Monday, April 20, 2015

We Feed Off of Each Other, We Can Share Our Endorphins

Scott Alexander:

Many people have remarked on the paradox of an academia made mostly of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners trying so very hard to find reasons why lots of things are the fault of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners. The simplest example I can think of is attributing the woes of Third World countries to colonialism; without meaning to trivialize the evils of colonization, a lot of academics seem to go beyond what even the undeniably awful facts can support. Dependency theory, for example, is now mostly discredited, as are a lot of the Marxist perspectives. I would provide other examples if I weren’t satisfied you can generate them independently.

This is on the face of it surprising; naively we would expect people to cast themselves and those like them in as positive a light as possible. Forget about whether these attributions of blame are right or wrong. Even if they were right I would not expect people to believe them as enthusiastically as they do.

The theories I’ve heard to explain this paradox are rarely very flattering; usually something about class signaling, or holier-than-thou-ness, or trying to justify the existence of an academic elite.

I want to propose another possibility: what if people are really, fundamentally, good?

I think he's overthinking it. Why waste time with an unanswerable question like whether people are essentially good or bad? Either way, can't we agree that they are often driven, probably by evolution itself, to take the path of least resistance? I'm not saying "people are lazy" in a moralistic, judgmental sense, I'm saying that people are always alert to the possibility of getting what they need with as little effort as possible. Work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes.

As we learned in high school biology class, parasitism is really an excellent evolutionary strategy. A parasite gets all the sustenance it needs at a minimum of effort and risk. In the online ecosystem, many parts of which significantly overlap with the academic ecosystem he's talking about, sustenance comes in the form of praise and recognition. One could certainly earn a lot of praise and recognition by being a highly moral person who performs a lot of good deeds. But then again, if you're the kind of person who's spending a lot of time righting wrongs and actively doing good deeds, you probably don't have much time to be monitoring Google alerts on your name to see who's talking about you on Twitter. And going out into the world to confront injustice might entail a lot of hard, thankless work for little reward. How could one receive praise for hizzorher exemplary righteousness and have the time and energy to bask in it?

Thus did natural selection inevitably produce the remoras, fleas and tapeworms you encounter every day on social media, which it has equipped with just enough inchoate political awareness to allow them to fasten on to a passing discussion and suck all the goodwill and usefulness from it. Alexander seems to think that all the overwrought performances of moral outrage are well-intentioned, if irrationally ineffective, attempts to actually change things. They're not. Elevating people's sense of guilt to near-existential levels is a way to ensure a constant supply of hosts upon which to feed, as the Catholic Church might be able to tell you off the record.

Likewise, I have no idea why he finds it puzzling that some educated, progressive, white Westerners are eager to quickly denounce others like them. Freddie there might say that these people are preemptively exempting themselves from their own critique, implicitly suggesting by their analysis that they are somehow morally superior to those who remain in the outer darkness, denying their own sinfulness. Or, as we learned in history class, up the stairs and down at the other end of the hall from biology, while studying the Salem witch trials, the best way to deflect suspicion from yourself in a volatile, hostile environment is to point an accusing finger at someone else first.