Steelmanning social justice

by toonalfrink3 min read17th Nov 201930 comments


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I've been trying to steelman social justice. Here's one perspective that I like. Forgive me for writing about politics. I don't claim to be certain about any of this. I don't claim that this is the whole truth. Feel free to criticize me, even in bad faith. I won't take it personally.

Inference chains towards "bad"

Consider a situation that you don't like. Lets say you're walking through an alleyway at night. A stranger appears behind you and he is carrying a large knife.

This situation is one of suffering.

But does that make sense? You haven't actually been stabbed. It is not certain that you will get stabbed. It seems that your suffering isn't necessarily based on a reality. It seems to be based on an inference chain:

Stranger with knife -> Stranger will stab me -> I will bleed out and die -> "bad"

And this inference chain can be arbitrarily long. The suffering might already start before the stranger appears:

Alone in an alleyway -> Stranger with knife may appear -> ...

Even when unrelated events cause you to intuitively anticipate this situation to happen:

Lost friends at party -> have to walk home alone -> alone in alleyway -> ...

The lemma I'm constructing here is that suffering isn't based on something being bad, but on a constructed narrative that has a bad ending.

Dissolving narratives

One plausible definition of meditation is that it dissolves narratives. You stare at the constituent facts long enough until the constituent facts of a narrative overwrite it. You're replacing the symbol with the substance.

I once went through a painful breakup. She wanted to try poly, and I agreed. Then when she slept with another guy, I couldn't help but notice some subtle details that led me to believe in a narrative that I was just the "beta male" for her.

I could "disprove" this narrative all I wanted. For every signal that it was true there were at least 10 that it wasn't. But still there was some shadowy part of my psyche that wanted to believe it, and this shadow would sometimes take over in an angry stupor.

Then I went to a meditation retreat. Instead of arguing against this shadow, I stared at it for a good while. The narrative dissolved, and with that, my suffering dissolved as well. We stopped fighting. This, I hypothesize, is why meditation eventually leads to a total lack of suffering. You dissolve all the narratives you believe in and "see the world for how it truly is", as the buddhists suggest.

My second lemma is that meditation is one strategy for a broader development that is dissolving narratives that cause suffering, and that dissolving these narratives is a worthy goal that all of us should strive towards.

Personal boundaries as a first step

One important prerequisite to dissolving a narrative is that it is not currently active. If you meditate long enough, you might eventually be able to tolerate a stranger with a knife without any suffering. But you will not be able to let go of this suffering while the stranger with the knife walks behind you.

In other words, to build tolerance for a perceived lack of safety, you first need to feel safe.

Consider the idea of personal boundaries. I have found this concept to be extremely useful in practice. A personal boundary, as I define it here, is not a loose declaration of where the line is, but a psychological fact about where the line actually is.

The line being between situations that activate an inference chain towards bad, and situations that don't. Between situations that make you suffer, and situations that don't.

In order to dissolve our narratives, we first have to set the boundaries that create a safe space. Only then can we start growing our base, increasing the amount of situations in which we don't suffer.

Public and personal boundaries

Here's where this story becomes political.

I already defined personal boundaries, which is the boundary between situation where one suffers and the situations where one doesn't suffer, regardless of their own opinion about it (though it is good practice to always believe them).

Public boundaries are an essential ingredient of our culture. I define it as the set of behaviors that are acceptable in a public space. It is implied that this set of behaviors will ensure that no one's personal boundaries are crossed.

In other words, public boundaries are what we agree to be the lowest common denominator of what makes a person feel safe.

In any culture, there is a fundamental trade-off between freedom and safety. If you punish more behaviors, more people will feel safe, but there will be less freedom. That's why, as we negotiate public boundaries, the incentives will be in opposition to each other. No wonder this topic is such a shitshow.

Social justice, as I currently understand it, is at least partially about reducing freedom in order to increase safety. Some (many) people, especially those in minority groups, don't have a stable base to grow from. We should have more stringent behavioral norms so that these people can feel safe, in order for them to develop a tolerance for said behavior in the first place.

It is also about reducing actually bad things, but the controversial part is that it also wants to reduce the apparent threat of bad things, even if this appearance of threat is unfounded.

Some people are afraid of spiders. Right now we have some people out there with gigantic posters of spiders in their bedrooms. We're telling them that they are safe, therefore shut up about it already. But perhaps they won't be able to see that the posters are harmless, until we get rid of them.

(To be clear, I'm not saying that there is no danger at all. I don't mean to invalidate anyone's experience. Quite the opposite, actually)

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