Help, help, I'm being oppressed!

by Scott Alexander5 min read7th Apr 2009145 comments


Social StatusPoliticsSignaling

Followup toWhy Support the Underdog?
Serendipitously related to: Whining-Based Communities

Pity whatever U.N. official has to keep track of all the persecution going on. With two hundred plus countries in the world, there's just so much of it.

Some places persecute Christians. Here's a Christian writer from a nation we'll call Country A:

Global reports indicate that over 150,000 Christians were martyred last year, chiefly in foreign countries. However, statistics are changing: persecution of Christians is on the increase at home. What's happening to bring about this change? According to some experts a pattern is emerging reminiscent of Jewish persecution in post war Germany. "Isolation of, and discrimination against Christians is growing almost geometrically" says Don McAlvany in The Midnight Herald. "This is the way it started in Germany against the Jews. As they became more isolated and marginalized by the Nazi propaganda machine, as popular hatred and prejudice against the Jews increased among the German people, wholesale persecution followed.  Could this be where the growing anti-Christian consensus in this country is taking us?"

And some countries persecute atheists. Here's an atheist activist describing what we'll call Country B.

Godless atheists are the most despised and distrusted minority in our country. The growing attention to atheism and atheists has given rise to increased anti-atheist bigotry in the media. Circumstances for them can be difficult enough that they have to stay in the closet and hide their atheism from friends and family. Atheists have to fear discrimination on the job, in the community, and even in their own families if their atheism is made known. Some even have to contend with harassment and vandalism. Distrust and hatred of atheists is widespread enough through our society that they have plenty of reasons to be concerned.

Some countries persecute Muslims. A Muslim youth in Country C:

The government has continuously persecuted Arabs and Muslims with extremist and unpopular views, charging them with terrorism and criminal acts related to terrorism. I am proud of [Muslims] who stand up to this system of injustice and to our country's gulag. They may beat them, but they will continues to suffer because in this country, Arabs are never innocent, they are merely guilty of lesser crimes. Even if they are proven innocent, after years of suffering and being defamed, the gulag and the political persecution will continue.

And some countries persecute everyone except Muslims. A politician in Country D writes:

The gathering storm I have been warning of for years has now formed over us. Yet instead of fighting the gradual incursion of Sharia and the demands of an intolerant, even militant Islam, we are cowering and fatalistic.

Since countries A, B, C, and D are all America1, what's up with all these people claiming persecution?

I don't doubt that there are examples of Christians, atheists, Muslims, and non-Muslims all getting persecuted in the US. There's no rule that says only one group can be persecuted at a time, especially in a society as pluralistic as our own. But compare the claim "There are a few incidents of people persecuting Christians" with the claim "Christians are a persecuted group in our society." The first reduces to an objectively true statement. The second is a sorta-meaningless "dangling variable" that can be declared either true or false depending on what connotation you want to send.

And people tend to take the liberty to call the is_persecuted variable "true" for their own group and "false" for groups they don't like. Why does everyone want to be persecuted so badly? Here are some reasons I can think of:

1. The tendency to support the underdog. Being persecuted is about as underdog as you can get, and underdog supporters everywhere are quick to leap to the support of persecuted groups.

2. To create an incentive for fair-minded people to "level the playing field" by raising their status. I read about a tribe in India involved in a media campaign to inform everyone just how persecuted they really were. Why? They wanted to be added to India's affirmative action program, which would give them a better chance at government jobs. Likewise, when Christians talk about persecution, they usually point out that one great way to stop this persecution would be to put up the Ten Commandments in all public places.

3. To self-handicap. If I'm unsuccessful, it's not because I'm lazy or unqualified, it's beacuse they were persecuting me! Likewise, if I'm successful, then I managed to triumph in the face of adversity. I'm practically Martin Luther King or someone.

4. To build in-group cohesiveness. People come together in the face of a common enemy.

5. To explain away a lack of success. Let's say you're a fundamentalist Christian and you notice most of the rest of America dislikes you and thinks you're crazy. You might say "Well, by Aumann's Agreement Theorem, they probably know something I don't, and I should moderate my religious views." But if your Revolutionary is AWOL, your Apologist could conclude that there is a sinister campaign going on to discredit Christianity, and everyone has fallen for this campaign but you and your friends.

I think these all play a role, with 1 and 2 the most important.

But one common thread in psychology is that the mind very frequently wants to have its cake and eat it too. Last week, we agreed that people like supporting the underdog, but we also agreed that there's a benefit to being on top; that when push comes to shove a lot of people are going to side with Zug instead of Urk. What would be really useful in winning converts would be to be a persecuted underdog who was also very powerful and certain to win out. But how would you do that?

Some Republicans have found a way. Whether they're in control of the government or not, the right-wing blogosphere invariably presents them as under siege, a rapidly dwindling holdout of Real American Values in a country utterly in the grip of liberalism.

But they don't say anything like "Everyone's liberal, things are hopeless, might as well stay home." They believe in a silent majority. Liberals control all sorts of nefarious institutions that are currently exercising a stranglehold on power and hiding the truth, but most Americans, once you pull the wool off their eyes, are conservatives at heart and just as angry about this whole thing as they are. Any day now, they're going to throw off the yoke of liberal tyranny and take back their own country.

This is a great system. Think about it. Not only should you support the Republicans for support-the-underdog and level-the-playing-field reasons, you should also support them for majoritarian reasons and because their side has the best chance of winning. It's the best possible world short of coming out and saying "Insofar as it makes you want to vote for us, we are in total control of the country, but insofar as that makes you not want to vote for us, we are a tiny persecuted minority who need your help".

We're coming dangerously close to talking politics here, but this isn't just a Republican phenomenon. It underlies a lot of the uses of the word "elite" - this sense that there's a small minority of wrong-headed people who disagree with you in control of everything, even though the vast majority of people are secretly on your side. Whether it's the "neoliberal capitalist elite", the "east coast intellectual elite" or whatever, it's a one word Pavlovian trigger that activates this concept of your favorite group simultaneously being dominant and being persecuted by those darned elites.

There are branches of social science that consciously devote themselves solely to officially identifying the Powerful and the Powerless in every issue and conflict. They have their uses. But as rationalists, we need to devote ourselves to the separate task of disentangling the question at hand from the question of who is more powerful. Otherwise, we are at the mercy of the underdog bias, the support-the-winning-team bias, and any mutant combinations of them that may arise2.

As is often the case, reduction of statements with objective truth-values can save your hide here. If every time Chris the Christian says "Christians are persecuted," you hear "Christians aren't allowed to stick the Ten Commandments up in schools," then you're no longer vulnerable to his appeal to pity.

What other defenses are there against the human tendency to obsess over which side is more powerful, instead of which side is right?


1: The first comment comes from Worthy News, the second from About Atheism, the third from Mideast Youth, and the fourth is Senator Rick Santorum

2: Has anyone else ever watched two people in an argument completely abandon discussion over who is right, and instead turn to which person's side is persecuted worse, as if they were more or less the same question anyway? It's not a pretty sight.