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The Sixth Meditation on Superweapons [Sep. 16th, 2012|02:34 am]
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Let's talk about the US missile defense shield.

Right now it can only shoot down a few missiles some of the time. But maybe one day it will be able to shoot down many missiles all of the time. The balance of power between the United States and Russia depends on mutually assured destruction. For either country to gain the ability to shoot down many missiles all of the time would upset this balance. Therefore, Russia opposes the US missile defense shield.

The United States tries to reassure Russia. "We're just building this shield to protect ourselves from Iran and North Korea", they say. This is super reasonable. The United States really does face a serious threat from Iran and North Korea. Building a missile defense shield is a great idea for reasons that have nothing to do with Russia. If Russia starts threatening to attack the United States if they don't stop building their shield, Russia looks like an aggressive jerk meddling in matters that don't concern it.

But say the United States finishes its defense shield, and then happens to disagree with Russia over some minor issue like the Syria conflict. "I think you better do what we say," says America. "We could crush you like a bug." And Russia says "But you told us your shield had nothing to do with us!". And the US answers "And we were telling the truth. We didn't intend it against you. But here we are, disagreeing with you and having a spare superweapon. It wasn't our original intent. But now, we own you."

Now let's talk about anti-Semitism.

Suppose you were a Jew in old-timey Eastern Europe. The big news story is about a Jewish man who killed a Christian child. As far as you can tell the story is true. It's just disappointing that everyone who tells it is describing it as "A Jew killed a Christian kid today". You don't want to make a big deal over this, because no one is saying anything objectionable like "And so all Jews are evil". Besides you'd hate to inject identity politics into this obvious tragedy. It just sort of makes you uncomfortable.

The next day you hear that the local priest is giving a sermon on how the Jews killed Christ. This statement seems historically plausible, and it's part of the Christian religion, and no one is implying it says anything about the Jews today. You'd hate to be the guy who barges in and tries to tell the Christians what Biblical facts they can and can't include in their sermons just because they offend you. It would make you an annoying busybody. So again you just get uncomfortable.

The next day you hear people complain about the greedy Jewish bankers who are ruining the world economy. And really a disproportionate number of bankers are Jewish, and bankers really do seem to be the source of a lot of economic problems. It seems kind of pedantic to interrupt every conversation with "But also some bankers are Christian, or Muslim, and even though a disproportionate number of bankers are Jewish that doesn't mean the Jewish bankers are disproportionately active in ruining the world economy compared to their numbers." So again you stay uncomfortable.

Then the next day you hear people complain about Israeli atrocities in Palestine, which is of course terribly anachronistic if you're in old-timey Eastern Europe but let's roll with it. You understand that the Israelis really do commit some terrible acts. On the other hand, when people start talking about "Jewish atrocities" and "the need to protect Gentiles from Jewish rapacity" and "laws to stop all this horrible stuff the Jews are doing", you just feel worried, even though you personally are not doing any horrible stuff and maybe they even have good reasons for phrasing it that way.

Then the next day you get in a business dispute with your neighbor. If it's typical of the sort of thing that happened in this era, you loaned him some money and he doesn't feel like paying you back. He tells you you'd better just give up, admit he is in the right, and apologize to him - because if the conflict escalated everyone would take his side because he is a Christian and you are a Jew. And everyone knows that Jews victimize Christians and are basically child-murdering Christ-killing economy-ruining atrocity-committing scum.

He has a point - not about the scum, but about that everyone would take his side. Like the Russians in the missile defense example above, you have allowed your opponents to build a superweapon. Only this time it is a conceptual superweapon rather than a physical one. The superweapon is the memeplex in which Jews are always in the wrong. It's a set of pattern-matching templates, cliches, and applause lights.

The Eastern European Christians did not necessarily have evil intent in creating their superweapon, any more than the Americans had evil intent in their missile shield. No particular action of theirs was objectionable - they were genuinely worried about that one murder, they were genuinely worried about Israeli atrocities. But like the Americans, once they have that superweapon they can use it on anyone and so even if you are a good person you are screwed.

This rule of "never let anyone build a conceptual superweapon that might get used against you" seems to be the impetus behind a lot of social justice movements. For example, it's eye-rollingly annoying whenever the Council on American - Islamic Relations condemns a news report on the latest terrorist atrocity for making too big a deal that the terrorists were Islamic (what? this bombing just killed however many people, and all you can think of to get upset about is that the newspaper mentioned the guy screamed 'Allahu akbar' first?), but I interpret their actions as trying to prevent the construction of a conceptual superweapon against Islam (or possibly to dismantle one that already exists). Like the Jew whose best option would have been to attack potentially anti-Jewish statements even when they were reasonable in context, CAIR can't just trust that no one will use the anti-Muslim sentiment against non-threatening Muslims. As long as there are stupid little trivial disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims over anything at all, that giant anti-Muslim superweapon sitting in the corner is just too tempting to refuse.

This is also one reason (of at least three) why I have serious reservations about feminism.

Sometimes I read feminist blogs. A common experience is that by the end of the article I am enraged and want to make a snarky comment, so I re-read the essay to pick out the juiciest quotes to tear apart. I re-read it and I re-read it again and eventually I find that everything it says is both factually true and morally unobjectionable. They very rarely say anything silly like "And therefore all men, even the ones who aren't actively committing this offense I'm arguing against, are evil", and it's usually not even particularly implied. I feel like the Jew in the story above, who admits that it's really bad the Jewish guy killed the Christian child, and would hate to say, like a jerk, that Christians aren't allowed to talk about it.

But like him I am uncomfortable. Like him I can't shake the worry that they are building a conceptual superweapon that could be used against me.

Feminism is a memeplex that provides a bunch of pattern-matching opportunities where a man is in the wrong and a woman is in the right. To give a very personal example, I mentioned a few days ago how I was close friends with a woman until I asked her out and she then decided to have a fit and cut off all contact with me. Normally everyone would agree I was in the right and try to console me and maybe even her own friends would tell her she was overreacting. But thanks to feminism she has a superweapon - she can accuse me of being a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM). The appropriate cliche having been conveniently provided, enough people decide to round to the nearest cliche and decide that I am in the wrong that the incident raises her status and decreases my own.

And aside from my own experience I just keep seeing the superweapon turned on innocents. The awkward guy who asks a woman out in the wrong way, who to me is a figure of pity, gets superweaponed and turned into a figure of public vituperation. When a woman gives a guy a bunch of obvious hints and so he tries to kiss her or something and then gets yelled at and called a creep, he can't protest "I'm really sorry, but she was giving me a bunch of obvious hints" or else he will get superweaponed and everyone will pattern-match him to a rapist. And if anyone disagrees with the feminist position on any political issue, from free contraception to affirmative action, then even if they have reasonable philosophical arguments they get superweaponed and everyone completes the pattern as "misogynist".

Or in general, everyone agrees we need to do a certain number of things to deal with prejudice against women, but people generally disagree on exactly how far we should go, and if any two people disagree the one who supports less action risks superweaponing.

Also, whenever someone accuses feminists of being trigger-happy with their superweapon, they tend to turn their superweapon on the accuser. It creates kind of a vicious cycle.

Now the feminists would say that I too have a superweapon called "patriarchy", and that they're just continuing the arms race. This is true, but it doesn't lead to a stable state like what the guns rights advocates claim would happen if everyone had guns where we would all be super-polite because nobody wants to offend a guy who's probably packing heat. It leads to something more like a postapocalyptic anarchy where everyone has guns and we're all shooting each other. If there's a conflict between a man and a woman, and the people involved happen to be old-fashioned patriarchalist types, then the man will automatically win and everyone will hate the woman for being a slut or a bitch or whatever. If there's a conflict between a man and a woman, and the people involved happen to be feminists who are familiar with the memeplex and all its pattern-matching suggests, then the woman will probably win and everyone will hate the man for being a creep or a bigot or whatever. At no point does everyone become respectful and say "Hey, we're all reasonable people with superweapons, let's judge this case on its merits instead of pattern-matching to the closest atrocity committed by someone of the same gender".

It also seems to me that the patriarchy is sort of an accident, where men ruled because they were big and strong and couldn't imagine doing otherwise and their values just sort of coalesced over time, and the struggle seems to be getting them to realize it's there. Whereas the feminists know all about discourse and power relations and so on and are quite gung ho about it and they're staying up late at night reading books with titles like How To Build A Much Deadlier Superweapon (I assume this book exists and is written by Nikola Tesla).

I'm all for mutual superweapon disarmament, but I'm not sure I like the whole mutually assured destruction thing as much. My history, and I think the history of a lot of people who are liberal and pro-choice and so on and so forth but really wary of feminism and social justice - is that we spent our college years totally supporting social justice and helping out in the superweapon factories because it's our duty to fight rape and racism and so on and since we were nice respectful people obviously the superweapon would never be used on us. Then we got in some kind of trivial disagreement with a woman or a minority or someone, or we didn't want to go far enough. Then they turned the superweapon on us, and it was kind of a moment of "wait, this was sort of the plan all along, wasn't it?"

I have an ambiguous respect for the white males who continue to be serious parts of the feminist and anti-racist movement - not just "well obviously I'm against discrimination but I'm not sure I'm drinking your Kool-Aid" people like myself, but the sort of who major in the appropriate college courses and write for the blogs and totally identify with the movement. It's ambiguous because I'm not sure if they're really naive ("Oh, they would never use this superweapon unless they had a really really good reason, and certainly not on the nice people like me") or whether they are really selfless ("I know this superweapon will eventually be used against me and other innocent people, but it's so important to arm this group against real enemies that I will help them build it anyway for purely consequentialist reasons.")

But I myself am not going there. The United States has mostly reassured Russia by promising them that their missile shield will be able to deflect the few and weak Korean/Iranian missiles it might face, but not the more numerous and more advanced Russian varieties. I think it's probably possible to create forms of social justice that would actually be focused against real threats and not provide free superweapons to anyone who wants to vaporize a few unattractive nerds before dinner. I just don't think the community in its current form is very good at pursuing them.

[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2012-09-16 10:31 am (UTC)
men are pretty apologetic about it and awkwardly trying to dismantle it where they can.

Really? I see a little of that. But I also see almost half of people in the USA willing to vote for a party dedicated to the opposite. I see conventions and conferences where they think it's ok to put together panels made up entirely of men (or occasionally with token women), and where lots of people still don't see that there's a harrassment problem, let alone that they should do anything about it.

I still see huge amounts of institutional sexism around me - and I live in the UK, which is better than many - and I see a lot of men who don't see it, and aren't interested in doing anything about it.

The idea that men are, by and large, working to dismantle patriarchy, seems silly.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-16 10:41 am (UTC)
I've edited that part out because I realized that if I left it in every comment would be about that and nothing about the gist of the piece. But I still sort of agree with it.

Insofar as people can agree and notice that a certain thing is patriarchalist, they seem pretty good about apologizing and getting rid of it.

The problem is when a result looks maybe potentially patriarchalist but no one really knows what to do with it. Let's take your example of a conference (for the sake of argument a chemistry conference) where most of the speakers are men.

Is this because society socializes women to dislike chemistry? Is this because women naturally/biologically don't like chemistry? Is this because women love chemistry but men won't accept them to college chemistry programs? Is it because women get accepted to college chemistry programs but don't do well enough in them to be become the sort of prestigious professors who get invited to speak at conferences? Or is it because the conference organizers were sexist and avoided inviting the prestigious women professors who totally existed and wanted to come?

Instituting a rule saying "50% of speakers at this chemistry conference must be women!" or other similar well-intentioned solutions only make sense in the context of the last of those. Otherwise you'll just end up desperately looking for some token women somewhere to make up the numbers.

So when I see conferences with panels almost entirely of men, I don't think "Man, the people who organized this conference must be really pro-patriarchy" or even "Someone, somewhere in this system, must support the patriarchy and be actively opposed to attempts to dismantle it." I think "There's a problem here but no one agrees on what it is and how to fix it and it's not even generally agreed it's fixable."

If there were ever something where everyone agreed it was due to patriarchy, and where everyone agreed on exactly where the patriarchy was and how it could be fixed and that the cost of fixing it wasn't outrageous, I think it would get fixed pretty quickly. I know that's probably not much consolation to women, but there doesn't seem to be a good solution other than the awkward things we're trying now.

Edited at 2012-09-16 10:54 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-09-16 12:04 pm (UTC)
Here's the thing about feminism, of the modern social justice variety you'll see on feminist blogs. I'm going to use Melissa McEwan's Shakesville as representative, since I think she's one of the most eloquent defenders of the idea and since I was a regular at the blog for a while.

Feminism -- and social justice generally -- is a *cause.*

I don't think I'm misrepresenting them here. Melissa talks about being "all in.". If you silently accept your privilege and have nice jobs and lots of dates and never think more about it, you are complicit in an immoral system. She talks about emptying the sea with teaspoons -- day by day, fighting an enormous injustice.

That kind of language is how you talk about a calling. Something that's just so obviously more important than your private comfort that it has to be done. And thinking about feminism as a cause, as a terminal value, can explain why feminists can be so unsympathetic to those who say "But this will have negative repercussions to me." Or why they're often so disinclined to allow open debate if "open" might include sexist (or racist, etc) opinions. From their perpective, "Tough! Can't you see there's a war on? I'm trying to get rid of rape culture -- and you're bitching about getting a date?"

Terminal values are important but dangerous; by definition you have to sacrifice other things to them. If you're going to be a feminist, you have to sacrifice other things in pursuit of feminism.

Social justice isn't my cause. I'm not all in. There's something about that philosophy that says you owe and owe and owe, all your life, to the dispossessed of the world -- almost a religious debt. And, for one reason or another, I never found myself driven to take on that purpose. I want to be able to go home, mind my own business, and have as happy a life as circumstances will allow. And my own sense of calling or obligation, which has to do with truth, won't let me go along with the kind of intellectual conformity that seems to be part of modern movement feminism. I can acknowledge when feminists are right, but that's not what they think a "feminist" is -- a feminist is someone who's "all in," who's going to put the cause first, and so that's not me.

Edited at 2012-09-16 12:54 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-16 06:36 pm (UTC)
One also notes, what's the point of the cause if its purpose is not to allow people to live out their lives in peace and quietness. Many people with a cause, if they succeed with their stated aim, go on to find a new cause, because they are not really interested in the aim of the cause, just having a cause.

Of course, if one is really out of sorts, that people often seem to think they have built of a moral charge by supporting a cause. Which means they get to omit other good things that they would have done without it. . . it's even been reproduced in the lab.
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From: Alex Rozenshteyn
2012-09-16 12:51 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

This analogy beautifully explains something that I've observed but haven't been able to explain.
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From: siodine
2012-09-16 03:25 pm (UTC)
Exceptionally well-written and argued. I think this post belongs on LW as a meta observation of identity politics, although you should probably take out the more specific point about feminism and keep it meta.

Edited at 2012-09-16 03:51 pm (UTC)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-16 03:58 pm (UTC)
The business about "conceptual superweapons" definitely belongs on LW.
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[User Picture]From: catlinye_maker
2012-09-16 03:43 pm (UTC)
I've been reading this series with great interest. Thank you for providing a ton of food for thought and elegantly articulating my vague discomfort with the pillory of the awkward.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-09-16 04:43 pm (UTC)
Weapons run out of ammunition. If, say, the Jews get angry at the Christians every time any Christian is at all mean to any Jew, their audience may tire of listening to them, and not take them seriously when the next Hitler really appears. They'll have spent all their shots on the imaginary wolves and have none left to vaporize the real wolf.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-16 06:41 pm (UTC)
Not to mention any time anything accurate is said. . . .

Indeed, that rouses suspicions of its own.
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-16 05:20 pm (UTC)
Oh look, LJ ate my comment again, but it was probably for the best as it was very rambly.

I think your analogy about the cold war is quite good, but if you had time, I'd rewrite it so the main point was more central. And if at all possible, I'd avoid the nazi germany analogy, even though it's quite good because (a) people are going to argue about that instead of anything else and (b) I agree with what you're saying about "dangerous even if it's innocuous", but some of the examples you gave can easily be seen as not innocuous, which might be interpreted as the opposite of what you meant.

And I'd separate that from the second half, talking about the problems with feminism, because I think people ought to be able to understand the problem without the conceptual background.

I agree there's a problem with many strands of feminism becoming entrenched in a victim mentality. But I think people disagree a lot whether that can be safely equated with the whole of feminism. To many people who have been primarily exposed to it, the sort of soft-academic online social justice jargon-ful feminism is what feminism is. To many people, they've not even heard of that, and go chuntering on self-defining as feminists because they think men and women should have equal rights to careers. (Eg. me and my mother.) So even if you're right in identifying the problems, classifying them as reasons not to be feminist may communicate that accurately to only half of your audience?
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[User Picture]From: jannytruant
2012-09-16 09:15 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this. I identify as a feminist, and while I can understand that super-weapon feminists are pretty pervasive (especially online), I find it well outside the scope of my experience, and certainly it conflicts with my mandate.

Also, can someone explain what social justice feminism is? The term "social justice" seems to be used in a different context to what I'm familiar with.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-16 07:48 pm (UTC)
Ronald Regan advocated sharing missile shield technology with the entire world, rendering an entire class of superweapon redundant.

You're a remarkably knowledgeable individual. Can you think of any complex problems of social dynamics in modern history that have been flat-out solved? Or for which undeniably obvious solutions exist but haven't been implemented?

A defining characteristic of complex problems is resistance to unilateral solutions, but such solutions aren't inconceivable. The development and distribution of missile shield technology would, in a single (expensive and logistically nightmarish) stroke, eliminate the spectre of nuclear holocaust.

I'm curious because I wonder how various interest groups would respond if someone announced tomorrow that they could "solve" a popular point of social injustice, inexpensively and on a reasonable time scale.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-17 03:37 am (UTC)
"You're a remarkably knowledgeable individual. Can you think of any complex problems of social dynamics in modern history that have been flat-out solved? Or for which undeniably obvious solutions exist but haven't been implemented?"

Would you count the anti-Irish and anti-Italian racism that existed in the US during the 19th century? The associated American anti-Catholicism? Or were those just "solved" because we all found better people to be racist against and didn't have enough racism left over for the Irish? Anti-Semitism isn't completely dead, but it's dead enough that if a Russian Jew from 1900 came to the US today she'd say it was dead for all intents and purposes.

What about sectarian warfare between Catholics and Protestants, which was pretty much the problem of the 17th century? I can easily imagine an old-timey European believing that would never end until one or the other side was wiped out. But nowadays we have a bunch of Catholics and Protestants living side by side without even thinking about killing each other. Actually, "religious intolerance" in general is a pretty good candidate at least in the West; insofar as it continues to exist it's basically just a tiny shadow of its former self.

What about slavery (the omnipresent antebellum South version, not the furtive human trafficking of today)? Infanticide? Banditry? Child labor? Starvation, which at least in rich Western countries is pretty much a thing of the past?
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-16 08:39 pm (UTC)
It's ambiguous because I'm not sure if they're really naive ("Oh, they would never use this superweapon unless they had a really really good reason, and certainly not on the nice people like me") or whether they are really selfless

My first guess would be that most of them are in long-lasting monogamous relationships, or have some other good reason for not participating in courtship. But I have not conducted a survey.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-16 09:03 pm (UTC)
It might just be a limited sample, but the men I know who are really into feminism are all handsome, charming and popular.
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[User Picture]From: mantic_angel
2012-09-17 09:19 am (UTC)
Thank you for having the courage to actually write something like this. I hope you are not destroyed by the feminist super-weapons as a result! :)
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[User Picture]From: Julia Wise
2012-09-17 04:02 pm (UTC)
Thanks for writing this series; I hadn't thought about it like this.

I do want to point out that, despite examples of bad behavior by women towards men who seem to have been clueless rather than ill-intentioned, I don't think this is typical. There are plenty of women who, when pursued by a man in an unwanted but non-threatening fashion, say "No, thanks" and end it there. Unfortunately, those who use the superweapon are more noticeable.
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[User Picture]From: eyelessgame
2012-09-17 06:09 pm (UTC)
While I'm really suspicious of analogies, because they are the perfect fertilizer for every fallacy of equivocation that anyone ever imagined - I do think you have a point.

There is collateral damage to what they're fighting. Some of that collateral damage could happen to people like the eighteen-year-old I was - and I don't think you could have convinced my eighteen-year-old self of much of what feminism says today.

Part of it is that people who are poorly socialized function poorly in society. There are some mechanisms in place that provide a way for the poorly-socialized still to interact successfully, and part of the problem here is that feminism has recognized that those mechanisms have built-in injustices, and are asking (or demanding) that we dismantle them. And yes, in some situations there are ways for the superweapon to be an auto-win, and to perform logical fallacies of its own - foremost among them, well-poisoning.

And here's the best, most ironic thing about all of this, if you're familiar with feminist literature (and you clearly are): a primary reason that I have no emotional difficulty with being openly feminist is that I am privileged compared to a young single male. I am older, in my forties, happily married. I am not in the unprivileged position of having to go out and play the dating game. For that reason I am able to discount your point of view, should I choose to do so.

But I'm intellectually honest enough not to use that privilege as an excuse. What you say gives me food for thought and I will, in fact, think. I hope to have more to say later - I have to go work now. :)
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