Tag Archives: politics

Are we hitting peak social justice?

I have a prediction, and it’s this: outraged social norming on the political left is close to a tipping point beyond which the left will begin to collapse under the constraints of its own narrative. 

Do I like this prediction? No, I do not. Do I want it to be true? No. Do I have opinions about it? Yes, of course. But in this post I want to try to talk about what I think I see, rather than what I believe is right. I’m deliberately going to try to resist expressing direct sentiment here about the norming itself, or its moral value, or its targets. And that’s because I believe in a lot of the things that are being pushed for in the public dialog on the internet, but don’t want this post to automatically be about the value of my opinions or anyone else’s. Because that kind of exchange is part of what I see as the problem.

My goal here, instead, is to lay out the observations and reasons that led me to this prediction. If you disagree about the prediction and have evidence of a trend that balances it, I’d like to hear about it and know your reasoning. If you agree, then please feel free to help me figure out what the hell we can do about. And in any case, we’ll be able to watch what happens over the next five years to see if my fears play out.

I first became seriously worried about how the left-leaning dialog on the internet was functioning during the reaction to Patricia Arquette’s Oscars debacle. She made an impassioned speech about gender equality and subsequently made a less than stellar remark in the pressroom which social media seemed to pay far more attention to than her initial remarks. I didn’t understand at the time why commenters on the left would seemingly push so hard to take down a highly visible public figure promoting a progressive agenda, albeit in a flawed way.

I later learned about the internet debate around an essay written by Jonathan Chait, in which he criticized what he saw as a growing culture of political correctness. (I was apparently the last person on the internet to hear about this.) Jon’s concern was that the culture of the left was alienating its own liberal allies.

The number of loud, critical responses that were made to his piece are too numerous to link to here. If you’re interested, just google ‘jon chait pc’ and read what comes back. A lot of it is very interesting.

One particular line of reasoning that I encountered several times while reading through the responses to his piece was this: where is your actual evidence that the current form of social critiquing is doing more harm than good? 

It’s natural to see where this question comes from. A lot of the loudest, and most proactive commentary on the left comes from people who are urgently trying to advance a social good. Nobody wants to hear that their best attempts to improve the world may be counterproductive, even though the scale of their response kind of made Jon’s point for him. However, the consensus seemed to be that Jon Chait had no real data. He had anecdotes, some of which were questionable.

However, this year, we were presented with some very powerful and informative data: the surprise success of the conservative party in the British election. Against expectations, Labor were trounced. I say this as someone hoping they would win.

When British analysts attempted to understand why the polls had provided such wrong predictions of the election outcome, one phrase was extensively employed: ‘shy Tories’. In other words, people who’d decided to vote Conservative, but didn’t want to admit it.

In the wake of the Conservative victory, it wasn’t hard to find articles like this one, decrying the left as founded on a philosophy of exclusion and hate. There were other, more subdued articles such as this in the Guardian, that attempted to understand what had happened. Broadly speaking, it seemed that Britain had become increasingly populated with people whose views had not skewed left even though the dialog around them had.

I am not proposing here that the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon was exclusively responsible for the Conservative win. It wasn’t. There was far more to the election than that. What I am doing, though, is pointing out that this is a national-level example of a particular social mechanism at work.

People’s opinions can fall out of step with the public narrative that surrounds them. When this happens, they will not necessarily admit it, but they may polarize against the narrative, and then subsequently act to obstruct or destroy it.  

Note that this phenomenon has nothing to do with the social value of the narrative being engaged in or who has the moral high-ground. All that needs to happen for the narrative to fail is that enough people feel that they cannot participate in it.

What is happening in Britain, though, is just one part of a dialog happening throughout the western world. Changes in one country will not necessarily repeat elsewhere. So, in order to make a guess about the future, it’d be useful to have some small, yet relatively globalized microcosm of politics where we could watch the polarization of social dialog play out.

Fortunately we science fiction enthusiasts have one. The tiny, hyperbolic world of fandom may give us a glimpse of the future. And yes, I’m talking about the dreaded Hugos debate again.

What amazes me most at this point about the Hugos fight is that posts are still appearing. The battle continues. The best post I saw recently was this one by Eric Flint, which I think shows both his wisdom and his exhaustion. I found myself wondering how people in the community had the energy to sustain their anger.

I now think I understand what is going on. People are validating on the conflict on both sides. By which I mean that in taking up an entrenched position and defending it, they are experiencing a neurological reward, regardless of how coherent or self-consistent that position is. Consequently, they will probably keep at it until something more distracting comes along.

If this pattern starts repeating itself in mainstream society, I suspect that the current progressive narrative on the internet will split. In the worst case, the consensus may go into reverse. We should not kid ourselves that social progress has enjoyed a smooth linear development.

Specifically, I would propose, a progressive agenda tends to have greater traction during times of collective prosperity, when the constraints on individuals are reduced. When inequality begins to dominate, social constraints tighten. Ironically, people usually become more right-wing as their freedoms shrink, sometimes dramatically so. They look around for someone to blame who they can actually reach and affect, rather than the financial barons that they cannot. Witness the rise of the radical right in Europe happening right now.

There is a lag, though—a period in which freedoms are reducing while the juggernaut of social commentary continues undeterred. I fear that we are in that gap right now. That scares me because only a unified, inclusive, non-judgmental left has any chance against the accelerating might of the world’s oligarchical class.

In reality, almost all of us are on the same side, because we will rise or fall together. Everyone who can remember how many houses they own on a given day is on our side. Everyone who struggles with the payments on their second yacht is on our side. Everyone who owns a plane but not their own jet is on our side. I say this because all of these people will suffer in the power-lockout that is evolving, even if they cannot see it yet.

And everyone who makes copious mistakes in their vision of social inclusion, but is nevertheless ready to stand up and act to defend inclusion, is on our side. To argue otherwise, I’d propose, is to participate in the death of progressivism, rather than to lead it.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July of this year.)

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On Ostracism

In my last post, I talked about the current woes over the Hugo awards, but all the while I was writing it, I felt like there was a major point that I was missing out. That point was larger than SF fandom, and instead said something about the difference between the country I was born in (UK) and the one I live in now (US), so I left it aside.

Then, after I made the post, a commenter (AG) made the following remark:

I would also add that nobody doubts the benefits of diversity (at least nobody seems to in the sad puppies’ camp). We only differ in thinking that ideological diversity is good too.

I find AG’s comment, while apparently heartfelt, something of a stretch. (BTW, thank you for your input, AG.) While I trust that AG speaks fairly of his own opinion, some members of the Sad Puppy camp have been extremely vocal in their criticism of ways of life different from their own. That criticism does not always appear to have been designed to encourage dialog.

But my point here is not to indulge my own opinions (which lean left), or to add to the already impressive mass of Hugo-related rhetoric. Rather I was inspired by AG’s comment to address that missing critical point.

I wanted to ask the following question: what has happened to American public discourse, and can we fix it?

Science fiction fandom in the US has become tribal, as have many elements of American life. People have grown angry. One side feels impatient for change that it sees as long overdue. The other side perceives a wave of political militancy, and thinks it sees overtures of thought control because its opinions are not garnering equal respect.

This much is obvious, but why we are all so angry now? Why did this shift not happen thirty years ago?

My proposed explanation stems from the following observation: the US is a large country which, for most of its history, has been relatively empty. Furthermore, it has a lot of different kinds of people in it, and always has. For this, and a host of other reasons, the dominant mechanism for implementing politeness in the US has been what an evolutionary biologist might call ostracism. In other words, if someone says something that you can’t get along with or that strikes you as crazy, you give them room and try to ignore them. If necessary, you actively shun them. 

In Britain, by contrast, if someone you know says something crazy, society permits you, within reason, to tease them or call them out on it. Choosing to remark on someone else’s crazy is often perceived as a point of strength. Or, at least, this was still true when I moved.

Brits, and other Europeans, look at the US and struggle to understand a society that is seemingly first world, and yet supports populations of Amish on one end and holistic pet bathing enthusiasts on the other. They make television shows about it and wonder how come Americans appear to be insane.

But US culture is structured the way that it is, I’d propose, because leaving people room was always the more efficient solution given the conditions. With different ethnic groups arriving from all over the planet for the last two hundred years, simple, robust solutions to a variety of social problems have been a part of life. The US is not a European-style, self-norming, cohesive culture. It is a hyper-inclusive monoculture underpinned by a huge number of microcultures, some of which are extremely exclusive in nature.

Thus far, the US has succeeded with this model. However, the country is now presented with a problem. That mechanism of shunning or rejecting those who we cannot get along with has broken. Even without a rising population, increased urban density, and rapid transport, the internet makes it impossible. In effect, everyone is suddenly trapped in the same room. Shunning people doesn’t increase the social distance any more. It just makes people upset and more prone to aggression. And so a long stable nation has now polarized wildly, like oil and water desperately trying to escape each other while trapped in the same cup.

I find this worrying because the ostracism-first approach to social moderation is deeply baked into American thinking. The assumption that if you encounter someone who you consider intolerable, that you should exclude them, and ensure that your peers do likewise, is for many an almost instinctive response. It feels morally right. It feels just. When others fail to participate in the process, it can feel like a betrayal. It is not perceived as a cultural choice. It is just the thing that you need to do.

But there are two ironies here. The first is that what right-leaning SF fans parse as socialist thought control is, in truth, a profoundly American social behavior. The second is that left-leaning fans, in seeking to advance a social good, unwittingly resort to a traditional behavior historically more associated with conservatives. Funny, perhaps, but nobody is laughing yet.

Is there a solution? I am biassed, of course, but I would propose that the US borrow one from Britain: derision. By which I mean satire, mockery, teasing and all other forms of social reconciliation through mirth. It is not a surprise that social institutions like the Daily Show have become so valued in American society of late. They are badly needed and in short supply.

I believe that both sides in the Hugos debate, and in American society at large, need to set down their sense of outraged affront as rapidly as possible and start mocking each other instead. Mocking and accepting mockery in return. And if we find ourselves able to laugh at our own side from time to time, then we know that the healing has started. And after healing comes the potential for real, cohesive social change.

To my mind, the sooner we can achieve this, the better off we will all be, regardless of which social agenda dominates in the current debacle. Because, inevitably there will be another debacle that follows. Next time, it may be left versus left, or right versus right, and self-righteous shunning will be just as counterproductive as ever.

Similarly, in Britain, I think I see a growing trend toward the American cultural solution, perhaps because the distance between the US and UK is shrinking too. And this can’t work either. A Britain that abandons wry observation in favor of self-righteousness is likely to be a dangerous, unhappy place to live. It is too small to be otherwise, and righteous exclusion does not make anyone friends.

In short: the internet is not going away any time soon. We had better get used to it and adjust our social expectations accordingly.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July of this year.)

(My link in the above post is to a letter written by John C. Wright. For those seeking to understand whether, and in what specific sense, the letter may constitute resistance to ideological diversity, I strongly encourage reading the attached comments on this post. The discussion with John Wright included there makes his reasons for writing it clear.)

What are leaders?

We talk about them. We work for them. We aspire to be one of them. Occasionally, we elect them. But seldom do we ask what leaders actually are. After all, animals don’t have leaders. So far as I know, there are no examples of ‘leadership’ anywhere in the animal kingdom outside of the human race.

Does that statement seem hard to swallow? Let’s think over the facts. Gorillas, for instance, don’t they have leaders? They have silverbacks, after all. Nope. They have dominant males. Those males don’t shape the feeding strategy or direction for the group. They just exercise sexual dominance. The decision makers in group behavior tend to be those individuals with the greatest need. Eg: pregnant females or females with young. The same goes for wolves, lions, naked mole rats, you name it. There are loads of examples of sexual dominance, but dominance is uncoupled from group decision making.

Okay, you may say, but consider bees and ants. They have queens that produce all the offspring in the hive. They produce pheromones that mediate a huge amount of hive behavior. Surely, in this case, we have some animals we can point to that exhibit leadership. The answer is still no. And, in this case, Richard Dawkins makes an important point about this in his 1990 book, The Selfish Gene. Namely, that it’s at least as legitimate to think of the workers exploiting the queen as it is to think of the queen leading the workers.

While there is still much discussion about exactly how hive cooperation arises, in the case of bees and ants it’s undeniable that the workers in a hive are more related to each other than they are to any offspring that are produced. Therefore, it’s in many ways the most logical approach to consider the workers as a group that’s using the queen to perpetuate a colony of sisters.

Having no other examples of leadership for nature is unsettling. It leaves us with the horrible challenge of explaining how the invention of leadership has sprung out of nothing in the last few million years.

But wait a minute. If examples of leadership seem so rare in nature, maybe we’re not thinking about leadership the right way. Maybe we’re so used to thinking of leaders through the lens of human interpretation that we’re missing the parallels with other natural systems. What happens if, instead, we turn our model of leadership about? Say, for example, if we look at the example of the queen bee, and see what other, perhaps hidden, parallels actually exist?

To my mind, the answers to this question are striking, and they’ve transformed my recent thinking about business and politics. To explain what I mean, let’s take a human example that hopefully makes the connection clear: Elizabeth II, Queen of England.

Queen Elizabeth occupies what is generally considered to be a powerful leadership position. Heads of state defer to her. Crowds come out to support her. She comes with top billing in governments and religious organizations world over. But what does she actually control? How many decisions that she makes actually affect anyone besides her own family? Arguably, none. Furthermore, Elizabeth has a busy schedule that’s administered by her handlers. She has international appointment bookings that stretch for years, none of which she personally chose. In many ways, our human queen looks rather like a bee.

So why do we call her a leader? The answer is, of course, historical. She’s the descendent of prior rulers who were actually exercising power. And as that power was whittled away and replaced with a democratic system, her symbolic role was retained. That, at least, is the popular answer, and it’s basically useless.

It’s useless because it doesn’t tell us why her symbolic role was retained. If leadership is about exercising control, as we generally assume, why wasn’t the monarchy dumped the moment it became irrelevant? The popular riposte is to say ‘because people liked the monarchy and wanted it to persist’. But this isn’t a good answer either. Why did people want the monarchy to persist. Why do people still want her there now?

I propose that the reason why the queen exists, and the reason why all leaders exist, is precisely because human beings are a lot like bees. We create leaders to exploit.

What I mean by this is that human beings select individuals to fulfill specific social roles. We make room in society for those roles, and we clad those roles in ideas that ensure that we never look too closely at what they truly entail. Why do we do this? We do it to make cooperative behavior more robust.

Cooperation is a tricky business. Anyone who’s spent a few years studying game theory will tell you that. A society of individuals who cooperate with each other is always at risk of being subverted by individuals who cheat, unless they have some strategy for punishing cheaters.

In the case of humans, this problem is even more pronounced. Because we have language, gossip, tool use, and planning, the number of ways to cheat is uncountable, and the number of ways for humans to punish each other is broad and ghastly. In order to survive, human beings have evolved a natural tendency to cooperate automatically, which only ever starts to switch off when conscious thought is brought into play.

In order to mitigate the risk of instinctive cooperation, I propose that humans have evolved social structure that allow us to borrow cheating from others.

Consider two populations. In one, let’s call it Population A, people cooperate automatically, except when they discover someone who is aggressively out for themselves at the cost of others. Let’s call these people ‘defectors’.

In the other group, Population B, people still cooperate automatically. However, when they encounter a defector, they call that person a ‘leader’. They cooperate with that person while still cooperating with each other. They relinquish control of some fraction of the social order to the defector and let them do what they want.

How effective is Population B? That depends on how good their defector is. If their defector is crappy and has no imagination, then Population B suffers. However, if the defector has ambition, Population B finds itself charging over the hill to burn Population A’s village and claim all their food. In this case, Population B wins big-time, even though most of the people in that group are still behaving cooperatively with each other all the time.

There’s a catch here, though. In order to make this work, the people in Population B have to find a way to suspend their sense of fair play while doing or watching some of the shitty things that their defector has recommended. If they don’t, they’re going to have trouble holding onto their identity as cooperators.

So, to make the strategy work, the people in Population B have to be constantly evaluating possible ‘leaders’ from among any defectors who arise. Those who don’t make the cut are drowned in the village well as liars and cheats. Those who do are promoted and eulogized. We tell ourselves that their control over society is inevitable because ‘they’re the ones with the power’, and that their aggressive exercise of will illustrates ‘vision and direction’.

This, I’d say, explains why we have trouble understanding leadership or finding it in other species. We’re looking for what we want leadership to be, not what it is. In truth, we own our leaders. We make them happen. We take individuals whose capacity for cooperation is damaged, and we use them as tools for social advantage.

To my mind, this is an important point to be sharing with the world right now. That’s because the leaders we’ve chosen haven’t done a very good job, by and large, as evidenced by the Arab Spring, the austerity disaster in Europe, worldwide banking scandals, etc.

It’s important for us to remember that our leaders exist because we let them. Their power is, and always has been, exercised by us, because it’s less risky than cheating ourselves. At any time, we can take those leaders and replace them with others we think will do a better job. That’s how society works.

That idea is easy to absorb when it comes to elected officials, but it is at least as true for every banker on Wall St. That’s because wealth is just another form of legitimized defection. Hence, if we don’t like how they’re going about things, we should swap them out. After all, they, just like the queen, belong to us.

 

Word for the day: Executard

There are certain words that I wish were in the English language, but aren’t yet. Here’s one: executard.

What is an executard? It’s a person occupying an executive role, but who exhibits no obvious signs of political savvy, leadership potential, or decision-making expertise. Now is a great time to introduce this word, as we have the marvelous example of Mitt Romney to ponder.

In Britain, his remarks alienated the leadership of the US’s staunchest ally. In the Middle East, he’s created a political nightmare for himself should he actually be elected, by making lifetime enemies out of groups he’ll need to negotiate with. At home, he’s damaged his own chances with inappropriate remarks about ‘the 47%’. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you’re on, it’s hard not to wince every time you see this guy blow off another one of his toes.

Consider the implications of this. Mitt Romney was, for many years, an executive at Bain Capital. If he seems so politically club-footed now, how did he ever manage that?

Easy. He managed it because it’s dirt-simple to be both clueless and an executive, though we maintain a cultural myth that these two descriptors are mutually exclusive. In fact, in many cases, clueless executives are inevitable.

Why do I claim this? Because good leadership is hard. Really hard. And there are very many ways to get there that don’t involve working your way up through the sweat of your brow, or raw business expertise.

For starters, all businesses need money to run. And in many businesses, the people who provide the money often want a starring role. Furthermore, the people who want jobs are willing to let them. Nobody wants to think that they’ve put a half-wit at the controls of the corporate plane, so everyone engages in a little myth-building to keep things ticking along. (For anyone who doubts that this can happen, let’s not forget that George W. Bush was a business executive once, before he became the Chief Dismantler of the Free World.)

Secondly, once you have money, it’s easy to make more, because there are lots of people with skills who are ready to help you do that, in return for a cut. Thus, if your money comes from somewhere else, you can coast along as ‘leader’ for years so long as you don’t touch anything, or, as they say in business circles, ‘demonstrate the core leadership skill of effective delegation’.

Thirdly, not everyone who works their way to the top does so by making really awesome business decisions.  I have met and worked with several who found their way there by doing other exciting things, like lying on their resume, being in the right place at the right time, or thinly-concealed crime. Once those people get those prized executive roles, they don’t suddenly become business gurus overnight.

Why does this matter? Because while executards cause a huge amount of damage, people don’t usually want to call them out. It’s usually much safer to leave high-status people alone and do what they ask, rather than pointing out their mistakes. Nobody wants to point the finger unless they end up bearing the brunt of that person’s wrath.

Hence, historically, it’s been preferable all round for everyone to engage in the myth that all executives have talent, and that we should look up to them and admire their skills, regardless of how they got there.

The problem is that now the executards are sinking our economic boat. If we don’t start calling them out, there won’t be any jobs for us to go back to. Every time we let anxiety about our career get the better of us, and fail to call out leadership failure, we create room for our leaders to fail again.

So, for the sake of your job, and your children’s jobs, start holding your leaders to the high standards you need them to attain. Work out who you know who’s an executard, and tell a colleague today.