Sunday, May 08, 2016

Stray thoughts on neoreaction

It looks like Philip Sandifer is writing an exploration of the links between neoreaction and rationalism and the various quirky personalities around which they nucleate. This is sort of my territory, but it looks like he will do a far more thorough and entertaining job of it than I could hope to do. So good, maybe I can obsess about something else now. Don՚t know how closely his view matches mine, but his biases seem about right.

The Holocaust was in my thoughts recently, and naturally it colored my thinking on the deepest moral question of our time, whether Mencius Moldbug should get to speak at technical conferences. The controversy has turned into something of an ugly battle within nerddom. Both sides seem driven by a self-righteous outrage which I don՚t share. I find Moldbug՚s views reprehensible but don՚t see much point in shunning him socially or professionally – but neither am I ready to dismiss the feelings of those who want to. In short, on this question I find myself waffling. I՚m not sure why I feel obligated to apologize for not picking a side – as if this were Harlan County where there can be no neutrals. Both sides seem to see it as an absolute moral struggle with very clearly drawn sides, and both are very confident in their moral judgements. They can՚t both be right, but there՚s no reason they can՚t both be wrong.

The issue is framed by his defenders as a simply a matter of a weird, smart, original thinker getting unfairly punished because of his ideas. He՚s just talking, not actually committing any violent acts, and talk is harmless and should be protected. But his opponents do not believe that speech is harmless. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can have murderous consequences, and thus bad ideas need to opposed not simply with words.

My indirect personal connection to the Holocaust animates my own feelings on this question; whether that give my opinions any greater weight is for others to decide. But I do feel a moral imperative to oppose such ideas. What the exact method of opposition should be, I don՚t know – banning people who hold them from conferences seems like a crude move to me, I՚d prefer to engage them, and in fact have done so. Freedom of speech is an important value, but not the only one, and I do not admire people who are reflexively defending Moldbug՚s free speech rights without also acknowledging the actual content they are defending.

If you dig deeper into antipolitics, one of the things that seem to underlie it is a fear of some kind of horrific apocalypse on the horizon – in the rationalists case, it՚s a superintelligent AI running roughshod over human values, with the neoreactionaries, it՚s political disorder or just chaos in general. They seem to think that this onslaught of antihuman forces is located somewhere in the future, something to either work desperately to avoid or grimly accept as inevitable.

But it՚s already happened. Civilization and rationality turned on those who thought it was on their side and remoreselessly dehumanized, tortured, and murdered them on an industrial scale. We՚ve already had experience with human-built systems that end up expressing antihuman goals.


Anonymous said...

The standard objection is that people with much clearer ideological ties to the atrocities committed by various communist regimes are not shunned. One of the people (a prominent open source/tech person) who spearheaded the movement to disinvite moldbug likes to point out specific people in tech who would be sentenced to hard labor after the revolution. This same person likes to put a little hammer and sickle unicode character in his usernames.

If insufficient ideological distance from atrocity makes thinkers anathema, let it be applied evenly, if only for the sake of the victims of Cambodia's killing fields, China and Russia's famines and purges, etc.

Dain said...

"If insufficient ideological distance from atrocity makes thinkers anathema, let it be applied evenly..."


The right's weirdos and black sheep are held high for all to see, and pointed to by the influentials as fringe figures (which by definition they are, I suppose). But there's a good deal of extremism and weirdness held by polite society intellectuals that never gets scrutinized to the same degree. A taken-for-granted attitude toward American hegemony is one of these (to point to something not of the left).

mtraven said...

If you want to organize a boycott of speakers because you think they are morally compromised by association with communism, knock yourself out. There is no central authority deciding who gets to be anathematized or that it is "applied evenly", there are only individuals deciding who they want to associate with or not and convincing others to do the same.

I am supremely unimpressed by Nazi sympathizers who deploy the excuse that communists killed a lot of people as well. It conjures up a picture of Hitler as a whining schoolboy sent to the principal's office, "no fair, Stalin was doing it too". Not that communism doesn't have plenty of crimes to answer for, but this particular line of thought seems deeply unserious.

Dain said...

This got me thinking, Gawker could be interpreted the same way that Moldbug has here, i.e. since it denies the free speech of others, it doesn't deserve free speech rights. "Jail climate deniers..."