In the original When None Dare Urge Restraint post, Eliezer discusses the dangers of the "spiral of hate" that can develop when saying negative things about the Hated Enemy trumps saying accurate things. Specifically, he uses the example of how the 9/11 hijackers were widely criticized as "cowards," even though this vice in particular was surely not on their list. Over this past Memorial Day weekend, however, it seems like the exact mirror-image problem played out in nearly textbook form.
The trouble began when MSNBC host Chris Hayes noted* that he was uncomfortable with how people use the word "hero" to describe those who die in war -- in particular, because he thinks this sort of automatic valor attributed to the war dead makes it easier to justify future wars. And as you might expect, people went crazy in response, calling Hayes's comments "reprehensible and disgusting," something that "commie grad students would say," and that old chestnut, apparently offered without a hint of irony, "unAmerican." If you watch the video, you can tell that Hayes himself is really struggling to make the point, and by the end he definitely knew he was going to get in trouble, as he started backpedaling with a "but maybe I'm wrong about that." And of course, he apologized the very next day, basically stating that it was improper to have "opine[d] about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots."
This whole episode struck me as particularly frightening, mostly because Hayes wasn't even offering a criticism. Soldiers in the American military are, of course, an untouchable target, and I would hardly expect any attack on soldiers to be well received, no matter how grounded. But what genuinely surprised me in this case was that Hayes was merely saying "let's not automatically apply the single most valorizing word we have, because that might cause future wars, and thus future war deaths." But apparently anything less than maximum praise was not only incorrect, but offensive.
Of course, there's no shortage of rationality failures in political discourse, and I'm obviously not intending this post as a political statement about any particular war, policy, candidate, etc. But I think this example is worth mentioning, for two main reasons. First, it's just such a textbook example of the exact sort of problem discussed in Eliezer's original post, in a purer form than I can recall seeing since 9/11 itself. I don't imagine many LW members need convincing in this regard, but I do think there's value in being mindful of this sort of problem on the national stage, even if we're not going to start arguing politics ourselves.
But second, I think this episode says something not just about nationalism, but about how people approach death more generally. Of course, we're all familiar with afterlifism/"they're-in-a-better-place"-style rationalizations of death, but labeling a death as "heroic" can be a similar sort of rationalization. If a death is "heroic," then there's at least some kind of silver lining, some sense of justification, if only partial justification. The movie might not be happy, but it can still go on, and there's at least a chance to play inspiring music. So there's an obvious temptation to label death as "heroic" as much as possible -- I'm reminded of how people tried to call the 9/11 victims "heroes," apparently because they had the great courage to work in buildings that were targeted in a terrorist attack.
If a death is just a tragedy, however, you're left with a more painful situation. You have to acknowledge that yes, really, the world isn't fair, and yes, really, thousands of people -- even the Good Guy's soldiers! -- might be dying for no good reason at all. And even for those who don't really believe in an afterlife, facing death on such a large scale without the "heroic" modifier might just be too painful. The obvious problem, of course -- and Hayes's original point -- is that this sort of death-anesthetic makes it all too easy to numb yourself to more death. If you really care about the problem, you have to face the sheer tragedy of it. Sometimes, all you can say is "we shall have to work faster." And I think that lesson's as appropriate on Memorial Day as any other.
*I apologize that this clip is inserted into a rather low-brow attack video. At the time of posting it was the only link on Youtube I could find, and I wanted something accessible.
It's not just about ignoring death. These men and women in the armed forces are heroes... if you abandon the definition above and use a more useful definition. "A person who has qualities or performed acts which are useful to the community, who can serve as models for others, so that more people will act like them." It's a Hansonian status signal.
To allow a little anthropomorphizing, a society wants to reinforce that which makes it stronger. If you were to design a civilization from scratch which is involved in wars, the first thing you'd do is grant +200 status points to everybody who died in the service of their country, regardless of if they were effective or not effective. That will get you more recruits; that will make wars easier. It doesn't matter if the words are true or the definitions are consistent, granting those bonus status points would help you achieve your goals. It makes sense for a society to do that, and it makes sense that a society would punish people who point out it's reinforcement systems.
This is how being a cell in an organism feels from the outside.
The non-cynical explanation is that what makes soldiers unique is morale. We can encourage farmers and sewage engineers via steady monetary compensation, and we don't have to worry that hazardous manure will make them break and run, and if 5% of them were to suddenly quit then we'd be okay eating 95% as much food and paying some overtime to maintain the pipes. With soldiers, shit really does turn lethal, a 5% retreat can quickly cascade into a rout, and less mercenary compensation (using status and esteem instead of just money) seems to make such a rout less likely.
Although I think Hayes' points were apt and his treatment despicable, he may be missing a similar point: thinking of soldiers as "heros" rather than just regular employees may also reduce peoples' desire to risk their lives unnecessarily. You can see an overreach of the same effect in public attitudes toward the space program: death counts that would go unremarked in heavy construction projects are considered intolerable because the dying astronauts are heroes to us.
I can only assume this is a logarithmic scale, or something.
I know this image is pretty much pure applause light and no substance, but I think it might serve as a great talking point to post on Facebook for all my less rational friends.
Would it be considered impolite to ask what happened?
Not by me! One friend immediately replied, describing living forever as an 'unbelievably horrible concept'. An argument developed in which he claimed to be opposed to medicine in general because it results in overpopulation. A few friends who are LW readers and/or transhumanists joined in and it grew a bit one-sided. I tried to inoffensively explain that his arguments seemed to be neglecting the fact that the other human problems we have (which would be exacerbated by cured aging) might also be solvable, failed at the 'inoffensive' part, and he got angry at me for thinking I knew what he was thinking better than he did and then abandoned the thread. Afterwards a few of the people who've 'already seen the light' discussed a few interesting points about the topic, like hard limits on energy consumption/use, etc.
I'll take partial blame - I didn't work hard enough to maintain civility, in my own posts or in the atmosphere in general. I have previously argued with this person about life extension etc and found that he pattern matches very promptly into the 'typical' opposer - who summons up every problem they can connect to the idea immediately without any thought for plausibility or relevance.
Overall it was a bit of a disappointment but some friends who I don't think would have been exposed to the idea much otherwise did put some 'likes' on a few comments, which is heartening.
If you want it to be pithier (and more accessible?) you can just shorten "living forever" to "living."
I found an article on the Atlantic that provides additional context to Chris Hayes's remarks and it also asks a series of followup questions about whether people should be called heroes under different circumstances.
The followup questions seemed to be worth reposting in their entirety:... (read more)
The title of this post looks like an episode title for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Let's be fair: Almost no one actually said this. It's a large nation and you can generally find at least one example of just about any dumb statement, but this seems like 99% strawman.
I remember a lot of talk about how the rescue workers were heroes, and some discussion about the heroics of specific attack victims (people who e.g. tried to help others escape the building), but labeling the victims as "heroes", while certainly something one could have gotten away with, I don't recall at all.
A quick and dirty google search for "9/11 victims were heroes" without quotes returns a page full of results referring to 'victims' and 'heroes' as separate groups. If you add the quotes you mostly just get people attacking the sentiment, rather than the sentiment itself.
My biggest takeaway from "When None Dare Urge Restraint" was this quote: "It is just too dangerous for there to be any target in the world, whether it be the Jews or Adolf Hitler, about whom saying negative things trumps saying accurate things."
But it always bothered me that this only applied to negative things. Obviously there are some instances where saying positive things may trump saying accurate things (You look great in those jeans, and other white lies), but I think you've identified a better rule: It is just too dangerous for there to be any target in the world about whom saying positive things always trumps saying accurate things.
Great post. Upvoted.
As I consider this, I suspect that virtually anything which you can imagine being reported angrily on commercial cable "news" channels has purposes that are actually at odds with reporting truth. Calling terrorists cowards is just the usual insulting of the enemy, isn't it? Calling soldiers "heroes" seems to me to be a way to lower the costs associated with getting young people to go do this thing.
Is it irrational to use communication whose primary purpose is at odds with spreading objective information? Only if survival is irratio... (read more)
All good points, but hardly anything new... I guess a reminder can't hurt.
I'm told that in some countries, every schoolchild reads Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est".)
I wonder if that actually works at reducing such high zest for war heroism.
Homer, about 2800 years ago :
Homer, about 20 years ago:
Hero inflation is not just for the dead or the military.
This article should be on Main.
Welcome to the positive use of Dark Arts. You can enumerate the exploited biases galore as an exercise.
Indiscriminately calling the soldiers and especially the war dead heroes is quite rational, as it facilitates the country's task of maintaining an enlisted military force, as opposed to a mercenary force. Yes, it's brainwashing, and it is irrational for the individuals believe it, but it is very much the right thing to do for the government. Imagine what would happen if the prevailing sentiment was "well, these dead soldiers weren't very nice people, anyway, so, whatevs".
Treating "the government" as anything like a unified agent for whom one can define self-interest or a utility function is problematic.
I know I'm playing with fire, but... touch. (Warning: deliberately inflammatory polemic.)
One more link on the subject. Jason Brennan has a post on Bleeding Heart Libertarians cataloging different norms for valorizing soldiers (this post is largely a follow-up to a prior post arguing that it might be appropriate to hold even individual soldiers accountable for volunteering to serve in wars they know or should know to be unjust). While it's nothing particularly innovative, I think this framework is useful for understanding both the Hayes controversy and the issue more generally.
The reaction to Chris Hayes suggests that most Americans are prett... (read more)
According to the 2010 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, the jobs with the highest fatal injury rate per 100,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers in the U.S. were:
The fatal injury rate for people in the fishing trade is 116 per 100,000 — or slightly more than 1 in 1000, per year. (If you value your life, do not go into the fishing business; and if you value other people's lives, you might consider buying farmed rather than wild-caught fish!)
According to this Congressional Research Service report, the worst year for U.S. military deaths recently was 2007, when 1953 out of 1.6 million military FTEs died. However, 235 of these deaths were due to illness rather than injury, whereas the above figures for other occupations deal only with injury. Subtracting these, members of the military are risking their lives slightly less than the people who bring you your salmon and tuna.
If you want to make a moral difference between so... (read more)
What about infantry v. armor? Or helicopter pilots v. people piloting drones from a base in Nevada? "Military" isn't too homogeneous a category.
I see a hero as one who volunteers to take a personal risk on behalf of his or her group/tribe/country. Whether or not the risk results in death or injury does not have a bearing on whether or not the actions taken were heroic. If one is conscripted against one's will and dies in battle one is not a hero, but more like an unlucky slave. Also, the label is bestowed by the group that stands to benefit from the hero's actions - your hero in warfare is my evil opponent.
And this is why Baysians always loose to barbarians.
I suspect that if a nation of rationalists who all think "It is just too dangerous for there to be any target in the world about whom saying positive things trumps saying accurate things" were invaded by barbarians, they would, after short reflection, decide that designating those among them who took the role of soldier to repel the invasion as heroes, that this would be an accurate thing as well as positive.
The point of Bayesians vs. Barbarians is not that the Bayesians lose, but that true rationalists win against the barbarians where merely "clever" wannabes lose, and that we aspiring rationalists know enough about how they do it to win as well.
Point 1 seems obvious enough. Point 2, is interesting.