The mythology mindset

Feb 5 JDN 2459981

I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s latest book Rationality. It’s refreshing, well-written, enjoyable, and basically correct with some small but notable errors that seem sloppy—but then you could have guessed all that from the fact that it was written by Steven Pinker.

What really makes the book interesting is an insight Pinker presents near the end, regarding the difference between the “reality mindset” and the “mythology mindset”.

It’s a pretty simple notion, but a surprisingly powerful one.

In the reality mindset, a belief is a model of how the world actually functions. It must be linked to the available evidence and integrated into a coherent framework of other beliefs. You can logically infer from how some parts work to how other parts must work. You can predict the outcomes of various actions. You live your daily life in the reality mindset; you couldn’t function otherwise.

In the mythology mindset, a belief is a narrative that fulfills some moral, emotional, or social function. It’s almost certainly untrue or even incoherent, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that it sends the right messages. It has the right moral overtones. It shows you’re a member of the right tribe.

The idea is similar to Dennett’s “belief in belief”, which I’ve written about before; but I think this characterization may actually be a better one, not least because people would be more willing to use it as a self-description. If you tell someone “You don’t really believe in God, you believe in believing in God”, they will object vociferously (which is, admittedly, what the theory would predict). But if you tell them, “Your belief in God is a form of the mythology mindset”, I think they are at least less likely to immediately reject your claim out of hand. “You believe in God a different way than you believe in cyanide” isn’t as obviously threatening to their identity.

A similar notion came up in a Psychology of Religion course I took, in which the professor discussed “anomalous beliefs” linked to various world religions. He picked on a bunch of obscure religions, often held by various small tribes. He asked for more examples from the class. Knowing he was nominally Catholic and not wanting to let mainstream religion off the hook, I presented my example: “This bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ.” To his credit, he immediately acknowledged it as a very good example.

It’s also not quite the same thing as saying that religion is a “metaphor”; that’s not a good answer for a lot of reasons, but perhaps chief among them is that people don’t say they believe metaphors. If I say something metaphorical and then you ask me, “Hang on; is that really true?” I will immediately acknowledge that it is not, in fact, literally true. Love is a rose with all its sweetness and all its thorns—but no, love isn’t really a rose. And when it comes to religious belief, saying that you think it’s a metaphor is basically a roundabout way of saying you’re an atheist.

From all these different directions, we seem to be converging on a single deeper insight: when people say they believe something, quite often, they clearly mean something very different by “believe” than what I would ordinarily mean.

I’m tempted even to say that they don’t really believe it—but in common usage, the word “belief” is used at least as often to refer to the mythology mindset as the reality mindset. (In fact, it sounds less weird to say “I believe in transsubstantiation” than to say “I believe in gravity”.) So if they don’t really believe it, then they at least mythologically believe it.

Both mindsets seem to come very naturally to human beings, in particular contexts. And not just modern people, either. Humans have always been like this.

Ask that psychology professor about Jesus, and he’ll tell you a tall tale of life, death, and resurrection by a demigod. But ask him about the Stroop effect, and he’ll provide a detailed explanation of rigorous experimental protocol. He believes something about God; but he knows something about psychology.

Ask a hunter-gatherer how the world began, and he’ll surely spin you a similarly tall tale about some combination of gods and spirits and whatever else, and it will all be peculiarly particular to his own tribe and no other. But ask him how to gut a fish, and he’ll explain every detail with meticulous accuracy, with almost the same rigor as that scientific experiment. He believes something about the sky-god; but he knows something about fish.

To be a rationalist, then, is to aspire to live your whole life in the reality mindset. To seek to know rather than believe.

This isn’t about certainty. A rationalist can be uncertain about many things—in fact, it’s rationalists of all people who are most willing to admit and quantify their uncertainty.

This is about whether you allow your beliefs to float free as bare, almost meaningless assertions that you profess to show you are a member of the tribe, or you make them pay rent, directly linked to other beliefs and your own experience.

As long as I can remember, I have always aspired to do this. But not everyone does. In fact, I dare say most people don’t. And that raises a very important question: Should they? Is it better to live the rationalist way?

I believe that it is. I suppose I would, temperamentally. But say what you will about the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, they have clearly revolutionized human civilization and made life much better today than it was for most of human existence. We are peaceful, safe, and well-fed in a way that our not-so-distant ancestors could only dream of, and it’s largely thanks to systems built under the principles of reason and rationality—that is, the reality mindset.

We would never have industrialized agriculture if we still thought in terms of plant spirits and sky gods. We would never have invented vaccines and antibiotics if we still believed disease was caused by curses and witchcraft. We would never have built power grids and the Internet if we still saw energy as a mysterious force permeating the world and not as a measurable, manipulable quantity.

This doesn’t mean that ancient people who saw the world in a mythological way were stupid. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that people today who still think this way are stupid. This is not about some innate, immutable mental capacity. It’s about a technology—or perhaps the technology, the meta-technology that makes all other technology possible. It’s about learning to think the same way about the mysterious and the familiar, using the same kind of reasoning about energy and death and sunlight as we already did about rocks and trees and fish. When encountering something new and mysterious, someone in the mythology mindset quickly concocts a fanciful tale about magical beings that inevitably serves to reinforce their existing beliefs and attitudes, without the slightest shred of evidence for any of it. In their place, someone in the reality mindset looks closer and tries to figure it out.

Still, this gives me some compassion for people with weird, crazy ideas. I can better make sense of how someone living in the modern world could believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old or that the world is ruled by lizard-people. Because they probably don’t really believe it, they just mythologically believe it—and they don’t understand the difference.

In defense of civility

Dec 18 JDN 2459932

Civility is in short supply these days. Perhaps it has always been in short supply; certainly much of the nostalgia for past halcyon days of civility is ill-founded. Wikipedia has an entire article on hundreds of recorded incidents of violence in legislative assemblies, in dozens of countries, dating all the way from to the Roman Senate in 44 BC to Bosnia in 2019. But the Internet seems to bring about its own special kind of incivility, one which exposes nearly everyone to some of the worst vitriol the entire world has to offer. I think it’s worth talking about why this is bad, and perhaps what we might do about it.

For some, the benefits of civility seem so self-evident that they don’t even bear mentioning. For others, the idea of defending civility may come across as tone-deaf or even offensive. I would like to speak to both of those camps today: If you think the benefits of civility are obvious, I assure you, they aren’t to everyone. And if you think that civility is just a tool of the oppressive status quo, I hope I can make you think again.

A lot of the argument against civility seems to be founded in the notion that these issues are important, lives are at stake, and so we shouldn’t waste time and effort being careful how we speak to each other. How dare you concern yourself with the formalities of argumentation when people are dying?

But this is totally wrongheaded. It is precisely because these issues are important that civility is vital. It is precisely because lives are at stake that we must make the right decisions. And shouting and name-calling (let alone actual fistfights or drawn daggers—which have happened!) are not conducive to good decision-making.

If you shout someone down when choosing what restaurant to have dinner at, you have been very rude and people may end up unhappy with their dining experience—but very little of real value has been lost. But if you shout someone down when making national legislation, you may cause the wrong policy to be enacted, and this could lead to the suffering or death of thousands of people.

Think about how court proceedings work. Why are they so rigid and formal, with rules upon rules upon rules? Because the alternative was capricious violence. In the absence of the formal structure of a court system, so-called ‘justice’ was handed out arbitrarily, by whoever was in power, or by mobs of vigilantes. All those seemingly-overcomplicated rules were made in order to resolve various conflicts of interest and hopefully lead toward more fair, consistent results in the justice system. (And don’t get me wrong; they still could stand to be greatly improved!)

Legislatures have complex rules of civility for the same reason: Because the outcome is so important, we need to make sure that the decision process is as reliable as possible. And as flawed as existing legislatures still are, and as silly as it may seem to insist upon addressing ‘the Honorable Representative from the Great State of Vermont’, it’s clearly a better system than simply letting them duke it out with their fists.

A related argument I would like to address is that of ‘tone policing‘. If someone objects, not to the content of what you are saying, but to the tone in which you have delivered it, are they arguing in bad faith?

Well, possibly. Certainly, arguments about tone can be used that way. In particular I remember that this was basically the only coherent objection anyone could come up with against the New Atheism movement: “Well, sure, obviously, God isn’t real and religion is ridiculous; but why do you have to be so mean about it!?”

But it’s also quite possible for tone to be itself a problem. If your tone is overly aggressive and you don’t give people a chance to even seriously consider your ideas before you accuse them of being immoral for not agreeing with you—which happens all the time—then your tone really is the problem.

So, how can we tell which is which? I think a good way to reply to what you think might be bad-faith tone policing is this: “What sort of tone do you think would be better?”

I think there are basically three possible responses:

1. They can’t offer one, because there is actually no tone in which they would accept the substance of your argument. In that case, the tone policing really is in bad faith; they don’t want you to be nicer, they want you to shut up. This was clearly the case for New Atheism: As Daniel Dennett aptly remarked, “There’s simply no polite way to tell someone they have dedicated their lives to an illusion.” But sometimes, such things need to be said all the same.

2. They offer an alternative argument you could make, but it isn’t actually expressing your core message. Either they have misunderstood your core message, or they actually disagree with the substance of your argument and should be addressing it on those terms.

3. They offer an alternative way of expressing your core message in a milder, friendlier tone. This means that they are arguing in good faith and actually trying to help you be more persuasive!

I don’t know how common each of these three possibilities is; it could well be that the first one is the most frequent occurrence. That doesn’t change the fact that I have definitely been at the other end of the third one, where I absolutely agree with your core message and want your activism to succeed, but I can see that you’re acting like a jerk and nobody will want to listen to you.

Here, let me give some examples of the type of argument I’m talking about:

1. “Defund the police”: This slogan polls really badly. Probably because most people have genuine concerns about crime and want the police to protect them. Also, as more and more social services (like for mental health and homelessness) get co-opted into policing, this slogan makes it sound like you’re just going to abandon those people. But do we need serious, radical police reform? Absolutely. So how about “Reform the police”, “Put police money back into the community”, or even “Replace the police”?

2. “All Cops Are Bastards”: Speaking of police reform, did I mention we need it? A lot of it? Okay. Now, let me ask you: All cops? Every single one of them? There is not a single one out of the literally millions of police officers on this planet who is a good person? Not one who is fighting to take down police corruption from within? Not a single individual who is trying to fix the system while preserving public safety? Now, clearly, it’s worth pointing out, some cops are bastards—but hey, that even makes a better acronym: SCAB. In fact, it really is largely a few bad apples—the key point here is that you need to finish the aphorism: “A few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.” The number of police who are brutal and corrupt is relatively small, but as long as the other police continue to protect them, the system will be broken. Either you get those bad apples out pronto, or your whole barrel is bad. But demonizing the very people who are in the best position to implement those reforms—good police officers—is not helping.

3. “Be gay, do crime”: I know it’s tongue-in-cheek and ironic. I get that. It’s still a really dumb message. I am absolutely on board with LGBT rights. Even aside from being queer myself, I probably have more queer and trans friends than straight friends at this point. But why in the world would you want to associate us with petty crime? Why are you lumping us in with people who harm others at best out of desperation and at worst out of sheer greed? Even if you are literally an anarchist—which I absolutely am not—you’re really not selling anarchism well if the vision you present of it is a world of unfettered crime! There are dozens of better pro-LGBT slogans out there; pick one. Frankly even “do gay, be crime” is better, because it’s more clearly ironic. (Also, you can take it to mean something like this: Don’t just be gay, do gay—live your fullest gay life. And if you can be crime, that means that the system is fundamentally unjust: You can be criminalized just for who you are. And this is precisely what life is like for millions of LGBT people on this planet.)

A lot of people seem to think that if you aren’t immediately convinced by the most vitriolic, aggressive form of an argument, then you were never going to be convinced anyway and we should just write you off as a potential ally. This isn’t just obviously false; it’s incredibly dangerous.

The whole point of activism is that not everyone already agrees with you. You are trying to change minds. If it were really true that all reasonable, ethical people already agreed with your view, you wouldn’t need to be an activist. The whole point of making political arguments is that people can be reasonable and ethical and still be mistaken about things, and when we work hard to persuade them, we can eventually win them over. In fact, on some things we’ve actually done spectacularly well.

And what about the people who aren’t reasonable and ethical? They surely exist. But fortunately, they aren’t the majority. They don’t rule the whole world. If they did, we’d basically be screwed: If violence is really the only solution, then it’s basically a coin flip whether things get better or worse over time. But in fact, unreasonable people are outnumbered by reasonable people. Most of the things that are wrong with the world are mistakes, errors that can be fixed—not conflicts between irreconcilable factions. Our goal should be to fix those mistakes wherever we can, and that means being patient, compassionate educators—not angry, argumentative bullies.

The United Kingdom in transition

Oct 30 JDN 2459883

When I first decided to move to Edinburgh, I certainly did not expect it to be such a historic time. The pandemic was already in full swing, but I thought that would be all. But this year I was living in the UK when its leadership changed in two historic ways:

First, there was the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the coronation of King Charles III.

Second, there was the resignation of Boris Johnson, the appointment of Elizabeth Truss, and then, so rapidly I feel like I have whiplash, the resignation of Elizabeth Truss.

In other words, I have seen the end of the longest-reigning monarch and the rise and fall of the shortest-reigning prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom. The three hundred-year history of the United Kingdom.

The prior probability of such a 300-year-historic event happening during my own 3-year term in the UK is approximately 1%. Yet, here we are. A new king, one of a handful of genuine First World monarchs to be coronated in the 21st century. The others are the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Monaco, Andorra, and Luxembourg; none of these have even a third the population of the UK, and if we include every Commonwealth Realm (believe it or not, “realm” is in fact still the official term), Charles III is now king of a supranational union with a population of over 150 million people—half the size of the United States. (Yes, he’s your king too, Canada!) Note that Charles III is not king of the entire Commonwealth of Nations, which includes now-independent nations such as India, Pakistan, and South Africa; that successor to the British Empire contains 54 nations and has a population of over 2 billion.

I still can’t quite wrap my mind around this idea of having a king. It feels even more ancient and anachronistic than the 400-year-old university I work at. Of course I knew that we had a queen before, and that she was old and would presumably die at some point and probably be replaced; but that wasn’t really salient information to me until she actually did die and then there was a ten-mile-long queue to see her body and now next spring they will be swearing in this new guy as the monarch of the fourteen realms. It now feels like I’m living in one of those gritty satirical fractured fairy tales. Maybe it’s an urban fantasy setting; it feels a lot like Shrek, to be honest.

Yet other than feeling surreal, none of this has affected my life all that much. I haven’t even really felt the effects of inflation: Groceries and restaurant meals seem a bit more expensive than they were when we arrived, but it’s well within what our budget can absorb; we don’t have a car here, so we don’t care about petrol prices; and we haven’t even been paying more than usual in natural gas because of the subsidy programs. Actually it’s probably been good for our household finances that the pound is so weak and the dollar is so strong. I have been much more directly affected by the university union strikes: being temporary contract junior faculty (read: expendable), I am ineligible to strike and hence had to cross a picket line at one point.

Perhaps this is what history has always felt like for most people: The kings and queens come and go, but life doesn’t really change. But I honestly felt more directly affected by Trump living in the US than I did by Truss living in the UK.

This may be in part because Elizabeth Truss was a very unusual politician; she combined crazy far-right economic policy with generally fairly progressive liberal social policy. A right-wing libertarian, one might say. (As Krugman notes, such people are astonishingly rare in the electorate.) Her socially-liberal stance meant that she wasn’t trying to implement horrific hateful policies against racial minorities or LGBT people the way that Trump was, and for once her horrible economic policies were recognized immediately as such and quickly rescinded. Unlike Trump, Truss did not get the chance to appoint any supreme court justices who could go on to repeal abortion rights.

Then again, Truss couldn’t have appointed any judges if she’d wanted to. The UK Supreme Court is really complicated, and I honestly don’t understand how it works; but from what I do understand, the Prime Minister appoints the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chancellor forms a commission to appoint the President of the Supreme Court, and the President of the Supreme Court forms a commission to appoint new Supreme Court judges. But I think the monarch is considered the ultimate authority and can veto any appointment along the way. (Or something. Sometimes I get the impression that no one truly understands the UK system, and they just sort of go with doing things as they’ve always been done.) This convoluted arrangement seems to grant the court considerably more political independence than its American counterpart; also, unlike the US Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court is not allowed to explicitly overturn primary legislation. (Fun fact: The Lord Chancellor is also the Keeper of the Great Seal of the Realm, because Great Britain hasn’t quite figured out that the 13th century ended yet.)

It’s sad and ironic that it was precisely by not being bigoted and racist that Truss ensured she would not have sufficient public support for her absurd economic policies. There’s a large segment of the population of both the US and UK—aptly, if ill-advisedly, referred to by Clinton as “deplorables”—who will accept any terrible policy as long as it hurts the right people. But Truss failed to appeal to that crucial demographic, and so could find no one to support her. Hence, her approval rating fell to a dismal 10%, and she was outlasted by a head of lettuce.

At the time of writing, the new prime minister has not yet been announced, but the smart money is on Rishi Sunak. (I mean that quite literally; he’s leading in prediction markets.) He’s also socially liberal but fiscally conservative, but unlike Truss he seems to have at least some vague understanding of how economics works. Sunak is also popular in a way Truss never was (though that popularity has been declining recently). So I think we can expect to get new policies which are in the same general direction as what Truss wanted—lower taxes on the rich, more privatization, less spent on social services—but at least Sunak is likely to do so in a way that makes the math(s?) actually add up.

All of this is unfortunate, but largely par for the course for the last few decades. It compares quite favorably to the situation in the US, where somehow a large chunk of Americans either don’t believe that an insurrection attempt occurred, are fine with it, or blame the other side, and as the guardrails of democracy continue breaking, somehow gasoline prices appear to be one of the most important issues in the midterm election.

You know what? Living through history sucks. I don’t want to live in “interesting times” anymore.

Updating your moral software

Oct 23 JDN 2459876

I’ve noticed an odd tendency among politically active people, particular social media slacktivists (a term I do not use pejoratively: slacktivism is highly cost-effective). They adopt new ideas very rapidly, trying to stay on the cutting edge of moral and political discourse—and then they denigrate and disparage anyone who fails to do the same as an irredeemable monster.

This can take many forms, such as “if you don’t buy into my specific take on Critical Race Theory, you are a racist”, “if you have any uncertainty about the widespread use of puberty blockers you are a transphobic bigot”, “if you give any credence to the medical consensus on risks of obesity you are fatphobic“, “if you think disabilities should be cured you’re an ableist”, and “if you don’t support legalizing abortion in all circumstances you are a misogynist”.

My intention here is not to evaluate any particular moral belief, though I’ll say the following: I am skeptical of Critical Race Theory, especially the 1619 project which seems to be to include substantial distortions of history. I am cautiously supportive of puberty blockers, because the medical data on their risks are ambiguous—while the sociological data on how much happier trans kids are when accepted are totally unambiguous. I am well aware of the medical data saying that the risks of obesity are overblown (but also not negligible, particular for those who are very obese). Speaking as someone with a disability that causes me frequent, agonizing pain, yes, I want disabilities to be cured, thank you very much; accommodations are nice in the meantime, but the best long-term solution is to not need accommodations. (I’ll admit to some grey areas regarding certain neurodivergences such as autism and ADHD, and I would never want to force cures on people who don’t want them; but paralysis, deafness, blindness, diabetes, depression, and migraine are all absolutely worth finding cures for—the QALY at stake here are massive—and it’s silly to say otherwise.) I think abortion should generally be legal and readily available in the first trimester (which is when most abortions happen anyway), but much more strictly regulated thereafter—but denying it to children and rape victims is a human rights violation.

What I really want to talk about today is not the details of the moral belief, but the attitude toward those who don’t share it. There are genuine racists, transphobes, fatphobes, ableists, and misogynists in the world. There are also structural institutions that can lead to discrimination despite most of the people involved having no particular intention to discriminate. It’s worthwhile to talk about these things, and to try to find ways to fix them. But does calling anyone who disagrees with you a monster accomplish that goal?

This seems particularly bad precisely when your own beliefs are so cutting-edge. If you have a really basic, well-established sort of progressive belief like “hiring based on race should be illegal”, “women should be allowed to work outside the home” or “sodomy should be legal”, then people who disagree with you pretty much are bigots. But when you’re talking about new, controversial ideas, there is bound to be some lag; people who adopted the last generation’s—or even the last year’s—progressive beliefs may not yet be ready to accept the new beliefs, and that doesn’t make them bigots.

Consider this: Were you born believing in your current moral and political beliefs?

I contend that you were not. You may have been born intelligent, open-minded, and empathetic. You may have been born into a progressive, politically-savvy family. But the fact remains that any particular belief you hold about race, or gender, or ethics was something you had to learn. And if you learned it, that means that at some point you didn’t already know it. How would you have felt back then, if, instead of calmly explaining it to you, people called you names for not believing in it?

Now, perhaps it is true that as soon as you heard your current ideas, you immediately adopted them. But that may not be the case—it may have taken you some time to learn or change your mind—and even if it was, it’s still not fair to denigrate anyone who takes a bit longer to come around. There are many reasons why someone might not be willing to change their beliefs immediately, and most of them are not indicative of bigotry or deep moral failings.

It may be helpful to think about this in terms of updating your moral software. You were born with a very minimal moral operating system (emotions such as love and guilt, the capacity for empathy), and over time you have gradually installed more and more sophisticated software on top of that OS. If someone literally wasn’t born with the right OS—we call these people psychopaths—then, yes, you have every right to hate, fear, and denigrate them. But most of the people we’re talking about do have that underlying operating system, they just haven’t updated all their software to the same version as yours. It’s both unfair and counterproductive to treat them as irredeemably defective simply because they haven’t updated to the newest version yet. They have the hardware, they have the operating system; maybe their download is just a little slower than yours.

In fact, if you are very fast to adopt new, trendy moral beliefs, you may in fact be adopting them too quickly—they haven’t been properly vetted by human experience just yet. You can think of this as like a beta version: The newest update has some great new features, but it’s also buggy and unstable. It may need to be fixed before it is really ready for widespread release. If that’s the case, then people aren’t even wrong not to adopt them yet! It isn’t necessarily bad that you have adopted the new beliefs; we need beta testers. But you should be aware of your status as a beta tester and be prepared both to revise your own beliefs if needed, and also to cut other people slack if they disagree with you.

I understand that it can be immensely frustrating to be thoroughly convinced that something is true and important and yet see so many people disagreeing with it. (I am an atheist activist after all, so I absolutely know what that feels like.) I understand that it can be immensely painful to watch innocent people suffer because they have to live in a world where other people have harmful beliefs. But you aren’t changing anyone’s mind or saving anyone from harm by calling people names. Patience, tact, and persuasion will win the long game, and the long game is really all we have.

And if it makes you feel any better, the long game may not be as long as it seems. The arc of history may have tighter curvature than we imagine. We certainly managed a complete flip of the First World consensus on gay marriage in just a single generation. We may be able to achieve similarly fast social changes in other areas too. But we haven’t accomplished the progress we have so far by being uncharitable or aggressive toward those who disagree.

I am emphatically not saying you should stop arguing for your beliefs. We need you to argue for your beliefs. We need you to argue forcefully and passionately. But when doing so, try not to attack the people who don’t yet agree with you—for they are precisely the people we need to listen to you.

On (gay) marriage

Oct 9 JDN 2459862

This post goes live on my first wedding anniversary. Thus, as you read this, I will have been married for one full year.

Honestly, being married hasn’t felt that different to me. This is likely because we’d been dating since 2012 and lived together for several years before actually getting married. It has made some official paperwork more convenient, and I’ve reached the point where I feel naked without my wedding band; but for the most part our lives have not really changed.

And perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps the best way to really know that you should get married is to already feel as though you are married, and just finally get around to making it official. Perhaps people for whom getting married is a momentous change in their lives (as opposed to simply a formal announcement followed by a celebration) are people who really shouldn’t be getting married just yet.

A lot of things in my life—my health, my career—have not gone very well in this past year. But my marriage has been only a source of stability and happiness. I wouldn’t say we never have conflict, but quite honestly I was expecting a lot more challenges and conflicts from the way I’d heard other people talk about marriage in the past. All of my friends who have kids seem to be going through a lot of struggles as a result of that (which is one of several reasons we keep procrastinating on looking into adoption), but marriage itself does not appear to be any more difficult than friendship—in fact, maybe easier.

I have found myself oddly struck by how un-important it has been that my marriage is to a same-sex partner. I keep expecting people to care—to seem uncomfortable, to be resistant, or simply to be surprised—and it so rarely happens.

I think this is probably generational: We Millennials grew up at the precise point in history when the First World suddenly decided, all at once, that gay marriage was okay.

Seriously, look at this graph. I’ve made it combining this article using data from the General Social Survey, and this article from Pew:

Until around 1990—when I was 2 years old—support for same-sex marriage was stable and extremely low: About 10% of Americans supported it (presumably most of them LGBT!), and over 70% opposed it. Then, quite suddenly, attitudes began changing, and by 2019, over 60% of Americans supported it and only 31% opposed it.

That is, within a generation, we went from a country where almost no one supported gay marriage to a country where same-sex marriage is so popular that any major candidate who opposed it would almost certainly lose a general election. (They might be able to survive a Republican primary, as Republican support for same-sex marriage is only about 44%—about where it was among Democrats in the early 2000s.)

This is a staggering rate of social change. If development economics is the study of what happened in South Korea from 1950-2000, I think political science should be the study of what happened to attitudes on same-sex marriage in the US from 1990-2020.

And of course it isn’t just the US. Similar patterns can be found across Western Europe, with astonishingly rapid shifts from near-universal opposition to near-universal support within a generation.

I don’t think I have been able to fully emotionally internalize this shift. I grew up in a world where homophobia was mainstream, where only the most radical left-wing candidates were serious about supporting equal rights and representation for LGBT people. And suddenly I find myself in a world where we are actually accepted and respected as equals, and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Aren’t you the same people who told me as a teenager that I was a sexual deviant who deserved to burn in Hell? But now you’re attending my wedding? And offering me joint life insurance policies? My own extended family members treat me differently now than they did when I was a teenager, and I don’t quite know how to trust that the new way is the true way and not some kind of facade that could rapidly disappear.

I think this sort of generational trauma may never fully heal, in which case it will be the generation after us—the Zoomers, I believe we’re calling them now—who will actually live in this new world we created, while the rest of us forever struggle to accept that things are not as we remember them. Once bitten, we remain forever twice shy, lest attitudes regress as suddenly as they advanced.

Then again, it seems that Zoomers may be turning against the institution of marriage in general. As the meme says: “Boomers: No gay marriage. Millennials: Yes gay marriage. Gen Z: Yes gay, no marriage.” Maybe that’s for the best; maybe the future of humanity is for personal relationships to be considered no business of the government at all. But for now at least, equal marriage is clearly much better than unequal marriage, and the First World seems to have figured that out blazing fast.

And of course the rest of the world still hasn’t caught up. While trends are generally in a positive direction, there are large swaths of the world where even very basic rights for LGBT people are opposed by most of the population. As usual, #ScandinaviaIsBetter, with over 90% support for LGBT rights; and, as usual, Sub-Saharan Africa is awful, with support in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria not even hitting 20%.

The War on Terror has been a total failure.

Sep 11 JDN 2459834

Since today happens to be September 11, I thought I’d spend this week’s post reflecting on the last 21 years (!) of the War on Terror.

At this point, I can safely say that the War on Terror has been a complete, total, utter failure. It has cost over $8 trillion and nearly a million lives, and not only didn’t reduce terrorism, it actually appears to have substantially increased it.

Take a look at this graph from Our World in Data:

Up until the the 1980s, terrorism worldwide was a slow smoldering, killing rarely more than a few hundred people each year. Obviously it’s terrible if you or one of your loved ones happen to be among those few hundred, but in terms of its overall chance of killing you or your children, terrorism used to be less dangerous than kiddie pools.

Then terrorism began to rise, until it was killing several thousand people a year. I was surprised to learn that most of these were not in the Middle East, but in fact spread all over the world, with the highest concentrations actually being in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Notably, almost none of these deaths were in First World countries, and as a result most First World governments largely ignored them. Terrorism was something that happened “over there”, to other people.

Then of course came 2001, and 9/11/2001, in which nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in a single day. And suddenly the First World took notice, and decided to respond with overwhelming force.

We have been at war basically ever since. All this war has accomplished… approximately nothing.

The deadliest year of terrorism in the 21st century was not 2001; it was 2014, after the US had invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, and in fact withdrawn from Iraq (but not yet Afghanistan). This was largely the result of the rise of Daesh (which is what you should call them by the way), which seems to be the most fanatical and violent Islamist terrorist organization the world has seen in decades if not centuries.

Even First World terrorism is no better today than it was in the 1990s—though also no worse. It’s back to a slow smolder, and once again First World societies can feel that terrorism is something that happens to someone else. But terrorism in the Middle East is the worst it has been in decades.

Would Daesh not have appeared if the US had never invaded Afghanistan and Iraq? It’s difficult to say. Maybe their rise was inevitable. Or maybe having a strong, relatively secular government in the region under Saddam Hussein would have prevented them from becoming so powerful. We can at least say this: Since the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban retook control, the Taliban and Daesh have been fighting each other quite heavily. Presumably that would have been happening all along if the US had not intervened to suppress the Taliban.

Don’t get me wrong: The Taliban were, and are, a terrible regime, and Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator. But Daesh is clearly worse than either, and sometimes in geopolitics you have to accept the lesser evil.

If we’d actually had a way to take over Afghanistan and Iraq and rebuild them as secular liberal democracies as the US government intended, that would have been a good thing, and might even have been worth all that blood and treasure. But that project utterly failed, and we should have expected it to fail, as never in history has anyone successfully imposed liberal democracy by outside force like that.

When democracy spreads, it usually does so slowly, through the cultural influence of trade and media. Sometimes it springs up in violent revolution—as we hoped it would in the Arab Spring but were sadly disappointed. But there are really no clear examples of a democratic country invading an undemocratic country and rapidly turning it democratic.

British colonialism was spread by the sword (and especially the machine gun), and did sometimes ultimately lead to democratic outcomes, as in the US, Australia, and Canada, and more recently in India, South Africa, and Botswana. But that process was never fast, never smooth, and rarely without bloodshed—and only succeeded when the local population was willing to fight for it. Britain didn’t simply take over countries and convert them to liberal democracies in a generation. No one has ever done that, and trying to was always wishful thinking.

I don’t know, maybe in the very long run, we’ll look back on all this as the first, bloody step toward something better for the Middle East. Maybe the generation of women who got a taste of freedom and education in Afghanistan under US occupation will decide to rise up and refuse to relinquish those rights under the new Taliban. Daesh will surely die sooner or later; fanaticism can rarely sustain organizations in the long term.

But it’s been 20 years now, and things look no better than they did at the start. Maybe it’s time to cut our losses?

On the Overton Window

Jul 24 JDN 2459786

As you are no doubt aware, a lot of people on the Internet like to loudly proclaim support for really crazy, extreme ideas. Some of these people actually believe in those ideas, and if you challenge them, will do their best to defend them. Those people are wrong at the level of substantive policy, but there’s nothing wrong with their general approach: If you really think that anarchism or communism is a good thing, it only makes sense that you’d try to convince other people. You might have a hard time of it (in part because you are clearly wrong), but it makes sense that you’d try.

But there is another class of people who argue for crazy, extreme ideas. When pressed, they will admit they don’t really believe in abolishing the police or collectivizing all wealth, but they believe in something else that’s sort of vaguely in that direction, and they think that advocating for the extreme idea will make people more likely to accept what they actually want.

They often refer to this as “shifting the Overton Window”. As Matt Yglesias explained quite well a year ago, this is not actually what Overton was talking about.

But, in principle, it could still be a thing that works. There is a cognitive bias known as anchoring which is often used in marketing: If I only offered a $5 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle of wine, you might think the $20 bottle is too expensive. But if I also include a $50 bottle, that makes you adjust your perceptions of what constitutes a “reasonable” price for wine, and may make you more likely to buy the $20 bottle after all.

It could be, therefore, that an extreme policy demand makes people more willing to accept moderate views, as a sort of compromise. Maybe demanding the abolition of police is a way of making other kinds of police reform seem more reasonable. Maybe showing pictures of Marx and chanting “eat the rich” could make people more willing to accept higher capital gains taxes. Maybe declaring that we are on the verge of apocalyptic climate disaster will make people more willing to accept tighter regulations on carbon emissions and subsidies for solar energy.

Then again—does it actually seem to do that? I see very little evidence that it does. All those demands for police abolition haven’t changed the fact that defunding the police is unpopular. Raising taxes on the rich is popular, but it has been for awhile now (and never was with, well, the rich). And decades of constantly shouting about imminent climate catastrophe is really starting to look like crying wolf.

To see why this strategy seems to be failing, I think it’s helpful to consider how it feels from the other side. Take a look at some issues where someone else is trying to get you to accept a particular view, and consider whether someone advocating a more extreme view would make you more likely to compromise.

Your particular opinions may vary, but here are some examples that would apply to me, and, I suspect, many of you.

If someone says they want tighter border security, I’m skeptical—it’s pretty tight already. But in and of itself, this would not be such a crazy idea. Certainly I agree that it is possible to have too little border security, and so maybe that turns out to be the state we’re in.

But then, suppose that same person, or someone closely allied to them, starts demanding the immediate deportation of everyone who was not born in the United States, even those who immigrated legally and are naturalized or here on green cards. This is a crazy, extreme idea that’s further in the same direction, so on this anchoring theory, it should make me more willing to accept the idea of tighter border security. And yet, I can say with some confidence that it has no such effect.

Indeed, if anything I think it would make me less likely to accept tighter border security, in proportion to how closely aligned those two arguments are. If they are coming from the same person, or the same political party, it would cause me to suspect that the crazy, extreme policy is the true objective, and the milder, compromise policy is just a means toward that end. It also suggests certain beliefs and attitudes about immigration in general—xenophobia, racism, ultranationalism—that I oppose even more strongly. If you’re talking about deporting all immigrants, you make me suspect that your reasons for wanting tighter border security are not good ones.

Let’s try another example. Suppose someone wants to cut taxes on upper income brackets. In our current state, I think that would be a bad idea. But there was a time not so long ago when I would have agreed with it: Even I have to admit that a top bracket of 94% (as we had in 1943) sounds a little ridiculous, and is surely on the wrong side of the Laffer curve. So the basic idea of cutting top tax rates is not inherently crazy or ridiculous.

Now, suppose that same idea came from the same person, or the same party, or the same political movement, as one that was arguing for the total abolition of all taxation. This is a crazy, extreme idea; it would amount to either total anarcho-capitalism with no government at all, or some sort of bizarre system where the government is funded entirely through voluntary contributions. I think it’s pretty obvious that such a system would be terrible, if not outright impossible; and anyone whose understanding of political economy is sufficiently poor that they would fail to see this is someone whose overall judgment on questions of policy I must consider dubious. Once again, the presence of the extreme view does nothing to make me want to consider the moderate view, and may even make me less willing to do so.

Perhaps I am an unusually rational person, not so greatly affected by anchoring biases? Perhaps. But whereas I do feel briefly tempted by to buy the $20 wine bottle by the effect of the $50 wine bottle, and must correct myself with knowledge I have about anchoring bias, the presentation of an extreme political view never even makes me feel any temptation to accept some kind of compromise with it. Learning that someone supports something crazy or ridiculous—or is willing to say they do, even if deep down they don’t—makes me automatically lower my assessment of their overall credibility. If anything, I think I am tempted to overreact in that direction, and have to remind myself of the Stopped Clock Principle: reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and someone can have both bad ideas and good ones.

Moreover, the empirical data, while sketchy, doesn’t seem to support this either; where the Overton Window (in the originally intended sense) has shifted, as on LGBT rights, it was because people convincingly argued that the “extreme” position was in fact an entirely reasonable and correct view. There was a time not so long ago that same-sex marriage was deemed unthinkable, and the “moderate” view was merely decriminalizing sodomy; but we demanded, and got, same-sex marriage, not as a strategy to compromise on decriminalizing sodomy, but because we actually wanted same-sex marriage and had good arguments for it. I highly doubt we would have been any more successful if we had demanded something ridiculous and extreme, like banning opposite-sex marriage.

The resulting conclusion seems obvious and banal: Only argue for things you actually believe in.

Yet, somehow, that seems to be a controversial view these days.

Will we ever have the space opera future?

May 22 JDN 2459722

Space opera has long been a staple of science fiction. Like many natural categories, it’s not that easy to define; it has something to do with interstellar travel, a variety of alien species, grand events, and a big, complicated world that stretches far beyond any particular story we might tell about it.

Star Trek is the paradigmatic example, and Star Wars also largely fits, but there are numerous of other examples, including most of my favorite science fiction worlds: Dune, the Culture, Mass Effect, Revelation Space, the Liaden, Farscape, Babylon 5, the Zones of Thought.

I think space opera is really the sort of science fiction I most enjoy. Even when it is dark, there is still something aspirational about it. Even a corrupt feudal transplanetary empire or a terrible interstellar war still means a universe where people get to travel the stars.

How likely is it that we—and I mean ‘we’ in the broad sense, humanity and its descendants—will actually get the chance to live in such a universe?

First, let’s consider the most traditional kind of space opera, the Star Trek world, where FTL is commonplace and humans interact as equals with a wide variety of alien species that are different enough to be interesting, but similar enough to be relatable.

This, sad to say, is extremely unlikely. FTL is probably impossible, or if not literally impossible then utterly infeasible by any foreseeable technology. Yes, the Alcubierre drive works in theory… all you need is tons of something that has negative mass.

And while, by sheer probability, there almost have to be other sapient lifeforms somewhere out there in this vast universe, our failure to contact or even find clear evidence of any of them for such a long period suggests that they are either short-lived or few and far between. Moreover, any who do exist are likely to be radically different from us and difficult to interact with at all, much less relate to on a personal level. Maybe they don’t have eyes or ears; maybe they live only in liquid hydrogen or molten lead; maybe they communicate entirely by pheromones that are toxic to us.

Does this mean that the aspirations of space opera are ultimately illusory? Is it just a pure fantasy that will forever be beyond us? Not necessarily.

I can see two other ways to create a very space-opera-like world, one of which is definitely feasible, and the other is very likely to be. Let’s start with the one that’s definitely feasible—indeed so feasible we will very likely get to experience it in our own lifetimes.

That is to make it a simulation. An MMO video game, in a way, but something much grander than any MMO that has yet been made. Not just EVE and No Man’s Sky, not just World of Warcraft and Minecraft and Second Life, but also Facebook and Instagram and Zoom and so much more. Oz from Summer Wars; OASIS from Ready Player One. A complete, multifaceted virtual reality in which we can spend most if not all of our lives. One complete with not just sight and sound, but also touch, smell, even taste.

Since it’s a simulation, we can make our own rules. If we want FTL and teleportation, we can have them. (And I would like to note that in fact teleportation is available in EVE, No Man’s Sky, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and even Second Life. It’s easy to implement in a simulation, and it really seems to be something people want to have.) If we want to meet—or even be—people from a hundred different sapient species, some more humanoid than others, we can. Each of us could rule entire planets, command entire starfleets.

And we could do this, if not right now, today, then very, very soon—the VR hardware is finally maturing and the software capability already exists if there is a development team with the will and the skills (and the budget) to do it. We almost certainly will do this—in fact, we’ll do it hundreds or thousands of different ways. You need not be content with any particular space opera world, when you can choose from a cornucopia of them; and fantasy worlds too, and plenty of other kinds of worlds besides.

Yet, I admit, there is something missing from that future. While such a virtual-reality simulation might reach the point where it would be fair to say it’s no longer simply a “video game”, it still won’t be real. We won’t actually be Vulcans or Delvians or Gek or Asari. We will merely pretend to be. When we take off the VR suit at the end of the day, we will still be humans, and still be stuck here on Earth. And even if most of the toil of maintaining this society and economy can be automated, there will still be some time we have to spend living ordinary lives in ordinary human bodies.

So, is there some chance that we might really live in a space-opera future? Where we will meet actual, flesh-and-blood people who have blue skin, antennae, or six limbs? Where we will actually, physically move between planets, feeling the different gravity beneath our feet and looking up at the alien sky?

Yes. There is a way this could happen. Not now, not for awhile yet. We ourselves probably won’t live to see it. But if humanity manages to continue thriving for a few more centuries, and technology continues to improve at anything like its current pace, then that day may come.

We won’t have FTL, so we’ll be bounded by the speed of light. But the speed of light is still quite fast. It can get you to Mars in minutes, to Jupiter in hours, and even to Alpha Centauri in a voyage that wouldn’t shock Magellan or Zheng He. Leaving this arm of the Milky Way, let alone traveling to another galaxy, is out of the question (at least if you ever want to come back while anyone you know is still alive—actually as a one-way trip it’s surprisingly feasible thanks to time dilation).

This means that if we manage to invent a truly superior kind of spacecraft engine, one which combines the high thrust of a hydrolox rocket with the high specific impulse of an ion thruster—and that is physically possible, because it’s well within what nuclear rockets ought to be capable of—then we could travel between planets in our solar system, and maybe even to nearby solar systems, in reasonable amounts of time. The world of The Expanse could therefore be in reach (well, the early seasons anyway), where human colonies have settled on Mars and Ceres and Ganymede and formed their own new societies with their own unique cultures.

We may yet run into some kind of extraterrestrial life—bacteria probably, insects maybe, jellyfish if we’re lucky—but we probably ever won’t actually encounter any alien sapients. If there are any, they are probably too primitive to interact with us, or they died out millennia ago, or they’re simply too far away to reach.

But if we cannot find Vulcans and Delvians and Asari, then we can become them. We can modify ourselves with cybernetics, biotechnology, or even nanotechnology, until we remake ourselves into whatever sort of beings we want to be. We may never find a whole interplanetary empire ruled by a race of sapient felinoids, but if furry conventions are any indication, there are plenty of people who would make themselves into sapient felinoids if given the opportunity.

Such a universe would actually be more diverse than a typical space opera. There would be no “planets of hats“, no entire societies of people acting—or perhaps even looking—the same. The hybridization of different species is almost by definition impossible, but when the ‘species’ are cosmetic body mods, we can combine them however we like. A Klingon and a human could have a child—and for that matter the child could grow up and decide to be a Turian.

Honestly there are only two reasons I’m not certain we’ll go this route:

One, we’re still far too able and willing to kill each other, so who knows if we’ll even make it that long. There’s also still plenty of room for some sort of ecological catastrophe to wipe us out.

And two, most people are remarkably boring. We already live in a world where one could go to work every day wearing a cape, a fursuit, a pirate outfit, or a Starfleet uniform, and yet people don’t let you. There’s nothing infeasible about me delivering a lecture dressed as a Kzin Starfleet science officer, and nor would it even particularly impair my ability to deliver the lecture well; and yet I’m quite certain it would be greatly frowned upon if I were to do so, and could even jeopardize my career (especially since I don’t have tenure).

Would it be distracting to the students if I were to do something like that? Probably, at least at first. But once they got used to it, it might actually make them feel at ease. If it were a social norm that lecturers—and students—can dress however they like (perhaps limited by local decency regulations, though those, too, often seem overly strict), students might show up to class in bunny pajamas or pirate outfits or full-body fursuits, but would that really be a bad thing? It could in fact be a good thing, if it helps them express their own identity and makes them more comfortable in their own skin.

But no, we live in a world where the mainstream view is that every man should wear exactly the same thing at every formal occasion. I felt awkward at the AEA conference because my shirt had color.

This means that there is really one major obstacle to building the space opera future: Social norms. If we don’t get to live in this world one day, it will be because the world is ruled by the sort of person who thinks that everyone should be the same.

Centrism is dying in America.

Apr 24 JDN 2459694

Four years ago—back when (shudder) Trump was President—I wrote a post about the true meaning of centrism, the kind of centrism worth defending.

I think it’s worth repeating now: Centrism isn’t saying “both sides are the same” when they aren’t. It’s recognizing that the norms of democracy themselves are worth defending—and more worth defending than almost any specific policy goal.

I wanted to say any specific policy goal, but I do think you can construct extreme counterexamples, like “establish a 100% tax on all income” (causing an immediate, total economic collapse), or “start a war with France” (our staunchest ally for the past 250 years who also has nuclear weapons). But barring anything that extreme, just about any policy is less important than defending democracy itself.

Or at least I think so. It seems that most Americans disagree. On both the left and the right—but especially on the right—a large majority of American voters are still willing to vote for a candidate who flouts basic democratic norms as long as they promise the right policies.

I guess on the right this fact should have been obvious: Trump. But things aren’t much better on the left, and should some actual radical authoritarian communist run for office (as opposed to, you know, literally every left-wing politician who is accused of being a radical authoritarian communist), this suggests that a lot of leftist voters might actually vote for them, which is nearly as terrifying.

My hope today is that I might tip the balance a little bit the other direction, remind people why democracy is worth defending, even at the cost of our preferred healthcare systems and marginal tax rates.

This is, above all, that democracy is self-correcting. If a bad policy gets put in place while democratic norms are still strong, then that policy can be removed and replaced with something better later on. Authoritarianism lacks this self-correction mechanism; get someone terrible in power and they stay in power, doing basically whatever they want, unless they are violently overthrown.

For the right wing, that’s basically it. You need to stop making excuses for authoritarianism. Basically none of your policies are so important that they would justify even moderate violations of democratic norms—much less than Trump already committed, let alone what he might do if re-elected and unleashed. I don’t care how economically efficient lower taxes or privatized healthcare might be (and I know that there are in fact many economists who would agree with you on that, though I don’t), it isn’t worth undermining democracy. And while I do understand why you consider abortion to be such a vital issue, you really need to ask yourself whether banning abortion is worth living under a fascist government, because that’s the direction you’re headed. Let me note that banning abortion doesn’t even seem to reduce it very much, so there’s that. While the claim that abortion bans do nothing is false, even a total overturn of Roe v. Wade would most likely reduce US abortions by about 15%—much less than the 25% decrease between 2008 and 2014, which was also part of a long-term trend of decreasing abortion rates which are now roughly half what they were in 1980. We don’t need to ban abortion in order to reduce it—and indeed many of the things that work are things like free healthcare and easy access to contraception that right-wing governments typically resist. So even if you consider abortion to be a human rights violation, which I know many of you do, is that relatively small reduction in abortion rates worth risking the slide into fascism?

But for the left wing, things are actually a bit more complicated. Some right-wing policies—particularly social policies—are inherently anti-democratic and violations of human rights. I gave abortion the benefit of the doubt above; I can at least see why someone would think it’s a human rights violation (though I do not). Here I’m thinking particularly of immigration policies that lock up children at the border and laws that actively discriminate against LGBT people. I can understand why people would be unwilling to “hold their nose” and vote for someone who wants to enact that kind of policy—though if it’s really the only way to avoid authoritarianism, I think we might still have to do it. Democracy is too high a price to pay; give it up now and there is nothing to stop that new authoritarian leftist government from turning into a terrible nightmare (that may not even remain leftist, by the way!). If we vote in someone who is pro-democratic but otherwise willing to commit these sorts of human rights violations, hopefully we can change things by civic engagement or vote them out of office later on (and over the long run, we do, in fact, have a track record of doing that). But if we vote in someone who will tear apart democracy even when they seem to have the high ground on human rights, then once democracy is undermined, the new authoritarian government can oppress us in all sorts of ways (even ways they specifically promised not to!), and we will have very little recourse.

Above all, even if they promise to give us everything we want, once you put an authoritarian in power, they can do whatever they want. They have no reason to keep their promises (whereas, contrary to popular belief, democratic politicians actually typically do), for we have no recourse if they don’t. Our only option to remove them from power is violent revolution—which usually fails, and even if it succeeds, would have an enormous cost in human lives.

Why is this a minority view? Why don’t more Americans agree with this?

I can think of a few possible reasons.

One is that they may not believe that these violations of democratic norms are really all that severe or worrisome. Overriding a judge with an executive order isn’t such a big deal, is it? Gerrymandering has been going on for decades, why should we worry about it now?

If that is indeed your view, let me remind you that in January 2021, armed insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building. That is not something we can just take lying down. This is a direct attack upon the foundations of democracy, and while it failed (miserably, and to be honest, hilariously), it wasn’t punished nearly severely enough—most of the people involved were not arrested on any charges, and several are now running for office. This lack of punishment means that it could very well happen again, and this time be better organized and more successful.

A second possibility is that people do not know that democracy is being undermined; they are somehow unaware that this is happening. If that’s the case, all I can tell you is that you really need to go to the Associated Press or New York Times website and read some news. You would have to be catastrophically ignorant of our political situation, and you frankly don’t deserve to be voting if that is the case.

But I suspect that for most people, a third reason applies: They see that democracy is being undermined, but they blame the other side. We aren’t the ones doing it—it’s them.

Such a view is tempting, at least from the left side of the aisle. No Democratic Party politician can hold a candle to Trump as far as authoritarianism (or narcissism). But we should still be cognizant of ways that our actions may also undermine democratic norms: Maybe we shouldn’t be considering packing the Supreme Court, unless we can figure out a way to ensure that it will genuinely lead to a more democratic and fair court long into the future. (For the latter sort of reform, suppose each federal district elected its own justice? Or we set up a mandatory retirement cycle such that every President would always appoint at least one justice?)

But for those of you on the right… How can you possibly think this? Where do you get your information from? How can you look at Donald Trump and think, “This man will defend our democracy from those left-wing radicals”? Right now you may be thinking, “oh, look, he suggested the New York Times; see his liberal bias”; that is a newspaper of record in the United States. While their editors are a bit left of center, they are held to the highest standards of factual accuracy. But okay, if you prefer the Wall Street Journal (also a newspaper of record, but whose editors are a bit more right of center), be my guest; their factual claims won’t disagree, because truth is truth. I also suggested the Associated Press, widely regarded worldwide as one of the most credible news sources. (I considered adding Al Jazeera, which has a similar reputation, but figured you wouldn’t go for that.)

If you think that the attack on the Capitol was even remotely acceptable, you must think that their claims of a stolen election were valid, or at least plausible. But every credible major news source, the US Justice Department, and dozens of law courts agree that they were not. Any large election is going to have a few cases of fraud, but there were literally only hundreds of fradulent votes—in an election in which over 150 million votes were cast, Biden won the popular vote by over 7 million votes, and no state was won by less than 10,000 votes. This means that 99.999% of votes were valid, and even if every single fradulent vote had been for Biden and in Georgia (obviously not the case), it wouldn’t have been enough to tip even that state.

I’m not going to say that left-wing politicians never try to undermine democratic norms—there’s certainly plenty of gerrymandering, and I just said, court-packing is at least problematic. Nor would I say that the right wing is always worse about this. But it should be pretty obvious to anyone with access to basic factual information—read: everyone with Internet access—that right now, the problem is much worse on the right. You on the right need to face up to that fact, and start voting out Republicans who refuse to uphold democracy, even if it means you have to wait a bit longer for lower taxes or more (let me remind you, not very effective) abortion bans.

In the long run, I would of course like to see changes in the whole political system, so that we are no longer dominated by two parties and have a wider variety of realistic options. (The best way to do that would of couse be range voting.) But for now, let’s start by ensuring that democracy continues to exist in America.

Gender norms are weird.

Apr 3 JDN 2459673

Field Adjunct Xorlan nervously adjusted their antenna jewelry and twiddled their mandibles as they waited to be called before the Xenoanthropology Committee.

At last, it was Xorlan’s turn to speak. They stepped slowly, hesitantly up to the speaking perch, trying not to meet any of the dozens of quartets of eyes gazing upon them. “So… yes. The humans of Terra. I found something…” Their throat suddenly felt dry. “Something very unusual.”

The Committee Chair glared at Xorlan impatiently. “Go on, then.”

“Well, to begin, humans exhibit moderate sexual dimorphism, though much more in physical than mental traits.”

The Chair rolled all four of their eyes. “That is hardly unusual at all! I could name a dozen species on as many worlds—”

“Uh, if I may, I wasn’t finished. But the humans, you see, they endeavor greatly—at enormous individual and social cost—to emphasize their own dimorphism. They wear clothing that accentuates their moderate physical differences. They organize themselves into groups based primarily if not entirely around secondary sexual characteristics. Many of their languages even directly incorporate pronouns or even adjectives and nouns associated with these categorizations.”

Seemingly placated for now, the Chair was no longer glaring or rolling their eyes. “Continue.”

“They build complex systems of norms surrounding the appropriate dress and behavior of individuals based on these dimorphic characteristics. Moreover, they enforce these norms with an iron mandible—” Xorlan choked at their own cliched metaphor, regretting it immediately. “Well, uh, not literally, humans don’t have mandibles—but what I mean to say is, they enforce these norms extremely aggressively. Humans will berate, abuse, ostracize, in extreme cases even assault or kill one another over seemingly trivial violations of these norms.”

Now the Chair sounded genuinely interested. “We know religion is common among humans. Do the norms have some religious significance, perhaps?”

“Sometimes. But not always. Oftentimes the norms seem to be entirely separate from religious practices, yet are no less intensively enforced. Different groups of humans even have quite different norms, though I have noticed certain patterns, if you’ll turn to table 4 of my report—”

The Chair waved dismissively. “In due time, Field Adjunct. For now, tell us: Do the humans have a name for this strange practice?”

“Ah. Yes, in fact they do. They call it gender.

We are so thoroughly accustomed to them—in basically every human society—that we hardly even notice their existence, much less think to question them most of the time. But as I hope this little vignette about an alien anthropologist illustrates, gender norms are actually quite profoundly weird.

Sexual dimorphism is not weird. A huge number of species have vary degrees of dimorphism, and mammals in particular are especially likely to exhibit significant dimorphism, from the huge antlers of a stag to the silver back of a gorilla. Human dimorphism is in a fairly moderate range; our males and females are neither exceptionally similar nor exceptionally different by most mammal standards.

No, what’s weird is gender—the way that, in nearly every human society, culture has taken our sexual dimorphism and expanded it into an incredibly intricate, incredibly draconian system of norms that everyone is expected to follow on pain of ostracism if not outright violence.

Imagine a government that passed laws implementing the following:

Shortly after your birth, you will be assigned to a group without your input, and will remain it in your entire life. Based on your group assignment, you must obey the following rules: You must wear only clothing on this approved list, and never anything on this excluded list. You must speak with a voice pitch within a particular octave range. You must stand and walk a certain way. You must express, or not express, your emotions under certain strictly defined parameters—for group A, anger is almost never acceptable, while for group B, anger is the only acceptable emotion in most circumstances. You are expected to eat certain approved foods and exclude other foods. You must exhibit the assigned level of dominance for your group. All romantic and sexual relations are to be only with those assigned to the opposite group. If you violate any of these rules, you will be punished severely.

We surely see any such government as the epitome of tyranny. These rules are petty, arbitrary, oppressive, and disproportionately and capriciously enforced. And yet, when for millennia we in every society on Earth have imposed these rules upon ourselves and each other, it seems to us as though nothing is amiss.

Note that I’m not saying that men and women are the same in every way. That’s clearly not true physically; the differences in upper body strength and grip strength are frankly staggering. The average man is nearly twice as strong as the average woman, and an average 75-year-old man grips better with his left hand than an average 25-year-old woman grips with her right.

It isn’t really true mentally either: There are some robust correlations between gender and certain psychological traits. But they are just that: Correlations. Men are more likely to be dominant, aggressive, risk-seeking and visually oriented, while women are more likely to be submissive, nurturing, neurotic, and verbally oriented. There is still an enormous amount of variation within each group, such that knowing only someone’s gender actually tells you very little about their psychology.

And whatever differences there may be, however small or large, and whatever exceptions may exist, whether rare or ubiquitous—the question remains: Why enforce this? Why punish people for deviating from whatever trends may exist? Why is deviating from gender norms not simply unusual, but treated as immoral?

I don’t have a clear answer. People do generally enforce all sorts of social norms, some good and some bad; but gender norms in particular seem especially harshly enforced. People do generally feel uncomfortable with having their mental categories challenged or violated, but sporks and schnoodles have never received anything like the kind of hatred that is routinely directed at trans people. There’s something about gender in particular that seems to cut very deep into the core of human psychology.

Indeed, so deep that I doubt we’ll ever be truly free of them. But perhaps we can at least reduce their draconian demands on us by remaining aware of just how weird those demands are.