywhere from making your life miserable in petty ways to outright violence.) In many cases, you must also take into account that those hostile to your group see it as your inherent identity that you can't disown and escape from even if you wanted to. With this in mind, often it is irrational to get riled up over some provocative act that is best ignored, or that isn't even meant to be provocative but has it as an unwanted side-effect. However, sometimes it is also irrational to ignore clear signs of genuine hostility, some of which can plausibly translate into real danger. In the latter case, the visceral reaction is well adapted to reality. (There are of course also various other cases where it's less clear if a visceral reaction can be reasonably called "rational," such as when some instrumental goal is best furthered by throwing a tantrum and creating drama to extract concessions.)
Well, you can be as suspicious as you wish, of course. And, sure, if I agreed with you that cultural affiliation was contingent on belief -- for example, if I agreed that to be Jewish I must embrace whatever theological beliefs are consensually held among Jewish theologians (supposing that there are any, and that I could figure out what beliefs they were)... or at least embrace only theological beliefs that are held by some Jewish theologians (though there's a circularity there... who counts as a Jewish theologian, after all?), or... well, to be honest, I'm not actually sure what beliefs you're saying I need to embrace in order to genuinely be Jewish, but regardless, if I agreed with you that there were some beliefs that fell into this category, then it would follow that when I stop believing those beliefs (whatever they are), it follows that I'm no longer Jewish. But I don't in fact agree with that -- in fact, as above, I'm not sure it's even coherent enough to disagree with. Just to make this more concrete: I don't believe, for example, that the universe was deliberately created by anything remotely person-like, nor that any such entity (supposing I were wrong about that first belief) shares in any singular sense identity with whatever entity or entities provided to early Jews the laws and tribal history currently known as the Torah, nor that those entities have any relationship worth mentioning to do with what happens to me upon my death. If (as I suspect) you consider Judaism to be contingent on those beliefs, you would conclude that I'm not Jewish, and I would disagree. Also: you seem to be saying, in addition, that I'm mistaken if I respond to expressed disrespect of Jewish cultural icons as though it were my culture being disrespected (for example, by being offended). I'm not quite sure that's true, either, leaving aside the whole question of whether it actually is my culture. I am in no sense a Canadian, for example, but I'm not sure I'd be mistaken if
More specifically, what I would conclude is that your self-identification as "Jewish" (rather than "of Jewish parentage") is a misguided effort to continue affiliating with a tribe that you're used to belonging to, but that you would never have joined in the first place had you had your current beliefs at the time of joining and had you been taking them into account in deciding which tribe to join; and if, for example, it turned out that you were avoiding the use of electric lights on Saturdays, I would have no hesitation in labeling such behavior as irrational, even silly -- and I would be entirely unsympathetic to the extent I viewed the behavior as a tribal affiliation signal rather than, say, a psychological compulsion (which I can understand and relate to). In all honesty, I would tend to view that with suspicion also -- my instinctive perception would be of an obsequious attempt to curry favor with Canadians. This perception could be overridden, of course, depending on the circumstances; but I would sympathize with disapproval on the part of a non-Canadian more than offense per se.
Mostly, I think the place I disagree with you is that you see the beliefs as primary and the tribal membership as contingent on beliefs, at least when it comes to Judaism, and I see them as largely unrelated. That is, I no more decided to be Jewish on the basis of religious beliefs than I decided to be American on the basis of national beliefs, and being Jewish no more constrains my Saturday activities than being Hispanic does. They are all affiliations I was born into and choose to endorse, despite not practicing them in traditional ways.
I'm a former Catholic, and I read the story linked by desrtopia. I must admit that I felt a visceral sense of rage that I never expected. But not in the direction that you predicted! I wanted to shout to Webster Cook (through my computer screen and more than two years back in time) to flush the bread down the toilet. I don't write this as any sort of reasoned advice on how people ought to behave. I'm just reporting my emotional response.
Not true. I've never been Jewish, and I personally find the act of deliberately desecrating objects of belief, faith and following--from blowup up Buddhas to burning flags to pissing on crucifixes to be extremely distasteful in ways ranging from mild annoyance at juvenile attempts to shock (Piss christ, Dung Madonna) to rather enraging (Blowing up thousand year old statues or burning flags as a political protest). Things like the Torah, the Koran and the Bible (a bit less so, but still) (I have no idea about the Shruti/Smirtis, but I'll lump them in here anyway) are not just religious texts, they are cultural icons, relics and touchstones to hundreds of millions of people. By desecrating those artifacts you are desecrating those people's beliefs and culture. This is, at minimum rude and is a mind killer. Now things like shitting on a torah, blowing up a church or burning a flag are distinctly different than drawing Mohammad in that drawing Mohammad (or anyone else really) is not desecration, but blasphemy. It is roughly the same as me, or anyone else "taking the lords name in vain".
6Scott Alexander
Can you explain what criteria you're using to draw that distinction? Do you expect people with different cultural norms to be able to acknowledge those criteria as objectively valid?
The distinction between them is difficult for me to articulate clearly--it seems my operating definition of desecration and blasphemy were a little more narrow than common usage, but to me desecration is something you do to an object or an idea that reduces it's utility as a sacred object or icon--essentially some sort of vandalism. Blasphemy is a secular or profane expression of a sacred idea--you can't desecrate Mohammad's memory by drawing him because (1) we don't know what he looked like, and (2) drawing him isn't doesn't render him profane in the eyes of his believers, except where it challenges their beliefs and causes THEM to change their mind. A desecration reduces a sacred object profane, while blasphemy is either an insult to a sacred belief or entity or the questioning of that belief or entity. And yes, I do expect people with different cultural norms (for bounded values of different, super intelligent shades of blue may have a different enough sensory apparatus and processing engine that those concepts don't apply) to be able to at least acknowledge those distinctions. Now, I don't expect all members of any given culture to--after all even our culture has people who think the world is flat etc. And there are some cultural norms that aren't worth giving a fuck about. Note there is a difference between "tolerate" and "accept".
Someone damaging physical artifacts of one's religion is a reasonable thing to make into a Schelling point. That's quite different from someone creating media that is counter to your religion.
Sure, we can make that distinction (and there are other possible distinctions). I was merely making my remark in the context of Derstopa's claim that the offense is that strongly tied to the actual belief.
Huh. That sort of reaction is completely alien to me. Do you still have a strong cultural allegiance to Judaism which you feel is being affronted by this?
I can't speak for JoshuaZ, but speaking as another nonbeliever-raised-Orthodox-Jew, my reaction is similar to his. And, yes, I think it's fundamentally a cultural thing. That is, the Torah scroll in this example is functioning as an icon of cultural Judaism, much as flags do for various kinds of nationalism. Just to unpack that a little: if someone behaves disrespectfully towards an icon of a culture, I react as though they'd expressed disrespect towards that culture. If it's a culture I identify with, I react as though they'd expressed disrespect towards me. All of this seems entirely unremarkable and to be expected, to me at least. The idea that any of this (be it with respect to Torah scrolls or the image of Mohammed or American flags) has anything to do with specific beliefs about divinity is, I think, a complete distraction.
True enough. There can be also other motivations for finding damaging an icon of a culture to be distasteful. When the Taliban was destroying Buddha statues in Afghanistan I found that sad, simply because the statues were ancient and irreplaceable, irrespective of their religious significance.
I may have overgeneralized from my own mentality. My own outlook is very different from yours or joshua's; I am of Jewish extraction, but after a couple of years attending Brandeis university, I found the in-group dynamic sufficiently oppressive that I now refuse to self identify as Jewish, and become offended when people refuse to accept my distinction between being Ashkenazic on my mother's side and being Jewish. That sort of cultural affiliation, absent any particular beliefs or ideals to associate it with, is something I've only observed from the outside. I think it's worth asking though, whether, once you winnow out all the absurd and unjustified beliefs in these various cultural packages, there are any sane beliefs that justify taking offense at actions such as drawing pictures of Mohammad, keeping a transubstantiated wafer rather than eating it, or urinating on the Torah. I think that the first two are only comparable to the last one if they are performed as deliberate attacks on a cultural icon, and if they're not, then I'm not sure what sane reason that could leave to object to them.
I'm not quite sure what a sane reason for offense is. More generally, I'm not sure what a sane reason for any emotional reaction is. But I guess I can see saying that since fear evolved "in order to" encourage us to avoid danger, it's sane to feel fear with regards to genuinely dangerous situations, and insane to feel it with regards to situations that aren't dangerous. On that account, being scared while standing on the edge of a cliff in high wind is sane, but continuing to feel scared after someone someone clips a safety cable to my belt is insane. And adopting the same stance with respect to offense, I would say that offense evolved "in order to" encourage us to defend our status, and is therefore sane when our status is genuinely at stake and not when it isn't. Using that standard, it seems entirely sane to be offended at the actions you list: they all have the effect of lowering the status of various symbols of my tribe, which in turn lowers my status. That said, you seem to be using some other standard for a sane emotional reaction, one I don't entirely understand. Can you clarify it further?
Careful, if you judge the validity of your emotions by whether they're serving their evolutionary role, you'll end up arguing that the purpose of life is to maximize your inclusive genetic fitness.
I agree, sort of, modulo your introduction of the rather ill-defined term "purpose of life". Which is why I started out saying I don't know what a sane reason for offense is. I suppose one could say, instead, that X is a sane reason for offense if feeling offense in the presence of X achieves useful results in that environment. On that account, if taking offense at actions such as drawing pictures of Mohammad increases my status within my community, and if increased status is useful, then drawing pictures of Mohammad is a sane reason for offense within my community. I was pretty sure that wasn't what desrtopa was looking for either, though.
My first thought was to characterize a sane belief that justifies an emotional reaction reaction as one that creates a connection to one's terminal values without being clearly counterfactual, but I'm not sure whether this is adequately transparent; I'm biased by having my own meaning in mind. I'm not sure this is true. For instance, in the case of urinating on the Torah, it's an act that would be widely agreed to represent contempt for a symbol. It would be reasonable to interpret it as a deliberate assault on a representation of the group with which you affiliate. In the case of drawing Mohammad, it's not an act which generally denotes contempt; drawing symbols of various other cultural groups doesn't constitute an attack. So for it to be a sane source of offense, you would need some justified belief which could complete the connection between the drawing and an attack on your group's status. If you had reason to belief that the artist had drawn it to make a mockery of your traditions, that would be a sane belief which could complete the connection, but if you know the act was not done in ill spirits, what might you believe which could complete the connection?
I might believe that the existence of the drawing lowers my group's status, regardless of the artist's intent.
(EDIT: You edited the parent after I replied; I take no responsibility for whether my reply has any relationship to the new parent. I really wish people would stop doing that. I may come back to this later and reconcile.) Not quite transparent. I more or less understand what it means for a belief B to not be clearly counterfactual, and what you mean by my terminal values V. I don't understand what it means for B to "justify an emotional reaction" E, and I understand what it means for B to "have a connection to" V, and I'm not sure what the relationship between B and V has to do with E.
For what it's worth, your response wasn't there when I started making the edit, and I didn't see it until after I had changed my comment. I frequently find a few seconds after leaving a comment that I had more to say, and revise my comment to reflect it.
Yes, I understand that people do this. One consequence of doing it is that other people's replies are retroactively disconnected from the thing they appear to reply to. I just don't like my replies being treated that way, is all. Of course, I can't do anything to prevent it, and nobody else is obligated to respect my preferences. The best I can do is edit my replies to note that any disconnections might be retroactive, which is what I did.
9Scott Alexander
How's this for a metaphor: suppose I thought my mother had died in the Holocaust, when in fact she'd escaped the Holocaust without incident and simply lost contact with me. Someone makes Nazi jokes around me, or says that everyone who died in the Holocaust deserved it and went to Hell, or something equally offensive. Suppose my interlocutor knows that my mother did not die in the Holocaust, and knows that if I believed my mother didn't die in the Holocaust I wouldn't be offended by what ey's saying. Ey also knows that since I do believe my mother died in the Holocaust, I definitely will be offended. Even in this situation - in which I am only suffering because I have a false belief, and for reasons directly related to that false belief - I still think my interlocutor is very much in the wrong.
Your interlucotur clearly wouldn't be behaving nicely and would clearly be pushing for some confrontation - but does it mean that it is wrong or not allowed? This feels the same as if (s)he simply and directly called you a jackass in your face - it is an insult and potentially hostile, but it's clearly legal and 'allowed'; there are often quite understandable valid reasons to (re)act in such a way against someone, and it wouldn't really be an excuse in a murder trial (and the original problem does involve murders as reaction to perceived insults).
You wouldn't be suffering only because you had a false belief, another reason would be that you weren't sufficiently thick skinned to decline to be offended. At this point I would ask myself "Of what consequence is this person's opinion to me"? And I'd instantly conclude: None. To cause me real pain a statement would have to be justified in my own judgment.

I find this post offensive, please delete it.

I find the very act of taking offense offensive, trump that.

I take offense at hypocritical abuses of recursion!


Stop hitting yourself.

It was a near probability one event that a thread like this would manifest in response to the top level post.
I was just thinking that this would be a way that self-modifying, thick-skinned utilitarian agents could avoid ever having to self-censor offending remarks.
Nice comeback.

My first reaction to this was "is this a guest post by Robin Hanson under Yvain's name, to see if anyone notices?"

You could argue Brits did not choose to have their abnormal sensitivity to salmon while Muslims might be considered to be choosing their sensitivity to Mohammed. But this requires a libertarian free will.

Well, no it doesn't. Muslims observably do make a choice in the matter (as proved by the fact that they discuss it and take different views). (Link.) To equate this with aliens hard-wiring our brains to graft on an arbitrary offense-trigger is plain no-free-will determinism, whereby the past reaches past the present to cause the future, just as the alien reaches past our internal functions to cause offense-taking at an arbitrary stimulus.

My first reaction to this was "is this a guest post by Robin Hanson under Yvain's name, to see if anyone notices?"

Part of me wants to feel complimented by that, another part wants to challenge you to pistols at dawn.

Will the pistols be near or far?

That wacky Robin Hanson, eh? Never can tell whether there's method in his madness, or madness in his method!

"Forward Defense" provides a better justification for Mohammed pictures than "slippery slope" does. By supporting people who create these pictures you implicitly support everyone who engages in a type of expression that's more defensible than creating Mohammed pictures is. Paradoxically, therefore, your well reasoned arguments against the pictures provide a strong "Forward Defense" free expression justification for supporting them.

Those who strongly support freedom of expression may have implicitly used the publicity generated by the Mohammed pictures to coordinate in supporting them and consequently, in the United States at least, created a defense protecting all other types of expression that are easier to justify than the Mohammed pictures. If there was some special social value in these pictures then the forward defense their "legitimacy" creates would provide less protective cover to other types of offensive expressions.

The slippery slope that applies is not that every random religion will taboo a certain activity, but that the more power you give to one religion the easier it is for it to get even more power. If, through outrageous overreaction, they can force people to stop one activity, they have zero incentive to not use this tactic against everything they are morally against, much of which is of MUCH greater utility than images of Mohammed.

4Scott Alexander
I acknowledge that slippery slope argument has some validity, but what I haven't seen so far is a good criterion of where to apply it. I feel confident being upset at people who draw swastikas where they expect Jews to see them, or burn crosses outside the houses of black people. Although one can make all the same arguments ("if we embolden the blacks and Jews by giving in now, then they'll start demanding more and more rights until we have to believe as they do") I still think doing either of those actions is wrong. Drawing Mohammed seems designed to harass Muslims in the same way that drawing swastikas seems designed to harass Jews. So where is the critical difference that makes one necessary and the other abhorrent?
"I feel confident being upset at people who draw swastikas where they expect Jews to see them, or burn crosses outside the houses of black people." The vileness of the swastika doesn't come form the subjective reactions of Jews who see it. A swastika is an implicit call to genocide. I think you are far too hung up on what are relatively insignificant subjective consequences, to the point of ignoring the overarching political significance of the acts in question. (Such microscopy is indeed Dr. Hanson's method.) Depending on context drawing a picture of Mohammed can be (among other things) a call to persecution of persons professing Islam, an objection to Islamic censorship, or serve some purely artistic purpose, each having consequences that far outweighs "offensiveness."
In a modern European-derived culture.
Indeed, one of the more relevant similarities between pain and offense is that both are warning signs. Pain is a warning that something may damage you, but if you are experiencing pain from nondamaging events, you are better off reinterpreting the stimulus. For instance, walking barefoot on rocky terrain is often interpreted as painful by those who typically walk shod, but after multiple exposures the sensation is processed differently. Similarly, offense has a component of "things may turn bad" in addition to the signalling described elsewhere in this discussion. The fact that people take offense primarily tells us/them that something is going on; whether that thing is significant, good, or bad requires us to look farther than the fact that offense was taken.
Is the sensation still the same after multiple exposures, or have the feet become more calloused and/or flexible?
I generalise my personal experience as follows. If you follow Western cultural norms of wearing shoes all day everyday, by the age of 39 your toes are a pale yellow compared to your fingers. If you then give up wearing shoes, that stimulates the blood circulation in your feet. After a year or two your toes "pink up" and match the colour of you fingers. I interpret fingers as providing a good reference and conclude that shoe-wearing results in poor circulation in the feet and that going barefoot restores normal levels of circulation. Trying to make sense of my own experience of the way that the sensation of walking on rough surfaces has changed over the years leads me to this speculation. The body knows that poor circulation is a problem, injuries may be slow to heal or get infected, and has a built-in response: up-regulate the pain receptors to give some behavioural protection to the body part that is at risk due to poor circulation. Take off your shoes and walk on a rough surface and this protection kicks in. It feels painful, encouring you to put your shoes/armour back on. Continuing the speculation. Give up shoes. Circulation improves up to normal. Lagging this, pain receptors get down regulated back to normal. The stimulus provided by rough surfaces gets reinterpreted as "rough" not "painful". I prefer my oxygen-level account over callous and flexibility. Flexibility is a real issue for some. Your feet have "set" into immobility. When you start going barefoot you get characteristic "physiotherapy" type pains from mobilising stiff tissue. I've never liked shoes (I was always barefoot in my own home) and didn't really have that problem. Callous thickness is very variable. Also "callous" is not the right word. My experience was that one year in I had developed callous, meaning the hard white skin that you get where your shoes rub. I had problems with the callous cracking. Two years in the skin on the soles of my feet had changed some more and was leathery. Lo
both actions are bad, but the right to engage in them is good. I think there is a lot of value in having a permissive rather than prescriptive society. You can condemn them all you want, force the people who make them into lower social status by mocking and insulting them, but you should not be able to stop them through force. If the KKK burn a cross on your lawn, they should be arrested for damage to property. But if they hold a rally where it is their legal right to do so, we should not physically attack them. They key difference between these actions to me is not the action itself but the context for it. Drawing a Mohammed to piss off a muslim is a dick move by itself. Drawing a Mohammed to show that you stand for a world where you can draw whatever the hell you want and no organization has the right to threaten you with death is another thing entirely.
I've been trying to come up with a good way to articulate my thoughts on the topic and this is what I've come up with so far. Assuming you value it, freedom is important to defend far above and beyond any particular use of that freedom. I don't care about Mohammed pictures beyond the fact that I strongly believe people should have the right to draw them. I even don't like septum piercings, but I would strongly protest any campaign to get them banned. The value of any given insult to human society is negligible, probably even negative, but the value of being allowed to insult is incalculable.
Hmm: Heh:

Vladimir_M and Nominull have got it right.


You say, "pretending to be offended for personal gain is... less common in reality than it is in people's imaginations." That is indeed true, but only because people have the ability to whip themselves into a very sincere feeling of offense given the incentive to do so. Although sincere, these feelings will usually subside if they realize that nothing's to be gained.


Here I am going to repeat again that I do not think that Muslims, game-pacifists, or feminists are consciously conspiring. I think, rather, that it is natural to take offense not only at things which are actual norm-violations, but also things which you wish were norm violations, things which would boost your status if they were norm violations. There is no conscious consideration of this, but somewhere deep in our hypocrite brains, we decide to pretend that our desired norms are the actual norms.

Although one function of offense is to alert about real threats, another function is to grab any status that it can (except when being thick-skinned grants more status).

Offense can scale depending on how much can be gained by it.

Btw, I first heard... (read more)

There was a time when Christians frequently did kill each other over seemingly minor religious differences. The wars of religion led to a backlash that eventually gave us the political theories of Hobbes, Locke etc. When people talk about the need for a reformation in Islam, they are really thinking of the period after those wars which we accept as normal.

I was going to link to Bryan Caplan on applying the Coase theorem to offense, but turned out I confused him with Alex Tabarrok on envy. He does extend his analysis to offense though.

I do recall Robin Hanson debating with Bryan Caplan and saying that it is a utilitarian best outcome for the majority of believers not to be subjected to atheist speech. I normally assume Caplan is wrong in any disagreement with Hanson, but there I lean more towards his free speech absolutism. That may be because my behaviorist leanings lead me to discount claims of psychic distress (or utility monsters) to zero. On the other hand, I don't value the ability to make atheist polemics all that highly and would be open to "make a deal" along those lines, though I'd be upset if the deal was made without my consent.

The Volokh Conspiracy often discusses the heckler's veto.


I think the world is better off without sacred cows, rather than with them. The only way to eliminate these kinds of reactions is via "exposure therapy". Admittedly, I say this as someone without many sacred cows. I'm non-religious, an anti-nationalist, and (other than a long career as a "non-denominational" anti-war activist) essentially apolitical.

I support the Mohammed drawing day, Koran-burning, and similar attempts involving other religions and political doctrines. When people do these things, it helps create a safe space for people to speak their reasoned criticisms.

I think the world is better off without sacred cows, rather than with them. The only way to eliminate these kinds of reactions is via "exposure therapy".

"Exposure therapy". Could you explain how that works, doctor? How your cure makes the patient better?

Isn't it great that we have so many people here so sincerely concerned with making the world a better place rather than with rationalizing their own prejudices.

ETA: I Googled for "exposure therapy", and the 2nd item on the list informed me that:

Exposing someone to their fears or prior traumas without the client first learning the accompanying coping techniques — such as relaxation or imagery exercises — can result in a person simply being re-traumatized by the event or fear. Therefore exposure therapy is typically conducted within a psychotherapeutic relationship with a therapist trained and experienced with the technique and the related coping exercises.

For some reason, the karma that knb's comment received really annoys me. When did we come to define rationalism as "thinking about something just deeply enough to achieve self-affirmation, and then pushing the upvote or downvote button"?