On some things that are not each other

Scott Alexander has a post up responding to Arthur Chu. Much of the post gives the impression that the argument between Scott and Arthur was mainly about Scott’s post on false rape accusations, whereas I think it’s pretty clear that Arthur has a much more general beef with Scott and the LessWrong community in general. In fact, when I first saw the post, my initial reaction was confusion and going to edit my own post endorsing Arthur to add a note saying Scott and I appear to have very different understandings of what Arthur said. But then I removed it, because maybe Scott was just choosing to focus on the parts of Arthur’s position he most disagreed with.

Either way, though, some parts of the Scott’s reply strike me as unfair to Arthur. It begins by claiming Arthur “criticizes me for my bold and controversial suggestion that maybe people should try to tell slightly fewer blatant hurtful lies.” I can’t see where Arthur actually said that. There’s also the part where Scott said, “for the love of God, if you like bullets so much, stop using them as a metaphor for ‘spreading false statistics’ and go buy a gun.” In the comments, Arthur rightly complained about this:

Equating my saying that sometimes you have to be an asshole to people who are assholes with saying that I want to buy a gun and shoot everybody is a crap argument. (For the record, I think the difference between when you should use words, including nasty words, and using armed resistance is a quantitative matter of degree of threat and not some absolute proscription — I’m not an absolute pacifist and most people aren’t.)

To which Scott replied:

I agree that you do not want to do this, I’m just saying you can’t not want to do this consistently.

…which strikes me as really odd. When I see these kinds of inconsistency charges, I’m always tempted to get snarky with formal logic: “How can I accept p while rejecting q, you ask? Easy: I assert ‘p & ~q’. Which I can do, because p is not the same thing as q, and the Law of Noncontradiction only prevents me from simultaneously asserting and denying the same proposition, such as if I were to assert ‘p & ~p’.”

This seems reflective of a broader problem within the LessWrong community – people who have no trouble parsing fine distinctions in philosophy or politics begin applying rigid false dichotomies when it comes to community norms or movement tactics. On LessWrong, I’ve encountered people who think you can neatly divide the world into people who are “defectors” and those who aren’t, or who equate a gay kid lying to homophobic parents who he’s financially dependent on with scamming people out of money.

The part of Scott’s post I found most worrisome, though, was this:

My natural instinct is to give some of the reasons why I think Arthur is wrong, starting with the history of the “noble lie” concept and moving on to some examples of why it didn’t work very well, and why it might not be expected not to work so well in the future.

But in a way, that would be assuming the conclusion. I wouldn’t be showing respect for Arthur’s arguments. I wouldn’t be going halfway to meet them on their own terms.

The respectful way to rebut Arthur’s argument would be to spread malicious lies about Arthur to a couple of media outlets, fan the flames, and wait for them to destroy his reputation.

Then if the stress ends up bursting an aneurysm in his brain, I can dance on his grave, singing:

♪ ♬ I won this debate in a very effective manner. Now you can’t argue in favor of nasty debate tactics any more ♬ ♪

(I won’t get into particular strategies for exactly how the damage might be done, because the ease with which my brain comes up with them sort of scares me, and I don’t want to get a reputation as the sort of person who can easily generate plans to turn Hufflepuff bones into weapons. But come on. He just became nationally famous for winning lots of money by being slightly cleverer than everyone else. It wouldn’t exactly take a MsScribe-level intellect to convince the media that destroying him would be a mildly amusing use of their time.)

I am not going to do that, but if I did it’s unclear to me how Arthur could object. I mean, he thinks that sexism is detrimental to society, so spreading lies and destroying people is justified in order to stop it. I think that discourse based on mud-slinging and falsehoods is detrimental to society. Therefore…

Note that the “MsScribe” link is to a post by Scott telling the story of a figure in Harry Potter fandom who was infamous for, among other things, smearing an opposing faction of Harry Potter fandom as bigots. This is followed by Scott claiming MsScribe was a total amateur compared to some of the stuff he and his friends got up to before he went to medical school. Which lends some plausibility to Scott’s claim that he could totally destroy Arthur Chu’s reputation if he wanted to.

Now, probably Scott means it when he says he isn’t going to do that… but after reading the above quote, when I ask myself who sounds more likely to try to destroy someone’s reputation with malicious lies, Arthur (who’s been found guilty of endorsing metaphorical “war and fire”) or Scott (who talks about how he could totally destroy someone’s reputation with malicious lies if he wanted to and they’d have no grounds to object), my answer is “Scott”. If I suddenly start hearing nasty rumors about Arthur or any of Scott’s other critics, I’ll now be more likely to take those rumors with a grain of salt.

And there may lie a danger of extreme black-and-white thinking that hadn’t occurred to me before: it creates a tempting rationalization for all kinds of nasty behavior. If you divide the world into people who are perfectly honest all the time and act as rationalist purists in debates, and everyone who doesn’t follow that extreme code, it becomes tempting to think violations of the extreme code should be punished with any dirty tricks you can think up. Because it’s all the same, right? Well no, it isn’t—as anyone who rejects such black-and-white thinking can see.

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