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What discourse norms do you tend to follow? Why? Do you think everyone else should follow them, and why?
Communication is like dancing: it’s better when both people stay in sync. And it really is both people’s jobs to do their best at that.
How much should I invest in figuring out the other person’s point of view? How hard should I work not to offend them? That’s always going to be a judgment call. It sounds good to say “you never need to offend anybody” or “I’ll say what I believe and it’s their problem if they don’t like how it sounds”, but life isn’t that simple.
If you’re teaching a class for novices, it’s a failure on your part if you give a lecture for experts instead, and it’s a failure on their part if they don’t pay attention. Same in ordinary discussion: it really is part of being a good person to avoid needless confusion or offense, and it’s also part of being a good person to avoid assuming the worst about whatever the other person said that annoyed you.
Listening, you can sum this up mostly with Miller’s Law: “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”
Talking, it comes down to spending just a little bit of time to remember the other person’s perspective. If they tell you they want to be called Alice and not Al, believe them! People get caught up on trying to always get it right — you can’t — but it’s worth a lot to just try a little to remember people’s preferences. If they know you’re paying some attention to them, it’s a lot easier for them to relax and pay attention to you. That makes for better communication.
What is the true reason, deep down, that you believe what you believe? What piece of evidence, test, or line of reasoning would convince you that you’re wrong about your ideology?
I believe in the verdict of history. For centuries, the people on top kept saying they just deserved it. They were on top because they were naturally better. That even if you gave other people a shot, no one else could do as good a job.
Guess what? The people on top kept being wrong.
Commoners couldn’t possibly govern, they said, and then England’s republic outdid France’s monarchy. Women couldn’t possibly be good scientists, they said, and then Noether and Curie produced outstanding mathematics and chemistry. Asians could never do high-end technology, they said, and now we get robots and microchips from Japan. Africans couldn’t possibly handle democracy, they said, and now we’re on to two generations of free and fair elections in Botswana.
So now when the people on top say, “There’s no use making an effort to help out ‘those’ people, if they’ve got it harder than us it’s only their natural lot,” I’m skeptical. The elites have been wrong about that for two hundred years. I think they’re probably wrong this time too.
What would convince me I’m the one wrong this time, and not them? What would convince me that the systematic difficulties of women, or minorities, or the disabled were only their ‘natural lot’?
Good studies showing the actual causes of difficulty lay elsewhere. For example, suppose there was a good study showing that immigrants from Purpletonia are underpaid simply because of low IQ from a lack of iodine in their diet. That would make me worry about prejudice against Purpletonians less, and access to iodized salt more.
Conservatives like to insist that the virtuous succeed, that the pure won’t be violated. Listen, folks, if you could actually document how to teach virtue and measure purity and show in studies that it works even for the disadvantaged, that would be great!
“Social justice warrior” sounds cute, but I don’t like being mad at people. I would love to discover that the problems of the suffering have a fix that doesn’t require me to be mad about racism and sexism and so forth. I would love to discover “virtue brings security and success” was as effective for marginalized groups as for white men.
But after two hundred years of the conservative view being wrong, after two hundred years of finding the problem is barriers to access, not virtue — the burden of proof is on them.
When we see a systematic disadvantage, I need to see specific evidence that it arises by a natural and fair process. Otherwise my the default assumption is that the disadvantage is both unfair and fixable.
So to convince me, you can’t just say “we haven’t succeeded in raising Purpletonian incomes after twenty years, therefore we’re entitled to sit back and believe it’s their natural lot.” What convinces me is a substantive alternate explanation, like “we show that Purpletonian outcomes are strongly correlated with IQ, and the IQ difference is entirely driven by dietary iodine.”
“It’s their natural lot” has been the wrong explanation for two hundred years. How likely is it that it’s suddenly the right explanation now?
On the other hand, even if you can’t convince me I’m wrong about the unfairness, it’s not very hard to convince me that I have the wrong solution.
I like studies. I like experimental data. I believe their results.
For example, bilingual teaching was an educational intervention that didn’t bring up minority-group performance. There have been others like that — education seems really hard to improve, even when you’ve got a plausible idea and some impressive single-school results. That has made me think we’d need more evidence before broadly adopting the next brand-new education intervention.
And I’m a big believer in “start small and scale it up.” So if you say to me, gosh, let’s try this in one city before we try it nationwide, I’ll happily agree to that. If I’m right, I expect it to be a lot easier anyway to persuade you after we have the data.
What I won’t settle for is doing nothing, or waiting until we have some magic perfect solution. The people who are suffering deserve better than that.
So in general, if I support a social justice measure, it’s either because I expect it to have measurable positive impacts or because I expect people to find it easy to do once they stop complaining and try it. (How do I measure the value of calling someone by their preferred pronouns? Not easily. But it’s not hard to just do it.) Either way, if I’m proven wrong I’m willing to go back.
But history makes me expect to often be proven right.
The net makes anonymous harrassment easy, and online gaming, in particular, has long had a “talk trash at other players” tradition. Sad to say, most of the trash-talkers just think of it as fun and never reckon that they’re really hurting or harrassing people, even when the person they attack is actually vulnerable.
Then, a small number of actually committed sexists decided that it would be great to introduce the trash-talkers to women who made the mistake of having opinions on the Internet while female.
It’s not really about gaming, or about hating women either. It’s just the same impulse that little kids have to make toilet jokes — hey, look, I said a dirty word! I got a reaction out of you! And since the women were perceived as outsiders to “real” gaming — after all, they were women, they couldn’t be proper gamers, right? — it seemed like fair game, they were the “enemy team” and it was okay to “talk trash” at them.
For any individual harrasser, it was, and still is, just a game. The awful thing is that for the harrassed women, it’s much, much worse.
Treating any of this as meaningfully about the social justice movement or changes in society is giving the problem a dignity it just doesn’t deserve. It’s juvenile insult-flinging that got turbocharged by Internet anonymity into serious harrassment and stalking.