This is the other side of the hero coin – not just that your group is being unjustly persecuted, but that you’re therefore justified in fighting back as aggressively as possible. As Baumeister writes:
One of the most powerful and universal human tendencies is to identify with a group of people similar to oneself, and to square off against rival groups. Moreover, people automatically and inevitably begin to think that their group is good. But if we are good, and you are our opponents, and evil is the opponent of the good, then you must be evil. Groups of people everywhere will come to that same conclusion, even groups on opposite sides of the same conflict. The stronger the tendency to see one’s own group as good – and this tendency is often surprisingly strong – the more likely one is to regard one’s rivals and enemies as evil. Such views may then be used to provide easy justification for treating one’s enemies harshly, because there is no point in being patient, tolerant, and understanding when one is dealing with evil.
Victims will tend to see the people who have hurt them […] as committing wicked deeds for no valid reason and getting sadistic pleasure out of breaking rules or inflicting harm. To respond with zeal, maybe even going slightly beyond the extent of one’s original suffering, seems appropriate if one is dealing with an evil character. There is no sense in practicing forbearance, restraint, or mercy if one is dealing with a truly evil person.
Suppose Adolf Hitler came back from the dead, ran a red light, and bumped into the back of your car. Undoubtedly, you would want to sue him to the maximum extent allowed by law, and if your lawyer suggested exaggerating your injuries a little you would probably be willing to do so. (In contrast, if Gandhi came back and dented your fender, you’d be likely to forget the whole thing.) Extreme measures seem appropriate when one is retaliating against a thoroughly evil person. Unfortunately, because victims tend to see those who harm them in extreme terms, they will unusually be prone to think that extreme retaliations are appropriate.
And it isn’t just that we become more willing to indulge our nastier impulses when we’re dealing with some enemy we regard as evil; we’re also inclined to think more highly of ourselves for doing so. We as a society seem to have internalized the idea that our estimation of ourselves as people shouldn’t just be based on how much positive good we can do in the world, but also on how much righteous retribution we can inflict on those we consider evil. The most kickass heroes in our movies and TV shows (think Dirty Harry, The Punisher, etc.) are those who are most merciless toward evil and who inflict the most possible suffering on the bad guys. Ruthlessness – and even cruelty – are considered virtues when they’re used in service of a good cause. Sure, we pay lip service to the platitude that these things are bad – but the truth is that we generally act as though ruthlessness and cruelty are great as long as they’re directed at the right targets. Is there a news story about terrorists attacking our country? Let’s start fantasizing about all the nasty things we’d love to do to those sons of bitches after we hunt them down. Is there a movie about a loving father whose daughter is kidnapped? Let’s start puffing out our chests and boasting about how unstoppable our wrath would be if anyone ever dared to do such a thing to our children. I’m sure you’ve heard these kinds of conversations before. People feel compelled to talk this way, both by the strength of their moral convictions and by their desire to signal those convictions to others. After all, what would it say about a person if they didn’t see red and want to destroy anyone who dared to attack the people they cherish? Wouldn’t it mean that they didn’t cherish their loved ones very much after all?
The same kind of mentality has also become widespread when it comes to our conversations about ideas and values. The more indignant and outraged you get in the face of injustice (so the thinking goes), the more morally valiant you are. After all, what could be nobler than a person who stands up to the oppressors and shouts, “No, dammit, this is wrong!” and fights back with all the fury they can muster? According to this mindset, hating things that are bad makes you good, and your goodness is directly proportional to your hatred. And as an extension of this idea, the more indignant and outraged you can get towards wrongdoers – and ultimately, the nastier you can be towards them and the less willing to listen to their perspective – the more noble and moral you are. These days, we don’t just define our virtue in terms of our positive actions and the worthy causes we want to support; we’ve come to define our virtue more and more in terms of the things we have contempt for and want to destroy. As Pargin writes:
Hating a bad thing does not make you good. […] The Klan hates ISIS, but we don’t count that as a point in their favor. Yet I’m pretty sure that most of what we consider being good in this culture is just having disdain for the right things.
Within this context, then, things like bullying, harassment, and mob punishment are completely fine as long as you’re bullying, harassing, and punishing the right people. People on social media are often proud of how vicious they can be toward the people they dislike; the word “savage” has literally become a compliment, used to applaud somebody for how brutally they can eviscerate their target. And if you’re ever tempted to try and understand the other side, much less treat them with empathy and respect, then that impulse must surely be suppressed in the name of beating them. After all, what would it say about a person if they didn’t see red and want to destroy anyone who dared to attack the values they cherish? Wouldn’t it mean that they didn’t cherish those values very much after all?
Social psychologists often talk about “sacred beliefs” – beliefs that are so meaningful to us that even the very suggestion of compromising on them is an unforgivable insult. Dagny explains:
One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. In this mindset, people who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people. I watched what people said closely, scanning for objectionable content. Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist. Calling them ‘sacred beliefs’ is a nice way to put it. What I mean to say is that they are dogmas.
Treating certain beliefs in this way is how we end up with the kind of thing Alexander observes here:
I am constantly amazed by how small a buffer the average person has between “I don’t believe X” and “Believing X is irredeemably evil and we must mock and shame it until the very possibility of expressing it is beyond the pale”.
If you can convince yourself that having the right beliefs isn’t just a matter of knowing the right information, it’s a matter of being good or evil, then giving your ideological enemies the benefit of the doubt isn’t a matter of being civil or reasonable – it’s sympathizing with evildoers; and that makes you nearly as bad as they are. Here’s Baumeister again:
A powerful and important factor in idealistic evil is the attitude toward the victim. We have seen hints of this attitude already. Some perpetrators reported feeling guilty if they had any doubts or felt any sympathy toward the victims. Idealistic evil permits and sometimes even demands that its agents despise their victims.
The logic behind this attitude is built into the situation, and it is difficult to resist. If you think that you are doing something that is strongly on the side of the good, then whoever opposes you or blocks your work must be against the good – hence, evil. This conclusion is far more than just a convenient way of rationalizing one’s violence toward certain people. It is central to the idealist’s basic faith that he is doing the right thing. The enemies of the good are, almost by definition, evil. To perceive them as any less than that – to allow that one’s opponents have a legitimate point of view, for instance – is to diminish one’s own side’s claim to be good. One is not fighting the good fight if the enemy is good, too. Therefore, to sustain one’s own goodness, it is essential to see the enemy as evil.
Thus, idealism usually ends up conferring a right, a license, to hate. As we will see shortly, people do not generally need a great deal of urging to despise the groups that are arrayed against them, and so it would be too much to say that idealism is fully responsible for creating such hatred. But idealism does permit it. Once the collective understanding of good declares that it is correct to hate a certain category of others, people will readily oblige.
One consequence of this apparent duty is that it will tend to put the more extreme and fanatical members of the group into the positions of moral leadership. Consider the activist in the Ukraine [during the 1932-33 Stalinist terror-famine] who “let him have it hot and strong” when a colleague expressed some doubts or sympathy for the victims. The members with the firmest sense of hatred will end up being the ones that the others look to for support and guidance. Yet the activist who “let him have it” harbored his own private doubts, which suggests a very potent split between public statements and inner sentiments. He privately agreed with the other young man’s doubts about the legitimacy of the whole process, but what he said publicly was to have no pity.
The duty to hate continues to be a source of vexation in modern society, despite the society’s apparent commitment to tolerance, understanding, and moral relativism. For years, Americans felt comfortably entitled to be hostile toward Communists, from the Soviet and Chinese enemies who seemed ready to attack us with lethal weapons to home-grown Communists. The McCarthyist “Red scare” and persecutions of the 1950s emerged in part because it became safe and appropriate to direct hostility toward these internal enemies. Now, with the fall of the Soviet Union, one is no longer supposed to hate those poor Russians, and the adjustment is difficult for some dedicated American patriots.
Ironically, the very effort to tolerate and value diversity constitutes a license to hate those who disagree. One of the core paradoxes in the recent social evolution in the United States is how the broad desire to overcome prejudice and ethnic antagonisms has resulted in a society that seems more fragmented and prejudiced than ever. Each group firmly believes that it holds positive, inclusive, desirable values, and so other groups are gradually assumed to be inimical to these positive values. And if the other group is opposed to the good, then by definition it must be evil. Each group feels attacked by others, as in the current debate (as this is being written) on the future of affirmative action programs that support preferential hiring of members of disadvantaged groups. Each side perceives the others as selfishly and unfairly trying to benefit at its expense. In other words, both minorities and whites can see themselves as holding the values of fairness and equality and the other side as opposed to those values – and hence, wicked. Along the same lines, the 1995 World Conference on Women was held in China during the time this book was being written, and the American delegate Betty Friedan (author of The Feminine Mystique, one of the most influential works in the women’s movement) felt compelled to argue in a national publication against the conference’s strident and oppositional tendencies: “countering the hatred of women with a hatred of men” was a bad strategy, she emphasized, recognizing that such category antagonisms evolve all too readily.
In many cases, the consequence of one’s own presumptive goodness is more than a license to hate one’s opponents: It is a positive duty to hate them. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain how much this matters, because people are often willing to hate without needing much encouragement. Still, when dealing with members of the group who might have doubts or otherwise lack sufficient feelings of animosity, the others may feel entitled to put pressure on them to get with the program and summon up the appropriate degree of hostility. If you do not hate Satan, then there is something wrong with you.
Jeffrey Burton Russell discussed a topic of medieval debate: “Are we to hate the Devil as much as we love Christ?” The answer was presumably no, but it was a close enough call to be worth debating. A good Christian’s emotional duties were said to include both hatred and love, directed toward the appropriate targets. The duty to love Christ is supreme, but the duty to hate the Devil may be almost as strong.
There is ample evidence that perpetrators of violence learn to detest their victims. Thus, state torturers are selected partly on the basis of their ideological purity, and they are taught that their victims are part of a dangerously powerful movement that aims to destroy their country. They learn (and one must assume that they are willing to accept) that their enemies in general are evil, and so even if they can see that the particular individuals they are torturing have little useful information to offer and are ultimately just human beings in pain, the torturers can still feel it is appropriate to make them suffer. These prisoners belong to the evil group.
Likewise, terrorists are generally fervent utopians who see “the establishment” (the government they oppose, and its supporters) as evil. President Clinton called the terrorists who bombed the Oklahoma City courthouse in 1995 “evil” for committing America’s worst act of terror. Yet to them, or at least to many people like them, the government is evil. Terrorist groups attract people who are hostile to authority. (This is ironic, because terrorist groups tend to be quite authoritarian, with the leader having close to absolute power in the group.) Terrorists, too, feel that pity for one’s victims is an unacceptable sign of weakness and a source of shame.
Terrorists have an interesting special problem of self-justification. They tend to choose random targets such as buses or public libraries, full of what most others regard as innocent victims. Terrorists cannot afford to accept that view, however. Acknowledging that the group really did kill innocent victims would undermine their faith in the goodness of their own cause. Hence, terrorists tend to adamantly reject the idea that those people are innocent. Sentiments such as “anyone who is not with us is against us” are popular with such groups, because they conveniently allow the group to despise all their victims as enemies. Likewise, terrorists tend to adopt very broad categories of enemies. If they regarded only the top government officials and the police as their enemies, they might find it difficult to avoid victimizing innocent people. But if they broaden the category to include anyone in the society who is not actively opposed to the government, then few innocents remain, and they can plant their bombs in public places without a guilty conscience.
These are extreme examples, of course. Usually the tendency to dehumanize your ideological enemies isn’t as dramatic as this; usually it’s just a casual bias that you indulge in because it makes your side feel more heroic and because it makes winning more satisfying. As Brennan writes in his discussion of partisan voting behaviors:
Since individual votes don’t matter and hating other people is fun, voters have every incentive to vote in ways that express tribal biases. […] In the voting booth, I can indulge the bigoted fantasy that, say, the Republicans oppose legalized abortion because they hate women, or that Democrats want to allow flag burning because they hate the United States.
Never mind whether these caricatures of your opponents’ positions are necessarily the most accurate; the fact is, it feels more rewarding to wage ideological warfare against someone who’s unambiguously evil than against someone who’s well-intentioned but merely misguided – so if you can convince yourself that your opponents are evil, then that’s what you’ll do. Beating someone is more fulfilling when they really deserve to be beaten.
The result, though, is the kind of ugliness described by commenter MikeHot-Pence after the election of Donald Trump in 2016:
[There is a] minority [of voters] that elected Trump [which] is giddy, and as best I can tell from personal interaction and reading commentary on here from Trump supporters, it’s because they’re getting to hurt liberals. They aren’t excited about positive changes in a classic sense, they’re giddy because they get to watch people suffer whom they believe deserve to suffer.
Pargin notices the same thing, and points out the fact that it can just as easily go in the other direction as well:
There’s a huge difference between someone who voted for Trump because they believe lower corporate taxes spur employment and someone who only wanted a human hand grenade to put the hurt on those triggered libs.
If you really, really hate Trump, it will be very easy for some firebrand to come along promising to be the grenade thrown back in the other direction. That trend — voting only as an act of violence against a hated enemy — is a larger threat to the fabric of society than any individual policy. A leftist who wins with Trump tactics is like a corrupt cop framing a guy who by coincidence turned out to be guilty. Normalizing those tactics is worse for us in the long run, regardless of what happens to that one criminal.
As Yudkowsky points out, however, this pattern of voting based on hatred is basically already the norm:
[Alan] Abramowitz and [Steven] Webster found that what mainly predicted voting behavior wasn’t how much the voter liked their preferred party, but how much they disliked the opposing party. Essentially, the US has two major voting factions, “people who hate Red politicians” and “people who hate Blue politicians.”
This isn’t very encouraging. Hurting people is never something that should feel good, even if you think they deserve it. At best, hurting other people should feel like a painful but necessary evil that you only have to turn to as a last resort. With the situation now, though, people are looking to hurt each other as their first resort, without feeling bad about it at all. And when you’ve got both sides taking such an antagonistic approach to ideological debates, drawing their satisfaction from how much they can hurt each other, it makes it impossible to have productive conversations across ideological divides, because everyone is more interested in destroying their opponents than persuading them; they would rather wipe out their enemies than make them into allies. When both sides have convinced themselves that their opponents are so evil that they can’t be reasoned with or compromised with (you’ll often hear the term “animals” used to describe them in this context), then the thinking becomes that there’s no point in trying to be civil or rational towards the brutes – all you can do is put them down. Pargin describes it this way:
There’s [this] eliminationist tendency that now seems baked into the culture. The goal is not to change minds or make incremental progress toward improvement, it’s to make the bad people vanish. Get them banned, get them fired, shut down their speaking engagement, declare victory.
You’re not trying to convert the enemy, or integrate them, or live with them, or compromise with them, even though virtually all problems in the real world are solved this way. [You] are satisfied with solutions that make them merely disappear.
[The foundational premise of this mindset is] an obscene lie that, under any other circumstance, a child could see through: That evil is not a type of action, but a type of person.
It’s subtle, but crucial. [Those who adopt this mindset are] not trying to purge society of socialism, but socialists. Not predatory behavior, but predators. Not racism, but racists. You can see the trick, the unspoken assumption that no minds can ever be changed. How can you talk a cockroach into becoming a butterfly? Once you’ve accepted that framing, all contact with the monsters is counterproductive. You’re not going to change their minds, so any non-confrontational encounter is just enabling and normalizing their monstrosity.
And he concludes:
[Once you’ve made up your mind that your enemies are beyond reason, you’ll start believing that] every common courtesy granted to them is a self-inflicted wound, that every act of petty meanness is a victory, every cruel joke an act of courage, every misfortune on their side a cause for spiteful celebration. This is war […] which means all rules go out the window. Even though real war actually has lots of rules. Whatever.
This last point, about throwing out all the rules and going to war, is a particularly apt one right now. It has become increasingly popular for ideologically motivated people to decide that the customary rules for respectful human engagement shouldn’t apply to the particular conflict they’re involved in, on the basis that their enemies are so bad that they don’t qualify as legitimate actors deserving of respect. For all intents and purposes, what this means is that a lot of people no longer feel the need to concern themselves with things like fairly representing the other side’s viewpoints; if you can nail your opponents by misrepresenting their viewpoints, then by all means nail the bastards. If you can win by fighting dirty, then fight dirty. Evildoers aren’t entitled to fair treatment.
In practice, “fighting dirty” can take a few different forms. For instance, a lot of ideologues enter into conversations and debates not with the good-faith intention of gaining new insights and building bridges of understanding, but with the cynical bad-faith intention of trying to elicit condemnable statements from their opponents which can then be used against them later. Some people will even go out of their way to dredge through the entire history of everything their opponent has ever written or said, searching for some ill-considered quotation that can be used to make that opponent look bad. This is especially easy in our modern environment of ubiquitous technology and short attention spans, as Bret Stephens points out:
We live in the age of guilt by pull-quote, abetted by a combination of lazy journalism, gullible readership, missing context, and technologies that make our every ill-considered utterance instantly accessible and utterly indelible.
But even if your opponent doesn’t have any particularly damning statements on record, that doesn’t mean you can’t condemn them regardless. You just have to settle for the next best thing, which is to find some ambiguous statement they’ve made which could conceivably be interpreted as nefarious if you squint hard enough, and start loudly insisting that it definitely is nefarious and that it’s just as bad as if they had outright said the far worse thing that they really wanted to say. In other words, you find molehills and make them into mountains; you take your opponents’ words and overstate them in a way that allows you to denounce them. Alexander gives an example of this:
Back during the primary, Ted Cruz said he was against “New York values”.
A chump might figure that, being a Texan whose base is in the South and Midwest, he was making the usual condemnation of coastal elites and arugula-eating liberals that every other Republican has made before him, maybe with a special nod to the fact that his two most relevant opponents, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, were both from New York.
But sophisticated people immediately detected this as an “anti-Semitic dog whistle”, eg Cruz’s secret way of saying he hated Jews. Because, you see, there are many Jews in New York. By the clever strategem of using words that had nothing to do with Jews or hatred, he was able to effectively communicate his Jew-hatred to other anti-Semites without anyone else picking up on it.
Except of course the entire media, which seized upon it as a single mass. New York values is coded anti-Semitism. New York values is a classic anti-Semitic slur. New York values is an anti-Semitic comment. New York values is an anti-Semitic code word. New York values gets called out as anti-Semitism. My favorite is this article whose headline claims that Ted Cruz “confirmed” that he meant his New York values comment to refer to Jews; the “confirmation” turned out to be that he referred to Donald Trump as having “chutzpah”. It takes a lot of word-I-am-apparently-not-allowed-to-say to frame that as a “confirmation”.
Meanwhile, back in Realityville (population: 6), Ted Cruz was attending synagogue services at his campaign tour, talking about his deep love and respect for Judaism, and getting described as “a hero” in many parts of the Orthodox Jewish community” for his stance that “if you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you.”
But he once said “New York values”, so clearly all of this was just really really deep cover for his anti-Semitism.
Although dog whistles do exist, the dog whistle narrative has gone so far that it’s become detached from any meaningful referent. It went from people saying racist things, to people saying things that implied they were racist, to people saying the kind of things that sound like things that could imply they are racist even though nobody believes that they are actually implying that. Saying things that sound like dog whistles has itself become the crime worthy of condemnation, with little interest in whether they imply anything about the speaker or not.
Against this narrative, I propose a different one – [people’s] beliefs and plans are best predicted by what they say their beliefs and plans are, or possibly what beliefs and plans they’ve supported in the past, or by anything other than treating their words as a secret code and trying to use them to infer that their real beliefs and plans are diametrically opposite the beliefs and plans they keep insisting that they hold and have practiced for their entire lives.
As he admits, it’s true that sometimes people really do use coded language to provide cover for their more inflammatory opinions. But the problem with aggressively attacking everyone whose statements could conceivably be malicious is that you also end up catching a lot of well-intentioned people in the crossfire who just happened to make the mistake of using clumsy wording, or who didn’t understand enough of the socio-political context to realize why their statements might come off more negatively than they intended. Conor Friedersdorf puts it this way in his discussion of “concept creep,” showing how the phenomenon can apply equally readily to things like “language policing” and to actual policing:
Consider criminality, bullying, and racism. As fights against crime or bullying or racism intensify, crooks, bullies and racists try to hide their misdeeds; enforcers react – if a thief starts “innocently forgetting to pay,” a crackdown on the tactic is needed; if a bully starts kicking his victim under the table rather than punching him in the face, a definition of bullying as “open aggression” is shown to be flawed and insufficient; if racists no longer use racial slurs in public, but persist in using dog whistles, the latter are stigmatized. But efforts to encompass covert bad behavior tend to target increasingly minor acts, and more alarmingly, to rely on opaque or subjective assessments that capture some non-crooks, non-racists, and non-bullies. More innocents are thus searched or arrested or dubbed racists or bullies.
Invariably, this triggers a backlash and an ensuing debate that is muddled in a particular way. When critics of the criminal-justice system or progressive anti-racism suggest that society is now punishing some people wrongly or too severely, defenders of the status quo accuse them of acting as apologists for criminals or racists. The core of disagreement actually concerns whether concept creep has gone too far.
The antagonistic-minded ideologue’s solution, of course, is to just disregard these subtleties. Sure, maybe in some abstract intellectual sense there are various degrees of wrongness distinguishing the outright evildoers from those who simply don’t know any better; but when you’re at war, there’s no room for such distinctions. Even the slightest hint of wrong thinking must be stamped out swiftly and harshly as soon as it appears. And what this means in practice is that you mustn’t even make any attempt to identify maliciousness from your perceived opponents; you must simply assume maliciousness a priori. If you’re a conservative who notices liberals protesting against war or police brutality, you can’t even consider the possibility that their intentions are good and that they want to protect innocent people from being killed – you have to assume that they must be terrorist sympathizers who hate their country and the men and women who protect it. Or if you’re a liberal who notices a white child enthusiastically dressing up as someone from another race or culture, you can’t even consider the possibility that she admires that culture and wants to appreciate it – you have to assume that the child and her family are racial imperialists who want to selfishly usurp and despoil minority cultures. Likewise, if you’re a strong religious believer who hears about strangers who don’t share your beliefs, you can’t even consider the possibility that their disbelief might be based on honestly never having had a religious experience before, or on genuine doubts about whether the fantastical stories of scripture are really true – you have to assume that they must be well aware of the truth of your religion and are simply rebelling against God out of selfish egotism or a depraved desire to live in sin. And if you’re an atheist, you can’t even consider that religious people’s adherence to their doctrines might be based on deeply-held ideals and experiences – you have to assume that they’re all megalomaniacal theocrats.
No matter which side you’re on, this way of black-and-white thinking assumes the same form. The agnostic who does his best to live well, but has genuine misgivings about committing his life to something he’s never found compelling, is considered to be just as malicious as the person who goes out of their way to break all Ten Commandments and loves every second of it. The white child who wants to emulate her minority heroes is considered to be just as malicious as the mocking blackface caricatures of the 1800s. The anti-war protestors who rally to “Bring Our Sons and Daughters Home” are considered just as malicious as the ones who say “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” All moral gradations and distinctions are ignored, because the question isn’t really about whether maliciousness is actually present – the act itself is a tripwire that must necessarily trigger a certain response. If the offending action is the type of thing that would surely be malicious if it were carried out by an ill-intentioned evildoer, then that makes it an evil action – and by extension, anyone who commits an evil action must therefore be an ill-intentioned evildoer themselves.
This is how relatively good-intentioned people can unwittingly find themselves being lumped in with skinheads, cop killers, devil worshipers, or totalitarians by their ideological opponents. Admittedly, some of this is just due to those opponents being confused about the difference between actions and intentions, and failing to make the distinction between the two. It’s also worth stressing that this kind of line-blurring can often happen simply as a result of certain unconscious pattern-matching instincts that everyone falls prey to at times. If, for instance, you see a bunch of radical feminists raving that all men are scum, and this leads you to develop a negative opinion of feminism, then even if the next person you encounter isn’t saying anything extreme at all but is simply (say) celebrating the anniversary of women’s suffrage, or some other perfectly appropriate thing, it might nevertheless rub you the wrong way just because it sounds feminist and feminism doesn’t sit well with you. Even if the other person is saying something that you’d actually agree with yourself in a vacuum, you may still find yourself thinking less of them simply because you’ve unconsciously pattern-matched what they’re saying to something else that you dislike. This is something we’ve probably all experienced ourselves at some point (maybe not with feminism, but with some issue or another) – but we can often snap ourselves out of it simply by becoming consciously aware of it and making an effort to take what the other person is saying or doing on its own terms, rather than judging by association. Still, though, there are unfortunately all too many cases nowadays of people blurring those lines on purpose, in order to avoid having to deal with those subtleties at all, so that they can just dismiss everyone on the other side as evil and get back to enjoying their superiority over them. Or if they’ve got a particular person they want to destroy, they may intentionally try to lump them together with something worse, knowing that if that something else is bad enough, it will trigger that pattern-matching instinct in other people and turn everyone against the target. As Pargin writes:
The right has had great success equating the Black Lives Matter movement with rioters and cop killers — 57 percent of Americans have a negative view of the group. If one person in a crowd of thousands breaks a window, that’s all it takes.
[And many on the left] do the same. Anyone on the side of deregulation, tax cuts or cuts to social programs is technically on the same “side” as white nationalist terrorists. Well, there’s clearly no point in arguing with a skinhead who found a way to rhyme “genocide” in a chant, and that guy votes Republican, so clearly there’s no arguing with anyone who votes Republican.
It’s not hard to see how pushing this kind of absolutist line can backfire, of course. For one thing, when you’re as unforgiving toward someone who makes an innocent faux pas as you are toward genuine hate – when your tripwire is so sensitive that you end up punishing the undeserving as reflexively as the deserving – it makes it less likely that others will perceive your indignation as legitimate. Not only do you alienate the people you’re attacking (obviously), you convey the message that your hair-trigger is so indiscriminate that you’ll go off on anyone, regardless of their degree of guilt – and at that point, we’re right back to the whole “boy who cried wolf” dynamic all over again. People stop taking your outrage seriously and just start blowing you off.
Going back to our original point, though, about observing the rules of civil engagement, there’s also the broader fact that when you decide to just toss out all the rules and start demonizing, misquoting, and attacking your opponents to your heart’s content without any regard for their actual guilt or innocence, you upset the entire delicate balance of good faith that allows ideas to be exchanged in the first place. Our ability to make intellectual progress as a society depends entirely upon the fact that opposing ideological groups are able to, at least to some extent, collectively maintain a kind of unspoken truce based on observing the rules of respectful human discourse. But when one group decides to shift to a mindset of “Everyone needs to play by the rules EXCEPT US BECAUSE WE’RE RIGHT!” (as commenter therenegadepixie puts it), then the whole thing breaks down. Alexander elaborates:
We live in a tolerant liberal society, which means that in our society’s common state-sponsored areas, like legislation, national symbolism, and school policy, we have this thing going where we respect people who hold different opinions from ourselves. Even if they’re wrong.
In one sense, this is a sort of cease-fire between lots of different groups. Each of us would prefer if the apparatus of government was used to enforce/indoctrinate our own ideas to the exclusion of all others. But we know that in a world where everyone tried to do this, we’d have an equal chance of ending up as the persecutee rather than the persecutor, and there would be so much conflict that it would all end up much worse off than if no one tried to persecute anyone at all. Therefore, all the various groups with their various opinions agree to a cease-fire in which none of them try to persecute anyone else.
In another sense, this is simple epistemic modesty. It’s the sort of thing where a Catholic says “I think everyone else would be better off under a Catholic theocracy, in fact everything I believe tells me it’s practically certain. But the Muslims say they feel equally certain about an Islamic theocracy. I wouldn’t want the Muslims to create a theocracy with their current level of certainty, so I will follow my own principles and not create a Catholic theocracy even if I’m given the chance.”
These are both really, really smart ideas. They’re the reason why schools in heavily Republican districts aren’t supposed to blatantly indoctrinate the children with conservative ideas, and why schools in heavily Democratic districts aren’t supposed to blatantly indoctrinate the children with liberal ideas. They’re the reason Christians generally get successfully challenged in court whenever they do things like put up monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses even if the judge in the case is [themselves] a Christian, and why atheist teachers aren’t allowed to try to deconvert children in school. They’re a big chunk of the reason behind the First Amendment, too.
But part of having these rules is giving up some of your ability to judge other people, even obviously stupid people. The Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to accept blood transfusions, even when their life is in danger. As a medical student, I would very much like to say “Well, that’s stupid, and this Jehovah’s Witness happens to be unconscious, so haha, [they] can’t stop me.” Because I am obeying the cease-fire and being epistemically modest, I don’t do so, even though I know with 100-epsilon percent probability that the Jehovah’s Witness is wrong. In exchange, when that Jehovah’s Witness is catering at an event, [they] include a vegeterian option for me even though [they] personally think vegetarianism is idiotic.
The point is that I shouldn’t say “Your belief is stupid, therefore it doesn’t matter”, even when someone else’s belief is stupid, unless I’m ready to completely demolish the whole system of cease-fires.
He illustrates this point further:
Suppose I am a radical Catholic who believes all Protestants deserve to die, and therefore go around killing Protestants. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, there might be some radical Protestants around who believe all Catholics deserve to die. If there weren’t before, there probably are now. So they go around killing Catholics, we’re both unhappy and/or dead, our economy tanks, hundreds of innocent people end up as collateral damage, and our country goes down the toilet.
So we make an agreement: I won’t kill any more Catholics, you don’t kill any more Protestants. The specific Irish example was called the Good Friday Agreement and the general case is called “civilization”.
So then I try to destroy the hated Protestants using the government. I go around trying to pass laws banning Protestant worship and preventing people from condemning Catholicism.
Unfortunately, maybe the next government in power is a Protestant government, and they pass laws banning Catholic worship and preventing people from condemning Protestantism. No one can securely practice their own religion, no one can learn about other religions, people are constantly plotting civil war, academic freedom is severely curtailed, and once again the country goes down the toilet.
So again we make an agreement. I won’t use the apparatus of government against Protestantism, you don’t use the apparatus of government against Catholicism. The specific American example is the First Amendment and the general case is called “liberalism”, or to be dramatic about it, “civilization 2.0”
Every case in which both sides agree to lay down their weapons and be nice to each other has corresponded to spectacular gains by both sides and a new era of human flourishing.
“Wait a second, no!” someone yells. “I see where you’re going with this. You’re going to say that agreeing not to spread malicious lies about each other would also be a civilized and beneficial system. Like maybe the Protestants could stop saying that the Catholics worshipped the Devil, and the Catholics could stop saying the Protestants hate the Virgin Mary, and they could both relax the whole thing about the Jews baking the blood of Christian children into their matzah.
“But your two examples were about contracts written on paper and enforced by the government. So maybe a ‘no malicious lies’ amendment to the Constitution would work if it were enforceable, which it isn’t, but just asking people to stop spreading malicious lies is doomed from the start. The Jews will no doubt spread lies against us, so if we stop spreading lies about them, all we’re doing is abandoning an effective weapon against a religion I personally know to be heathenish! Rationalists should win, so put the blood libel on the front page of every newspaper!”
Or, as [one critic pseudonymously referred to as] Andrew puts it:
Whether or not I use certain weapons has zero impact on whether or not those weapons are used against me, and people who think they do are either appealing to a kind of vague Kantian morality that I think is invalid or a specific kind of “honor among foes” that I think does not exist.
So let’s talk about how beneficial game-theoretic equilibria can come to exist even in the absence of centralized enforcers. I know of two main ways: reciprocal communitarianism, and divine grace.
Reciprocal communitarianism is probably how altruism evolved. Some mammal started running TIT-FOR-TAT, the program where you cooperate with anyone whom you expect to cooperate with you. Gradually you form a successful community of cooperators. The defectors either join your community and agree to play by your rules or get outcompeted.
Divine grace is more complicated. I was tempted to call it “spontaneous order” until I remembered the rationalist proverb that if you don’t understand something, you need to call it by a term that reminds you that don’t understand it or else you’ll think you’ve explained it when you’ve just named it.
But consider the following: I am a pro-choice atheist. When I lived in Ireland, one of my friends was a pro-life Christian. I thought she was responsible for the unnecessary suffering of millions of women. She thought I was responsible for killing millions of babies. And yet she invited me over to her house for dinner without poisoning the food. And I ate it, and thanked her, and sent her a nice card, without smashing all her china.
Please try not to be insufficiently surprised by this. Every time a Republican and a Democrat break bread together with good will, it is a miracle. It is an equilibrium as beneficial as civilization or liberalism, which developed in the total absence of any central enforcing authority.
When you look for these equilibria, there are lots and lots. Andrew says there is no “honor among foes”, but if you read the Iliad or any other account of ancient warfare, there is practically nothing but honor among foes, and it wasn’t generated by some sort of Homeric version of the Geneva Convention, it just sort of happened. During World War I, the English and Germans spontaneously got out of their trenches and celebrated Christmas together with each other, and on the sidelines Andrew was shouting “No! Stop celebrating Christmas! Quick, shoot them before they shoot you!” but they didn’t listen.
All I will say in way of explaining these miraculous equilibria is that they seem to have something to do with inheriting a cultural norm and not screwing it up.
I think most of our useful social norms exist through a combination of divine grace and reciprocal communitarianism. To some degree they arise spontaneously and are preserved by the honor system. To another degree, they are stronger or weaker in different groups, and the groups that enforce them are so much more pleasant than the groups that don’t that people are willing to go along.
I feel like we’ve got a good thing going, we’ve ratified our Platonic contract to be intellectually honest and charitable to each other, we are going about perma-cooperating in the Prisoner’s Dilemma and reaping gains from trade.
And then someone says “Except that of course regardless of all that I reserve the right to still use lies and insults and harassment and dark epistemology to spread [my side’s ideology]”. Sometimes they do this explicitly […] Other times they use a more nuanced argument like “Surely you didn’t think the same rules against lies and insults and harassment should apply to oppressed and privileged people, did you?” And other times they don’t say anything, but just show their true colors by reblogging an awful article with false statistics.
(and still other times they don’t do any of this and they are wonderful people whom I am glad to know)
But then someone else says “Well, if they get their exception, I deserve my exception,” and then someone else says “Well, if those two get exceptions, I’m out”, and you have no idea how difficult it is to successfully renegotiate the terms of a timeless Platonic contract that doesn’t literally exist.
No! I am Exception Nazi! NO EXCEPTION FOR YOU! Civilization didn’t conquer the world by forbidding you to murder your enemies unless they are actually unrighteous in which case go ahead and kill them all. Liberals didn’t give their lives in the battle against tyranny to end discrimination against all religions except Jansenism because seriously fuck Jansenists. Here we have built our Schelling fence and here we are defending it to the bitter end.
[The idea] that “Evil people are doing evil things, so we are justified in using any weapons we want to stop them, no matter how nasty” suffers from a certain flaw. Everyone believes their enemies are evil people doing evil things. If you’re a Nazi, you are just defending yourself, in a very proportionate manner, against the Vast Jewish Conspiracy To Destroy All Germans.
[The] principle – kind of a supercharged version of liberalism – of “It is not okay to use lies, insults, and harassment against people, even if it would help you enforce your preferred social norms” […] gets us a heck of a lot closer to [our vision for a better world] than [the] principle of “Go ahead and use lies, insults, and harassment if they are effective ways to enforce your preferred social norms.”
If you really care about trying to make the world a better place, then – if you’re really committed to carrying the torch of good – then upholding the rules of civil discourse is crucial. Again though, the problem is that too many people are acting in a way that puts a higher priority on mocking and humiliating the other side than on trying to find a common ground and make substantive progress with them. They’ve become less interested in destroying bad ideas than in destroying the people who hold them. More and more, their ways of seeing and interacting with the world – and each other – have become dominated by signaling and tribalism. And the result is that the classic “kitchen table discussions” – the ones where close friends or family members are just bouncing ideas off of each other in a freewheeling kind of way, not taking anyone’s points too personally or getting too emotionally worked up, but just comparing different ideas, trying them on for size, and seeing where they lead – are being supplanted by something more petty-minded, and more damaging. Instead of constructively exchanging ideas around the kitchen table – sometimes disagreeing but still hearing each other out and trying to understand each other – the kinds of conversations dominating our discourse today are more like two people standing on top of soapboxes on opposite sides of the street, raving about how wrong the other one is, and never actually communicating with each other directly at all. Instead of one two-way conversation, we’ve got two one-way conversations. People are more interested in grandstanding and pandering to their own side than trying to engage with the other side; and even when they do debate with the other side, this instinctive inclination toward grandstanding and pandering keeps the two sides from ever being able to meet each other on equal footing. They tend to just stick with the same standard talking points that they always use when talking to their own side, and as a result they simply end up talking past one another. As Tim Minchin puts it:
Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.
It can often seem like we don’t even have true conversations at all these days – all we have are competing narratives. (Or, if we’re among allies, all we have are self-congratulatory back-patting sessions through which we reinforce our chosen narratives.) We talk at each other, and we talk past each other, but we don’t talk to each other – and we sure as hell don’t listen.