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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Antinatalism and Happiness vs. Survival

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There are many people who claim that in the future everything will be better. As an example of this I will point out Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now, which I just covered and which is most notable for having lots of graphs which all go up. As you may recall, Pinker (along with many others) claim that we’ve mostly eliminated war and famine, and that we’ll soon eliminate disease. Leaving death as the only remaining horseman of the apocalypse. But if we go farther and bring transhumanists into the discussion, then even death will shortly be eliminated through things like cryonics, brain-uploading and cool cyborg enhancements.


Despite these upbeat predictions of a brilliant future where humanity will either be gods, or at a bare minimum live in a super awesome society, (as best as I can tell you should picture a place like Norway only even better) anytime someone writes about the future, they generally end up creating something strongly dystopian.  Now I have said before this is more a reflection of the art of a good story, and to a lesser extent Tolstoy’s observation that, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, than any sort of actual divination. Accordingly it would be misguided to use the existence of science fiction dystopias as proof that actual dystopias are inevitable.


That said, Tolstoy did make a good point in what has come to be known as the Anna Karenina Principle. For things to go the way you want everything has to go right. Thus happy families are alike because they all have the same set of things going well. On the other hand any number of different things could be causing the unhappiness of an unhappy family. In the same way, there are any number of things that could go wrong which would derail the predictions of Pinker and the transhumanists, and, on the other hand, everything has to go right for those predictions to come to pass.


However, all of this is tangential to my real point. As I said, there are numerous science fiction dystopias, and along with that, for the most part, there is widespread consensus that we should do what we can to avoid these dystopias, however unlikely they might be. I said “for the most part”, I imagine that there are some transhumanists who would prefer the world of Neuromancer or Altered Carbon to the current world. Which is not to say they wouldn’t tweak some things if they had the chance. But this is not the sort of thing which concerns me. What concerns me is that there is at least one dystopia out there, which is actually viewed as a utopia by some. What is this dystopia and who are these people? The dystopia is Children of Men by P.D. James and the people are antinatalists, people who are opposed to humans reproducing.


This is one of those posts where everything seems to be pointed in the same direction. To begin with over a month ago one my readers sent me a video about antinatalists which started me thinking about the subject. Second, one of the things which I failed to cover when I was talking about Pinker’s book, is his lack of any discussion about the importance of reproduction and survival, which I feel is one of the major weaknesses of the book. Finally there’s last week’s discussion of incels, which, regardless of your personal feelings on the movement itself, touches on this issue as well. And then of course there are previous posts in this space which touch on the issue.


Let’s start with the video I got sent. It’s a presentation by Dr. Tom Moore of University College Cork, Ireland where he discusses David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. His discussion starts with a skeptical air (probably reflecting the attitudes of his audience) before ultimately coming to the conclusion that despite antinatalism appearing ridiculous on its face, that there are no successful counter arguments to Benatar’s version of it (at least not that he’s aware of.) As you might gather I am not an antinatalist, so either I must have taken that position on faith (which is not the worst thing in the world) or I must believe that I have a successful counterargument. In the end it’s a little bit of both, but I assume my readers are more interested in a successful counter argument.


Obviously, it would be inappropriate to launch into a counter argument without first presenting the argument itself. To begin with antinatalism can be divided into three sub-ideologies:


  1. Antinatalism as a solution to overpopulation, and as a tool in the prevention of a Malthusian catastrophe. I.e. being alive is good, but better if it’s limited to a “privileged” few.
  2. Humans are bad, they ruin everything and “things” would be better, particularly for other species if humans weren’t here. I.e. Being alive is bad, but not for humans, for everything else.
  3. Being alive is so bad that it’s better to have never lived at all. I.e. Suffering sucks, and that’s what being alive is all about.


The first two positions are easy to understand even for those people who don’t agree with them. It’s the third that Benatar advocates for, and which requires some explanation.


For Benatar there are two possibilities, being born and not being born. If someone is born they experience some happiness and some suffering. If the happiness is greater than the suffering then being alive was a good thing. On the other hand if someone isn’t born, they can’t experience any suffering. We have prevented it. And the prevention of suffering is obviously a moral good. Of course we have also prevented them from experiencing happiness, which most people would count as a bad thing. But Benatar argues that non-existent individuals cannot have regrets, accordingly rather than counting the missing happiness as a bad thing, we should assign it a value of zero. Something that is neither good nor bad. To put it another way no one imagines the anger of the children they didn’t have (well actually I know some religious people who do, but I think they’re an edge case.)


What this means is that unless the net happiness of those who are alive completely swamps the prevented suffering of those who were never born (which will be difficult, since the number of people who could have been born but have not could be in the trillions) then it would be better for all of humanity to go extinct.


This is the argument Dr. Moore found so compelling, and I agree, if you accept all of the assumptions, the logic is essentially irrefutable. But should we accept all of the assumptions?


The most critical assumption in this chain of logic is that the happiness of those who are unborn have zero value. That if, say for instance, Shakespeare had never been born that it wouldn’t have been a loss to humanity, because we would never know what we were missing. I might grant Benatar’s point, but only when evaluating one life at a time. As productive and consequential as Shakespeare was we still probably wouldn’t notice the space where he would have been.


There are in fact very few individuals whose lack would be noticeable, even if we could compare the reality in which they were present against the reality in which they are not. Particularly on a time scale of hundreds or thousands of years. Even without Shakespeare we would still have Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and Sir Walter Raleigh, and later Keats, and Byron and Shelley. But what if we eliminated England in its entirety? Is it possible we might notice a lack then? That we might decide that however bad life is, that this was not a trade worth making? Maybe, hard to say. And some anti-colonists might argue that the world in fact would be better without the English. But I am positive that they in turn would be appalled if I suggested that we wipe out all Africans. Why is that? Perhaps they just don’t understand Benatar’s iron-clad logic. Or perhaps there’s something else going on, if despite all the suffering they claim for the continent and its inhabitants and those who were carried away as slaves, they still wouldn’t want Africa to cease to exist.


But Benatar doesn’t just want to eliminate all the English or all the Africans, he wants to eliminate everyone. I think at this point it’s hard to argue that we would be oblivious to the positive contributions of all those who would not be born under this plan. It may be hard to model the contributions of the sibling you might have had, but didn’t. It’s a lot less difficult to model the contributions of all of humanity. In other words Benatar isn’t merely assigning a value of zero to one hypothetical unborn life. He’s assigning a value of zero to all of the happiness, art, science and other achievements for all of humanity from the point of extinction forward.


That phrase, “point of extinction” brings us to another interesting inflection in Benatar’s ideology, at least as it was explained by Moore (I may eventually read Benatar’s book, but you can imagine why it’s not very high on my list.) Given that Benatar views human extinction as a way of reducing suffering, he doesn’t want to do anything to cause any more suffering even if it’s in furtherance of his ideology. What this means is that he doesn’t advocate suicide (because of the suffering it causes to those around you). Nor does he advocate homicide, forcible controls on reproduction or even euthanasia. Additionally, any anticipation of the extinction would also cause suffering as well. Meaning that Benatar’s ideal solution would be an instantaneous extinction which was completely unanticipated.


As regular readers know I have my disagreements with Eliezer Yudkowsky, but on this issue he made an excellent observation. There are people who would be horrified at the murder of a single individual, who would never in a million years consider killing someone, but yet, when you wrap it up in enough philosophy will calmly contemplate, and even advocate the murder of everyone who’s currently alive or who ever will live. In Benatar’s case the only condition is that it needs to be sudden and painless. But let’s not overlook the fact that he advocates murdering everyone.


Benatar’s argument has one further assumption, and this is an assumption which is made by Pinker as well. They assume that happiness/pleasure/lack of suffering is the thing we want to be optimizing for. And as long as I’m mentioning Yudkowsky, he had something interesting to say on this subject as well. When talking about rationality he made the point that people can get so caught up with the idea of what is or isn’t rational, that they overlook the key thing, which isn’t rationality for rationality’s sake, but overall success, or as he phrases it: Winning. Which is to say, even if by some logic, Benatar is being completely rational, the extinction of all of humanity is probably not winning.


As I said a lot of this comes back to whether or not happiness/pleasure/reduction of suffering is our terminal value. If it’s not, then what is? I’m half way through Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (post coming soon) and he speaks to this issue and how it connects to rationality on multiple occasions:


Reality doesn't care about winning arguments; survival is what matters.


What is rational, is what allows the collective--entities meant to live for a long time--to survive.


Rationality does not depend on explicit verbalistic explanatory factors; it is only what aids survival, what avoids ruin.


Along with Taleb, my argument would be that survival should be our core value, and by mentioning survival, we can no longer avoid the elephant in the room: evolution and Darwinian natural selection. As far as I can tell every, even somewhat rational, antinatalist admits that our survival instinct is far too strong for voluntary extinction to work, which leaves only murder (which Benatar at least opposes) or some sort of instantaneous extinction, which appears to be impractical.


From a certain point of view, this is the best counter-argument of all, “It’s absolutely impossible.” And for my own part it adequately answers  the second form of antinatalism (Humans ruin everything). And we’ve already covered the third form of antinatalism, but what about the first form of antinatalism, avoiding the Malthusian catastrophe? This is where, I would argue, all of the various threads come together.


As I pointed out when I originally brought it up, the first kind of antinatalists believe that life is grand, but that it should be reserved for a select few. As it turns out there’s a logical proof concerning this as well, though it comes to the exact opposite conclusion. It’s called the Repugnant Conclusion, and while there’s a fair amount going on with it, in essence, it says that if everyone is experiencing at least some amount of net happiness, that maximizing happiness requires as many people as possible. I don’t really have strong feelings one way or the other on the Repugnant Conclusion as a guide to action (though it does support the religious injunction to multiply and replenish the earth). Rather, I bring it up at this point for three reasons:


1- It’s a compelling and logical counter-argument of the sort that Moore said he was unable to find. And it directly speaks to the first form of antinatalism.


2- However “repugnant” this conclusion is, I can’t imagine anyone arguing that it’s more repugnant than the extinction of all of humanity.


3- The first form of antinatalism at least pays some attention to the issue of survival.


At this point the common thread, from Benatar to the Repugnant conclusion, up to and including even Pinker, is a debate over whether happiness or survival should be our guiding value. On the one side, to use the technical term, Pinker and Benatar and Dr. Moore, are all hedonists. Now I don’t know about you, but for me, and I think most people, hedonism has a negative connotation. One I think it’s earned. I know there are hedonists who will argue that their philosophy is more nuanced and complex that just doing whatever is the most pleasurable in any given moment. And I’m sure they’re correct, but I don’t think it matters.


I’m not sure what to call those people on the other side of the hedonists. Maybe the survivalists? But on this side, in addition to myself, and Taleb, you have all humanity, and indeed all life back to the beginning. It’s only in the world of the last few decades, that one could argue that happiness is so good, or suffering so bad, that it should override survival.


To put it another way, there are really only two logical positions. You can either think being alive is preventing happiness (by causing suffering) in which case you’re allied with Benatar, or you can think being alive is a necessary precondition for happiness. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the vast majority of people reject the first position almost as soon as they hear it, and if not I’ve provided several counter arguments. Leaving only the second position, being alive is necessary to being happy. In which case survival precedes and takes priority over happiness, by virtue of the obvious: you can’t be happy if you don’t exist.


If it’s down to a battle between happiness and survival, what does that mean? At this point maybe you’re convinced that survival should be the ultimate value or maybe you’re not. But for the moment let’s move past that and assume that it is. I mean sure “The Children of Men” is a bleak future, and you may still have a hard time imagining that there are people pushing for just that future, but we’re surely not in any danger of that, right? Well I definitely hope not, but if we do avoid it it won’t be because we’ve taken any precautions against it. In fact much of what Pinker and people like him find so great about modernity are precisely those things which nibble away at our chances for survival. And this is a problem.


Why is it a problem? Well, the essential danger of having incorrect priorities is that we are getting better and better at pursuing our priorities. With this in mind the question becomes how much does the pursuit of happiness overlap with ensuring that we survive? I’m becoming increasingly convinced that they don’t overlap at all. Thus prioritizing happiness has nothing to do with prioritizing survival.


I’m reminded of this everytime I see an article by someone explaining that people without kids are way happier than people with kids. How is it that we’ve reached a point where our urge to survive is so weak that the combined strength of all of our selfish genes put together is not enough to outweigh the pursuit of slightly increased happiness? Even if there is some overlap between survival and happiness, to the extent that they diverge (and as this example shows, they don’t even have to diverge by very much) survival is going to increasingly be left behind, as we put more and more effort into pure happiness and less and less effort into pure survival.


I would argue that the accumulated survival efforts of all those who have gone before us have created a surplus which masks the extent of the problem. In reality, if you were to take a snapshot of modern society, say take 1000 individuals, and remove them from the rest of civilization, your only conclusion would be that they were in a lot of trouble. If you were to apply the same standard you use for pandas, tigers and mountain gorillas you would definitely classify them as endangered, and not because of their numbers. You would be way more concerned about their below replacement birth rate. The significant and increasing minority who don’t even engage in sexual activity that results in procreation. And the fact that when children are conceived there’s a non-trivial chance that the child will be aborted in-utero. You might even conclude, that somehow, evolution has stopped working with this species. And yet everything I just listed is considered progress by people like Steven Pinker. It is progress towards some definition of happiness. It is not progress towards ensuring our survival.


The point I’m trying to get at is that when taken to its logical conclusion, prioritizing happiness over survival leads to things like Benatar’s antinatalism. But even when not taken to such extremes, such as the case Pinker makes in “Enlightenment Now” it can still end up emphasizing the wrong thing, emphasizing a soft but nevertheless toxic hedonism while completely ignoring stagnation and decline in the only thing that matters, our very existence, itself.






My survival is contingent on eating, eating is contingent on money, money is contingent on your donations, thus my very survival is contingent on you donating. If you’re experiencing any guilt at all right now, then, mission accomplished!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Should All Incels Be Killed Immediately or Just Banished Forever?

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I’d like to dive into a controversy you might be familiar with. It began when Alek Minassian drove a rented van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 16. It came out shortly thereafter that Alek identified as an “incel”, and at a stroke the latest group of modern villains was discovered. For those unfamiliar with the term, incel is short for involuntarily celibate, though to identify as an incel you have be especially angry about your involuntary celibacy. Thus Alek’s murderous rage was brought on by the fact that no girls would have sex with him. As you can imagine, anything that even hints at a demand for women to provide sex or to do anything they don’t want to do with their body, did not go over well with the vast majority of people. But this is not the controversy I want to talk about.


The controversy I want to talk about came when Robin Hanson, a George Mason economist, (and recent commenter on this very blog), posted a question on his blog. The question amounted to, “Why are we concerned about income inequality, but not concerned about inequalities in access to romance and sex? Especially given that most people would say the latter matters more to their happiness?” But that post is not the post I want to cover, the post I want to cover is at least three levels deep (maybe more?) The post I want to cover is Scott Aaronson’s response to Robin Hanson’s post on the original news. In most cases I would suggest reading the original in its entirety. In this case, before doing so I offer a couple of caveats. First the post is directed at those already familiar with the Robin Hanson controversy, if you aren’t a lot of it will be wasted. Second it’s pretty long, around 6000 words. If the length doesn’t bother you, then I would definitely recommend it. I would particularly recommend it if you came to this post hating Robin Hanson, because Robin Hanson does not deserve your hate.


Despite Aaronson’s defense of Hanson, who he knows very well, his advice to him would have been “DON’T DO IT!” Perhaps the reason for this advice is obvious, but I’ll let Aaronson explain it:


My view is this: the world in which a comparison between the sufferings of the romantically and the monetarily impoverished could increase normal people’s understanding of the former, is so different from our world as to be nearly unrecognizable.  To say that this comparison is outside the Overton window is a comic understatement: it’s outside the Overton galaxy.  Trying to have the conversation that Robin wanted to have on social media, is a little like trying to have a conversation about microaggressions in 1830s Alabama.  At first, your listeners will simply be confused—but their confusion will be highly unstable, like a Higgs boson, and will decay in about 10-22 seconds into righteous rage.


For experience shows that, if you even breathe a phrase like “the inequality of romantic and sexual fulfillment,” no one who isn’t weird in certain ways common in the hard sciences (e.g., being on the autism spectrum) will be able to parse you as saying anything other than that sex ought to be “redistributed” by the government in the same way that money is redistributed, which in turn suggests a dystopian horror scenario where women are treated like property, married against their will, and raped.  And it won’t help if you shout from the rooftops that you want nothing of this kind, oppose it as vehemently as your listeners do. For, not knowing what else you could mean, the average person will continue to impose the nightmare scenario on anything you say, and will add evasiveness and dishonesty to the already severe charges against you.


I guess I’m weird in that certain way (though to the best of my knowledge I’m not on the autism spectrum…) Because I can see a lot of ways in which this statement could be read other than treating women like property. For example when there was a greater emphasis on monogamy and marriage, sexual inequality was lower, these pro-marriage policies are probably a form of this redistribution (and in fact people have offered marriage as a solution to income inequality as well.) I might even go so far as to add sexual and romantic inequality to the list of problems attendant to the generalized disintegration of traditional institutions. That said, I would have probably also given Hanson the same advice, though I hope the impossibility of floating somewhat crazy and transgressive ideas like this, is not quite as great as Aaronson makes it out to be. Though I think it probably is.


From there, Aaronson goes on to bring up Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times about the controversy (the Hanson one, not the original.) I don’t intend to spend a lot of time on Douthat’s column, particularly since this one I would recommend you just read. But I found this section to be particularly interesting:


As offensive or utopian the redistribution of sex might sound, the idea is entirely responsive to the logic of late-modern sexual life…


First, because like other forms of neoliberal deregulation the sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.


Second, because in this new landscape, and amid other economic and technological transformations, the sexes seem to be struggling generally to relate to one another, with social and political chasms opening between them and not only marriage and family but also sexual activity itself in recent decline.


Third, because the culture’s dominant message about sex is still essentially Hefnerian, despite certain revisions attempted by feminists since the heyday of the Playboy philosophy — a message that frequency and variety in sexual experience is as close to a summum bonum as the human condition has to offer, that the greatest possible diversity in sexual desires and tastes and identities should be not only accepted but cultivated, and that virginity and celibacy are at best strange and at worst pitiable states. And this master narrative, inevitably, makes both the new inequalities and the decline of actual relationships that much more difficult to bear …


… which in turn encourages people, as ever under modernity, to place their hope for escape from the costs of one revolution in a further one yet to come, be it political, social or technological, which will supply if not the promised utopia at least some form of redress for the many people that progress has obviously left behind.


There is an alternative, conservative response, of course — namely, that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.


But this is not the natural response for a society like ours. Instead we tend to look for fixes that seem to build on previous revolutions, rather than reverse them.


There are two parts to this, the first is a defense of Hanson’s idea, and the second, a description of how we ended up with a sexual underclass. I think we’ve covered the first part enough (though I think Douthat lays it out with admirable clarity) and I’d like to spend the rest of the post talking about this sexual underclass. And this is where the Aaronson article really shines by laying out the brutality of the situation.


(Before I get to that, it should be clear that when people talk about incels they aren’t necessarily talking about the sexual underclass in its entirety. There’s some motte and bailey stuff going on in both directions which I don’t have the time to get into. Aaronson updated his original post to address it, so if you’re curious that’s a good place to start.)


Aaronson’s commentary on Douthat’s column, rather than dwelling on the section I pointed out, revolves around the part where Douthat compares Hanson’s article with an article by Amia Srinivasan called Does anyone have the right to sex? Srinivasan covers much the same territory as Hanson, but decides to focus on disabled people, minorities, and the overweight. Aaronson describes the reaction:


All over social media, there are howls of outrage that Douthat would dare to mention Srinivasan’s essay, which is wise and nuanced and humane, in the same breath as the gross, creepy, entitled rantings of Robin Hanson.  I would say: grant that Srinivasan and Hanson express themselves extremely differently, and also that Srinivasan is a trillion times better than Hanson at anticipating and managing her readers’ reactions. Still, on the merits, is there any relevant difference between the two cases beyond: “undesirability” of the disabled, fat, and trans should be critically examined and interrogated, because those people are objects of progressive sympathy; whereas “undesirability” of nerdy white and Asian males should be taken as a brute fact or even celebrated, because those people are objects of progressive contempt?


To be fair, a Google search also turns up progressives who, dissenting from the above consensus, excoriate Srinivasan for her foray, however thoughtful, into taboo territory.  As best I can tell, the dissenters’ argument runs like so: as much as it might pain us, we must not show any compassion to women and men who are suicidally lonely and celibate by virtue of being severely disabled, disfigured, trans, or victims of racism.  For if we did, then consistency might eventually force us to show compassion to white male nerds as well.


It’s hard to know which is worse, the hypocrisy of the first group or the cruelty of the second, probably the latter. Though it gets worse. Aaronson continues:


Here’s the central point that I think Robin failed to understand: society, today, is not on board even with the minimal claim that the suicidal suffering of men left behind by the sexual revolution really exists—or, if it does, that it matters in the slightest or deserves any sympathy or acknowledgment whatsoever.  Indeed, the men in question pretty much need to be demonized as entitled losers and creeps, because if they weren’t, then sympathy for them—at least, for those among them who are friends, coworkers, children, siblings—might become hard to prevent...


So where are we today?  Within the current Overton window, a perfectly appropriate response to suicidal loneliness and depression among the “privileged” (i.e., straight, able-bodied, well-educated white or Asian men) seems to be: “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum, and remove your garbage DNA from the gene pool.”  If you think I’m exaggerating, I beseech you to check for yourself on Twitter. I predict you’ll find that and much worse, wildly upvoted, by people who probably go to sleep every night congratulating themselves for their progressivism, their egalitarianism, and—of course—their burning hatred for anything that smacks of eugenics.


As a white cis male (I thought the autocomplete suggestions for that term were interesting, second result: “white cis male shitlord”) who’s also clearly something of a nerd I find these threats somewhat alarming. I myself am married with kids, but I have plenty of friends who aren’t and likely never will be, who fall into the involuntary celibate category even if they aren’t part of the incel movement. But if we’re going to treat this subject with less emotion than what’s been described so far we need to answer a few questions:


1- How big is this sexual underclass? I suspect, like me, most people know people in this category, but if we move beyond the anecdotes how big is it really?


2- Is Aaronson accurately describing the reaction?


3- Is the reaction Aaronson is describing appropriate to the situation?


4- If it’s not appropriate how large and powerful is the group engaged in this inappropriate response? How much do we have to worry about it?


5- If it is worrisome, what can we do about it?


On the first question, the size of the sexual underclass, fortunately we have an answer for that. @lymanstoneky tweeted the following graph:


As you can see things are more or less flat from 1989 to 2008, and then suddenly start a steady climb during which the number of unmarried, sexless men doubles in the space of eight years. Also like most graphs of this sort it doesn’t go nearly far enough back. Recall that this graph starts 20 years after the sexual revolution, so it’s possible that the long term rate is really 2% and it was already pretty bad in the 80’s and 90’s. Finally, while the male percentage has almost always been above the female percentage, that the divergence recently is pretty stark. Meaning that while everyone is having less sex, the problem is particularly acute for males.


Later in the Twitter thread, Stone speculates that pornography may be having something to do with it. A subject I’ve covered in this space. And indeed if you were looking for something which happened around that time, the late aughts was when bandwidth was finally sufficient for streaming to start taking off. (Youtube was founded in 2005. Netflix’s streaming service started in 2007 and in that same year Pornhub was launched.) But regardless of the cause of the sexless male phenomenon there’s clearly a strong recent upward trend.


As far as the second question, the accuracy of Aaronson’s description, that one is a little bit more difficult to evaluate. Certainly this is exactly how I expect things to play out in this day and age, and Aaronson himself does claim that, “If you think I’m exaggerating, I beseech you to check for yourself on Twitter.  I predict you’ll find that and much worse, wildly upvoted...” I followed this advice and I found plenty of pretty extreme tweets (try searching #incel scum) but I’m not much of a twitter user and it’s hard to aggregate the numerous anecdotes into actual data (particularly given the number of fake and sock puppet accounts on twitter). In other words, on the issue of size it may be difficult to say conclusively how large the “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum” group really is. It might be more useful to ask whether the reaction is a bad thing, and how much power these people have, which takes us to the third and fourth questions.


The answer to the third question, “Is it appropriate?” would seem to obviously be, “No, of course not.” I can’t imagine that saying the sorts of things Aaronson reports would ever be appropriate regardless of the context or crime. But if it’s so obviously wrong, why are people doing it? I’m sure that part of it is the horror and shock they feel at the crimes of Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian. But as Aaronson points out:


There really do exist extremist Muslims, who bomb schools and buses, or cheer and pass out candies when that happens, and who wish to put the entire world under Sharia on point of the sword.  Fortunately, the extremists are outnumbered by hundreds of millions of reasonable Muslims, with whom anyone, even a Zionist Jew like me, can have a friendly conversation in which we discuss our respective cultures’ grievances and how they might be addressed in a win-win manner.  (My conversations with Iranian friends sometimes end with us musing that, if only they made them Ayatollah and me Israeli Prime Minister, we could sign a peace accord next week, then go out for kebabs and babaganoush.)


My understanding is that it is a horrible crime, the kind of thing only terrible nazi racists do, to blame all muslims for the actions of a radical few. They have a name for it, Islamophobia, and we’re all strenuously instructed that only really bad people do it, and yet once again it appears that what is and isn’t allowable depends a lot more on whom it’s being done to than what is being done.


The answer to the fourth question, how powerful are they? Might be the most important of the five, and the evidence here is that, like most flash-in-the-pan outrage cascades, they’re loud and angry, but their power at the level of policy is non-existent. In this case I can’t even point to individual victims. So that’s a relief, right? Maybe, but perhaps we should consider this tweet from Ellen Pao before we write things off entirely:


CEOs of big tech companies: You almost certainly have incels as employees. What are you going to do about it?


Pao was the CEO of Reddit and the plaintiff in a big sexual harassment case against Kleiner Perkins, so she’s not without her influence. One can hardly imagine what she expects tech CEOs to do about incels in their ranks, and it’s hoped, if only for logistical reasons that no one took her question seriously, but as Aaronson points out (and as I’ve pointed out repeatedly) todays fringe leftist opinions become tomorrow’s company policy. All of which is to say, if nothing else, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this issue by a longshot.


Which brings us to the final question, what should we doing about all this? Well I think understanding the situation is a good first step, which is of course part of the point of this post. Though understanding is one of those things which is easier said than done, particularly when your speaking about understanding at the highest levels. For my own part, I hope that at a minimum I’ve managed to convey some facts about the situation, and maybe, if I’m lucky, some sense of what’s at stake, what’s been happening and what kind of questions we should be asking. I doubt I’ve changed anybody’s mind on this subject, and I would be very surprised if I had changed anyone’s behavior.


But if I could advocate for a behavior and have it stick I would do much as Aaronson did and advocate for the behavior of compassion. This may be the post with the highest ratio of quotes to original content, but this is another area where Aaronson nailed it, so I’ll quote from him one last time.


But my aspiration is not merely that we nerds can do just as well at compassion as those who hate us.  Rather, I hope we can do better. This isn’t actually such an ambitious goal. To achieve it, all we need to do is show universal, Jesus-style compassion, to politically favored and disfavored groups alike.


To me that means: compassion for the woman facing sexual harassment, or simply quizzical glances that wonder what she thinks she’s doing pursuing a PhD in physics.  Compassion for the cancer patient, for the bereaved parent, for the victim of famine. Compassion for the undocumented immigrant facing deportation. Compassion for the LGBT man or woman dealing with self-doubts, ridicule, and abuse.  Compassion for the nerdy male facing suicidal depression because modern dating norms, combined with his own shyness and fear of rule-breaking, have left him unable to pursue romance or love. Compassion for the woman who feels like an ugly, overweight, unlovable freak who no one will ask on dates.  Compassion for the African-American victim of police brutality. Compassion even for the pedophile who’d sooner kill himself than hurt a child, but who’s been given no support for curing or managing his condition. This is what I advocate. This is my platform.


It’s a good platform. Maybe a little utopian. Maybe a little too idealist. Maybe compassion should work on a scale, with depressed white male nerds who can’t get dates being pretty low on that scale. Maybe you’d rather save your compassion for impoverished orphans in Africa, or for groups that have been historically oppressed, unlike white male nerds, regardless of how depressed they are. That’s okay, it’s okay to ration your compassion and the energy it takes to express it. If you don’t want to spend any energy on the suicidally depressed nerdy male demographic, I’m not sure anyone would care or even notice. Where it gets baffling is when you take this limited energy and use it to not merely refuse compassion, but to urge these individuals to “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum!”






If creating a post mostly composed of quotes from other people with little of my own original content is what you’ve been waiting for all along, then consider donating. Though even I would find that a little bit weird, not as weird as discussing sexual inequality, but still pretty weird.