Missing the Trees for the Forest

by Scott Alexander 6 min read22nd Jul 2009159 comments


Politics is the mind-killer. A while back, I gave an example: the government's request that Kelloggs  [EDIT: General Mills, thanks CronoDAS] top making false claims about Cheerios. By the time the right-wing and left-wing blogospheres had finished with it, this became everything from part of the deliberate strangulation of the American entrepreneurial spirit by a conspiracy of bureaucrats, to a symbol of the radicalization of the political right into a fringe group obsessed with Communism, to a prelude to Obama's plan to commit genocide against all citizens who disagree with him. All because of Cheerios!

Why? What drives someone to hear about a reasonable change in cereal advertising policy and immediately think of a second Holocaust?

This reminds me of something I used to notice when reading about politics. Sometimes there would be a seemingly good idea to deregulate something that clearly needed deregulation. The idea's proponents would go on TV and say that, hey, this was obviously a good idea. Whoever by the vagary of politics had to oppose the idea would go on TV and talk about industry's plot to emasculate government safeguards. Predatory corporations! Class solidarity! Consumer safety!

Then the next day, there would be seemingly good idea to regulate something that clearly needed regulating. The idea's proponents would go on TV and say that, hey, this was obviously a good idea. Its opponents would go on TV and say that all government regulation was inherently bad. Small government! Freedom! Capitalism!

I have found a pattern: when people consider an idea in isolation, they tend to make good decisions. When they consider an idea a symbol of a vast overarching narrative, they tend to make very bad decisions.

Let me offer another example.

A white man is accused of a violent attack on a black woman. In isolation, well, either he did it or he didn't, and without any more facts there's no use discussing it.

But what if this accusation is viewed as a symbol? What if you have been saying for years that racism and sexism are endemic in this country, and that whites and males are constantly abusing blacks and females, and they're always getting away with it because the police are part of a good ole' boys network who protect their fellow privileged whites?

Well, right now, you'll probably still ask for the evidence. But if I gave you some evidence, and it was complicated, you'd probably interpret it in favor of the white man's guilt. The heart has its reasons that reasons know not of, and most of them suck. We make unconsciously make decisions based on our own self-interest and what makes us angry or happy, and then later we find reasons why the evidence supports them. If I have a strong interest in a narrative of racism, then I will interpret the evidence to support accusations of racism.

Lest I sound like I'm picking on the politically correct, I've seen scores of people with the opposite narrative. You know, political correctness has grown rampant in our society, women and minorities have been elevated to a status where they can do no wrong, the liberal intelligentsia always tries to pin everything on the white male. When the person with this narrative hears the evidence in this case, they may be more likely to believe the white man - especially if they'd just listened to their aforementioned counterpart give their speech about how this proves the racist and sexist tendencies of white men.

Yes, I'm thinking of the Duke lacrosse case.

The problem here is that there are two different questions here: whether this particular white male attacked this particular black woman, and whether our society is racist or "reverse racist". The first question definitely has one correct answer which while difficult to ascertain is philosophically simple, whereas the second question is meaningless, in the same technical sense that "Islam is a religion of peace" is meaningless. People are conflating these two questions, and acting as if the answer to the second determines the answer to the first.

Which is all nice and well unless you're one of the people involved in the case, in which case you really don't care about which races are or are not privileged in our society as much as you care about not being thrown in jail for a crime you didn't commit, or about having your attacker brought to justice.

I think this is the driving force behind a lot of politics. Let's say we are considering a law mandating businesses to lower their pollution levels. So far as I understand economics, the best decision-making strategy is to estimate how much pollution is costing the population, how much cutting pollution would cost business, and if there's a net profit, pass the law. Of course it's more complicated, but this seems like a reasonable start.

What actually happens? One side hears the word "pollution" and starts thinking of hundreds of times when beautiful pristine forests were cut down in the name of corporate greed. This links into other narratives about corporate greed, like how corporations are oppressing their workers in sweatshops in third world countries, and since corporate executives are usually white and third world workers usually not, let's add racism into the mix. So this turns into one particular battle in the war between All That Is Right And Good and Corporate Greed That Destroys Rainforests And Oppresses Workers And Is Probably Racist.

The other side hears the words "law mandating businesses" and starts thinking of a long history of governments choking off profitable industry to satisfy the needs of the moment and their re-election campaign. The demonization of private industry and subsequent attempt to turn to the government for relief is a hallmark of communism, which despite the liberal intelligentsia's love of it killed sixty million people. Now this is a battle in the war between All That Is Right And Good and an unholy combination of Naive Populism and Soviet Russia. This, I think, is part of what happened to the poor Cheerios.

Now, if the economists do their calculations and report that actually the law would cause more harm than good, do you think the warriors against Corporate Greed That Destroys Rainforests And Oppresses Workers And Is Probably Racist are going to say "Oh, okay then" and stand down? In the face of Corporate Greed That Destroys Rainforests And Oppresses Workers And Is Probably Racist?!?1

One more completely hypothetical example. Let's say someone uses language that objectifies women on a blog. Not out of malice or anything, it was just a post on evolutionary psychology, it's easy to write evolutionary psychology in a way that sounds like it's objectifying women, and since obviously no one would objectify women on purpose to insult them it will be clear to everyone that it was just a harmless turn of phrase. Right?

And let's say some feminist comes along and reads this completely innocent phrase about women. Let's say the context is the entire history of gender relations for the past ten thousand years, in which men have usually oppressed women and usually been pretty okay with doing so. And a society that's moving towards not oppressing women and towards treating them as full and equal human beings, but it's still not entirely clear that everyone's on board with this.

This poorly-worded phrase is now a symbol of All Those Chauvinists Who Think Of Women As Ornaments Or Toys Only Good For Sex And Making Babies2. The feminist is unhappy. He or she asks for the phrase to be removed.

Let's say some person who is emphatically not a feminist notices this request for removal. Let's say the context is a society where men are generally portrayed in popular culture as violent bumbling apes who cause all world problems. A culture where women can go on for hours about what boors men are, but any man who says a word about women is immediately branded a sexist pig. A culture where a popular feminist once said that all sex was rape [EDIT: Or not. Apologies for misquote], and many people believed her, one with affirmative action laws mandating that women be hired over equally qualified men, one where you can't say "chairman of the board" without someone calling you sexist and accusing you of taking advantage of your male privilege to ignore male privilege if you disagree.

This request to remove a potentially offensive phrase is now a symbol of All Those Feminists Who Hate Men And Want Them To Feel Guilty All The Time For Vague Reasons. He or she gets angry, and certainly won't remove the offending phrase.

I'm not sure that's what's happening in this case, but I don't think a few poorly worded phrases followed by a polite request to change those poorly worded phrases would have reached five hundred fifty comments divided over four top-level posts if people were just taking it as a request to use slightly different language. In our completely hypothetical example, of course.

I call this mistake "missing the trees for the forest". If you have a specific case you need to judge, judge it separately on its own merits, not the merits of what agendas it promotes or how it fits with emotionally charged narratives3.



1: This gets worse once it gets formally organized into political parties. You get people saying something like "How can you, as an atheist, support the war in Iraq?" and thinking it makes perfect sense, because, after all, the war in Iraq is a Republican initiative, and the Republicans are the party of religious conservatives, therefore... Oh, yes, people think like this.

2: Oh, and this answers a question I sometimes hear asked half-seriously on message boards: how come derogatory jokes are okay in some settings but not in others? For example, how come Polish jokes are generally considered okay, but black jokes definitely aren't? Or how come it's considered okay for a black person to make a racist-sounding joke about black people or use the n-word, whereas it's not okay for a white person?

I think the answer is that if I were to make a Polish joke, it would be interpreted as what it is - a joke that needed somebody to play the part of a stupid person to be funny, and Polish people have traditionally served that role. There is no active well-known ongoing context of persecution of Polish people for the joke to symbolize, so it symbolizes nothing but itself and is inert. If I were to tell a joke about black people, even if it was clear that I wasn't actually racist and just thought the joke was funny, then since most people have a very active concept of persecution of black people, my joke would be a symbol of that persecution, and all right-thinking people who oppose that persecution would also probably oppose my joke. 

This leads to the odd conclusion that in a society known to be without racism, no one would mind racist jokes or slurs. In fact, this is confirmed by evidence. Black people are, society generally assumes, above suspicion when it comes to anti-black racism, and therefore black people can use the "n-word" without most people objecting.

This is what led to me developing some of these thoughts. I told a joke which I considered to be making fun of racism. Someone who heard it misinterpreted it and thought it was racist, accused me of racism, spread rumors that I was racist, and generally started a large and complicated campaign to discredit me. After that, I noticed that I was always coming to the defense of people who were accused of racism, and was willing to dismiss practically the entire concept of racism in society as a self-serving attempt at personal gain by minorities, a one hundred eighty degree turn from my previous attitude. Eventually I realized that I was just re-fighting the battle I had to fight after this one joke, and fitting everything to my "sometimes false accusations of racism unfairly harm majority group members and we need to protect against this" narrative. So I stopped. I think.

This also could explain why, contrary to Robin Hanson's hopes, people will never stop using disclaimers. They're ways of saying "I did this action for reasons that do not relate to your narrative; please exclude me from it", and this is not people's default position.

3: One objection could be that the specific case could start a slippery slope, or create a climate in which other things become viewed as more acceptable. In my experience, neither of these matter nearly as much as they would have to to justify the number of times people invoke them.