Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tribalism as Bad Faith

I know I've said all this before, but I wish more people would assess political bloggers (and contributions to public debate more generally) on their intellectual honesty and other rational virtues, rather than anything so vulgar as their partisan credentials.

With that in mind, Infinite Injury's defense of Ann Coulter is the single most admirable blog post I've read all month:
Ann Coulter generates a lot of controversy, mostly because she says some really stupid shit but I’m absolutely totally shocked and horrified at the latest kerfuffle she has spawned [re: "want[ing] Jews to be perfected"]. But this time, for a change, she was being perfectly reasonable (well except for believing in god) and it is her critics that are totally fucking nuts.

(Read on for the explanation.) In a later post, he asks, "what explains the outraged reactions we see in some cases [but not others]?"
I think the clear answer here is that people are parsing these statements as matters of identity an allegiance rather than actual factual claims. People aren’t so much interested in the actual content of the issue or even so much whether you have noble intents but whether you’re with us or with them.

This is exactly right and, moreover, completely intolerable. If we really care about what's right and good, then we should take greater care to work out what really is right and good, rather than just getting huffy at the opposing tribe whenever an opportunity presents itself. It's not a priori that our team is always right, after all. But too many moralists seems to assume exactly that -- casting doubt on the sincerity of their "moral concern".

Of broader concern is the fact that we get the democracy we deserve. So, to avoid screwing up the world too badly, we really ought to start acting like better citizens. Partisanship is simply evil, and so are we insofar as we enable and perpetuate it.

A sad illustration of this can be found in this comments thread at the Feminist Philosophers blog, where the inaptronymic 'Dove' starts yelling and swearing at another commenter for pointing out that there's an uncontroversial sense in which "there are too many abortions" is true. Shameful. I mean, what are the chances of coming to the right result if one cannot even think straight? Multiply that by a few million, and ta-da: welcome to our democracy.

It's noteworthy how tribalism precludes good-faith cooperation among diverse parties. Anyone who so appears to deviate from the accepted party line is immediately ostracized, labelled as the "enemy", and attacked accordingly. No longer can we question and inquire together towards an ideal of the common good that is recognized as potentially outstripping our present beliefs. Without the shared commitment to rationalism, we're left with a shallow and belligerent subjectivism: either you're with me, or you're against me. Now, where's my gun?

17 comments:

  1. I wish I had something intelligent to say, but the best I can come up with is, RIGHT ON!

    The number of political blogs I read is fast approaching zero because the signal to partisan noise ratio on even the best of them is miniscule.

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  2. I agree. I saw Anne's comment and it seemed no more offensive than Judaism or Islam or anything else along those lines. It was of course put in a way that could be seen as offensive but maybe those people who took offense just need to stop being so ultra sensitive.

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  3. And Matthew Yglesias proves once more that he's one of the best in the blogging game:

    This is an uncomfortable thing for Jewish people to think about, but isn't that actually a very banal baseline belief of all Christians and Muslims everywhere? Jews don't evangelize like this, and I don't think Hindus do either, but our world's great crusading faiths certainly do and converting everyone is . . . the whole point! This is one reason -- probably the reason -- that whatever the electoral politics of the matter, it's probably not a great idea to encourage politicians to "talk about faith" more. For America to work as an enterprise you need people with deeply held but mutually inconsistent religious beliefs to all work and live together peacefully. Rubbing everyone's noses in the precise implications of other people's beliefs (Christians think Jews shouldn't exist, Jews think Christians are worshipping a false messiah, Protestants think Catholics worship idols, etc.) isn't really helpful.

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  4. I think it's worthwhile to keep in mind that the ideal of the citizen is fast disappearing in the US. Patriotism is generally considered more ridiculous than intense religious conviction, and it's certainly rarer. Even when Americans self-describe as patriotic, they generally mean something like 'culturally conservative'. Lately there's been a 'liberals are patriotic too' trope traveling around, but even there the 'patriotism' is really about belonging to a certain political/cultural movement. The number of people who actually regard the state or the nation as a thing of value, which proscribes certain rules and behavior, is very, very small. People at this point are primarily loyal to a ideological/cultural/religious movement, a tribe as you put it, and see the state, not as an authority, but rather a powerful instrument for advancing the interests of their tribe.

    But that's bad. True. But there's something of a prisoner's dilemma going on here. You don't want to be the first one waving the white flag, saying, "let's all be fellow-citizens again". For left-wingers at this point, trying to turn Coulter into a hated pariah is probably the smartest strategy around. This isn't noble, but you win elections with the electorate you have, and right now that electorate divides into partisans, and spectators who enjoy blood-sport.

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  5. It seems to me that you have spent a lot of posts lamenting the low quality of democratic discourse and the public's lack of desire for high quality discourse.
    I have a few questions.
    As an American it seems like you are talking about US politics. US politics is a mess but surely you have experience with New Zealand politics that we would find interesting and informative. How different is it? That could easily fit into a post some time.
    If the people don't want rational discourse who are you to say they should and what good does it do to simply condemn them as evil or the situation as "intolerable"? It seems a lot more useful to live with that knowledge and try to do what you can to see that decisions of importance are made via rational discourse without significant inputs from people who don't care for rational discourse and that people who don't want rational discourse have lots of outlets, such as professional sports and tabloid news, in which to vent their desire for the very natural feelings associated with tribalism, feelings which they want, e.g. which are a valued part of their pseudo-utility-function.

    Very broadly, "should" statements, it seems to me, are only usefully applied to people who share participation in your discourse. It's not even meaningful to say "should" except as a synonym for "I wish" of the behaviors of inanimate objects, the laws of physics, or people who are not engaged with you in a high quality discourse. It is therefore, not legitimate except as a wish to say that the public "should" do anything in particular, but only to say that you or your more engaged readers "should" do something in particular, probably *not* the thing you wish the public would do unless you are a Kantian.

    Even as a wish, as with the laws of physics you probably don't really know what you would be wishing for. If I wish for Superman to be real am I dooming those who get hit by Kryptonite meteors, the citizens of Krypton, and the scientists who waste their lives trying to understand the impossible physics that allows him? Wishing for a radically different public probably involves similar impossibilities, just substitute game theory and evolutionary history for physics.

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  6. Michael,
    I think I am on board with richard, and if so then the point is that it is what would be best for everyone on average, and in fact that the vast majority of people in such a would would probably think it was batter.

    This is fairly equivilent to a situation where you can negotiate or you can punch the other guy a world where only option two is available would surely be a less plesant one for almost everyone by most standards.

    Having said that I sympathise with your sentiment. I agree that 'I wish' statements tend to be vague, and htat should implies a value system which might need to be explicitly stated.

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  7. Seems awfully like saying that it would be best for everyone if practically everyone was a much better person to the point of largely being a different person. True in some sense, but in a sense we care about?

    Chimps live in a world where they can't negotiate. The only option for them is to punch the other guy (if not chimps, substitute an animal of your choice) Would it be best for chimpanzees if they were all humans instead of being chimpanzees? It would be better for chimps if someone else with their interests at heart arranged it so that they never had to get punched too hard.

    I want to turn the world over into the hands of an extrapolation of my volition, not to replace myself with an extrapolation of my volition. By all means make the world perfect by my standards, but excuse me if I deny the invitation to make me, by your standards and mine, the sort of person who tends most strongly to make perfect worlds.

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  8. I'm sorry but this is total bullshit.
    This country has been hijacked by a well orchastrated campaign typical of many facist takeovers in the twentieth century - an unholy alliance between corporatist interest and an ignorant, bigoted group of traditionalist- in this case, called "movement conservatism". We are well past the time when one can reasonably talk about Ann Coulter and somehow fail to notice that she plays the social role not of provocateur but of "transmitter" - she helps signal bigots outside the mainstream that, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, the mainstream conservative movement is really on your side we just can't say it straight out.
    Yes, politics and political blogging is dominated by tribalism, because the liberals are finally trying to band together to push back against a political movement that has undermined basic America values - civil liberties, equal oppurtunity, and economic justice -and seems poised on the brink of an actual outright overthrow. When one side of a "debate" consistantly argues in bad faith, calls for an end to partisanship or "tribalism" function as calls for the the capitulation of the side that remains arguing in good faith. I am fairly sure you make the call in good faith, but, unfortunately, David Broder and many in the mainstream corportate media do not. Even more unfortunately, good faith calls for an end to partisanship probably do even more damage than the transparently ridiculous ones that right wing partisans make.
    Indeed, this post reminds me of one of the reasons I am no longer a philosophy professor: this sort of abstract, philosophical analysis without any sense of history, social context, or empirical grounding does more to distort most issues than clarify them. Hence, the peevish reception philosophers so often receive from their collegues in linguistics, history, psychology, or other fields. Abstractly analyzing the terms of discourse can just as easily hide the truth as uncover it.

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  9. I sympathize with Tim's post, and generally agree, except that I wish there was a paragraph break before "When one side of a "debate" consistantly argues in bad faith, calls for an end to partisanship or "tribalism" function as calls for the the capitulation of the side that remains arguing in good faith.". I think the post is more generally relevant from that sentence on, as the earlier parts are plausibly subject to criticism for being overly emotional and insufficiently general.

    More broadly, it seems to me that Richard tends to try to make political statements at a level of generality and idealism so great as to have no relevance to the real world. By the Aumann Agreement Theorem we know that if people were arguing in good faith they would have NO FACTUAL DISAGREEMENTS! The fact that we can't even imagine that holding on a political level implies that we can't even imagine good faith politics. Acting as if what we actually have is a reasonably close approximation of good faith politics so we can transfer conclusions from the assumption of good faith to an analysis of the real world is equivalent to refusal to talk about politics at all while pretending to do so. If I'm not going to talk politics I'd rather talk ontology or economics or something, not discuss ultra-high-brow pro-capitulation propaganda.

    http://www.sl4.org/archive/0503/11138.html

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  10. Three quick clarifications:

    (1) I'm not demanding that everyone spend their evenings modeling ideal political debate. Just that if you're going to debate at all, then don't be intellectually dishonest as you do so. Do it right, or not at all. If you're feeling tribal, go to a sports game, or find some other harmless way to vent it. Keep out of politics.

    (2) Maybe ideally rational Bayesians would have no factual disagreements, but my standards for "good faith" are rather more easily met. I can easily imagine good faith political debate, because I have participated in such.

    (3) I am not advocating any kind of Broderian 'a pox on both their houses' bipartisanship. I'm just saying, tell it how it is. Reality has a well-known liberal bias, so I don't imagine this leading to any kind of "oh, I guess the Republicans aren't so bad after all" whitewashing. The point is, there are enough grounds where they truly warrant criticism, that pretending Coulter is anti-Semitic is just a totally pointless distraction. Find the real evil things she's said, and complain about those instead. (Even from a strategic standpoint, won't your criticisms have more bite if the audience knows not to dismiss you as a mere partisan hack?)

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  11. (1) I'm not demanding that everyone spend their evenings modeling ideal political debate. Just that if you're going to debate at all, then don't be intellectually dishonest as you do so. Do it right, or not at all. If you're feeling tribal, go to a sports game, or find some other harmless way to vent it. Keep out of politics.


    I'd say if you are going to debate at all, debate to win. If intellectual honesty was the order of the day you wouldn't have debates, you would have discussion... and unimaginably better policies and standards of living than we actually have. Keep deontology out of politics. Don't defect first in prisoner's dillemmas, but don't cooperate after the millionth defection on the grounds that you don't want to play "always defect".

    (2) Maybe ideally rational Bayesians would have no factual disagreements, but my standards for "good faith" are rather more easily met. I can easily imagine good faith political debate, because I have participated in such.


    I have actually dealt with people with whom factual disagreements instantly evaporate. It doesn't require ideal Bayesian behavior. Feynman says he encountered it for the first time when he went to work in the Manhattan Project. It exists, but it's rare.


    (Even from a strategic standpoint, won't your criticisms have more bite if the audience knows not to dismiss you as a mere partisan hack?)


    Empirically I don't think it will.

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  12. When you become tribal you start to believe your own hype and loose touch with reality.

    Many a great disaster was the result of missing an elephant in the room. Things like land reforms designed to help the poor. Soon it will be starvation due to "renewable" fuels.

    Also it seems that many on the left just don't understand their enemy. If you are entirely tribal you cripple your ability to understand and if you don't understand you cripple your ability to act intelligently.

    Anyway, maybe it is better if China just takes over in the next 20 years or so - then it wont matter who wins the internal battle.

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  13. I definitely don't think that serious people should use politics as a source of tribal feeling. As noted, if they want that there's sports. I'm recommending that they not believe that the public "should" behave other than as the public is deterministically certain to behave and act according to how the public predictably will behave, not how they should behave, preferably without emotionally condemning the public in the process.

    A more powerful China is already probably a good thing. I wonder if America would have invaded Iran too if its power was really unchecked by near peers.

    Neither left or right engage the other or understand the other, but the strategy used on the right doesn't depend upon understanding and wouldn't benefit from it. Pure slander and aggression works just as well if its details are entirely unfounded, as in "I invented the internet" or Swiftboat. The left not only doesn't use such strategies, it also doesn't respond intelligently when they are used, instead trying again and again to argue rationally as if they were actually engaged in conversation by a legitimate opponent.

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  14. "I think it's worthwhile to keep in mind that the ideal of the citizen is fast disappearing in the US. Patriotism is generally considered more ridiculous than intense religious conviction, and it's certainly rarer."

    Not so fast. Citizenship is very different from patriotism.

    Citizenship is about demanding the best society (in terms of human ecology) that the state's capacity can provide. Nationalism (aka patriotism) is about glorifying the state's power and claiming a sort of innate "moral high-ground."

    The day patriotism gasps its last breath will be a glorious day. It has only served to fuel us-them dogma.

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  15. You're complaining that the blogs that make an effort to agree with the largest number of people are the most popular.

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  16. Tim said:

    We are well past the time when one can reasonably talk about Ann Coulter and somehow fail to notice that she plays the social role not of provocateur but of "transmitter" - she helps signal bigots outside the mainstream that, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, the mainstream conservative movement is really on your side we just can't say it straight out.


    The problem with this argument is that it can't justify outrage at this particular comment.

    Let's stipulate (since you aren't objecting to this) that sufficient logical insight applied to christian dogma necessarily yields the claim that if Christianity is true then it would be desirable for jews to convert. Now it is already publicly known that Ann Coulter is an avowed christian.

    So when the interviewer asks Ann Coulter whether she thinks jews should convert to christianity what would you have predicted her response to be? There are a couple options.

    1) You would have guessed she would be too dumb to realize the logical consequence.

    2) You would have guessed she would lie to avoid controversy.

    3) You would have guessed that she would deliberately choose really really provocative words and tried to be super offensive about it.

    4) You would have guessed she would acknowledge the logical consequence but try hard to downplay it and avoid any potentially offensive or antisemitic misunderstandings. Even deliberately searching for the least confrontational way to make this point.

    Now 4 is the actual way she behaved so unless you both believe it would have been superior for her to lie about it and assigned that a non-trivial probability then your opinion of Coulter can't be any worse after the incident than before it.

    In other words using this incident to blast Coulter violates Bayes' theorem.

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