[LINK] Joseph Bottum on Politics as the Mindkiller

by Salemicus1 min read27th Feb 201424 comments

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One of my favourite Less Wrong articles is Politics is the mindkiller. Part of the reason that political discussion so bad is the poor incentives - if you have little chance to change the outcome, then there is little reason to strive for truth or accuracy - but a large part of the reason is our pre-political attitudes and dispositions. I don't mean to suggest that there is a neat divide; clearly, there is a reflexive relation between the incentives within political discussion and our view of the appropriate purpose and scope of politics. Nevertheless, I think it's a useful distinction to make, and so I applaud the fact that Eliezer doesn't start his essays on the subject by talking about incentives, feedback or rational irrationality - instead he starts with the fact that our approach to politics is instinctively tribal.

This brings me to Joseph Bottum's excellent recent article in The American, The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America. This charts what he sees as the tribal changes within America that have shaped current attitudes to politics. I think it's best seen in conjunction with Arnold Kling's excellent The Three Languages of Politics; while Kling talks about the political language and rhetoric of modern American political groupings, Bottum's essay is more about the social changes that have led to these kinds of language and rhetoric.

We live in what can only be called a spiritual age, swayed by its metaphysical fears and hungers, when we imagine that our ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken, but actually evil. When we assume that past ages, and the people who lived in them, are defined by the systematic crimes of history. When we suppose that some vast ethical miasma, racism, radicalism, cultural self-hatred, selfish blindness, determines the beliefs of classes other than our own. When we can make no rhetorical distinction between absolute wickedness and the people with whom we disagree. The Republican Congress is the Taliban. President Obama is a Communist. Wisconsin’s governor is a Nazi.

...

The real question, of course, is how and why this happened. How and why politics became a mode of spiritual redemption for nearly everyone in America, but especially for the college-educated upper-middle class, who are probably best understood not as the elite, but as the elect, people who know themselves as good, as relieved of their spiritual anxieties by their attitudes toward social problems.

Video of a related lecture can also be found here.

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Whenever I read rhetoric like this, I really want the author to make a strong case for this actually being a new phenomenon... that twenty or fifty or a hundred or three hundred or however many years ago this "age" we're asserted to currently be in supposedly started, we didn't imagine that our political opponents were evil and their beliefs the result of various ethical flaws.

Does Bottum?

I strongly doubt it. Mainly because many of the things we recognize and revile in today's political discourse had a thriving existence around the turn of the century: Yellow Journalism, political machines, Anarchists around every corner... And it's hard to argue that, say, the 70's were a more moderated time.

It is possible that specific metaphorical frameworks and memes are more recent and promoted through a greater volume of media than back then, but there is a far greater volume of media in general.

Yeah. I'm no expert, but the impression I get is that it's a lot easier now to find political commentary that makes at least some attempt to acknowledge the existence of multiple factions than it was fifty years ago.

I assume by "turn of the century" you mean the early 1900s?

Yeah... Turn of the Century is getting to be an ambiguous phrase now. But I do mean 1900s

It's possible that we are forced to engage more with peopel we thhink are eivl.

The points he makes would be familiar to those who've read Moldbug.

This may be off topic, but I have never been entirely able to accept that politics is the mind-killer. I suspect that two party politics may be killing the mind while multi-party systems are merely mind-numbing.

Where I live, we currently have 8 parties in parliament, let's call them the infra-reds, reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, indigos and violets. Currently, the blues and violets are in charge, but they need support from either the oranges or the greens and indigos in order to actually pass any laws or regulations. Last year, we had the reds, oranges and yellows in charge. (Nobody ever cares about the infra-reds because they are old-school revolutionary communists, but for some reason they usually manage to grab a seat or two.) My point is that with every decision being an obvious compromise and usually with most of the negotiations between the interesting parties out in the public media, politics is a significantly more nuanced exercise.

Politics in the sense of the title isn't limited to identifying with one faction within a party system; it has more to do with entangling your identity with us-vs.-them factionalism more generally. Now, in a two-party system, the battle lines are drawn a lot more clearly than in a multi-party, which provides the conditions for identifying strongly with a literal political party; a Democratic voter in the US probably thinks of their elections in more partisan terms than a Lib Dem voter in the UK, and both are probably more partisan than a UMP voter in France. But politics isn't just party politics, and it's entirely possible -- common, even -- to mind-kill yourself by identifying with ideologies, concepts, or people that don't align closely with the party system in your country.

These can be as large as nations: read the YouTube comments on anything vaguely touching on international politics for an unfortunate object lesson. Or they can be more-or-less conventionally political movements, just not ones that have clear party representation: libertarianism, say, or social justice. Sometimes they're single issues, like immigration limits or environmentalism. Ethnic or linguistic groups; sex and gender; bodily features; religions; you get the picture. Basically anything where you can draw a line with people like us on one side and people not like us (you know, the bad guys) on the other.

Basically anything where you can draw a line with people like us on one side and people not like us (you know, the bad guys) on the other.

The problem is that this is how human societies operate. Sweeping it all under the mind-killing rug essentially leaves people unable to discuss social issues.

I'd think of it more as pointing out a pervasive bias and suggesting some ways to attack it (i.e. discuss issues at the object level if possible; avoid rhetoric; don't gratuitously insult the opposition) than forbidding discussion altogether. It's almost a cliche by now to point out that Eliezer's politics sequence makes much narrower recommendations than have been attributed to it.

That said, we probably should avoid issues that we've historically been unable to discuss without shedding more heat than light.

That said, we probably should avoid issues that we've historically been unable to discuss without shedding more heat than light.

Another conclusion might be that we should learn to discuss such issues successfully.

I'm not very sanguine about our prospects there. It might be possible, but I've never seen anyone else do it -- there are relatively civil politics boards without limits on scope, but all the ones I'm aware of got that way by effectively banning dissension or by being small enough that the users all know and trust each other. Neither one's practical for LW, and our existing methodology is obviously inadequate.

Well, the journey of a thousand miles and all that... :-)

In LW it could be a rationalist dojo: "So you think you can rationally discuss what the government should do about late-term abortions? SHOW ME!" :-D

LW is already a step above the usual 'net forums. I haven't seen exhortations to think of the children, no one called anyone a traitor recently, direct personal attacks are strongly discouraged, etc.

This one is a rather good example of my original point tbh

All the Scandinavian countries did just this in the 60s and 70s when abortions had become a reasonably safe procedure and all of them ended up with some variant of:

No questions asked in first trimester Medical reasons in second and third trimester Induced birth and adoption if foetus is viable.

And since around 1980, there has been zero controversy on the subject, mostly because just about everyone is happy with things as they are.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

And since around 1980, there has been zero controversy on the subject, mostly because just about everyone is happy with things as they are.

Everybody being happy may not be the only reason why isn't there a controversy. I think controversy also depends on a cultural factor where people really push their own opinion hard vs. just accept whatever the social compromise seems to be.

America is very strongly in the former, passionately political since the New Deal, before that not so much aside from the north-south thing. The UK rather the opposite, this is why Thatcher made such a surprise, they weren't used to a politician with an actual vision, ideology and fire in the belly. Usually UK politicians easily support things that don't really match their ideology, like conservative Churchill supporting the creation of the NHS or Blair's Labour privatizing school playgrounds. I currently live in Austria, which is just about extremely boring, politically, everything is a compromise. Actually the head of the state literally said "I think being boring is a national characteristic here... but it is also OK, people can provide their own excitement, it is not the job of politics." I consider Germany and post-Gaulle France also fairly boring politically. France always has surprises though. Italy, now they are never boring, their politics is an incredible freak show :-) I don't know very much about Scandinavia, they seem to be in between, usually very compromise oriented, but also there always seems to be some kind of current issue to be fired up about. In Sweden it seems it is currently largely feminism, in Denmark it is the stupid car tax that tries to protect the environment by cutting down emissions and its actual effect is people having far older cars in the average than in similar countries, which of course increases emissions. I have discussed this with Danish people and asked them if a strongly anti-car politics means the capitol pushing its own interests on small towns that have very different interests, and they seemed to mainly agree, while driving me around Svenstrup.

An old description of the Balkans comes to mind: "It's the region of Europe which produces much more politics than can be domestically consumed" :-)

Also, keep in mind that there are two antonyms of "boring" -- "exciting" and "entertaining". It's fine for politics to be entertaining (see Italy), but "exciting" is iffy. Syrian politics are very exciting at the moment, for example.

Denmark it is the stupid car tax that tries to protect the environment by cutting down emissions and its actual effect is people having far older cars in the average than in similar countries, which of course increases emissions

What's similar countries for you?According to the numbers I find the Danish fleet is a year younger than Sweden, Iceland and Norways fleet (http://www.icenews.is/2010/03/21/nordic-region-cars-among-europe%E2%80%99s-oldest/).

Even if we grant that? Given that a lot of energy goes into the creation of a car, that's not a straightforward argument. The taxes also reduce car ownership. Cutting down emissions is also not the only reason to tax cars. Cars provide public costs. Large amounts of space is used up by parking. http://www.copenhagenize.com/2012/10/danish-180-tax-on-cars-is-rather.html

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Wow. I just uncritically accepted when my local friends told me their fleet is old. It sounded logical... also the cars in that town really seemed 5+ years.

Parking is not a good argument because it depends where. My whole point is that ideal policy would be cutting down on cars in big cities but leaving them alone in rural areas where they are far more necessary, there are hardly any parking problems, and so on. This is entirely uncontroversial AFAIK it is generally accepted by urbanism experts that the feasibility of public transport depends on population density and especially on people commuting between well defined residential areas (suburbs) to working areas (downtowns usually, or industrial or commercial parks). Bicycling is more of a downtown thing too, beyond 5km distance it is less ideal. People who live in one small town and work in another one 20km away should drive, at best, car-share. So policies should be location based, such as London style entry taxes / congestion charges or Vienna style no free parking.

On a more meta note, on how to design a policy, in so far that it is possible, they should imitate the logic of the markets, that there should be an emerging, dynamic balance generated by different needs. Jack up the price of parking in every location where you really don't want cars. Or even reduce parking spaces. Doing it consistently would also cut down on the number of cars, because when people realize everywhere they want to drive to, mostly at work, is expensive, they will get rid of them, which is exactly what I did. However those people who mainly drive to places where parking is free will keep them, and this is a good thing, because it suggests they are sticking to low-density locations and it is a good choice there.

And since around 1980, there has been zero controversy on the subject, mostly because just about everyone is happy with things as they are.

Given the Swedish attitude towards free speech, are you sure that's a case of "just about everyone is happy with things as they are" and not, nobody dares challenge the consensus for fear of the "anti-fascist" thought police?

This genuinely threw me because I had no idea there was anything wrong with freedom of speech in Sweden. This because I get consistently less flak when I express controversial views among Swedish friends than when among Americans. My handful of Swedish friends appears not to be representative.

On the other hand, the same is true in Norway, Denmark and Finland and they have quite significantly less issues. Also, I realise 'everyone is happy' was poor wording. A better one would be 'everyone has agreed this is a workable compromise that it's not worth fighting over, for a value of everyone that is approx. 95% of the population'

Most people in the US would be happy with those arrangements. The abortion controversy in the US is manufactured - those opposing abortion focus their rhetoric almost entirely on second-and-third trimester abortion, those who support it focus their rhetoric almost entirely on first-trimester abortion, and both sides pretend the other side is talking about the same thing they're talking about.

The controversy, that is, is produced by the opposing sides asking different questions.

~70% of people don't care or want the first trimester to be legal (AFAIK it's legal in all states). ~65% want the second trimester to be illegal (no idea what the legal status is). ~80% want the last trimester to be illegal (It is illegal in all but 8 states).

~75% want abortion to be legal for medical reasons, regardless of trimester.

About 30% of the US population would be unhappy with the Swedish arrangement. http://www.gallup.com/poll/1576/abortion.aspx

Compare that to the manufactured controversy: http://townhall.com/tipsheet/guybenson/2014/03/10/cnn-poll-58-percent-of-americans-oppose-abortion-in-all-or-most-circumstances-n1806283

Most people in the US would be happy with those arrangements. The abortion controversy in the US is manufactured - those opposing abortion focus their rhetoric almost entirely on second-and-third trimester abortion, those who support it focus their rhetoric almost entirely on first-trimester abortion, and both sides pretend the other side is talking about the same thing they're talking about.

And yet look what happens when people try to bad third trimester abortions.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

But why cannot it be done e.g. by a largely pro-capitalism fellow writing a charitable steelman overview of anti-capitalist sentiments? How would it not have the effect of un-mindkilling? I actually intend to try it and I would try it here in LW Discussion if not for the fear that it will be downvoted be the strictly anti-politics members.

Theoretically? No reasons other than those I've given above. But empirically it's awfully rare to do that successfully, and people have tried. About the only ones I've been happy with are written by our own Scott Alexander (of slatestarcodex), and his politics are close enough to mine that I don't totally trust my judgment there; I'm more libertarian than he is, but that's a relatively petty difference given what he tends to write about.

The more common outcome is that a writer sets out to build with steel but inadvertently builds with straw, not so much maliciously as through honest misunderstanding of the opposition, and is only confirmed by the exercise in their existing beliefs. We're very good at fooling ourselves into thinking that more or less subtle caricatures accurately represent our opponents' motives.

And I expect I'll probably catch some flak for saying so, but I don't have much faith in LW's ability to move past that stage.