Asymmetric Weapons are weapons that are inherently more powerful to one side of a conflict than another—Unlike a symmetric weapon, which can used as effectively by both sides. The term was originally introduced by Scott Alexander in his essay Guided By The Beauty Of Our Weapons, where he argued that truth, facts, and logic are asymmetric weapons for “the good guys”:
Logical debate has one advantage over narrative, rhetoric, and violence: it’s an asymmetric weapon. That is, it’s a weapon which is stronger in the hands of the good guys than in the hands of the bad guys. In ideal conditions (which may or may not ever happen in real life) – the kind of conditions where everyone is charitable and intelligent and wise – the good guys will be able to present stronger evidence, cite more experts, and invoke more compelling moral principles. The whole point of logic is that, when done right, it can only prove things that are true.
In the same essay he gave rhetoric and violence as examples of symmetric weapons.
Violence is a symmetric weapon; the bad guys’ punches hit just as hard as the good guys’ do. [...] the same is true of rhetoric. Martin Luther King was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for good things. But Hitler was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for bad things. I’ve previously argued that Mohammed counts as the most successful persuader of all time. These three people pushed three very different ideologies, and rhetoric worked for them all.
Scott uses this terminology mainly to separate strategies that work especially well for “the good guys” and strategies that work equally well for both sides. Davis Kingsley warns that strategies can also be asymmetric in favor of “the bad guys”.
“Unless you use asymmetric weapons, the best you can hope for is to win by coincidence.”—Scott Alexander
Related Pages: Memetics, Public Discourse
I like this tag! I think the current version of the page is missing the insight that influence gained via asymmetric weapons/institutions is restricted/inflexible, i.e. an asymmetric weapon not only helps out only the “good guys” but also constrains the “good guys” into only being able to do “good things”. See this comment by Carl Shulman. (I might eventually come back to edit this in, but I don’t have the time right now.)
Oh, yes, that’s a good point!