Saturday, April 16, 2016

Politics-free Zones

I tried taking my anti-anti-politics line on the road at a SlateStarCodex thread about the Moldbug/LambdaConf controversy, with predictably unsatisfactory results. Nobody there likes politics, which they identify with undeserving authority, dreary conformity, and a general low level of intelligence. With some justification! Politics is a noisy, messy, and often uninspiring and unproductive affair.

So, why can՚t some places be politics-free zones? In particular, a technical conference, which is about programming languages and algorithms and such? Why can՚t we pursue our quasi-mathematical pastime in peace, isolated from the noisy conflicts of the regular world? Surely we don՚t want to corrupt our ethereal intellectual domain with such mundane gubbish. The technical world should be a politics-free zone, driven by more noble and intellectual motives than the crass social power that is the currency of politics.

Sounds good, doesn՚t it? In this light, the disinvitation and boycotts that have greeted Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug՚s) attempt to present his work on Urbit are awful, a scary intrusion of group hostility into what should be a peaceable world of pure thought.

Unfortunately such an argument collapses totally on contact with reality. The presentation in question is about a piece of technology explicitly crafted towards a political end. There՚s nothing wrong with that, and it actually sounds kind of interesting. If I were running a conference I՚d let the guy speak, all else being equal. However, to claim that politics wasn՚t involved in this matter until those mean SJWs started a harassment campaign is fucking nonsense.

More broadly, there՚s no such thing as a politics-free zone. We are political creatures and anytime a bunch of us get together there is politics involved, whether it is the local kind of who is in charge of what or the broader kinds of group interest. That՚s life. If somebody claims to eschew politics, what they really mean is that they accept the current structure of power and don՚t want to be overly troubled by how it got that way or any efforts to change it, which, sad to say, is itself a political position.

This is especially true of computer systems and the ideas and designs underlying them, at this stage of history. These are no longer amusing toys for nerds, they are the cognitive, social, and economic infrastructure of the entire world. Of course they are political! How could they not be? And of course politics shaped the history and development of computers from the very beginning. This is why I keep harping on this point, if nerds don՚t think adequately about the political dimensions of what they do they are abdicating their responsibilities.

One other important point about this affair that seems to get lost in the noise (and then maybe I can forget about it, it՚s starting to bore the pants off of me): nobody has threatened to censor Yarvin՚s ideas. They are all readily available on the net, nobody (as far as I know) has tried to pressure Google to take down his blog or Github to take down his code. People are not censoring him, they are refusing to associate with him, which may not be nice but is a pretty normal and accepted form of political speech.

20 comments:

Ashley Yakeley said...

I think the idea is not to declare that professional efforts have no political consequences, but to establish a bright line whereby unrelated beliefs are considered irrelevant to professional efforts -- even if those beliefs are political in character.

Note that such a bright line has already been established for beliefs that are religious in character: in a professional context it's widely considered unacceptable to censure people for believing, for example, that non-Christians will suffer eternally in hell. This is not to say such a belief is "just as offensive" as Yarvin's stuff, merely that a line has already been drawn that protects certain beliefs despite their offensiveness, and this seems to have had largely beneficial effects.

HlynkaCG said...

I followed your link over from the SSC thread, and wanted to thank you for at least being willing to engage.


That said, something you need to understand is that one of (if not THE) critical moments in the formation of the SSC Comentariat as a distinct community was Scott's 2014 post titled In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization. It was linked-to/reblogged by lots of people including prominent academics and political pundits. You could say that it put Scott Alexander "on the map". It lays out the "bright lines" of separation that Ashley Yakeley refers to above and why they should be defended. If you really want "take your anti-anti-politics line on the road" you'll need to directly confront the arguments made within.

mtraven said...

Well, OK, I skimmed it, because it is very long, full of inside baseball about people I don't know, and appears to end with an argument based on a fantasy novel which I haven't read. But OK, maybe it's a world-class moral argument. I'll have to give it a closer look some time.

If I've gotten the gist, there is a sense in which he is right: it's a good thing for people who disagree to be able to sit down and talk about it with mutual respect. I can't disagree with that, and in fact that was my own personal response to Moldbug, as you can see by the interchanges I had with him on his blog years ago.

But there is also always a point where you stop doing that, in any real political conflict. Talk is cheap. Do you hang with Nazis at your conference on programming languages? Do you boycott states that pass legislation aimed at minority groups you are sympathetic to? Maybe you boycott apartheid South Africa, or Israel, for policies you disagree with. Academics boycotted South Africa at the request of the ANC -- do you think they should have refused? This is such a basic tool of political change, one of the few weapons available to allow mass movements to put pressure on the powerful.

Whether Moldbug's output rises to the level where it deserves the opprobrium of decent people is debatable, but this is how it gets debated. And it's inevitably going to be a political decision, which is my main point -- not that you shouldn't talk to racists, but that you can't pretend that some field of discourse is apolitical when it isn't.

And I've already pointed out that the "bright line" in this particular case doesn't exist at all, since the very work in question is explicitly designed to further a particular political ideology.



Ashley Yakeley said...

I think you're right to point out that Urbit has an explicit political agenda, and that even if it hadn't, technology as a whole is inextricably bound up in society and therefore cannot escape politics. SSC commenters often have certain systematising tendencies that don't really help in this regard.

Urbit does have a (libertarian?) political agenda, but it doesn't seem to be one people are objecting to. So libertarianism or whatever is on the relevant side of the would-be bright line, while Yarvin's racial beliefs are on the irrelevant side. If technology similar to Urbit is encouraged and promoted, it might promote some libertarian vision but it wouldn't (I assume) contribute to racial oppression.

If Urbit-like technology would contribute to racial oppression, that's a much stronger argument against Yarvin at Lambdaconf.

The anti-apartheid academics had a particular goal in mind: it wasn't just avoiding personal taint-by-association with apartheid, though no doubt the purity moral foundation was involved. Maybe the goal in this case is for Yarvin to repudiate his views? I'm not sure. At the core of it seems to be his claim that the U.S. racial intelligence gap is genetic in origin -- something that hasn't been ruled out but (I believe) there isn't good evidence for, despite quite a lot of research. But it might have very nasty social implications, so we've taken a kind of "social null hypothesis" in the urgent interests of the well-being and flourishing of black Americans.

mtraven said...

Look, Yarvin left a mile-long trail of his political philosophy, including both racism and whatever Urbit is in pursuit of (neocameralism or some such). Maybe those aren't necessarily connected, but it's a pretty fine line to parse. They certainly seem connected in his mind. If they aren't, he was the one who chose to contaminate his potentially good ideas with toxic ones. I suspect this means his real goal is more like provocation than any serious political agenda.

The boycott of Yarvin is not an organized effort in pursuit of a goal, it's a spontaneous reaction of individuals against another. So yes, somewhat different from the anti-apartheid movement. But the basic dynamic is the same.

Racism is what got him in trouble, but really, that's a fairly minor aspect of the objectionability of his views -- I for one am more upset by the complete elimination of any concept of individual rights, or indeed any concept of justice whatsoever. I'd consider it merely asinine if not for the fact that it seem to have spawned a movement that is attracting some otherwise intelligent people.



Ashley Yakeley said...

OK, so your complaint against him is rather different from most others. Perhaps Urbit-like technology enables neocameralism, and neocameralism is bad politics. If so, if you want to make that argument, it's obviously an argument against Yarvin at Lambdaconf that can't be waved away by any bright line separation.

That's not the spontaneous reaction of most of the individual who are riled up, though. No-one else seems to be arguing against the political implications of the technology itself, though I did come across someone arguing that it was technically laughable. Instead they object to Yarvin's statements about race: statements that don't seem to be connected to Urbit. My own impression is that Urbit is a genuine attempt to pursue certain libertarian-ish computing infrastructure goals and is not just trolling or in bad faith.

BUT, if it turns out that Urbit technology itself inevitably eventually promotes racism, that would be a good argument against Yarvin at Lambdaconf. I'm just not hearing anyone make that argument.

HlynkaCG said...

But there is also always a point where you stop doing that, in any real political conflict. Talk is cheap.

Granted...

Of course, there are counterexamples. Jews who nonviolently resisted the Nazis didn’t have a very good track record. You need a certain pre-existing level of civilization for liberalism to be a good idea, and a certain pre-existing level of liberalism for supercharged liberalism where you don’t spread malicious lies and harass other people to be a good idea. You need to have pre-existing community norms in place before trying to summon mysterious beneficial equilibria.

So perhaps I am being too harsh on Andrew, to contrast him with Aung San Suu Kyi and her ilk. After all, all Aung San Suu Kyi had to do was fight the Burmese junta... Andrew has to deal with people who aren’t as feminist as he is. Clearly this requires much stronger measures!

Liberalism does not conquer by fire and sword. Liberalism conquers by communities of people who agree to play by the rules, slowly growing until eventually an equilibrium is disturbed. Its battle cry is not “Death to the unbelievers!” but “If you’re nice, you can join our cuddle pile!”


And fundamentally that's what this argument is about. Regardless of what you think of Yarvin's beliefs, he has (thus far) played by the rules, and as such the rational and liberal thing to do is cooperate in kind.

The claim is that Yarvin's politics are orthogonal to his merit as a programmer just as the politics of Von Braun and Korolev's are orthogonal to the technical achievements of the space age.

Likewise if you are going to take the position that dissent must be crushed, don't piss on my leg and call it rain, by claiming to be doing it in the name of tolerance or diversity.

Ashley Yakeley said...

I agree with HlynkaCG that Yarvin's politics are orthogonal to his merit as a programmer, but also with mtraven (I believe) that his politics are NOT orthogonal to Urbit, which explicitly has a political agenda. BUT, it doesn't seem to be the political agenda that everyone's objecting to.

mtraven said...

And fundamentally that's what this argument is about. Regardless of what you think of Yarvin's beliefs, he has (thus far) played by the rules, and as such the rational and liberal thing to do is cooperate in kind.


As far as I know all of his critics and opponents have also "played by the rules". They are organizing a boycott, not sending out assassination squads. So what are you talking about?

The claim is that Yarvin's politics are orthogonal to his merit as a programmer just as the politics of Von Braun and Korolev's are orthogonal to the technical achievements of the space age.


A claim which is obviously false, as I've said repeatedly.

HlynkaCG said...

As far as I know all of his critics and opponents have also "played by the rules".

But they have, one of those rules, a deeply-seated social norm of both the mathematics and computing community (one of those "bright lines" that Ashley Yakeley mentioned) is that we do not apply religious or ideological tests. The work must stand (or fail) on it's own merits.

In theory Nock, and it's (currently vaporware) implementation Urbit could allow for truly secure decentralized networking. A problem that a lot of computer scientists way smarter than I have spent a lot of time trying to solve. Can it deliver on this promise? I don't know, and can't say without a chance to examine it in detail. Something that events like Lambdaconf are supposed to facilitate.

IF Urbit works as advertised (and that's a really 'big if') it will revolutionize computer science and Yarvin's politics wont matter, because the capabilities unlocked will empower moldbuggian revolutionaries and counter revolutionaries alike.

The notion that we must summarily dismiss certain lines of research because they make us politically uncomfortable is anti-science, anti-liberal, and belongs in the 16th century not the 21st.

Afterall, Niel Armstong flew to the Moon on an oversized Nazi ICBM.

mtraven said...

I assure you, the other side has an equally convincing argument that it was Moldbug who crossed a bright line, that line being open racism. They think that should be a bright line, whereas you think it's no big deal.

Which is to say, the lines aren't so bright as all that and that is why people argue over where they should go.

HlynkaCG said...

What does one man's racism have to do with whether or not it is possible to design a secure decentralized network?

Gallieo may have been an asshole but the Earth still orbits the Sun.

mtraven said...

You're getting tedious. I understand your point, but I don't see any evidence that you've made an effort to understand mine. I've made the connections very clear, if you don't choose to see them that is not my problem.

The extent to which computer science resembles mathematics or a real science like astronomy is an interesting question (unlike the Moldbug thing which is tapped out at this point). Some parts of it are more mathematical and presumably encode truths that are wholly independent of culture or politics; others, not so much. I suggest you read the book cited in the original post.

HlynkaCG said...

On the contrary, i understand your point, i just don't see why it should be given special privledge. Like i said before; "what does one man's racism have to do with whether or not it's possible to design secure decentralized networks.

Do you think that Galileo's personal fralties had any bearing on the orbits of the planets?

Ashley Yakeley said...

As I see it, the most credible pro-ban argument is that asserting certain ideas puts one beyond the pale as a person, and that everyone has a positive duty to shun people in this category regardless of context, and that Lambdaconf has failed in this duty. And that while the exact set of ideas is debatable, it certainly includes the idea that genetics contributes to the U.S. racial intelligence test gap.

Ashley Yakeley said...

mtraven I agree with you that the lack of any individual rights, or of any kind of justice, makes Yarvin's proposed political system absolutely horrendous. But that alone would never for a moment keep me away from any kind of professional involvement with him. It's just pure eccentricity, too ridiculous to be in any way threatening to me. But not to you, maybe?

The racial stuff is different on its face, though, since it plays into long-standing complaints at the core of American society. It seems to me a much stronger source for arguments against Yarvin at Lambdaconf.

Anonymous said...

Here's roughly why I'm in favor of Scott's In Favor of Niceness etc policy:

In an actual pluralistic world like the one we live in, it's extremely likely that many of us hold some pretty dissimilar values. Some of those values are going to be in sharp conflict. Scott's policy just tries enforce a modicum of peace. If we abandon that kind of "no politics here, we're all just charitable technologists" approach, everything just comes down to vote counting and tit-for-tat.

For example, here's a question. Are "we" so certain that more people find Yarvin's "racist public theorizing" more disqualifying for getting a public audience than, say, Mozilla's Steve Klabnik's public "left-wing activism"? I'll lay my cards on the table - I personally find that sort of "left-wing activism" much, much more disqualifying. At this point, after the last few years of public witch-hunts, I would be much more enthusiastic banning known activists from conferences, twitter, and any sort of public shared space generally than Yarvin, whose ideological sins are roughly as bothersome to me as, well, Klabnik's communism.

Now, under Scott's "all charity, no politics pluralism", I just have to suck it up, despite people like that making me feel deeply unsafe, as they say. I have to share spaces with the Klabniks of the world because that's the social bargain. That's the norm.

But if we rescind that norm, everything devolves into salt-the-earth tit-for-tat. I guarantee that there are a non-trivial amount of people out there who are enduring and tolerating the Steve Klabniks and David Nolens of the world only because they're defaulting to Scott's civility protocol. If we tear down those norms, those people would be complete idiots not to throw their weight around to exclude the sorts of people they don't want to interact with. I'd be right in line with them. And maybe by me saying that, now you have to be right in line to exclude me... right?

I think you're gesturing towards a "we" that flatly doesn't exist. The activist set, the boundary policing set, has a very, very, very long history of getting the vote counting utterly wrong on this stuff unless there are rigid formal hierarchies susceptible to entryism for them to subvert. Go read up on the history of the Atheism / Atheism Plus schism sometime to watch this kind of crashing-and-burning in action. (or look at the forum reactions to all the various Social Justice Kerfuffles over the last couple of years, like Shirtgate. There is a LOT of anger out there at the boundary policers). Hell, go look at the extent to which Ronald Reagan CONSTANTLY used activists as a rhetorical punching bag in the lead up to the 1980's election. It's been erased from the history, for some reason, but he did it constantly and it worked great.

I guess I'm saying, as a matter of pragmatics, I much prefer Scott's approach. If we insist on doing everything-is-always-already-political, I can't see any endpoint other than total segregation... which is not my preference by any means, but beats the pants off of "self-selected radicalized activist vanguard gets to decide who gets a platform", which has been given a workout the past few years. I'm uncomfortable with Vox Day's assembling of a blacklist of the Lambda Conference activists... but if that's where things are going, I guess that's where things are going.

mtraven said...

@Anonymous: Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

Here's roughly why I'm in favor of Scott's In Favor of Niceness etc policy:

Can you boil down what this policy actually is? Something inbetween “niceness” and his huge essay.

I see, for instance, that he speaks favorably of Martin Luther King, who employed the tactic of boycott against racism, that is, precisely the same tactic the people opposed to Yarvin are using. And he was hardly apolitical. So I՚m not really sure what we are arguing about.

In an actual pluralistic world like the one we live in, it's extremely likely that many of us hold some pretty dissimilar values. Some of those values are going to be in sharp conflict. Scott's policy just tries enforce a modicum of peace. If we abandon that kind of "no politics here, we're all just charitable technologists" approach, everything just comes down to vote counting and tit-for-tat.

As I՚ve already said more than a few times, that is a ridiculous rule to apply to this particular case, since Moldbug՚s technology is expressly designed to serve political ends. So there is no apolitical stance to abandon, politics was there from the very beginning.

For example, here's a question. Are "we" so certain that more people find Yarvin's "racist public theorizing" more disqualifying for getting a public audience than, say, Mozilla's Steve Klabnik's public "left-wing activism"? I'll lay my cards on the table - I personally find that sort of "left-wing activism" much, much more disqualifying.

Cool. Then you are perfectly free to refuse to participate in conferences with Steve Klabnik and encourage others to do the same. Knock yourself out.

Now, under Scott's "all charity, no politics pluralism", I just have to suck it up, despite people like that making me feel deeply unsafe, as they say. I have to share spaces with the Klabniks of the world because that's the social bargain. That's the norm.

Says who? It is most certainly not the norm for, say, Jews to associate with Nazis who want to exterminate them. The human norm is, some things are unacceptable and it is a moral duty to make it clear that it is unacceptable through action. Whether Moldbug՚s writings rise to the Nazi level is a matter of controversy, but who are you to tell black hackers that they shouldn՚t take umbrage at a slavery apologist?

I think you're gesturing towards a "we" that flatly doesn't exist.

Enacting these type of controversies is precisely how “we”s get defined.

The activist set, the boundary policing set, has a very, very, very long history of getting the vote counting utterly wrong on this stuff unless there are rigid formal hierarchies susceptible to entryism for them to subvert. Go read up on the history of the Atheism / Atheism Plus schism sometime to watch this kind of crashing-and-burning in action.

Sorry, that has entirely to much nerd-world jargon for me to process.

I guess I'm saying, as a matter of pragmatics, I much prefer Scott's approach. If we insist on doing everything-is-always-already-political, I can't see any endpoint other than total segregation...

There are already a shitload of technical conferences on every topic imaginable, personally I wouldn՚t find it so awful if some of them had different and incompatible political ideologies.

Why do you find conflict so terrible? I՚ve written blog posts on this but I still don՚t quite see the root of it. Guess what, in the real world people disagree, they form groups around different positions and the groups have conflicts to settle their disagreements when necessary. The fact that you might find the whole process distasteful doesn՚t change how the world works even a little bit.

kay schluehr said...

When I remember correctly the organizers withdraw the invitation of Moldbug because they feared protest or some kind of political struggle on their nice tech conf. He wasn't disinvited because they didn't want to associate with him, but in behalf of others who speak the language of political activism, something they refused to handle.

BTW since Scott also wrote about the rhetoric civil war between the blue and the red camp, I wonder what would happen when someone appears on a tech conference wearing a Trump T-shirt? Is that against the policies, the code-of-conduct?

mtraven said...

If you are talking about LambdaConf, that is incorrect. He wasn't disinvited, and other people pulled out in protest.

At StrangeLoop last year, he was disinvited, here is the official reason.

I think it is a mistake to frame this in terms of a code-of-conduct. At LambdaConf, there was no code and no central authority dictating permissible behavior, it was strictly individual participants deciding they would boycott. If they want to do it over a Trump T-shirt, that is their business.

More abstractly, this is all about defining the bounds of permissible opinion and action (and "permissible" is not in generally defined by a code, but by what people can get away with without consequence). Trump is all about pushing the boundaries of permissible behavior for a mainstream politician, so far it hasn't cost him very much, in fact it's worked out quite well for him. The response has been minimal, just a few protestors, but I expect it to heat up as the election progresses. I wouldn't share a stage with a Nazi, would I share it with a quasi-fascist like Trump, or one of his supporters? Don't know, will figure it out if the situation presents itself.