How to hurt allies and alienate people

Aug 9 JDN 2459071

I’ve been wanting to write this post for awhile now, but I have been worried about the reaction I might get. Ultimately I realized that this is precisely why it needs to be written. Especially since Slate Star Codex is offline for the foreseeable future, there don’t see to be a lot of other people willing to write it.

The timing could be questioned, I suppose; when we are in the throes of a historic pandemic and brazen creeping authoritarianism, perhaps now should be the time for unconditional solidarity. But I fear that unconditional solidarity is one of the most dangerous forces in human existence: Politics is the mind-killer, arguments are soldiers, and the absolute unwillingness to question one’s own side is how we get everything from the Spanish Inquisition to Vladimir Lenin.

And since this is about not simply being mistaken but alienating allies, perhaps these desperate times are when we need the correction most: For we simply cannot afford to lose any allies right now.

“All men benefit from male violence.”

“It’s impossible to be racist against White people.”

“I hate White people.”

“Men are pigs.”

“All I want for Christmas is White genocide.”

Statements like these have two things in common: One, they are considered appropriate and acceptable to say by most of the social justice left; and two, they are harmful, alienating, and wrong.

All men benefit from male violence? You mean that male rape victims benefit from male violence? The thousands of men who are assaulted and murdered by other men—at far higher rates than women—benefit from that, do they? Did Matthew Shepard benefit from male violence?

It’s impossible to be racist against White people? Then tell me, what was it when a Black woman told me that melanin is the gateway to the soul and all White people are soulless snakes? Swap the colors, and it sounds like something only a diehard KKK member or neo-Nazi could say. If that’s not racism, what is?

The insistence that racism is “prejudice plus power” is a disingenuous redefinition of the concept precisely in an attempt to retroactively make it true that it’s impossible to be racist against White people. This is not what the word “racist” means to most people. But even if I were to allow that definition, do you think Black people never have power over White people? There are no Black managers who discriminate against their White employees, no Black teachers who abuse their White students? I’m not aware of Barack Obama discriminating against any White people, but can anyone deny that he had power? White people may have more power on average, but that doesn’t mean they have more power in every case.

What’s more, I don’t really understand what leftists think they are accomplishing by making this kind of assertion. Is it just an expression of rage, or a signal of your group identity? You’re clearly not going to convince any White person who has been discriminated against that White people never get discriminated against. You’re clearly not going to convince any man who has been brutally attacked by another man that all men benefit from male violence. It would be one thing to say that White people face less discrimination (clearly true) or that most White people don’t face discrimination (maybe true); but to say that no White people ever face discrimination is just obviously false, and will be disproved by many people’s direct experience.

Indeed, it seems quite obvious to me that this kind of talk is likely to frustrate and alienate many people who could otherwise have been allies.

The left has a counter-argument prepared for this: If you are alienated by what we say, then you were never a true ally in the first place.

The accusation seems to be that alienated allies are just fair-weather friends; but I don’t think someone is being a fair-weather friend if they stop wanting to be your friend because you abuse them. And make no mistake: Continually telling people that they are inferior and defective because of their race or gender or some other innate aspect of themselves absolutely constitutes abuse. Indeed, it’s nothing less than a mirror image of the very abuse that social justice is supposed to exist to prevent.

To be sure, there are cases where people claim to be alienated allies but were never really allies to begin with. Anyone who says “Wokeness made me a Nazi” obviously was far-right to begin with, and is just using that as an excuse. No amount of people saying “I hate White people” would justify becoming a Nazi or a KKK member. This isn’t them genuinely being alienated by the left being unfair; this is them saying “Look what you made me do” as they punch you in the face.

But I think the far more common scenario is more like this: “I want to support social justice, but every time I try to participate in leftist spaces, people attack me. They say that I’m defective because of who I am, and it hurts. They don’t seem interested in my input anyway, so I think I’ll just stay away from leftist spaces to preserve my own mental health.” These are people who broadly agree with social justice in principle, but just feel so frustrated and alienated by the movement in practice that they decide they are better off remaining on the sidelines.

Is it really so hard to understand how someone might feel that way? Why would anyone want to interact in a social space where most of the time is spent disparaging people like them? To stay in such a space, one either needs to have very strong moral convictions to sustain them against that onslaught, or needs to be masochistic or self-loathing.

Maybe it is self-loathing, actually: Liberal White people are the only group that systematically exhibits a negative in-group bias. The further left you are on the political spectrum, the more likely you are to suffer from mental illness, especially if you are male. I’ve seen some right-wing sources use this to claim that “liberalism is a mental illness”, but the far more sensible explanation is that the kind of collective guilt and self-hatred that the left inculcates in liberal White people is harmful to mental health. It may also be because concern about the injustice in the world makes your life generally harder, even though you are right to be concerned.

There really does seem to be a lot of pressure to confess and self-flagellate among White leftists. I think my favorite is the injunction to “Divest from Whiteness“; it’s beautiful because it’s utterly meaningless. If you really just meant “fight racial discrimination”, you could have said that. Better yet, you could have recommended some specific policy or belief to adopt. (“Defund the Police”, for all its flaws, is an infinitely superior slogan to “Divest from Whiteness”.) By saying it this way, you’re trying to bring in some notion that we are morally obliged to somehow stop being White—which is of course completely impossible. Frankly I think even if I got gene therapy to convert my body to a West African phenotype people would still say I was “really White”. Thus, Whiteness becomes Original Sin: A stain acquired at birth that can never be removed and must always be a source of guilt.

So let me say this in no uncertain terms:

It’s okay to be White.

It’s okay to be straight.

It’s okay to be male.

It’s wrong to be racist.

It’s wrong to be homophobic.

It’s wrong to be sexist.

No, it isn’t “covertly racist” to say that it’s okay to be White—and if you think it is, you are part of the problem here. People do not have control over what race they are born into. There is no moral failing in being a particular color, or in being descended from people who did terrible things. (And it’s not like only White people have ancestors who did terrible things!)

Yes, I know that there are White supremacist groups using the slogan “It’s okay to be White”, but you know what? Stopped Clock Principle. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Nazis believe many things that are wrong, but the mere fact that Nazis believe something doesn’t make it wrong. Nazis also generally believe in Darwinian evolution, and Adolf Hitler was a strict vegetarian.

I am not denying that privilege and oppression exist. But there is a clear and absolutely vital moral distinction between being a member of a group and oppressing people who are not in that group. Being White is not the same thing as being racist. Being straight is not the same thing as being homophobic. Being male is not the same thing as being sexist. Indeed, I would argue that being a member of the privileged category is not even necessary to participate in oppression—you can oppress people of your own group, or be in one underprivileged group and oppress someone in another group. Being privileged certainly makes it easier for you to support oppression and more likely that you’ll do so—but it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Another common response is that this is just “tone policing“, that complaining about alienating rhetoric is just a way of shutting down dissent in general. No doubt this is sometimes true: One of the more effective ways of silencing someone’s argument is to convince people that it has been delivered in an overly aggressive or shrill way, thus discrediting the messenger. (This was basically the only major criticism ever leveled against New Atheism, for instance.)

But it clearly takes the notion too far to say that any kind of rhetoric is acceptable as long as it’s for the right cause. Insulting and denigrating people is never appropriate. Making people feel guilty for being born in the wrong group is never fair. Indeed, it’s not clear that one can even argue against tone policing without… tone policing. Sometimes your tone is actually inappropriate and harmful and you need to be criticized for it.

In fact, some of the people that harsh rhetoric is alienating may harbor real prejudices that need to be challenged. But they aren’t very likely to make the intense effort to challenge their own prejudices if every interaction they have with the social justice community is hostile. If we want to change someone’s mind, it helps a great deal to start by showing them compassion and respect.

I’m not saying that fighting for social justice is never going to upset people. Social change is always painful, and there are many cherished beliefs and institutions that will have to be removed in order to achieve lasting justice. So the mere fact that someone is frustrated or upset with you doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done anything wrong. But you should at least consider that people might sometimes be upset with you for genuinely good reasons, that when they say your aggressive rhetoric is hurtful and alienating that might be because it’s actually true.

In defense of slacktivism

Jan 22, JDN 2457776

It’s one of those awkward portmanteaus that people often make to try to express a concept in fewer syllables, while also implicitly saying that the phenomenon is specific enough to deserve its own word: “Slacktivism”, made of “slacker” and “activism”, not unlike “mansplain” is made of “man” and “explain” or “edutainment” was made of “education” and “entertainment”—or indeed “gerrymander” was made of “Elbridge Gerry” and “salamander”. The term seems to be particularly popular on Huffington Post, which has a whole category on slacktivism. There is a particular subcategory of slacktivism that is ironically against other slacktivism, which has been dubbed “snarktivism”.

It’s almost always used as a pejorative; very few people self-identify as “slacktivists” (though once I get through this post, you may see why I’m considering it myself). “Slacktivism” is activism that “isn’t real” somehow, activism that “doesn’t count”.

Of course, that raises the question: What “counts” as legitimate activism? Is it only protest marches and sit-ins? Then very few people have ever been or will ever be activists. Surely donations should count, at least? Those have a direct, measurable impact. What about calling your Congressman, or letter-writing campaigns? These have been staples of activism for decades.
If the term “slacktivism” means anything at all, it seems to point to activities surrounding raising awareness, where the goal is not to enact a particular policy or support a particular NGO but to simply get as much public attention to a topic as possible. It seems to be particularly targeted at blogging and social media—and that’s important, for reasons I’ll get to shortly. If you gather a group of people in your community and give a speech about LGBT rights, you’re an activist. If you send out the exact same speech on Facebook, you’re a slacktivist.

One of the arguments against “slacktivism” is that it can be used to funnel resources at the wrong things; this blog post makes a good point that the Kony 2012 campaign doesn’t appear to have actually accomplished anything except profits for the filmmakers behind it. (Then again: A blog post against slacktivism? Are you sure you’re not doing right now the thing you think you are against?) But is this problem unique to slacktivism, or is it a more general phenomenon that people simply aren’t all that informed about how to have the most impact? There are an awful lot of inefficient charities out there, and in fact the most important waste of charitable funds involves people giving to their local churches. Fortunately, this is changing, as people become more secularized; churches used to account for over half of US donations, and now they only account for less than a third. (Naturally, Christian organizations are pulling out their hair over this.) The 60 million Americans who voted for Trump made a horrible mistake and will cause enormous global damage; but they weren’t slacktivists, were they?

Studies do suggest that traditionally “slacktivist” activities like Facebook likes aren’t a very strong predictor of future, larger actions, and more private modes of support (like donations and calling your Congressman) tend to be stronger predictors. But so what? In order for slacktivism to be a bad thing, they would have to be a negative predictor. They would have to substitute for more effective activism, and there’s no evidence that this happens.

In fact, there’s even some evidence that slacktivism has a positive effect (normally I wouldn’t cite Fox News, but I think in this case we should expect a bias in the opposite direction, and you can read the full Georgetown study if you want):

A study from Georgetown University in November entitled “Dynamics of Cause Engagement” looked how Americans learned about and interacted with causes and other social issues, and discovered some surprising findings on Slacktivism.

While the traditional forms of activism like donating money or volunteering far outpaces slacktivism, those who engage in social issues online are twice as likely as their traditional counterparts to volunteer and participate in events. In other words, slacktivists often graduate to full-blown activism.

At worst, most slacktivists are doing nothing for positive social change, and that’s what the vast majority of people have been doing for the entirety of human history. We can bemoan this fact, but that won’t change it. Most people are simply too uniformed to know what’s going on in the world, and too broke and too busy to do anything about it.

Indeed, slacktivism may be the one thing they can do—which is why I think it’s worth defending.

From an economist’s perspective, there’s something quite odd about how people’s objections to slacktivism are almost always formulated. The rational, sensible objection would be to their small benefits—this isn’t accomplishing enough, you should do something more effective. But in fact, almost all the objections to slacktivism I have ever read focus on their small costs—you’re not a “real activist” because you don’t make sacrifices like I do.

Yet it is a basic principle of economic rationality that, all other things equal, lower cost is better. Indeed, this is one of the few principles of economic rationality that I really do think is unassailable; perfect information is unrealistic and total selfishness makes no sense at all. But cost minimization is really very hard to argue with—why pay more, when you can pay less and get the same benefit?

From an economist’s perspective, the most important thing about an activity is its cost-effectiveness, measured either by net benefitbenefit minus cost—or rate of returnbenefit divided by cost. But in both cases, a lower cost is always better; and in fact slacktivism has an astonishing rate of return, precisely because its cost is so small.

Suppose that a campaign of 10 million Facebook likes actually does have a 1% chance of changing a policy in a way that would save 10,000 lives, with a life expectancy of 50 years each. Surely this is conservative, right? I’m only giving it a 1% chance of success, on a policy with a relatively small impact (10,000 lives could be a single clause in an EPA regulatory standard), with a large number of slacktivist participants (10 million is more people than the entire population of Switzerland). Yet because clicking “like” and “share” only costs you maybe 10 seconds, we’re talking about an expected cost of (10 million)(10/86,400/365) = 0.32 QALY for an expected benefit of (10,000)(0.01)(50) = 5000 QALY. That is a rate of return of 1,500,000%—that’s 1.5 million percent.

Let’s compare this to the rate of return on donating to a top charity like UNICEF, Oxfam, the Against Malaria Foundation, or the Schistomoniasis Control Initiative, for which donating about $300 would save the life of 1 child, adding about 50 QALY. That $300 most likely cost you about 0.01 QALY (assuming an annual income of $30,000), so we’re looking at a return of 500,000%. Now, keep in mind that this is a huge rate of return, far beyond what you can ordinarily achieve, that donating $300 to UNICEF is probably one of the best things you could possibly be doing with that money—and yet slacktivism may still exceed it in efficiency. Maybe slacktivism doesn’t sound so bad after all?

Of course, the net benefit of your participation is higher in the case of donation; you yourself contribute 50 QALY instead of only contributing 0.0005 QALY. Ultimately net benefit is what matters; rate of return is a way of estimating what the net benefit would be when comparing different ways of spending the same amount of time or money. But from the figures I just calculated, it begins to seem like maybe the very best thing you could do with your time is clicking “like” and “share” on Facebook posts that will raise awareness of policies of global importance. Now, you have to include all that extra time spent poring through other Facebook posts, and consider that you may not be qualified to assess the most important issues, and there’s a lot of uncertainty involved in what sort of impact you yourself will have… but it’s almost certainly not the worst thing you could be doing with your time, and frankly running these numbers has made me feel a lot better about all the hours I have actually spent doing this sort of thing. It’s a small benefit, yes—but it’s an even smaller cost.

Indeed, the fact that so many people treat low cost as bad, when it is almost by definition good, and the fact that they also target their ire so heavily at blogging and social media, says to me that what they are really trying to accomplish here has nothing to do with actually helping people in the most efficient way possible.

Rather, it’s two things.

The obvious one is generational—it’s yet another chorus in the unending refrain that is “kids these days”. Facebook is new, therefore it is suspicious. Adults have been complaining about their descendants since time immemorial; some of the oldest written works we have are of ancient Babylonians complaining that their kids are lazy and selfish. Either human beings have been getting lazier and more selfish for thousands of years, or, you know, kids are always a bit more lazy and selfish than their parents or at least seem so from afar.

The one that’s more interesting for an economist is signaling. By complaining that other people aren’t paying enough cost for something, what you’re really doing is complaining that they aren’t signaling like you are. The costly signal has been made too cheap, so now it’s no good as a signal anymore.

“Anyone can click a button!” you say. Yes, and? Isn’t it wonderful that now anyone with a smartphone (and there are more people with access to smartphones than toilets, because #WeLiveInTheFuture) can contribute, at least in some small way, to improving the world? But if anyone can do it, then you can’t signal your status by doing it. If your goal was to make yourself look better, I can see why this would bother you; all these other people doing things that look just as good as what you do! How will you ever distinguish yourself from the riffraff now?

This is also likely what’s going on as people fret that “a college degree’s not worth anything anymore” because so many people are getting them now; well, as a signal, maybe not. But if it’s just a signal, why are we spending so much money on it? Surely we can find a more efficient way to rank people by their intellect. I thought it was supposed to be an education—in which case the meteoric rise in global college enrollments should be cause for celebration. (In reality of course a college degree can serve both roles, and it remains an open question among labor economists as to which effect is stronger and by how much. But the signaling role is almost pure waste from the perspective of social welfare; we should be trying to maximize the proportion of real value added.)

For this reason, I think I’m actually prepared to call myself a slacktivist. I aim for cost-effective awareness-raising; I want to spread the best ideas to the most people for the lowest cost. Why, would you prefer I waste more effort, to signal my own righteousness?