Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Seen the Shadows Grow, See an Ominous Display

Scott Alexander:

A lot of people without connections to the tech industry don’t realize how bad it’s gotten. This is how bad. It would be pointless trying to do anything about this person in particular. This is the climate.

Silicon Valley was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be the life of the mind, where people who were interested in the mysteries of computation and cognition could get together and make the world better for everybody. Now it’s degenerated into this giant hatefest of everybody writing long screeds calling everyone else Nazis and demanding violence against them. Where if someone disagrees with the consensus, it’s just taken as a matter of course that we need to hunt them down, deny them of the cloak of anonymity, fire them, and blacklist them so they can never get a job again. Where the idea that we shouldn’t be a surveillance society where we carefully watch our coworkers for signs of sexism so we can report them to the authorities is exactly the sort of thing you get reported to the authorities if people see you saying.

...Parts of tech are already this bad. For the rest of you: it’s what you have to look forward to.

He's speaking, of course, of the reaction to the memo destined to live in infamy. "This person in particular" about whom it would be pointless to do anything is another Google employee ranting about Nazis, Nazis and the need to punch Nazis, namely the author of the memo. Because, as we know, the actual Nazis were famous for beginning their inter-party memos with statements like "I value diversity and inclusion." It's funny — I've read many good articles at National Review, but after a couple days of seeing the most wildly deranged and willfully dishonest reactions to the memo from progressives, this was the first time I've clicked over to N.R. and thought, "Oh, thank God!" They had several pieces up about the topic, and reading them was like discovering an oasis of sanity in a desert of hysteria. Ah, well. At this point, the conversation is several meta-levels above where it began. People rarely ever discuss the original point; they react to what they think the person might have been implying, and their opponents do likewise, and everyone just ends up screaming past each other yet again. It's as if the children's game of Telephone has become a full-contact sport.

In 1873, James Fitzjames Stephen wrote a book called Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, a philosophical assault on John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Among many other criticisms, Stephen noted that Mill's dream of a society that changed minds purely through gentle persuasion, not coercion, was a chimera. Debate all you want, Stephen said, but a clash of values will only end with one opponent finally bending the knee in submission and the majority of the onlookers shrugging their shoulders in indifference:

The custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality, and the fact that this aversion may be felt by the very person whose conduct occasions it, and may be described as arising from the action of his own conscience, makes no difference which need be considered here. The important point is that such disapprobation could never have become customary unless it had been imposed upon mankind at large by persons who themselves felt it with exceptional energy, and who were in a position which enabled them to make other people adopt their principles and even their tastes and feelings.

Religion and morals, in a word, bear, even when they are at their calmest, the traces of having been established, as we know that in fact they were, by word of command. We have seen enough of the foundation of religions to know pretty well what is their usual course. A religion is first preached by a single person or a small body of persons. A certain number of disciples adopts it enthusiastically, and proceed to force their views upon the world by preaching, by persuasion, by the force of sympathy, until the new creed has become sufficiently influential and sufficiently well organized to exercise power both over its own members and beyond its own sphere....But, be the special form of religious power what it will, the principle is universally true that the growth of religions is in the nature of a conquest made by a small number of ardent believers over the lukewarmness, the indifference, and the conscious ignorance of the mass of mankind.

I've worried about this for a long time without coming any closer to a reassuring answer. The best always seem to lack conviction for the fight, and the worst are always filled with an inexhaustible reservoir of passionate intensity. "The goal of creating 50/50 gender parity in prestigious fields is a simple-minded fantasy, and even if it could be achieved, nothing important would be solved by doing so" — I can say this only because I'm a nobody, beneath notice. It's the truth, but it's not the sort of truth anyone wants to endure painful consequences in order to defend. The willingness to inflict those consequences ends up deciding the matter. Has it ever been otherwise?

Theodore Dalrymple wrote a fascinating essay, "How to Read a Society," in his book Our Culture, What's Left of It. In it, he tells of a nineteenth-century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia for three months and published his observations in a series of letters, later to become a book, under the title La Russie en 1839. Particularly noteworthy was his diagnosis of a cultural malaise owing to the propensity to deceive and be deceived. One of the unspoken customs prevalent during Custine's visit was for Russians to refuse to look at the palace where the Czar's father, Paul, had been murdered. Similarly, no previous Czar was ever mentioned in conversation, in order to avoid implying that the current Czar was mortal. As Dalrymple writes:

Custine appreciated only too well the violence that this remaking of history did to the minds of men, and the consequences it had for their character and behavior. In order not to look at the palace in which the emperor Paul was murdered, a person had to know that he was killed there; but his whole purpose in not looking at the palace was to demonstrate in public his ignorance of the murder. He thus had not only to assert a lie but also to deny that he knew it was a lie. And all officials — the emperor included — had likewise to pretend that they did not know they were being lied to, or else the whole edifice of falsehood would have come tumbling down.

The need always to lie and always to avoid the truth stripped everyone of what Custine called "the two greatest gifts of God — the soul and the speech which communicates it." People become hypocritical, cunning, mistrustful, cynical, silent, cruel and indifferent to the fate of others as a result of the destruction of their own souls. Moreover the upkeep of systematic untruth requires a network of spies; indeed, it requires that everyone become a spy and potential informer. And "the spy," wrote Custine, "believes only in espionage, and if you escape his snares he believes that he is about to fall into yours." The damage to personal relations was incalculable.

If Custine were among us now, he would recognize the evil of political correctness at once, because of the violence that it does to people's souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not believe but must not question. Custine would demonstrate to us that, without an external despot to explain our pusillanimity, we have willingly adopted the mental habits of people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship.

The avenues of the web are indeed filled with snitches and cops. Most of us are learning to keep our heads down and mouths shut as a result. As Dalrymple noted elsewhere, the purpose of political correctness is to humiliate, not to persuade. It forces you to become complicit in your own confinement, to lose self-respect and thus become more easily controlled. Death by a thousand little white lies.