One-Sided Turing Tests and Privilege

One-Sided Turing Tests and Privilege August 8, 2013

Next week, the second half of this year’s Ideological Turing Test opens, and, in the meantime, PEG has come up with an interesting connection between Ideological Turing Tests and what I like calling ‘reverse dog whistles’ (someone please help me come up with a better name).

In rhetoric, a dog whistle is a way to say something that seems innoucuous to most of your audience, but carries a message to a core group of supporters.  Think of businesses that include a small Jesus fish in their ads, or when some Southern politicians in the 1960s used ‘states-rights’ as signal to listeners that they shared their not-quite-federalist-related objections to the Civil Rights Act.

But a reverse dog-whistle is the term I’ve been using for when a speaker says something they assume is innocuous or has only one meaning, and it has a nails-on-a-chalkboard screech for the non-supporters the orator was trying to persuade.  PEG highlights two examples (the socialist realism style in the Obama poster, and the Melissa Harris-Perry school ad) in his post “Things That Make One Side Freak Out.”

Because infrequently, we get these moments when one “side” freaks out over some not very important, symbolic thing, and it’s pretty clear that the other side doesn’t even understand why the other side is freaking out. I would like to propose that symbolic freakouts reveal, and often get to the core of, our value systems and they way we see the world. They get to our cultural environment, etc. And when other people not only disagree with the freakout, but literally don’t understand it, that’s a major Ideological Turing Test #fail, and a serious one, since it gets at the core of why we disagree in a way that, say, disagreements over tax rates don’t.

When I’m in an argument, puzzling out what I’m missing to not hear a reverse dog-whistle tends to be pretty fruitful line of inquiry.  It makes it easier to communicate with my opponents in a way that isn’t painful or exhausting for them to listen to (and, after all, they have no obligation to listen to me; it’s okay to walk away from a fight).  But, more importantly, as PEG points out, it helps me start to notice the thing my opponents are trying to protect.

Then I can pause and notice whether I also want to conserve this thing/person/tradition.  Have my opponents helped me by pointing out I’m weakening the fortifications?  Or does my philosophy have a built-in safeguard that theirs lacks; I might have neglected to mention it, because it’s so obvious to me that it’s in place.  (Imagine a doctor being confused by a nurse trying to stop her from administering a medication, until she remembers she forgot to note in the chart that she discontinued the other drug the patient was on, and the nurse would be right to be worried about possibly lethal interactions, if he didn’t have that piece of information).  Or maybe I don’t value the thing my opponent is trying to protect, and we can skip right to that part of the fight, instead of the kind of tangential fight we’re in the middle of.

But there’s another domain in which I think it’s useful to be curious about an audience’s flinch, instead of frustrated or resentful.  The word ‘privilege’ seems to be verging on a reverse dog-whistle itself. but I think it can be aptly analogized to uttering them habitually.  Part of the idea of having privilege is having your default way of speaking/acting/looking/etc accommodated by everyone else.  It’s not such a good fit for the people not in your group, but they’ve gotten pretty good at doing whatever it takes to pass, even if it’s uncomfortable.

In this framework, being privileged is like being on the wrong side of an Ideological Turing Test.  Nearly everyone can approximate the mainstream position (your position), but people in the plurality don’t know how to imitate the smaller/less-powerful groups.  Think of everyone learning conventional Chinese characters, and only women knowing Nüshu script.  Or the development (due to sex-segregated schools) of Irish Men’s Sign Language and Irish Women’s Sign Language (women learned both, most men were monolingual).  Or back to Bryan Caplan’s initial invention of the Ideological Turing Test, when he claimed that all econ grad students have to learn Krugman’s Keynesianism, but that most people in the mainstream don’t understand the substance of the libertatian critique.

So when you notice that you’re doing something that makes your opponent flinch, get curious.  What unmentioned conflict did you just stumble on?  What reverse dog-whistle just came out of your mouth, and why doesn’t it affect you? Are you part of a group that tends not to have to understand the other side, since your experience/affect/looks are treated as a lingua franca?

You might end up being able to make a small, reasonable adjustment.  You might end up changing your mind in a big way.  You might feel like you’ve been told you’re hurting people, without a way to stop. Or you might figure out that your disagreement goes back to first principles, and this is going to be tricky.

But it helps a lot to treat the flinch or the comment “check your privilege” as data.  Your opponent just told you something you thought was trivial is important and that may help one or both of you lose quickly.


Sindaloke wrote an essay on privilege that tends to be better liked than most, so here’s the link.

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  • Yvain

    Did you just come up with a way to test empirically whether privilege really exists?!

    I am certain people on both sides will be grateful for this important advance, happy to perform the obvious experiments, and fully willing to adjust their discourse in accordance with the results.

    • LeahLibresco

      No, I certainly didn’t. I was trying for a reframe so it’s easier to get curious instead of defensive in this realm.

    • Robby Bensinger

      What do you mean by “privilege”, such that it’s an open question whether it exists? Usually I just read ‘x is privileged’ as meaning ‘x got lucky’, and unearned advantages surely exist. I gather you build a lot more into your concept of “privilege”, treating a lot of theses about privilege (e.g., the privilege blindness of just-world and typical-mind) as part of the core concept?

      • Anonymous

        Privilege can’t just mean ‘got lucky’, because then non-white-males could qualify. Instead, we need to talk about power relationships and statistics about wealth (carefully avoiding any that mention Asians in this country, because it’s seriously impossible for a white male to work in a field dominated by Asians, such that his boss is Korean, and the vast majority of his coworkers are Indian… noooope, not possible), so that we can swear that you should feel bad about the fact that you ‘got lucky’ in little ways, over and over again. After all, that’s the only reason you succeeded. Of course, if your white male friend from elementary/secondary school didn’t succeed (but had the exact same privileged environment), I’m not sure what’s going on there. He still must have gotten the exact same amount of lucky, I’m sure. Maybe he’s just lazy.

        tl;dr Does privilege exist in the way you or Leah are talking about it? Absolutely. Does it do all the work that some people want it to do? Nope.

        • Robby Bensinger

          “because then non-white-males could qualify” – Huh? Men do qualify as having privilege. It’s called male privilege. It’s a phenomenon in its own right, not reducible to radical advantage or disadvantage. There are also innumerable forms of privilege that involve neither maleness nor whiteness.

          “so that we can swear that you should feel bad about the fact that you ‘got lucky’ in little ways” – This suggests to me that you don’t quite yet even have a superficial understanding of what you’re talking about. Being privileged is not a sin. The goal is to recognize your privilege and understand how it affects your perspective on the world and how it relates to others’ welfare, not to apologize or atone for it. It might be bad in some cases to perpetuate privilege, but that’s distinct from being born with advantages in the first place.

          “Does it do all the work that some people want it to do? Nope.” – Your cutting-edge sociological insights floor me. People do not become privileged out of sheer malice? Privilege is a statistical phenomenon? HOW COULD THIS BE.

          My world is shattered.

          • Anonymous

            There’s a reason why “white privilege” and “male privilege” are reverse dog whistles. Do a little reading, and you’ll see non-fringe people claiming that if a female finds herself in a situation that would satisfy the definition of privilege, we should instead call it “benevolent sexism”.

            I have more than a superficial understanding of the topic, thanks (you’re an expert at mansplaining, it seems, trollololol). Many people treat it as a sin or a disease. Recently, I saw a well-respected commenter on a related blog make a very benign statement about a women’s issue. He felt compelled to preface it with, “Let me pour oil into the fire with some condescending mansplaining,” and follow it with, “I think now I’ll run for the bunker.” That he felt compelled to essentially offer up a joke/apology for the fact that he was a man who decided to take the audacious step of opening his mouth is telling.

            “You have X privilege” or “you are mansplaining” is often not used in order to actually point out something that a person is actually missing. All too often, it’s used to just shut someone up. If it’s not paired with an explanation of what the person might be missing, it’s a borderline ad hominem. Many times, you cannot replace it’s invocation with, “Hey, look at this statistical phenomenon,” (or better yet, “Here’s why other people have to think about this from a different perspective”) and have it make any sense in the context of the comment… because the comment is often intended to shut a person up.

            Of course, if it’s not accompanied with an explanation of what the person should be learning about, how is someone to react? Well, you have nothing to go on… so, your response is very naturally going to be, “Well, I’m sorry that I happen to be a guy, but my point is clearly still valid unless you bring some new information to the table.” This is why people feel like it’s a sin they must apologize for.

            If you are a person who uses a good, consistent definition of the term, knowing that it’s a statistical phenomenon (or a description for lack of perspective) and not a conversation stopper, thanks. Learning this about you won’t shatter my world. I do have faith that there are people out there with intellectual integrity. However, if you have that intellectual integrity (and any experience with this topic in the wild), you should also have a pretty good idea why there is such a backlash.

          • wlinden

            ‘”You have X privilege” or “you are mansplaining” is often not used in
            order to actually point out something that a person is actually missing.
            All too often, it’s used to just shut someone up. If it’s not paired
            with an explanation of what the person might be missing, it’s a borderline ad hominem.’

            You mean, it is just like the condescending “You just don’t get it,” followed by silence.

      • Yvain

        I think privilege the way Leah means it here means something more like “You are luckier than I am and therefore so blind to the sorts of things unlucky people like me have to put up with that you can’t even possibly understand my problems or arguments, and so have no right to participate in this discussion. On the other hand, I understand all of your problems and arguments just fine. Therefore, only my opinion on this issue can be truly valid.”

        …it sounds kind of evil the way I phrased it above, but it’s sometimes true – a classic example might be a man who says “Are you kidding? I’d love to be sexually harassed by a pretty girl”, which is reasonable from his perspective but only because he’s never had to face any fear in sexual situations or deal with unwanted attention, so just understands them as potential free sex.

        The counterargument would be that actually, members of privileged group X can understand the problems addressed by oppressed group Y just fine, they just don’t agree with group Y’s characterization or proposed solution. Or that there is reciprocal misunderstanding – an oppressed group also can’t understand what it’s like to be part of a privileged group, and therefore both groups have imperfect understanding of the situation. For example, a white person might not understand why black people want affirmative action, but a black person might not understand why white people *don’t* want affirmative action, because she thinks white people can’t possibly have any trouble getting jobs so if a white person loses out on one job by affirmative action she can just get another better one somewhere else.

        What I mean by “empirically demonstrating privilege”, is that oppressed/privileged Turing tests could distinguish between “oppressed group understands privileged group but not vice versa” (the position where ‘privilege’ makes a lot of sense), “both groups understand each other just fine” (naive position?), “both groups misunderstand each other” (some men’s rights groups seem to say this, where feminists have good points but they don’t understand that men have complicated problems that need addressing too), and “privileged group understands oppressed group, but not vice versa” (something I have never heard posited, although it might be possible if for example the previous one was true originally but the percolation of social justice memes into our culture has now made everyone super-sensitive to oppressed groups’ concerns)

    • Guest

      Psychologists have been doing studies like that for years, you fucking idiot. Yes, it exists. Now adjust your discourse.

      • Yvain

        Can you give some examples of what sort of studies you mean?

  • You know, I have an alternative proposal: we can stop freaking out over trivial crap.

    This is something I’ve written about, specifically criticizing the atheist blogosphere here:

    My politics are in many ways to the left of Obama’s, and I still find the Obama “hope” poster icky. And the what’s-her-name ad about children belonging to us does feel kinda tone-deaf. But seriously, how is it not self-evident that this shit really does not matter?

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Chris, I thought the point of this post was that one person’s trivial crap is another person’s important value.

      The Obama posters were good for a laugh. Forming opinion about public education is rather more serious, since on the one hand of course children are part of the wider community and of course we should all be concerned about the state of public education and access to good teaching. Of course it’s not good enough to ignore poor schools and poor education on the basis that “It’s not my kids going there”.

      But I wonder does Ms. Harris-Perry have children herself, and would she be so blithe about “your children do not belong to you, they belong to the community” if her choice of where to send them to school was over-ridden by the local education committee saying “They’re going to the bog-standard, over-crowded, local school where if they learn to write their names they’ll be lucky and you have no say in this because they live in the catchment area and that’s their local school”, or – like so many policy-makers and opinion-formers – is it “Your kids go to the local school, my kids go to the fee-paying boarding one”?

    • Kristen inDallas

      so… who gets to determine what is “trivial”? I’m sure there’s plenty of things I would agree with you on as being trivial, but clearly not everyone agrees. There are people who think the masonic symbolism on the dollar bill is a REALLYBIGDEAL. There are other people who find it perfectly acceptable to wish an abortion or rape on someone as a “joke.”
      I think the point though, is that is is far easier for the party who finds something “trivial” to stop and question another person’s freakout and move the argument into a more productive place than it is for a person who is currently freaking out to just “get over it.”

  • Adam

    “intellectual pressure-points”
    “unintentional dog whistle”
    “unintentional wolf whistle”
    “wolf whistle”

    • Alexander S Anderson

      Ooh… I like the term wolf whistle. It well incapsulates the feeling of being threatened when they are heard.

  • Robby Bensinger

    “Nearly everyone can approximate the mainstream position (your position), but people in the plurality don’t know how to imitate the smaller/less-powerful groups.”

    More powerful or mainstream groups can be hard to imitate when signaling status is made particularly costly. I’m not sure that learning most people have trouble imitating group X tells me whether X is more likely to be high-status or low-status, and sometimes just looking mainstream means spending a whole lot of resources on attire, education, etc.

  • Green

    So many of these ‘freakouts’ are fed by the media and ridiculously overhyped. What are we supposed to learn, that people on the right have a persecution complex and are delusional? Because I already knew that. I mean, look at the hysteria over ‘death panels’ when Obamacare was passed. Absolutely ridiculous. Or the fuss about Obama’s birth certificate, which took months of airtime. All that revealed to me is that Rebuplicans are racist and Islamopobic (and again, paranoid and delusional). I think, if the man really thinks his children are about to be taken away because of one political ad, there’s no other phrase than delusional. And reasoning with delusional people is a waste of time, because if you try to reassure them that these things are not actually happening, they assume you’re ‘in on it’.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Thank you for that assessment of all conservatives. We are all (apparently) Republicans (even if we don’t live in the U.S.A. and don’t belong to that party) and racist, paranoid, delusional, Islamophobic hysterics with persecution complexes – though the only thing that would be applicable to Islam in that particular article was the discussion of the French notion of laïcité which, ironically, some do consider Islamophobic (women forced to remove their headscarves?) Hint: the writer of the article does not support the French imposition of secularism.

      If you don’t think that there are over-reactions on both sides of any political divide – left or right, conservative or liberal, nationalist or globalist, big-endian or small-endian – I don’t know what to say. I’ve seen conservative Catholics, conservative Irish people, conservative who-you-like having freakouts about small things. But I’ve also seen it on the other side.
      Unless what you mean is that all human perfection is to be found within liberal, progressive, left-inclined types and so when they throw a wobbly over something, in every single instance they are standing up for the truth against a fascist imperialist totalitarian theft of power from the people, and not having a fit of the vapours about “secret Christianist messages”.

  • grok87

    I like the phrase “reverse dog whistle”.

    In my family, after this sort of situation arose, we used to pay tribute to John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty and say “Don’t mention the War”.

    Here’s the clip:

    • Randy Gritter

      We use that phrase too. It illustrates another dimension to this. That sometimes we expect a freak out response and twist ourselves in knots to avoid it. The person in question might not have any issues around the topic. You end up being very condescending and judgmental by trying to mange the psychological problems they don’t actually have.

      • grok87

        Good point.

  • wlinden

    ” Part of the idea of having privilege is having your default way of
    speaking/acting/looking/etc accommodated by everyone else.”

    “Nearly everyone can approximate the mainstream position (your position),
    but people in the plurality don’t know how to imitate the
    smaller/less-powerful groups.”

    So perhaps that might give an idea of why someone who frequently gets the feeling that he is trapped in a game where everyone EXCEPT him has been told the rules of “normal” behavior “freaks out” at being told he is “privileged” because he has a Y chromosome?

    • JohnE_o

      One of the benefits of having a Y chromosome is ignoring people who claim that having a Y chromosome confers privilege on those who have them.

      • Anonymous

        Sigh. Anyone can merely ignore them (unless you strangely think women’s ears are biologically that different…). What you mean to say is that people who claim that having a Y chromosome confers privilege on those who have them don’t seem to be running the world yet. You’re right. Because of that, a lot of people can ignore them. Of course, that situation is not true for all people (you really ought to stop stereotyping sometime). In engineering academia, it is literally not possible to ignore those people, no matter whether you have a Y chromosome or not. Funding agencies demand that you fight to hire any available student who doesn’t have a Y chromosome (whether or not you need to make up for the privilege of having a Y chromosome; believe it or not, female profs have this pressure too.. funding agencies don’t magically change their terms). If you don’t try and comply, you’re gonna have a bad time. Having a Y chromosome doesn’t make you instantly able to ignore this demand any more than having six fingers.

      • Yvain

        Can you tell me to whom I have to show my Y-chromosome to obtain this benefit?

  • autolukos

    I’m tempted to have a freakout about Gobry’s insistence that HE should be the one to indoctrinate his daughter. I mean, I know he probably thinks that she has some independent agency that will, over time, become more and more important to shaping her life, but I haven’t been given much reason to bet on it, have I?

  • > it helps a lot to treat the flinch or the comment “check your privilege” as data.

    I do. I just don’t get the same conclusion as the authors of these words intended. In many situations, being able to silence people you don’t like by saying “check your privilege” – or any other slogan – is simply a way to abuse power. That’s what humans sometimes do.

    Saying something equivalent to “you are of a different gender or different color of skin, therefore your reasoning is faulty and all your opinions are automatically invalid” is a horrible thing. Yet people can do it without realising what they did, if they are conditioned by their social sphere that this form of argumentation is okay. It’s bad arguments, not bad people.

    • Brutus

      It’s always data. However, it’s always data about the person who said it, and rarely data about the subject of the conversation.

      However, good communicators use all of their knowledge about the people with whom they are communicating to maximize the effectiveness of their communication.

      • Randy Gritter

        I don’t think using an ad hominem as data is best. The key is to point out the logical fallacy and hope you opponent is able to recognize it and move to a different line of response. Ad hominems kill logic even when the accusation they make is true. So what if the argument is being made by a pig? Are the premises true? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? If so, then the pig’s argument needs to be accepted. If not, point out precisely what is wrong with the logic and not what is wrong with the person.

        • Brutus

          They are data, but about the meta-argument. They point toward the conclusion that the person with whom I am trying to communicate is not trying to communicate with me, and is an appropriate target to score debate points on in an attempt to communicate with the audience.

          • Randy Gritter

            It does help psychoanalyze the person. Is that really the goal? You seem to write the person off. Are you sure they are not trying to communicate with you? People are complex. They can insult you and still respect you.

            Does it make them an “appropriate target?” That sounds like you are ceasing to treat them charitably. We can’t stop doing that. A few unfair comments do not mean we can ignore the dignity they have as a human person.

            Score points? Maybe I am weird but I actually care more about truth and logic than about what will score with the audience.

          • Brutus

            Understanding the audience is very helpful in communicating with the audience.
            To be an “appropriate target to score debate points on” means to be someone with whom it is acceptable to e.g. point out the inconsistency in their position.

            And frankly, I’m selfish. My primary goal when communicating with a passive audience in a discussion setting is to find someone who will actively engage me with something I don’t already know, and I treat any effort on my part that fosters education either as a favor, instrumentally useful, or a cost of getting what I want.

    • Guest

      Check your priviledge doesn’t mean your arguements are automatically invalid, it means there are things going on which other people have experienced which you might be dismissing out of hand because you haven’t experienced them, and the reason you haven’t experienced them if because you are the member of a group that holds more power and influence in society than some other group.

      • wlinden

        It means ideologues insisting on things which I know from bitter experience are false to facts. E.g., “Men don’t need to apprehension at being trapped in an elevator with an aggressive stranger, because they are PRIVILEGED.” Recalling all the times my alleged “male privilege” failed to protect me from threats, I can only wonder what planet they live on.

      • Hibernia86

        The problem with this is that just because someone has had a certain experience doesn’t mean that that experience matches everyone else’s. They still need evidence to prove it beyond “I’m of this oppressed group”.

  • Alexander S Anderson

    Oh yeah. The 2012 Obama campaign’s “Forward” slogan made me very, very anxious for reasons that it would be hard to articulate to someone coming from a different ideological perspective. When my mind goes to “Great Leap Forward”, I’m going to get a response like “you think Obama is like Chairman Mao?” Well, no, but his tone-deafness concerns me. It’s like a candidate going around saying he has a “final solution” to some domestic problem.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I flinch at everything. Nobody notices. I also think the concept of privilege is completely bollocks, and comes from neurotypical narcissism.

    • wlinden

      So then it is being thrust on us by neurotypicals who won’t acknowledge THEIR “privilege”?

      • TheodoreSeeber

        More like it’s like empathy- everybody believes it exists, but it really doesn’t (as shown by how rotten even people who are supposed to have it, are at it). It’s mythical.