I wrote a bit about George Mason economist Robin Hanson last week and the blog post that he wrote in April that’s created quite a stir. In response to the media flap around the Incel web community (it’s not a movement) Hanson wrote, “One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met”.
If interested, I encourage all to read the rest of the post or the book he wrote with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. There’s not that much to the blog post than what I cited above. That sentence has sparked a New York Times Op-ed, a profile in Slate calling Hanson the “world’s creepiest economist” and countless individual blog posts, tweets and Facebook manifestos.
Before his post from two weeks ago, Hanson had written about something I thought was important; the idea of signaling and just how much of anything that we do or say is not a reflection of our true intentions but instead motivated by the image of ourselves that we want to project to others.
It’s not obvious how many of us would run 26.3 miles if we were not able to tell the world we’d run a marathon. Almost all of the experience of camping could be achieved while still managing to sleep in a hotel. One would surrender the ability to tell the world that one is the type of person that goes camping.
So we camp.
Perhaps more materially, many of us are interested in signaling participation in charities or voicing political opinions. Less are interested in insisting those charities or government policies make a material societal difference.
What I’ve found interesting about Hanson’s work isn’t the revelation that people have less genuine motives than true charity, kindness, altruism or material outcomes.
That’s not news.
What I think is interesting is the logical next thought on the signaling amplification of intolerance through social media and how it has expanded beyond the individual and into decisions of how public figures, media outlets and political parties decide what is and isn’t appropriate to be shared. The acceleration of group think and an intolerance of the diversity of thought feels more present in the running commentary we keep in our pockets these days.
Signaling through social media requires no skin in the game. It enables more emphasis on the talk because the walk isn’t possible on Twitter and in the dreaded comments section. The least tolerant signals, amplified by social media, are more durable simply because they are least tolerant. The presence of intolerance, even appropriate intolerance like that of bigotry or misogyny crowds out other signals. For the same reasons, snap backs are easier to organize and therefore quicker to materialize into meaningful movements.
Example: Most main stream media outlets were eager to distance themselves from the Trump message. How easily candidate and now President Trump has turned that into a beneficial contra rallying cry for his base is a prime example of signaling, intolerance and snap back. Within a week of his campaign announcement, the one where he said that Mexico was sending us their rapists, Macy’s and NBC ended their business relationship with him. The war with “mainstream” anything has been on ever since, signaling to the disenfranchised that they have a leader to follow.
But back to Robin Hanson and the ultimate outcome of signaling, snap backs and the intolerance of social media.
Hanson has taken the signaling of intolerance of his commentary on the asymmetry of the availability of sex to task by sharing the criticism of his blog post. In doing so he’s illustrated that some are willing to interpret what he said quite broadly or even misstate details in order to align a narrative to what they want to signal. He’s exposed a few obvious examples of the point of his book as a result.
But that’s not all Hanson has exposed.
While he was signaling to his audience, mainly economics, artificial intelligence and science fiction geeks like myself, that there was a rational level of thought to be explored around the availability of sex and the asymmetry of distributions, another audience, women on planet earth, was listening for another signal; men who believe they know material things about the problems of sexual assault, consent and all the burden that is unequally distributed to women as a result of the reality of the power dynamics of sex.
It’s an audience that’s not likely to read the words “one could plausibly argue” followed by “much less access to sex” and “implicitly threaten violence if their needs aren’t met” without assuming one meant to normalize the motivation of using violence to get sex…at least a little. And they’re understandably not interested in tolerance of that opinion.
What has followed is an argument between intellectual rationalists and people who believe that women shouldn’t tolerate normalization of perspectives that justify violent means to acquiring sex.
Where does one go to signal they are a member of both groups?
I’m a part of the rationalist community that Hanson is signaling to. It’s a movement that seeks truth over comfort. It’s measured tone and focus on the reality of observation, data and solutions over hysteria and political correctness is woven through much of what I write. I believe that there is a too common censoring of important ideas that lead us to societal blindspots because of what we feel we can and cannot say. Solutions go unexplored. Problems go unsolved.
I also know that I have no idea what crap women have to put up with as a result of harassment, unwanted advances and a general lack of agency over their bodies. And that what Hanson wrote did not have an intellectual value worth the potentially painful reaction that reasonable people might have to it. As a result, I think he shouldn’t have said it.
Where do I go with that opinion?
Twitter gives me 280 characters. The comments section on Hanson’s blog or the NYT op-ed give me maybe twice that before it looks like it’s been drafted by candle light in a rural shed. It took me over a thousand words to describe an opinion that signals both sensitivity towards victims of sexual violence and support for an intellectually useful Robin Hanson in a way that makes it reasonably clear that I also don’t think Woody Allen gets a pass for marrying his stepdaughter because he made good movies.
That type of nuance won’t signal on blast. And it won’t create a snap back. And so therefore it won’t get much mind space.
It’s not obvious how much nuanced debate modern humans can participate in or observe relative to times past. It may be that today is just a more modern version of the same sensationalized binary debates of the past. Technology has certainly enabled the speed of intolerance to reach new levels though. And it’s not likely that’s positive for a society that will likely have to muster up the nuanced thinking required to solve hard problems sometime in the near future.