On memetic weapons

byioannes_shade3mo1st Sep 201828 comments

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[status: speculative, probably a fake framework]


July 17, 2018. Johannesburg, South Africa.

Barack Obama is giving a speech in memoriam of Nelson Mandela. 15,000 people fill a stadium, listening.

Here's a transcript.

Here's an excerpt from that transcript:

To make democracy work, Madiba [Mandela] shows us that we also have to keep teaching our children, and ourselves, to engage with people not only who look different but who hold different views. This is hard.
Most of us prefer to surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe. You notice the people who you think are smart are the people who agree with you. Funny how that works. But democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. 
And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you – because they’re white, or because they’re male – that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.
Madiba lived this complexity. In prison, he studied Afrikaans so that he could better understand the people who were jailing him. And when he got out of prison he extended a hand to those who had jailed him, because he knew that they had to be a part of the democratic South Africa that he wanted to build. “To make peace with an enemy,” he wrote, “one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.”

When Barack Obama starts talking about how it's important to listen to people, even if they're white men – that's something new.


I'm worried about systemic oppression. These days, this worry manifests as concern about the war on drugs. It's a bad, bad thing, and it was explicitly architected to oppress people of color.

Even if the current agents of the drug war don't hold racist views, they are still carrying out the work of a machine that was built by racists to achieve racist ends. 

I'm also worried about the state of discourse on the political Left. Discourse quality on the Right is also quite bad, but traditionally the Left has controlled our institutions of free inquiry, so degradation of the Left's discourse worries me more than that of the Right's.

These two worries are in tension with each other.


Why am I worried about the state-of-discourse thing?

I haven't unpacked it fully, but I think it goes something like this:

(1) The Left has equipped itself with a powerful memetic weapon. 

    • I don't really know what to call this weapon, it's something like using the "You're racist / sexist / nazi" card.
      • For now I'll just call it "the memetic weapon."
    • As far as I can tell, this weapon functions by ending discussion.
      • e.g. "I don't have to listen to this." 
      • e.g. "Don't give a platform to racists."
      • e.g. "You take up so much space!" 
    • This weapon has been deployed to good effect against bad things. 
      • It's good to call a nazi a nazi. Nazis should be recognized for what they are.
      • It's good to dethrone powerful predators. Weinstein should not get to be a Hollywood power-broker.
    • This weapon can also be deployed to good effect against the Left's political opponents.
      • This is the worrisome thing – as this weapon gets used in this way, the discourse evolves from that of dialectic (arguments compete & improve upon each other) to that of belief-enforcement (arguments that question strongly held beliefs are destroyed via the memetic weapon).

(2) Okay, but so what? Isn't it worth degrading the discourse a little to shut down racists, sexists, and nazis? 

    • Problem is, it isn't shutting those people down, it's shutting them out.
      • Some people still have racist views, sexist views, fascist views.
        • If people with views like this can't improve them via a dialectic process (and instead get shut out when they try), they go elsewhere.
        • Other communities take in these people, and there their bad views can grow worse (because the discourse norms are also terrible in the other communities). 
      • The people with bad views stop listening to the Left, because as the memetic weapon is deployed, they stop believing that the Left actually believes in free inquiry. 
      • Other people with non-orthodox-but-not-obviously-bad views also stop taking the Left seriously for the same reason.
        • I think I'm one of these people.
      • Discourse quality degrades more rapidly as fewer people in the Left's discourse-sphere remain interested in (publicly) expressing their (non-orthodox) views.
    • People who remain in the Left's discourse-sphere continue to wield the memetic weapon, but the only people it's effective against are people who participate in that sphere.
      • As more people with non-orthodox views leave the sphere, the Left starts eating its own. 
        • e.g. this poem was published in the Nation
          • There was a big outcry so the Nation freaked out and added that long, apologetic note above the poem.
        • e.g. the Dean of Evergreen State College taking most of the flak after Bret Weinstein was successfully ousted by student protestors (plus stopped trying to engage with them).
    • But honestly the splashy examples are besides the point. The more worrisome thing is that people within the sphere start self-policing more & more such that no one says anything they actually believe.
      • e.g. On Ezra Klein's podcast, Tyler Cowen mentions that he personally knows a lot of academics who are self-policing what they say, but (ironically) refuses to go into any detail.

(3) Doesn't this just mean that the extremist Left will die out? Won't everyone leave its sphere, so that a more sensible Left will rise from the ashes?

    • That would be a great outcome, but it doesn't seem to be how things are trending.
    • The memetic weapon is powerful. It is especially powerful against centrists.
      • Centrists are still trying to engage with the Left, but by definition they don't fully align with the Left's orthodox views. 
      • So whenever a centrist engages, they are vulnerable to the memetic weapon. (e.g. "That's racist!")
      • Their choices at that point are limited. They can either:
        • 1. Apologize & update their (public) views to align with the Left's orthodox views.
        • 2. Exit the discourse-sphere & go to another community (which will also probably have bad discourse norms, as above).
        • 3. Keep engaging in the sphere but refuse to apologize for their non-orthodox views.
          • This seems emotionally expensive, as well as a risky career move. Maybe you become the next Jordan Peterson, but more likely than not you just get fired + ostracized (e.g. James Damore).
    • So the incentives are such that the people who remain engaged update their (public) views to match the Left's orthodox views. Go along to get along. 
      • Centrists who try to engage the Left keep feeding into its discourse-sphere, even as its views grow continually more extreme and it eats more & more of its own.
    • A simple explanation could be that the Left is just too big to die.
      • The Left is dominant in roughly 90% of American universities [citation needed], which about 70% of American youth pass through
      • Enough young people are entering its discourse-sphere (without fully appreciating the dynamics of the place) that it's not going to run out of people anytime soon.

(4) But again, so what? Even if the Left's discourse is growing more orthodox & extreme, isn't that an acceptable cost for stamping out the long legacy of patriarchal and white-supremacist structures?

    • The problem is that it isn't stamping out those structures.
      • As above, non-orthodox centrists have three choices when they get targeted by the memetic weapon.
      • A lot of them choose to stay in the Left's discourse-sphere & align with the orthodoxy.
      • But many grow jaded & exit. They end up in other discourse-spheres, which are spiraling in different directions that are also extreme (and usually have bad discourse norms, as well as sometimes bad worldview premises).
    • The Left is big & powerful, but it isn't powerful enough to dominate or destroy these other spheres. 
      • The degrading discourse norms of the Left actually drive more extreme racist & patriarchal views, all things considered. 
      • ... Because the centrists who try to engage with Left either get forced out or shut up.
    • So the overall dynamic is that there are several discourse-spheres with very different worldviews, all spiraling away from each other (i.e. not listening to each other & coming to view each other as enemies).
      • I think this goes very poorly if it continues for too long.
      • High-quality discourse norms seem super important for reversing this dynamic. I don't really know what else will do it.

I don't know what to do about this, but it seems important so I'm exploring the terrain.

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