Mar. 31st, 2015

tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
There are certain truths that those of us subjected to the education given to the middle class (which is to say: just enough critical thinking to do the rich kids' homework, and not enough to realize the rich kids hate us as much as they hate the poor kids) were taught not to question. Here are some of them; in The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home, Jonathan Kozol wrote about others.

We need more research and facts before we make a hasty decision.
There's more than one side to every story.
The only real ethical precept you ever need is politeness.
Objective truth exists, and we should never take decisive action until we find it.

When we present these received truths as vague generalities, it's easier to see that none of them are universally true. Even so, they have such a hold over the liberally (small-l) educated imagination that when made specific, they can be quite compelling. To wit:

We need to do more research about climate change.
Vaccines could cause autism -- who can prove they don't, after all?
Evolution is just a theory, and there are other valid points of view in the controversy.
It's really about ethics in video game journalism.
Call-out culture is an evil comparable in scope and impact to that of the prison-industrial complex.

This is not to say that all or most liberally-educated people doubt that climate change is caused by human activities or that vaccines don't have anything to do with autism. The point is that these assertions are all phrased in ways that are designed to exploit vulnerabilities in people like me, who have a certain kind of education -- to plant seeds of doubt in our intuitions and the generalizations we've made based on lived experience. After all,

Can you really be sure that no further research is needed before we conclude that humans are changing the climate? You, personally, who probably doesn't have a Ph.D in geoscience?
Can you really be sure that vaccines are safe? Maybe they only cause autism (which is presumed to be negative) once in a while. But what if that one in a million was your child?
Could you personally argue that evolution is a good explanation for the diversity of observed life forms?
Can you really laugh off concerns about ethics? That sounds like a real, serious concern.
Isn't it rude to "call people out"? Obviously being rude or shaming people or institutions publicly is kind of disreputable even if you have a good reason.

These questions have answers: "yes", "yes", "it doesn't matter", "yes", and "maybe, but who cares?" "More research" always sounds good. "Ethics" always sounds good. And you learned in kindergarten to be nice to people, right? But there is nothing magic about these phrases or concerns that prevents them from being used in a way that is bereft of meaning.

It's a false equivalence to say that the theory of "intelligent design" has as much scientific validity as the theory of evolution, or that a jumble of ideas about the potential harmful effects of vaccines should be given equal weight with the overwhelming evidence in favor of their safety, or that a handful of climate change deniers are as credible as the overwhelming consensus among mainstream scientists that humans are changing the climate. Likewise, it's a false equivalence to compare manufactured grievances about video game journalism with the many legitimate ethical concerns that a person could have about journalism, or to compare being told that your opinion is bad and you should feel bad to the state using its monopoly on power in order to put you in prison for life.

GamerGaters, corporate PR departments and climate deniers suck the meaning out of words and build Trojan horses out of words and phrases that appear superficially similar to modes of dialogue that school may have taught you to trust. They put a great deal of faith in the magical power of these words to suspend critical thinking while appearing to enact such thinking.

But words aren't magic. As Annalee on wrote:
...people on an axis of privilege have a nasty tendency to appropriate social justice terminology (like privilege and harassment) and twist it around to serve their own point of view. They treat these words like magic incantations, as if it’s the words, rather than the argument, that convinces people.

Words are not magic incantations. They have meanings. Using a word without understanding its meaning just because you’ve seen other people successfully use it to convey a point is magical thinking.

Another thing you may have learned is that arguing over "semantics" is a shameful frivolity. But semantics means "meaning", and if we don't have rough consensus about the meaning of the words we use, we can't communicate at all.

A thing that abusers, on the micro scale, do is to isolate victims from their friends. On the macro scale, that's more difficult, so people working to advance the interests of oppressive institutions work to isolate everybody from the tools we use collaboratively to identify patterns. One of the bigger tools we use that way is language itself. If you can divorce language from meaning, you can get people to believe anything, especially when you can channel emotionally charged concepts like making people feel ashamed of engaging in "public shaming" (that is, criticizing powerful people) or guilty about calling out bad behavior.

There is no trick or recipe for knowing when you are deceiving yourself, when someone else is deceiving themself, or when someone else is trying to deceive you. But knowing that it's a thing that happens does make it easier to discern truth from lies.

The general principles of skepticism, evidence-based decision-making, and even civility can be useful tools, but don't obligate us to entertain those who use them in a way that sets off our bullshit detectors. And anti-call-out-culture crusaders are obviously insincere -- if they were sincere, wouldn't they spend some time doing something other than the activity they claim to detest (namely, calling people out)? Like abortion or marriage, calling people out on the Internet is something you're totally free to foreswear if you feel it's not useful for you. But if you don't like it, the best way to show it is not to do it.

Sometimes more research is needed. But all the grad students in the world couldn't put clothes on the emperor.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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