Saturday, October 10, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Turd-Juggling, the Philosopher's Way!

So while I was researching some stuff for IBD, a post from the blog He Lives came up. Apparently, I was able to do some good for his 'net relevance, 'cuz there are more comments in that one thread than the guy's had in all of September combined (except for this other post from early September - yes, I counted)!

Anyway, I fired what I wanted to be a parting shot (the amiable kind, not the insulting kind), and ended up putting my foot right the fuck in my mouth. What follows is my response to that, since I'm kinda-sorta done with that conversation over there (I apologized for my faux pas, though). As such, it's mainly written "to" a couple of individuals, namely Wandering Internet Commentator and Neil B (with whom I shall be talking some modal realism this weekend). Ultimately, I just couldn't say no to utility calculus (Finally, a chance to use my degree!).

That said, let's take a step back for a second, because I think this moment right here is useful. Let's stick with this "I'm the villain" thing and see where it goes. Did I just make a hate speech? I can tell you that I meant to be inflammatory, but I didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings. I mean, there was no "hate" involved on my part, so even if whatever definition of "hate speech" you choose applies, I think the term is misleading because I'm just not hateful. I meant to rattle cages just a little, not to poke at what I now see as something more like an exposed nerve; I meant to be irreverent, not sadistic. I was trying to follow the internet maxim: be a douche-nozzle, not a douche-bag. I can't control anyone's reactions, of course, but I truly didn't mean for anyone to react as a parent of an autistic person probably would upon reading my comment. (I just so happened to be missing a key piece of information, namely: that our erstwhile host is one such parent.)

Even here, I'm having trouble trying to draw the line between "participating in the conversation" and "analyzing the conversation," the latter leading me to stick to my guns in what could be seen as the worst possible way of not changing how I was doing the former. I'm really trying to say here, "Look, I'm really sorry about that, because I didn't mean to hurt your feelings in this conversation about feelings. But let's put all that aside for the moment and look at what just happened, because it pertains to that very conversation."

WIC, yes that was Neil B on little old ladies, not you. My bad, and thanks for the correction! I guess that's what I get for posting surreptitiously from work. Neil, you wrote, "I don't see a big difference in terms of probability expectation value, between something clearly wrong might happen to someone, v. something maybe wrong will clearly happen to someone." I can show you what I'm trying to do with math! Hooray! Two caveats: this is not a new argument, it's a translation of my same old argument in the hope that this new perspective will help; second, this is not a mathematical proof, it's just an explanatory model which could be presented just as validly but in a completely different way, should a competing perspective be adopted. My argument, in other words, is that "this is the 'proper' way to look at it."

First off, let's just assign "maybe" a probability value of 0.5, and "wrong were done" gets the arbitrary variable "W," for whatever reason you like. Certainty is C (because we want to see explicitly where our certainty is), and events are E. I think what you're saying could be expressed as, "CW*0.5E=0.5W*CE," or "Certain wrong maybe eventualizing is just as bad as maybe wrong certainly eventualizing." Or, to re-phrase your original in the terms of this ad-hoc utility calculus, "The expected return of a certain-wrong maybe-occurring is equivalent to that of a maybe-wrong certainly-occurring." So far, so good?

Any junior high kid could see that that's a true equivalence for any particular values of W & E (C=1, and is only shown for clarity) because we're just multiplying everything together. However, that "maybe" of 0.5 can change, as the probability of "wrong were done" occurring is affected by attitudes, cultures, proximity, and a million other things. As different cultures (made of different individuals with different attitudes) come together in an orgy of elbow-rubbing, I think it uncontroversial to propose that the probability of "wrong were done" occurring will rise*: actual harm (physical, emotional, financial, etc.) will be done by way of sectarian violence, or bigoted violence, or whatever you want to call it when someone says, "Hey, they're different, so let's get 'em," and then goes and "gets 'em." The left side of our equation has increased in magnitude as that coefficient next to the E has gone up, tipping the scales. And so, says I, we are justified in criminalizing those certain wrongs in order to curb them (though they are not completely eliminated).

Meanwhile, what does the right side look like? Remember that we're talking about something that's "maybe wrong" (i.e. "offense" as opposed to "harm/violence"). And that capacity for offense is a certainty, it's always there. The uncertainty, our matter of chance, is as to whether or not this offense is "wrong" (the open question is not whether "you was offended," but whether "wrong were done"). As an easy example, we have Cory's assumption that I have a penis; whether I do or not is immaterial, I can be offended that he made the assumption at all. As it happens, wouldn't you know it, I decided not to let it bother me (partly 'cuz I'm a steely bitch, partly 'cuz it truly doesn't matter). I had a knee-jerk reaction, but I see that knee-jerk as my problem, and the decision of whether to "merely go with it" and be offended or "rein it in" and not be offended as my decision.

Everyone has the chance to make this decision every time they have a knee-jerk reaction of any kind: do you go with it, or do you rein it in? The knee-jerk reactions themselves are beyond control: you cannot control whether you (or anyone else) will ever have a knee-jerk reaction, and the only way to make sure that knee-jerk reactions don't ever happen is to ensure that people receive no stimulus whatsoever; the only way to do this, in turn, is to shut everyone up and kill them all, so we'll discard knee-jerk reactions as irrelevant to our discussion. They truly cannot be helped, and we're talking about what can be helped (I think). And anyway, nobody self-identifies as an unthinking, inexorable force of nature; feelings are not tornadoes to be avoided (or ignored at one's peril); every part of a person is subject to change. This includes habits, behaviors, thoughts, words, and feelings. And if a person ever asserts that feelings are like tornadoes, then the message is clear: "I cannot be controlled, so when I Hulk out and wreck shit, everyone else better get the Hell away." Such persons have abdicated the realm of douche-nozzlery (and everyone is a douche-nozzle from time to time) and entered the realm of douche-baggery. Be a douche-nozzle, not a douche-bag.

So, given the fact that knee-jerk reactions will always occur no matter what we do, and that people are able to realize that their knee-jerk reactions may or may not be the best way to continue reacting to something, what is accomplished either way? Well, being offended certainly may spur some to action, and that action may be either productive, unproductive, or counterproductive. In either case, our person-in-question will be better-equipped to predict the value of whatever action they're about to take if s/he is calm. And it may even be the case that feigning offense is the best way to accomplish one's goals! Certainly, if one could reap the benefits of perceived offense without actually experiencing the maybe-harm of genuine offense, that would be a productive (though dishonest) move to make. But regardless, the point is that in all cases, you do yourself a disservice by choosing to let others have the power to offend you, and you can reduce your own personal right side of the equation to near-zero simply by changing your mind and deciding not to take offense.

Therefore, everyone should change their mind and decide not to take offense, because no matter what your goals are, zero good is accomplished by getting worked up over an insult. What good does it do merely to be offended? What good could come from offense, but could not be accomplished by another means that bypasses the "offense" process entirely? Zero, and zero, respectively. You create no good by getting offended, and any good that could come after being offended could also be created without that offense ever actually happening (inevitable, unpredictable, irrelevant knee-jerk reactions excluded). In other words, whether a person is trying to push your buttons or not, you do yourself zero help by letting your buttons be pushed. Even if we all adopt the view that I'm being childish by participating in IBD, what does it say about any group that lets themselves be upset by a child? I'd say they need to grow a collective spine, or they will find themselves upset out of all proportion over a whole lot of nothing, and not getting any work done in service of any of their actual causes.

What's more, we can actually do some good by giving people opportunities to practice at not taking offense. Whether people realize it or not, the existence of IBD prepares people for it. They have the opportunity to think, "Gee, IBD is coming up, I better get ready to do whatever it is that I'm going to do for it," whichever side of the fence they're on. The turd is on the table, it won't go away, and we can ignore it, get mad at it, or play with it. I say we play with it, we throw it back and forth, and we laugh while we do it - in the name of Jesus, or Allah, or Kali, or Poseidon, or just plain old good-natured ribbing. It's all turd-juggling, anyway; we may as well have fun while we're doing it. Or, as my friend Rebecca once said to me, "Learn to laugh at your problems, and you will never run out of things to laugh about." IBD is a day of play, not a day of work; but play is good for you, too.

Does that make at least a little more sense?

* - OK, fine, the folks who beat up gays (or slander blacks, or refuse to insure trannies) might just find someone else to beat up for some other equally preposterous reason. But now you're talking individuals, and some bigots meeting some gays/blacks/trannies might also come to realize that they're people, too. The fact remains that different cultures/attitudes/people, by virtue of existing, create more opportunities for culture/attitude/person-based violence, because now a bigot has one more reason to hate someone different. Point is, though it admittedly gets more complicated and isn't "just a wash," we need actual data (not a merely possible counterexample) to not treat it like "just a wash" as I do here. Got data? OK, I'll re-do the whole utility calculus when it comes up.

1 comment:

Neil' said...

Wow, what a metaphor: even worse to me than the vision of in a punch bowl ...
Well, I still think my basic premise is right, but you have a point: we'd be better off not indulging in being offended so much. I still don't think that celebrating insults is a good idea, and we already went over the notion of how much trouble you'd get into with the targets and those same blaspheming liberal friends, if you picked on minorities.

Yet I agree with Spartan (at He Lives) making the point that people at least shouldn't fear for violence or their lives (like murdered Theo van Gogh) if they do insult the religious.

BTW I left at reply at my blog. I just googled "quantum measurement paradox" and the post at tyrannogenius was at #1!