Respect isn’t about respect

I didn’t expect to say anything more about Andrew Breitbart, but then I saw some comments on Facebook from an atheist/libertarian friend of mine that I think are worth commenting on. He criticized the reaction of many liberals to Breitbart’s death, specifically linking to this article, but didn’t endorse a general “don’t speak ill of the dead” rule. Instead, his comments were “keep it classy, liberals,” “such behavior is petty, immature, and degrading for oneself and others exposed to it,” and (in response to someone else who posted Hitchens’ piece on the death of Jerry Falwell) “I hope, Bryan, you don’t mean to compare the childish bile of the rantings posted above to the sheer poetry that is a Christopher Hitchens takedown of Falwell.”

The title of this post comes from a bit of contrarian poetry from Robin Hanson:

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

Similarly, you might think the rule about not speaking ill of the dead has something to do with respect. However, here the view seems to be this: “don’t speak ill of the dead” is a rule. There may not be any good reason for having the rule, but it’s a rule, and if you break the rule, this is evidence that you are probably not cool.

Now, if you are an excellent writer and break the rule by writing an article that showcases your ability with words (i.e. “sheer poetry), that is powerful evidence of your coolness.  So in that case, your having broken the rule does not show you are not cool. Otherwise, though, breaking the rule is uncool. It isn’t “classy” (not like the behavior of the upper class). It is “immature” and “childish” (children are also low status). And it is “degrading for oneself” (who cares if it’s harmful, it lowers your own status).

Humans will probably keep playing these status games until the species is extinct, and maybe when we are our descendants will keep on playing them (or something like them). However, it is one thing to play them with trivial things, like taste in clothing or music, but I wish we could ban them from serious topics. You know, like when we’re talking about a public figure who hurt a lot of people with his habitual dishonesty.

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