In the last few months, I’ve gotten increasingly alarmed by leftist politics in the US, and the epistemic conditions that it operates under and is imposing wherever it gains power. (Quite possibly the conditions are just as dire on the right, but they are not as visible or salient to me, because most of the places I can easily see, either directly or through news stories, i.e., local politics in my area, academia, journalism, large corporations, seem to have been taken over by the left.)
I’m worried that my alarmism is itself based on confirmation bias, tribalism, catastrophizing, or any number of other biases. (It confuses me that I seem to be the first person to talk much about this on either LW or EA Forum, given that there must be people who have been exposed to the current political environment earlier or to a greater extent than me. On the other hand, all my posts/comments on the subject have generally been upvoted on both forums, and nobody has specifically said that I’m being too alarmist. One possible explanation for nobody else raising an alarm about this is that they’re afraid of the current political climate and they’re not as “cancel-proof” as I am, or don’t feel that they have as much leeway to talk about politics-adjacent issues here as I do.)
So I want to ask, have things always been like this, or have they actually gotten significantly worse in recent (say the last 5 or 10) years? If they’ve always been like this, then perhaps there is less cause for alarm, because (1) if things have always been this bad, and we muddled through them in the past, we can probably continue to muddle through in the future (modulo new x-risks like AGI), and (2) if there is no recent trend towards worsening conditions then we don’t need to worry so much about conditions getting worse in the near future. (Obviously if we go back far enough, say to the Middle Ages, then things were almost certainly as bad or worse, but I’m worried about more recent trends.)
If there are other reasons to not be very alarmed aside from the past being just as bad, please feel free to talk about those as well. But in case one of those reasons is “why be alarmed when there’s little that can be done about it”, my answer is that being alarmed motivates one to try to understand what is going on, which can help with (1) deciding personal behavior now in expectation of future changes (for example if there’s going to be a literal Cultural Revolution in the future, then I need to be really really careful what I say today), (2) planning x-risk strategy, and (3) defending LW/EA from either outside attack or similar internal dynamics.
Here’s some of what I’ve observed so far, which has led me to my current epistemic state:
In local politics, “asking for evidence of oppression is a form of oppression” or even more directly “questioning the experiences of a marginalized group that you don’t belong to is not allowed and will result in a ban” has apparently been an implicit norm, and is being made increasingly explicit. (E.g., I saw a FB group explicitly codifying this in their rules.) As a result, anyone can say “Policy X or Program Y oppresses Group Z and must be changed” and nobody can argue against that, except by making the same kind of claim based on a different identity group, and then it comes down to which group is recognized as being more privileged or oppressed by the current orthodoxy. (If someone does belong to Group Z and wants to argue against the claim on that basis, they’ll be dismissed based on “being tokenized” or “internalized oppression”.)
In academia, even leftist professors are being silenced or kicked out on a regular basis for speaking out against an ever-shifting “party line”. (“Party line” is in quotes because it is apparently not determined in a top-down fashion by people in charge of a political party, but instead seems to arise from the bottom up, which is even scarier as no one can decide to turn this off, like the Chinese Communist Party did to end the Cultural Revolution after Mao died.) See here for a previous comment on this with links. I don’t recall reading this kind of stories before about 5 years ago.
The thing that most directly prompted me to write this post was this (the most “recommended”) comment on a recent New York Times story about “cancel culture”:
Having just graduated from the University of Minnesota last year, a very liberal college, I believe these examples don’t adequately show how far cancel culture has gone and what it truly is. The examples used of disassociating from obvious homophobes, or more classic bullying that teenage girls have always done to each other since the dawn of time is not new and not really cancel culture. The cancel culture that is truly new to my generation is the full blocking or shutting out of someone who simply has a different opinion than you. My experience in college was it morphed into a culture of fear for most. The fear of cancellation or punishment for voicing an opinion that the “group” disagreed with created a culture where most of us sat silent. My campus was not one of fruitful debate, but silent adherence to whatever the most “woke” person in the classroom decided was the correct thing to believe or think. This is not how things worked in the past, people used to be able to disagree, debate and sometimes feel offended because we are all looking to get closer to the truth on whatever topic it may be. Our problem with cancel culture is it snuffs out any debate, there is no longer room for dissent or nuance, the group can decide that your opinion isn’t worth hearing and—poof you’ve been canceled into oblivion. Whatever it’s worth I’d like to note I’m a liberal, voted for Obama and Hillary, those who participate in cancel culture aren’t liberals to me, they’ve hijacked the name.
I went to the University of Washington (currently also quite liberal, see one of the above linked “professor” stories which took place at UW) in the late 90s, and I don’t remember things being like this back then, but some of the replies to this comment say that things were this bad before:
@Cal thoughtful comment, however, i grew up in the late 60s-70s and what you described was going on then also. the technology of course is different today, and the issues different. we never had a name (“cancel”) for it, but it existed.
This sounds a lot like my college experience in the late 80s and early 90s. I think when people get out into the “real world” and have to work with people of varying ages and from varying backgrounds, they realize they need to be more tolerant to get by in the workplace. I remember being afraid to voice any opinion in liberal arts classes, for fear it would be the wrong one and inadvertently offend someone.
So LW, what to make of all this?
I think this was an important question, even though I’m uncertain what effect it had.
It’s interesting to note that this question was asked at the very beginning of the pandemic, just as it began to enter the public awareness (Nassim Taleb published a paper on the pandemic a day after this question was asked, and the first coronavirus post on LW was published 3 days later).
During the pandemic we have seen the degraded epistemic condition in effect, it was noticed very early (LW Example), and continued throughout the pandemic (e.g, supreme court judges stating bogus claims about COVID just a few days ago). But more than that I think it showed what I said in my answer (in my bad English of two years ago), that epistemic conditions didn’t just get worse, they got polarized—some people improved their epistemics and some people abandoned, both in part did so in reaction to the other.
During the pandemic ideology and incentives distorted and hid the truth. Those who just listened to the established institutions were fooled, those who noticed they were being lied to had to discover the truth by other means, which meant either doing their own research or finding people they can trust that do—both requiring having or developing good epistemics to do well, which some managed and some didn’t.
I also think there’s a connection between woke ideology, which was the main thing discussed here, and the epistemic failure with COVID, though I don’t currently have links handy to support this except this podcast.
And talking about wokeness, I think it also gave more examples of its bad epistemics since the question was asked. Do you remember that month when twitter discussed whether 2+2 equals 5?
If this question didn’t have a large effect, perhaps it was because it didn’t ask what to do about it, and no followup question did either. I would like to see this discussed more, perhaps a new question should be posted. But for now I’ll say that I think woke ideology has been correctly identified here as the driver of the epistemic degradation we see, and to understand it you should understand wokeness. I researched wokeness for the last month or so (might write a post about it) and James Lindsay has been the most helpful resource for me. If you want to learn about it I suggest to start there.