Tolerance and scale

Societies cannot be more tolerant than their most typical members, but individual members can choose to be more tolerant than their societies.


Losses all around

I can’t think of a single winner from the recent events in Virginia:

  •  Obviously the biggest losers are the victims who wound up dead or in the hospital. No innocent person should ever expect to meet that fate when they go out into public.
  • I’m a great admirer of Robert E. Lee, and he deserves better advocates than these autistic reactionaries whose whole world is an echo chamber on the internet. Lee’s memory has already been dragged through the mud for decades, and it fares even worse from an event like this.
  • The Alt-Right, Neo-Nazis, and the Klan are totally clueless on PR. In fact, I can’t think of a more perfect way to paint them as vile lunatics than the actions and messages they’re already propagating on their own. It’s like Conquest’s Third Law, except it’s applied to a loosey-goosey jacky-wacky internet movement instead of a bureaucracy.
  • Trump hasn’t done himself any favors here either. My most charitable interpretation is that Trump is aware that news stories almost always blame the pro-white side in a clash of any kind but then quietly reveal facts later that indicate it was the other side who was the real aggressors, so Trump wants to distinguish himself by not jumping into the fray and dogpiling on the pro-white side the way Obama did. Also, Trump is constantly attacked, viciously, by the same journalists now awaiting a statement of condemnation from him, and he might take it personally.
  • America’s race relations probably won’t unravel from this event (in fact I think they’re generally much stronger than the media would have us believe) but crap like this sure doesn’t help.

The New McCarthyism

To most people, the name Joe McCarthy is synonymous with paranoia and witch-hunts. “McCarthyism” itself has become a term to describe an organizational state in which innocent people are subjected to accusations and have their careers and lives ruined by those with a mob mentality.

Of course, there really were communists in positions of influence in McCarthy’s time, and McCarthy exposed many of them. McCarthy is so reviled today not because we are now communists (although the term “communism” has lost a bit of its sting to many people) but because his methods seem to us so out of proportion to the threat he was trying to counter. Thanks to McCarthy, someone who merely expressed reasoned and even limited criticisms of capitalism, or who merely associated with critics of capitalism, risked being brought before a tribunal and blacklisted for life as a traitor.

A succinct way to summarize a typical modern commentary on McCarthyism would be that it was the conflation of “wrong” with “evil.” It is somewhat ironic, then, that McCarthyism is perfectly encapsulated in recent events at Google, the “Don’t be evil” company.

Last week a Google employee wrote a long, polite-yet-firm criticism of diversity hiring practices and the assumptions behind them. He made it explicit that he was not opposed to the goals of those practices, and offered suggestions for other ways to accomplish them. This piece of writing was quickly labeled a “screed” and a “fulmination” by journalists, and held up (mostly by people who never read it) as evidence of the very oppression the employee claimed was fallaciously assumed. Here, the people seethed, was a living specimen of evil!

After several days of fuming editorials and much public outcry for the employee’s head on a stake, Google fired him. The mob cheered for a moment and then began chanting its familiar mantra: “Not enough!”

One of the secondary points that had been made by the ousted employee was that Google claimed to support a culture of openness in which weighing evidence was valued over succumbing to bias, but that he knew the “women and minorities in tech” issue was such a sacred cow no dispassionate conversation about it would be permitted. This was his explanation for writing anonymously, and Google proved it to have been a valid one.

Cultures need immune systems. As a society that values inclusion and equal opportunity, we benefit from having a mechanism to identify and disenfranchise malicious racists, misogynists, and would-be traitors.

But this mechanism needs to remain finely calibrated to be useful, otherwise it causes a turbulent backlash. The end result of ordeals like this one at Google is not that women and minorities are put on their way to better representation in tech, but that all the people quietly keeping their heads down grow more resentful and less receptive to change. It’s a massive own-goal from a Progressive standpoint, but they might not realize it until decades later when people are calling them the new McCarthyists.

On tattoos

Tattoos (and piercings and other similar body modifications, alluded to in this post collectively under the term “tattoos”) are by now far too popular for me to say that people who get them are bad or indecent in any way, even in terms of those people’s general ability to make choices about their bodies. There are simply too many people who are smarter, healthier, more moral, more attractive, etc. than me–and covered in tattoos–to make such a claim.

So it definitely is without judgment of people who have tattoos when I say I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking of tattoos as OK for themselves. Yes, this makes me a stodgy hold-out from an earlier time, opposed to and out of touch with the direction of my generation. What else is new?

The skin my kids–and really, all kids–were born with is as good and as beautiful as it can possibly be. Markings on the skin can be expressive and fun, but that’s what temporary tattoos or skin paint is for. Tattoos are a permanent alteration and they can only leave the skin in a worse condition aesthetically and potentially otherwise.

No sane, loving parents have ever held their newborn child, inspected its body, and found a place where they longed to put a tattoo. There’s also no reason why this sense of rightness about our children’s skin should fade after children grow up. There must be a part of every parent that grieves when their child goes out and gets a tattoo. I feel sorry for the parents of every tattooed person I see.

Similarly I never could imagine looking down at a fresh tattoo on my own skin and thinking “Good, that part of my skin looks better now than it did before.” That’s the main reason I don’t have any tattoos. (There are other reasons too, ranging from the logical to the spiritual, but they are less fundamental and less important; they are nothing I could stand on when urging my kids to avoid tattoos.)

Studies report varying rates of (obviously hard to measure) tattoo-regret, but how could anyone feel they are improved by a tattoo unless they suffer from some body dysmorphic disorder? Given the popularity of tattoos, it might be interesting to find out whether BDD is more widespread than we think.

As much as I may try to urge my kids to avoid tattoos, it is like many other aspects of their rearing: an uphill battle against the surrounding culture. Not impossible, and in fact I have confidence they will eventually display the same characteristics that kept me from getting tattoos–but the trick is trying to keep them from getting tattooed until then.

I don’t remember my own parents ever talking about tattoos one way or another, though of course they hardly needed to since tattoos didn’t really start to become popular until I was almost through high school. So I don’t know how, from experience at least, to apply the model of “don’t push the kids too hard toward X or they’ll push back toward -X vs. don’t not push them toward X because if you don’t nobody else will and it’s all -X out there.”

Guilt by descent

1. You have a time machine that can take you 200 years into the future.

2a. You steal or otherwise con decent people out of a bunch of money. You use the ill-gotten money to open up a trust fund for your not-yet-born grandchildren, then you step into the time machine.

2b. You work hard, save scrupulously, and employ your wits and innovative skills, resulting in some extra money you put aside to open a trust fund for your not-yet-born grandchildren. Then you step into the time machine.

3. You get out of the time machine. Your grandchildren are long gone, but they used their trust funds to build a kind of empire. Their descendants are now an elite class: influential, productive, innovative, generally of superior health and intellect than the rest of the world, the driving force at the leading edge of much human endeavor, the model of civility, cooperation, high functioning, etc. But you hear these people talk, and they are ashamed of their endowment. They are wracked with guilt at the possibility of having had an innate advantage over anyone else. Many of them see their heritage as a curse, and basically always refer to their ancestors in negative language. You have some emotional response X to this.

Question: Does X drastically change depending on whether you took course 2a or 2b?