Followup to Stuck in the middle with Bruce:

Bruce is a description of masochistic personality disorder.  Bruce's dysfunctional behavior may or may not be related to sexual masochism [safe for work], which is demonized by most people in America.  Yet there are ordinary, socially-accepted behaviors that seem partly masochistic to me:

  • Eating spicy food
  • Listening to the music of Anton Webern or Alban Berg (not trying to be funny; this is very serious)
  • Listening to music turned up so loud that it hurts
  • Fiction
  • Movies, especially horror movies
  • Roller coasters
  • Saunas
  • Enjoying exercise
  • Being Bruce

Question 1: Can you list more?

Question 2: Doubtless some of the behaviors I listed have completely different explanations, some of which might not involve masochism at all.  Which do you think involve enjoying pain?  Can you cluster them by causal mechanism?

Question 3: When we find ourselves acting masochistically, should we try to "correct" it?  Or is it part of a healthy human's nature?  If so, what's the evolutionary-psych explanation?  (I was surprised not to find any evo-psych explanations for masochism on the web; or even any general theory of masochism that tried to unite two different behaviors.  All I found were the ideas that sexual masochism is caused by bad childhood models of love, and that masochistic personality is caused by other, unspecified bad experiences.  No suggestion that masochism is part of our normal pleasure mechanism.)

Some hypotheses:

  1. Evolution implemented "need to explore" (in the "exploration/exploitation" sense) as pleasure in new experiences, and adaptation to any particular often-repeated stimulus.  This could result in seeking ever-higher levels of stimulation, even above the pain threshold.  (This could affect a culture as well as an organism, giving the progression Vivaldi -> Bach -> Mozart -> Beethoven -> Wagner -> Stravinsky -> Berg -> screw it, let's invent rock and roll and start over.  My original belief was that this progression was caused by people trying to signal sophistication, rather than by honest enjoyment of music.  But maybe some people <DELETION of "jaded"> honestly enjoy Berg.)
  2. We have a "pain thermostat" to get us to explore / prevent us from being too cowardly, and modern life leaves us below our set point.  (Is masochism more prevalent now than in the bad old days?)
    1. An objection to this is that sometimes, when people are in emotional pain, they work through it by throwing themselves into further emotional pain (e.g., by listening to Pink Floyd).
      1. An objection to this objection is that primal scream therapy seems not actually to work except in the short term.
  3. Pain triggers endorphins in order to help us fight or flee, and it feels good.
  4. We enjoy fighting and athletic competition, and pain is associated with these things we enjoy.

My guess is that, if it's a side-effect (e.g., 3) or a non-causal association (4), it's okay to eliminate masochism.  Otherwise, that could be risky.

These all lead up to Question 4, which is a fun-theory question:  Would purging ourselves of masochism make life less fun?

ADDED: Question 5: Can we train ourselves not to be Bruce without damaging our enjoyment of these other things?

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Hi. I'm Clarisse Thorn, a BDSM educator and activist. I blog at [ ]. Props to Michael Bishop for directing me to your post.

Wow, where to begin. I'll try not to get too upset, but for me, this was a really bad start to your post:

::::::::::: Many people think of masochism as a sexual perversion :::::::::::

Why did you start right out by referring to BDSM as a "sexual perversion"? Couldn't you have chosen some less judgmental words? Seriously, it would have been so easy. You could have just said "sexual preference". Instead, you chose to use language loaded with stigma.

::::::::::: When we find ourselves acting masochistically, should we try to "correct" it? :::::::::::

Amazingly, people are different and do things for different reasons. I assume you agree. Perhaps this means that if people find themselves acting masochistically, they should take different actions depending on their individual personalities.

I don't have much to say about non-sexual masochism, but I have a lot to say about sexual masochism ....

Many people see BDSM as an inbuilt sexual identity or "orientation". In that case, "corre... (read more)

I very often read things in this community that suggests that sexuality is very much not one of the matters on which they have succeeded in being rational.

For the record, I'm a practicing sadomasochist; I enjoy both sadism and masochism, and have a large range of paraphenalia to that end. I'm having an absolutely fantastic time with it, and though I know tastes differ, from where I'm sitting if you're not a sadomasochist then you're missing out on the great fun we're having.

How can you tell, or what makes you say so? (It's an honest, non-rhetorical question.)
8Paul Crowley
Not sure I can fit that into a comment - I might try and make a top-level post about it. Sorry! In the mean time I'll do what I've done before when asked to say more on a sexuality issue, which is to recommend the blog of Greta Christina.
Please, do.
If it's possible for non-sadomasochists to fail to appreciate the fun sadomasochists have, surely it's also possible for sadomasochists to fail to appreciate the fun some other people have; unless you've somehow ruled out the possibility that you might be doing that, I don't see how you can be justified in assuming that others are missing out. For instance, consider the following hypothesis (which, for the record, I think is extremely unlikely to be right): that what distinguishes sadomasochists isn't the ability to have a kind of fun that non-sadomasochists don't get, but the inability to get so much fun from "ordinary" sex without sadomasochistic accoutrements. If anything like that were true, then there'd be plenty of non-sadomasochists having just as much fun as the sadomasochists; do you know that no such thing is true?

I seem to recall Robin asking whether learning about wine increased your ability to take pleasure in good wine, or just spoiled your enjoyment of cheap wine.

5Paul Crowley
That remark wasn't meant very seriously, sorry. When I say "from where I'm sitting" I mean to communicate the sense anyone who really likes X has, that if you don't really like X like they do then you're just missing out. It isn't true at all of course. The hypothesis doesn't fit the data I have, in case you're curious.
OK; sorry for misreading your tone. (And thanks for the extra data point about that hypothesis.)
1Eliezer Yudkowsky
You say it's extremely unlikely to be right. How do you know?
4Paul Crowley
The "very unlikely" theory is the model by which an awful lot of people interpret the existence of sexual variation. See for example this dictionary definition of the word fetish against which I'm not a fetishist, which would seem like a rather counterintuitive conclusion. Or consider the standard diagnostic manual for mental illness in the United States, the DSM, which AFAICT uses the same model to discuss my "disorder".
I could've sworn there were some fairly recent studies on brain activity in BDSM practitioners, but my Google-Fu is failing me.
No, I say I think it's extremely unlikely to be right, and I wouldn't use the word "know" to describe my epistemic situation about this. (Else I wouldn't have brought it up even as a hypothesis worth considering.)
1Eliezer Yudkowsky
Whether you say "think" or "know" doesn't matter; if your probability estimate is tilted one way, then you must think you have some kind of evidence already in hand which tilts it that way. What is it?
Oh, sorry -- I didn't actually answer your question because I thought its point was not "I doubt that you have evidence to justify that opinion of yours" but "Since you presumably have evidence to justify that opinion of yours, what makes you think ciphergoth doesn't?", and since (1) what it takes to make my point is only that it be some way from certainty, and (2) ciphergoth has said he didn't mean what he said as literally as I took it, it seemed like the question was moot. But, since it turns out that you actually want an answer: 1. What (relatively little) I've read that's written by sadomasochists and that seems pertinent seems to point the other way. (For instance, I'm pretty sure I've read things by sadomasochists that seem to indicate that at least some of them have plenty of fun sometimes having non-sadomasochistic sex.) 2. Notice that for that hypothesis to be right, it's necessary that (at least for sadomasochists) sadomasochistic practices do in fact add something extra that enhances sex. So either (a) just about everyone finds, or would find if they tried it, that S&M makes sex better -- which doesn't appear to me to be likely -- or (b) the hypothesis in it's "what distinguishes sadomasochists is not X but Y" form is wrong, because in fact sadomasochists distinctively have property X too even if they also have Y. 3. There are rather a lot of sadomasochists. So, if the hypothesis is correct, either (a) there are an awful lot of people who lack the ability to enjoy sex "normally" (I hope it's clear that I have no normative intentions here), or (b) almost everyone finds, or would find, that S&M makes sex better, or (c) there's a substantial correlation between lacking the ability to enjoy sex "normally" and finding that S&M makes sex better. All three options seem improbable. 4. Gut feeling. (Which I shouldn't, and don't, trust very much; but I don't mind deferring some of my probability estimation to my gut in cases where the probabilities don't actua
3Eliezer Yudkowsky
Fair enough! I wasn't quite asking for an answer of that length - rather I thought you might be holding ciphergoth to a higher standard of evidence than you were yourself, which is what struck me as unfair. (Especially since you seemed to have the same opinion!) My apologies for calling forth such a long comment. Incidentally your opinion and the given evidence seems to coincide pretty much with my own epistemic state as well.
2Paul Crowley
This is really well thought out, thanks. Comments like this (including part 5) make me optimistic that we are succeeding in creating a more rational community.
Because it's making an interesting point; and because it's true. Many people do think of BDSM as a sexual perversion. I didn't invent this reality; I just live here. And the interesting point is that they might find it acceptable to do something similar in other areas of their life, perhaps just because sex isn't involved. I didn't call it a sexual perversion. I said that "many people think of it as a sexual perversion." My post says that engaging in SM may be a lot like eating spicy food or watching horror movies. That's probably more sympathetic to your view than anything you'll find in mainstream media, or even in psychology journals. If that means that you resent discussion of the idea, this website isn't right for you. We discuss things that make us uncomfortable, because we want to know the answer. (And the more uncomfortable the answer, the more interesting we find it. Perhaps it's our own special style of masochism. :) It's almost impossible by definition for an evol-psych theory to imply that masochism is always maladaptive. Could you post some links to specific pages discussing theories?
:::::::::: Many people do think of BDSM as a sexual perversion. I didn't invent this reality; I just live here. :::::::::: This answer strikes me as a bit facile. Sure, lots of people think of BDSM as a sexual perversion. Lots of people also consider it a sexual preference. You chose to use words that stigmatize BDSM, and you chose not to present words that don't stigmatize BDSM. You could have made the same point without using stigmatizing words. Stating that you have no opinion after the fact is an attempt to dodge responsibility for that. The way we frame these things matters. I wouldn't have such a problem with what you said if you had at least noted the judgment inherent in the terms you used -- but you didn't. For instance, if you really have no negative judgments around BDSM, then you might have said something like: "Many people think of masochism as a sexual perversion, while others see it as a harmless sexual preference." :::::::::: That's probably more sympathetic to your view than anything you'll find in mainstream media, or even in psychology journals. :::::::::: Like those of people, the opinions presented in mainstream media and psychology journals vary. As it happens, I will be speaking at a psychology conference in May that's specifically intended to train psychology professionals in being more sensitive to BDSM-identified patients. (The conference will take place at Chicago's Center on Halsted.) And again, by claiming that you've been more sympathetic to my opinions than "other" forms of media, you're trying to dodge responsibility for the fact that you presented a plainly judgmental viewpoint. :::::::::: If that means that you resent discussion of the idea, this website isn't right for you. We discuss things that make us uncomfortable, because we want to know the answer. :::::::::: Discuss the idea all you want. Just know, while you're "examining", that there are real people who have real masochistic needs whom you may really be stigmatizing
That's an issue to take up with Socrates. We examine stuff. You don't know this site very well. We would discuss those questions if they seemed relevant. An important category of discourse here is "examining what makes X people do Y" when Y runs counter to their other goals, as some of the masochism examples seem to do. Did you even click the "Followup to" link to see what the original context was for this discussion? People intentionally losing, people intentionally seeking "negative" emotional stimuli. Can you see how this might reasonably connect to masochism in particular, and not sexuality in general?
9Paul Crowley
I do know this site very well, and I have to say the way the article refers to masochism got up my nose too. I think if we were going to discuss stuff like why straight people are straight, we'd take care that our audience didn't misunderstand our intent.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky
How would you rephrase it?
8Paul Crowley
Good question. Here's a few thoughts - let me know if these are useful or whether you think I'm barking up the wrong tree. * As you say, the first thing people think of when you say "masochism" is sexual masochism; it's the root of the word and its primary meaning. I'd prefer to keep it that way than to extend it to cover self-defeating behaviour, which falls about as well on my ears as extending "gay" to mean "lame". * "Perversion" is judgemental in every other context and has been used to be judgemental about sexuality for years. A neutral word like "behaviour" or "activity" would serve just as well here. * This is harder to pin down, but I just don't get a feeling from the way you talk about us that you think of us as having a really good time. I promise you, in our own curious way we really are having a lot of fun.
Okay, sorry, I didn't see this before. Hmm. I see your point. What Bruce has is called "masochistic personality disorder", but it could also be called "self-defeating personality disorder." I wanted to convey that many people have a judgmental attitude towards masochism, and yet don't have a judgemental attitude towards the other things on the list. If they truly are related, then that's a very interesting mental disconnect.
5Paul Crowley
Thanks for making the changes you have to the article - they are big improvements from my point of view. It might be good to note in the article that it's been edited following this discussion, otherwise someone reading the comments might wonder what all the fuss is about!
Yeah, seriously ... I only just came back to this, and I'm rather surprised that a community like LessWrong will countenance editing posts without noting the edits.
It's generally frowned upon.
Technical solution for a technical problem: simple diff, well known for years, works like a charm on every wiki. Then such a question would not even arise.
4Paul Crowley
It's not that surprising - sex is always treated as an exception
So are people who eat food so spicy that many countries would classify it as a chemical weapon (please note that this is not an exaggeration for humorous effect). The pleasure-pain connection is an interesting subject in multiple domains, even if Phil's phrasing was unfortunate.
I'd hope we can spare some benefit of the doubt as whether or not someone's intent is bigoted and judgmental, rather than just slightly influenced in its phrasing by cultural norms (however unfair or misguided those happen to be), but I can see how it could be annoying.
5Eliezer Yudkowsky
I've got to say, I was reading the original post and rolling my eyes, but it looked more like "Someone so naively square as to compare sexual masochism to eating spicy food" than "Someone actively bigoted".

Note that one doesn't need to be actively bigoted in order to do harm. The vast majority of those who are slowing down the spread of rational thought aren't religious fundamentalists out to stop rationality; no, they're the completely innocent ones who unthinkingly pass on cached thoughts.

It's no different when it comes to attitudes concerning, say, BDSM. I don't for a moment think that Goetz was actively bigoted when he wrote that. That doesn't mean that he shouldn't have worded it differently. More generally... it's often dangerous to think "but (he isn't / I am not) bigoted", as if only active bigots could say harmful things. Once the harmfulness of what they're saying is pointed out to them, they automatically go on the defensive - after all, only bigots say bad things, and they're not a bigot, so the other person must simply be oversensitive.

This probably deserves a top-level post.

Yes. Exactly. This comment says everything I would have said, and probably more eloquently.
What exactly do you mean by 'saying harmful things'? How are they harmful? If I firmly believe that someone should be allowed to pursue any activity they wish to as long as it doesn't cause injury to any non-consenting individuals, how is it harmful if I continue to consider that behaviour unusual, or even continue to view it negatively? I believe there's are implicit assumptions underlying the claim that speech is 'harmful' that you need to make more explicit if you are going to expand this into a top level post. You may find that not everyone shares your assumptions.
Well, the "Indeed, it's often dangerous..." wasn't referring to Goetz anymore, but was on a more general level (edited to make that clearer). But anyway, by 'saying harmful things' I refer to saying things which propagate potentially close-minded attitudes which can do real harm to people. I'm by no means saying such speech should be banned - I am quite a strong advocate of freedom of speech, myself - but that doesn't mean it should be socially accepted, either. For instance, if I read the comments below correctly, the original version of this post apparently said "socially acceptable behaviors" instead of "socially accepted behaviors". Saying that something "isn't socially acceptable" sounds pretty condemning. clarissethorn's criticism also has some merit. I don't really think that Goetz's post was very bad, but it did bring to mind the general phenomenon. But yes, I will make the related assumptions more explicit if I get around expanding this. It's getting rather late here now, so I'm too tired to type up a much longer explanation right now.
I think a top level post would be useful. If less wrong turns out to be the sort of community where I have to worry about 'accepted' vs. 'acceptable' when posting for fear of hurting the feelings of someone on the Internet then it's not going to be a community I want to be a part of. That would be useful information.
IMO, Less Wrong should be a community that encourages you to worry about precise expression, which includes the distinction between 'accepted' and 'acceptable'.
FWIW, Nick pointed it out in a non-accusatory way, and I appreciate having it pointed out, and will be more careful about that particular distinction in the future.
Let me try and explain why I find the kind of discussion over the precise connotations of speech here frustrating. It seems that people who strongly believe in the importance of eliminating implicit negative connotations in language are often coming from a position where they implicitly accept the premise that it is ok for society to make laws governing activities that individuals choose to partake in that do not impinge on the rights of third parties. They see some activity that they wish to be permitted either being restricted or under threat of being restricted and they desire to influence the set of permitted activities to match their preferences. The proposed cure is to police language in order to influence the thoughts and preferences of others in a direction that increases acceptance of the favoured activity. I see this as a mis-diagnosis of the problem. The thought police would not be necessary if we all agreed to allow people to conduct their lives as they choose without threat of interference. I suspect that at some level many of those seeking to control the use of language do so because they ultimately do want to restrict the choices of others and so must fight the battle to control the set of restricted behaviours rather than fighting to remove all restrictions.
What does any of that have to do with what I said?
To be honest it's more an elaboration on the ongoing discussion which I was mulling over and posted in reply to your comment because it happened to be the most recent response to one of my posts. It is an attempt to explain why I don't think the overall discussion about precise language in this context is fruitful. I've clearly passed my previously mentioned tolerance threshold for this sort of thing though so I should probably walk away and think calming thoughts for a while.
3Paul Crowley
You sound very confident that you have the right position about this; I'd be interested to know more about where that confidence springs from.
Opinion about the fact that I wouldn't want to be part of a community where that kind of self-censorship was necessary? I know that it winds me up/hits my buttons/irritates me enough that discussions become a negative emotional experience. While I have found much of value here there are other ways I can attempt to improve my rationality that have less negative expected emotional utility for me.
7Paul Crowley
Right, but it's a negative emotional experience for me to open an article that describes me as a sexual pervert something like a chronic loser, don't you think? Taking care to be polite to each other is not some foolish ritual of mundanes; it serves a real purpose in facilitating discussion. It isn't always the right thing, but it's the right side to err on. By and large people take notable care over their words here in a variety of ways, and it makes the site a better place.
I'd like one of the many people criticizing how I wrote the second sentence to suggest a better way to write it, that would still point out the contrast between social attitudes towards sexual masochism, and social attitudes towards the other things on the list. Ciphergoth did this. ciphergoth, there were a lot of other things on the list besides Bruce. I don't think it's fair to you pick out the one bad thing from a long list of good things, and then complain about that one. I took notable care; yet it wasn't good enough for you. I've said much more inflammatory things to other people that didn't get jumped on by anybody. I've said much harsher things to EY. I've repeatedly said things about classical music that drive komponisto up the wall. Should I refrain from criticizing Schoenberg because it upsets him? These are bad examples. Yes, I should have been more polite in all those cases. I don't see the difference. I didn't even say anything bad about masochism. I wrote a post saying that maybe masochism is an essential part of everyone's ordinary, healthy human nature; and you were still offended by it.
Well, a matter of fact... There's a difference between criticism and taking potshots. If you wanted to write a post explaining in detail why you think Schoenberg's music is flawed, that might be one thing (provided it was on-topic). By contrast, merely stating a negative opinion (repeatedly, as you note) in an authoritative tone that suggests it is akin to a widely-accepted fact (particularly when you have no authority in the matter), after you have already been called on it, is just a form of aggressive behavior that I don't think should be welcomed.
It might be that Schoenberg is good music to people with specialized musical training. I have said that his music is bad, but I don't have high confidence that it is "bad" in an absolute, moral realist sense. I do have high confidence that the relentless pursuit of novelty rather than quality caused most arts to become inaccessible to most people around the turn of the 20th century. And I regard that as bad. The elite forgot that they need us. We, the unwashed, untrained masses, provide the money to build the concert halls and the universities that the elite sit in; and instead of remembering their obligation to us, they take our money and use it to get their special training and then sit in their ivory towers and look down their noses at us. So we abandoned them; and their art shriveled without us. Everybody defected. Game over. Physics is so specialized that ordinary people can't understand it, but they can still use it. Music, on the other hand, once moved beyond the point where we ordinary people can appreciate it, is useless to us.
What makes you so confident that the pursuit of "quality" was being abandoned? The fact that you don't find it appealing? Mere novelty could have been accomplished by much cheaper means than those employed by composers in the "Schoenbergian" tradition, whose music tends to be very precisely and delicately constructed. Contrast, for example, Milton Babbitt (whose works are often so intricate that they take me several hearings to "get") with John Cage (who was capable of "composing" the most trivial case of a piece of music -- one with no sound at all). Cage is arguably an example of the extreme case of pure novelty-seeking (though I think people are too hard on him -- 4'33'' is not his only work); but this sort of thing is completely divorced from what the mainstream of "post-tonal" composers were going for. Where does this attitude come from? There is no conspiracy going on. Nobody is forcing you to listen to Schoenberg, or --still less -- preventing you from listening to Mozart. The public funding of advanced music in the U.S. is negligible to nonexistent. I defy you to explain how the existence of a few people (of whose existence you are barely even aware) pursuing this esoteric line of work could possibily result in negative utility for you. What makes you so sure? What about cosmology, or high-energy physics? String theory? Pure mathematics? The point here is that you want to have the sort of culture where advanced creative achievement -- formidabilty, awesomeness -- in all domains is encouraged and rewarded, not suppressed. (Tsyoku Naritai!) A culture that would place limitations on the permissible complexity of musical thought is not one in which we should want to live. (And beware the treacherous weapon of populism; it's easy enough when you think you're on the side of the masses -- but the time may come when they show up at your own gates with their torches and pitchforks...)
Some people (well, komponisto at least) may get a chuckle out of hearing that when I read this I had a little twitch in my brain that corrected it to "drive komponiston up the wall".
I imagine it might be a negative emotional experience for a theist to see theism described as "the maddest thing you can believe without being considered mad.". There's being polite and there's being constrained in what you are able to discuss for fear that it might be construed as offensive by someone. I think the majority of the discussion here strikes a good balance, certainly better than the average for an Internet forum (admittedly a pretty low bar). Any individual might suffer a negative emotional response to certain specific posts that address topics that are 'hot button' issues for them but I would hope that if the general character of the discussions remains high we could all be thick-skinned enough to suffer the occasional slight. I would suggest that a good rule of thumb for everyone would be to attempt to apply the most generous interpretation to language that could be considered offensive rather than the most negative. If someone says something that could be interpreted as describing you as a pervert and a chronic loser without any clear intention to actually describe you that way, perhaps it would be best to give them the benefit of the doubt.
How would you rewrite the second sentence?
Combining the second and third sentences: "Many associate the term masochism with sexuality, but there are plenty of masochistic, non-sexual behaviors:"
Is that really naively square? Yes it seems obvious that sexual masochism is much more psychologically complex than that, but I'd be surprised if whatever it is that makes spicy food enjoyable weren't usually a factor as well.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky
Well, simple way to test it. Just check out the prevalence of spicy food enjoyment among Ms versus the general population.
I agree that spicy food and some others (fiction? really?) don't seem to fit. I'm objecting to Clarisse characterizing it as "presenting a judgmental viewpoint".
It is a judgmental viewpoint. Maybe he didn't mean it that way, but that doesn't mean it's not a judgmental viewpoint.
:::::::::: You don't know this site very well. We would discuss those questions if they seemed relevant. :::::::::: Good! I just think it's important for people who have these conversations to consider the point that "what's relevant" or "what's worthy of examination" is often, itself, socially constructed. :::::::::: Can you see how this might reasonably connect to masochism in particular, and not sexuality in general? :::::::::: Yes. But my concern is not masochism in general. I am responding to the ways in which sexual masochism has been framed in this discussion. Sexual masochism is relevant -- it was brought up in the original post. I recognize that my comments may not directly address the main questions of the original post. But what I am hoping is that my comments shed some light on some aspects of the post, and encourage the writers here to consider what biases they are bringing to those aspects.
By the way, if you want to quote stuff, you can do it with a > at the beginning of the line.
Point taken. In this case, I thought the relevance was pretty clearly motivated by earlier discussion. It was "framed" by one pretty neutral statement, making the true observation that many people consider it a "sexual perversion". I object to your taking a statement like that as a cue to come "educate" the speaker on how judgmental he's being. He quite simply did not present a judgmental viewpoint. He made reference to a judgmental viewpoint. You're the one inferring some kind of endorsement from it.
Presentation is endorsement, unless it's framed with disclaimers. Let's return to the LGBTQ example. Consider the following potential sentences: "Many people think of homosexuality as a sexual perversion. But there are ordinary, socially-accepted behaviors that seem partly homoerotic to me:" Would you call that a neutral statement? Would you claim so passionately that it revealed no bias on the part of the person who said it?
I don't think it reveals bias, so much as a lack of diplomacy.
Hmm. I would object, but empirical evidence from other threads is compatible with the "lack of diplomacy" theory. Sometimes rationalism is a bitch. (Wait, am I doing it again?)
Many people thought Hitler was a great leader. Yes.
I think you intended it to look like some sort of anti-gay rhetoric (didn't you?) so it's odd that it could be read as a pro-homosexual statement, i.e.: "Many think homosexuality is a sexual perversion, but as I shall show, homoeroticism is perfectly ordinary and socially accepted in many arenas." It's odd that nobody has defended Phil with the observation that the description of masochism as a possible sexual perversion was immediately followed by the word "but". Update: This post no longer makes sense because the top-level post has been edited. :)
I want to get across the point that, if it's true that sexual masochism and other behaviors have some underlying pleasure mechanism in common, then it's remarkable that people demonize sexual masochism yet have no guilt about riding rollercoasters. I can't do that without saying something like "Many people think masochism is evil." There's no way to get my idea across without using negative terms. (The thought just occurred to me as I wrote this: Maybe the puritans (the stereotypical puritans, as opposed to the real ones, whom I am less familiar with) were just being consistent! Seeing sexual pleasure as immoral should lead to seeing dancing, card-playing, and many other things as immoral.) If I had just written "There are ordinary, socially-accepted behaviors that seem partly masochistic to me", that would be less neutral, as it would imply that I myself believed masochism was wrong. I changed it. I think it's weaker and less interesting this way, but it's not in my advantage to repell people who have the expertise necessary for this conversation.
Some are Against Disclaimers:
If you jump into discussions of BDSM with moral accusations, and threaten people with social rejection unless they discuss it the way you want them to, you discourage people from talking about it at all. That's not to your advantage. Thanks for the links - I'll look into them. I appreciate your sharing your knowledge.
I made no moral accusations and I threatened no social rejection. I pointed out your bias. I did it with strong words; maybe I should apologize for that; I'm an orator, I don't usually run in specifically "rationalist" circles, and I'm used to a different kind of conversation. In terms of discouraging discussion, here's what I think discourages discussion: 1) Any request for ideas that implies that people who have some experience with the matter at hand are "perverts" -- this insults and scares off people who could contribute to your discussion. 2) The implication that telling people they're being judgmental is the same as "threatening people with social rejection" or "making moral accusations" -- this tells potential commenters that if they call you out on your bias, you'll refuse to listen because you feel so hurt that someone called you biased.
I think people here are used to being more "clinically detached" than you're used to. It's a bit of a clash of styles. You see PG above as judgmental, but I read him as trying to suggest a way of talking that would gain you better results.
I didn't mean to imply that. I meant to say it clearly and unambiguously. It's the same to me. How would you engage in discussion with someone who hates BDSM, if you don't want them to say anything negative about it? And, yes, as long as you keep accusing me of bias, I'm not in the mood to talk about the actual content with you. I care more about defending my reputation than I do about the philosophy and psychology of masochism. Notice that we're not talking about content? That your participation is now impeding the conversation instead of facilitating it? The conversation should not be about my bias. People's opinion of my bias is important to me, so it's rational for me to spend all my time in this thread defending myself instead of addressing the issues I originally wanted to address. It isn't very important to anyone else, so I don't understand why you want to keep at it. I suppose because you feel like I am accusing you of a moral lapse. The way for you to defend yourself against the charge of having made a gratuitous accusation of bias is to show that I'm biased; then the way for me to defend myself is to show that you made a gratuitous accusation. Can we just call a truce?
I've got to say, I was reading the original post and rolling my eyes, but it looked more like "Someone so square as to compare sexual masochism to eating spicy food" than "Someone actively prejudiced".
I did not present a judgemental viewpoint. IMHO.

I don't think pain and failure are the same thing. I like spicy food quite a bit, and I think it's the intensity as much as anything.

On the other hand, my reaction is a straightforward "Oh goody! Spicy food!"-- the kick has nothing to do with a satisfaction in overcoming my own resistance. I believe a lot of the attraction of endurance sports (something I don't feel) is in the latter.

My impression is that masochism includes both motivations.

I believe that intensity is a very strong motivation-- for some people it's a stronger motivation than safe... (read more)

But there are ordinary, acceptable behaviors

So, sexual perversion isn't ordinary or acceptable?

Pain triggers endorphins in order to help us fight or flee, and it feels good.

This is certainly an explanation consistent with BDSM usage of pain, and can be entirely independent of any sexual component.

No, by definition. I'm speaking descriptively, not normatively.
"Acceptable" has strong normative connotations; "accepted" is unambiguously descriptive.
Good point.

Question 2: Doubtless some of the behaviors I listed have completely different explanations, some of which might not involve masochism at all. Which do you think involve enjoying pain? Can you cluster them by causal mechanism?

None of the examples necessarily involve the enjoyment of pain so they don't necessarily fit the technical meaning of masochism. They do fit the colloquial definition of masochism though, which is somewhat different. More along the lines of 'enjoying doing things that make you feel like a tough badass even though pain may be an u... (read more)


The psychologist Michael Bader recently wrote a rather nice book that touches on this subject, called Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies.

His analysis of masochism (among many other things) is that it helps the masochist feel safe in a way that allows their desire freedom to be expressed.

For example:

  • a person worried about the intensity of his desire hurting his partner might normally self-inhibit; but when tied up, he can see he has no scope to hurt his partner, and thus let his sexuality run free at full intensity -- because it's safe to do so
... (read more)
Thanks, I'll check that out. I'm not sure that's pathological. I've read a few independent reports of broken penises from an overenthusiastic woman on top. I've also been warned that some people clench their teeth during orgasm, which can make some types of oral sex a problem. I agree that the proposed examples solve the problems posed by the beliefs, whether true or not. That's bondage, not masochism. That's domination, not masochism. Your examples are interesting, but they aren't helping to understand masochism. Perhaps there's some other example from the book you cited that pertains to masochism?

I'll add another hypothesis. There are plenty of simple, harmless ways to induce pain of almost unlimited intensity, while doing the same with pleasure tends to involve nasty side-effects. Due to neuroplasticity, we can train ourselves to get our pleasure/pain wires crossed, thereby making intense pleasure "cheaper."

This would explain why children often at first dislike spicy food, horror films, roller coasters, etc.

I'm not sure how much this applies to "being Bruce."

I find this claim highly suspicious, because the little bit I know about neurobiology tells me that pain and pleasure are controlled by neurotransmitter chemicals, not by synapse connections (wiring), and so it should not be possible to cross them except by genetic defect.
If you deny that a "masochistic" response to unpleasant stimuli can be developed and strengthened over time, we might be too far apart epistemically to have a productive discussion. I've seen it happen enough that I consider it a transparent fact. If you agree that this happens but deny that it's an effect of neuroplasticity, what do you propose instead?
4Eliezer Yudkowsky
Does anyone know of any actual case of a sexual masochist having been produced by learning/training/conditioning in which the person definitely was not a masochist to start with? (Begs the question of how, exactly, they ended up undergoing the said conditioning...)
Actually, it raises another question, which is, how can you establish that a person was "definitely not a masochist to start with"? After all, if you've never tried it, how would you know? Does it count if the person was curious before you brought up the subject? Expressed an interest in trying it after you brought it up? Had prior rape fantasies? How would you consider the analagous situation, where somebody's never tried a spicy food before? How do you know they're not already predisposed to like or dislike spiciness? It might be more useful to ask, can you increase a person's sexual response to pain through learning and conditioning... but of course the answer to that is not just yes, but hell yes. (Same for sexual response to sadism -- many people learn to become aroused as dominants or sadists simply through repeated exposure to their partner's arousal and happiness as the recipient of their attentions.)
Just give me a sec while I get my proposal past the ethics committee...
I once met someone who claimed to have trained people to be masochists. (It was at a rather weird convention, and he was demonstrating "knife play" - stimulating someone by lightly running knife blades across their skin without cutting them.)
Does that hurt? With particularly sharp instruments even actually cutting yourself doesn't necessarily hurt straight away.
It doesn't if you're not afraid, but fear and pain are highly interrelated and both have proximal places on the BDSM spectrum.
It might be possible to get people who don't self-identify as masochists to volunteer for such a test. Unfortunately, it would be very difficult to distinguish the actual non-masochists and the people who have weak tendencies in that regard.
Sounds ripe for self-experimentation. How curious are you? ;-D
With sexual masochism, I think the conditioning generally starts with fantasies. Obviously this is hard to test, but I still like the explanation because of the parsimony with developing a taste for spicy or bitter foods, learning to enjoy frightening experiences, and so on; in those cases the progression from nonenjoyment to enjoyment seems obvious. Edit: To (hopefully) avoid seeming naively square, I'm not saying these experiences are comparable or that anyone can learn to be sexually masochistic, only that the formation of these preferences could share a common mechanism.
This does not necessarily follow. The neurotransmitter chemicals can remain the same but whole areas of the brain can be rewired such that the area processing the pain can be connected differently to the rest of the brain, including an area which experiences pleasure. (This is not an endorsement of the grandparent.)

I was surprised not to find any evo-psych explanations for masochism on the web; or even any general theory of masochism that tried to unite two different behaviors.

Keith Henson's Evolutionary Psychology, Memes, and the Origins of War suggests an explanation in passing.

I suspect that evolutionary explanations of masochism suck for the same reasons that evolutionary explanations of homosexuality suck: these sexual orientations are the product of developmental factors, rather than being evolved adaptations. Purely social/environmental explanations are also pretty bad. Homosexuality is related to certain developmental factors, particularly prenatal hormones. There's some preliminary evidence that masochists are more likely to be queer: BDSM practioners disproportionately report non-heterosexual orientations relative to the general population (one example: this study found rates of 51.9% and 20.6% for female and male bisexuality, which is way above the general population, though this sample wasn't random). If homosexuality is related to developmental influences, and masochism is correlated with queerness, then I would hypothesize that masochism is related to developmental influences, also.
I've always chalked this up to the conjecture that once you've personally accepted, or interpersonally admitted, one minority sexual preference, you're probably more likely to accept/admit others. The effect you cite sounds too strong to be explained just by that, though.
6Paul Crowley
I don't see any reason why what you suggest wouldn't be a very strong effect.

What about 5. Linkage to another belief that causes us to associate so-called masochistic behavior with something good?

Some people like BDSM because they like the feeling of someone being else in control. Some people like being hit because they associate it with the love of their parents. Some people wallow in bad feelings because that's how they learned to get attention.

I think question 2 is an important one. These behaviors can be logically grouped together as "masochistic', but the kinds of "bad" that they move towards are completel... (read more)

6Paul Crowley
None of your ideas ring in the least bit true for me as an explanation of why I like BDSM. I think the original article is much closer to the mark in linking it to the enjoyment of spicy food, horror movies, rollercoasters, computer games, or intellectual challenges.
I second pretty much everything said by ciphergoth in this thread. I think it's clearer if the word "masochism" is reserved for sexual masochism. While some items on Phil's list might be related to masochism, but with others, the link is more tenous. For instance, masochism and self-defeating behavior are really different phenomena. Spicy food is probably closer than something like exercise or videogames. Masochism also also has some psychological characteristics that are different from anything on the list, such as subspace).
4Eliezer Yudkowsky
You mean you've never heard of a Thai food lover going into spicespace?
Not me -- personally I'm all the way over at the tame end of the spice/tame-continuum.
If so, what should we call the more general phenomenon of "deriving pleasure from one's own pain/suffering" (and, for sadism, "deriving pleasure from other people's pain/suffering")? The latter thing, especially, seems to me to be just about the worst thing in the world, and it would be a great tragedy if, out of an overzealous desire to avoid bigotry, we lost the ability to criticize and be emotionally resolved against it.
I don't know, but not "masochism." Whether these behaviors even hang together as a "general phenomenon" is an empirical question that is not yet answered. Let's look at some of Phil's examples: Are people who do this actually enjoying the pain, or they merely tolerate it because they like loud music? I once read that one of the main enjoyments in horror movies is not watching it, but the relief afterward; if true, this would be a difference from masochism. Another difference from masochism is that horror movies may be experienced as scary, while in masochism, sensations that would normally be painful are not necessarily experienced as painful. However, a component that horror movies share with masochism and rollercoasters is arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. fight-or-flight). Whether horror movies also result in release of endorphins, like exercise and masochism, I don't know. My guess is that in painful exercise, people aren't really deriving pleasure from their pain. Rather, pain is signifying that they are getting closer to their exercise goals, and is linked to feelings of accomplishment. People may derive pleasure from endorphins released during exercise, which would be a similarity with masochism. Furthermore, exercise may involve an altered state of mind, like masochism. For this point, we do have a name: self-defeating behavior. There may be many motives for self-defeating behavior, such as insecurity, negative self-concept, or desire to be right about beliefs that limit oneself. Although these factors may coexist with masochism in some people, there is no reason to believe that the link is necessary or that they are part of masochism. There is also currently know evidence that self-defeating behavior is linked to certain factors in masochism, such as arousal of the sympathetic nervous system or release of endorphins. As for masochism itself, it's misleading to describe it as "deriving pleasure from one's own pain." Sensations that non-ma
Ciphergoth, I'm proposing that 5 is another option, not that it should replace the ones he's already proposed. I don't know much about BDSM, but I assume it covers a much wider spectrum than the enjoyment of pain. My main point, which I didn't express clearly enough, is that the term "masochism" is being seriously overloaded in the post. Personally, I can see a connection between spicy food and intellectual challenges (both put me into an excited and forward-moving state, although for propbably different reasons), but horror movies and rollercoasters go into a completely different category (just being scary).
You might be right; in which case there's no underlying motivational mechanism, and no reason not to split off any one behavior (whether SM or being Bruce) and eliminate it if we choose to, without fear of harming our enjoyment of the others. That would be disappointing, because if there is an underlying mechanism, it would have interesting psychological and ethical consequences. (I'm biased towards conclusions that have more consequences. Is that an irrational but useful bias?)

Playing extremely difficult video games, such as I Wanna Be The Guy, seems to be another form of entertainment related to masochism.

Also, rock music seems to be part of its own progression, based on slightly earlier styles such as blues, ragtime, and jazz, which have their roots in African music.

For the benefit of anyone reading this: no, you don't wanna be the guy. Trust me. Also, I again recomend Nethack, as both a masochistic game and one with possible relevance to applying rationality.
Ah, Nethack. One of my favorites. [bragging] I ascended an Archeologist once! [/bragging]
Congratulations on being in the top, er... (small number)% of nethack players! I ascended a Tourist after successfully running the protection racket. Sadly I did it playing locally, not on a public server, so I don't have a public record of this, and I've not had much time for playing nethack lately in order to try again on nao. After the discussion of M:tG I've actually been trying to think of possible lessons on rationality that could be drawn from nethack; it's an interesting case because it's very difficult, but virtually every death is caused by pure player error.
Wow, that is not my impression. Nethack inflicts random sudden death. Nethack works dramatically by repeatedly putting you in situations where you have to choose between certain death and possible death. I've never read the source code, so my perspective is limited. Does your view of nethack as a rationality game consider reading the source code to be cheating, or to be a prerequisite for playing? I'm undecided on whether to call optimal Nethack playing "rational" or "using a big lookup table".
There are a few sudden deaths not caused by some degree of player error, all in the early game, but even those could be avoided most of the time with sufficiently paranoid play (that most people would find crushingly dull). Beyond annoying things like gnomes with Wands of Death or spike pits with lethal poison, most deaths are caused by reckless combat or failing to take appropriate countermeasures against certain monster types. Skilled nethack players have win ratios of over 60%, vs. people who play for years and never win once. As evidence, on's top deaths list, 10 of the 11 most common game ends are "killed by a (weak monster)", all of which are likely to be player error, including "killed by a water moccasin", which is all but guaranteed to be egregious player error. The 3rd most common is "killed by a wand", which encompases one of the most common "unfair" deaths as well as a fair number of player error deaths. The 12th most common "death" is winning the game. After that, the 13th is again egregious player error, after which are piles more deaths by careless combat, with a few "killed by a *, while helpless" deaths that are again egregious player error. Reading the source code isn't cheating per se--it certainly doesn't guarantee winning--but it's not required, either. There are a handful of simple spoilers that help a great deal, but most of what you really NEED to know could fit on an index card. Among regular nethack players, almost all are "spoiled" to the hilt, but huge variance in success remains, because some people are better at making rational, methodical estimations of what they can safely do to advance the in-game goals.

Several of the items on your list have straightforward explanations that are variations on 3. In partiular, horror movies and rollercoasters are a controlled means of inducing fear for the emotional response it causes; and spicy food, if by that you mean food with substantial capsaicin levels, is a controlled and completely safe means of inducing arbitrary levels of pain in order to enjoy the resulting endorphin high.

On the other hand, while I'm not familiar with Alban Berg, I voluntarily listen to "music" that probably puts his work to shame in ... (read more)

Ah, but status-based behaviors aren't necessarily calculated based on present circumstances. e.g. I became somewhat of a grammatical pedant growing up to gain the approval of teachers, parents, etc.; although it's now an annoying behavior to those around me, the habit still exists.
Well, if there's any status-based aspect to my musical tastes I'm not aware of them and can't even imagine what they would be--some sort of status signalling by generalized breadth of taste, perhaps? But that's pretty dodgy because there are sound reasons to expect an innate urge to try new stimuli independent of social status.

Question 3: When we find ourselves acting masochistically, should we try to "correct" it? Or is it part of a healthy human's nature? If so, what's the evolutionary-psych explanation?

Um. The evolutionary-psych explanation is Azathoth does not care about your happiness. If there are instances where masochism makes one more likely to win, then masochists will survive. It seems obvious that there are, especially if that masochism is context-sensitive.

Webern is actually on my playlist. 5 Movements isn't unpleasant, and 2 Arrangements of Bach's Fuga (Ricercata) is awesome.

there is nothing inherently wrong with masochism and it would certainly be sad to eliminate all the experiences you list above.

Vivaldi -> Bach -> Mozart -> Beethoven -> Wagner -> Stravinsky -> Berg -> screw it, let's invent rock and roll and start over

I'm afraid your model of music history is no better than your model of Eliezer's mind.

I don't want to get into the numerous problems with this right now, other than to say that it is supremely annoying when people speak about popular music (such as rock and roll) as if it were the "successor" of art music of the past. The successor to the art music of the past is the art music of the present. (That m... (read more)

You're reading way too much into that comment about rock and roll. The timeline isn't even right for it to be a serious model. But pop music is the cultural successor to orchestral music in this way: The energy and money that used to go into orchestral music, string quartets, piano recitals, etc., now go into pop music. It's seized that share of the public's attention. I thought the connections would be obvious. I don't like Berg's music, at all, and I blame him and people who promoted the 2nd Viennese School for the death of great music. But it is not a list of things I don't like. I say fiction is masochistic because we like to read about characters whom we like and identify with suffering. If a book's hero doesn't suffer, we don't like it. There's a larger story there, that usually has to do with overcoming obstacles. But then, maybe that's a part of the masochism story as well.
There's a larger topic there-- fiction composed entirely of events which are pleasant for the characters simply doesn't work for human beings, even though logically, such fiction should be possible. I've asked around, and while there's a wide range of experimental fiction, no one seems to do the experiment of writing a "story" which consists entirely of friends getting together for a good meal and pleasant conversation, with nothing at all going wrong and not the faintest threat on even the most remote horizon. No tension, no nasty gossip, no discussion of scary world events. This is apparently farther outside what we normally call fiction than "Waiting for Godot" is. A different angle about the history of music-- I've got two examples, and I don't know whether I've got a worthwhile pattern. When harmony was getting more dissonant in classical music, it was at least getting more complex in popular music. If my sample of civil war music is accurate, harmony was very sweet and simple-- ragtime had much more complex chords. My other example is that melody has become much less important in both popular and classical music.

no one seems to do the experiment of writing a "story" which consists entirely of friends getting together for a good meal and pleasant conversation, with nothing at all going wrong and not the faintest threat on even the most remote horizon.

Well, there is a certain fictional genre of which a large component comprises vignettes involving people getting together for mutually enjoyable social interaction, with no threats and indeed not much reference to anything outside of that interaction.

It is, admittedly, an extremely low-status genre... but it enjoys a certain robust-though-discreet popularity nonetheless, both in text and video. (Albeit I suspect more the latter than the former.)

Not sure what, if anything, follows from this.

What is this claim based on? The fact that you hear a lot more about both today's pop music and the art music of the past than the art music of the present? If you think that "the public" used to be interested in art music to anything like the extent they're now interested in popular music, you're under the wrong impression. Serious music has pretty much always been an elite pursuit. Composers of the past worked for elite patrons who wrote the history of their time that we read; whereas today's composers don't get on the TV news, because the people that are interested in their work don't have the kind of political power that kings, nobles, and clergy used to. In any case, whatever the fluctuations in the relative social status of serious music devotees, I'm quite confident that there is more actual interest (measured in person-hours) in the music of e.g. Mozart today than there has ever been in history. ETA: Well, I love Berg's music (the Violin Concerto is sublimely beautiful). Great music is not at all dead, and I wish it were better respected. Especially in a place like this.
Not everyone could attend concerts, but I have heard many references to musicians performing music by the same composers in small groups in coffeehouses, taverns, and other gathering places. In one of Robert Greenberg's music histories, he said, IIRC, that around 1800, 1 in 20 people in Vienna were professional musicians. You could walk into music shops there whose main business was selling sheet music for people to perform at home; today, a city of the size that Vienna was in 1800 (200,000) might have 2 to 8 such shops (based on my knowing cities of about 50,000 that have one such store; and on the fact that Music and Arts, the largest chain of music stores around here, has 5 stores serving a population of 5,000,000 in the Washington DC area.) Some composers made a living by selling their scores. Despite the reachable market now being many times larger (perhaps 100 times larger), I don't think anyone can do that today. I could be wrong. I wasn't there. And the question of how popular Mozart was in his day is not as important to me as the fact that Mozart and Beethoven are popular today, while Schoenberg is not; history has already given its verdict against the 2nd Viennese School. I don't say these things in order to offend you. I apologize for using inflammatory language.
Sometimes history moves slowly. During his life, Bach was best known as an organist; sure, later composers studied and loved his work, but it wasn't until the mid 19th century that he started to get the reputation that he has now. I think komponisto is implying that there was plenty of popular music back then as well, but most of those composers/performers didn't enter the canon. However, I think there's another factor at play here - "art music" experienced the same academization and post-modernization that we saw in the visual arts. Serialism, musicque concrete, aleatory composition - all these things pushed the boundaries of what "music" actually meant, going against popular sensibilities in ways that (and I could be wrong here) the "art music" of previous centuries did not. The idea of linear stylistic progression totally breaks down once you get to the mid 20th century, so if you want to construct a convenient narrative, you've got to grab onto popular music or jazz. I think the Second Viennese School tends to get singled out, because they are the major overlap between "music that some devotees of 'art music' really enjoy" and "music that some devotees of 'art music' think is too bizarre." If you go earlier, Mahler has too many fans, and later, people like Xenakis don't have enough.
I thought someone would mention that. I think it's different. Schoenberg et al. were famous while they were alive. Their works were performed publicly, and adored by the cogniscenti, for decades. Bach grew into public favor. Schoenberg fell out of public favor. He had every chance the music establishment could give him, and still fell out of favor. (BTW, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all made special studies of Bach's music in the 18th century; so I'm skeptical of the "Bach had no reputation as a composer" argument.) Also note that the time between when Bach wrote the St. Matthew Passion in 1727, and when Mendelssohn "revived" it in 1829, was only 102 years. We've already had 100 years of Schoenberg. Also note that Bach is always brought up in this context because he is such a notable exception in that way I agree completely.
I don't think Schoenberg ever had public favor. He may have had the favor of the "elite" music audience, but, as I understand it, the public at large was listening to early jazz. Maybe this is my American bias; I'm not sure. I see your point about Bach; I always had the impression that composers knew about him, but the masses didn't. I could be wrong. What were people in their homes actually playing in the 18th and 19th centuries? Whose music were they going to see? The question of whether or not "popular music" has replaced the music of the canonical composers from a cultural standpoint hinges on these answers that I don't have.
And this is still the case! There's been no "falling out of favor". On the one hand, you have elite musicians, who mostly admire Schoenberg; on the other hand, you have musical laypeople, who mostly don't. Same as it's always been! You've already demonstrated before that you don't know what's going on in music today. Why do you keep making authoritative-sounding pronouncements on the matter? He had a tremendous reputation as a composer -- among those in a position to know about his work. That wasn't a very large group.
No; I was contrasting Schoenberg with Bach. Given the chance, most people liked Bach. Given the chance, most people didn't like Schoenberg. Schoenberg may be good for people with decades of specialized training. Having fashion dictated by those people with specialized training resulted in a peacock's-tail runaway selection, and the effective extinction of the greatest family of music in history. IMHO.
You can't have it both ways. Your faction can't be both the underdog and the triumphant party at the same time. If Schoenberg et al fell out of favor and ended up in the dustbin of musical history, then you can't complain about his influence. If, on the other hand, you think he is responsible for the "extinction of the greatest family of music in history", then you must concede that he is still taken seriously by those in the know.
Can't you?
It's true that in the 20th century, art music became advanced beyond the point of being immediately accessible to most non-specialists. No one would deny this. But so what? Something similar happened in science as well: in previous centuries, any educated person could hope to understand the greatest work of the time, and even possibly contribute to it. Now, that's no longer the case. This sort of progression is arguably inevitable. If people spend all their time refining some intellectual discipline, eventually, the results are going to require something like specialist training to properly apprehend. (That's not to say that casual listeners couldn't get a lot more out of advanced art music than they actually do, with suitable popularization efforts.) I dispute this entirely, and attribute this impression to our historical proximity. If you lived in the 18th century and were a connoisseur of music, Mozart and Haydn would have sounded a lot more different from each other than they do to us today -- because we can contrast with what came after. In a century or two, the progression of twentieth-century music won't seem very different in kind from what happened in earlier centuries. Again, that's not to say that something different didn't happen in the twentieth century -- but every period has its unique developments.
Even granting this statistic, this is highly selective reporting. Vienna has historically been a musical center, and was especially so at that time. The situation there was hardly typical of European society as a whole. And the phenomenon of high-quality music being played in gathering places hasn't disappeared either: buskers play Bach, and recently I heard Beethoven's 7th symphony come on between jazz selections in a coffee shop. That is silly and presumptuous. "Popularity" is hardly an appropriate metric for judging "the verdict of history" on a form of advanced creative intellection. I can assure you that the Second Viennese School is held in high esteem by expert composers and music theorists. Besides -- if "history" has "ruled against" the Second Viennese School, why are you complaining about the "death of great music" resulting from their influence? That's good; but there's also a larger issue here. Assertions about music should be held to the same level of scrutiny as assertions about anything else. (As a result of discussions like this, I may be tempted at some point to do a post on rationality as it relates to the arts.)
I would love to read and comment on such a post. I would take issue with the widespread use of terms like "good," "high-quality," "real," and "art" to differentiate the Western canon of choral/orchestral music from everything else that's out there. I'm sure there are many jazz composers and theorists who wouldn't give Berg or Webern the time of day. And buskers play all kinds of music - it doesn't have to be Bach or Beethoven to be meaningful. In terms of the Second Viennese School, what I should have said in my previous comment is that there's a popular misconception that Schoenberg was the one who tipped the linear progression past the point of contemporary accessibility. i.e. that while Bach's contemporaries, for example, may not have known his music, they were not freaked out by it. But this seems to be a pretty common thing in musical history - new composer comes along, people say "what the hell is that guy doing? ack, the impropriety!" and decades or centuries later, everybody gets it. Popularity is a fine metric for judging the verdict of history; you just have to wait until it's actually history.
That's true. However, I'm using this as a hook to recommend "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" by Charles Mingus. Jazz meets twelve tone, and it's the only music which at least made me feel more intelligent for listening to it-- probably a result of the music being more complex than I'm used to and very enjoyable.
Beethoven consciously rebelled against the rules, so it's true at least for him. You can find many instances of contemporary music critics panning Haydn, Beethoven, and all the greats, and make them sound like people didn't understand them. I don't know how to interpret this, because I would bet that every composer had music critics write bad things about them. BTW, it's possible that Bach was pushed into obscurity by music critics. Baroque music was unfashionable in the late 18th century, for political reasons. Simple melodies were believed to be more Republican. So perhaps we can blame the academics for suppressing Bach, as well as for trying to push Schoenberg on us. :)
I'm interested in why there isn't a parallel track of new music for orchestral instruments which is written for the general public. Admittedly, there's movie music, but that seems very limited compared to what's possible if there were original compositions.
There is. In fact most new orchestral music falls into this category. (The advanced stuff is difficult to perform and is generally only done by elite orchestras.) It just doesn't have the same prestige as the old classics or the new advanced stuff.
Recommend some pieces and/or composers? Is it possible that it has less prestige because it just isn't as likable for most people as the many sorts of competing music?
Not particularly. :-) But seriously, if you go to a concert by your local orchestra, there will often be a premiere of a new piece by some local composer which will sound like band music written for orchestra. (Unless your local orchestra is the New York Philharmonic or something. But even then, most new music will tend to be on the conservative side -- people such as Rouse or Harbison, rather than Babbitt or Ferneyhough.) Usually it's plenty "likable", it just isn't particularly impressive.
OK, it's likable, but it isn't lovable. Any theories about the shortage of lovable new music for orchestra?
We do not currently live in a culture where the most impressive new music has broad appeal.

Vivaldi -> Bach -> Mozart -> Beethoven -> Wagner -> Stravinsky -> Berg -> screw it, let's invent rock and roll and start over

I'm afraid your model of music history is no better than your model of Eliezer's mind.

I don't want to get into the numerous problems with this right now, other than to say that it is supremely annoying when people speak about popular music (such as rock and roll) as if it were the "successor" of art of music of the past. The successor to the art music of the past is the art music of the present. (Tha... (read more)