Authoritarian Empiricism

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(Ex­cerpts from a con­ver­sa­tion with my friend Mack, very slightly ed­ited for clar­ity and flow, in­clud­ing get­ting rid of most of the meta­con­ver­sa­tion.)

Ben: Just spent 2 full days offline for the holi­day—feel­ing good about it, I needed it.

Mack: Good!

Ben: Also figured out some stuff about ac­cul­tura­tion I got and had to un­learn, that was helpful

Mack: I’m in­ter­ested if you feel like elaborating

Ben: OK, so, here’s the deal.

I no­ticed over the first cou­ple days of Passover that the men in the pseudo-com­mu­nity I grew up in seem to think there’s a per­sonal moral obli­ga­tion to honor con­tracts, pretty much re­gard­less of the co­er­cion in­volved. The women seem to get that this in­creases the amount of vi­o­lence in the world by quite a lot rel­a­tive to op­ti­mal play, but they don’t re­ally tell the men. This seems re­lated some­how to a thing where the men feel anx­ious about the prospect of mod­el­ing peo­ple as au­tonomous sub­jects—poli­ti­cal crea­tures—in­stead of just ob­jec­tify­ing them, but when they slap down at­tempts to do that, they pre­tend they’re in­sist­ing on rigor and em­piri­cism.

Which I’d wrongly in­ter­nal­ized, as a kid, as good-faith cri­tiques of my epistemics.

Story 1:

I was talk­ing with my father about Adorno, the En­light­en­ment, and anti-Semitism, and the con­ver­sa­tion was do­ing a rea­son­able-seem­ing thing, UNTIL he brought up the is­sue of high-fer­til­ity eth­nic minori­ties with dis­tinct poli­ti­cal loy­alties in democ­ra­cies. So, nat­u­rally, first I ex­plored the spe­cific thing he brought up, which was that this strat­egy ex­ploits a real se­cu­rity flaw in the demo­cratic setup, and (since this came up in the con­text of Is­rael) that hyp­o­crit­i­cal eth­nic ma­jori­ties will­ing to oc­ca­sion­ally vi­o­late their “stan­dards” do a lot bet­ter patch­ing the se­cu­rity flaw, than do eth­nic ma­jori­ties who in­sist on ACTUALLY hav­ing struc­turally neu­tral liber­al­ism that takes care of and em­pow­ers ev­ery­one.

But, then, since we’d been talk­ing about anti-Semitism, I had to point out that there’s a struc­turally similar thing go­ing on with Jews and credit-al­lo­ca­tion sys­tems in early fi­nan­cial­ized states like pre- and in­ter­war Ger­many. If there had been ac­tual co­or­di­na­tion and an ac­tual agenda, it would have been triv­ial to take over the state. (There wasn’t and there wasn’t, it’s a trope in pre-WWII-era Jewish hu­mor that the anti-Semitic news­pa­pers kind of read like es­capist fan­tasy). But, like, a dou­ble-digit per­centage of elites is ob­vi­ously enough, in a mod­ern state where info-pro­cess­ing is ab­stract and mostly au­to­mated, to con­trol quite a lot, given perfect co­or­di­na­tion.

And he ba­si­cally said, “you can’t say that, be­cause you don’t have hard data.”

Which, like, where am I gonna find hard data on the in­ci­dence of coups via groups with un­rea­son­ably high lev­els of co­or­di­na­tion seiz­ing con­trol of the state’s in­for­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing ap­para­tus (thus caus­ing the records to mis­re­port re­al­ity as a side effect)?

When I poked him on this, he ended up re­treat­ing to the motte of “it’s pos­si­ble that what you’re say­ing isn’t true”. Which, yes, ob­vi­ously—it’s spec­u­la­tion. But also ob­vi­ously that isn’t what he was origi­nally say­ing. He was say­ing some­thing like: It’s wrong to rea­son about con­crete situ­a­tions based on hy­po­thet­i­cals about hu­man po­ten­tial; le­gi­t­i­mate dis­course is the sort of thing that could get into an aca­demic jour­nal (which is nec­es­sar­ily at least perform­ing be­ing apoli­ti­cal in some sense, even in the jour­nal’s ex­plic­itly about poli­ti­cal the­ory).

This helped a bunch of past stuff click for me, where e.g. he knows a lot about what the Rab­bis of the Tal­mud said, and what later me­dieval com­men­ta­tors have said, and his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship about how the text de­vel­oped, and that’s fine to talk about, but if I read them as though they were ar­gu­ing about some spe­cific real thing, try to un­der­stand and then talk about it, and use it to con­tex­tu­al­ize in­di­vi­d­ual state­ments, that seems like “ir­re­spon­si­ble” spec­u­la­tion to him.

Di­gres­sion to an ex­am­ple I think is cool:

At the Passover Seder, we tra­di­tion­ally read a story about five Rab­bis, in Ro­man times, stay­ing up all night to study the Ex­o­dus from Egypt (the Passover story). (Th­ese are guys who were also as­so­ci­ated both with the re­bel­lions against Rome, and the suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion to a per­ma­nently ex­ilic Ju­daism.) And then in the morn­ing their stu­dents come in and say “it’s time to re­cite the morn­ing Shema” (cen­tral af­fir­ma­tion that tra­di­tional Jews re­cite com­mu­nally twice daily).

Turns out there’s ANOTHER story in the Tal­mud about a rabbi stay­ing up study­ing un­til his stu­dents come in to tell him it’s time for the morn­ing Shema, but this one is very differ­ent. It’s Bar Yochai, a figure as­so­ci­ated with mys­ti­cism /​ proto-Kab­balah. He’s just gener­i­cally study­ing To­rah, not speci­fi­cally the Ex­o­dus story. He’s alone, not with peers. And when his stu­dents come in, he says that study­ing To­rah takes prece­dence over any­thing else, so he’s not go­ing to come say the Shema with them, even though it’s an obli­ga­tory com­mand­ment.

This is part of a broader dis­agree­ment be­tween Bar Yochai and the other rab­bis.

Another in­stance of the same dis­agree­ment:
Most of the Rab­bis think that the com­mand­ment to at­tend to To­rah (the teach­ings of Moses) all day means that if e.g. you’re plant­ing your crops, figure out how to do that in a To­rah-ish way. Bar Yochai says you should liter­ally just sit study­ing To­rah, and if you do that well enough, gen­tiles will show up and plant your crops for you as a re­ward. So, Bar Yochai and his stu­dents tried it his way, and the other rab­bis and their stu­dents tried it their way. And, em­piri­cally, Bar Yochai turned out to be mis­taken. He got magic pow­ers (the Tal­mud is very clear on this point), but his crops failed be­cause he … didn’t plant or har­vest them.

Ba­si­cally he pri­ori­tized in­ner work over ev­ery­thing else, as­sum­ing that it’s high enough lev­er­age that other stuff would take care of it­self, and the other rab­bis thought that this stuff doesn’t work out­side the con­text of a com­mu­nity op­er­at­ing with some sort of syn­chro­niza­tion, or out­side the con­text of the mun­dane ac­tivi­ties of life.

It’s not hard to see why (a) the Tal­mud says that if there’s any other school of thought available, never go with Bar Yochai’s opinion on a le­gal mat­ter, but also (b) the kab­bal­ists saw him as an in­tel­lec­tual pre­cur­sor.

So, link­ing this back to the un­der­ly­ing prob­lem—de­scribing the sto­ries is OK, mak­ing in­fer­ences about them sort of reg­isters as a kind of sto­ry­tel­ling that can be fun/​in­ter­est­ing, but my dad just can’t en­gage with the idea that there’s a fact of the mat­ter about what these peo­ple were talk­ing *about*, sep­a­rate from what they ex­plic­itly said, and talk about kab­balah as poli­ti­cal the­ory of change with con­crete mun­dane im­pli­ca­tions.

Story 2:
I’d just talked with my mom a bunch about her adult ESL stu­dents—some of them are “un­mo­ti­vated” and she’d re­cently re­al­ized it’s in part be­cause some are co­erced to show up lest they lose their visas. I pointed out that she could just ne­go­ti­ate di­rectly with them to work out a solu­tion that al­lows the ones who want to learn to not be dis­tracted, and that she’s not morally obliged to force the ones who aren’t in­ter­ested in the class to pre­tend they are.

Then at 2nd seder a friend’s father was talk­ing with her about this, and as soon as he heard about the symp­toms, he de­clared that she should set a firm bound­ary so that stu­dents that e.g. af­ter n min­utes the door of the class­room is locked and stu­dents who are too late are ab­sent, that her first obli­ga­tion is to her con­tract as a teacher, etc. And he ba­si­cally just couldn’t hear or wasn’t in­ter­ested in the fact that some of the stu­dents were un­der co­er­cion, didn’t seem to think that fact was morally rele­vant at all.

(None of these ex­am­ples is hugely per­sua­sive on their own, but each of them caused a long pat­tern of similar things to click).

When I pointed out that my mom wasn’t morally obliged to col­lab­o­rate with ICE he just de­nied that this had any­thing to do with what he was say­ing, with­out offer­ing an ar­gu­ment.

Story 2b:
Same night, differ­ent in­ci­dent.

My friend (the son of the guy from story 2) asked me how Pitts­burgh was.

I re­sponded with the fol­low­ing anal­ogy:

While in Berkeley, it’s like I was liv­ing on the first-class deck of the Ti­tanic. In the dis­tance, I can see the ship head­ing to­wards an ice­berg. Mean­while, all the first-class pas­sen­gers are ob­sessed with schem­ing about how to be­come the cap­tain, or oth­er­wise take over the ship and get the nice state­rooms and priv­ileges.

I’m con­cerned with steer­ing the ship to safety, but when I find peo­ple ral­ly­ing around the stated in­tent to steer the ship to safety, they’re mostly just an­other fac­tion try­ing to take over the ship. I try to per­suade in­di­vi­d­u­als that ACTUALLY nav­i­gat­ing is ob­ject-level im­por­tant even though it doesn’t af­fect any­thing in our im­me­di­ate con­crete en­vi­ron­ment, but this just seems to peo­ple like a weird bank-shot at­tempt to gain sta­tus by dom­i­nat­ing the “steer the ship to safety” fac­tion.

So, de­pressed and scared and emo­tion­ally scarred by this, I go to a place I’ve heard there are a bunch of sane com­pe­tent en­g­ineers: the en­g­ine room!

It turns out, they ARE lo­cally sane here. They’re col­lab­o­rat­ing to do means-ends rea­son­ing to keep the en­g­ine run­ning, which keeps the lights on and keeps the ship mov­ing for­wards. Given the crazy situ­a­tion we’re in, keep­ing the ship mov­ing for­wards is not helping. But at least it’s liter­ally not their job to know about that, and they’re do­ing what liter­ally is their job. When I de­scribe what’s go­ing on on the up­per deck they don’t seem par­tic­u­larly in­clined to drop ev­ery­thing and come help, but they do seem sincerely con­cerned and in­ter­ested in find­ing out whether they have any rele­vant re­sources they can di­rect to me. They un­der­stand in prin­ci­ple why steer­ing the ship mat­ters, and that hit­ting an ice­berg would be bad in a way to­tally un­re­lated to fac­tional poli­tics.

Pitts­burgh is the en­g­ine room.

So, I’m in the part of this anal­ogy that’s about the Bay, and my friend’s dad jumps into the con­ver­sa­tion to tell me that my anal­ogy is too con­voluted. So, I pause and ask him what part’s hard to fol­low (he wasn’t part of the con­ver­sa­tion at first, but if some­one wants to un­der­stand what I’m say­ing at a so­cial event, it seems cor­rect to try to in­clude them), and he just keeps re­peat­ing that it’s too con­voluted, un­til even­tu­ally he changes his story and says “it’s too crazy, I don’t want to hear about it.”

So, he was pre­tend­ing to be cri­tiquing my anal­ogy, ac­tu­ally feels too much anx­iety about the situ­a­tion I’m de­scribing to be OK let­ting some­one else talk about it where he can hear, but felt the need to put him­self above me by fram­ing it as me mak­ing some sort of tech­ni­cal er­ror in con­ver­sa­tion.

Do you see how this seems like the same kind of thing my ac­tual dad did?

Mean­while, (back to the con­tracts thing), his wife works as a lawyer to ad­vo­cate for kids whose needs aren’t met by the fam­ily law & school sys­tem. She can’t pos­si­bly do that job and think that the let­ter of the law even has an ob­jec­tive mean­ing, since it’s liter­ally her job to make it mean the thing that gets an okay out­come for the child.

The men of this cat­e­gory of­ten end up in a po­si­tion where they are the only one in their area who are tech­ni­cally adept at the thing peo­ple with their job de­scrip­tion are sup­pos­edly cer­tified to know about, or who care to do the ob­ject-level tech­ni­cal work.

I think this spe­cific gen­dered dy­namic might be par­tic­u­lar to sec­u­lar Amer­i­can Jews.

Mack: Okay that’s in­ter­est­ing. Definitely seen similar things play out but not in such a gen­dered way. Think­ing about my par­ents in par­tic­u­lar, they end up on the “male” side of your sto­ries oc­ca­sion­ally. Not con­sis­tently at all. Hm maybe the ex­am­ples com­ing to mind are only su­perfi­cially similar.

Ben: Want to work through the de­tails of one? Might be good to pre­cisely for­mu­late the dis­tinc­tion if there is one.

Mack: Re: not treat­ing peo­ple like poli­ti­cal en­tities, I can think of ex­am­ples of that. But I sus­pect the rea­sons are differ­ent.

Ben: I sus­pect there’s a shared sense to think of peo­ple of the other poli­ti­cal party as defec­tive parts of a ma­chine, rather than as ad­ver­saries who might be ne­go­ti­ated with or fought but with whom there’s not cur­rently a shared paradigm. But, not a shared ten­dency to speci­fi­cally dis­miss at­tempts to model peo­ple as agents, as un­scien­tific.

Mack: Things that come to mind: a knee jerk re­ac­tion among the older mem­bers on one side of the fam­ily to treat this kind of rea­son­ing as...vul­gar?

Ben: What does an ex­am­ple of the sort of thing they’ve re­acted to this way look like? Ac­tual or fic­tional ex­am­ples both fine. Ac­tual are bet­ter, but what­ever pre­dic­tion/​gen­er­a­tion func­tion you learned is also valuable in­tel. (Just like fic­tional sto­ries by com­pe­tent po­ets are valuable in­tel)

Mack: I’m think­ing of a cousin who is very similar to me. There are run­ning jokes about us be­ing in the same room and driv­ing peo­ple crazy be­cause we “start con­tro­ver­sies.” I think there was a con­ver­sa­tion about Boise’s home­less­ness poli­cies, and she and I were talk­ing about things like: the rea­sons the city might have taken re­cent ag­gres­sive ac­tion against the home­less pop­u­la­tion, es­sen­tially the differ­ent in­cen­tives at play.

We dis­agreed but it was sane dis­agree­ment, and her mother and grand­mother were just visi­bly dis­tressed. And they tried talk­ing about ministry at­tempts, harsher drug laws, etc. Re­treat­ing to party lines on home­less­ness (red tribe). The con­ver­sa­tion ended with her mother say­ing “Well then why bother!” as we poked at the poli­cies they’d brought up.

It isn’t the same re­treat to what could be pub­lished in an aca­demic jour­nal, or to the obli­ga­tion of a con­tract. But it is kind of like your Ti­tanic anal­ogy. Lay­ing out the spe­cific rea­sons a prob­lem is hard, the nor­mal party lines or grum­bling not be­ing suffi­cient or satis­fy­ing, and find­ing it rude to point out why a prob­lem is hard, es­pe­cially if it isn’t about the out­group be­ing wrong or mis­led by sa­tanic forces.

Ben: OK, so it sounds like your fam­ily is nondis­so­ci­at­edly anx­ious about poli­tics, while mine (at least the men) re­treats to dis­so­ci­at­edly iden­ti­fy­ing with an au­thor­ity nar­ra­tive that in­sists that only “apoli­ti­cal” knowl­edge is speak­able; your fam­ily more overtly iden­ti­fies as mem­bers of a fac­tion, while mine iden­ti­fies with ab­stract shared au­thor­ity.

Mack: That sounds right. Ah, so this side of the fam­ily is also pretty bound to con­tracts of a sort, though they aren’t quite as al­igned with the law.

Ben: All “legally bind­ing” con­tracts, or just un­co­erced per­sonal agree­ments?

Mack: All legally bind­ing con­tracts to an ex­tent though that’s more about avoid­ing pun­ish­ment and be­ing Good. See­ing the lo­cal so­cial mores *as* bind­ing con­tracts, I think.

Ben: That last thing seems non­crazy to me—like, an at­ti­tude I’d see in some fully func­tional so­cieties.

Mack: It isn’t crazy.

Ben: Whereas I think the thing I was point­ing to is crazy, and the other things are some­where in be­tween.

Mack: I think I see the dis­tinc­tion. Feels like there’s some­thing fa­mil­iar in my ex­pe­rience that’s closer to the crazy side and I’m try­ing to figure out where that comes from.

Ini­tial recog­ni­tion was about the dis­com­fort and re­treat—I have a lot of ex­am­ples of the role you took in those anec­dotes be­ing seen as ex­tremely rude, un­com­fortable, vul­gar. I don’t think it comes from the same place as the spe­cific dy­namic, though.

Recog­ni­tion also of the re­al­iza­tion that the peo­ple ar­gu­ing around me were not ar­gu­ing to try to un­der­stand some­thing or solve the prob­lem.

Ben: OK, I think the dis­com­fort-and-re­treat pat­tern is a spe­cific kind of defen­sive­ness, on be­half of the rul­ing regime by peo­ple iden­ti­fy­ing with it (where the rul­ing regime can be a lo­cal com­mu­nity’s norms, or the state, or an ide­ol­ogy, etc etc.)

That’s an im­por­tant piece of model to have, it’s one of the gears here. It con­nects to more than one pos­si­ble type of defense or sense of threat.

Mack: I am cu­ri­ous about whether I’ve ob­served some­thing closer.

Maybe this: at work some very ex­pen­sive ma­te­rial was mixed. The timeline for new ma­te­rial was too long to meet even the re­vised dead­lines for the product, there was no good me­chan­i­cal solu­tion, etc. So the bosses had been ro­tat­ing em­ploy­ees through the te­dious task of un­mix­ing it by hand.

HR lady and I helped with this dur­ing some plant wide manda­tory over­time.

She was in­sis­tent that the right thing to do would be to force the per­son re­spon­si­ble for the mess to de­vote all of their work hours plus over­time to fix­ing it.

I ar­gued a lit­tle—not too hard be­cause office norms. But her re­treat was to a sup­posed al­ign­ment with com­pany in­ter­ests (even though, IMO, the solu­tion was an okay com­pro­mise with mul­ti­ple goals for the plant).

And it has come out over time that, as far as I can tell, she be­lieves very strongly that when you be­gin em­ploy­ment you must sus­pend a large chunk of your per­sonal in­ter­ests and al­ign them with the firm, or you’re a sub­par em­ployee. And while this prob­a­bly helps her a lot in some of her HR func­tions, she is re­sis­tant to dis­cussing the in­di­vi­d­ual in­cen­tives that pre­vent peo­ple from be­ing “good em­ploy­ees” once they’ve come on to her radar as “bad em­ploy­ees.”

Ben: The HR thing sounds like it might be an ex­act match with a big part of this. I do want to dis­t­in­guish loy­alty to a spe­cific lo­cal in­sti­tu­tion, from loy­alty to one’s pro­fes­sion/​con­tract. They’re differ­ent kinds of im­plied co­or­di­na­tion strate­gies.

Mack: Which loy­alty is the one pre­sent in your sto­ries?

Ben: The lat­ter. So, the HR lady iden­ti­fies her in­ter­ests with the in­ter­ests of the com­pany she’s at­tached to, that’s her gang. But the guys I’m talk­ing about iden­tify with each other as mem­bers of a mer­ce­nary class with a per­ceived shared in­ter­est in up­hold­ing pro­fes­sional stan­dards, so that they can be in­ter­change­able pieces and charge for this.

Mack: Ah­h­h
Some­thing clicked

Ben: Like, a doc­tor will iden­tify with Doc­tors as a pro­fes­sion, not with the hos­pi­tal and nurses. In-house coun­sel will of­ten fa­vor the class in­ter­ests of lawyers over the in­ter­ests of their com­pany.

The Guild.


Re­lated: Blind Empiricism