Politics are not serious by default

[This is part of a series I’m writing on how to convince a person that AI risk is worth paying attention to.]

tl;dr: People’s default reaction to politics is not taking them seriously. They could center their entire personality on their political beliefs, and still not take them seriously. To get them to take you seriously, the quickest way is to make your words as unpolitical-seeming as possible.

I’m a high school student in France. Politics in France are interesting because they’re in a confusing superposition. One second, you’ll have bourgeois intellectuals sipping red wine from their Paris apartment writing essays with dubious sexual innuendos on the deep-running dynamics of power. The next, 400 farmers will vaguely agree with the sentiment and dump 20 tons of horse manure in downtown Bordeaux. (This happened last Monday.)

Le foin et le fumier sont répandus devant la route et la préfecture.
The ground is horse manure. I bike through this spot every morning to go to school.

Take one of my classmates: he has an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure French philosophers, a high g factor, and a fantastic written ability. He also wears only black, calls himself a trotskyist, and doesn’t know the barest basics of Economy 101.

He and his teenage friends want to topple the French government (a common ambition in France). When I asked him what he wanted to do after they succeeded, he told me he “didn’t have the arrogance to know how he would lead”. I am blown away by his wisdom. What humility! Surely, a modest leader like himself couldn’t screw things up. [1] This man has read over 1 million words’ worth of Hegel, and has led a protest which consisted of waking up at 6AM to build an improvised barricade out of garbage cans at the school entrance. (They cooked barbecues and played cards for the rest of the day.) It’s all a game to him: he aims to become a high school teacher, which isn’t instrumentally useful to his revolutionary ends at all.

The rest of my classmates aren’t much better. Politics are a category labeled “serious adult things” for them: but since they’re not adults, what they’re really doing is theater. It’s fascinating to observe them in the wild. They’ll be going about their day as usual, and then someone will pronounce all 6 syllables of the name of He Who Pushed Retirement Age Forward by Two Years.[2] They’ll proceed to stop, drop, and pick the right shade of red out of the PantoneTM deck for their face before launching into a tirade involving slippery slope fascism. After the counter-spell is cast, the day will resume as before. This is politics, and it’s easily circumscribed to a little box. It’s not like there’s more to it?

We haven’t even gotten to the tip of wild French politics (I’ll share some anecdotes in the comments). Sure, crazy stuff happens on American culture war battlegrounds too. But having lived both in the US and France, I can tell you there’s some sort of vibe specific to France where politics—the wild version of it—is a national sport.[3] And the thing about sports is that while we get tribal about them—wear colors, chant, and argue loudly—we all know, deep down, that sports aren’t that serious.

I think this generalizes. If you approach someone on the basis that you want to affect their politics, they’ll systematically label the conversation “level of seriousness: politics”. Now, when you tell them about AI x-risk, they’ll be searching mindspace for political counterarguments. They’ll say “ah but that will detract from the true risks, like algorithmic bias or job loss”, instead of directly addressing your claim. This is how you get strange results where one side of the conversation is playing a different game than the other, and they have totally differing levels of seriousness. From your perspective, they’d have to be insane to answer “real chance of human extinction” with “algorithmic bias”; but for them, they’re just playing the politics game.

If you approach the conversation more bluntly like “hey, your kids have a real chance of dying in the next decade”, you’ll make it clear the conversation is to be taken more seriously than mere politics.

  1. ^

    Another one of his plans was to plant a pride flag in the middle of a park (planting flags in public spaces is technically illegal) and wait for cops to arrest him so he could prove they were homophobic.

    Such genius is simply hard to grasp for the average person.

  2. ^


  3. ^