Celebrate gay marriage—and its 2065 equivalent

Yesterday was a historic day for the United States, and I was as delighted as everyone else I know.  I’ve supported gay marriage since the mid-1990s, when as a teenager, I read Andrew Hodges’ classic biography of Alan Turing, and burned with white-hot rage at Turing’s treatment.  In the world he was born into—our world, until fairly recently—Turing was “free”: free to prove the unsolvability of the halting problem, free to help save civilization from the Nazis, just not free to pursue the sexual and romantic fulfillment that nearly everyone else took for granted.  I resolved then that, if I was against anything in life, I was against the worldview that had hounded Turing to his death, or anything that even vaguely resembled it.

So I’m proud for my country, and I’m thrilled for my gay friends and colleagues and relatives.  At the same time, seeing my Facebook page light up with an endless sea of rainbow flags and jeers at Antonin Scalia, there’s something that gnaws at me.  To stand up for Alan Turing in 1952 would’ve taken genuine courage.  To support gay rights in the 60s, 70s, 80s, even the 90s, took courage.  But celebrating a social change when you know all your friends will upvote you, more than a decade after the tide of history has made the change unstoppable?  It’s fun, it’s righteous, it’s justified, I’m doing it myself.  But let’s not kid ourselves by calling it courageous.

Do you want to impress me with your moral backbone?  Then go and find a group that almost all of your Facebook friends still consider it okay, even praiseworthy, to despise and mock, for moral failings that either aren’t failings at all or are no worse than the rest of humanity’s.  (I promise: once you start looking, it shouldn’t be hard to find.)  Then take a public stand for that group.

127 Responses to “Celebrate gay marriage—and its 2065 equivalent”

  1. Jay L. Gischer Says:

    Like you, I do not like mockery and scorn and kicking people when they are down. I’ve had too much of that in my life, I don’t want any more.

  2. veritas Says:

    The one group I constantly see mocked on social media is socially conservative Christians. Are you saying I should go to bat for them?

    Well, there’s also GamerGate supporters, although less so now that some media are coming to understand they are mostly a left-liberal movement.

  3. Max Says:

    One candidate: vegetarianism or better yet veganism. These folks are often mocked or marginalized, but one day the brutal savagery that farm animals face daily will constitute too strong an argument to maintain the old dietary customs. Modern factory farming will look a lot more like old-fashioned slavery as moral progress continues.

  4. Riley Says:

    Gay kids still get kicked out of home or get bullied or get sent to conversion therapy after coming out. You can still get fired in many states for being gay. Around 40% of Americans are still against gay marriage. There is still a lot of homophobia in the world. It’s great that nearly everybody in your social group supports gay rights but that is far from typical. Most people still have to deal with some degree of homophobia from their friends and acquaintances and for many of those people it’s a high enough degree of homophobia that it does take courage to support gay rights.

  5. Shmi Nux Says:

    Actually, I am having trouble finding a group that is

    * widely despised for its “moral failings”,
    * is legally discriminated against,
    * is worth taking a public stand for and
    * has/has had almost no advocates in the mainstream.

    Like gays 50 years ago and slaves 200 years ago. Maybe women some time in between. Not sure what groups are currently in this reference class.

    Pedophiles? Not really. Nazis? No. Illegal aliens? No, they already have enough defenders. There is no shortage of haters of this or that (Muslim, Israeli, fat, “slut”, you name it, Reddit has it), but none that I can see that fit the reference class above. There must be something obvious I am missing, I’m sure.

  6. Scott Says:

    veritas #2: I was deliberately vague in the post about which groups I had in mind, because I wanted each reader to reflect carefully about which social-media hate campaigns he or she has the opportunity to stand up against, rather than having a knee-jerk reaction based on tribal affiliation.

    But, yes, to whatever extent (say) socially-conservative Christians are minding their business and not seeking to impose their values on others, and are unfairly attacked on social media, to that extent they deserve decent people coming to their defense. And they certainly don’t deserve to be lumped in with the other socially-conservative Christians, the ones who do try to impose their values. And I’m extremely sorry if I ever violated these principles in the past, and if so will strive not to repeat it.

  7. Kenji Obata Says:

    Hey Scott, Kenji former officemate from Berkeley. I upvote this!

  8. Stuart Says:

    Thank you – very thought-provoking. Yan quoted your post.

    It’s sad that you’re getting angry pushback from (defensive?) people upset by the idea that the crowd may not be right, and even unfair and dangerous.

    Another group which is popular to bash: white people, especially men and boys. The thought may produce rage, which in itself is a warning flag. But boys significantly under-achieve girls in school. Men suffer much worse legal and health outcomes than women over the span of their lives. There are many more good reasons to be thoughtful here rather than reactionary.

  9. Captan Obvious Says:

    Shmi Nux: Sex workers. ‘Nuff said.

  10. John Sidles Says:

    More significant for Scott’s (admirable!) challenge than any of Alan Sokal’s academic parodies is Sokal’s now-prescient nineteen-year-old essay that explains why he wrote those parodies … an essay that anticipates quite a few recent themes here of Shtetl Optimized

    Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword
    by Alan Sokal, Dissent 43(4), pp. 93-99 (Fall 1996)

    Conclusion  I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class […] Many of the central political issues of the coming decades — from health care to global warming to Third World development — depend in part on subtle (and hotly debated) questions of scientific fact.

    But they don’t depend only on scientific fact: they depend also on ethical values and — in this journal [namely, Dissent] it hardly needs to be added — on naked economic interests.

    No Left can be effective unless it takes seriously questions of scientific fact and of ethical values and of economic interests. The issues at stake are too important to be left to the capitalists or to the scientists — or to the postmodernists.”

    Given Sokal’s leftist views, it’s unsurprising that his essay brutally excoriates Michel Foucault’s works (while quoting Noam Chomsky’s works with approval).

    Yet in the spirit of Scott’s (wonderful!) challenge, it’s possible to read Michel Foucault’s views as being entirely consonant with (what I take to be) Alan Sokal’s views … and consistent with Scott’s views too.

    The following exchange begins a May 1984 interview of Michel Foucault … conducted while Foucault knowingly was within weeks of death, from then-untreatable HIV/AIDS:

    Paul Rabinow:  Why is it that you don’t engage in polemics?

    Michel Foucault:  I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them. It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism” I shut it again right away. That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the one that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other. […]

    No doubt one could say that in some sense I try to analyze the relations among science, politics, and ethics; but I don’t think that would be an entirely accurate representation of the work I set out to do. I don’t want to remain at that level; rather, I am trying to see how these processes may have interfered with one another in the formation of a scientific domain, a political structure, a moral practice.

    Foucault’s exemplary commitment to non-polemical scholarly discourse — a commitment that Foucault sustained even unto death — surely is worthy of admiration by Shtetl Optimized readers.

    More broadly, when we discipline ourselves to search out and read with sympathy the best works of deconstructionism, or climate-change science, or quantum information theory, or mathematical foundations, or the best works of any difficult STEAM discipline, we gain much more than when we cherry-pick the feeblest works and then cheaply denounce those works.

    Conclusion  Recent well-regarded deconstructionist works by top-ranked STEAM researchers — Michael Harris’ Mathematics Without Apologies is a terrific example (as it seems to me) — owe much to the pioneering studies of Michel Foucault.

    That’s why we are better-off when we read Foucault’s best works with critical sympathy, then when we damn Foucault’s worst works with critical rhetoric.

    PS  Foucault was a pioneering advocate of gay rights too.

  11. Nymlus Says:

    Maybe it’s a good time to pioneer the cause of zoophile rights. Now there’s a group that is universally laughed at.

  12. Devil's Advocate Says:

    I am not as thrilled as some about this, because the most important improvement for homosexuals was decriminalization, and it was already achieved years ago.

    What other things are criminalized for moral reasons? Prostitution, incest, eugentics, pedophilia (the consensual types). Some of these cause some harm, but that probably can’t explain the extend of legal and social discrimination.

    I think if we are to be fair, we have to realize that many people feel genuinely uneasy about all of these types of human sexual expression, just like many feel uneasy that marriage is now open for homosexuals. If these feelings are a legitimate argument against these other taboos, they should count against gay marriage, too.

  13. Scott Says:

    Kenji #7: Thanks so much, and great to hear from you dude!

  14. keith Says:

    It’ll be some anti-Chinese group, if Firefly has taught me anything. There isn’t, like, a social progress meter that we’re gradually filling up. The out-group will be in constant flux. Social hierarchies are fascinating, not nearly enough study goes into them, imo. I’m pretty sure “Theory of Mind” (usually used in relation to autism) is just a slanty view of social hierarchies, for instance.

  15. Scott Says:

    Riley #4: All the things you mentioned are sadly true, for example that 40% of Americans still oppose gay marriage. (And you could’ve added: there are still other parts of the world where they put people to death for being gay.) But at least in the US and other developed countries, it’s now almost as predictable as Halley’s comet that the 40% opposing gay marriage will become 20%, and the 20% will become 10%, and the 10% … well, OK, there are probably still 10% of Americans who oppose interracial marriage being legal, or who want to reinstitute slavery or whatever. So it will probably bottom out somewhere around there. But the point is, within my lifetime the gay-rights movement has gone from triumph to triumph to temporary setback (DOMA?) to triumph to triumph to triumph, and given the historical trajectories of other oppressed groups, I think there’s every reason for optimism about continued progress. And that’s cause for rejoicing, and is a credit to the activists who brought our civilization this far. It’s also a welcome contrast with, let’s say, climate change, where keeping CO2 concentrations to a level our civilization can tolerate is a desperate struggle against nearly-impossible odds that are getting more and more remote by the day.

  16. Scott Says:

    Stuart #8:

      It’s sad that you’re getting angry pushback from (defensive?) people upset by the idea that the crowd may not be right, and even unfair and dangerous.

    On the contrary, so far the reactions to this post seem to have been almost uniformly positive, for which I’m grateful. (No doubt it helped that I declined to get specific about the groups that it’s still fine for right-thinking people to mock. 😉 I’ll leave it to the commenters to suggest possibilities, as they’ve been doing.)

  17. Philip White Says:

    Shmi Nux #5: Another one is mentally ill men, aged 20-40 in particular. Such people have advocates (e.g., NAMI), but they aren’t really trying hard enough or focused on the right problems. Every time someone with a mental problem kills people, it’s international news and a top story, and of course it’s implied by the media that the illness made them do it; no one challenges the mainstream opinion that schizophrenia is “a chilling diagnosis” (the quoted part is from an ABC News broadcast) that is responsible for making people do this sort of thing. This kind of media bias (along with other factors) has led to a crackdown on the mentally ill, including a double standard for the second amendment (mentally ill people in some states can’t buy a gun–not that I personally think anyone should own a gun), forcing law-abiding mentally ill people to take drugs they don’t want to take, discrimination in the workplace, and discriminatory hiring practices.

    Ultimately, NAMI and other organizations claim to care about people with mental problems…but little attention is paid to their legal rights. Absurd standards for involuntarily hospitalizing people have been adopted by police departments in some communities, while NAMI focuses only on treatment and recovery issues.

    So if you want to make a difference today in a non-trivial way…stand up for the civil/legal rights of someone with a mental health problem.

  18. PeterM Says:

    I am not sure if people who change their facebook profile picture feel it is courageous (I did it myself and I thought it is just a cool thing to celebrate something important).

    But more importantly for a complexity theory blog, (and related to your challenge), it seems to me that there are not at all that many “parameters” according to which people are genuinely discriminated against (ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, gender, attitudes towards property rights,…– BUT ,for example, although I often hear the terms “cat person vs dog person” and I feel that it is often a quite real distinction I am not aware of any serious discrimination ever related to this). So, it is not at all clear to me, if you really can show many other groups which are victims of unjust discrimination comparable to that of what gay people are facing.

    I do realize that your challenge was somewhat different: You said “go and find a group that almost all of your Facebook friends still consider it okay, even praiseworthy, to despise and mock… (I promise: once you start looking, it shouldn’t be hard to find.) ” but in this way you really changed the topic, Turing for example was not “mocked” , he was brutally chased into suicide by the full power of the British state. I totally agree that mocking itself can result in tragic but I feel that your challenge is misguided. (Ok, I may be wrong: did you try to imply that if I can identify a group whose members are mocked in unjust ways by many people (maybe by my friends), then I should consider it as analogy of how society treated gay people? If so, I think this is wrong, if you just meant that standing up for those people would be a courage similar to what courage it would have taken to stand up for gay people in most of the time in history, then I again think you are wrong or likely to be wrong for the exact same reason that gay people were particularly strongly discriminated against so standing up for them were involve very serious risks).

    But I do want to mention a particular example of an existing discrimination: some people do feel okay to mock native speakers if their grammar deviates from a particular standardized form (it certainly exists in my language and I know from Pinker’s book that it does also exist in English). While in this case it IS true that if I raise this subject among my otherwise intellectual friends I am likely to get unjust attacks, it is nowhere close to the courage needed to stand up for gay rights in most societies.

  19. Chris Says:

    The other Scott A has a post about exactly this:


  20. S Says:

    I’m skeptical of there being a general trend of “moral progress” rather than pendulum-swinging in terms of social liberalism. Many societies (ancient Rome, medieval Japan, some Pacific island I’m forgetting) have had more-or-less institutionalized pederasty for example, while it’s gone back to being considered the ultimate horror today. It’s possible that the current momentum in gay rights will continue toward that being accepted again (eg NAMBLA might become less fringe), or there might be a backlash.

  21. S Says:

    In general it seems to me that rather than moral progress working like scientific progress (ie almost always in one direction), societies seem to become more socially liberal when people are feeling rich, safe and happy, and the reverse when they aren’t. So the 1920’s in the US were fairly liberal, then with the depression and the war, things were more conservative by the 50’s. Rome was more liberal than the dark ages.

    There’s probably also an effect of technology that may drive longer-term trends as well – for example condoms making anal sex, and therefore homosexuality, safer (at least once they were used more post AIDS epidemic). In general more powerful technology increases the number of things that are safe to do – but this is not the same thing as our ancestors being lacking in moral enlightenment that we’ve only just now discovered.

  22. John Says:

    It seems to me that compassion is upstream of the kind of moral progress Scott describes and also has lots of other benefits. What are interventions that might make people more compassionate? (Let’s start with folks in the Middle East, since that’s where it’s needed most.)

  23. Scott Says:

    Chris #19: Thanks so much for the link to that piece, which I’ll put here again in case anyone missed it! I’d forgotten it, and enjoyed reading it for the second time. It’s pure profundity, like everything the other Scott A. writes.

  24. echo Says:

    I’m sure we all agree that we ought to love one another, and I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings… and I hate people like that.
    We could even make a song about it:

    But during National Brotherhood Week, Naaaaaational Brotherhood Week,
    It’s National Everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood Week.
    Be nice to people who
    Are inferior to you.
    It’s only for a week, so have no fear.
    Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!

  25. Wim van Dam Says:


  26. Pony Lover Says:

    You could have just come out and said the group we’re all thinking of:


  27. froginthewell Says:

    Sorry for making an anonymous comment: I admit I don’t have the courage to publicly take a stand against even egregious examples of what Scott Adams calls outragism. But here are some issues on which I would have taken a public stand had I had more courage:

    1. The stories in this article, namely “How a stupid tweet blew up Justine Sacco’s life”.
    2. That the nobel laureates Tim Hunt or Watson (the DNA guy) should not have been forced to resign, at most given a stern warning of sorts. Especially, it is becoming increasingly probable (though may be not obvious) that the former was just joking, and meant to be ironic.
    3. The freedom to make politically incorrect comments at universities. While at some point it seems mostly only conservatives used to be bothered about this (and perhaps for political reasons) these days liberals seem to have started noticing this too. But I think people by and large are still mostly afraid to start organized activism on this sort of an issue.

  28. dorothy Says:

    To answer your challenge, standing up for Muslims in the US and Islam in general fits nicely I think.

  29. Rahul Says:

    Good post! On a typical, liberal University campus one of groups / positions oft mocked was fiscal conservatives.

    Any mention of “austerity” or reducing government spending or anything mildly pro big business or anti subsidy was anathema.

    Another oft target for the mockers is Walmart. I don’t think Walmart deserves it.

  30. aviti Says:

    We should love one another no matter our sexual orientations.

  31. Bob Rehbock Says:

    People who speak unpopular thoughts or advantage themselves of lawful unpopular conduct are discriminated against in the modern PC world. I call it the Shockley effect. L
    The latest victim Sir Hunt. Your Lewin before that.

  32. Pseudonym Says:

    Shmi Nux #5: Yes, pedophiles.

    Wait, hear me out. I don’t mean child abusers. I mean people who experience attraction to underage children, but who have never committed a crime, and who don’t want to commit a crime.

    People in this situation need help, but right now, there is no help.

    Moreover, people in this situation are actively dissuaded from seeking help because society sees them as irredeemable monsters, rather than people with diagnosed illnesses. Research into pedophilia and possible treatments is hamstrung because pretty much the only patients we have to work with are ones who have already abused children.

    So yes, I think we do indeed need to create a safe environment for vulnerable people who are at risk of entering a life of crime to come forward so we can help them avoid this.

  33. Travis Says:

    In the spirit of the challenge, I’m going to go as extreme as I possibly can while still being entirely serious: Pedophiles. It is not a moral failing to be attracted to children, but our society thinks it’s ok to mock them (regardless of whether they’ve acted on their attractions). It’s like we’re saying “Haha, you’re only attracted to people whom you can’t morally and legally be with, so you’ll never be able to fulfill your sexual desires.” Of course real child molestation and child porn always has to remain illegal, but at least animated child porn, for instance, should be legal and accepted by society so that pedophiles can have at least a small outlet for their sexual frustrations.

  34. AnlamK Says:

    “Do you want to impress me with your moral backbone? Then go and find a group that almost all of your Facebook friends still consider it okay, even praiseworthy, to despise and mock, for moral failings that either aren’t failings at all or are no worse than the rest of humanity’s. (I promise: once you start looking, it shouldn’t be hard to find.) Then take a public stand for that group.”

    Yes. Like the rights of Palestinians under Israeli oppression. Please take a public stand for that group, Scott.

  35. Al Says:

    How about foreign visitors? They are routinely denied habeas corpus, right to due process, right to appeal, the ability to bring in their spouse, the ability of their spouse to earn a living, etc.

    Visitors can be given lifelong bans to enter the USA by an immigration officer who was in a bad mood, without recourse to appeal. Picture the damaging consequences this may have in your career.

    Another example, there is an arbitrary yearly numerical limit to how many spouses of legal residents in the USA will be given visas. Once that number is reached, you’re SOL.

    Replace foreign visitors with [minority group] to see how unjust those rules are.

    And for the record, I haven’t suffered any of the things above, but that doesn’t stop me from supporting their cause, just like the fact that I’m neither black nor gay doesn’t stop from supporting equal rights for those groups either.

  36. jonas Says:

    I was a bit skeptical towards this post at first, because really, why should I be couragous by standing up for misguided emacs users, but then the comments pointed to some actually good examples.

    Devil’s Advocate #12: the groups don’t necessarily have to be _criminalized_.

  37. Scott Says:

    AnlamK #34:

      Yes. Like the rights of Palestinians under Israeli oppression. Please take a public stand for that group, Scott.

    If you think they satisfy the stated condition, then you obviously haven’t seen my Facebook feed.

  38. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    If you think they satisfy the stated condition, then you obviously haven’t seen my Facebook feed.

    But what is the relevant yardstick here, that we should each consider our own Facebook feed, or yours specifically?

  39. Scott Says:

    Greg #38: Clearly, we should each consider our own feed!

    AnlamK wasn’t taking a stand; he or she was asking me to take a stand. And I have taken public stands that would put me decidedly on the left of current Israeli politics, including for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state. I can only infer from AnlamK’s comment that that’s not enough for him or her.

  40. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    The most obvious examples are fetal rights, animal rights and border crosser rights. One potential problem with the last is that some of the border crossers might also want to close the borders. OTOH, deporting anti-immigration activists will require a state strong enough to be very dangerous indeed.

    There are more far-fetched possibilities:

    The right of pedophiles. We can even accuse their opponents of pedophobia or ephebophobia.

    The rights of fictional characters (cf. “Stones of significance” by David Brin).

    The rights of robots with human personalities. This might have to wait until they’re developed. OTOH, if this is combined with animal rights, it might become a controversy earlier.

    The right of “furries” not to be ridiculed.

  41. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    The West Bank settlers don’t count as illegal aliens?

  42. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    AnlamK wasn’t taking a stand; he or she was asking me to take a stand.

    I have to agree that cajoling specific people to take stands on specific issues is poor form. (Unlike your posting, where instead you generally encouraged people to think about the future.)

    And I have taken public stands that would put me decidedly on the left of current Israeli politics

    Which, however, is a depressingly lax inequality these days.

    Beyond that, (a) I will be true to my first point, and certainly not ask you to take any specific stand here; (b) if the question is my thread, there are plenty of people on both sides of this issue; and ( c) I suspect I mostly agree with you, which as usual, I also tend to interpret as an instance of Aumann’s theorem. 🙂

  43. David Pearce Says:

    We may anticipate a similar wave of feel-good celebration as the last factory-farm and slaughterhouse is finally closed in the wake of the in vitro meat revolution. Not only animal activists are starting to wonder whether human treatment of other sentient beings might one day be reckoned monstrous.
    Here is acclaimed historian Yuval Noah Harari in “Sapiens” (2014):

    “Tens of billions of them [non-human animals] have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.”

    These are not words that an Israeli historian uses lightly.

  44. Scott Says:

    Greg #42:

      I suspect I mostly agree with you, which as usual, I also tend to interpret as an instance of Aumann’s theorem.

    LOL! The other Scott A., who I find influencing my thought-patterns more and more, recently observed that loud online disagreements often take the form of one side declaring “admittedly A, but keep in mind that B,” while the other side responds “well, yes, of course B, but don’t forget that A.” If you and I disagree about this, I suspect it’s that kind of disagreement.

  45. asdf Says:

    Indeed: only 47000 social justice milestones to go.


  46. Scott Says:

    asdf #45: But it’s worse than that. My point is that all 47,000 things that the average Onion reader, Jon Stewart watcher, or person on my Facebook feed would currently recognize as a “social justice milestone” could be achieved tomorrow, and yet there would still be huge classes of injustice that hadn’t even been touched. Again, my contention is that, if you want to find the lowest-status people within your culture, then you need to figure out who it is who you could mock on Facebook without any negative consequences, indeed with dozens of upvotes, and who it would cost you real, actual social capital to defend.

    As the other Scott A. wrote:

      The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: “Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Tolerance Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?”

      Bodhidharma answers: “None at all”.

      The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why not.

      Bodhidharma asks: “Well, what do you think of gay people?”

      The Emperor answers: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”

      And Bodhidharma answers: “Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”

  47. Shmi Nux Says:

    > go and find a group that almost all of your Facebook friends still consider it okay, even praiseworthy, to despise and mock

    Or go and find the group that almost all of your Facebook friends don’t even mock, because it is ignored and virtually invisible.

  48. Qiaochu Yuan Says:

    @Scott #46: I think this methodology is incomplete. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many people can mock, say, white male tech billionaires on their Facebooks, and that it would cost them real social capital to defend them publicly. But I wouldn’t conclude from that that white male tech billionaires are low-status. (You might reply that “white male tech billionaire” is code for “people with bad social skills who don’t fit into any existing oppressed-people bucket,” but there’s still a discussion to be had here.)

    One of the other Scott’s old posts is relevant here.

  49. Scott Arciszewski Says:

    And on this dayy, the public support for Otakukin skyrocketed.

  50. Ben H Says:

    As it has not been mentioned yet, I’ll say that standing up for men who have been accused of sexual assault has certainly cost me actual social capital. It seems important, though.

  51. ThirteenthLetter Says:

    AnlamK , the only person it’s safer to mock on social media than Israelis is Donald Trump. Please stop kidding yourself about how brave you are.

  52. Philip White Says:

    I agree with Quiaochu Yuan #48. The mockery factor is not the only thing that causes people real pain in terms of discrimination. It is possible to discriminate against people with a straight face and without insulting them.

    Just follow the headlines. Not many people verbally assault African Americans in an obvious way any more, but according to a political email I got recently, blacks are almost 3 times as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage, and black children are 6 times as likely to die of asthma. This isn’t a willfully created scenario, but it is evidence that the discrimination problem hasn’t been solved for blacks.

    Indeed, it’s often the quietest discrimination that hurts the most. I think courageously and verbally defending people who are oppressed is nice, but it’s not really enough to create an equal playing field.

  53. GASARCH Says:

    Women who do not fit the current arbitrary standards of being attractive in our society (or whichever society they are in). Note `fat jokes’ in our society.

    Men who are poor.

    And for some odd reason it seems okay to bash the French and to stereotype them as arrogant. There was an episode of Star Trek where they said `don’t mind him, he’s half french, half romulan’

    People into S+M. Perhaps more tolearated since 50 Shades of grey. Even so, here is a litmus test:
    If I said `I was talking to my gay friend Alice the other day…’ this would raise no eyebrows (at least among the people who read Scott’s blog). If I said `I was talking to my S+M friend Alice…’ that would startle people.

    People into open marriages. I’ve heard that those who have an open marriage and succeed are very quiet about it, and those that tried it and it failed won’t shut up about it, so it has a bad rap. (That was from a Savage Love column)

    To be fair I don’t think ANY of these fit ALL of the criteria, but the come close and (I don’t think) were mentioned, so I mention them.

  54. anonymous Says:

    I’ve realized that I’m basically shut out of most dating opportunities, but to try to talk about it is not “masculine” and would only make it worse.


  55. QtipEnterprise Says:

    As a matter of logical consequence, why not allow polyamourus groups to enter into group marriages?

    After all, like gay behavior, polyamorous behavior shows up everywhere in history. We know it works as a successful family structure because a good percentage of civilizations / tribes / cultures have been based on it. While in the United States it has the unfortunate association with child brides that’s totally dissociable – in theory a polyamorous group is composed of totally consenting adults. It also isn’t necessarily polygamous – Bertie Russell’s father and mother lived with another man and were essentially shamed to death by their culture. Indeed, as traditional generational family structures decay there is clearly a use for such groups.

    Note that this fills Scott’s original parameters and clearly basically anyone would pilloried for suggesting this on social media.

  56. Haelfix Says:

    Count me as someone who isn’t too thrilled about the gay marriage ruling. Not b/c I don’t think gays should get married or be happy, but rather that I find the fact that the institution of marriage is a civil affair at all is completely archaic and silly and this ruling just further compounds the nonsense.

    Why should I suffer tax and societal disadvantages if I choose not to be married. I’ve been with the same woman for a long time, we are married in all but name, yet I suffer all the legal discriminations gays have been complaining about.

    The whole thing should be decoupled from the government, and for issues like hospital stays, well a simple legal tender giving authorization to person xyz ought to suffice.

  57. Devil's Advocate Says:

    Animals in nature could enter the circle of concern.

    At present, there is some discussion about biodiversity conservation, but not much discussion about how animals live in nature. It is accepted as normal or even desirable that billions of animals eat each other alive, or starve to death, in nature.

    Perhaps by 2065, people will have accepted the idea that these are ethically undesirable features of our planet, and that human intervention can improve them.

  58. Al Says:

    Many good choices here, and we should speak up on behalf of all peaceful people.

    However, I can think of only one group that many Americans, including some of my social media contacts, actively promote genocide against: pedophiles. There is clear evidence that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, present from birth, that most pedophiles do not act on it out of concern for children, and that even those who do – if they get the consent of the child – do not seem to do significant harm (unless they are found out, which suggests the harm is caused by societal reactions influencing the child).

    Related, children are being treated badly by the same people – to the point that I wonder if the hatred of pedophiles is not really about hating those who would support the rights of children, just as slave owners especially hated abolitionists even though they seldom hated their own slaves.

  59. Josef K. Says:

    How about considering which group has been most persecuted by the government for the past 40 years? That group is, unquestionably, drug users. Potheads, heroin addicts, and others have had their doors smashed down, their property confiscated, and have been locked up for years solely for what they choose to consume in order to alter their consciousness. Not being able to get a marriage license is an absolutely trivial problem in comparison to having to endure this persecution which has had the full-throated approval of practically every politician in this country up until very recently.

  60. Scott Says:

    Qiaochu #48: Thanks for another wonderful old post by the other Scott A.—in this case, one I hadn’t seen! (Someone should put together a compendium of all his writings across different blogs.)

    I concede the point, of course: it’s possible, like Donald Trump or ExxonMobil or Pat Robertson, to have more power than your opponents (for any reasonable definition of “power”), despite being the butt of everyone’s jokes, and losing virtually every social-shaming contest that you get into. And liberals could help their causes by reminding people of that.

    However, in every example I can think of, this requires one of a few special conditions:

    (1) Vast wealth
    (2) Political power
    (3) A fanatical group of acolytes, who will do your bidding even while the rest of the world condemns you

    So, anytime you see someone pilloried across social media who doesn’t have any of the above, and who also didn’t perpetrate a tangible harm, it ought to raise red flags. It’s not impossible for destroying that person’s life to be morally justified, but the bar is extremely damn high.

  61. Scott Says:

    anonymous #54: I’m sorry about what you’re going through, and I hope it gets better.

    Yes, a priori, men and women who are effectively shut out of the dating market, for this-or-that cultural reason, would seem like fine candidates for progressive sympathy (even if progressives couldn’t offer concrete help or suggest any remedy). At any rate, such people wouldn’t deserve to have their misery compounded 1050 times by being told that, if they ever breathe a word about it, then they’re entitled douchebags and potential serial killers. In practice, though, one could probably win more support by standing up for the human rights of pedophiles, as several commenters did earlier in this thread!

    Incidentally, for me the most redeeming thing about defending an unpopular cause, has always been the way that doing so all but “self-certifies” the lack of ulterior motives. In one of Jon Stewart’s books, he lists the “stated agenda” and the “secret agenda” for each of 20 or so American lobbying organizations. My favorite entry was

    Stated agenda: Normalization of sexual relations between men and underage boys
    Secret agenda: Dude, did you read the stated agenda??

  62. John Sidles Says:

    Resolved for purposes of debate  By 2065, all forms of belittling, dehumanizing, and violent rhetoric (without exception) will be socially deprecated in every nation of the world … and the net effect will be a transformational enlightening of human social conduct.

    Details  Deprecated forms of dehumanizing belittlement encompass the violent rhetoric that presently justifies terrorism, torture, and war, and encompass also the economic rhetoric that presently justifies the denial of education to the poor and the denial of healthcare to the sick, and encompass too the socially aggressive rhetoric that (falsely) proclaims itself to be “humor” even as it dehumanizes outgroups.

    Three activist examples  (in order of increasing humor):
    (1) (utterly humorless activism)
    Prof. Roberto Unger’s on-line video Beyond The Small Life: A Letter to Young People (2012)
    (2) (Inside Out’s “Riley” grows up and goes to war)
    Cmdr Sheri Snively’s personal testimony Heaven In The Midst Of Hell: A Quaker Chaplain’s View of the War in Iraq (2010)
    (3) (well-designed children-friendly activism)
    The recent Pixar film Inside Out (2015)
    Prediction  Shtetl Optimized readers inspired by any one of these three activist works will be inspired by all three of them.

    Summary  A social revolution is underway that deprecates, without exception, all forms of belittling, dehumanizing and violent rhetoric. Good.

    “By ceasing to belittle, we cease to be little”
     — Roberto Unger

    Belittlers aren’t happy about this … and so it goes.

    Take this self-test  To what degree do your three favorite STEAM-works embrace belittling and/or dehumanizing and/or violent rhetoric?

  63. fred Says:

    P = NP believers?

  64. rfong Says:

    0. Hooray!

    1. Celebrating a move toward equality has nothing to do with impressing you or anyone; it’s just a good thing that people are happy about.

    2. In my particular social bubble of fabulous hippie MIT computer scientists (probably hugely overlapping with commenters here, but it doesn’t hurt to emphasize information you already know), an infinitesimal rarity of an amazingly nondiscriminatory environment, gay is such a non-issue that not only can you be treated like a human being, no one will even bat an eye if they find out you’re gay. This is obviously not the case in other parts of the country or world. Just because it’s no longer literally illegal to be gay in a lot of places doesn’t mean we’re done.

    3. Somehow, mind-bogglingly, even more primitive phobias like racism and sexism are still real, and even as a highly privileged model minority who really isn’t on the lookout for examples, I experience mild daily examples in my extremely accepting city and feel shocked and occasionally predated when I travel elsewhere. Imagine what it’s like for the vast majority — not just the obvious transgressions like hate shootings, or even hearing “hey china” or “nice ass” shouted on the street (which does happen pretty often, by the way), but the subtle, insidious cultural inertia of the huge percentage of the population who despite not actively or consciously meaning to discriminate will subconsciously stereotype minorities in every aspect of their lives from applying to a job to walking outside with their hands in their pockets.

    4. As before, I’m not saying it costs much social capital to stand up for race/gender/gay equality in this country and time, but that seems like a strange metric by which to choose to support issues.

  65. Scott Says:

    rfong #64: Thanks for your comment.

    Maybe I should explain that, when I think about morality at all, I tend to obsess about questions like:

    – Had I been a German “Aryan” in the 1930s, would I have helped Jews get out?
    – Would I have been an abolitionist in the late 1700s?
    – Would I have defended Alan Turing in 1952?

    Obviously, I can’t know the answers to any of these. But it seems to me that I don’t even have the right to imagine any of my answers as having been “yes,” if today I’m unwilling to say anything that might really get me into trouble, or to spend social capital defending unpopular positions that I think are right.

    Or at least, that’s how I console myself after I do get in trouble for running my mouth off. 😀

  66. Adam Says:

    The only things I can think of roughly morally equivalent to slavery, Jew-killing, and driving Turing to suicide are the persecution of whistle-blowers in the intelligence community and the non-chalant bombing of people who happen to be related to or live near people marked as terrorists overseas. I feel like if I was actually in a position to help the next Snowden/Manning or to stop a drone bombing of a funeral in Yemen, I would, but I’m not in that position and am taking no active moves to put myself in such a position.

    This is quite a bit different than just being willing to openly defend unpopular positions among my Facebook peer group.

  67. Scott Says:

    Adam #66: Ah, but for me, it’s all about cultivating habits of mind such that, if you did ever find yourself in a position to influence anything important, you’d make the unpopular right choice over the popular wrong one. If enough people cultivated such habits, and inspired their friends to do the same by example, the right things would get done.

  68. Michael P Says:

    Here’s a just cause close to the campus that is very much worth and in need of defense:




  69. Monday Miscellany: Lipstick, Lifeguards, Lesbians | Gruntled & Hinged Says:

    […] 9. This is good. […]

  70. guest Says:

    A citation from zero hedge site:

    “We have entered a new age where, as commentator Mark Steyn notes, “we have to tiptoe around on ever thinner eggshells” and “the forces of ‘tolerance’ are intolerant of anything less than full-blown celebratory approval.””

  71. John Sidles Says:

    Scott asks us to reflect (#65)  “Whether today [we’re] unwilling to say anything that might really get [us] into trouble, or to spend social capital defending unpopular positions that [we] think are right.”

    Two recent weblog posts have challenged the STEAM to concretely answer Scott’s question:

    Glencora Borradaile’s personal testimony “Recovering from depression with a 40-hour work week” (of May 26, 2015)

    Sabine Hossenfelder’s essay “The plight of the postdocs: academia and mental health”, hosted on the website BackReaction (of June 16, 2015).

    Sabine’s essay concerne the suicide of post-doc Francis Dolan. She quotes one of Francis Dolan’s colleagues, by the name of Oliver Roston, as follows:

    “I am firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’ death. I would like to take this opportunity, should anyone be listening, to urge those within academia in roles of leadership to do far more to protect members of the community suffering from mental health problems, particularly during the most vulnerable stages of their careers.”

    Question  How can Shtetl Optimized readers respond to Oliver Roston’s moral challenge in the spirit of Scott’s moral reflection?

    Answer #1 (toxic) Keep moving; nothing to see here  Ed Wilson’s Consilience defends academia as “a profession where elitism is practiced without shame.” Wilson’s answer becomes toxic when we take the small-and-natural further step of defending an academia that is “a profession where shaming is practiced without shame.”

    Answer #2 (weak) Nothing can be done, so laugh, clown, laugh  Jorge Gabriel Cham’s long-running PhD Comics wonderfully illuminates and humanizes the struggle that drove Francis Dolan to suicide. This is a good and necessary beginning.

    Yet PhD Comics reads naturally not as comedy, but as tragedy: the characters of PhD Comics are so completely and helplessly subordinate to a dehumanizing STEAM enterprise, as to be incapable of envisioning a remediating transformation. Hmmmm.

    Here’s an attempt at stronger answer, that derives from game-creator Laura Shigahara’s song Cube Land, as illustrated by artist Steven Davis’ video studio Slamacow Creations (2012, 25M++ views!)

    Note  The following answer to Scott’s challenge derives from the closing credits of the Shigahara/Davis video Cube Land, with “Herobrine” (Google it) as an avatar of the desperation and despair that drives academics like Francis Dolan to suicide.

    The essay won’t make much sense unless you watch the Shigahara/Davis video (it may not make sense even if you have watched the video).

    Removing Herobrine: the STEAM enterprise transformed (by 2065)

    At the conclusion of the Shigahara/Davis video Cube Land (2012) postulated a world whose rules are beneficently rewritten:

    • Fixed weird spherical lights coming out of nowhere
    • Fixed lighting bug on stairs and half slabs
    • Reduced spider jump capabilities
    • Fixed mobs coming back to life bug
    • Pig Armor
    • Removed Herobrine

    Similarly we can postulate a STEAM community transformed in 2065:

    • Fixed weird lack of family-supporting jobs
    • Fixed over-valuation of physicality vs universality
    • Reduced institutional endowment inequality
    • Completed transition to open STEAM literature
    • Balanced career off-ramps with career on-ramps
    • Removed “Herobrine” (structural hopelessness/helplessness within the STEAM community)

    Conclusion  Thanks to radically creative works like the Shigahara/Davis Cube Land, radically creative STEAM transformations aren’t all that hard to imagine … but just try taking concrete measures to realize them!

  72. Dan J. Says:

    Jumping on a bandwagon and being a contrarian are equally conceited endeavours. Therefore, the quest to acquire moral fortitude can lead a person astray in their thinking just as easily as the quest for conformity can. I suggest we cut away this excess and simply challenge ourselves to think clearly about which moral causes to support. It’s very mundane, I know.

  73. Scott Says:

    Dan J. #72: It’s certainly true that people can make grievous moral errors out of a sheer desire to be contrarian (“hey, what if pushing old ladies into traffic is good?”). And if you look through the archives of this blog, I think you’ll find many cases where I argued with people who struck me as doing exactly that.

    On the other hand, if we’re talking about moral wrongs that it takes thought and civilizational progress to recognize as wrongs at all, then I’d also say that far more people commit those out of a desire to follow the herd than out of a desire to defy it. (Indeed, that’s almost true by definition…)

  74. jonathan Says:


    While this is a valuable exercise, I think that our moral energy is best spent focusing on issues that we are already convinced of and think are important, and that enjoy some but not yet enough support.

    While we doubtless have many moral blind spots for which our descendants will condemn us, there are many more manageable moral problems that we should probably focus on first. This is somewhat analogous to deciding to work on intermediate problems, rather than worrying about P vs. NP.

    For example, fighting for gay marriage in the 1960s, while laudable, probably wouldn’t have been a good use of time compared with fighting for basic civil rights for blacks.

  75. Scott Says:

    jonathan #74: Your analogy with P vs. NP is extremely useful, but I think I can pinpoint exactly where it breaks down here. With P vs. NP, even if everyone on earth were to agree tomorrow that this is humanity’s most important problem, and that all of earth’s resources beyond bare survival ought to be devoted to it (and why haven’t we agreed about that yet? 😉 ), there would still be profound, hard, unpredictable technical breakthroughs that would stand between us and the solution. So even then, it would indeed be wiser (as you say) for civilization to concentrate initially on easier “warmup” problems, like (say) NEXP versus TC0.

    By contrast, with moral issues like gay rights, once you’ve gotten everyone to agree with you, you’re done! In other words, acquiring enough mindshare—which, for technical problems, is merely a preliminary step—is the entire substance of the problem here. And, you might argue, “it’s never too early to start” acquiring mindshare for a new moral idea—since even if the idea sounds crazy to your contemporaries, you can make it seem less crazy to the next generation, and less crazy still to the generation after.

    More concretely, supporting gay rights in the 1960s, or civil rights for blacks in the 1920s, or the abolition of slavery in the 1700s, etc., all seem to me like they would’ve been (and were, for those who did them) phenomenal uses of time, establishing the intellectual foundations for the moral revolutions that happened later. And that’s even more so for people who are temperamentally like me and many of the readers of this blog—i.e., better at debating far-fetched possibilities than at manning the barricades or protesting in the streets.

  76. jonathan Says:


    That’s why I said “somewhat” analogous 😉

    But I think you allude to an important question: is moral progress cumulative, or does it advance in a piecemeal fashion? In other words, was (say) civil rights for blacks in the 1960s not only closer to public acceptance than gay marriage, but a precursor to it?

    I think there is a sense in which moral progress is cumulative. While we could imagine a society with almost any combination of moral views, in practice moral progress involves formulating new moral principles, and discarding old principles, that then prove useful in advancing future causes.

    Thus if there is a cause that requires wide acceptance of only a few new steps of moral reasoning, and another that requires many, the two sets may overlap, so that one can productively work on the nearer one, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the farther one. And further, one can do this unintentionally, without knowing what the farther one is just yet!

  77. Mr. Gunn Says:

    As we learn more and more about the interplay between genetics and the environment, the ways in which I might be different from you will move from observable phenotype to discovered genotype. The number of possible ingroups with real social or cultural disadvantages relative to some outgroups will become vast. (Then there will be all the transhumanist stuff that people will do – implanting various types of hardware into their bodies…)

    It’s gotta be furries, though. 😉

  78. Jake Says:

    This has already been said in this thread more than once, but has not been responded to, by Scott or the others. Perhaps a sign that it is truly low on everyone’s list!

    The problems faced by 95% of all humans today are laughable — truly “first world problems” — compared to the abject cruelty inflicted upon non-human animals.

    The Chick-Fil-A debacle from a few years ago brought this out with unbearable clarity. “The CEO of a company that tortures and kills billions of animals every year doesn’t want gays to marry! Oh the horror of not being able to get married!”

    The fact that so many “progressive, liberal” people said things like this stands as proof that humans are dramatically less rational than they fancy themselves, and is evidence that much of the “outrage at injustices” one sees is probably herd behavior with little thought put into it.

  79. Scott Says:

    Jake #78: My original idea for this post was to let readers discuss examples of possible future moral revolutions, and to avoid commenting on specifics insofar as I could.

    But yes, even if you considered the suffering of a chicken to be “only” (say) one hundred-thousandth as bad as that of a human, the scale of factory farming is such that you would still need to regard this as an extremely major issue.

    I remember some years ago when PETA ran an ad campaign called “Holocaust On Your Plate,” and the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations expressed outrage at PETA’s language and imagery. And I remember thinking to myself: no, the issue here isn’t language or imagery; if you’re offended by PETA’s campaign, then your “beef” (so to speak) is with the actual content of what they profess to believe. If you agree with their starting premises, then all they’re doing is completing the modus ponens for you.

    I was a vegetarian as a teenager. I’m not today, though it’s not something I’m extraordinarily proud about.

    I fervently support research to accelerate the development of in-vitro meat—and more generally, cheap, succulent, mouthwatering meat substitutes. This is the only realistic path I can see to ending the era of factory farming with all its evils.

  80. Shmi Nux Says:

    Scott #78

    Unsurprisingly, Scott Alexander recently blogged about this:


    > I acknowledged the argument was very convincing, but […] I was basically going to safe-word out of that level of utilitarian reasoning, for the sake of my sanity.

    > I think I might have a consistent policy of allowing some of my resources into each new circle of concern while also holding back the rest of it for the sake of my sanity. Thus my endorsement of GiveWell’s principle that you should donate at least 10% of your income to charity, but then feel okay about not donating more if you don’t want to. I am allowed to balance resources devoted to sanity versus morality and decide how much of what I have I want to send into each new circle of concern – without denying that the circle exists.


    > I am willing to accept […] argument about animal welfare being more important than human welfare, insofar as this means I should donate some resources to animal welfare without necessarily having to give up caring about human welfare completely. I don’t think I can make a principled defense of doing this. But I think I can claim I’m being unprincipled in a meta-consistent and effectively sanity-protecting way.

  81. Barry Deutsch Says:

    Regarding reducing animal suffering through vegetarianism, it’s possible that PETA’s all-or-nothing rhetoric is bad strategy. It might be more beneficial – both for animal rights and for the environment – to bring people’s attention to the marginal good accomplished by eating less meat, rather than using “become a vegetarian or you’re like the Nazis” arguments.

    If 101 people can be persuaded to lower their meat consumption by just 5%, that would more good than persuading 5 people to cut meat consumption by 100%. (Vastly oversimplifying the numbers, obviously.)

    There’s an empirical question: is it easier to persuade 101 meat eaters to reduce their meat consumption by 5%, than it is to persuade 5 meat eaters to become total vegetarians? I suspect it is easier, but I might be wrong.

    (Side note: For those meat-eaters whose concern is the environmental impact, switching some meals from beef and pork to poultry is a relatively easy change to make.)

  82. John Sidles Says:

    Barry Deutsch asserts  “If 101 people can be persuaded to lower their meat consumption by just 5%, that would more good than persuading 5 people to cut meat consumption by 100%.”

    The “charismatic” mathematician Michael Harris, on his website Mathematics Without Apologies”, has posted a marvelously acerbic essay titled Macroeconomics is pure, not applied, mathematics, to the effect that Barry Deutsch’s macroeconomic reasoning presents pure mathematics that has only tenuous relevance (if any) to PETA’s moral and practical reasons for opposing industrial animal carcass production.

    Personal opinion  Michael Harris’ comments are worthy of consideration — especially by STEAM students — no matter whether one finds his considerations to be agreeable or not.

  83. John Sidles Says:

    Shtetl Optimized readers should appreciate that my most recent comment (#82) was in no wise intended as a criticism of Barry Deutsch’s own works on the (difficult!) topic of the origins of moral choices in faith and their implementation in practice.

    Four easy pieces on moral faith and practice
    (some of them not-so-easy)

    • Barry Deutsch’s ongoing Mirka series of illustrated books elicits many thousands of respectful reviews on GoodReads. Very light and beautiful. Wonderful reading for children.

    • Dominique Eddé’s Kamal Jann (2014) presents Mirka all-grown-up, gender-reversed, and culture-swapped. Extraordinarily dark and fearsome. If Mirka is Harry Potter, then Kamal is Severus Snape … in a world where violence is real, but magic doesn’t work. Absolutely not suitable reading for children.

    • David H. Price’s Threatening anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists (2005) documents that darkness is present real lives as much as as Mirka and Kamal’s fictional lives.

    • Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is an extended appreciation of the scope and limits of mathematical analysis (with special emphasis on the pioneering information-theorist Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovic), as that mathematical analysis seeks to explain and govern to the lives of children like Mirka and Kamal, and explain and govern too the progressive objectives of academics like Price’s anthropologists.

    Conclusion  Francis Spufford’s forward-looking objectives for Red Plenty are marvelously similar to Scott’s forward-looking objectives here on Shtetl Optimized.

    Red Plenty in Hindsight

    I want people to laugh (among other things) as they read it [Red Plenty]. But I don’t want them to laugh comfortably, from a position of comfortable superiority, snickering at the deluded inhabitants of the past.

    I want, I hope for, the nervous laughter of fellow-feeling. We should laugh like what we are: people whom the observers of 2060 will be able to see are naively going about our business beneath our own monstrous overhang of consequences.

    Whatever it is.

    Note the near-coincidence of Spufford’s focus on the year 2060 and Scott’s focus on the year 2065.

    Conclusion These four illuminating works of faith and practice — and Scott’s essays here on Shtetl Optimized too — help us to appreciate that there’s never been a better and more challenging historical era than the present era, in which to be young and progressively hopeful. Which is good.

  84. rkevinhill Says:

    People never hate and despite the Other because of no reason. They hate and despise the Other because they see the Other as representing some great moral evil. But that is precisely how partisans view their partisan opponents, without guilt or shame. The only way I know that people can demonstrate moral courage and tolerance is to stand up to politicism, and stand up for freedom of speech, freedom of association, and even go so far as to try to understand and empathize with their adversaries views before condemning them. It’s really quite difficult, which is why no one actually does it. If you have skin in the game, you can’t, and if you don’t, you won’t.

    Another way you could show moral courage would be to not vote for politicians who have betrayed a complete lack of moral courage, for example, on gay rights or the war in Iraq. Hint hint.

  85. Josh Rubin Says:

    I thought of a group that may someday need support, but doesn’t need it now – Artificial Intelligences. I admit that I am biased against them, even though they do not exist yet. I am afraid of them. I don’t think their interests will coincide with mine. My gut reaction is that they will have to fight for their rights.

    This might be a case where there really is a moral reason to oppose them – our survival.

    This might be an attitude that I will eventually discard – they would be our children.

  86. Jona Says:

    This argument is not entirely original. Pretty much the same thing has been said by a very eminent source. The catch? When.

    “Within the last few decades, in countries like Britain or the United States, the literary intelligentsia has grown large enough to constitute a world in itself. One important result of this is that the opinions which a writer feels frightened of expressing are not those which are disapproved of by society as a whole. To a great extent, what is still loosely thought of as heterodoxy has become orthodoxy. It is nonsense to pretend, for instance, that at this date there is something daring and original in proclaiming yourself an anarchist, an atheist, a pacifist, etc. The daring thing, or at any rate the unfashionable thing, is to believe in God or to approve of the capitalist system. In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was jailed, it must have needed very considerable moral courage to defend homosexuality. Today it would need no courage at all: today the equivalent action would be, perhaps, to defend antisemitism. But this example that I have chosen immediately reminds one of something else—namely, that one cannot judge the value of an opinion simply by the amount of courage that is required in holding it. There is still such a thing as truth and falsehood, it is possible to hold true beliefs for the wrong reasons, and—though there may be no advance in human intelligence—the prevailing ideas of one age are sometimes demonstrably less silly than those of another.”
    Orwell, in 1949. So a few years before Turing was murdered for being homosexual.


  87. Scott Says:

    Jona #86: Thanks for the Orwell quote! Two responses—

    First, I would say that one can’t judge the value of an opinion solely by the amount of courage that’s required to hold it. I hope reasonable people can agree that, all else equal, it’s more valuable to speak a moral truth that no one in your social circle recognizes than one that everyone in your circle recognizes—but that either is more valuable than speaking a moral falsehood.

    Second, what is or isn’t worth saying, and what does or doesn’t require courage to say, are extraordinarily context-dependent questions. I’ll admire you for talking about everything the US military has done wrong in rural Oklahoma, but in Berkeley, CA, I’ll probably only admire you for talking about what the US military has done right.

    I think this phenomenon can fully explain how it’s possible that Turing could be hounded to death for being homosexual, while at the same time and in the same country, George Orwell could truthfully say that, in the social circles where he traveled, defending homosexuality was so passé that one obviously got no moral credit for doing it.

  88. a Says:

    Scott! you really need to ‘right’ on this http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2015/07/marriage-and-polygamy/.

  89. Scott Says:

    a #88: I have no strong argument against legalizing polygamous marriages. Or even marriages to oneself, or marriages with an empty set of partners. 🙂 Except: once the government is formally recognizing arbitrary-cardinality subsets of the population (and do they even need to be disjoint subsets?) as “married,” you might start asking what some of the libertarian types do, which is whether the government should even be in the marriage business in the first place. I.e., why not let each religious denomination or secular organization decide the rules of marriage, for those who submit to its authority? So, Unitarians could recognize gay marriage but not plural marriage, breakaway Mormon sects could recognize plural marriage but not gay marriage, and people in the Bay Area could recognize whatever it is they do. Of course, this would introduce complications to many areas of law, like taxes and hospital visits and child custody—but in each of those cases, you could probably find some criterion other than marriage that captures more directly whatever it is the state has an interest in (e.g., are these people cohabiting? have they been raising a child together?). At least, we could do that as long as we’re in the realm of moral-philosophy hypotheticals, rather than realistic political possibilities. And if we’re talking about legalizing polygamous marriage at all, then I’d say we are in a deeply hypothetical realm. For on social issues, the Overton window pretty much only moves leftward, and the left has no interest in legalizing polygamy, unless it can be framed as an issue of sensitivity to third-world cultures. But how do you write a law to make sure that only cultures the left likes can have polygamous marriages, and not breakaway Mormon sects?

  90. John Says:

    A commenter mentioned that they think standing up to PC culture is very difficult in today’s environment. One classic solution to this problem is to coordinate many people to stand up at once. Circulate a petition about the dangers of PC culture and get lots of academic luminaries to secretly sign off on it, then announce it to the world all at once, along with the long list of luminaries. Try to make it a thoughtful statement that many people can agree on to make your tent as broad as possible, and extend an olive branch to the PC people by acknowledging that their goals are worthwhile–it’s their tactics that are objectionable. (Maybe even suggest some tactics of your own based on social psychology research.) It’s harder to attack individuals when they are part of a group of other powerful people.

    Note that this is similar to the tactics used by the original civil rights movement–lunch sit-ins were not done on a solo basis.

    You want to take the high ground, so I wouldn’t mention any specific incidents, even say the Tim Hunt one. If you do, make sure your research is very thorough and examines all sides of the issue. Actually you don’t want to make it look like a reaction to Tim Hunt since it seems that story might be complicated. Wait for a story that is clearcut before making your move.

    Your goal is to make yourselves look as reasonable as possible. Don’t paint the PC people as enemies. Avoid attacking their identities to increase the chance that you’ll persuade them and bring them around.

    It may even be best to wait a while before doing this until the PC movement has had time to get even crazier.

  91. John Says:

    In the current environment it might be best to have the petition have many signatories who are women & minorities, similar to this Gamergate video. Otherwise certain elements will spin the story as “butthurt straight white male cisgender college professors complain about equality” or something like that. If a woman or minority is reading this comment and would agree with the aims of such a petition, they might be well positioned to spearhead such an effort.

  92. Scott Says:

    John #91: Of all the terms of abuse currently wielded on the Internet, I haven’t seen any that more reliably certifies the emptiness of the mind that uses it than “butthurt.” The word appears to have no meaning except: “hurt, but from a group we’ve all decided it’s OK to laugh about hurting.” Indeed, the word substitutes for an argument about why the targeted person or group deserves to suffer; it signals the speaker’s belief that no argument is needed. If they’d known the word, the racists of the old South would’ve gleefully talked about butthurt lynching victims, Inquisitors about butthurt heretics on the rack.

    I have a tin ear for practical politics (as has been shown many times over), so I’ll let others comment on your petition idea—but thanks for sharing it.

  93. John Says:

    Key goal: make absolutely completely certain that you won’t have to apologize for anything. And say it in the letter: “we know this is going to ruffle some feathers but we stand by what we say, there is growing sentiment that people agree with us, etc. etc.” Be polite but firm–don’t be wimps. Try to create a sense of inevitability the same way the gay marriage movement did. You can probably even sign on a bunch of noted progressive names; I think they are realizing that the far lefties are hurting their image in the public eye, and progressive people will be very good for credibility since they have sway w/ other progressives.

    E.g. here is someone you could sign on. She actually seems really cool.

    Sorry I really like thinking about this stuff.

  94. John Sidles Says:

    John opines [ironically] “Don’t paint the PC people as enemies. Avoid attacking their identities […] It may even be best to wait a while before doing this until the PC movement has had time to get even crazier.

    Emphasis added. Hmmm … maybe study “mindfulness” too?

    rkevinhill opines [counterfactually]  “[To] understand and empathize with their adversaries views [is] really quite difficult,  which is why no one actually does it  which is why it has been so effective when people do it.

    Correction added. Example: the Friends are a large and socially influential group that for centuries has conscientiously pursued an uncompromising strategy of universal empathy.

    Past Friendly successes:  slaveholders stood down, racists stood down, bigots stood down.

    Future Friendly objectives: state executioners stand down, terrorists stand down, nuclear weapon-wielders stand down, planet-warmers stand down.

    Conclusion  Universal empathic cognition (think Fred Rogers) succeeds admirably on generational timescales.

  95. John Sidles Says:

    John advocates (#93) “Key goal: make absolutely completely certain that you won’t have to apologize for anything. […] E.g. here is someone [Elissa Shevinsky] you could sign on. She actually seems really cool.”

    Please let me agree entirely with John that Elissa Shevinsky “actually seems really cool” … and let me recommend too, to Shtetl Optimized readers, the lessons-learned in regard to forgiveness, from the outcome of the Elissa Shevinsky saga:

    Infamous brogrammer Pax Dickinson
    changes his tune, apologizes,
    agrees to work for ‘Ladyboss’

    VentureBeat, December 11, 2013

    Elissa Shevinsky is returning to Glimpse Labs as chief executive. The surprise: Controversially outspoken co-founder Pax Dickinson will be staying on as her chief technology officer.

    “This is not a free pass,” Shevinsky said of her decision to forgive Dickinson. “This is not to say this is something that can happen in a repeated way. This is not to say that if you’re a great technologist, you can get away with bad things.”

    Rather, she said, “People should have the opportunity to grow and change and we should give them space to become the people we hope they will be.”

    And the person Pax Dickinson can be, Shevinsky believes, is the man to build Glimpse.

    “I really trust that he’s going to be really different online,” she said, “and that’s probably the most important thing I needed to see.”

    An apology from Pax is going up on the Glimpse website today. Here’s an excerpt:

    With the help of some awesome friends and a lot of personal reflection, I’ve decided to explain and apologize publicly for some of my words. The N-word isn’t appropriate even in a joke or quote, and neither should I have joked about rape. Things I think are funny and that the people who know me understand I don’t mean maliciously are still upsetting to others. They don’t belong on a company executive’s feed.

    I wasn’t an executive when many of the most egregious tweets were written but that doesn’t excuse it. It was a lapse in judgment and I’m entirely responsible for that.

    I sincerely and unreservedly apologize to anyone I offended.

    Summary  The Shevinsky/Dickinson saga began badly, with with a toxic blend of ill-advised “rape joke” rhetoric and “butthurt” SJW responses … yet it ended admirably well, in empathy sincerely offered and apology sincerely returned.

    Conclusion  Peter Ustinov’s bon mot “The French and the British are such good enemies that they can’t resist being friends” was so admirably realized by the actions of Elissa and Pax, as to suggest an updated 21st century maxim: “Nerds and SJWs are such good enemies that they can’t resist being friends.”

  96. Jr Says:

    It is definitely the case that the generalization to n-people marriage for n>2 is not obvious, or rather there are many possible generalizations. But at the very least government could stop persecuting people who do live in such relationships. In Utah today it is illegal even to have religious marriage ceremonies with multiple people, even if no claim to legal effect is being made.

    But defending the right of polygamists is probably not controversial enough to fulfill Scott’s request. You are unlikely to be strongly condemned, at least if you move in liberal circles.

  97. John Sidles Says:

    JR observes  “Defending the right of polygamists is probably not controversial enough to fulfill Scott’s request. You are unlikely to be strongly condemned, at least if you move in liberal circles.”

    One centuries-old practice that has been received near-universal disapprobation and opposition — from essentially all governments at least — is the practice of Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) testomy.

    QPSW testimonies are of the form: “We traveled as individuals to \(\langle\mathsf{troubled\ place} \ X\rangle\) in the world, where we observed \(\langle \mathsf{circumstances}\ Y\rangle\), which we hereby report with strict regard for truth and entire omission of ideological justifications.

    It’s the systematic QPSW practice of “strict regard for truthful observation and entire disregard for ideological justification” that creates trouble … so much so that QPSW difficulties with travel visas are universal, security interrogations are common, imprisonment not infrequent, and death and/or torture not unknown.

    Conclusion Present-day QPSW practitioners admirably satisfy Shtetl Optimized’s criteria for deserved respect in the face of near-universal disapprobation.

  98. a Says:

    Scott#89 on multisubset marriages. I strongly disagree. Have you ever had your heart broken by multiple females at the same time? (in case of lesbians and gays a possible similar question may be asked or not I do not know). There is something about single partner relationship that is fundamental to humanity. Don’t you think so?

  99. fred Says:

    By 2065 we could have to deal with the rights of intelligent robots.

  100. Michael P Says:

    About polygamy: some would argue that our society has already been de-facto serially polygamous/polyandrous for quite a few decades. Marry-divorce-marry-divorce-marry-divorce is not an uncommon pattern. And many traits of a marriage, such as shared (to a degree) access to income and child-rearing, survive divorce.

  101. Michael P Says:

    Therefore the question “is polygamy common in the USA” is similar to a question “does time-slice multitasking count as multitasking.”

  102. Eric Cordian Says:

    Posted the last two paragraphs of this and a link on http://boychat.org/messages/1446247.htm. I wouldn’t be surprised if they bought you an honorary NAMBLA membership.


  103. jona Says:

    Scott # 87: “it’s more valuable to speak a moral truth that no one in your social circle recognizes than one that everyone in your circle recognize” – I am not sure this is universally applicable. Consider the case of a community which is, above all, in need of self esteem and a positive self image (e.g., due to systemic representation of its members as being inferior). It is to me not obvious how in this case a controversial truth would be better than an uncontroversial truth.

    I think you’re coming at this from a framework where the growth of knowledge is the most important good, and controversy and conflict and exclusion – in this case, of ideas – are inherently good. Maybe a french philosopher would call this “phallocentric” or something like that, or you can call it “push-y”. But isn’t it possible this way of thinking is biased against a “pull-y”, inclusive, community- and consensus-focused perspective that also has its clear merits?

  104. Scott Says:

    Eric #102: Thanks for the link; I found it interesting and an opportunity for reflection.

    On the one hand, as the father of a two-year-old, there are few things more clear-cut to me than the need to protect children from genuine sexual predators. I suspect I’m not exactly shocking the planet with that moral revelation.

    On the other hand, I think all of us know at some level it’s a fiction that, the day you turn 18, a switch gets flipped that changes you from “innocent child” to “OK for others over 18 to feel sexual attraction to.” I think all of us recognize the absurdity of, let’s say, throwing an 18-year-old in jail for having sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend—differing only in whether we think anything needs to be done about that particular absurdity. (For whatever it’s worth, I do.)

    And then, of course, I’m well aware that being sexually attracted to adult women, while being a cerebral male nerd, is considered almost like being a pedophile in large parts of the modern world—until, that is, the nerd succeeds in getting people to switch the script, and to see exactly the same human being who they once categorized as a “gross, entitled creep” as a “normal guy who happens to be good at math” or a “brilliant, creative scientist” or a “rich, single entrepreneur” or something else that sounds more palatable!

    So I don’t regard the issues surrounding society’s treatment of pedophiles as particularly obvious. Or rather: there are some extremely obvious wrongs (Jerry Sandusky and other child rapists), there are some equally obvious non-wrongs (the 18-year-old with the 17-year-old girlfriend), and one can easily find harder questions in between.

  105. Scott Says:

    jona #103: I think that’s the first time anyone actually suggested something I said was “phallocentric,” so thank you! 😀

    On reflection, I agree with you that there are marginalized communities where mutual affirmation is extremely important, can even be more important than moral debate (at least until everyone feels accepted). On the other hand, part of what was behind my comment is that every community where I’ve ever felt welcome, has also been intensely self-critical, with few criticisms leveled by outsiders that weren’t leveled within the community itself.

  106. John Sidles Says:

    Scott avers  “Every community where I’ve ever felt welcome, has also been intensely self-critical, with few criticisms leveled by outsiders that weren’t leveled within the community itself.”

    On the other hand, a core teaching of Jonathan Israel’s history of the early Enlightenment, is that the counter-Enlightenment invariably regards itself as intensely self-critical … so much so, as to inevitably discern within its own self-criticism, ample reasons to reject Enlightenment’s proposed transformations.

    A brief, thought-provoking, well-balanced, and student-friendly essay upon this topic is David Novak’s “Response to Willi Goetschel: Spinoza’s excommunication” (2007), which appeared in the Conrad Grebel Review’s Fall issue for 2007. The theme of this issue was “Spinoza as a Religious Philosopher” (and there are plenty of interesting articles in it).

    Conclusion  In practice, are philosophers really as dispassionately self-critical as they think they are? Are historians? Are mathematicians? Are scientists?

    A key teaching of history, anthropology, and cognitive science is that the answer is “no”.

  107. Muhammad A. Tirmazi Says:

    Standing up for atheists in Pakistan takes a lot of guts. I’ve done that. But then, I have a considerable degree of self-interest in that cause.

  108. Luke Edwards Says:

    People who use psychedelics for spiritual practices and personal growth are threatened with prison because they eat something which grows out of the ground and causes them to love people more. I still think it might cost you social capital to oppose the persecution of non-native peoples who want to use psychoactive substances in their spiritual practice.

  109. Ans Says:

    Reminds of this. http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html

    I wonder why this kind of idea is recurrent in our “culture”, you graham, other Scott A. all coming up similar thoughts interdependently (I think).

  110. Jos Says:

    Easy: stand up for people that are not on Facebook on Facebook.

    People not on Facebook are discriminated against constantly. Soon Facebook will introduce public shadow profiles for these people and they will be publicly shamed into joining even more than now.

  111. John Sidles Says:

    Thesis  Today’s social norms show too little compassion for personality-disordered individuals.

    Top 100 Traits
    of Personality-Disordered Individuals

    Out of the Fog web-forum

    One common criticism of [the following] list of traits seems so “normal” — more like traits of an unpleasant person than traits of a mentally ill person.

    This is no accident. Personality disordered people are normal people. Approximately 1 in 11 people meet the diagnostic criteria for having a personality disorder.

    Personality-disordered people don’t fit the stereotypical models for people with mental illnesses but their behaviors can be just as destructive.

    These descriptions are offered in the hope that non-personality-disordered family members, caregivers and loved-ones might recognize some similarities to their own situation and discover that they are not alone.

    (001)  Abuse-cycling …
    (002)  Alienation …
    (003)  “Always” and “never” assertions …
    (004)  Anger …
     — — — —
    (098)  Triggering …
    (099)  Tunnel vision …
    (100)  Verbal abuse …

    As the “other” Scott A is learning during his psychiatric residency, the prognosis for personality-disordered individuals is clouded, because available treatments — both curative and palliative, both biomedical and social — too-commonly are costly, slow, and ineffective.

    Prediction  During previous centuries, persons evidencing contagious infectious disease once were shunned; then were pitied; nowadays are treated and cured. This progress is central to the Enlightenment.

    Similarly in the 21st century, persons evidencing socially contagious personality disorders nowadays commonly are shunned; increasingly are pitied; someday will be treated and cured.

    A great tragedy of our present time, and all past times, is that persons (and their families, and even entire societies), that suffer greatly from personality-disorder, commonly wish to change, yet commonly cannot change. The consequence too-commonly is suicidal despair and/or homicidal violence and/or disseminated abuse.

    Questions that provoke disordered social discourse  To what degree do present-day US presidential primary stump-speeches exploit personality-disorder cognition for purposes of voter recruitment? What fraction of US Presidential candidates themselves display multiple diagnostic criteria for personality disorder?

    Conclusion  Shtetl Optimized readers who are unfamiliar with the suffering and tragedies that are associated to personality disorder will be few in number, and exceedingly fortunate in their daily lives.

  112. amy Says:

    Gosh. Over a hundred comments, and no mention of Iago.

    Iago’s a person, of course, and not a group. But it seems to me there’s something arm’s-length about this conversation so far: mocking/abusing/shunning groups is to do with the inability or unwillingness to regard individuals. Which isn’t news, but the interest in in- and outgroups seems to me…oh, I don’t know, like following boxscores. They’re going to change. They’ll change for bad, or unhappy, reasons, but we already know that, and we know how it goes; it’s in fiction over and over.

    It’s unusual to regard people who are not directly related to you, or known to you, as people. Strangers’ humanity is matter of continuous surprise and minor enlightenment amongst adults. The enlightenment is usually temporary. Why is this? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a matter of imagination and relationship-noticing, which seems to me directly related to empathy. And maybe that’s a developmental thing; remember how, when you were little, people in tintypes looked not quite human? Their dress and hair was strange, their expressions and stances odd, they looked weirdly proportioned, and of course they were monochrome, but not arty-1960s-gelatin-print monochrome. And it took time to see the humanity in the faces and family relationships, understand them as people like yourself. I think a significant fraction of people, a majority, never get past viewing people not in their own identity-circles that way. Is there much investment in trying to understand them as people, no, i don’t think so — though certainly there’s some; you see it in those people very earnestly attempting to understand entire groups of other people and saying, “Aha. I see. I see!” when you know they aren’t doing any such thing.

    But for most there’s waiting for some authority from one’s own circles to give the word on who’s likeable today and why. Beyond one’s own family, friends, and officemates, of course. And neighbors, possibly. They’re okay. Which I find unnerving; there are people from whom I get lovely treatment, warm affection, that seems personal and has all to do with personal lives, in conversation, and yet I know perfectly well that if I showed up in a different team t-shirt, they’d treat me very differently. The same people are benignly tolerant of my interest in outgroup people precisely because I’m part of the family, even though they think it’s foolish.

    The in/outgroup stuff has never seemed to me an important way of understanding people. Iago does as he does, of course, in part because he’s on the outs — that’s the situational, the structural issue — but he’d never play it that way if he weren’t Iago. And for that matter, Scott, while I don’t want to discount training, I’m guessing that willingness to speak out expensively, or go to bat expensively, is probably baked into one’s temperament. Which doesn’t mean that those sitting out the fights have to be ashamed; every bigmouth needs a battery of quiet protectors and supporters. And every practiced bigmouth knows that those protectors and supporters have limits. It seems to me the biggest bigmouths are at heart ascetics and suicides, not heroes. Again, all over the best-writer lists: Cheever, nobody turns his own people inside-out like that for others’ inspection without paying. And Sinclair Lewis, and Richard Yates. James Baldwin.

    It’s a little surprising to me now, but when I think of the people I knew involved in gay-rights activism in the 1980s, I didn’t think of them as members of an outgroup — partly because I didn’t think the people who’d be identified as ingroup were interesting enough to think much about. Plainly, these people were doing something brave, but what was much more interesting to me was that they were where the action was; that was evident even though I didn’t understand what their fight was about, or even, really, what “gay” meant. The ways in which each of them went about…becoming gay men living ordinarily in the world, really being there and queer and making other people get used to it — the various people they were — that was what interested me, so that without my being aware of it happening, or really understanding what I was hearing or watching, I was spending a lot of my time with out (loudly and quietly) gay men, and the even quieter men who hung around them. And I feel embarrassed, now, holding their pictures up on rainbow banners to celebrate Their Historic Moment, because it seems terribly patronising and point-missing. I don’t think there’s anything simple about it.

    I don’t know how it is that people become interested in other people or in anything else. I was teaching some grad students today, ostensibly teaching them how to write papers, but of course it’s really about how to think and research and converse, so that in the end they not only have something interesting to write but have a better hope of an interesting life. And one of them was talking about his project, and I prodded him on the significance, and he came to something interesting about why a particular class of amino-acid/ligand complex doesn’t crystallize well. And I said all right, let’s stop there, because that’s a large and interesting thing, a large basic-research sort of question — too large, really, so how do you handle something like that.

    As we were going through it, finding interesting sub-questions, I asked, “Okay, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t crystallize easily — what would happen if it did, what would the world look like?” And their faces changed; one of them looked really shook. It turned out this wasn’t a way they were used to thinking. It isn’t necessarily useful, of course, but sometimes you come to important understandings that way. Anyway — I think they’re learning, through this sort of thing and the other things we talk about, to be *more interested* in their own work, to see more of how it’s interesting. I think something similar is likely possible when it comes to people, teaching people to be more interested in people and notice them better, but I think we’d need a lot of awfully good and compelling teachers.

  113. Murphy Says:

    @John Sidles

    Compelling thought but is it even possible to put a person who’s simply a really horribly person who chooses to make other miserable for fun in front of a panel of psychiatrists and *not* get a diagnosis of personality disorder?

    The flip side of it may be people looking back on some of the things people were diagnosed with personality disorder for nowdays in the same way that we look back at doctors diagnosing women with “the vapors” for being justifiably pissed off at people who were treating them like children.

  114. Craig Says:


    How would you feel if the Supreme Court ruled that Quantum Computers already exist, because our PCs are made of materials that obey the laws of quantum mechanics?

  115. Scott Says:

    Craig #114: I guess that would depend on the legal purpose of the ruling. By itself, “quantum computer” is just a phrase; we use it today in a way that manifestly doesn’t include desktop PCs, and it’s hard for me to think of any good reason why anyone (especially a court…) would need to change the definition. But if the ruling’s only effect was to change the meaning of “quantum computer,” then we could simply pick a new phrase, like “true quantum computer” or “interference-exploiting quantum computer,” for what we’d previously just called “quantum computer.” So again, it would depend on what other effects the ruling had.

  116. Craig Says:

    Here is the situation:

    A computer company decides to market their computers (which are 100 times faster than the fastest computer on the market) as “quantum computers”, even though the computers are just classical computers.

    Somebody sues the company claiming it’s false advertising. The case somehow goes to the Supreme Court. The court rules that since the parts are made of quantum materials, it is a quantum computer.

    Would you feel comfortable having the Supreme Court change the definition of a quantum computer? Doesn’t this set a bad precedent?

  117. Scott Says:

    Craig #116: In that case, sure, I would disagree with the ruling—my reasoning being, the company was trying to use a redefinition of words to get non-experts to swallow a false factual claim. I.e., when any non-expert hears “quantum computer,” they reasonably expect something that operates on principles that our existing computers don’t—notwithstanding the obvious fact that our existing computers, like all other physical objects, are ultimately described by quantum mechanics. Any false claim can become true if you redefine the words involved, and in the case you describe, I’d say the company is indeed trying to make people believe a false factual statement about its product by redefining words. (Otherwise, why insist on calling the product a “quantum computer”?)

    By contrast, if you’re a secular person (or at least play one for legal purposes 🙂 ), then I don’t think any similar issue arises in the gay-marriage debate. For you, there’s simply no factual question to adjudicate about what’s “really” a marriage (whereas there are factual questions about whether some device “really” exploits quantum-computational effects or not). This debate is entirely a social one; it’s about what we should choose to call a marriage. So, anticipating what would’ve happened anyway within a decade or two by the democratic process, the Supreme Court expanded by fiat what our legal system counts as marriage. You can disagree with the decree, or you can argue (as the minority did) that it wasn’t for the Court to decide. But I don’t see how you can argue that the majority lent any support to a factual falsehood (i.e., that certain unions are marriages that aren’t “real” marriages), without appealing at some point to revealed religion. From a secular standpoint, they are real marriages, because our legal system now says they are!

  118. Craig Says:

    I don’t think one needs a revealed religion or any religion to know that same-sex marriages aren’t real marriages any more than one doesn’t need religion to know that an apple is not an orange. It is just follows from the standard definition of a marriage that was universal up until a few years ago.

    I don’t see where in the Constitution the Supreme Court is given the power to change definitions of words. In fact, if they do have such power, this would be quite scary, because they could change the definition of words in the Constitution to rule however they want.

  119. Scott Says:

    Craig #118: But the point is that marriage, being purely a social agreement (unlike, say, the concepts of physics), is open to social redefinitions—as happened in the past, when people decided (e.g.) that wives couldn’t be bought and sold and that a man couldn’t take multiple wives, and is happening again as many countries legalize same-sex marriage.

    Once you take revealed religion out of the picture, there seems to be no particular reason to favor the ways people chose to define “marriage” or other social constructs for thousands of years (keeping in mind that the traditional social vocabulary also included “king,” “serf,” “slave,” etc)—except insofar as the traditional ways of doing things can withstand the critique of reason. Anyway, that’s the basic idea of this Enlightenment project our civilization embarked on a few centuries ago; we’ll see where it goes. 🙂

    You might respond that, even if we can’t explain or justify why people chose to define a social concept in an apparently-discriminatory way for thousands of years, even so, trying to “fix what ain’t broke” risks awakening unknown demons and inadvertently triggering a collapse of civilization, or something like that.

    This, at least, would be an interesting claim about the actual world, rather than a boring claim about the definitions of words. And it even holds nonzero weight with me: I am more conservative than many of my friends, and I do think social arrangements that have survived for a long time often encode tacit wisdom that we don’t yet know how to articulate explicitly. It’s just that, once the fear is brought out plainly like that, it strikes me as profoundly implausible in the specific case of same-sex marriage, which seems to have had no negative effects on opposite-sex marriage (or anything else) in the places where it’s been legal.

  120. John Sidles Says:

    Scott opines  “Marriage, being purely a social agreement (unlike, say, the concepts of physics), is open to social redefinitions.”

    Hmmm … the concepts of physics may be immune to social redefinitions, but surely the language of physics evolves quite dramatically.

    Example  During the decades 1930-60, the meaning of the noun “computer” and its associated verb “computing” evolved mathematically, physically, and socially. The term “digital computer” was introduced in the mid-1940s; following which the initial “digital” was quickly dropped, and earlier meanings of “computer” were socially supplanted.

    Are present-day terms like “quantum computer” and “complexity class” subject to similar etymological pressures (mathematical, scientific, and social)?

    Undoubtedly these etymological pressures are vigorously at work … for details see Michael Harris’ weblog Mathematics Without Applogies, in particular comment #1 of the essay “In fairness to economists”, which in turn provides references relating to maxims recently appearing on the Simons weblog Calvin Cafe:

    Ran Canetti  “Indistinguishability obfuscation is the study of impossibility results for indistinguishable obfuscators”

    • [ascribed to] Leonid Levin  “Quantum computing is the study of impossibility results for quantum computers”

    Extrapolated  If present-day lexical trends continue, then the qualifiers presently seen in phrases like “fine-grained complexity theory” and “quantum-entangled computation” may vanish in coming decades.

    Conclusion  It’s no bad thing for science-minded Shtetl Optimized readers to be cognizant of the vigorous evolution — mathematical, scientific, social and lexical — that weblogs like Mathematics Without Applogies and Calvin Cafe are witnessing (and even fostering).

    More simply  If “gay marriages” can become simply “marriages”, then perhaps DWave’s “quantum-entangled computers” can become simply “quantum computers.”

  121. Amy Says:

    I’d would like to nudge this question of “what is a marriage” back to phrasing that has to do with “who may marry”, not what marriage is. For secular purposes, which is (or should be) the state’s only object, marriage is a contractual state joining property and making people responsible to each other in various but limited ways, for certain social purposes. And the “who may marry” question has to do with fitness to that contract.

    The secular arguments over who may marry have to do not with what marriage is, but with what marriage is for, what it does: what those social purposes are. The courts have articulated, for instance, this obvious point: a marriage often does, but needn’t, produce children; marriage is also not necessary to producing children, and marriages that have produced children can end regardless of the children’s ages. In the end — and this is what the justices kept circling — marriage announces and promises long-term affection and commitment to care for one another. Since the ability to do that isn’t sex/gender-dependent, any two competent people may enter into the agreement, and because we deem a long-term commitment to caring for others a social good, we give state benefits to those who take the plunge.

    Why not plural marriage, then, asked the hostile lawyers and judges, as though it’s a ridiculous notion? Well, try it. Bring it on up through the courts. My guess is that the answer will be “no, because it’s primarily a hot mess.” Given the legal issues surrounding parenthood and step-parenthood and surrogate-parenthood and grandparenthood, though, in which people have no choice but to work out long-term commitments among multiple people, I suspect that eventually the courts will shrug and say, “well, they seem to manage it already in this other limited context.” And then you get the “why not a horse” question, and the answer is that when the horse is competent to enter into other contracts and make long-term promises to people, we can reopen the question.

    As for the immutability of physics concepts — I know Scott said “purely social”, up there, but as someone who came to physical and biological sciences through arts by way of social sciences, I don’t know how immutable they are. I’m happy to accept the idea of a physical reality. But the ways in which we conceptualize the reality — this seems to me not just socially dependent but dependent on the thinker’s own backgrounds and orientations. I was aware, for instance, sitting in a cell biology seminar, that the young biologists were being trained to think in terms of circuitry, a logical system: this switch is on, these things happen. And they seemed to do so happily. I didn’t, though (and don’t; circuit diagrams make my eyes cross). I approached it very differently, from an aesthetic orientation: this is how things go, they have rhythms like this, they look like that, their relationships to each other look like that. One builds up a library of such things and is able to compare the feel of one thing to another. Which left me (as it leaves many students) feeling that I wasn’t really very good at this stuff, and that I wasn’t doing it right. After a few years, though, I found that despite having a different approach and conceptualization, I was still able to ask good and penetrating questions, and that scientists would describe me as having “good intuition”.

    My guess is that despite the existence of standard, textbook-serviceable explanations and metaphors, there’s a considerable menagerie of concepts and conceptualizations to describe, probe, and explain the underlying realities that people like Latour are annoying about. And that since those explanations come from people, they’re socially-driven. Which I guess is what those twerps at NYU were on about with Sokal, and if they could’ve been less humanities-silly and antagonistic, there might have been an interesting conversation.

  122. Scott Says:

    Amy #121: I would say that the concepts of physics are social constructs, but ones that are created for the purpose of describing the real world. As such, they can be judged “better” or “worse” insofar as they do a better or worse job of describing that world. In addition, while there might be many different concepts with which to describe the same situation (e.g., Hamiltonians vs. Lagrangians vs. explicit unitary transformations, wavefunctions vs. density matrices vs. sum-over-Feynman-diagrams), it must be possible to translate between those concepts and thereby see that they’re all talking about the same universe.

    This is in contrast to the social world, where concepts like marriage are not created to describe an underlying reality, but only to prescribe what kinds of relationships a given society is going to recognize—so it’s natural that these concepts would change as society does. Such concepts can also be judged “better” or “worse,” but only by offering moral arguments: not by assessing how well they correspond to some underlying reality. Of course, the moral arguments can (and should) appeal to the biological realities of human nature, but they can’t just assume that the way humans have done things for millennia reflects a Platonic truth about how they should be done.

    In addition, one of the most striking features of social discussions is that people come to them with wildly different frameworks—e.g., orthodox Marxist, Social Justice Warrior / check-your-privilege, libertarian / Ayn Rand, paleoconservative—each of which has some sort of internal logic, and in terms of which complicated arguments can be phrased, but which don’t seem to be mutually translatable at all in the way wave mechanics and matrix mechanics are. This often causes great friction, as people working within one of these frameworks get angry about outsiders’ failure to accept what, to them, is a totally airtight argument.

  123. Murphy Says:

    Craig #118

    Funny you should mention that.

    I agree! It’s essential that we fight back against people who have in recent times redefined “marriage” to fit their beliefs!

    I say bring back the old definition of marriage!

    In recent centuries people have unjustly unilaterally redefined marriage to only be between men and women! Bring back the old definition! the one that dates far further back in human history! For the sake of custom! History! And tradition!


    The very idea of a Christian homosexual marriage seems incredible. Yet after a 12-year search of Catholic and Orthodox church archives Yale history professor John Boswell has discovered that a type of Christian homosexual “marriage” did exist as late as the 18th century.

    Contrary to myth, Christianity’s concept of marriage has not been set in stone since the days of Christ, but has evolved both as a concept and as a ritual. Prof Boswell discovered that in addition to heterosexual marriage ceremonies in ancient church liturgical documents (and clearly separate from other types of non-marital blessings such as blessings of adopted children or land) were ceremonies called, among other titles, the “Office of Same Sex Union” (10th and 11th century Greek) or the “Order for Uniting Two Men” (11th and 12th century).

    These ceremonies had all the contemporary symbols of a marriage: a community gathered in church, a blessing of the couple before the altar, their right hands joined as at heterosexual marriages, the participation of a priest, the taking of the Eucharist, a wedding banquet afterwards. All of which are shown in contemporary drawings of the same sex union of Byzantine Emperor Basil I (867-886) and his companion John. Such homosexual unions also took place in Ireland in the late 12th/early 13th century, as the chronicler Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis) has recorded.

  124. Ideas Says:

    So, polygamists, incestuous couples, pedophiles, convicts, sex offenders. The first three hurt no one and the last two did their time and should get their legal rights back.

    There’s something fundamentally flawed and circular with a form of democracy that can convict people based on laws that they then aren’t allowed to vote against.

  125. Y Says:

    I was glad to see veritas#2’s comment about conservative Christians and Scott’s subsequent acknowledgement. Maybe as a religious person myself I’m just hypersensitive, but it seems to me secular people feel free, and almost obligated (dare I say a religious obligation) to bash religious people for their beliefs.

    Now to be clear, if we’re discussing limiting rights (a discussion equivalent to gay marriage) then of course I am opposed. I would hope most secular people would want to defend my right to silly, childish beliefs, and when our respective beliefs lead to conflicts (as they surely will) we would work together to find a middle ground and respect everyone’s sensitivities as best as possible.

    But if we’re merely discussing the mockery and bashing on social media, I think you have to distinguish between bashing someone for something they are, such as gay or black, versus something they believe such as their religion. I’m not trying to promote bashing here, I’m all in favor of a more civil discourse, but you cannot equate the two cases. If you look at my examination of the evidence and find my conclusion of the existence of a deity preposterous I think mocking me is somewhat easier to swallow because you’re mocking my irrational thoughts and/or behavior rather than my genetic makeup or circumstances of birth. (Yes, I’m hoping to avoid a conversation about free will here. see http://www.scottaaronson.com/democritus/lec18.html)

  126. Evan Þ Says:

    @Murphy #123, Boswell’s work has been roundly criticized for misrepresenting the ceremony of adelphopoiesis, or literally “brother-making.” The name refers to fraternal love, not romantic love, and I haven’t seen any evidence it should be treated otherwise. On the contrary, the article you link references “contemporary drawings of the [adelphopoiesis] of Byzantine Emperor Basil I (867-886) and his companion John” – but Basil was already married to Empress Eudokia Ingerina. If this “brother-making” was actually a marriage, how could he have entered into it while already married?

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