Apr 182022
 

I — Background.

Last month (I think?) Walter and James suspended their podcast. Their podcast, Rationality: From AI to Zombies Podcast was a project to make the entirety of the book by the same name available as an audio podcast for free. (The book R:FAtZ is a curated collection of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s blog posts from 2006-2009.) These posts, commonly called “The Sequences” by fans, formed the payload that initially launched the Rationalist movement/memeplex/community.

Walter and James’s podcast was valued by many people who were either already part of the rationalist movement, or interested in it, but who hadn’t been exposed to The Sequences as the time they were originally written.

When they quit producing the podcast, they posted this statement:

Dear Rationalists!
As some of you will already have guessed, we have decided to end this podcast project.

There has been a trend in the community we have been observing with increasing worry, and it has reached a tipping point.
We realised from the beginming that the politics of the rationality-sphere leaned heavily American libertarian. But back when we started, we felt that the community was genuinely interested in better outcomes for everyone and that if we would just sit down together, we could surely come to a sensible agreement.

But recently, the disdain and the antagonism against movements such as feminism and BLM and communities such as transgender and nonbinary people has taken over. Even with people we once looked up to and collaborated with. This has reached a degree that makes us feel not just deeply uncomfortable but also unwelcome.

We have friends and family in these and adjacent movements and communities that we love dearly.
We ourselves are part of these movements and communities. There is no us without them.

So we strongly oppose the recasting of them as authoritarian religions and some sort of reverse oppressors, a perspective so antithetical to what we thought the idea of ‘rationality’ represented that we can no longer watch in silence. We expected more from a community that we joined under the impression that it centered honest thought and compassion for all.

Our own interactions with listeners have been nothing but kind and mutually respectful. For that, we thank you.
But we cannot, in good conscience, remain a part of a pipeline towards the rationality-sphere if that is the place it has become.

Do better!

Walter & James

The word “recasting” is linked to my blog post from Feb 23, 2022: I Am A New Atheist, And I Repent. They have stated on more than one occasion that this post was not a primary driver of their decision, nor was it strongly influential. It was merely “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The last item that finally pushed the scales over in a long, long list of worries and concerns.

However, it was the one linked in their final signing-off post, which sorta highlights it, and gives it some symbolic significance. So, after some musing, I have considerations of my own on the topic.

II — My Thoughts

What I’m most struck by is the idea that rationalism is a political movement with an ideology that must be opposed. What my focus keeps returning to is the idea that Walter and James feel they cannot “remain a part of a pipeline towards the rationality-sphere.” My interpretation is that this is due to their opposition to that ideology. That this ideology includes “disdain and antagonism against movements such as feminism and BLM and communities such as transgender and nonbinary people.”

I have a very different experience. The rationalists I know personally vary from mildly conservative to mildly leftist. The ones I know well online (in the TBC Discord server) range from pretty conservative (believing nationalism is a strength, minors shouldn’t be given hormones, society is too decadent) to strongly leftist (capitalism must be overthrown, billionaires should be punished and have their wealth seized, any parents that aren’t left-leaning enough are guilty of literal child abuse). Of the rationalists that I am aware of online, they range from reactionaries that want to reinstate absolute monarchy, to classically liberal sex-workers, to very woke social justice crusaders.

I don’t have any experience of rationalism as a movement that has any sort of consensus position on the feminism, BLM, transgender, or nonbinary movements. The majority of rationalists I know are neutral or in support of all of these.

This is why I have the view that rationalism is about attempting to improve reasoning, and not about political ideology. The people I meet in rationalist spheres can (usually) speak with each other in productive ways even when they have extremely different viewpoints about the world. I find that very helpful in truth-seeking. I’m glad I can speak with people who view things very differently from me without fearing that I will be berated. I’m glad that I can be confident the conversations will generally be productive and interesting, even when the person I’m speaking to has ridiculous(?) fringe beliefs. They can rationally discuss their reasoning, rather than posturing and signaling.

Personally, I do think that wokism is net-bad for civilization. As per my linked post, I think one of its strengths is that it taps into unfulfilled religious needs that many people have, and that a movement I was a part of helped to deprive people of having those needs fulfilled. I regret that I didn’t see that this might happen when I was younger.

If I’m wrong about that, I don’t understand how abandoning the tools of rational thought will help anything. The problem, in my opinion, would be with my wrong beliefs, rather than with Rationality. I may have failed at using the tools of rationality, due to a perverse environment (which perhaps I nurtured!) or due to my own failure to use those tools correctly. But I haven’t been able to find fault in the tools of rationality themselves.

If I am using those tools incorrectly, I would like to know.

If the tools themselves are faulty, I would like to know.

If neither of these are the case, I don’t see how abandoning the tools is helpful. I would also be interested in learning how/why that is the case?

III — Behind The Scenes

I am (kinda) engaged in a private conversation with Walter and/or James, from which these thoughts have been curated and posted. I don’t intend to make that conversation public, it is our own affair. But many of the thoughts and realizations I’ve come to during that discussion are represented here. I was sorta singled out in a public disavowal, and these are my considered thoughts on the consequences of my words.

  9 Responses to “Doing Better?”

  1. In American the default position is center right. Most Democrats are Republicans are there. So, to avoid enguaging with politics is to say the status quo is fine. Which means everyone to the left of that feels exculded. Bonus: minorities sexual, religious, racial, ethicnic all that then feel specifically excluded by these choices. Since normal happy well adjusted people don’t seek out things like rationalism we have set the established forces in opposition to eachother. So hurt feelings are enivitable.

    Back when I was going to meetups I always said we needed to sit down and have a big grumpy struggle session and figure out the mathmatically rational perfect way to live. It’d be quite the party.

    From the outside it does feel to people that the rationalist community is inventing reasons to justify their right wing libertarianism though

    • “If you don’t pick up arms and join my fight, I will attack you” is a dynamic I particularly dislike. It’s a very good way to earn my distrust, and makes me update in the direction of the groups doing that are more likely to be the bad guys.

  2. Well you have convinced me that the rationality moment is not for me. The far right bad faith actors I encounter on your corner of the internet had me most of the way out the door. Your hot take on this situation is disappointing and I no longer feel comfortable being associated with this movement. The disdain for science and good faith discussion is abhorrent to me.

    • And consider that for every person like me who you are probably celebrating the removal of there are quite a few people you wouldn’t be who at the very best feel alienated and dissapointed with TBC. If you don’t want rationality to be about political positions then perhaps atop being one of the more prominent forces making it so.

      • If you go into the channel that is reserved for people who want to fight culture war topics, which is literally labelled “Hell On Earth,” I think you sorta can’t complain that people are taking political positions within it. It’s like going into the NSFW channel and being shocked to find nudity.

  3. Okay, I’ll bite. I’ve been following you and other rationalist blogs for many years, generally enjoy your writing, identify as a rationalist, and I am an asian lesbian with a trans girlfriend.

    I’ve strongly identified with the SJW movement when I was younger, less so now, and I do see the same toxic trends in the movement that you do and I’m worried about them, too. But when I read the original post that Walter and James linked, it was honestly really upsetting to me and I seriously considered unsubscribing.

    When you say that wokism is net-bad for civilization, but woke and woke-friendly fields are the only ones that have ever stuck their necks out for me and my loved ones, it’s really hard to not interpret what you’re saying is “you as a person, the way that you love others, and those that you love are all net-bad for civilization”. No other movement made efforts to understand the danger of being out as queer or trans, or the discomfort of being racialized; no other movement made any effort to make spaces safer or more comfortable for us.

    (I’m not saying that I need the entire world to be a safe space for me. But I do like it when there are specific places that I know that I can go, where I can candidly talk about the issues that I am facing due to parts of me that I cannot alter, and get responses from others that are more helpful than visible discomfort, or worse, disbelief that I can actually be experiencing such shitty situations in the year of our lord 2022 because surely the wokes have fixed everything by now.)

    I think there needs to be space for people who are doing this advocacy to do better. To use more nuance, to admit when there they need to bite bullets instead of smoothing over prickly issues, and to not abandon the tools of rational thought even though they are tools of the cis white male patriarchy and therefore have cooties on them. I agree with you about it filling a religious hole in people in a toxic and unproductive way.

    But I felt like there was a missing mood in your writing, which is actual sympathy for the people that the woke contingent is actually helping, i.e. people like me. Instead it felt like you thought of us as like, strawmen? Constructs of ideology? Like you saw the rot in wokism and decided that it needed to be destroyed, without really thinking about why the movement exists in the first place (All the “grievance studies” fields were created by people who are genuinely oppressed by society as a way to talk about their experiences, think through how they can build resilience, and organize) nor caring if something needs to be built to replace it in order to further egalitarian human flourishing (imo yes, because society is still discriminatory and shitty to specific groups of people in a way that is fixable if people are organized against the discrimination).

    I don’t want you to feel like you can’t have a discussion with me or that I will just berate you into having the right opinions, but also like, I’m not sure if you would consider me saying something like “it is upsetting to me when people strongly imply that people like me are responsible for ruining western civilization and the classical liberal ideals that I love” to be berating you. I don’t want you to abandon the tools of rational thought. I want you to actually use them, because based on your writing it seems like most of your opinions on wokism is reflexive and reactionary towards the most noxious parts of it.

    • > woke and woke-friendly fields are the only ones that have ever stuck their necks out for me and my loved ones

      I am sorry to hear this is the case. I don’t know where you live, or what your situation is. If it’s at all possible for you to move to a more liberal area (almost any densely populated place in the US works!) then I’d really recommend that. Being surrounded by people who are decent to you is a massive life improvement. If that isn’t possible, and you’re stuck in a hateful area, well, you take comfort where you can get it. Sorry again. :(

      > it’s really hard to not interpret what you’re saying is “you as a person, the way that you love others, and those that you love are all net-bad for civilization”.

      I think this is jumping to a very distant conclusion without nearly enough propellant. Why would I think any of those things? I know, for example, that the mafia often does good things for people. They can help those without recourse to the law, they often spend money on community improvements to gain local support. I would not think that a poor old woman who is given a new fridge by the local Mafia don is net-bad for civilization, nor is the way she loves others, nor are those she loves! Why would I think that? Likewise, the Catholic Church funds a LOT of charities. Some of them do really good work! I think the Catholic Church is net-bad for civilization, but I don’t think that the orphan given an education by such a charity is net-bad for civilization, nor is the way that orphan loves others, nor are their loved ones. Like… what?

      > No other movement made efforts to understand the danger of being out as queer or trans, or the discomfort of being racialized; no other movement made any effort to make spaces safer or more comfortable for us.

      I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but I can only assume that you are very young. Otherwise, I would find this statement very insulting. There are many movements that not only have made efforts to understand such things, they’ve actually done a lot of work to make the situation better for decades. I’ve worked within them in the past. (Hell, even if we restrict ourselves just to rationality, the communities that have sprung up from rationalism are significantly more accepting of queer, trans, and minorities than the average American.)

      > I’m not saying that I need the entire world to be a safe space for me. But I do like it when there are specific places that

      I’m sorry you don’t have access to such spaces. :( The work is ongoing. Again, if you can move to a better area, it really does help a lot.

      > the tools of rational thought even though they are tools of the cis white male patriarchy and therefore have cooties on them

      Exactly this. You can see how trying to reframe the tools of rationality as “tools of the cis white male patriarchy” would harm people who would then avoid using those tools, right? It’s like when Christian Scientists convince their followers not to use antibiotics, because they are the tools of the devil. It’s net-bad for anyone who is fooled.

      > But I felt like there was a missing mood in your writing, which is actual sympathy for the people that the woke contingent is actually helping, i.e. people like me.

      If the only way to get medicine for your sister is to buy it from the mafia, you buy it from the mafia. I understand your fear about the mafia being removed from your neighborhood, because then how the hell will you get that medicine? Apparently all other local resources have failed you, and that really sucks. So, again, I’m sorry about your situation. But I think it’s The Worst Argument In The World to point to the sick person the mafia helped get medicine too, and then accuse an anti-mafia person of *wanting to kill your sister.* The mafia is doing a lot of harm, and I’m not going to say that they aren’t bad.

      > nor caring if something needs to be built to replace it

      Many things already exist which do this, that don’t have all the negatives that come with wokism. It sounds like they haven’t penetrated to your area, but my inability to help your specific area doesn’t mean I think you are net-bad, and trying to imply I’m missing the mood of caring about you is kinda insulting. I assume you didn’t mean for it to be, of course. But when I speak about the horrendous invasion of Ukraine, if someone then says that I’m missing the mood of caring about how Russian minorities are going to fare in a post-Putin power vacuum, that’s kinda sus?

      > I don’t want you to abandon the tools of rational thought. I want you to actually use them, because based on your writing it seems like most of your opinions on wokism is reflexive and reactionary towards the most noxious parts of it.

      Perhaps we are speaking past each other, then? I know “wokism” doesn’t have a formal definition, and this is of course by design. When I say wokism, I’m referring specifically to the ideology that sorts people by quasi-genetic properties like race, sex, ethnicity, sexuality, etc; that says these are the things that most matter about anyone; and that claims some such groups are superior to others.

    • as also a trans person, i’ve felt pretty isolated from some “woke” communities due to my inclination to tolerate some right-wing perspectives; i’m mostly inclined to agree with a lot of the criticisms of wokeism. i find it very frustrating how criticism of the left is often taken as an unnuanced denunciation of everything the left stands for.

      this comment was a good reminder for me that, like, this isn’t entirely people being unreasonable? there are rational people who are still offput by poorly worded criticism. in particular the “missing mood” part made this really clear. thanks!

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