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!