If you parse what US authority figures like Dr Fauci are explicitly saying about COVID, you end up learning things like:
- An old white man in good health should take 6000 IU of vitamin D per day prophylactically.
- We won't have herd immunity until 80-85 percent of the population is vaccinated.
- From both a personal and public health cost-benefit analysis, nearly every adult ought to take at least a single-shot vaccine and it's not worth the health benefits for vaccinated people to avoid group gatherings or public spaces, or wear masks in public.
- From both a personal and public health cost-benefit analysis, children ought not to be vaccinated.
- Dr Fauci distorts his quantitative claims to be less surprising, so that they can more easily enter the common narrative. Therefore, you can extrapolate that any surprising number coming from Dr Fauci ought to be adjusted farther from the number that would make no waves, to infer his true opinion.
On the other hand, yesterday I visited a toy store that sells Dr Fauci figurines for children, insists that everyone wear masks regardless of vaccination status, and limits the number of people in the store.
Corporate mass media was happy to broadcast lies like "masks don't work" early in the pandemic. But while official state announcements clearly indicated the direction in which the press was expected to distort the narrative, they were careful not to brazenly say the opposite of the truth, that masks don't work, only to tell ordinary people not to use them because healthcare workers needed them. A literal-minded person who read and believed actual government statements rather than news and opinion articles would have inferred from the start that masks worked.
My experience at GiveWell demonstrated a similar pattern. Our research reports explicitly indicated that our case for indiscriminately administering deworming pills to African children as a charitable intervention was highly speculative, based not on ambiguous evidence for long-run health improvements, but on a single randomized controlled trial that found implausibly large long-run income improvements. But the charity was listed under "health" interventions on GiveWell's top charities list, GiveWell hired a PR specialist to promote things like an Atlantic article that said "If what you want is to save lives with certainty, several people said, you have to go to GiveWell," and effective altruists not affiliated with GiveWell publicly claimed that there was strong evidence for the GiveWell-estimated benefits of deworming.
A literal-minded person would also infer from the state-certified public numbers that any one vaccine shot is equivalent to any other vaccine shot. [redacted because it was based on a factual error]
It seems to me that Dr Fauci takes the corruption of the existing system for granted, and has adopted a Machiavellian strategy to save lives by infiltrating the existing system, and sending out messages that are distorted in ways that will effectively command the sorts of people who mindlessly follow orders to act as prosocially as they can be made to act during a pandemic, while esoterically informing the intelligent few about what's actually going on.
Unfortunately, while I chose a position on the social graph that made it easier to save the lives of prisoners, Fauci chose a position that made it easier to save the lives of the privileged. And while his messaging doesn't actively try to mislead close readers of the original text, the orders he's sending are optimized for uptake by people trying to give a costly signal of loyalty by hurting themselves and others, not by people who are deferent to normative authority.
A while ago, I observed a series of subway advertisements promoting the use of masks. One such ad showed a pair of faces behaving in three different ways, labeled "bad," "better," and "best." The "bad" faces were talking to each other unmasked. The "better" figures were talking to each other masked. The "best" figures were silently staring at their phones. While the instruction to avoid talking to one's neighbors is unfortunately brazen totalitarian silencing, there is at least a plausible public health rationale for it.
There is no plausible public health rationale for the new ads I saw a couple of days ago. The first one reads, "Masks are like opinions / Everyone should have one." The first few Google search results for "are like opinions" link to the well-known witticism "Opinions are like assholes / Everyone has one." The obvious transitive implication that masks are like assholes does not promote the idea of mask-wearing. It does not describe a benefit of wearing a mask. The thinly veiled message behind this advertisement is, "Wear a mask and eat shit."
The second ad reads, "Masks speak louder than words." This neither describes a benefit of masks nor instructs people to wear one, but - while alluding to "actions speak louder than words" and therefore implying that a mask is a costly signal - but of what? - its explicit content is that masks are a form of silencing. And they do in fact impede speech and make it harder to understand and be understood by strangers.
When I pointed out on Twitter that it seemed like these ads weren't trying to promote wearing masks so much as they were trying to degrade and humiliate mask-wearers, the only responses framed the discussion as one about the benefits of masks. In other words, complaining about anti-mask propaganda was construed as an anti-mask position. The "pro-mask" position is unthinkingly in favor of authoritarian propaganda related to masks, regardless of its content.
While I consider making people do something they don't want to do a cost we accept to get the public health benefits of masks, this sadomasochistic social-metaphysics perspective regards the dramatic authoritarianism of making people do things they don't want to as the principal benefit of masks, and sees public health arguments as a convenient cover story to recruit dupes with good intentions as enforcers. And since believing a narrative in good faith makes someone an unreliable coalition partner, coalition members want to send credible signals to each other that they don't take their own arguments literally.
Likewise, most of the responses to my cost-benefit analysis of going for a second vaccine (via email and Facebook) didn't engage with the idea of quantifying and comparing risks, but simply asserted that the potential severity of COVID is very high and the harm caused by the vaccine is very low, a crude, innumerate provax position, as though I had taken an antivax position.
The side effects from the vaccines are minimal. COVID can be very harmful to your health. The risk of death cannot be compared with time lost due to vaccine side effects.* You cannot draw inferences about your risk level from local data because there is no peeing section of the pool.** I live in the real world, where cost benefit analyses are inapplicable. I'll get a booster shot if The Science tells me to, no matter how bad the side effects are.
I would be quite surprised if anyone who argued against me this way actually followed Zvi's advice and doubled up on vaccines (unless specifically ordered to by the authorities), while I might if case rates get high enough. They weren't arguing for an opinion, they were just arguing against me.
For most people in the privileged classes, good-faith argument about the vaccines, even if it explicitly endorses the official recommendations, reads as an antivax position - only bad faith counts as provax. The point isn't to argue for some particular proposition, but to undermine the idea that propositions are credited or discredited by argument.
They are not trying to live. They are not trying to save their friends' lives. If they were, they would have picked up my message about high-dose vitamin D, which seems similarly effective to vaccines with smaller downsides, and I would hear that message repeated from time to time by people in my extended network. As it is, not one friend or acquaintance has checked in to make sure I know about this potentially life-saving intervention. Plenty of people are excited about scolding others for not wearing masks, not getting vaccinated, or being insufficiently uncritical about either.
This coalition is implicitly threatening me with collective violence for reasoning publicly at all, so I have to regard myself as in a military conflict with it. I have to assume that prisoners and migrant farm workers and the psychiatrically incarcerated are on my side since my enemies are engaged in war crimes against them. My friends and I were able to fund and arrange a small distribution of masks to prisons at the beginning of the pandemic. Jack Dorsey followed up with enough money to distribute them nationwide. Van Jones, who led Reform Alliance in helping turn money into mask distribution, was just given enough money to empower him to do whatever he wants by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who seems to share my opinions. But when we tried to follow up by distributing vitamin D in prisons, the prisons blocked us, and according to reports from the inside, the prisons jacked up the price of vitamin D in the commissaries and told prisoners there was a shortage in the outside world.
Members of this coalition recognize each other through costly signals of intent to reject information. Things like COVID that make it easier to get hurt by trying to stay ignorant and follow orders are advantageous to my side. Bodhisattvas like Dr Fauci, by reducing the cost of opposing consciousness though alleviating the problems of the unconscious, are themselves reducing the relative frequence of consciousness by reducing its relative fitness. Just like in the case of blackmail, I specifically request the opposite of this.
* No one saying this was signed up for cryonics.
** This implies that social distancing is pointless.
I am pretty sure what is going on with those advertisements and others' responses to your criticism of them is:
I have not seen the advertisements in question (your tweet has a picture of the other one but not of these), but my guess from your description of them here is that (1) I would not, seeing them in isolation from your comments, take them to be anti-mask propaganda, and that (2) even given your comments, I would not think it likely that they were intended as, or that they function in practice as, anti-mask propaganda.
(I am in fact having trouble believing that you seriously think the ads are anti-mask propaganda, rather than claiming that for rhetorical purposes. I may of course be wrong; I mention this just because it seems like evidence that other people might feel the same way, especially if unlike me they haven't explicitly sat and thought for a minute about what it is likely that you mean, and had the context of this post as well as your tweet.)
It seems to me that your reasoning here resembles a common (and in my opinion very wrong) pattern of thought: "These people say X; also, Y; X and Y imply Z; therefore these people think Z". The reason it's wrong, of course, is that these people may well not believe Y. There is maybe an implicit "no one with half a brain reasoning in good faith could fail to believe Y", and I think such propositions are usually false.
Another instance of approximately the same error: "They are not trying to live. They are not trying to save their friends' lives. If they were, they would have picked up my message about high-dose Vitamin D". You are firmly convinced that high-dose vitamin D is plainly very helpful, but they may not be, and the reason need not be stupidity or dishonesty. E.g., Scott Alexander, at least as of December 2021, doesn't think it likely that vitamin D is useful against Covid-19; he may be right or wrong, but to me this is already conclusive evidence that it isn't obvious to any smart person who's paying attention that vitamin D is useful against Covid-19. Which means that "if these people were really trying to save their own and their friends' lives, they would agree with me about vitamin D" is just plain wrong.
I think you've got Benquo wrong on what the ads are saying. He's saying they are reinforcing that (a) you have to wear masks, and (b) if you wear masks you're a sheeple. It's like an authoritarian beating a member of the populace for not wearing the right uniform, saying both "You have to wear this uniform because you're scum, and scum should wear this uniform."
Or for a more vivid example, it's like Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer telling the people at the back of the train that they have to be at the back because order is important and everyone should be in their allotted station. "Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe." It's not propaganda, in some sense it's anti-propaganda for being at the back, but she's resting on her power to keep you at the back, and on top of that beating you down with a narrative that you deserve it.
To spell it out, Benquo is pointing out that saying "scummy people have to wear masks" is an obviously bad ad to cause people to wear masks. The response he got was "Hey, this ad sounds to me like it’s saying you have to wear masks, why are you criticizing it?" and the (fairly plausible) story he has for why is that people are pretty used to the pro-mask establishment sneering at those who they can force to wear masks.
Added: You might object to the inference that "Masks are like opinions / Everyone should have one." has the implication that asshole people have to wear masks. At the very least you can see how it's "speaking down". Like, you can do way more positive mask ads that would say "Masks are a simple invention that save lives" or even "Good, kind, warm people wear masks to help protect others". But the one Ben saw is at least snarky and in my mind does independently bring up the "Opinions are like assholes" line, and does feel kinda sneering to me. Just because most people don't notice the sneering tone if you point it out to them doesn't mean it's not there, I think people can get used to not seeing things they're not supposed to be seeing.
I got "masks are like assholes" from the sentence, even before I read the Ben's analysis.
I think it's very likely that the people who made the ads are deliberately alluding to "opinions are like assholes". And very unlikely that their intention is to say "masks are like assholes". I think what they're trying to do is to deliver a little surprise, a little punchline. You see "X are like opinions", some bit of your brain is expecting a rude criticism, and oh! it turns out they're saying something positive about X and something positive about having opinions. So (they hope) the reader gets a pleasant surprise and is a bit more willing to pay attention and a bit more likely to remember.
Whether any of that works is another question. It may be that the subtext that actually comes through is, after all, "masks are like assholes". (That's clearly what came through for Ben, but I suggest that maybe Ben is strongly predisposed to see hostile authoritarianism in certain contexts of which this is one.) It might be an incompetently made ad. But that is not at all the same thing as an ad that is trying to degrade and humiliate, and it is not at all the same thing as an ostensibly pro-mask ad that is really "anti-mask propaganda".
It's not that when the people behind the ad sat down and asked "What are we trying to do?", they twirled their mustaches and said "I know! Let's degrade and humiliate!". It's about what bleeds through about their attitude when they "try to get people to wear masks", which they fail to catch.
For example, if a microwave salesman said "Microwaves are like women. Great in the kitchen!", you don't have to reject the idea that they're trying to sell microwaves to notice what their ad implies about their perspective on women. Maybe it's incompetence that they'd love to fix if anyone informs them about why it might not be the most universally non-offensive line to use, but it still shows something about how they view women.
However, if they use this line at a feminist convention, and they aren't paid on commission... and you don't quickly hear "Oops! Sorry, I fucked up!"... it starts to say something not just about his perspectives on women, but also his ability and/or inclination to take into account the perspectives of his target audience. The more the context makes the offensiveness difficult to miss, the harder it becomes to believe that the person is trying oh so hard to be not offensive so that they can sell microwaves, and the more it starts to seem like provoking offense and failing to sell microwaves is something they're at least indifferent to, if not actively enjoying.
So when someone says "Masks are like opinions" and reminds you that opinions are like assholes (and stinky assholes at that, which the full saying specifies), right before encouraging you to have an opinion, it's pretty hard to hear that as expressing "I'd love to hear your opinion!"? Do you really think that's the best way they can think to convey their heart-felt attitude of "Let's all expose our opinions to each other so that we can share their contents and take them in!"? Or do you notice that they went out of their way to point at "No one wants that shit, so keep it hidden behind multiple layers", and then didn't disclaim that interpretation, and infer that maybe the fact that this slipped past their filters signals that "We're not interested in your dissent" isn't actually something they're trying super hard to avoid signalling?
Keep in mind, this isn't some "orthogonal" failure mode that makes for a small deviation from an otherwise good ad -- the way "simple oversight" predicts. The people who aren't wearing masks have actively formed an opinion on the topic which contradicts the idea of wearing masks. The anti-mask sentiment is *explicitly* about giving the finger to an authority who they see as trying to condescend to them while sneering at them, and the ad that is "trying" to combat this literally associates their opinions with shit -- while portraying itself as supportive, no less. It is quite literally the exact wrong signal to send if you want to get people to wear masks, so as far as "simple oversights" go, it'd have to be an amazing one. However, it is dead nuts center of what "alignment failure of the type pointed at by anti-maskers" predicts.
"Masks = assholes" is just the wrong explanation for the valid observation that there's an "Eat shit" vibe coming through.
After hitting "submit" I realized that "alignment failure" is upstream of this divergence of analyses.
By "alignment failure", I mean "the thing they are optimizing for isn't aligned with the thing they claim to be optimizing for". It's a bit "agnostic" on the cause of this, because the cause isn't so clearly separable into "evil vs incompetent". Alignment failure happens by default, and it takes active work to avoid.
Goodharting is an example. Maybe you think "Well, COVID kills people, so we want people to not get COVID, so... let's fine people for positive COVID tests!". Okay, sure, that might work if you have mandatory testing. If you have voluntary testing though, that just incentivizes people to not get tested, which will probably make things worse. At this point, someone could complain that you're aiming to make COVID *look* like it's not a problem, not actually aiming to solve the problem. They will be right in that this is the direction your interventions are pointing, *even if you didn't mean to and don't like it*. In order to actually help keep people healthy and COVID free, you have to keep your eyes on the prize and adjust your aim point as necessary. In order to aim at aiming to keep people healthy and COVID free, you have to keep your eyes on the prize of alignment, and act to correct things when you see that your method of aiming is no longer keeping convergence.
When it comes to things like pro-mask advertisements, it's oversimplifying to say "It's an honest mistake" and it's *also* oversimplifying to say "They WANT to exercise power, not save lives" (hopefully). The question is where, *exactly* the alignment between stated goals and effects break. And the way to tell is to try different interventions and see what happens.
What happens if you say "All I got from your ad was 'eat shit'! Go to hell you evil condescending jerk!"? Do they look genuinely surprised and say "Shoot, I'm so sorry. I definitely care about your opinion and I have no idea how I came off that way. Can you please explain so that I can see where I went wrong and make it more clear that my respect for your opinion and autonomy is genuine?"?
Do they think "Hm. This person seems to think that I'm condescending to him, and I don't want them to think that, yet I notice that I'm not surprised. Is it true? Do I have to check my inner alignment to the goal of saving lives, and maybe humble myself somewhat?"
What if you state the case more politely? What if you go out of your way to explain it in a way that makes it easy for them to continue to see themselves as good people, while also making it unmistakable that remaining a "good person who cares about saving lives" requires running ads which don't leak contempt? Do they change the ad, mind how they're coming off and how they're feeling more closely, and thank you for helping them out? Or do they try making up nonsense to justify things before finally admitting "Okay, I don't actually care about people I just like being a jerk"?
My own answer is that the contempt is likely real. It's likely something they aren't very aware of, but that they likely would be if they were motivated to find these things. It's likely that they are not so virtuous and committed to alignment to their stated goals of being a good person that you can rudely shove this in their face and have them fix their mistakes. If you play the part of someone being stomped on, and cast them as a stomper, they will play into the role you've cast them in while dismissing the idea that they're doing it. How evil!
However, it's also overwhelmingly likely that if you sit down with them and see them for where they're at, and explain things in a way that makes it feel okay to be who they are and shows them *how* they can be more of who they want to see themselves as being, they'll choose to better align themselves and be grateful for the help. If you play the part of someone who recognizes their good intent and who recognizes that there are causal reasons which are beyond them for all of their failures, and cast them in the role of someone who is virtuous enough to choose good... they'll probably still choose to play the part you cast them in.
That's why it's not "Simple mistake, nothing to see here" and also not "They're doing it on purpose, those irredeemable bastards!". It's kinda "accidentally on purpose". You can't just point at what they did on purpose and expect them to change because they did in fact "do it on purpose" (in a sense). You *can*, however, point out the accident of how they allowed their purpose to become misaligned (if you know how to do so), and expect that to work.
Aligning ourselves (and others) with good takes active work, and active re-aiming, both of object level goals and meta-goals of what we're aiming for. Framing things as either "innocent mistakes" or "purposeful actions of coherent agents" misses the important opportunity to realign and teach alignment
Some optimizer computed by a human brain is doing it on purpose. I agree that it seems desirable to be able to coherently and nonvacuously say that this is generally not something the person wants. I tried to lay out a principled model that distinguishes between perverse and humane optimization in Civil Law and Political Drama.
So your suggestion of what's going on introduces an important divergence from what Ben and Ben have been saying (unless I missed it, in which case my apologies to them). You're suggesting that the ad is hostile (as Ben also proposes) but that the hostility is towards non-mask-wearers and that what it's suggesting is asshole-like is their anti-masking opinions.
This is much more plausible psychologically than what (if I understand right) Ben was proposing. Benquo described the ad as "anti-mask propaganda" and as "trying to degrade and humiliate mask-wearers". Ben Pace suggests that the people making the ad want to degrade "the people their coalition is forcing to wear masks". And I don't think any of that makes psychological sense. But, yes, it's possible that the people making please-mask ads are (consciously or not) hostile towards people who don't want to wear masks.
I think this hypothesis is a plausible alternative to mine where they're not trying to be hostile but intend to point up a contrast between what they say and the old joke about assholes. But it isn't compatible with Ben's characterization of his complaint about the ads as "complaining about anti-mask propaganda": if you're right then the ads are very much not anti-mask propaganda.
Right, it sounds like you mostly get what I'm saying.
I'd quibble that "the people their coalition is forcing to wear masks" are the anti-maskers (since pro-maskers are being nice and obedient, and therefore aren't being "forced"). It's pretty easy to slip into contempt for people not respecting your well-deserved authoritah, so that even when they start doing it you think "About fucking time!" and judge them for not doing it earlier or more enthusiastically, instead of showing gratitude for the fact that they're moving in the right direction. I know I've been guilty of it in the past.
I don't mean to imply that the people behind the ads are to be seen as shitty people, or in this light alone, and I think in the course of describing this perspective which I viewed as needing to be conveyed I may have failed to make that clear. I do actually agree with your take on what they see themselves as doing, and that it's not entirely illegitimate.
I responded to my own comment trying to lay out better what I meant exactly by "alignment failure" and how "they're not (meta) trying to be hostile" and "they're trying to humiliate and degrade" aren't actually mutually exclusive.
For what it's worth, I didn't take you to be asserting that the people behind the ads are shitty people (either unconditionally or conditional on your conjecture about their motives being correct).
Thanks for the feedback. To be clear, I didn't mean that I inferred that you took it that way, just that after I finished writing I realized I was doing the "pretty critical of people for doing very normal things" thing, and that it often comes off that way if I'm not careful to credibly disclaim that interpretation.
This is a helpful datapoint for me. I've never heard the phrase that is apparently being riffed on.
The mask ads are produced by the MTA as part of a campaign whose overt (and, I think, real) goal is to get people to wear masks.
Therefore, they are not in fact anti-mask propaganda.
Ben may of course argue, perhaps correctly, that the attitude revealed by the ads is authoritarian and unpleasant and that for some people this makes the ads have an anti-mask effect. But that doesn't mean the ads are "trying to degrade and humiliate mask-wearers"; maybe they have that effect but for that to be their intention the relevant people at the MTA would have to be moustache-twirling villains plotting "so, we will break their spirits and then they will be easier to control, bwahahahaha", which is just not plausible.
(Alternatively, it's possible that the people at the MTA wanted pro-mask ads, and they engaged an advertising agency that's full of mask-haters who decided to subvert the message they were asked to promote by making superficially pro-mask but more subtly anti-mask advertisements. I do not find this plausible either; I think advertising agencies are too attached to making money to risk pissing off a major customer by doing that.)
If Ben had been complaining that the ads will put a lot of people off and therefore are bad ads and been met with incomprehension -- which, to be clear, I think he quite likely would have been -- then he'd be right to suggest that something bad is going on in the heads of the people failing to understand him. But I think it'd be something much simpler and less exciting than "regarding the dramatic authoritarianism of making people do things they don't want to as the principal benefit of masks". (Namely, that most people are pretty stupid and have trouble understanding any position on a thing X more complicated than "yay X" and "boo X", and are liable to round everything to one of those or the other.)
In any case, again, that isn't what Ben said. He said: "Seems like they're now trying to degrade and humiliate mask-wearers". Which is obviously wrong, and that rounding-things-off heuristic is particularly likely to happen when faced with someone who seems to be saying something stupid. In this case, though, I don't think even that is what happened. I think the one person on whose response he seems to be basing this paranoid theory about what 'the "pro-mask position"' is really about, was making a perfectly valid point. Ben says, or appears to be saying: look at these ads, they say you should wear a mask and be silent, obviously this is an attempt to degrade and humiliate mask-wearers. She says: no, the "be silent" bit has a simpler and less sinister explanation: there's an actual public-health benefit. All she's guilty of here is not picking up on the other things Ben sees as evidence of an attempt to degrade and humiliate.
Again: all this seems like a clear instance of the "explicit X & implicit Y yield Z, therefore those who say X believe Z". Y is "my interpretation of the subtext of these ads is correct". Even if Ben is right about the subtext -- if e.g. the MTA really is full of moustache-twirling villains, or their ad agency of anti-MTA anti-mask-requirement subversives -- I claim it is perfectly possible for a reasonable person to fail to appreciate this, and that this is a much more likely explanation for their not grasping Ben's point than that they're part of the Great Authoritarian-Sadomasochistic Collective Conspiracy that Ben is trying to portray.
I don't think it's necessary to believe that "the MTA really is full of moustache-twirling villains" in order to believe that sometimes they're mean to people on purpose. This is a normal thing that normal people do and doesn't require someone to be totally committed at all times to evil. The interesting problem is not that someone was mean, but that the factional imperative to be pro-mask and anti-anti-mask effectively functions to provides cover for this, so that as part of their display of factional loyalty people refuse to recognize that someone did something mean.
Sure, people can be deliberately mean without being moustache-twirling villains. But the particular kind of deliberate meanness that you seem to be hypothesizing here seems pretty moustache-twirly.
Normally when people are deliberately mean to others without being moustache-twirling villains it's (1) because they particularly dislike those other people or (2) because there is some concrete benefit to them from being mean.
In the present case, you're suggesting that the MTA put out advertisements that intentionally had subtexts like "hey you, mask-wearers, eat shit". Is it plausible that the MTA (or their executives, or the people running their ad campaigns) particularly dislike their customers as a whole, or specifically their customers who wear masks in order to reduce the spread of disease on the trains? Not to me. Is there some other concrete benefit the MTA (or etc.) would get from making their customers (as a whole, or etc.) feel bad? Not that I can see.
What's the actual psychological process you envisage here, and why do you find it plausible?
I guess people are mean because it moves them up in the pecking order, or prevents them from moving down, and they think it's safer to be an aggressor than a victim. Since scolding people for maybe not wearing masks is a protected behavior, they can get away with more meanness, with less discernment, than in other contexts. I don't fully understand why this gives people cover for being mean to mask-wearers in the name of pro-mask propaganda, but it seems to be the case. This seems like part of the same phenomenon: https://reductress.com/post/how-governor-cuomo-once-a-soft-sidepiece-snapped-into-a-dom-daddy-i-would-let-choke-me/
Even a similar focus on allowing the dominator to constrict your breathing!
My best guess is that being mean to people is considered part of the process by which you take care of them, since it's part of the process of giving orders, as I sketched out in Civil Law and Political Drama, much like frame-controlling them is, as Vaniver pointed out here and here.
I don't think at any point here you've managed to say the thing I think is happening, and you've repeatedly avoided it.
This paragraph is a miss at stating what I would say is going on at the MTA (and also what I think Ben would say):
It's not hard for me to imagine Tilda Swinton's character telling her underlings to create wall-ads for sustaining order, and that they pick things like "Keep Order. Know your place. Be a shoe!" In this world would you also be arguing "Well the overt goal is to keep order, why would you assume it's to degrade and humiliate the people?" I think you'd probably agree that inside their heads they're looking for slogans that are degrading.
Like, my straw model of you right now is saying "Well either people are good, or they're bad, and for someone to do something intentionally mean or unkind, must mean they are BAD PEOPLE, and are also bad in that they have mustaches that they twirl. I observe no moustaches, therefore they did not have this bad intention."
Whereas I'm saying "sometimes groups of advanced monkeys can (amongst them many fine things they do) support false narratives about the group (e.g. companies that think they're doing great then suddenly fail) and they can also systematically protect the powerful whilst otherwise trying to get on with their lives, and they can also systematically be unfair and kind of unethical to an outgroup whilst otherwise doing lots of fine things in the world."
People are mixes of emotions and impulses, and people in groups can be especially blind to their impulses. I don't get why it's psychologically unimaginable to you to think that the people making mask ads kind of want to degrade the people their coalition is forcing to wear masks, and that they picked a nominally pro-mask slogan because it does so, or that their lack of moustaches all but proves that they cannot have this intention.
If "you've repeatedly avoided it" is meant to mean "I think you know what is actually going on and are going out of your way not to say it", then I deny that charge. I may well be wrong about what is going on, but I promise I am not being insincere about it.
My apologies for popular-culture-ignorance, but I don't know what "Tilda Swinton's character" is meant to convey. Am I supposed to imagine a moustache-twirling evil dictator, or a well-meaning dictator, or a faceless bureaucrat, or what? Unfortunately, not knowing what scenario you're asking me to imagine I don't think I can usefully comment on whether I would agree that "inside their heads they're looking for slogans that are degrading"; if they're saying things like "know your place, be a shoe" then it sure sounds as if they are, but that also sounds to me like some combination of moustache-twirling villainy and deliberate subversion; I don't think real people who aren't actively trying to make others' lives worse say things like "know your place, be a shoe". But, again, maybe there's some specific movie I'm supposed to be thinking of here that would make this all clearer?
(I had a look at Swinton's filmography. The most obviously-relevant thing here is that she played the White Witch in a Narnia movie. That's pretty much a moustache-twirling role, modulo the absence of moustaches for obvious biological reasons.)
Your straw model of me is indeed made of straw. It's not obvious to me why you would ascribe the particular stupidities to me that you ascribe to straw-me, so I'm not sure how to respond to them. People don't divided neatly into Good and Bad, obviously, and my point is exactly that what's being hypothesized here seems to me like the sort that fictional Bad characters do and real people with real motives generally don't. Not because real people are Good and never do anything bad; because the particular sort of badness being proposed seems to me fiction-like. "Moustache-twirling" is meant to gesture at that, not to indicate that I think it matters whether they have moustaches. (Duh, obviously. But how else am I supposed to respond to the last couple of sentences in that paragraph?)
I agree, of course, that sometimes people (or groups of people) can be systematically unfair and unethical to an outgroup. But I don't see what outgroup you have in mind ("all our passengers"? "all our passengers who wear masks"?) and I don't see what specifically you think would lead to the specific kind of obnoxiousness-to-that-outgroup that's being proposed here.
It's not that I think it's impossible that "the people making mask ads kind of want to degrade the people their coalition is forcing to wear masks". Of course it's possible. What I don't see is why it's plausible; why that particular hypothesis should be regarded as a good explanation for anything; why it's better than, say, "the people making these mask ads happen to have a sexual fetish that makes them feel like comparing masks to assholes will be pleasantly exciting for their audience" (which I think is extremely unlikely, even though people not infrequently have fetishes, and seems to me roughly on a par with your proposal in terms of plausibility) or "the people making these mask ads are specifically intending a contrast with the old joke about assholes and intend that 'everyonie should have one' will be a pleasant surprise for their audience" (which I think is actually probably correct) or "the people making these mask ads just somehow never thought of the old joke about assholes at all" (which seems unlikely even though people often miss things that you'd think obvious, but no more unlikely than your proposal).
Like, no, what's being hypothesized here is just that the people at the organization are a part of a broader semi-authoritarian attempt to control a population, and that insofar as that is happening, they're playing their role, which is to kind of not notice whilst also doing a reasonably good job at their part. This is pretty normal.
The truth is I'm not that confident of this interpretation of this particular ad, I could definitely learn evidence that would change my mind, it's not that hard to get counter-evidence for such stories. But I feel like you haven't once entertained this hypothesis and argued against it, you've just said "I don't see it", this is "obviously wrong", and "the particular kind of deliberate meanness that you seem to be hypothesizing here seems pretty moustache-twirly". The story we're talking about seems to be a super common one to me throughout societies, and I guess I feel like you haven't made an argument against it happening here other than one based on your own disbelief.
You seem most hung up on the phrase "anti-mask propaganda", like when you say "The mask ads are produced by the MTA as part of a campaign whose overt (and, I think, real) goal is to get people to wear masks... Therefore, they are not in fact anti-mask propaganda".
Why are the ads anti-mask propaganda? Because both ads straightforwardly make me less likely to wear a mask in a public setting or when asked to by someone else. The ad "Masks speak louder than words" suggests to me "This is a signal about what team you are on" and I detest people forcing tribal signals on me. This ad makes me care more about signaling to others that I do not care very much about mask-wearing because otherwise I feel I am being co-opted to signal in a political game. As an ad, it decreases my willingness to wear a mask. And I further think that the cognitive processes that led to these slogans being picked were picking it for tribal reasons and were happy to pick slogans that marginally reduced people's chance of wearing masks in order to stomp on people more in a plausibly-deniable way.
It seems fairly plausible (i.e. somewhere in 10%-70%) that not one person focused their entire consciousnesses on creating anti-mask propaganda like the moustache-twirling villains you mentioned, but it seems to me quite likely that whatever sub-process ran in their brain essentially searched for an ad that gets away as looking like pro-mask propaganda while in fact just stomping on people, in a way that is functionally anti-mask propaganda.
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No, I just felt like you kept talking around it, I didn't mean you seemed obviously insincere.
Alas! In my first comment upthread I referenced her character in the movie Snowpiercer and linked to a video of her giving a key tone-setting speech in the film.
An argument could look like, for example: "Here is a nearby institution that has clear markers of being pretty resistant to this sort of authoritarian stuff, which is reason to expect the MTA is too, so your story here doesn't match my picture of the world."
So, first of all, my apologies for missing where you said what Tilda Swinton character you had in mind. I remark that said character almost-literally is a moustache-twirling villain: in the scene you link to, we watch her smiling smugly while a man is being tortured for stepping out of his Ordained Place and going on about how she naturally belongs on top and they naturally belong trodden underfoot. All of which is consonant with (although, of course, not proof of the rightness of) my sense that the sort of thing being described here is more characteristic of Movie Bad Guys than of anything common in the real world.
I think part of what is going on here is that to me it looks like you and other-Ben are doing what Eliezer dubbed "privileging the hypothesis". To be clear, I am sure that it seems entirely otherwise to both of you, and what is actually going here is that we have different underlying models of the world that make different hypotheses seem particularly plausible: to me, your-and-Benquo's model looks paranoid; to you, my model looks naïve.
It's true that I haven't given concrete evidence against the Ben-squared interpretation; but it's also true that neither of you has given evidence for it, so far as I can see. It's not really the sort of thing for which concrete evidence is easy to come by. You say "it's not that hard to get counter-evidence for such stories", but I don't know on what basis you say so. You give an example in a footnote of what counter-evidence might look like, but I don't really know what "clear markers of being pretty resistant to this sort of authoritarian stuff" would look like if present, and it seems like there's an underlying assumption here that institutions should be assumed malevolently authoritarian unless they have "clear markers of being pretty resistant", which is part of what I am disputing. I genuinely cannot think of anything I could do that would -- even conditional on my being absolutely correct about what's going on here -- take less than say two hours of work and give more than say a 25% chance of providing concrete evidence that my interpretation is better than yours.
You quote me as saying "I don't see it" and "obviously wrong" and "seems pretty moustache-twirly". In contrast, you are much more focused on concrete evidence, saying that your interpretation of things "is pretty normal", "seems to be super common", that "I further think that" [reiteration of the theory], and "it seems to me quite likely that" [reiteration of the theory]". Benquo, in the OP, mostly just states his interpretation as if it were an obvious matter of fact: "the obvious transitive implication", "the thinly-veiled message is", "its explicit content is", "anti-mask propaganda", etc.
 What you say is "pretty normal" is something weaker than what you and Benquo are claiming in the present case, something like "there is an ongoing semi-authoritarian attempt to control a population, and the people involved are kinda-unconsciously-deliberately not noticing this while doing their part to help it".
 No, its explicit content isn't, any more than saying "actions speak louder than words" and urging someone to act is a form of silencing.
It seems to me as if you and Benquo are making assertions about these people's motives on the basis of no concrete evidence, and then complaining of my unreasonableness when I say that those assertions seem implausible to me on the basis of no concrete evidence. Shouldn't we have a consistent standard here?
I think it's a dirty rhetorical move to take "Ben said X and drew important conclusions from it, and you keep pointing out that the facts are not consistent with X" and express it as "you seem hung up on X". Be that as it may, I think it is an abuse of language to call something "anti-mask propaganda" when it is intended as pro-mask propaganda merely because it has the effect of making some people less inclined to wear masks.
I remark that your paragraph beginning "It seems fairly plausible" is, stated a little differently, saying that you estimate a 30-90% chance that someone involved in the making of those ads did in fact "focus their entire consciousness on creating anti-mask propaganda like a moustache-twirling villain". Really?
(One other remark: the contempt you hypothesize at the MTA for the people they're aiming their ads at seems no greater than the contempt you and Benquo seem to feel for the people you're criticizing. Maybe I should be taking this as evidence for a general "there's a lot of contempt around" hypothesis, but in any case it feels like it's worth drawing some attention to because something seems off to me about saying what amounts to "look how contemptible these people are, for treating other people as contemptible".)
I didn't mean to claim that everyone would agree with me if they were trying to live. I meant that the vitamin D result would be interesting, and I'd see some combination of people being persuaded that vitamin D was helpful (and acting accordingly to pass along the info) or people making specific arguments against that proposition.
Instead what I saw among the kinds of people excited about vaccines was basically no intellectual initiative, combined with defensive nonsense like sneering at the idea of comparing costs and benefits as somehow unrelated to "reality," when someone tries to makes sense of things in a decision-relevant way that doesn't seem committed to getting the "right" answer for their faction.
An older cousin I talked with about this more recently openly admitted to me that she'd been anxiously trying to follow orders, that she'd been aware of this, and so when she felt like she was probably missing out on net by being too paranoid about COVID, arranged to get orders from a proper authority (someone who'd worked on the COVID vaccine studies) that it was correct to stop being so scared. The initiative to solve this problem seems like it reflects a desire to live, but it would have been a mistake to take anything she'd said about vaccine efficacy or COVID risk as a literal attempt to inform or part of a process of trying to figure out how to minimize nonpolitical harms from COVID.
On what basis do you think that people who are trying to live would reliably have been exposed substantially to the idea that taking vitamin D might be very good for them? Do you e.g. mean just that they would have heard you promoting it?
My impression is that most people will not, merely because one person in their social circle is strongly convinced of something, necessarily pay much attention to it. This is probably a good thing, at least for people with large social circles, because one only has so much attention to give and many people are strongly convinced of many things, and quite often they are wrong. I don't think this means that most people don't really care whether they or their loved ones live or die.
I agree that many people are intellectually incurious and un-agent-y. But it seems like you leap from that to something much more specific which doesn't at all follow from it, namely that people on the whole, or some not-very-clearly-specified set of people, are "trying to give a costly signal of loyalty by hurting themselves and others". I'm sure some people are. (Some people are X, for pretty much any X.) But nothing like that follows from the fact that they didn't pay much attention to your advocacy for vitamin D as an anti-Covid-19 measure. Or others' advocacy, or whatever it is that you think they should have been paying attention to.
I'd expect trying-to-live behavior to be trying to cooperate with other instances of itself, sharing and investigating what seems like relevant info. In the ideal case info being shared would be strong evidence of its relevance and importance, and info not being shared would be evidence of its unimportance.
"Intellectually incurious and un-agent-y" about info strongly relevant to mortality risk isn't consistent with a rational-agent model of someone trying to live, and I don't see what "trying to" could mean without at least implicit reference to a rational-agent model.
I don't conclude that people are trying to hurt themselves to signal loyalty simply from the fact that they don't seem to be trying very hard to survive. I conclude that from the relative popularity of injunctions to impose or endure harms for the collective good, vs info that doesn't involve sacrifice. Many famous religious and philosophical writers have praised sacrifice for its own sake, which is strong evidence that some strong coordination mechanism is promoting such messages. Given that, it would be surprising - and require an explanation - if I didn't know people who participated in that coordination mechanism.
In my idiolect, saying someone is "trying to X" means that, within the limits of their general agentiness and willpower and whatnot, they exert some effort in the direction of X versus not-X. Just how much depends on context.
If you take one of those people you describe as not trying to live, point a gun at them, and say "your money or your life", they will probably give you their money. If you take one of those people you say are not trying to have their friends live and tell them credibly that their friend has a deadly but reliably curable disease, they will probably urge their friend to seek treatment.I say this means they are trying to live and trying to have their friends live, and it's perfectly consistent with failing to take some measures that you would take if trying to live, if those measures are for whatever reason harder for them to take or harder for them to recognize as needing to be taken. (Or, for that matter, harder for you to recognize as not needing to be taken.)
Once again, in the matter of vitamin D, consider Scott Alexander. He may be right about vitamin D or he may be wrong, but he reckons it's not particularly helpful against Covid-19. That indicates that it is possible for a very smart person, in contact with many of the same people as you, thinking about the matter pretty hard, to come to the conclusion that vitamin D is not very helpful against Covid-19. And I claim that means that others equipped with merely average-human levels of curiosity and brainpower and energy for investigating such things are not doing anything inexcusable, or incompatible with truly wanting to live, if the ambient state of the evidence on that matter doesn't inspire them to look closely.
I agree that it's clear that for many people "you must make costly sacrifices because X" is a message that resonates, and that things are apt to feel more virtuous when they involve costly sacrifices. I think there is a morally, logically and psychologically important difference between "many people feel that making costly sacrifices is virtuous" and "many people try to hurt themselves and others to signal loyalty". (I suspect that this is another of those things that comes down to a general worldview difference: e.g., perhaps you regard it as obvious that anything that presents itself as virtue is best understood as "signalling loyalty", whereas I don't.)
It isn't obvious to me that the widespread promotion of sacrifice for its own sake in religion and the like is good evidence of some strong coordination mechanism, at least not if I'm understanding correctly what sort of things you class as coordination mechanisms. For instance, it seems possible to me that this is just a quirk of human brains, doubtless with some fascinating evolutionary origin. (Maybe related to the fact that, to whatever extent moral behaviour functions as a signal of particular character traits, it's a more reliable signal when the behaviour is personally costly.) I guess you might consider "we all have much the same evolutionary history" as a coordination mechanism, but I wouldn't.
I remark that what you originally said wasn't that you know some people who try to hurt themselves and others to signal loyalty, but that what Fauci says publicly is optimized for reception by people who try to hurt themselves and others to signal loyalty.
Psychologizing Benquo a bit, I think there's a further piece. I think that, according to him, in a very large number of cases, the logical link from X to Z is so obvious that anyone that was seriously attempting to find the truth at all, would make that inference. Thus, if a person fails to see a point this basic, the most likely conclusion is that they're arguing in bad faith, instead of trying to seek truth.
(See for instance Micheal Vasser, who is not Benquo, but who does broadly agree, I think, explicitly making a similar point about blindspots here. [My analysis of that thread here.])
That "further piece" is what I was pointing at with "no one with half a brain reasoning in good faith could fail to believe Y". (At least, it's almost that. Your version doesn't mention Y, and of course it may well be in some of these cases that the people thinking in this way haven't noticed that Y is a thing at all because it seems so obvious to them.)
Here's a kind of ignorant and offensive question that I nonetheless have re this bit:
How can I work with them in this fight? I don't tend to think of them as very intelligent groups that can help me with any specific plans.
But this is likely my own ignorance given that I know basically no people in this population. (Which is something I could straightforwardly fix if I chose to.)
The first answer that comes to my mind is "If I were running for some election, I could figure out a way to communicate with these groups in order to coordinate their support and help them against their oppressors". But other than straightforwardly having them vote people into power who want to fight against the broadly authoritarian political powers in many countries, I'd find it helpful to hear a suggestion or two of other things that I might do.
Hard to predict. In my case helping organize an early distribution of masks to prisons gave me cred with a formidable formerly-incarcerated mental health care activist who's now running for NY state assembly with a credible shot of winning, and who's already helping draft state-level legislation on multiple topics of interest to me. Not how I'd pictured that working out, and not every such venture bears fruit, but I tried fewer than 10 things like that before one did.
Currently hoping to help an African immigrant I know raise funds for a cheap-remittances-and-banking business, it's focused on Africa rather than South America so there's plenty of room for the latter.
More generally the way to find such opportunities is cognitively loaded - first we need to be able to include them explicitly in our perceptions and true decision calculus as politically relevant persons, with interests that bear some relation to ours, who might have something to offer us in trade.
I'm not the OP but I'd say read up on the methods of history's most successful rabble-rousers, and look for data/ethnographies/whatever about the demographics you're targeting so you can get an idea of what they're like. Also read up on the "art of strategy" in general. Then again, I'm not sure there's much in this sphere that you can actually do without A: devoting your entire life to it and B: doing things that both you and society at large would consider objectionable.
My guess is this answer is false and I’d potentially be able to do a lot different if such folks were part of my local community.
It seems to me like these observations are best explained by ad companies coming up with all kinds of ideas, many of which don't make literal sense but evoke some associations, and some of which can be read into. I'm not convinced that you're not projecting a signal that doesn't exist onto some noise.
What are you positing instead? That the designers who created these ads had had a conscious desire to send a straussian / esoteric subtext? That they were consciously making an add, but unconsciously expressing their true attitudes about masks? That the designers and the decision makers who picked the designs are all motivated to show their conformity by signaling that they think that people who conform should be denigrated?
I don't get it.
I think you're saying something like...
There are a bunch of people who are operating on an (conscious? unconscious?) model that what actually matters is not improving public health, but instead getting other people (and themselves?) to take on costs to show their deference. So they craft narratives and literally create ads that try to encourage people to take on costs in deference to the authorities. But believing that narrative means that you can't be expected to shift when the narrative shifts, so they have to show that they know (consciously? unconsciously?) that they're operating on a model whereby "more costs are better" by sending esoteric signals to each other that hint at that?
Is that right at all?
I don't think the implication is that wearing a mask is a costly signal. I naturally read it as "stop culture warring about covid, and wear a mask, because that actually helps a lot more." (Which notably, I think is true!)
But overall, I think these ads are mostly random. They're not making arguments, or even communicating subtext, they're intended to be catchy slogans.
This, however, sounds right to me. People are feel threatened by cost benefit analysis, because it opens the door to the anti-vax position, which is shunned in many circles.
It feels a little like if someone was like "let's all be reasonable here, I want to discuss the pros and cons of going back to a system in which only men can vote." Some people will be predictably outraged by that; it's a proposal well outside the overton window, to be rejected out of hand as abhorrent, not "discussed rationally". The act of entertaining it moves this policy from "known to be 'unthinkable'" to "something that is at least worth considering." Even having the discussion is loosing the political battle.
Furthermore, if a Bob claims that he's not personally in favor of restricting the vote to men, he just wants to consider that option, most people would rightly suspect that Bob is feigning more indifference than he in fact has as a rhetorical trick: probably he's bringing this up at all because he does think that women shouldn't vote.
The same applies in this case. Even considering the question pushes the overton window, and onlookers guess that the overton window pushing is you actual objective.
Plus in the vaccination case, people have math trauma, and anticipate being bamboozled by someone citing numbers and studies, that they can't follow.
So they feel threatened, and produce a somewhat nonsensical "shutting you down" response.
This inference, that you're being implicitly threatened with physical violence, and threatened in such a way that the best response is to regard yourself in a military conflict, seems wildly unjustified. Do you think that the arguments in this post should be sufficiently compelling for your reader to agree with you on this point? Or are there additional pieces of the argument?
A more charitable interpretation of the same evidence would be that as a public health professional Dr Fauci has a lot of experience with the difficulties of communicating complex and messages and the political tradeoffs that are necessary for effective action. And has judged based on that experience what is most effective to say. Do you have data he doesn't? Or a reason to think his experience in his speciality is inapplicable?
This just seems like a much vaguer way to say the same thing I did. Is there a specific claim I made that you disagree with?
As far as I can tell, the function of this kind of vagueness is to avoid weakening the official narrative. Necessarily this also involves being unhelpful to anyone trying to make sense of state-published data, Fauci's public statements, and other official and unofficial propaganda. If we have an implied disagreement, it's about whether one ought to participate in a coverup to support the dominant regime, or try to inform people about how the system works.
I think the naive cynic inside of me is somewhat positively surprised by this. It's a marginally better state of affairs to have a prominent figure operating on simulacra level 2 rather than solely levels 3/4.
I retract the above comment.
This is more of a general question, but I have to ask - where do all the nice things come from? Why is everything so nice? Every take you have on every conceivable institution you've written about is unrepentantly cynical, to a point where I'm not sure how people manage to do things like make tacos and air conditioning units in your model of the economy. Someone managed to make Portal 2 and I enjoyed that video game. How did they do it?
I'm gonna treat this as a serious question, since most of the value of engagement comes from that scenario, and ignore the vibe of "why are you so negative?".
The gains from reason, discourse, and trade are so huge that they can produce positive returns for many people even in the presence of adversarial action. If you don't see this, some suggested reading at a few levels:
Human animals want to live, it takes a lot of optimization to pervert that even imperfectly, and that perversion reduces the capacities of the thing being perverted, which limits the damage.
So there's a lot of perverse activity - which really is bad - but the good news is that if we were previously misattributing production to perverse activity, that means that the value per unit of nonperverse activity is much higher than we thought. Plus there are lots of people who are oppressed, and they have to be relatively nonperverse to survive since they don't get taken care of for being bad.
This is actually very inspiring. Makes me kind of want to become a video game developer or logistician instead of just another startup founder.