On Privilege and When You Should Shut Up

This is going to be a confused mess. I’ve not actually had an uninterrupted night’s sleep — even by my own standards where “a night’s sleep” means five hours if I’m lucky — in eleven days, so I’m in a weird fugue state at the moment where I’m seeing patterns in everything but can’t tell if I’m making sense or not.

So at the moment I’m reading Andrew Rilstone’s book One Hundred and Forty Characters in Search of an Argument*, and the first essay in it is one about the concept of privilege, and how in most political arguments there is a side that is the oppressed, and a side that is the oppressor, and how it is often the case for those like him (or indeed like me) who are people with a great deal of privilege and have a tendency towards logical, analytical, thought, there is a tendency to try to take the oppressor’s arguments seriously, to steelman them, to see if they have a point, and that this tendency often lends unintended support to people who are causing harm.

And I also thought about point three in my post about trans people:

No, you don’t need to play devil’s advocate about this. While the precise boundaries of gender definition may be of great academic interest to you, arguing that trans people aren’t “really” who they say they are leads to greater prejudice against them. Given the horrific rates of attempted suicide among trans people, and how much lower those rates are when the people in question are in a supportive environment, maybe you could just shut up about your thought experiments for a while?

Which could very easily be generalised to an attack on the very idea of political debate.

As an example, take the current case of funding being withdrawn from some cancer drugs, because while they apparently have some effect, they are having far, far less effect for their cost than other interventions for other illnesses.

Now, that’s the sort of thing about which a debate *needs* to be had — given there is a finite amount of money that can be spent on healthcare, at what point do we say “I’m sorry, but even though this would give you an extra two months of rather painful life, for the same money we can give twenty patients with heart disease each an extra ten years of pain-free existence”? There are, in fact, metrics for this which are fairly successful, and the problem currently is that the Conservatives promised to make an exception of them for cancer, then found out very quickly that that exception caused a massive spending increase without a concomitant benefit in lives saved, and are trying desperately to roll back from their original position.

But I can very easily imagine a cancer sufferer saying “Yes, well, it’s all very well you talking about that as an intellectual exercise, but in the real world, I actually have actual cancer, and those two months are two months of *my life*. How can you even discuss this?”

(In fact, that pretty much is the argument that I’ve seen various Labour-affiliated politicians making).

Now, the thing is, I think the first statement is pretty much self-evidently true. If arguing about trans people’s ontological status has the very real effect of leading to a situation where some people die and a lot more are made more miserable than they otherwise would be, it behooves any half-decent human being who has an argument to shut up, even if it’s a really good argument, at least in their opinion. The benefit they get from making the argument is FAR outweighed by the harm they’re doing. [NB, I am not arguing that they should be *banned* from saying those things. I’m saying they shouldn’t do it. Far too many people on the Internet conflate “I disapprove strongly of this” with “I think this thing should be prevented by force”]

I also think, though, that we *have* to have arguments of the second type, and I don’t think anyone seriously disagrees — arguments where we have to balance competing needs and harms, and have to do so rationally.

I think EVERYONE, in fact, agrees that there are times when arguments need to be made, even when someone will lose out by those arguments (as a reductio ad absurdum, were there to be a pill that, were you to take it, would provide 100% perfect protection against cancer forever, but only if you never ate chocolate again, I think that we’d all agree that that should be publicised even if it meant financial ruin for Ian Cadbury and Ian Mars).

I think we all (except for a very small minority of psychopaths) also agree that there are times when one should not make an argument, even if one believes it to be true, because the harm it does far outdoes the good that making the argument can do. Very few people think that you should go up to someone at their grandmother’s funeral and say “Your grandmother is now suffering infinite torments, from which she will never be spared for all eternity”, even if you really, sincerely, think that Raven-Taylorite Exclusive Brethren will go to hell forever because only Needed Truth Open Brethren follow the true teachings of the Bible.

But it occurs to me that the most damaging, the most extreme, Internet arguments — at least, those between people of actual good faith, as opposed to out-and-out bigots, trolls, fascists and others who actually want other people to suffer — all tend to be arguments about *which of these categories a particular subject should be put in*.

At one end one has the LessWrong/Slate Star Codex/Richard Dawkins type people, who say “But WHAT IF people committing honour killings are really doing the world a favour by enforcing the patriarchy, because WHAT IF men really just ARE better than women? I’m not saying they are, but can’t we ask the question”? [NB, as far as I know none of those people has made that argument, but as a style of argument it is all too familiar, even among otherwise decent, intelligent, people]. At the other, Tumblr Social Justice types.

Temperamentally, I’m far closer to the former group than the latter (I don’t really do taking offence at ideas, and can gladly play with the most revolting thoughts while treating them as hypotheticals), but on most actual cases, I tend to side with the Social Justice people, because “this is hurting me and I’d like the pain to stop” is, most of the time, a more compelling argument than anything else.

But it just occurred to me that I’d never thought of it before in precisely these terms — as an argument about which category various topics should go into. And I think that maybe people on either side of the arguments aren’t thinking about it in those terms either — one group instead thinking “why are those people keeping doing this when I’ve said it’s hurtful?” while the other is thinking “why are those people trying to stop my freedom of speech?”

I’d always previously thought of it as an argument between totally incompatible types of people — Social Justice versus Internet Libertarian — but perhaps the whole argument about privilege, trigger warnings, free speech, and a whole bunch of other subjects that I won’t bring up because even mentioning some of them could set off another of these arguments… perhaps most of the arguments we’ve been having in the twenty years or so since the Internet became a mass medium and people of differing views became more exposed to each other are not arguments between fundamentally incompatible types of people, but “just” symptoms of a meta-argument about framing. If so, that gives me a little more hope than I previously had that eventually people might stop just being horrible to each other.

Does any of this make sense, or am I talking complete crap, or is this something that was blatantly obvious to everyone but me because I’m autistic and don’t get social signals the way other people do? I can’t even tell any more, I’m so exhausted. But I’m interested in what people think. But be nice to each other in the comments if you can — I don’t want to cause any more of the type of argument I’m talking about here when I’m not well enough to deal with the stress that would cause.

*Possibly his most Rilstonian book. I know many people who like Rilstone’s writing — they should buy it immediately. But I also know a few people who get angered by Rilstone’s writing, and they would probably find this *far* more angering than, say, his book on Doctor Who.

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8 Responses to On Privilege and When You Should Shut Up

  1. Iain Coleman says:

    Your model leaves out an important factor: sheer human malice. There are of course plenty of wankers who enjoy hurting people and then when called upon it get on their high horse about exploring logical arguments, playing devil’s advocate or whatever. And on the other hand there are the people who enjoy using the language of social justice to bully and hurt people in order to win status games in online communities. I’m thinking of people like Winterfox /Requires Hate or Alex Dally MacFarlane, the people who the term “Social Justice Warrior” was originally coined to mock, though sadly it has become devalued into uselessness by the gamergate twats.

    So I think it is too much to hope that increased understanding will stop people being horrible to each other, because some people gain pleasure or status from knowingly and deliberately being horrible to others.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I did include a brief mention of that — “Internet arguments — at least, those between people of actual good faith, as opposed to out-and-out bigots, trolls, fascists and others who actually want other people to suffer” — but you’re right that they are rather a flaw in my hopes. But then again, those people only tend to cause real damage because they have a whole lot of useful idiots on their side…

      • Iain Coleman says:

        They do often have useful idiots, but the Winterfox case is even worse: she appears to have befriended people by email, encouraged them to share various private issues with her, then used this information to blackmail them into backing her up in public. It’s one of those stories that is always surprising you by finding new depths of horribleness.

  2. Tilt Araiza says:

    I’ve been thinking about something similar in more general terms and I’d come to the conclusion that the internet belongs to people who like an argument. They’re not trolls, they don’t willfully do it to get a rise but they carry around the certainty of their own cleverness and everything everyone else says is proof of the stupidity of others. You can’t say anything without someone looking for flaws in an argument they can pretend you’re making. Maybe I’m just in a bit of a mood.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    I think you might be on to something. Your fugue state has, at the very least, led you somewhere interesting.

    Unfortunately, I think your sleep deprivation has also made you a bit less coherent than usual, so that I can’t entirely follow what the two sides are that you think are in conflict. (Of course, it might be that I haven’t had enough sleep.)

    So usually I think that once something has been blogged, it should be left to stand. But on this occasion, it might be worth revisiting this phalanx of ideas some time when you’re thinking more clearly, and seeing whether you can edit this into a form that lays out the issue in a way that easier to follow.

    Because this might be an important message to get Out There.

  4. plok says:

    I think people do sometimes remark on this, but much more casually than you’ve done here so I think you’ve made a good point. Uh…cliches are cliches for a reason? But they need a good second look every so often, and usually (in my experience) when people do say something like this it’s just a thinly-veiled way of telling their interlocutor to shut up and stop stirring shit. The question of how-to-frame goes pretty deep, though, perhaps all the way down to “experimental bias”. The need to regularize exerts its own pressure on historicization, maybe?

    Facts are only as good as what you can prove with them, or from them? So it’s never the facts that matter?

    Thinking specifically of the “aren’t trans women really men?” thing, shorn of arguments about how-to-frame it’s probably a question no one at all needs answered…as Dr. Manhattan might say, a living body and a dead one contain the same number of pronouns, so who genuinely cares enough to tell somene they’re not who they say they are? In the abstract, it surely can’t matter this much to anyone, and there’s probably no abstract conclusion anyone can reach that they can stand by as an absolute principle to which all individual cases and specific situations must make obeisance…that’s probably bullshit, because we probably make up our minds about how to call people on our own. And words are just words, and language just language, by which I mean we don’t have to consult the Large Hadron Collider to find out if it’s okay to say if animals have souls, or something. But if one wanted to really argue about framing, wouldn’t one need just such an excuse of a topic as this? There was a book out a couple of years ago, that identified the homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy as a 19th-century German terminological invention (suddenly makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?)…and one out a few years earlier talking about the social construction of what a “fairy” was in 1950s America, which (if I recall right) basically boiled down to “someone a Real Man can humilate by raping, and make himself even more of a Real Man by doing so”…er, my point being that there’s no particular reason for the precise boundaries of gender definition NOW to be made a question of who was righter, Plato or Aristotle, because this is our thing and not theirs…so I don’t really think you can foreclose on the general validity of political debate by saying “this would be a good pretext for an argument about the eternal verities of how-to-frame, except it hurts people in measurable and real ways to use it as such, so maybe we could do something a bit more Morrison-and-Moore instead and get this reductio REALLY absurdum if that’s where we’re determined to head…”

    I mean: gay, straight, bi, trans, cis…these are all just adjectives, they modify nouns but they can’t predetermine the nouns? “A trans woman is really a man”, that’s like the weirdest sophistry, why even bother to say it like that except to specifically oppose the equally-elaborate assertion “a trans woman is a woman”…I don’t think you’re doing anyone a disservice by saying “we can split far less harmful hairs”…

    Sorry, Tilt; don’t know why I chose to take your perfectly reasonable comment and gratuitously blow it up into this…uh, performance art, or whatever it is I just wrote down here…

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