Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Testing extreme political propositions

One thing I wonder about current politics is why those who oppose various lefty demands, especially demands made by the so-called "campus left," on the grounds that they're unsustainable when enacted on a large scale spend their time arguing this instead of simply demonstrating it. For example, if you think that gender is not really amenable to self-declared change or that pronouns are not a matter of preference, why don't you and your friends (and better yet, many more people whom you've either persuaded to help you for the sake of advancing human knowledge, or bribed) simultaneously declare yourselves to be the opposite sex, or a third sex, or no sex, and demand that everyone around you accept your assertions. If these sorts of demands really are as socially destabilizing as you claim, then the ensuing chaos will prove your point better than any earnest op-ed you submit to the student newspaper. And if they're not, then I guess you'll have to rethink your argument. Either way, the costs to you will be pretty low: campuses are pretty insular, chaos in them will be contained, and you can go back to your old sex at any time.

It seems to me that you could do this with nearly every liberal social demand of the past decade, since so many of them arise out of individual, unfalsifiable assertions about identity or personal history. So when I read articles like this one - pointing out that the present demand to punish all sexual harassers suffers from some obvious difficulties, like an over-broad definition of harassment, a reliance on personal perceptions of offense, and the discovery that "in recent weeks, I’ve acquired new powers. I have cast my mind over the ways I could use them. I could now, on a whim, destroy the career of an Oxford don..." - I again wonder, why not just demonstrate how big a problem this is by using your new powers to accuse not just the Oxford don, but pretty much anyone you'd like to see fired? Accuse the don's entire college at Oxford, the entire editorial staff of a major newspaper. Most of them are probably men, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Get your friends to accuse them too, or just say you "have in your hand a list...", as Berlinski puts it. If the doctrine of "just believe" the accuser is really as malignant as you warn, then its malignancy should be easily made manifest when an entire university department gets vacated or an entire publication is forced to fold under public pressure from unproven accusations of harassment. I really don't think this would have to happen more than once for the difficulties to be widely appreciated.

Of course, this is a form of heightening the contradictions, or trolling, if you prefer, and as a tactic, it has its dangers. And it also obviously requires acting in bad faith, a profound social sin in many quarters. But, the young seek adventure and don't care what respectable people think of them, no? So why hasn't this totally obvious method of persuasion been tried?


Emily Hale said...

What was the group that tried to fake a sexual harassment allegation to the Washington Post? (and was caught). I guess some people are trying!

Miss Self-Important said...

That's true, I forgot about that! I guess their goal was only to demonstrate that the WaPo is biased against conservatives and has a lower standard of evidence for accusations against them, not that this mode of prosecuting sexual harassment is sub-optimal.

Emily Hale said...

It did do something to calm my fears about sexual harassment allegations being made up! But yes.

Alex said...

Didn't Evergreen State basically do the work of creating an object lesson, without any conservative students having to get involved?

If conservative students try to create an object lesson in the dangers of lefty principles, they'll be accused of deliberately misapplying the principles, or not being true Scotsmen, or something. So it won't be taken seriously. If lefty students create an object lesson, it's treated as a one-off anecdote, not representative. And if conservative students try half-heartedly, like with affirmative action bake sales, they come across as provocateurs rather than people offering object lessons with real applicability.

I think we're stuck with this nonsense.

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't know if Evergreen State is what I have in mind. If everyone is liberal and a few people pull a stunt that's a bit too far left for the median campus leftist, it tends to have the effect of getting everyone on campus to soul-search about whether they need to move farther too, and then agree that yes, they should. But what I'm imagining would just be enacting broadly accepted principles on a wider scale. What if half a school changed their genders, how would that effect campus life? What if some women accused an entire academic department of harassment?

It's true that the sincerity of conservative students doing something like this would be suspect, but it's harder to dismiss these sorts of things out of hand than the affirmative action bake sale. The affirmative action bake sale is about abstract ideas of justice affecting other people, but these are the sorts of things whose validity is largely based on self-reporting. My experiences are what I say they are, regardless of my partisan sympathies. Conservatives can get harassed, can be trans, etc.

I mean, this is obviously a kind of provocation and there are obvious reasons not to do this. Serious people have reputations to maintain, and these kinds of shenanigans are not well-received by older reputation-minders who control The Good Jobs. But that's obviously not as strong a motivation for some college students as for the average adult. And even as a semi-serious person, I'm kind of curious about how this would turn out. What would happen to a community (even a distorted one like a university) if half the students changed genders, or started accusing every man who's ever made them feel even a little bit uncomfortable of harassment? Deep inside of me, there lives a very small chaos demon.

Alex said...

Well, at a minimum you need critical mass, i.e. it has to go way beyond the Executive Board of the College Republicans chapter.

Harassment accusations would not be a good testing ground. For starters, one needn't completely dismiss due process as white cisheteropatriarchy to agree that there are genuinely good reasons to treat harassment victims with some degree of deference. So a shenanigan along the lines of "We are all making this accusation and don't you dare ask any hard questions!" would be immediately seen as an attempt to trample over something that springs from an understandable and sympathetic motive.

In the case of transgender students, one needn't buy the most radical critiques of the gender binary to sympathize with the idea that some people were probably born with minds that really match up better with the other 50% of the population, and regard people in that unfortunate situation with a degree of pity and protectiveness. Of course, if we pushed too hard on that idea we might end up asking uncomfortable questions about how mental traits and proclivities are distributed among XX and XY individuals, and whether certain behavioral tendencies have (on average!) different frequencies among XX and XY individuals, and that could take us to all sorts of places that the more radical gender theorists do NOT want to go to. But if we refrain from pushing too hard, and instead just stick to basic sympathies that many decent people hold, you can look at trans students as unfortunate people who are trying to cope with a serious mismatch in the cards they were dealt. In that case, people who make disingenuous use of that sympatahy would be viewed as fundamentally dishonest and indecent.

In fact, I think that pushing on these hypotheticals shows us the real root of a lot of campus cultural extremism: Start with an idea that appeals to some pretty understandable sympathies, and the people who know how to play off those sympathies can get away with a lot. Anyone who can't credibly cast their actions as being in alignment with the underlying sympathies will be regarded with disgust, no matter how much they adhere to the surface trappings of the idea being critiqued.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, yes, that's what I meant by bad faith and its condemnation. But if bad faith is really so difficult to muster, then what's the point of all these articles claiming that now anyone can ruin a reputation (and career) just by lodging an accusation? Or everyone will claim to identify as a potato? That can't be true if a large number of people are unwilling to act in bad faith, so there ought to be nothing to worry about except accommodating the honest people who come forward.

As for the problem of past sympathies, I doubt that past affiliations are as damning as you think. Even the fully sincere in all such cases have admitted to believing very different things about themselves in the past and only recently coming to understand themselves or their past experiences correctly. It has to be possible to become woke.

Alex said...

Maybe the people most willing to act in bad faith are the ones who believe that they are likely to get away with it. And the ones who are most likely to get away with it are the ones who have credibly demonstrated that they are woke BEFORE identifying as a potato or lodging a false complaint or whatever. Bad faith can lurk under an appearance of sincere belief, but most people can't pull off the act.

So maybe what we have here is a set of tools that are hard to abuse but are slightly easier for one side to abuse, hence the gap in how much people worry about abuses of those tools.

Alex said...

Another way to look at it might be that while the literal assertions of the left are for very broad acceptance of people's claims ("Believe all women!" "Accept all identities!"), in practice they DON'T (and shouldn't!) believe all such claims without question. In practice they keep certain heuristics in place to filter out bad faith, and there's nothing a priori wrong with that. There is something wrong with putting too much of an ideological/partisan filter on who gets believed, but that problem is mitigated by the fact that certain bad faith claims are more likely to come from certain camps. ("Oh yeah? Well, I'll show you! I now identify as a purple yam! AND YOU HAVE TO ACCEPT IT!" is not the sort of thing that a committed gender studies major is likely to say. At least not without several chapters of jargon-laden autoethnography explaining how they came to that sort of identification. Which is just another way of demonstrating committment in order to get past the bad faith filter.)

But the bigger problem is not that somebody can't successfully troll them by posing as a purple yam. The bigger problem is that they've made themselves more vulnerable to pathological liars rather than less vulnerable. They've proclaimed themselves open to certain claims coming from sympathetic directions, and somewhere out there a kindred of Jackie from UVA is getting ready to have some fun with #MeToo. Most people won't go there (and thank God for that) but these ideologies mean that those who are willing to go there will have soft targets to choose amongst.

Miss Self-Important said...

All this is very true and explains the phenomenon of the self-inflicted hate crime, almost always committed by the long-woke. But if that's the only problem with their logic, that it opens the door a bit wider for Jackies and other lone wolf hoaxers, whose universal effect is to re-confirm everyone in their previous opinions with no further consequences, then effectively, it is no problem at all. Do we even need legal protections like due process if the only people who will come forward with credible claims of harassment are real victims and occasional pathological liars whose stories will disintegrate under the lightest questioning? If so, there really is no problem (or only a very minor one) with the left framework. We really SHOULD just believe.

But I think a lot more people could pull off the act, and not for pathologically narcissistic reasons, but for fun, the satisfaction of being right, and personal benefit. The moral imperative to believe and the epistemic desire for confirmation of one's ideas are presently very strong, possibly strong enough to overwhelm the usual bad faith filters. At the very least, let it be tried, and then we shall see!

educatedwhinge said...

The thing about all these extreme proposals is that they're governed by a set of unwritten rules. For example, there is a stated rule about 'asking people their pronouns', but if you spend time on the far left it's clear that this rule only applies to weird looking or androgynous people. In all my years in places with this rule, nobody ever asked me. Why would they? They knew the big rule wasn't universal.

In the same way, pretty much every rule gets tossed out the window if the rule breaker is black or an immigrant or something. People just look down at their feet awkwardly and pretend the rule wasn't broken. So if I were to walk around insisting that I'm a woman, nobody would play along because I lack the subcultural/political signals (or protected class membership) required to trigger the unwritten rules.

It's also more or less known that all of these extreme proposals exist primarily to attack political enemies or rivals. They're not for general use. If you're considered politically important or useful, you can get away with almost anything, at least until someone guns for your position.

educatedwhinge said...

There is an unspoken demand for plausibility is most cases - except accusations of racism or transphobia, in which case anything goes (but now with diminishing returns).

Miss Self-Important said...

Ok, so this is also true, like Alex's point. But let me try to reformulate my objection to what you're both saying: there are purely social rules and practices of subcultures, including not taking a bearded man seriously if he suddenly claims to be a woman, but what is happening now is that these subcultures are asking for the social rules to be codified into institutional rules. It's not, hey, you identify as a different gender and we, your friends, recognize and support you. It's that the institutions of education, employment, and the government must do the same. Or, 'you're a sketchy creepy dude and my friends and I will consequently socially ostracize you' has become 'you're a sketchy creepy dude so employers will ostracize you.'

But, institutions cannot function like social groups, which have wide discretion in deciding whether they'll take your claim to be a woman seriously. If you tell your university that you are a woman, it can't challenge you for bad faith in the same ways that your friends can. It has to follow universal rules, and institutional procedures are especially bad at establishing individual sincerity. If you say to your professors or coworkers, "Please henceforth refer to me as she," it would be inappropriate for them to respond, "No! You're obviously a man!"

So given this shift in authority from social group to institution, initiated by the left, wouldn't a large-scale bad faith effort still have something of its desired social effect just by working through institutions, even if lots of fellow students remain skeptical of its sincerity? In other words, if I am your classmate, I may doubt that you really believe yourself to be female, and yet even I am constrained in my ability to tell you so or treat you as not-female (say, by demanding you exit the women's restroom) because you will be protected from such treatment by the institution. Same for the harassment allegations - there are procedures in place that require all allegations to be taken seriously, even if they come from people of ill-repute (conservatives, say), and it would appear grossly unfair if the usual interim measure (forced leave from work, no-contact orders, etc) were not taken in your case based on your identity as an accuser.

educatedwhinge said...

But the leftist identity movement is totalitarian (in Arendt's sense). It's not concerned with law or procedure but with crushing political enemies, even if it occasionally demands changes in rules or laws. There's a tacit assumption that they will not be enforced equally.

For example, someone tested out the 'you must bake the cake' rule by asking a gay-owned bakery to make a cake with the lines from Leviticus denouncing sodomy. The bakery refused, and the Bible quoting cake buyer sued in whatever kangaroo court you sue people in for not baking you a cake. The case was tossed out, and nobody cared. It was never about cakes or weddings but about crushing a political enemy - Christians, in this case. The "human rights commission" rules however it needs to, regardless of the regulations on the books.

So people are doing just what you ask all the time, and it never sticks.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ok, but what exactly is a university going to say when you show up to the dean's office asking to have your official sex changed in university records? Or when you file a harassment allegation at the Title IX office? No, I'm sorry, but I heard that you're a conservative so you couldn't possibly be trans or a victim of harassment?

Alex said...

Universities have to follow policies until they don't. If a handful of people abuse a policy without attracting too much attention, they'll get away with it. If a handful abuse it with the goal of getting attention, the institution will try to come up with some clumsy solutions that makes the problem go away sooner rather than later. If a large number of people abuse a policy with the goal of drawing attention to the policy's problems, a "good faith" clause will be added. And they'll get away with it because the policy was put in place because it was popular with the people whose support matters to the policy-makers, and the policy-makers are not going to let the policy be used in ways that are consistent with the letter of the law but not the intent.

Sure, requiring demonstrations of good faith or whatever will aggravate the people for whom the policy was put in place, but they'll also know that it's a consequence of the people who abused the policy. The blame will be deflected.

How that "good faith" requirement plays out depends on the policy. In the case of gender, if a bunch of men declared that they are women and want to shower in the women's locker room, a devious administrator (a rare breed, but they can be used when needed) would find ways to make demonstrations of good faith embarassing for most of the men involved in this challenge. Only the most committed would go through with it. So, for the most part, self-professed identity claims would only make headway among people who feel a serious mismatch between the chromosomes they were born with and the brain they developed. The basic intent of the policies would thus be honored, but the most radical edges would be sanded off.

In the case of sexual assault, a "good faith" policy might be quite constructive. Accusers might be asked for sworn affadavits, corroborating evidence, etc. Serious allegations would thus only make headway when there's either evidence or an accuser who's willing to stake their reputation on the claim.

The more I think about it, the more I like it. The problem is that this is dangerous for the first few people who start it, and only safe once a critical mass is reached.

Miss Self-Important said...

So if all this were to happen, wouldn't the bad-faith trolls effectively win? The objection (conservative but also liberal, in the two essays I linked in the post) is to being required to take seriously unfalsifiable assertions about people's identities and experiences b/c such assertions would be untenable if made on a big enough scale. So the addition of something like good faith policies is an admission that they are indeed untenable, and we must raise our standards for what can be taken seriously to only those assertions that can be backed up or pass some test of credibility.

Alex said...


Problem is, I have a mortgage. I'll troll if everyone else is, but I won't be the first troll to charge the admins. And that's why this won't happen, even though it would work if it did.

Miss Self-Important said...

That's why I propose that family-less, mortgage-free college students undertake it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that the #MeToo movement is completely different from McCarthyism in that no senators are being asked to resign this time around before they get a fair ethics committee hearing or trial by jury.