Politics is hard mode

byRob Bensinger5y21st Jul 2014107 comments


Summary: I don't think 'politics is the mind-killer' works well rthetorically. I suggest 'politics is hard mode' instead.


Some people in and catawampus to the LessWrong community have objected to "politics is the mind-killer" as a framing (/ slogan / taunt). Miri Mogilevsky explained on Facebook:

My usual first objection is that it seems odd to single politics out as a “mind-killer” when there’s plenty of evidence that tribalism happens everywhere. Recently, there has been a whole kerfuffle within the field of psychology about replication of studies. Of course, some key studies have failed to replicate, leading to accusations of “bullying” and “witch-hunts” and what have you. Some of the people involved have since walked their language back, but it was still a rather concerning demonstration of mind-killing in action. People took “sides,” people became upset at people based on their “sides” rather than their actual opinions or behavior, and so on.

Unless this article refers specifically to electoral politics and Democrats and Republicans and things (not clear from the wording), “politics” is such a frightfully broad category of human experience that writing it off entirely as a mind-killer that cannot be discussed or else all rationality flies out the window effectively prohibits a large number of important issues from being discussed, by the very people who can, in theory, be counted upon to discuss them better than most. Is it “politics” for me to talk about my experience as a woman in gatherings that are predominantly composed of men? Many would say it is. But I’m sure that these groups of men stand to gain from hearing about my experiences, since some of them are concerned that so few women attend their events.

In this article, Eliezer notes, “Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality — but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.” But that means that we all have to individually, privately apply rationality to politics without consulting anyone who can help us do this well. After all, there is no such thing as a discussant who is “rational”; there is a reason the website is called “Less Wrong” rather than “Not At All Wrong” or “Always 100% Right.” Assuming that we are all trying to be more rational, there is nobody better to discuss politics with than each other.

The rest of my objection to this meme has little to do with this article, which I think raises lots of great points, and more to do with the response that I’ve seen to it — an eye-rolling, condescending dismissal of politics itself and of anyone who cares about it. Of course, I’m totally fine if a given person isn’t interested in politics and doesn’t want to discuss it, but then they should say, “I’m not interested in this and would rather not discuss it,” or “I don’t think I can be rational in this discussion so I’d rather avoid it,” rather than sneeringly reminding me “You know, politics is the mind-killer,” as though I am an errant child. I’m well-aware of the dangers of politics to good thinking. I am also aware of the benefits of good thinking to politics. So I’ve decided to accept the risk and to try to apply good thinking there. [...]

I’m sure there are also people who disagree with the article itself, but I don’t think I know those people personally. And to add a political dimension (heh), it’s relevant that most non-LW people (like me) initially encounter “politics is the mind-killer” being thrown out in comment threads, not through reading the original article. My opinion of the concept improved a lot once I read the article.

In the same thread, Andrew Mahone added, “Using it in that sneering way, Miri, seems just like a faux-rationalist version of ‘Oh, I don’t bother with politics.’ It’s just another way of looking down on any concerns larger than oneself as somehow dirty, only now, you know, rationalist dirty.” To which Miri replied: “Yeah, and what’s weird is that that really doesn’t seem to be Eliezer’s intent, judging by the eponymous article.”

Eliezer replied briefly, to clarify that he wasn't generally thinking of problems that can be directly addressed in local groups (but happen to be politically charged) as "politics":

Hanson’s “Tug the Rope Sideways” principle, combined with the fact that large communities are hard to personally influence, explains a lot in practice about what I find suspicious about someone who claims that conventional national politics are the top priority to discuss. Obviously local community matters are exempt from that critique! I think if I’d substituted ‘national politics as seen on TV’ in a lot of the cases where I said ‘politics’ it would have more precisely conveyed what I was trying to say.

But that doesn't resolve the issue. Even if local politics is more instrumentally tractable, the worry about polarization and factionalization can still apply, and may still make it a poor epistemic training ground.

A subtler problem with banning “political” discussions on a blog or at a meet-up is that it’s hard to do fairly, because our snap judgments about what counts as “political” may themselves be affected by partisan divides. In many cases the status quo is thought of as apolitical, even though objections to the status quo are ‘political.’ (Shades of Pretending to be Wise.)

Because politics gets personal fast, it’s hard to talk about it successfully. But if you’re trying to build a community, build friendships, or build a movement, you can’t outlaw everything ‘personal.’

And selectively outlawing personal stuff gets even messier. Last year, daenerys shared anonymized stories from women, including several that discussed past experiences where the writer had been attacked or made to feel unsafe. If those discussions are made off-limits because they relate to gender and are therefore ‘political,’ some folks may take away the message that they aren’t allowed to talk about, e.g., some harmful or alienating norm they see at meet-ups. I haven’t seen enough discussions of this failure mode to feel super confident people know how to avoid it.

Since this is one of the LessWrong memes that’s most likely to pop up in cross-subcultural dialogues (along with the even more ripe-for-misinterpretation “policy debates should not appear one-sided“…), as a first (very small) step, my action proposal is to obsolete the ‘mind-killer’ framing. A better phrase for getting the same work done would be ‘politics is hard mode’:

1. ‘Politics is hard mode’ emphasizes that ‘mind-killing’ (= epistemic difficulty) is quantitative, not qualitative. Some things might instead fall under Middlingly Hard Mode, or under Nightmare Mode…

2. ‘Hard’ invites the question ‘hard for whom?’, more so than ‘mind-killer’ does. We’re used to the fact that some people and some contexts change what’s ‘hard’, so it’s a little less likely we’ll universally generalize.

3. ‘Mindkill’ connotes contamination, sickness, failure, weakness. In contrast, ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t imply that a thing is low-status or unworthy. As a result, it’s less likely to create the impression (or reality) that LessWrongers or Effective Altruists dismiss out-of-hand the idea of hypothetical-political-intervention-that-isn’t-a-terrible-idea. Maybe some people do want to argue for the thesis that politics is always useless or icky, but if so it should be done in those terms, explicitly — not snuck in as a connotation.

4. ‘Hard Mode’ can’t readily be perceived as a personal attack. If you accuse someone of being ‘mindkilled’, with no context provided, that smacks of insult — you appear to be calling them stupid, irrational, deluded, or the like. If you tell someone they’re playing on ‘Hard Mode,’ that’s very nearly a compliment, which makes your advice that they change behaviors a lot likelier to go over well.

5. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t risk bringing to mind (e.g., gendered) stereotypes about communities of political activists being dumb, irrational, or overemotional.

6. ‘Hard Mode’ encourages a growth mindset. Maybe some topics are too hard to ever be discussed. Even so, ranking topics by difficulty encourages an approach where you try to do better, rather than merely withdrawing. It may be wise to eschew politics, but we should not fear it. (Fear is the mind-killer.)

7. Edit: One of the larger engines of conflict is that people are so much worse at noticing their own faults and biases than noticing others'. People will be relatively quick to dismiss others as 'mindkilled,' while frequently flinching away from or just-not-thinking 'maybe I'm a bit mindkilled about this.' Framing the problem as a challenge rather than as a failing might make it easier to be reflective and even-handed.

This is not an attempt to get more people to talk about politics. I think this is a better framing whether or not you trust others (or yourself) to have productive political conversations.

When I playtested this post, Ciphergoth raised the worry that 'hard mode' isn't scary-sounding enough. As dire warnings go, it's light-hearted—exciting, even. To which I say: good. Counter-intuitive fears should usually be argued into people (e.g., via Eliezer's politics sequence), not connotation-ninja'd or chanted at them. The cognitive content is more clearly conveyed by 'hard mode,' and if some group (people who love politics) stands to gain the most from internalizing this message, the message shouldn't cast that very group (people who love politics) in an obviously unflattering light. LW seems fairly memetically stable, so the main issue is what would make this meme infect friends and acquaintances who haven't read the sequences. (Or Dune.)

If you just want a scary personal mantra to remind yourself of the risks, I propose 'politics is SPIDERS'. Though 'politics is the mind-killer' is fine there too.

If you and your co-conversationalists haven’t yet built up a lot of trust and rapport, or if tempers are already flaring, conveying the message ‘I’m too rational to discuss politics’ or ‘You’re too irrational to discuss politics’ can make things worse. In that context, ‘politics is the mind-killer’ is the mind-killer. At least, it’s a needlessly mind-killing way of warning people about epistemic hazards.

‘Hard Mode’ lets you speak as the Humble Aspirant rather than the Aloof Superior. Strive to convey: ‘I’m worried I’m too low-level to participate in this discussion; could you have it somewhere else?’ Or: ‘Could we talk about something closer to Easy Mode, so we can level up together?’ More generally: If you’re worried that what you talk about will impact group epistemology, you should be even more worried about how you talk about it.