Social Insight: When a Lie Is Not a Lie; When a Truth Is Not a Truth—Pt. 2

‘”If peo­ple have a right to be stupid, the mar­ket will re­spond by sup­ply­ing all the stu­pidity that can be sold.”’ Peo­ple mis­in­ter­pret this as in­di­cat­ing that I take a policy stance in fa­vor of reg­u­la­tion. It in­di­cates no such thing. It is meant purely as guess about em­piri­cal con­se­quences.”—EY (http://​​less­​​lw/​​h2/​​blue_or_green_on_reg­u­la­tion/​​)

Try this a few times, and you’ll stop think­ing you can make “guess[es] about em­piri­cal con­se­quences” (or say any­thing about em­piri­cal con­se­quences (or say any­thing about em­piri­cal any­thing)) and have peo­ple hear any­thing ex­cept you show­ing off your policy stances. Show­ing off whom you as­so­ci­ate with and what virtues you pos­sess.

Once your eyes open to how hard it is to con­vince peo­ple that your sen­tences about how mar­kets func­tion are meant to de­scribe how mar­kets func­tion, you give up and stop try­ing.

Well, if you have the time to con­vince peo­ple you’re ac­tu­ally try­ing to say some­thing about how the world works and not just proudly wav­ing a ver­bal ban­ner in fa­vor of the home team, and you have the abil­ity to make in­ter­est­ing a sub­ject so much less ac­cessible and ex­cit­ing than poli­tics (we’ve all seen it, haven’t we, how lit­tle they care once they re­al­ize that we re­ally are try­ing to de­scribe mar­ket func­tions?), and the time to ac­tu­ally do it prop­erly, all with­out alienat­ing im­por­tant peo­ple in the pro­cess...

Then, yeah, maybe. And those sets of cir­cum­stances ab­solutely hap­pen and I’m glad that we do teach each other things.

But, I re­ally, re­ally un­der­stand why most poli­ti­ci­ans can’t do any­thing re­motely like this, and thus, say the words “If peo­ple have a right to be stupid, the mar­ket will re­spond by sup­ply­ing all the stu­pidity that can be sold” only if they want peo­ple to hear “I am tak­ing a policy stance in fa­vor of reg­u­la­tion.”

If you do want peo­ple to hear that, then this is a very effec­tive way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing that. If you know that say­ing this will lead peo­ple to hold­ing that be­lief about your stance, then say­ing it is hon­est, even if you don’t be­lieve that mar­kets work that way. You’re not say­ing/​they’re not hear­ing any­thing about mar­kets, so none of your be­liefs about mar­kets can be mis­rep­re­sented by say­ing these words. You be­lieve some­thing, you want to hon­estly com­mu­ni­cate that be­lief, so you use sym­bols. We think of words as our sym­bols, but whole sen­tences can be sym­bols, too. A sen­tence has no “true” mean­ing any more than a word does. And if we define that sen­tence ac­cord­ing to the com­mon us­age...

Think through some other pos­si­bil­ities. Maybe you don’t be­lieve there’s a mar­ket for stu­pidity, but you do take a stance in fa­vor of reg­u­la­tion. If you say you don’t be­lieve there’s a mar­ket for stu­pidity, you’ll know­ingly de­ceive a large group of peo­ple (the so­cial thinkers) whom you know will hear “I op­pose reg­u­la­tion” when you say there’s no mar­ket for stu­pidity. In con­trast, if you say you do be­lieve there’s a mar­ket for stu­pidity, you’ll com­mu­ni­cate your en­dorse­ment of reg­u­la­tion to that group, but will be in­ter­preted as say­ing some­thing un­true by an­other group of peo­ple who think that you’re say­ing some­thing about mar­ket func­tions and only about mar­ket func­tions and that you’ve said noth­ing about your stance on reg­u­la­tion, so wouldn’t we be jump­ing to con­clu­sions to as­sume any­thing ei­ther way (nerds/​em­piri­cal thinkers)?

Most peo­ple aren’t em­piri­cal thinkers (and those that are of­ten aren’t when it comes to poli­tics), so as a mat­ter of prac­ti­cal­ity, poli­tics is spo­ken in the lan­guage of so­cial rea­son­ing. Know­ing this, you’re shoot­ing your­self in the foot if you listen to these peo­ple’s words as a way of mod­el­ing their be­liefs. You have to listen to their sen­tences, and un­der­stand their defi­ni­tion ac­cord­ing to the com­mon us­age. “Blah blah mar­ket for stu­pidity blah blah” is defined as “I en­dorse reg­u­la­tion” ac­cord­ing to the com­mon us­age (no mat­ter what you sub­sti­tute in place of the blah blah’s).

There’s a whole mu­sic to this so­cial lan­guage, and if you start to catch the rhythm, you may find that the ab­solute garbage that is pres­i­den­tial de­bates (I use to mar­vel that the ap­par­ently top can­di­dates for pres­i­dent never had any­thing new or in­ter­est­ing to say, surely such peo­ple should be a foun­tain of in­sight and formidable com­pe­tence) re­solves it­self into some­thing in­ter­est­ing af­ter all.

Ah, yes, now I see. First he waves the flag for group X, then he waves the flag for group N. Many peo­ple are mem­bers of both tribes and feel re­ally con­nected, while those peo­ple who be­long to only one are quite tol­er­ant of this par­tic­u­lar out­group. And the mem­bers of X who ac­tively op­pose group N are dis­pro­por­tionately sin­gle-is­sue vot­ers, so this comes out as an effec­tive ap­peal as mea­sured by vote-grab­bing...

It’s also in­ter­est­ing to hear new ways of say­ing “I’m with them” over and over again about the com­mon­est groups to ap­peal to (“God bless Amer­ica”) or com­pete over (How can they say “I sup­port our troops” more strongly than their op­po­nent? It’s a real ex­er­cise in cre­ativity). And, of course, amid the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple, this is the lan­guage of power, and you may find it use­ful to know how to move within this world, to act upon it, to make your­self re­spected, and to move peo­ple.

Most peo­ple (cita­tion needed) talk and think like this all the time. They are so­cial thinkers, not em­piri­cal thinkers. Every­thing they “know” about the min­i­mum wage is how to use it as a ve­hi­cle for talk­ing about so­cial things, their own sta­tus, their group sta­tus, and their virtues. Ex­cept they don’t do so con­sciously, but au­to­mat­i­cally. Hu­mans are so­cial crea­tures, and to think so­cially, and not in terms of ab­stract propo­si­tions about the func­tion of the world is their first and nat­u­ral in­stinct. Always re­mem­ber, we’re the weird ones. Posses­sors of an in­hu­man power with a price.

Find some non-nerdy types you may not usu­ally as­so­ci­ate much with. Go club­bing and ask all the peo­ple wear­ing some­thing you find ap­pal­ling their opinions on the min­i­mum wage. After their ini­tial sum­mary of “I’m with them,” whichever “them” they might hap­pen to be with, in­quire a bit more deeply. Go a lit­tle So­cratic on them and ask about their rea­son­ing, and ask them to con­firm your guesses about which ob­ser­va­tions they would take as ev­i­dence for and against their po­si­tion. You might want to per­son­ally note all the times they (it seems to you) change the sub­ject, con­tra­dict them­selves, or use any of a thou­sand fla­vors of fal­lacy.

Now, re­view the con­ver­sa­tion (which you care­fully recorded, of course), but this time, ask your­self if there’s any way to in­ter­pret each of their state­ments (which sound like propo­si­tions about the func­tion of mar­kets and the na­ture of hu­man rights) in­stead as sig­nals about tribal loy­alty, per­sonal sta­tus, and per­sonal virtue. Write down what these state­ments might say about the tribe and the per­son. In­cred­ibly, you may find that what once was a ca­cophony of con­tra­dic­tion has re­solved it­self. In an­other key, it was all perfectly main­stream, run-of-the mill, straight­for­ward, vanilla, dry, un­re­mark­able clar­ity. Seen this way, the mys­tery dis­solves into some­thing so or­di­nary as to face-palm­ingly ob­vi­ous in ret­ro­spect.

They’re just say­ing how great they are and how great their peo­ple are and how awe­some they all are and what good peo­ple they are. Charm­ing.

My last dis­cus­sion of this found many re­spon­dents think­ing that it was mean to think such lowly things of other peo­ple. It is cu­ri­ous to me that they seem to take it for granted that it is lowly. Hu­mans are nat­u­rally poli­ti­cal; why call our na­tive tongue lowly? There are a thou­sand sto­ries about the plucky hero who cares about the work, and it’s all about the work, and they have to jump over the hur­dles that are the reg­u­lar hu­mans who are into office poli­tics and are so shame­ful as to not care about the work for its own sake (who do they think they are, not be­ing fas­ci­nated with blood spat­ter anal­y­sis or awe­some ar­chi­tec­ture?). Why fetishize this work-over-poli­tics bit? Oh, sure it’s re­spon­si­ble for ev­ery­thing last­ing that hu­man­ity has ever cre­ated and all, but...well, as hob­bies go, poli­tics is hu­man­ity’s first and nat­u­ral choice. Peo­ple en­joy it; they op­ti­mize for it. I’m nerdy and hap­pen to fancy the ro­mance of ab­stract propo­si­tions about re­al­ity, but I don’t be­grudge those who don’t feel the same way.

Per­haps more im­por­tantly, I need to learn their lan­guage, the lan­guage of so­cial power, if I am to get them to do what is need­ful re­gard­ing re­al­ity de­spite their na­tive dis­in­ter­est. Tim Ur­ban’s the best speaker our com­mu­nity has, prob­a­bly, and it still takes all of 2 min­utes be­fore it’s com­pletely ob­vi­ous he’s a nerd and proud of it. Ju­lia Galef’s up there, too, but with a similar weak­ness when it comes to get­ting non-nerds to get on board with im­por­tant poli­ti­cal move­ments. Robin Han­son’s alright...

But we need a proper Draco. As gal­ling as it is, there is very much a place for a Trumpesque speaker who can get a cer­tain kind of per­son par­ti­ci­pat­ing in im­por­tant things that­ally aren’t nat­u­rally in­clined to care about. We need Steve Har­vey and Barack Obama and MLK and some­one who can talk to any­body. Or at least who can talk to some­body other than the nerds who are already half-way on our side (and will be more and more as con­sen­sus con­soli­dates around the cor­rect an­swer).

A good map of re­al­ity, Knowl­edge, is power, to bind the uni­verse to our ser­vice. But sta­tus, re­spect, pres­tige. That is the power to move hu­mans. It is, of course, con­tained within knowl­edge it­self. But the time has come to train the ver­sa­tile laser fo­cus of knowl­edge upon so­cial Homo Sapi­ens and learn how we’re re­ally go­ing to get them, all of them (not just the nerds), to save the world.