On memetic weapons

by ioannes_shade5 min read1st Sep 201828 comments

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PoliticsPublic Discourse
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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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28 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:03 PM
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I think what you've wrote is broadly correct. I don't have too much to add, but will note that Samzdat had a piece that articulated similar ideas with a different framework:

https://samzdat.com/2017/02/21/publicani-in-berkeley/

I'm pretty sure some part of this power dynamic has to go at some point, but can't point a finger just yet.

Looks like the next piece in that sam[]zdat sequence is even more on point.

Oh interesting, I didn't know about that sam[]zdat piece. Thanks for the pointer; I'm excited that they've written about this!

This weapon has been deployed to good effect against bad things. 
It's good to dethrone powerful predators. Weinstein should not get to be a Hollywood power-broker.

The weapon is a weapon of connotation, it accuses someone (or something) of being bad by being somehow connected to a category that is known to be bad. But of course, you don't need to do this for things that are actually bad. "Harvey Weinstein has sexually assaulted multiple women and used his power to scare them into silence" is a much more persuasive argument than "Harvey Weinstein is sexist". The Nazis weren't bad because they were "nazis", it's because they committed genocide.

If the only statement you can make about someone is "Person X is Y-ist" without any further argument about what X is doing that's bad and harmful, the weapon is probably not deployed in the service of good.

Have tons of questions so dont know where to start. How about 3.3: Did you mean to suggest or do you believe Damore is a "centrist"?

ah! ok, message received ...

(updated after serious down-votes)

(updated after serious down-votes)

For what it's worth, I'm sad that you're getting down-voted so much.

I'm reading you as engaging in good faith from a different starting viewpoint, and I'd like to see more of that kind of thing :-)

yep! but, since im new i dont know if im violating cultural norms or just being told im an idiot! :)

He calls himself a centrist on his Twitter bio, so he's at least a self-identified centrist.

ah! hadnt seen this. thx!!

i dont know if you would prefer quote/question or just a free flowing sort of chat. this one will be of the open/free type ...

i personally id as part of the "Left" you are concerned about. do you have examples when the "Left" was significantly changing minds through dialogue/dialectic?

do you have examples when the "Left" was significantly changing minds through dialogue/dialectic?

I don't have a roster of examples right now, but a couple things come to mind:

  • 1960s civil rights activism often used debate & speeches to drive change, though of course that's not the full picture. e.g. Malcolm X, MLK, the Baldwin-Buckley debate.
  • The campaign for gay marriage seemed to rely more on inclusive discussion rather than exclusionary calling out.

so i kinda expected those. so do you know of any evidence that people's minds where changed significantly or mostly due to debate/discussion? polls? surveys? ???

and of course on the other side, is there any evidence that those "fighting" for these believe it was debate/discussion vs (often militant) action?

i guess the "problem" i have is that im old (47) and read too much Zinn (to give you something to associate to or attempt to find similarities with people you know). ive specifically inculcate the belief that most things achieved have NOT been thru debate but action:

  • race: civil war, civil right, not to mention the insane daily resistence you can read about from black history authors
  • labor: militant labor strikes pre, say, 1930s, strong unions until 1970s
  • sufferage: direct action
  • gay rights: same

so, what i need to be convinced that shouting down the milos of the world is bad is evidence that talk is what had changed the world.

do you know of any evidence that people's minds where changed significantly or mostly due to debate/discussion?

I think for both gay rights & cannabis advocacy, the model that best explains what happened goes something like:

  • Activists do a bunch of public education & direct action to push on the issue
  • The work of the activists moves the Overton window such that more people feel comfortable coming out (as gay, as cannabis users)
  • More & more people come into personal contact with the members of the group in question (gay people, cannabis users)
  • People update their views about the issue via personal interactions with someone they know, who turns out to be a member of the group in question

Not evidence, just a model that might explain how a lot of opinion change happens.

... shouting down the milos of the world is bad is evidence that talk is what had changed the world.

I think shouting down Milos is important & should keep happening to some extent (though I tend to bias towards reasoned discussion & indoor voices).

I also think that too many people are getting pattern-matched as Milos, and shouting down people who have been mis-typed as Milos has negative consequences (via the mechanism I sketched out in the post).

Not evidence, just a model that might explain how a lot of opinion change happens.

I very much like this model, and bullet 4 is where people's minds are changed but it is through personal ties (as you say), discussion (yes) and very much suffused with emotion.

I also think that too many people are getting pattern-matched as Milos, and shouting down people who have been mis-typed as Milos has negative consequences

Again, who are we talking about? Damore-like? Peterson and the whole of the IDW? The unnamed (center? conservative?) academics?

I am not really at this site's level, so perhaps I am missing the point. But I certainly dont see rampant shouting down or personal/prestige/economic harm to average people in the real-world via the Left.

Maybe another question: Who is the Left you are talking about? It seems like mostly college kids with I suppose Antifa thrown in(?). So, how about the DSA (they are "Left" yes?): Is the DSA guilty of what you see happening?

(Finally, feel free to ignore my questions; I have no expectation or believe you are obligated to reply. We are just talking! :))

Again, who are we talking about? Damore-like? Peterson and the whole of the IDW?

As stated in the post, I'm mostly worried about people who start self-policing their speech instead of speaking openly about what they believe. I think there are probably a lot of people like this.

Who is the Left you are talking about?

I have in mind a pretty broad swath, including:

  • Most university administrations
  • Most of the Bay Area tech industry
  • Most of the LA entertainment industry
  • About half of the D.C. lobbying & think tank industry
  • Not sure about New York... maybe 30-40% of Wall Street?

The problem seems to be with the discourse norms of those communities – what is okay to talk about & what isn't in those places. I don't yet have a good model of who sets & maintains those norms.

Is the DSA guilty of what you see happening?

I don't know very much about the DSA, but from a quick scan of their twitter, I'd guess they are within the discourse-sphere I'm worried about.

so i kinda expected those. so do you know of any evidence that people's minds where changed significantly or mostly due to debate/discussion? polls? surveys? ???

If debate / discussion doesn't actually change people minds then it's totally safe to let anyone defend whatever nonsense they want, they're not going to change anyones mind anyway.

Hi! i do (mean to) try to add qualifiers like *mostly* and such to my questioning of whether or not speech/discussion/debate is a great mover of people's minds; certainly in the ultimate, talk is what changes minds, but its talk among people with emotional investment (eg. caring) among themselves, not some grand forum of the public. i mean, where is the "discussion" in a milo-like event?

and similarly, what motivated me to create an account and comment in the first place is my annoyance at the IDW: I think they are whingers (certainly Harris and Peterson), and their assertion that discussion & debate is what is important and yet they dont do it! it seems to me their get togethers are only amongst themselves; Harris certainly has been touring with Peterson, and a couple of events with Weinsteins, but he has explicitly asserted that Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, is irredeemable and undebatable.

perhaps unfairly, i saw this posting in this light: the assertion that there used to be some great time in the past when the "Left" was changing minds through some series of grand public discussions/debates, but lamentably the "Left" has changed(?) been taken over(?) and this no longer happens.

"Memetic" has an unrelated clickbaity connotation so you shouldn't use it. The "outgroup card", perhaps?

What's the unrelated connotation?

"Memetic" is often applied to things some people might want censored. By the Streisand effect, implying that people want to censor an idea triggers human heuristics that seek out useful secrets. (Psychologists hate him!)

By your description, the connotation is chosen perfectly. The point of the memetic weapon is censoring people against whom it is deployed.

The effect you mention is a contributing factor to the moving-to-other-communities-with-bad-norms outcome that ioannes_shade describes.

I meant that calling it memetic weapon makes it sound like some people would like nobody to know about the memetic weapon, so we should come look at it before it's censored.

I'm not talking about the use of the memetic weapon/outgroup card, I'm talking about the term itself. I don't want it to be called memetic if nobody actually has an extraordinary reason to censor it.

I don't think anyone is motivated to explicitly censor talking about the memetic weapon (by putting it on a blacklist or something).

But I do think there's a good chance that memetic weaponry gets deployed against discussion about the memetic weapon.

We both agree about your first paragraph. This whole thread, I never thought someone wants to put it on a black list. Calling it memetic weapon sounds like someone wants to put it on a blacklist. By the Streisand effect, this makes the term clickbait. I keep rephrasing myself and not getting through :(.

I think the area of disagreement we have is that you see it as unrelated and therefore clickbait-y, and I see it as very effectively pointing to the theme of the conversation and therefore not clickbait-y.

The weapon isn't strictly speaking a list of phrases people want blacklisted, but it does correlate pretty strongly. I expect that if you were to identify a case of someone using the memetic weapon, and then ask the person who used it if they thought the phrase which spurred them to use it should be blacklisted, they would often say yes.

Perhaps the crux here is how bad we think clickbait-y titles are.

I think clickbait-y titles are bad if the article's content is low quality. I don't think they're bad otherwise.

Calling it memetic weapon sounds like someone wants to put it on a blacklist.

There are other forms of censorship which are worrisome, though softer than a blacklist.

A similiar polemic, from leftwards perspective can be found at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/30/intersectional-feminism-jargon

The core tenets as I interpret it:

  • Intersectional activism was originally legitimate critique of the materialist left for not being intersectional enough. In this case black feminism being sidelined by mainstream feminism (presumably through internalized racist biases), but there are multiple instances than just this. This critique was largely constructive - for left to function, it is crucial for all allies to be well aligned.
  • Somehow, this got trivialized over time into a "memetic weapon" of South Park style PC populism when intersectionalists started pointing their ire at the centrist and even right mainstream - who are by their own nature navel gazing their own privilege, and generally have no idea what's going on. From center perspective, left is all those poorer people and that's that. Hence the confusion of average centrist when suddenly confronted about microagressions and such - it is way too nuanced and beyond resolution of their perception of privilege.
  • The cooler heads on the left are both mesmerized and terrified by this new form of populism. Finally we have "soft power" over our political opponents, but at the same time, we realize how intellectually (and politically) dishonest all this is. But no matter how clever the newspeak is, it will be always ridiculed in safe spaces when nobody is listening - it can be startup pitching bullshit buzzwords, or mass hysteria at a campus or 4chan harping about immigrants, but ultimately it will be always uncovered for what it is from rational perspective.

What would a crystal ball say how this ends? The extremes will continue to feed off from their respective populist memes. The worst outcome is french revolution, best outcome it grows to such heights it triggers sudden outbreak of common sense moment. For the latter, the assumption is that this works like a "bubble" and we're in hockeystick phase, the market for ideas eventually corrects, breaking the self-reinforcing feedback loop. Just pray we stay solvent until then.