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Jordan Peterson and other public intellectuals

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David Brooks writes,

In his videos, he analyzes classic and biblical texts, he eviscerates identity politics and political correctness and, most important, he delivers stern fatherly lectures to young men on how to be honorable, upright and self-disciplined — how to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives.

I have a few reasons for being less than fully bought into Peterson.

1. He is a spellbinding speaker but his first book, Maps of Meaning, was turgid. There is something disconcerting about the fact that his ideas seem to come across better in a format that allows for less editorial polishing. I noted this in December of 2016, when the Peterson tsunami was just forming.

2. Some of his ideas are mystical and sound really strange.

3. He gains some of his stature by attacking post-modernists who are intellectual weak, at least in the way that he presents them. For me, it is more impressive to take on stronger opponents than weaker ones.

He may now be over-rated by his fans on the right. But he is badly, badly, under-rated by smug leftists whose ability to understand opposing viewpoints pales in comparison with his.

Using the three-axes model, I put Peterson firmly in the conservative camp. He sees civilization as fragile and precious, and he is animated by the civilization vs. barbarism axis.

Rather than propose a list of public intellectuals that I think are influential, or important, or prominent, let me just list a few public intellectuals that I admire and trust, in the sense that I think that they really try to be careful to honor opposing viewpoints and try to avoid committing intellectual swindles.

–Jeffrey Friedman. Does he even count as a public intellectual? He is an intellectual, all right, but his writing is often steeped in academic jargon, and he is not a familiar figure, even to the highly-educated portion of the public. His journal, Critical Review, has pieces written by top minds, and yet his own contributions often tower over theirs.

–Steven Pinker. You can get a better education in the humanities by reading The Blank Slate than by taking any freshman humanities course at any university, I would bet.

–Tyler Cowen. Tyler has an unmatched ability to offer ideas that are surprising and original. He takes risks, sort of like an intellectual venture capitalist, if you will. Some of these start-ups don’t make it, but he picks enough winners to more than make up for the failures.

Friedman, Pinker, and Cowen all stand out for being non-tribal or even counter-tribal. They challenge and annoy their most likely allies, rather than offering a steady diet of reinforcement and comfort.

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14 days ago
Most of the criticism of Peterson would be moot if people remembered that he is a *psychologist*.
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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Conflict Vs. Mistake

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Jacobite – which is apparently still a real magazine and not a one-off gag making fun of Jacobin – summarizes their article Under-Theorizing Government as “You’ll never hear the terms ‘principal-agent problem,’ ‘rent-seeking,’ or ‘aligning incentives’ from socialists. That’s because they expect ideology to solve all practical considerations of governance.”

There have been some really weird and poorly-informed socialist critiques of public choice theory lately, and this article generalizes from those to a claim that Marxists just don’t like considering the hard technical question of how to design a good government. This would explain why their own governments so often fail. Also why, whenever existing governments are bad, Marxists immediately jump to the conclusion that they must be run by evil people who want them to be bad on purpose.

In trying to think of how a Marxist might respond to this attack, I thought of commenter no_bear_so_low’s conflict vs. mistake dichotomy (itself related to the three perspectives of sociology). To massively oversimplify:

Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.

Mistake theorists view debate as essential. We all bring different forms of expertise to the table, and once we all understand the whole situation, we can use wisdom-of-crowds to converge on the treatment plan that best fits the need of our mutual patient, the State. Who wins on any particular issue is less important creating an environment where truth can generally prevail over the long term.

Conflict theorists view debate as having a minor clarifying role at best. You can “debate” with your boss over whether or not you get a raise, but only with the shared understanding that you’re naturally on opposite sides, and the “winner” will be based less on objective moral principles than on how much power each of you has. If your boss appeals too many times to objective moral principles, he’s probably offering you a crappy deal.

Mistake theorists treat different sides as symmetrical. There’s the side that wants to increase the interest rate, and the side that wants to decrease it. Both sides have about the same number of people. Both sides include some trustworthy experts and some loudmouth trolls. Both sides are equally motivated by trying to get a good economy. The only interesting difference is which one turns out (after all the statistics have been double-checked and all the relevant points have been debated) to be right about the matter at hand.

Conflict theorists treat the asymmetry of sides as their first and most important principle. The Elites are few in number, but have lots of money and influence. The People are many but poor – yet their spirit is indomitable and their hearts are true. The Elites’ strategy will always be to sow dissent and confusion; the People’s strategy must be to remain united. Politics is won or lost by how well each side plays its respective hand.

Mistake theorists love worrying about the complicated and paradoxical effects of social engineering. Did you know that anti-drug programs in school actually increase drug use? Did you know that many studies find raising the minimum wage hurts the poor? Did you know that executing criminals actually costs more money than imprisoning them for life? This is why we can’t trust our intuitions about policy, and we need to have lots of research and debate, and eventually trust what the scientific authorities tell us.

Conflict theorists think this is more often a convenient excuse than a real problem. The Elites get giant yachts, and the People are starving to death on the streets. And as soon as somebody says that maybe we should take a little bit of the Elites’ money to feed the People, some Elite shill comes around with a glossy PowerPoint presentation explaining why actually this would cause the Yellowstone supervolcano to erupt and kill everybody. And just enough People believe this that nobody ever gets around to achieving economic justice, and the Elites buy even bigger yachts, and the People keep starving.

Mistake theorists think you can save the world by increasing intelligence. You make technocrats smart enough to determine the best policy. You make politicians smart enough to choose the right technocrats and implement their advice effectively. And you make voters smart enough to recognize the smartest politicians and sweep them into office.

Conflict theorists think you can save the world by increasing passion. The rich and powerful win because they already work together effectively; the poor and powerless will win only once they unite and stand up for themselves. You want activists tirelessly informing everybody of the important causes that they need to fight for. You want community organizers forming labor unions or youth groups. You want protesters ready on short notice whenever the enemy tries to pull a fast one. And you want voters show up every time, and who know which candidates are really fighting for the people vs. just astroturfed shills.

For a mistake theorist, passion is inadequate or even suspect. Wrong people can be just as loud as right people, sometimes louder. If two doctors are debating the right diagnosis in a difficult case, and the patient’s crazy aunt hires someone to shout “IT’S LUPUS!” really loud in front of their office all day, that’s not exactly helping matters. If a group of pro-lupus protesters block the entry to the hospital and refuse to let any of the staff in until the doctors agree to diagnose lupus, that’s a disaster. All that passion does is use pressure or even threats to introduce bias into the important work of debate and analysis.

For a conflict theorist, intelligence is inadequate or even suspect. It doesn’t take a supergenius to know that poor farm laborers working twelve hour days in the scorching heat deserve more than a $9/hour minimum wage when the CEO makes $9 million. The supergenius is the guy with the PowerPoint presentation saying this will make the Yellowstone supervolcano erupt.

Mistake theorists think that free speech and open debate are vital, the most important things. Imagine if your doctor said you needed a medication from Pfizer – but later you learned that Pfizer owned the hospital, and fired doctors who prescribed other companies’ drugs, and that the local medical school refused to teach anything about non-Pfizer medications, and studies claiming Pfizer medications had side effects were ruthlessly suppressed. It would be a total farce, and you’d get out of that hospital as soon as possible into one that allowed all viewpoints.

Conflict theorists think of free speech and open debate about the same way a 1950s Bircher would treat avowed Soviet agents coming into neighborhoods and trying to convince people of the merits of Communism. Or the way the average infantryman would think of enemy planes dropping pamphlets saying “YOU CANNOT WIN, SURRENDER NOW”. Anybody who says it’s good to let the enemy walk in and promote enemy ideas is probably an enemy agent.

Mistake theorists think it’s silly to complain about George Soros, or the Koch brothers. The important thing is to evaluate the arguments; it doesn’t matter who developed them.

Conflict theorists think that stopping George Soros / the Koch brothers is the most important thing in the world. Also, they’re going to send me angry messages saying I’m totally unfair to equate righteous crusaders for the People like George Soros / the Koch brothers with evil selfish arch-Elites like the Koch brothers / George Soros.

Mistake theorists think racism is a cognitive bias. White racists have mistakenly inferred that black people are dumber or more criminal. Mistake theorists find narratives about racism useful because they’re a sort of ur-mistake that helps explain how people could make otherwise inexplicable mistakes, like electing Donald Trump or opposing [preferred policy].

Conflict theorists think racism is a conflict between races. White racists aren’t suffering from a cognitive bias, and they’re not mistaken about anything: they’re correct that white supremacy puts them on top, and hoping to stay there. Conflict theorists find narratives about racism useful because they help explain otherwise inexplicable alliances, like why working-class white people have allied with rich white capitalists.

When mistake theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it gives too much power to the average person – who isn’t very smart, and who tends to do things like vote against carbon taxes because they don’t believe in global warming. They fantasize about a technocracy in which informed experts can pursue policy insulated from the vagaries of the electorate.

When conflict theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it doesn’t give enough power to the average person – special interests can buy elections, or convince representatives to betray campaign promises in exchange for cash. They fantasize about a Revolution in which their side rises up, destroys the power of the other side, and wins once and for all.

Mistake theorists think a Revolution is stupid. After the proletariat (or the True Patriotic Americans, or whoever) have seized power, they’re still faced with the same set of policy problems we have today, and no additional options. Communism is intellectually bankrupt since it has no good policy prescriptions for a communist state. If it did have good policy prescriptions for a communist state, we could test and implement those policies now, without a revolution. Karl Marx could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by being Bernie Sanders instead.

Conflict theorists think a technocracy is stupid. Whatever the right policy package is, the powerful will never let anyone implement it. Either they’ll bribe the technocrats to parrot their own preferences, or they’ll prevent their recommendations from carrying any force. The only way around this is to organize the powerless to defeat the powerful by force – after which a technocracy will be unnecessary. Bernie Sanders could have saved himself a lot of trouble by realizing everything was rigged against him from the start and becoming Karl Marx.

Mistake theorists naturally think conflict theorists are making a mistake. On the object level, they’re not smart enough to realize that new trade deals are for the good of all, or that smashing the state would actually lead to mass famine and disaster. But on the more fundamental level, the conflict theorists don’t understand the Principle of Charity, or Hanlon’s Razor of “never attribute to malice what can be better explained by stupidity”. They’re stuck at some kind of troglodyte first-square-of-the-glowing-brain-meme level where they think forming mobs and smashing things can solve incredibly complicated social engineering problems. The correct response is to teach them Philosophy 101.

(This is the Jacobite article above. It accuses Marxists of just not understanding the relevant theories. It’s saying that there’s all this great academic work about how to design a government, and Marxists are too stupid to look into it. It’s so easy to picture one doctor savaging another: “Did you even bother to study Ingerstein’s latest paper on neuroimmunology before you inflicted your idiotic opinions about this case on us?”)

Conflict theorists naturally think mistake theorists are the enemy in their conflict. On the object level, maybe they’re directly working for the Koch Brothers or the American Enterprise Institute or whoever. But on the more fundamental level, they’ve become part of a class that’s more interested in protecting its own privileges than in helping the poor or working for the good of all. The best that can be said about the best of them is that they’re trying to protect their own neutrality, unaware that in the struggle between the powerful and the powerless neutrality always favors the powerful. The correct response is to crush them.

What would the conflict theorist argument against the Jacobite piece look like? Take a second to actually think about this. Is it similar to what I’m writing right now – an explanation of conflict vs. mistake theory, and a defense of how conflict theory actually describes the world better than mistake theory does?

No. It’s the Baffler’s article saying that public choice theory is racist, and if you believe it you’re a white supremacist. If this wasn’t your guess, you still don’t understand that conflict theorists aren’t mistake theorists who just have a different theory about what the mistake is. They’re not going to respond to your criticism by politely explaining why you’re incorrect.

Is this uncharitable? I’m not sure. There’s a meta-level problem in trying to understand the position “don’t try to understand other positions and engage with them on their own terms” and engage with it on its own terms. If you succeed, you’ve failed, and if you fail, you’ve succeeded. I am pretty sure it would be wrong to “steelman” conflict theory into a nice cooperative explanation of how we all need to join together, realize that conflict theory is objectively the correct way to think, and then use this insight to help cure our mutual patient, the State.

So if this model has any explanatory power, what do we do with it?

Consider a further distinction between easy and hard mistake theorists. Easy mistake theorists think that all our problems come from very stupid people making very simple mistakes; dumb people deny the evidence about global warming; smart people don’t. Hard mistake theorists think that the questions involved are really complicated and require more evidence than we’ve been able to collect so far – the weird morass of conflicting minimum wage studies is a good example here. Obviously some questions are easier than others, but the disposition to view questions as hard or easy in general seems to separate into different people and schools of thought.

(Maybe there’s a further distinction between easy and hard conflict theorists. Easy conflict theorists think that all our problems come from cartoon-villain caricatures wanting very evil things; bad people want to kill brown people and steal their oil, good people want world peace and tolerance. Hard conflict theorists think that our problems come from clashes between differing but comprehensible worldviews – for example, people who want to lift people out of poverty through spreading modern efficient egalitarian industrial civilization, versus people who want to preserve traditional cultures with all their thorns and prickles. Obviously some moral conflicts are more black-and-white than others, but again, some people seem more inclined than others to use one of these models.)

This blog has formerly been Hard Mistake Theory Central, except that I think I previously treated conflict theorists as making an Easy Mistake. I think I was really doing the “I guess you don’t understand Philosophy 101 and realize everyone has to be charitable to each other” thing. This was wrong of me. I don’t know how excusable it was and I’m interested in seeing how many comments here are “This is super obvious” vs. “I never thought about this consciously and I think I’ve just been misunderstanding other people as behaving inexplicably badly my whole life”. But people have previously noticed that this blog is good at attracting representation from all across the political spectrum except Marxists. Maybe that’s related to treating every position except theirs with respect, and appreciating conflict theory better would fix that. I don’t know. It could be worth a shot.

Right now I think conflict theory is probably a less helpful way of viewing the world in general than mistake theory. But obviously both can be true in parts and reality can be way more complicated than either. Maybe some future posts on this, which would have to explore issues like normative vs. descriptive, where tribalism fits in here, and “the myth of the rational voter”. But overall I’m less sure of myself than before and think this deserves more treatment as a hard case that needs to be argued in more specific situations. Certainly “everyone in government is already a good person, and just has to be convinced of the right facts” is looking less plausible these days. At the very least, if I want to convince other people to my position here, I actually have to convince them – instead of using the classic Easy Mistake Theorist tactic of “smh that people still believe this stuff in the Year Of Our Lord 2018” repeated over and over again.

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23 days ago
"If this wasn’t your guess, you still don’t understand that conflict theorists aren’t mistake theorists who just have a different theory about what the mistake is. They’re not going to respond to your criticism by politely explaining why you’re incorrect."

I'd say he needs to go look at Kling's three frameworks, particularly "Oppressor vs. Oppressed", or Jon Haidt's Moral Foundations, particularly Fairness and Harm. They all describe the "Conflict" view less dramatically.
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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Classic Government Economics: Subsidize Demand, Restrict Supply.

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Name the field:  Housing, education, health care.  In most any industry you can name, the sum of the government's interventions tend to subsidize demand and restrict supply.  In health care for example, programs like Medicaid, Obamacare, Medicare, and others subsidize demand while physician licensing, long drug approvals and prescription requirements, certificates of need, etc restrict supply.

If you are wondering why, it turns out that most government regulatory processes are captured by current incumbents, who work to get the government to subsidize customers to buy their product or service while simultaneously having the government block upstart competitors, either foreign or domestic.  For example in housing, existing homeowners form a powerful lobby that limits housing supply through restrictive zoning while demanding that the government subsidize mortgage interest (as well as low-cost mortgage programs) and give special tax treatment to capital gains from homes.   The result in every industry is supply shortages and rising prices.

Yesterday, we saw another classic example.  Federal, state and local governments have spent billions of dollars over the last decades subsidizing solar panel installations in homes and businesses.  But now, they are also simultaneously restricting the supply of solar panels:

President Donald Trump is once again burnishing his protectionist bona fides by slapping imported solar cells and washing machines with 30% tariffs - his most significant action taking aim at the world's second-largest economy since he ordered an investigation into Chinese IP practices that could result in tariffs.

Acting on recommendations from US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Trump imposed the sliding tariffs. Solar imports will face a 30% tarifffor the first year, then the tariff will decline to 15% by the fourth year.It also exempts the first 2.5 gigawatts of imported cells and modules, according to Bloomberg.

And... who would have guessed that Elon Musk would be on the receiving end of another government crony handout?  The patron saint of subsidy consumption will get yet another, as Tesla's solar city is currently building a large domestic panel manufacturing plant, an investment decision that makes little sense without tariff protection.

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24 days ago
"who would have guessed that Elon Musk would be on the receiving end of another government crony handout? The patron saint of subsidy consumption will get yet another, as Tesla's solar city is currently building a large domestic panel manufacturing plant, an investment decision that makes little sense without tariff protection.
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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Privilege Checking the Privilege Checkers

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Having the privilege conversation is itself an expression of privilege. … It’s not just that commenting online about privilege – or any other topic – suggests leisure time. It’s also that the vocabulary of ‘privilege’ is learned at liberal-arts colleges or in highbrow publications.
~ Phoebe Maltz Bovy, “Checking Privilege Checking,” The Atlantic

All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it.
~ Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

A couple of years ago, while studying law in western Canada, I took a political science course on environmental issues taught by a renowned professor. Having become alarmed at the lack of legal protections for the environment, I hoped to learn more about the politics behind such flagrant and pervasive oversights.

Unfortunately, the class was a bust. Instead of analyzing political thought and behaviour related to our current ecological crisis, the course taught a strange blend of self-help and pseudoscience. We “learned” that atoms have free will, that the Earth purposefully maintains conditions conducive to life, that modern science is naïvely reductionist and therefore urgently in need of a paradigm shift, and that Francis Bacon was one of the main architects behind the modern disconnect from nature.

As I listened to students uncritically accepting these ideas, I grew increasingly concerned with the current state of the social sciences. At the same time, however, I became intrigued by the peculiar tone of the classroom discussion. Rather than simply offering comments – as was common in my law classes and, indeed, most of life – students frequently prefaced their opinions by first acknowledging their privileged status as educated Westerners. While it’s laudable to recognize the role that luck plays in success and in defining worldviews, the semester-long repetition of the phrase “Speaking from a position of privilege” quickly got annoying. By the end of the first seminar, it was clear that we all recognized our privilege. By the end of the semester, I was not sure why we had to keep bringing it up.

That said, even though these declarations of privilege were unnecessary and irritating, I figured that they were the product of an unimpeachable moral intuition. After all, if more of us could recognize that our good fortune in life is largely accidental, we’d be more open to helping others and less likely to think ourselves superior. When people cannot spot their privilege, they often succumb to inflated egos and a sense of conceit, thinking that their success is due solely to their own efforts. So, although we were sitting around indulging in pseudoscience and loose talk about how to salvage the environment, at least we weren’t being smug about it. We could acknowledge that much of our lot in life is no testament to our rectitude, just a result of arbitrary good fortune.

However, as time has passed and I’ve encountered acknowledgements of privilege both on and off campus, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend. More often than not, when someone affirms their privilege or points out the privilege of others, they do so in a way that betrays an utter cluelessness about that very privilege. “Privilege talk” is regularly accompanied by hypocritical accusations, outrage over trivialities, and uncritical hatred of important modern institutions, which are attitudes that would neither exist nor be tolerated but for the privilege that we all enjoy. When someone says, “Speaking from a position of privilege,” it’s a safe bet that what follows will display an indifference to their privilege (or even an implication that it’s some kind of burden), which, of course, is an attitude only a very privileged person could hold.

Sadly, the pernicious ironies of privilege talk are generally lost on those who claim to be most aware of privilege. Moral indignation has a way of obscuring sober reasoning, and those who speak of privilege are often primed (by professors, peers, and media) to actively seek out moral transgressions. As such, many backwards beliefs and harmful attitudes have found a toehold amongst “privileged” millennials, who presume their views to be self-evidently righteous and thus not up for debate. Many of these views, were they to become widespread, would lead to the destruction of the privileges that we in the developed world are so fortunate to enjoy. These include free expression, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly, the rule of law, and ongoing efforts to judge people not by their phenotype but rather by their actions.

If we hope to maintain our privileges – and work towards securing them for others – we must be aware of the bad ideas that threaten them. Paying lip service to privilege is an empty gesture if we don’t first appreciate the reasons it exists. As we accrue privilege, these reasons become less obvious: few people are eternally grateful for anaesthesia, eyeglasses, vaccines, an impartial judiciary, building codes, or a strong economy. But if we were to lose any of these, they would be widely and sorely missed. By ignoring or downplaying how privilege comes to exist, we risk losing the habits, knowledge, and institutions that support our high standard of living.

Many of the ideas that accompany privilege talk, if implemented, would wreak havoc on human wellbeing. If people truly acknowledged their privilege, they would show a greater concern for the forces behind it, which permit them to lead long, healthy, educated, leisure-filled lives, all the while incessantly complaining about the unadulterated evils of modern civilization.

So, when people claim to be “checking their privilege,” I propose that they put in a more genuine effort to really do so. To honestly acknowledge privilege requires balanced critical thought, the ability to self-reflect, and a willingness to converse with those who disagree. Without these traits, we’d have no privilege whatsoever and might as well give up on the entire human experiment.

With that in mind, let’s consider some views espoused by those who routinely clear their throats with professions and confessions of privilege, to see how they belie the pretence of genuine understanding.

1. Words as Violence

Many will equate words with violence, claiming that harsh criticism and invective are akin to physical abuse. According to this view, violence may be inflicted upon a person merely by offending them. Anyone who claims to believe this, despite never having experienced actual fist-in-their-face, gun-at-their-back, war-in-their-streets physical violence, may need to check their privilege.

Where words offer direct calls to violence, the distinction between the two can become hazy. But in most other instances it’s irresponsible to pretend that words are on par with violence. Words, when used competently, are the tools that allow us to avoid violence. They are our only other means of persuasion. Although words can cause hurt feelings and stress responses, their negative effects generally pale in comparison to the harms wrought by physical violence. And since how we think about things influences how we feel about them, the belief that words are violence is likely to produce greater hurt feelings and stress responses, thus hindering words’ ability to defuse tense situations.

Furthermore, if we tear down the distinction between words and violence, then why not simply use violence to solve our problems as a first rather than a last resort?

2. Scientism

The privilege-conscious will sometimes declare modern science to be a power structure that arbitrarily promotes the views and practices of today’s dominant culture. In essence, they think of science as a narrative produced by Western elites that, while influential, is no more reliable than folk wisdom. It is only preferred because it reinforces a white patriarchal monopoly on our view of truth.

Anyone who has never had to undergo surgery without anaesthesia, has safely flown across the world to escape the cold of their local winter, and carries the luxuries of telecommunications in their pocket, but believes the scientific method to be the reprehensible instrument of a white male conspiracy keeping minorities in bondage and cleaving us from nature, should probably check their privilege.

There are better and worse ways of pursuing truth. The worse ways are the most intuitive, so come naturally to every culture that has ever existed (including our own). Humans are naturally disposed to describe nature by appeals to anthropomorphism and teleology, despite the fact that the natural world is neither human-like nor purpose-driven. Fortunately, we’ve uncovered methods that allow people of any skin colour, culture, or identity to discover more accurate ways of thinking about reality. These methods (and the knowledge and understanding they uncover) are what we call science. Science is one of the few social endeavours that produces identical results regardless of the identity of the people involved. In this way, it approximates the egalitarian ideals (justifiably) cherished by those on the political Left.

Even if white men happen to have greater access to science than others, this is no reason to dismiss or denigrate science – rather, it’s a reason to promote science more broadly so that people of all identities can take part in our best efforts to describe reality.

3. Capitalism & Freedom

Venezuela, 2014

Many of the most privilege-conscious see capitalism as an evil economic regime and think of freedom only as a propaganda term thrown about by neoconservatives. To them, capitalism is the bogeyman hiding behind all of our societal ills, and freedom is an ideal used purely to justify global abuse. If someone lives in a country graced by low levels of poverty, legitimate democratic elections, and a press that publicizes the plight of the governed, yet they wish to abolish markets and live in something more akin to a Communist state, they should check their privilege.

It has become a progressive cliché to say that North America needs to replace the free market with a socialist model in the vein of the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland). Somehow, this notion has spread despite the fact that these countries have actually embraced free market capitalism. Much of their economic and political success flows from their commitment to private property and free markets. The strong social safety net and renowned public services of the Nordic countries exist alongside, not instead of, the capitalist paradigm.

By craving some sort of post-capitalist utopia, we are wasting effort on a chimera. A viable way of discarding capitalism may some day emerge, but until then we would do best to emulate societal models that have proven themselves. In our case, we should focus not on eliminating capitalism but on improving it, through wiser modes of regulation, taxation, and allocation of tax revenue.

4. Believe the Victim

Many of today’s privilege-conscious believe that when grievances are filed against white men by members of historically oppressed groups, we should unconditionally believe the alleged victims. This attitude is most visible in the furor that surrounds sexual assault trials, where some commentators suggest that unequivocal belief in victims’ claims should trump due process. If a person is lucky enough to live in a state where citizens possess the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty in a fair trial, yet they’d rather use tribal markers such as skin colour, class, or sex to determine the guilt of an accused, then they should check their privilege.

No sane person can deny that in some instances proving guilt is hard. In cases involving sexual assault, where we’re dealing with private acts and incompatible perceptions, the burden of guilt is especially difficult to satisfy. However, if we abandon due process and rely instead upon identity or gut reaction to determine a person’s guilt, we sacrifice an important bulwark against tyranny. Wherever identity – rather than the facts of a case – decides guilt or innocence, we lose the collective security of a legal system rooted in an agreed-upon reality. By removing the obligation to scrutinize evidence, we allow ourselves to operate on pre-existing prejudices, reducing our courts of law to mere kangaroo courts. A world without due process would contain far more injustice than we face today.

Although some victims fight uphill evidential battles, we cannot make a better world by ditching due process. Rather, we must find ways of accounting for the difficult burdens of proof faced by some people, while also preserving the legitimacy of the law. This approach may be less gratifying than simply Tweeting #believethevictim, but it aims to preserve civil liberties that we all – regardless of identity – should cherish.

5. Oppression in Western Civilization

Many of today’s privilege-conscious view white people and the structures of Western societies as irredeemably evil. To them, Western democratic nations are bastions of racist and sexist oppression operating under the guise of “progress.” To question the attitudes and practices of other cultures is racist, but to condemn Western society is a moral obligation. If someone (rightfully) deplores racism and sexism, yet views white males as intrinsically wicked and sees the Western pursuit of knowledge, progress, and morality as a grievous blight upon history, then they should check their privilege.

Maybe our education system has let them down, neglecting to teach them about the horrors of history and depravities of human nature faced by most people who have ever lived. Maybe the atrocities carried out by previous generations have clouded their minds with guilt, and all Western institutions now seem hopelessly tainted by association. Or maybe they’re simply the victim of a runaway negativity bias that’s been amplified by likeminded media and peer groups. Whatever the reason, people who hate the democratic and open societies that have nurtured them would do well to reconsider.

Although Western societies could be doing many things better, we can appreciate that we’re already doing many things right; compared to the Middle Ages, the Islamic world, or even our own culture fifty years ago, we are a veritable oasis of equality and potential wellbeing. If we cannot recognize our strengths, we cannot build and draw upon them to succeed. By focusing only on our weaknesses we incubate self-hatred that serves no purpose, because to correct any weakness requires the deployment of pre-existing strengths. A balanced and productive worldview must account for the bad and the good in one’s own culture.

*     *     *

Privilege brings many of the risks that come with being spoiled. Spoiled children often think themselves superior to others while failing to appreciate the full extent of their spoils. If we are not mindful, our privilege can turn us into spoiled children who care nothing for our own advantages and opportunities, yet always crave more. Unfortunately, such a mindset seems to be infecting broad swathes of the West’s most privileged millennials.

As progress comes to pass, it’s easy to take it for granted and become greedy for more. This is part of the human condition, but it’s important that we keep it in check. Many people who claim to deplore established “Western” progress nevertheless obsess over their own versions. But when we succumb to a greed for progress that’s divorced from the restraints of reality, we often overreach and cause great harm. One need not look far into the past to find under-informed yet over-eager attempts to bring about utopias that produced some of human history’s most heinous chapters.

When we truly appreciate our privilege, we understand that it contains the seeds of the progress we seek. If we cannot acknowledge that we’ve already made great strides towards high ideals like universal human rights, the elimination of poverty, and democratic equality, then we’re apt to become unduly nihilistic about Western civilization. To appreciate progress does not mean that we must think ourselves perfect, refrain from self-criticism, or settle for the status quo. It simply means that we appreciate just how far the talking, tribal apes we call human beings have come.


Tristan Flock is an engineering student and writer with a BSc and a JD. He can be followed on Twitter @tbonesbeard

The post Privilege Checking the Privilege Checkers appeared first on Quillette.

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"If we cannot acknowledge that we’ve already made great strides towards high ideals like universal human rights, the elimination of poverty, and democratic equality, then we’re apt to become unduly nihilistic about Western civilization. To appreciate progress does not mean that we must think ourselves perfect, refrain from self-criticism, or settle for the status quo. It simply means that we appreciate just how far the talking, tribal apes we call human beings have come."
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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Jordan B Peterson, Critical Theory, and the New Bourgeoisie

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Earlier this week, clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson appeared on Britain’s Channel 4 in an interview with TV journalist Cathy Newman. It didn’t go well. Journalist Douglas Murray described it as “catastrophic for the interviewer”, while author Sam Harris called it a “nearly terminal case of close-mindedness”. Sociologist Nicholas Christakis perhaps described it best:

Christakis mentions two important things about Newman. First, she seemed hostile towards Peterson, clearly going into the interview with a moral prejudice towards him. Second, she seemed unable to engage with his arguments, instead misrepresenting them (“You’re saying women aren’t intelligent enough to run top companies?”) or taking issue with them (during a conversation about unhealthy relationships, Newman asked: “What gives you the right to say that?” Answer: “I’m a clinical psychologist.”) At one point, she was rendered speechless.

It was as though she had never heard arguments like Peterson’s before, and was taken aback to discover they existed. As a presumably well-read person, why had she not been exposed to arguments like this before? The answer, I think, is that these arguments have largely been banished from contemporary mainstream news media and entertainment. Only because of Peterson’s immense grassroots success has he forced his way into the conversation, which makes it all the more awkward when an interviewer looking to put him in place ends up bewildered.

But why have these arguments been banished? The immediate answer is social pressure. As social justice advocates have come to dominate Western culture, they’ve created a situation where interlocutors are more intent on burnishing their adherence to the correct opinions than they are about discovering something new, learning the truth, or even engaging in open and reciprocal dialogue. Hollywood actors wear political slogans to awards ceremonies, comedians lecture their audiences rather than entertain them, and television hosts go into battle with their guests rather than interview them. Naturally, this has pushed out opposing voices.

But where did the social justice advocates, and their associated attitude, come from? The answer to that, I think, is academia. A recent episode, also involving Peterson, demonstrates this.

*   *   *

When Lindsay Shepherd was reprimanded last year by three Wilfrid Laurier faculty members for showing her class a video clip from a televised debate on gender pronouns, Shepherd’s professor Nathan Rambukkana wrote an apology drawing attention to his teaching style. He wrote: “[T]here is the question of teaching from a social justice perspective, which my course does attempt to do.”

When I contacted Lindsay Shepherd earlier this month, she told me that she didn’t know Rambukkana taught from an explicitly “social justice” perspective. However, after going through the syllabus, she realised he had talked about it in his Week 2 lecture, and that the reading material that week also mentioned it. Yet even then, she said, she was unaware how loaded the term “social justice” is and how it often aligns with censorship and one-sidedness. Her response when I asked her whether she recognised various social justice terms was:

My undergraduate degree is in Communication from Simon Fraser University, and the gist of my program was learning about power; mostly power as it manifests in media and media industries. I was very accustomed to talking about feminism, racism, and oppression. Less so the other terms you mention, which I only became more acquainted with in my graduate degree program, and many of them as a result of the Laurier incident — i.e. I was unaware of any substantial critique of intersectionality, gender theory, and critical theory, as we were only taught them from the “social justice perspective.”

Shepherd had lots of exposure to a social justice perspective, but only from within the perspective itself. She was taught social justice beliefs but had never been taught to critique those beliefs. When she came across a professor who did just that—Jordan Peterson—she found it interesting and new, even while disagreeing with him. (She later came to realise he may have been right about the legislation he was criticising.) So she shared a clip of the debate with her students, and only afterwards did she discover that not only are critiques of social justice not taught, they aren’t even to be acknowledged.

The methodology underpinning much of the social justice perspective is known as critical theory. What’s notable about critical theory is that it specifically distinguishes itself from ‘traditional’ theories through its emphasis on criticism. This makes the apparent unwillingness of its adherents to engage with criticism themselves especially noteworthy. When you explicitly emphasise your criticality and base your theory on a commitment to look beneath appearances and see things as they really are, you don’t get to be selectively critical. So why does this phenomenon exist?

*   *   *

Critical Theory draws heavily on Karl Marx’s notion of ideology. Because the bourgeoisie controlled the means of production, Marx suggested, they controlled the culture. Consequently, the laws, beliefs, and morality of society reflected the interests of the bourgeoisie. And importantly, people were unaware that this was the case. In other words, capitalism created a situation where the interests of a particular group of people—those who controlled society—were made to appear to be universal truths and values, when in fact they were not.

‘The Power of Critical Theory’ by Stephen D Brookfield

The founders of critical theory developed this notion. By identifying the distorting effects power had on society’s beliefs and values, they believed they could achieve a more accurate picture of the world. And when people saw things as they really were, they would liberate themselves. “Theory,” they suggested, always serves the interests of certain people; traditional theory, because it is uncritical towards power, automatically serves the powerful, while critical theory, because it unmasks these interests, serves the powerless.

All theory is political, they said, and by choosing critical theory over traditional theory one chooses to challenge the status quo, in accordance with Marx’s famous statement: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

There’s no question critical theory can be useful, and that viewing societal elements—beliefs, values, norms, institutions—through a lens of power and examining whose interests they serve can provide highly valuable insights. But as it becomes more widespread and its adherents more powerful a challenging situation emerges, because then critical theory must then be turned on itself.

And so, the question becomes: are the values and beliefs of critical theory itself universal, or are they also partial to particular interests? Superficially, it seems they’re universal. After all, the stated purpose is to use critical theory to liberate people, and how can liberation not be universal? But, of course, the whole point of critical theory, by its own admission, is to look beneath the appearance of universality and identify the power and interests that lie below.

Jordan B Peterson

Let’s return to Peterson, whose views Newman presumably wanted to discredit on air and Rambukkana was so intent on keeping out of the classroom. Peterson has been broadly critical of the social justice movement. For example, he’s criticised it for being authoritarian—including in the aforementioned instance of compelled speech for gender pronouns—and has warned about similarities to authoritarian communist regimes. But it’s more than that. Peterson has argued that it disenfranchises many people, especially men. In his view, most people find meaning in life through their participation in social structures and hierarchies. This is more than just a casual opinion; Peterson is a clinical psychologist who has also researched and published extensively on psychometrics.

Which brings us back to the question of whether critical theory and the social justice movement it has inspired, is truly promoting universal values. From a psychological perspective, illuminated through psychometrics, people differ with respect to a variety of personality traits, and therefore also with respect to the type of society they want to live in. If we’re going to talk about values, this is a good starting point. But from this perspective, it’s difficult to imagine truly universal values; some societal arrangements are inevitably going to appeal to some people more than others.

One might interpret Peterson as shedding light on this problem by pointing out that the morality of contemporary Western society, with its emphasis on equality and liberation, is acting in the service of particular psychological interests while acting against others. In other words, a similar situation to that which Marx and the original critical theorists criticised the classical liberal bourgeoisie for: presenting their own interests as universal values or truths.

Consider the concept of liberation. It’s held in society to be an unquestioned moral good, one that no reasonable person could possibly disagree with, in large part due to a variety of positive connotations. Yet, in practice, its implementation invariably involves dismantling societal structures in accord with some people’s psychological interests and in conflict with other people’s. Hence, we see conservative people feel increasingly alienated from mainstream culture, as cultural leaders systematically attack everything from sexual norms to familial structures to national identity to cultural history, ostensibly in the pursuit of liberation.

The same applies to the concept of equality. This, also, is held in contemporary society as an unquestioned moral good that no reasonable person could disagree with. In practice, though, its implementation involves removing aspects of society that involve competitiveness and status-seeking, which for some people may provide significant meaning to their lives. Or take the associated concept of gender equality. This, too, might appear unquestionable and universal. But it’s not, because its implementation disincentivises risk-taking and status-seeking, and these are especially meaningful to men.

The tensions within the concept of equality were apparent in Peterson’s interview with Newman. At 11:27 in the Channel 4 interview, she asks:

Cathy Newman: A simple question, is gender equality a myth, in your view? Is that something that’s just never going to happen?
Jordan B Peterson: It depends on what you mean by equality
CN: Being treated fairly, getting the same opportunities
JBP: Fairly, we could get to a point where people are treated fairly, or more fairly. I mean, people are treated pretty fairly in Western culture already but we can improve that
CN: But they’re really not though are they, otherwise why would there only be seven women running FTSE 100 companies in the UK? Why would there still be a paygap which we’ve discussed at length?
JBP: Oh, that’s easy
CN: Why do we have women at the BBC who are getting illegally paid, less than men? That’s not fair is it?
JBP: Well, let’s go back to the first question, they’re both complicated questions, how many women run FTSE companies?
CN: Seven women
JBP: The first question might be, why would you want to do that?
CN: Why would a man want to do that? Because there is a lot of money?
JBP: There’s a certain number of men, although not that many, who are perfectly willing to sacrifice virtually all of their life to the pursuit of a high end career. These are men that are very intelligent, they’re usually very very conscientious, they’re very driven, they’re very high energy, they’re very healthy, and they’re willing to work 70 or 80 hours a week non-stop, specialised, one-thing, to get to the top
CN: So you’re saying that women are just more sensible, they don’t want that because they want a nice life?
JBP: I’m saying that’s part of it, definitely
CN: So you don’t think there are barriers in their way to getting to the top?JBP: Oh there are some barriers, like men, for example, I mean to get to the top of any organisation is an incredibly competitive enterprise and the men that you’re competing with are simply not going to roll over and say “please take the position,” it’s absolute all-out warfare
CN: Let me come back to my question: is gender equality a myth?
JBP: I don’t know what you mean by the question, men and women aren’t the same and they won’t be the same, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be treated fairly

The simple point being made is that gender equality isn’t a neutral concept because equality isn’t gender-neutral.

This confusion, more broadly, may explain why boys and young men are now becoming increasingly alienated from the educational system. Supposedly universal values being implemented in the system are in fact not universal, but favour attributes that are more prevalent in women than in men.

Judith Butler, pioneer of Critical Theory

The identity of the group providing the intellectual foundation for both critical theory and the social justice movement are mostly white middle-and-upper-class intellectuals from the political left in advanced Western economies. It may be more illuminating to see this group’s interests as the driving force of societal change, rather than those of the ever-changing group of the powerless. In effect, the intellectuals of the political left are creating the type of society they personally want to live in. ‘The powerless’ are temporary allies on this journey.

Over the past few decades, this group has become increasingly powerful, essentially becoming a bourgeoisie much like the one Marx and the early critical theorists were criticising, and using many of the same mechanisms: suppressing criticism through control of the news media and now social media, enforcing rigid etiquette in speech and behaviour, using the education system to teach its values, and most importantly, representing its own interests as universal values and beliefs.

Peterson represents a growing group of people who are now waking up and starting to look more closely at contemporary morals, beliefs, and institutions that they had previously held beyond reproach and are now asking: “Are these things really universal or interest-neutral, and if not, whose interests are they serving and whose values do they represent?” This is a process, I think, that is inevitable.


Uri Harris is a freelance writer with a MSc in Business and Economics. He can be followed on Twitter @safeortrue

The post Jordan B Peterson, Critical Theory, and the New Bourgeoisie appeared first on Quillette.

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25 days ago

"The identity of the group providing the intellectual foundation for both critical theory and the social justice movement are mostly white middle-and-upper-class intellectuals from the political left in advanced Western economies. It may be more illuminating to see this group’s interests as the driving force of societal change, rather than those of the ever-changing group of the powerless. In effect, the intellectuals of the political left are creating the type of society they personally want to live in. ‘The powerless’ are temporary allies on this journey.

Over the past few decades, this group has become increasingly powerful, essentially becoming a bourgeoisie much like the one Marx and the early critical theorists were criticising, and using many of the same mechanisms: suppressing criticism through control of the news media and now social media, enforcing rigid etiquette in speech and behaviour, using the education system to teach its values, and most importantly, representing its own interests as universal values and beliefs."
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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Good Intentions; Bad Policy

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I learn from Scott Sumner’s blog that in many California cities, residents with past marijuana convictions will jump to the head of the line for licenses to sell the drug legally — this by way of compensating them for past persecution.

Scott approves. I don’t, for two reasons:

First, if you want to compensate people for past persecution, the right way to do it is with cash, not by misallocating productive resources. If there must be licenses, they should be allocated to those who can use them most efficiently, regardless of any past history.

Second, drug dealers have never been the primary victims of anti-drug laws. They can’t be, because there is free entry and exit from that industry. Anti-drug enforcement leads to exit, which in turn leads to higher profits for those who remain — and the exit continues until the profits are high enough to compensate for the risks. One way to think about this: All those “persecuted” drug dealers were, in effect, employing the government to stifle their competition, and paying a fair price for that privilege in the form of occasionally being convicted and punished themselves.

The primary victims of anti-drug legislation are potential consumers who were deterred by artificially high prices. How do you compensate those victims? You can’t. In a population of 1000 people who have never used drugs, it’s quite impossible to identify the 200 or 300 or 400 who would have happily indulged if only the price had been lower.

This is one more reason to be diligent against bad legislation generally. Even if you believe the legislation will eventually be repealed, attempts to compensate the victims are likely to be misdirected, misguided, and socially harmful.


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25 days ago
"This is one more reason to be diligent against bad legislation generally. Even if you believe the legislation will eventually be repealed, attempts to compensate the victims are likely to be misdirected, misguided, and socially harmful. "
Princeton, NJ or NYC
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