Political tribes work by allowing people to emit costly signals of fealty to a tribe, where that signal of fealty ties your social status to the tribe's social status. So joining a political tribe is a status bet: you're hoping[1] that the tribe will gain in group status, relative to rival political tribes. If you called it well, you'll rise in social status with your tribe. Social status is a matter of relative position in a prestige order, so these group-status competitions are zero-sum.

Political tribes are horrifyingly successful in the social media age. Certainly, monotheistic faiths and the 20th-century political ideologies and nationalism were similarly effective phenomena. But living in the post-scarcity First World, people seem to want to spend a lot of their wealth on playing the zero-sum game about prestige ordering, online and otherwise.

People who have never really understood any other way to use words and arguments will sometimes say things like, "everything is political." I think this means something like: "there are no interesting, purely predictive uses of language that avoid signaling in some group-status relevant manner; anyone claiming so is actually making a status move by trying to arrogate the title of 'neutral.'"

This is just false. Beyond being motivated, though, it's epistemically evil! It's just plain wrong that we have to live in an adversarial communicative environment where we can't just take claims at face value without considering political-tribe-maneuvering implications. This is not a satisfactory equilibrium! In a mindkilled age, when egregores propagate freely in the medium of human psychology and bash in our ability to think, it's especially important to state directly: being "political" is unequivocally epistemically bad. And being epistemically weak is in turn bad for your goals, whatever they are. Raising the instrumental-rationality waterline is the common instrumental interest of many final causes.


There's no real contradiction in explicitly joining the anti-tribe tribe. It's just false that you can't get better at being a better-calibrated observer by trying hard at it. One of the most basic rationalist insights is that the best way to accomplish your goals, whatever those goals are, is to try directly. If you want to be less political, try directly first.

I bet that a core tenet of the Neo-Enlightenment project we're trying to carry out will be building a culture inimical to egregores. I bet a big part of that is simply avowing that, in my culture, I'm anti-political-tribe. I'm not secretly banking social status to later pledge to some political tribe's maneuvering; I just actually want to make apolitical predictions. I'd sign a commitment to that effect, if I could.

  1. ^

    "Hoping" and "betting" here can be largely unconscious, strategically-hidden-from-yourself-and-then-retroactively-completely-memory-holed mental motions. Unusually elaborate mental motions like these are typical for social status games; we were fine tuned for those tasks in our ancestral environment, and so have a lot of relevant purpose-build psychological hardware.

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I think that's all pretty overstated. Yes, there is absolutely truth in it, but it's not the entire story. And I think this part in particular is really going too far:

People who have never really understood any other way to use words and arguments will sometimes say things like, "everything is political." I think this means something like: "there are no interesting, purely predictive uses of language that avoid signaling in some group-status relevant manner; anyone claiming so is actually making a status move by trying to arrogate the title of 'neutral.'"

I have sometimes said that, usually to people who were building technology, not just talking. What I usually meant by it was "You are intransigently trying to ignore the fact that what you are doing will have effects beyond those you're admitting to, and has different consequences for different groups (and usually just happens to give a relative advantage to you or to some group you're in)".

And even simple flat-out facts also have consequences for political disputes. Almost any fact is politically convenient or inconvenient for somebody, if for no other reason than that people have sometimes actually picked their political positions because of those facts. Somebody's choosing to assign salience to one set of facts, while ignoring another set of facts that are equally important, is almost always political. And people do do that while claiming neutrality.

You don't have to deny reality to notice that people slant things.

By the way, "People who have never really understood any other way to use words and arguments" is a pretty strong rhetorical attack...

Agree. This interpretation of "everything is political" is very uncharitable and hints at not actually trying to figure out what people who say such a phrase mean by it. Politics isn't just a status game, it's a mechanism of coordination which directly affects the way the reality will be. And even if people can swear under a truth spell that they do not have any ulterior motive it doesn't abolish them from the political consequences of their actions.

This is currious in the light of being in anti-political tribe idea. Strawmanning is one of the most common failure mod of political thinking and it seems that David fails for it because, while his goal is to combat tribalism, he tries to do it with the tribal way of thinking. I don't think that's going to work. The fight against tribalism is a constant struggle against enthropy not just a matter of choosing the right side.

"You are intransigently trying to ignore the fact that what you are doing will have effects beyond those you're admitting to, and has different consequences for different groups (and usually just happens to give a relative advantage to you or to some group you're in)".

I don't think this is a very different claim from

"there are no interesting, purely predictive uses of language that avoid signaling in some group-status relevant manner; anyone claiming so is actually making a status move by trying to arrogate the title of 'neutral.'"


And even simple flat-out facts also have consequences for political disputes. Almost any fact is politically convenient or inconvenient for somebody, if for no other reason than that people have sometimes actually picked their political positions because of those facts. Somebody's choosing to assign salience to one set of facts, while ignoring another set of facts that are equally important, is almost always political. And people do do that while claiming neutrality.

There might be two senses of "political" that you're moving between here. The first is "dealing with political topics at all," and the second is "will redistribute status in the group-status game." I readily admit that simple apparently apolitical facts can have political-affairs-relevant implications, and lead people to update their views on political affairs.

But it's this bit that I'm worried about:

Somebody's choosing to assign salience to one set of facts, while ignoring another set of facts that are equally important, is almost always political. And people do do that while claiming neutrality.

People can do this, when they're in the trenches jockeying for status. But there's also such a thing as credibly signaling your apolitical status, and not selectively filtering evidence based on its implications for your egregore. We should try hard to do more of the latter, and opt out of the egregore-status game.

People can do this, when they're in the trenches jockeying for status. But there's also such a thing as credibly signaling your apolitical status, and not selectively filtering evidence based on its implications for your egregore. We should try hard to do more of the latter, and opt out of the egregore-status game.

OK... but in my experience people don't go around randomly just saying "everything is political". They say it in response to somebody else saying something like "let's not make this political". And almost always, that other person is saying "let's not make this political" so that they can claim that "their" facts and concerns are in a magic apolitical category, whereas "your" facts and concerns are the political ones.

It's something you say when an interlocutor seems to be trying to bound the debate in a way that is politically convenient for them, while denying that fact. It's not something you just bring up.

Advice not to filter evidence isn't very useful to a person who is complaining that the other person is filtering evidence.

On edit: one other thing, similar to what Ape in the coat said: politics isn't just about status. Politics is very often about negotiating on object level consequences. It's very possible to be very deeply involved in very political debates for partially or even entirely non-status reasons.

Use more words.  Some are interpreting "everything is political" as a statement that there are political ramifications and consequences to (almost) everything, IN ADDITION to having some non-political motivations or aspects.  Some interpret it as a denial that there are non-political motivations or aspects to be had, and everything is SOLELY political.  

Specify which you mean, and at least some of the disagreement dissolves.  

I think it would be helpful to have maybe three examples of rationalists being apolitically truth-seeking and getting accused of hidden motivations. So that there is something concrete to talk about.

Agreed with horrifying, disagree with incorrect.  You cannot actually opt-out of status games and evaluations that others will make about you.  Joining the anti-tribe tribe is going to affect your status.  This is mostly because modern tribes are overlapping - saying you reject other tribes doesn't keep members of those tribes from judging you and acting on those judgements.  You're implicitly treated as a member (or target) of every tribe that you interact with.

However it's simply not true that all beliefs and communications are purely zero-sum status relationships.  In fact, almost all actions and statements are mixed games, with some elements of zero-sum status, some of variable-sum status (making your entire group higher status, even if your status doesn't change), some of zero-sum non-status (say, taking more of a trade surplus), and some variable-sum non-status (actually producing value).

You can influence that mix with your decisions.

This is slightly tangential to your main point but seems important to interject:

I think you're disoriented about what kind of thing an egregore is.

Like, near the end you say:

I bet that a core tenet of the Neo-Enlightenment project we're trying to carry out will be building a culture inimical to egregores.

That doesn't actually make sense. What's a non-egregoric culture?

The whole point of the "egregore" term is to notice how biological metaphors apply to patterns of human behavior. So to the extent that we can talk about (say) cats "wanting" things or "trying to" make certain things happen, we can say the same thing about social movements and cultures and other groups.

You can't get away from this. If there's a big, powerful movement that starts to tear down all things identifiable as egregores… well, guess what kind of thing that movement is!

(Appropriately enough, it'd be a postmodern egregore, completely with postmodernism's paradoxes and probably with postmodern strategies for avoiding facing those paradoxes. "Oh, nothing is absolutely true, huh? Is that claim absolutely true?" This glitch prevents postmodern egregores from becoming fully self-aware. Wokism being the loudest current example I know of.)

I don't think this takes away from your main point. Some egregores really are about sweeping people up and blinding them, and I read you as pointing at something that opposes that kind of egregore.

I just want to note that even if you're exactly right about your main point, it'd be because you're describing something about the hyperobject ecosystem, not because you've identified something that prevents such an ecosystem from influencing you.

It's just plain wrong that we have to live in an adversarial communicative environment where we can't just take claims at face value without considering political-tribe-maneuvering implications.

Oh? Why is it wrong and what prevents you from ending up in this equilibrium in the presence of defectors?

More generally, I have ended up thinking people play zero-sum status games because they enjoy playing zero-sum status games; evolution would make us enjoy that. This would imply that coordination beats epistemics, and historically that's been true.

explicitly joining the anti-tribe tribe

My brain wonders how best to go about this.  I'm not sure if this is what you had in mind, but at any rate, the first idea that comes to mind is to publicly maintain a list of positions you hold that would get you kicked out of every major tribe.  (Sort of analogous to having a bookshelf where you prominently display copies of The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Atlas Shrugged; I've met people who do something like this.)

A failure mode that comes to mind is people selecting "disagreements" that wouldn't actually get them kicked out of a tribe (like "I disagree with party X's policy Y... because I don't think it goes far enough!").  It also seems possibly dangerous to succeed too well at this, and actually get kicked out of everywhere... ideally there would be enough non-tribal infrastructure that would support you.

Why are you using what I presume is your real name here?

I'm not actually interested in whether or not it is your real name, mind; mostly I'd like to direct your attention to the fact that the choice of username was in fact a choice.  That choice imparts information.  By choosing the username that you did, you are, deliberately or not, engaging in a kind of signaling.

In particular, from a particular frame of reference, you are engaging in a particular kind of costly signaling, which may serve to elevate your relative local status, by tying any reputational hits you may suffer as a result of mis-steps here to your real identity.  You are saying "This is me, I am not hiding behind false identities."  The overall effect of this is a costly signal which serves to elevate your status with the tribe here.

If it isn't your real name, why are you using a false identity that looks like a real identity?

Hang up, though.  Let us say instead that you, instead, see false identities as a form of dishonesty; this isn't signaling, this is sticking to principles that are important to you.

Well, if that is the case, another question: Would you use this identity to say something that does have strong reputational costs associated to your real identity?  Let us say that you would, you just don't have any such things to say.

Well, it is convenient for you, some might observe, that you are willing to stand up for principles that don't cost you anything.  (Hence some part of why signaling tends to be costly; it avoids this problem.)

I will observe there is an important political dispute about anonymity on the internet, which has major communal aspects.  The fewer users who insist on privacy, the more that commercial websites can exclude those who do.  Oh, you don't want us tracking you?  You don't get to use our website anymore.  Observe the trend in websites, such as Twitter, of becoming increasingly user-unfriendly to those who are not logged in, or of excluding them altogether.

"Everything is political" is an observation that this phenomenon is, basically, universal.

Once we observe that there -is- a political implication in your choice of username, we must ask whether you -ought- to do anything about it; a lot of people like to skip this question, but it is an important question.  Do you "owe" it to the people who prefer anonymity, to yourself remain anonymous?  The pro-anonymity side would be really well served if everybody was forced to be anonymous; they are certainly better served if the choice is explicitly served (hence the EU rules on website cookies) instead of anonymity being opt-in instead of opt-out.

However, there are also people who don't want to be anonymous, or who don't want to interact with anonymous people; certainly there's the potential for some power imbalances there.

We've happened upon some kind of uneasy mostly-truce, where anonymity is contextual, and violating another person's anonymity is seen as a violation of the cultural norms of the internet.  This truce is eroding; as fewer and fewer people choose to be anonymous, a higher and higher proportion of anonymous actions are those which would impose costs on the speaker if the speaker chose not to be anonymous, which makes anonymity an increasingly sinister-looking choice.

Imagine being a writer in a group of blogs with a common user system, moderating comments.  To begin with, all the blogs allow anonymous comments.  However, after one too many abusive comments, a blog bans anonymous commenters;  some percentage of previously-anonymous commenters value commenting there enough to create accounts, reducing the number of "legitimate" anonymous comments in the ecosystem as a whole.  This makes anonymous comments look worse, prompting the next blog to turn them off, then the next.

Look, the pro-anonymity people say, you're making a choice to oppose an anonymous internet; you're against us.

Well, there's definitely an "is" there.  What's missing is the "ought", the idea that the political implications of an act create individual responsibility.  There's a very deep topic here, relating to the way certain preferences are also natural attractor states, whose satisfaction rules out opposing preferences, but this comment is already long enough.