Discussing Politics is a Vice—I’m Trying to Quit

I have decided to take a hiatus from arguing about news and politics on the Internet. My plan is to take six months off, then reassess. I’m mostly doing this so I have more time for work. But also because arguing about the news and politics is a colossal waste of time. It’s fun, of course, and probably a better intellectual exercise than watching TV or something, but it’s a time sink and not a great way to make progress.

Political questions get resolved by technology more often than they get resolved by debates (and anything that seems to be eternally worth debating is probably impossible to figure out). So, I consider debating politics, and holding political views, a vice worth avoiding.

I’m not abandoning you, though! Below, a quick summary of the couple mental models that carry 90%+ of my politically argumentative mental freight.

  1. Most beliefs people argue for are false. This is a strong claim, but probably true. There are lots of beliefs that are true or useful, but not worth arguing about, such as the speed of light or the value of 3 + 5. There are lots of things that are somewhat ambiguously true and debatable, and people debate them earnestly. And then there are beliefs that correlate with political, social, and religious identity. Most of these are somewhere between deliberately unverifiable and definitely wrong. But if you espouse them, you mark yourself as a member of an ingroup by virtue of how much you’re disliked by an outgroup.Do people have strong opinions because they like the truth, or because they like affirming their membership in the ingroup? A good question to ask here is whether your friends are more likely to argue about a) the best way to measure the atomic weight of deuterium, or b) the optimal minimum wage. One of these can be answered pretty definitively and, for some purposes, usefully. One of these is basically impossible to accurately answer, and will lead to hour-long, totally useless debates.
  2. Most exciting headlines are true but misleading.
  3. Most social science is bogus.
  4. Hypocrisy is massively overrated as a sin. It’s not a good thing, but the supply of people-pointing-out-hypocrites is way too high. And that’s because you can feel morally superior to a hypocrite basically regardless of which thing they did/said was wrong or which was right. Suppose a politician buys his mistress an abortion. It’s kind of hard to complain about this if one thinks abortion should be legal. But suppose that same politician wanted stricter laws against abortion. Now we’re talking!The awful side effect here is that people are constantly hunting for hypocrisy—the One True Bipartisan Issue—and the best way to find it is to misconstrue people’s opinions in such a way that their actions are inconsistent. There is nothing especially wrong with Russell Brand being an outspoken anti-capitalist who lives a lavish 1%-er lifestyle. There would be something wrong with Peter Singer doing it, sure, but Brand is making the best of a system he doesn’t like. The temptation is to say: don’t listen to him; he says the rich are screwing us, and yet he’s rich! But the correct bullet-biting response is to say: although one should give credit to Brand’s economic opinions given his skill at making lots of money, he is still wrong.
  5. On a related note, badness and stupidity do not have a lot of explanatory power. There are probably a couple conservatives out there who completely buy into liberal principles and do such a terrible job at reasoning from those principles that they end up agreeing with everything they read in the National Review. But, not very many. There may be some liberals who are Burkeans at heart but espouse the same beliefs as The Nation‘s editorial board because they want to see the world burn. But true evil and comprehensive stupidity are both a) not especially common, and b) perfectly able to explain basically any observation. Like conspiracy theories or mind-in-a-vat thought experiments, the fact that they can explain every observation, including counterfactual ones, means they don’t explain any.
  6. Most personal traits are pretty fixed. Through practice and force of habit, people can perform a little better than their baseline. Most people don’t do this. Pretty much any policy idea that tries to alter how people think or behave, without carefully tweaking their incentives, will probably fail. But policies that surf on their incentives—and respond to technological changes in the ground rules—have a chance to do some good.

Of course, it’s more than a little iffy for someone who says “personality flaws are fixed” to go ahead and try to fix one of his. So I’m going to offer myself an exception: I am willing to entertain any political debate that will be relevant in ten years. I know of only one good source for what really mattered in 2005. It’s here, and it’s pretty funny, but almost none of the issues discussed ever ended up mattering. On the other hand, in 2005 I read What You Can’t Say, and that changed everything.

| April 13th, 2015 | Posted in internet culture |

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