Has “politics is the mind-killer” been a mind-killer?

To my mind, one of the sem­i­nal pieces of writ­ing in the ra­tio­nal­sphere is Eliezer’s short es­say ti­tled “Poli­tics is the mind-kil­ler”.

YMMV, but it had a big in­fluence on me per­son­ally. On re­flec­tion, how­ever, I think its in­fluence was nega­tive rather than pos­i­tive—for me, per­son­ally.

I don’t re­ally put the blame on Eliezer. It’s on me, for not read­ing closely enough and tak­ing broader con­clu­sions than were ap­pro­pri­ate. But the net effect for me was that the idea that “poli­tics is the mind-kil­ler” was, to some ex­tent, a mind-kil­ler of its own.

Below I’m go­ing to break down some of the com­ments and how they im­pacted me:

  • The first thing I want to ac­knowl­edge is that there was one as­pect of this ar­ti­cle that I to­tally mis­read/​mis­in­ter­preted. Eliezer says “Poli­tics is an im­por­tant do­main to which we should in­di­vi­d­u­ally ap­ply our ra­tio­nal­ity—but it’s a ter­rible do­main in which to learn ra­tio­nal­ity, or dis­cuss ra­tio­nal­ity”.

  • But he adds a caveat to the above sen­tence—“un­less all the dis­cus­sants are already ra­tio­nal”. I think the source of my mis­read­ing is that I took this to mean that you can’t talk about poli­tics ra­tio­nally, un­less you’re talk­ing with “ra­tio­nal” ac­tors—pe­riod. Read­ing this ex­cerpt more closely I can see where I went wrong. But I won­der if I’m alone.

  • The first sen­tence in the ar­ti­cle is that “Peo­ple go funny in the head when talk­ing about poli­tics”. It’s a good lede, but it would be more ac­cu­rate to say that “Peo­ple TEND TO go funny in the head when talk­ing about poli­tics”. I don’t think it should be a given that if you’re talk­ing about poli­tics, peo­ple are go­ing funny in the head. In fact, wouldn’t this pre­sup­po­si­tion put you off talk­ing about poli­tics? Per­son­ally, it did for me, for many years.

  • Eliezer says that “In the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, poli­tics was a mat­ter of life and death”. The truth of the mat­ter is, that policy de­ci­sions can of­ten have life-and-death con­se­quences. It may not be im­me­di­ate, and it may not be per­sonal, which I think is the point he’s try­ing to make. But the scope of poli­ti­cal de­ci­sions im­pact a lot of peo­ple, and this shouldn’t be down­played. Ar­guably, policy de­ci­sions have a much big­ger im­pact on our fel­low coun­trypeo­ple than any in­di­vi­d­ual de­ci­sion we can make.

  • He also says that poli­tics was a mat­ter of “sex, and wealth, and al­lies, and rep­u­ta­tion”. Well, I wouldn’t say that has changed.

  • Eliezer says that “If your point is in­her­ently about poli­tics, then talk about Louis XVI dur­ing the French Revolu­tion”. The trou­ble with this is that it raises the bar too high for any­one to dis­cuss poli­tics. A small enough pro­por­tion of peo­ple are en­gaged with poli­tics at the con­tem­po­rary level. To also re­quire broad his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge to talk about poli­cies will mean that only a very limited num­ber of peo­ple can talk about it. (I un­der­stand if this is an ap­pro­pri­ate norm in the ra­tio­nal­sphere, or ar­eas that aren’t di­rectly re­lated to poli­tics.)

  • He says that “Poli­tics is an ex­ten­sion of war by other means. Ar­gu­ments are sol­diers”. I’d up­date this to say that “ONE WAY OF THINKING ABOUT poli­tics is AS IF IT IS an ex­ten­sion of war by other means. Ar­gu­ments CAN BE THOUGHT OF AS sol­diers”.

  • Eliezer ex­tends the above metaphor by say­ing that “Once you know which side you’re on, you must sup­port all ar­gu­ments of that side, and at­tack all ar­gu­ments that ap­pear to fa­vor the en­emy side”. The trou­ble with this metaphor (cou­pled with the strong lan­guage I point out above) is that it re­in­forces a view of poli­tics that doesn’t have to (and, I’d ar­gue shouldn’t) be this way. He fol­lows by say­ing that “Peo­ple who would be level-headed about even­hand­edly weigh­ing all sides of an is­sue in their pro­fes­sional life as sci­en­tists, can sud­denly turn into slo­gan-chant­ing zom­bies”. I re­ally want to stress that to me, there’s a key word in that state­ment: “can”. Peo­ple CAN sud­denly turn into slo­gan-chant­ing zom­bies, but that doesn’t mean that they WILL or that they HAVE TO. Again, I over­looked this un­til I re­ally scru­ti­nised the ar­ti­cle.

I ac­knowl­edge that the sec­ond half of the ar­ti­cle (which be­gins with the non­monotic rea­son­ing ex­am­ple re­lat­ing to Nixon, Repub­li­cans, and Paci­fists) seems to be a way of en­courage peo­ple to re­sist poli­ti­cal digs (and dog whis­tles?) within the ra­tio­nal­sphere. This makes sense, I agree with it, and it seems to have been effec­tive. It’s re­fresh­ing that this com­mu­nity has largely stayed away from mod­ern poli­tics.
But at the per­sonal level, I’ve let “poli­tics is the mind-kil­ler” be a mind-kil­ler. It has dis­suaded me from be­ing as poli­ti­cally in­ter­ested or en­gaged as I would have oth­er­wise been.

As I’ve men­tioned, policy de­ci­sions that are made by our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives have an enor­mous im­pact on so­ciety. There is a lot of room for good faith de­bate. The more peo­ple who are prac­ticed at, or at least sen­si­tive to, the value of ra­tio­nal­ity, the more likely that we’ll get good out­comes.

At the very least, if we can in­tro­duce some of the norms in the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity and ap­ply these to poli­ti­cal con­ver­sa­tions out­side of it, the qual­ity of the con­ver­sa­tions sur­round­ing these ar­eas where there is room for good de­bate will im­prove. Which will hope­fully re­sult in bet­ter out­comes.

I’m not say­ing this should be dis­cussed on LessWrong or any­where else. But I’m say­ing that the im­pact of this ar­ti­cle and broader norm within the ra­tio­nal­sphere made me think in these terms more broadly. There’s a part of me that wishes I’d never read it in the first place.

If any­one has had a similar per­spec­tive on “poli­tics is the mind-kil­ler”, or a com­pletely differ­ent per­spec­tive from me, than I’m in­ter­ested to hear!