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When not to go with the flow

The task of identifying the line between good and evil is like infinitesimal calculus. Mere intuitions are insufficient, which is why "going with the flow" so easily ends in evil. Many marriages fail this way, as sincerely innocent intentions to "make friends" or enjoy "a rich private life” all of a sudden become adulterous affairs or irrecoverable distances. To keep innocence from turning to guilt requires strict and formal tools, just as one cannot eyeball the derivative of a curve, but when it comes to good and evil the objects of analysis are typically difficult to measure. This is the genius of socially conservative Christian norms around sex and marriage, which are often seen as stupidly strict prohibitions, e.g. never having alone time with a member of the opposite sex. Secular cosmopolitans today laugh at this norm, but are the scoffers and mockers really doing so well? In the context of this particular example, marriage, one error on the side of adultery does more damage than several errors on the side of foregone other-sex friendship experiences. As a result, some educated cosmopolitans run around with many "friendships" and failed marriages, scoffing at the paranoia of Christian family values, although the latter include some superior, evolved formalities to deal with overly complex identification problems we are incapable of solving intuitively "in the moment." Whenever a fatal point on a map is hard to detect, it makes sense to prohibit any entrance into the smallest definable region around the undetectable point. Unconditional prohibition may be the most sophisticated rule in contexts where many hidden chutes toward the netherworld are known to exist, even if a sizable range of perfectly innocent and desirable experiences must be forgone.

Audience structure on the Left and Right of new indy media

It looks to me like the audience structure of public intellectuals and/or "content creators" differs across the Right and Left. Right-leaning writers/creators in contemporary culture seem to enjoy a larger variety of wide pyramids (anti-establishment populism), whereas left-leaning writers/creators produce for a smaller number of taller pyramids (prestige hierarchies). As Oliver Traldi recently discussed — I think his article was the proximal trigger for this post — Jordan Peterson and Chapo Trap House may even have an oddly overlapping target market. But whereas right-leaning figures — e.g., Mike Cernovich, Scott Adams and many, many others one or two notches down — enjoy huge audiences of lower-status people, there seem to be way fewer left-leaning content creators who eek out decent little livings from obscure Youtube channels or whatever.

On the left, most intellectual/entertainment attention is channeled into a smaller number of institutions considered legitimate, namely academic institutions, a small number of presses such as Verso, a small number of big podcasts such as Chapo Trap House, and a few small outlets such as Jacobin and the like. These left-leaning attention pyramids seem more premised on institutionalized forms of cachet. Whether that cachet is found in academic credentials or socialist hipster capital, it seems that individual lefties seem to distribute their attention in a way that is more conditional on what the other comrades consider good. People who are as far right as DSA members are far left watch whatever batshit Youtuber most satisfies their individual, idiosyncratic palates, but seemingly all the lefties on the hunt for something a little naughty converge on Chapo, rather than a whole bunch of different Chapos for their various consumer predilections.

Assuming my observation is at least partially consistent with the data, which I haven't checked, the question is why?

Leftists will say "capitalist ideology" and Koch-brothers funding and so on, and there is often some truth in some of these common takes.

I think the main explanatory factor is that social status conditions intellectual attention and deference very differently on the Left and Right. Roughly, it's a crucial and ineluctable principle of selection and attention on the Left, but less so on the Right. (Each one obviously has internal status hierarchies, I'm just talking about the degree to which social status = attention). Because the Left is supposed to be morally enlightened relative to the status quo, then within the Left, that which is the most morally enlightened deserves the most attention and deference. "Enlightened" or "moral" is interchangeable with "cool" or cultural capital, these are really just different labels for social standing. There is a particularly interesting and perverse layer here, which I might comment on briefly without getting too sidetracked, which is that one of the factors shaping what's cool on the Left is how likely something is to gain power (it's not really enlightened morally unless it's a real threat to capitalism, or appears to be closer to threatening than all the rest of the stuff that has no teeth). For this reason, simple coolness/fashion dynamics get loaded with intellectual and moral gravitas: if some radical Left thing gains cachet, well of course you see through mere fashion appeal but if the kids are excited about it then it's your duty to support it, because to win we need something that catches on...

In other words, I am kind of curious how many of the Chapo patrons are young men who would quite prefer something a little edgier, but this is as edgy as they can get away with while keeping their feminist-careerist wife or that philosophy grad student they're sleeping with. The people who watch the cacophony of figures from Alex Jones all the way to mild-mannered liberal Dave Rubin are not any less concerned with their social identity, as if they are above such concerns, it's just that they're generally more detached from competition for high status. They're more or less adapted to whatever status they have, whereas very many activated leftists are status insecure, trying really hard to be upwardly mobile (e.g., their parents were poor and they'll say and do anything not to be), or negotiating inescapable downward mobility (e.g., their parents were comfortable profs and they tried but will not be). The activated left is just filled with these types of people, who fight tooth and nail for the lowest rungs of high status. If you've never been there, you cannot understand the amount of constraint and discipline it imposes on your personal lifestyle choices, especially around intellectual and entertainment consumption choices, because these are one of the coins you can trade up for admiration, sex, jobs, etc.

This might be why the left contains a smaller number of intellectuals/creators and each will enjoy proportionally larger audiences (proportional to the population with that degree of ideology) in part because those audiences are somewhat "captured" by the risk-aversion enforced by intense competition for high status. This is why there can only be a few big-money podcasts such as Chapo, whereas there seem to be way more right-leaners making that kind of money or more: There is only so much DSA / socialist Brooklyn cultural capital to go around before creative forking efforts would dilute that capital to structurally unsustainable levels — for the dilution of one's Left status to structurally unsustainable manifests concretely as a vague defection to right-wing populism, no matter what the actual beliefs of the person involved.

You can syphon off a subset of the Chapo patron base with a "Chapo but for IQ realists" or "Chapo but with a taste for Moldbug" — trust me, I'm trying. 🙂 But then you can't stay in good standing on the Left (meaning even if some leftists like you, most can't tell their friends about you, which for people in cut-throat competition for the low rungs of high status, means they just can't listen to you). You can syphon off a subset of the Chapo patron base while staying in good standing on the Left, but your room for differentiation is so constrained that you'll have a hard time constituting a fundamentally unique product different than what Chapo is providing. This is why you do see a few Chapo-like podcasts out there but they are tiny or they fade out. Anyway, this is my best shot at a possible explanation for why the Right can somehow fund a huge number of idiosyncratic intellectuals/creators with big populist audiences but the Left appears to have only a few. I'm not even too sure about the data, to be honest, so caveat emptor — I just wanted to lay out some of these hypotheses I've had for a little while now.

You can be neutral on a moving train

There's a popular idea that one can't avoid taking some political position because having no position is to support the status quo. In the words of Howard Zinn, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." For a while, I agreed with this, but I don't think I believe it anymore. The lack of a position on some political question only defaults to the status quo if you presume there's a meaningful choice between the status quo and some preferable alternative. This presumption of a choice, and some agency over effectuating one's choice, now appears to me wrong, with respect to many of the supposedly most important political questions.

The compulsion to take positions is arguably one of the more malignant aspects of the status quo, perhaps even a basis for its worst injustices. If you think choice and agency in political affairs is negligible, then deliberating and expressing one's choice has the same political valence as declining to do so — but declining saves a lot of time, energy, and mental health, all of which can be spent on the immanent politics of one's shared life with others. If most people stopped paying attention to politics, and had no opinions, overall social welfare would be improved relative to the status quo. A popular lament is that voters are not sufficiently informed, but as far as I can tell, huge masses of people are now irreconcilably passionate about too many problems, precisely because they have too much information and education relative to their processing power. Once upon a time, ignoring macro-politics was seen as immature, uneducated ignorance and passivity, but perhaps it will increasingly become a mark of educated sagacity and radical honesty.

Segmentation and personalization for philosophers and scientists

The techniques used by today's marketing professionals, such as "customer segmentation" and "web-page personalization," would appear to be emblems of instrumental, exploitative communication. Today, we are so saturated with instrumental communication that Orwell's 1984 sounds benign in retrospect ("doublethink" feels quaint compared to the "multithink" we have now). At the point where nearly the entire public sphere is occupied by instrumentally deceptive signals, I am beginning to wonder if the tools of high-tech mass deception might not be amenable to a philosophical refactoring. If I'm wrong, the risk seems quite low, given that one can hardly make the status quo much worse in this regard. So the question is this: If certain techniques can systematically deceive so many sub-populations in purposeful ways, is there any good reason why these techniques cannot be used to undeceive sub-populations? Can we not run the machine in reverse? If the goal of philosophers and scientists is to discover and transmit the truth, but people respond differently to the same statements, it is rather odd that none of our great authors have yet thought to write multiple versions of one book to optimize its transmission among multiple audience segments. My proposal cuts across the grain of many humanistic intuitions about the nature of intellectual communication and authorship, but perhaps this explains why today the truth appears to be lightyears behind the false.

Segmentation and personalization

Customer segmentation refers to grouping potential customers according to the key dimensions that condition their decision-making and buying behavior. Key customer segments are usually based on variables related to demography, interests, geography, class, and personality traits including IQ. After segments have been identified, different communication strategies are deployed for different segments, to maximize the the probability of purchases from each segment. The segmentation and subsequent conditioning of communication on customer differences increases sales better than one blanket set of communications. Customer segmentation is arguably an ancient practice (all of the history here is just from Wikipedia, but it's pretty good); some marketing historians find Bronze Age traders engaging in geographic segmentation. The first use of customer segmentation based on systematically collected data appears to have been in the first decade of the twentieth century. The technique gets developed with greater sophistication from there, until the 1980s usher in what marketing historians call "hyper-segmentation." For the whole history of customer segmentation, it was always conducted at the level of groups. It is only then that technology presents the remarkable prospect of segmenting an audience at the individual level: marketing one thing to one individual, while marketing differently to a different individual, and so on. Today, in the digital context, hyper-segmentation can be done across millions of customers quickly and programmatically. Today, digital marketers even segment within individuals, by sending different messages at different times of day, or different parts of the year, etc. For the largest and most digitally sophisticated corporations, we must assume that AI systems are already deployed to not only identify any number of optimal hyper-segments, but also to update dynamically (with some lag) based on customers' changing attitudes and behaviors. Try to escape the model and the model will learn from your escape decisions.

Web-page personalization is one particular technique for the application of segment-conditioned communications. Personalization refers simply to the practice of delivering different web pages to visitors from different segments. This process leverages the data collected about users in their web browsers, to deliver website experiences that maximize whatever the website owner wants to maximize (typically sales, but not necessarily).

The ethics of communication

Such techniques are generally and correctly seen as sinister because they tend to be harmful deceptions: an agent promotes two different pictures of the world, for selfish and ulterior motives, using opaque methods. Through this contradictory presentation of the world, individuals are misled into two different and somewhat mutually exclusive maps of the world around them. The goal generally is to increase the income of the manipulative agent. Rigorous philosophical or scientific commitments, on the other hand, are devoted to seeking, and telling, the truth.

However, Western culture in 2018 is a crash space. Different subcultures now use the same words in radically different ways that appear, so far, irreversible and irreconcilable. Because our basic cognitive capacities — such as moral intuitions — evolved in low-tech contexts where the background environment was relatively constant, they're now overheated by a background environment in which unfathomable quantities of information churn at an accelerating rate. We cannot not live according to our evolved intuitions, but they are constantly being cued in contradictory and nonsensical ways. Our cognitive and behavioral circuits are hi-jacked by a super-intelligent system— namely the price system of a globally integrated marketplace — and there is no way not to think and do whatever one is cued to do by agents with more data and more intelligence than you. Doing otherwise would make no sense, for some supplier will always know what we truly want, even better than we do. Techniques such as segmentation and personalization are only unfoldings of this collective superintelligence. This is perhaps why marketing historian Wendell Smith called segmentation — in an ominous flight of abstraction rare for marketing historians — a "natural force" that would "not be denied."

But what if there were agents with good data and machine intelligence who sought not to maximize sales, but the effective transmission of true messages? They would accept the empirical reality of segmented human cognition and behavior. But then they would reverse-engineer the principles of historical, mass instrumental deception to produce a cypher capable of translating any one true statement into multiple different versions, each of which will be interpreted as true according to the subculturally segmented linguistic conventions.

I don't think I've ever heard any serious philosopher or scientist propose this idea, but I don't see why it couldn't work, and I don't see why it might be objectionable from an intellectual or ethical perspective. If my proposal sounds unsavory — "Serious intellectuals cannot employ the tools of vulgar digital marketers!" — perhaps this may explain why marketing professionals have such extraordinary influence over the intellectual and affective content of so many lives, while professional intellectuals appear to have less and less of it every passing year.

To drive home my quite abstract idea, I should give a concrete example. Perhaps you will guess, correctly, that I am interested in this prospect for personal reasons, having some experience with being misunderstood on the Internet. Fortunately, I have ample material for some thought experiments.

One of my motivations for going on YouTube is that I wanted to escape the confines of provincial paranoid leftism. But another motivation is that I would quite like to counteract the nastier dimensions of reactionary politics one finds on Youtube, for instance, white nationalism. So let's say I wanted to write a blog post explaining this rationale, why I think this is valuable and necessary work. As far as I know, this is truly a key part of my rationale, and I would like for as many people as possible to understand this, on the left and right. Perhaps because I personally believe it'd be good if others chose to do the same. In this sense, I am seeking to effectuate behaviors just like a marketer seeks to effectuate behaviors, but the crucial distinction is that my motivations are one with the explicit content of my message. My statement and the behavior I seek to effect are essentially the same thing, whereas commercial marketing is based on generating symbols that say one thing, for the purpose of doing something very different (make money), which is nowhere stated or implied in the outputted symbols. It's widely and correctly understood that people write messages in public because they want that message to be understood by others, to increase the probability of consequences that are themselves implied by the content of that message. The other distinction is that I only have one signal I want to be received by multiple people. You could say that marketers only have one true signal (the purchase), but the problem is that their different messages leave individuals with pictures or experiences that push them into different worlds. A philosopher or scientist would seek to increase the similarity and consistency of the receivers' different pictures of the world, aligned with what they believe is the true one.

Now, I could write a blog post entitled "I Am Going on YouTube to Escape Leftist Political Correctness and Mitigate the Fascist Right—And You Should, Too!" The problem is that this is a message for nobody. It is likely to go nowhere because the part that's critical toward the Right is defined by right-wingers as SJWism, and the part that's critical toward the Left is defined by the leftist individuals as racist dog-whistling. It's a true and pretty straightforward statement of my overarching rationale, and its chances of reproduction in the memetic ecology — in short, it's chances of living beyond day zero, or what it means for a message to even be communicated — is effectively nil. I wouldn't even click that, and I totally agree with it. It's so affectively empty that I could not muster the energy to even pretend that I "like" or "support" or "agree with" such a stupid, lame, obvious writer!

Now, imagine that you are in a physical room filled with leftists. Wouldn't it be perfectly normal, reasonable, and appropriate to use a different set of words to describe this mission, than if one was in a physical room filled with right-wingers? Of course it would. This conditionality of language is actually the essence of genuine communication; it is, must be, and should be as context-contingent as possible, in order to be true. If you think about whatever cases of speech that, in your opinion, are the greatest examples of truth revelation, I think you'll find they possess a kind of unique and mysterious element, a je ne sais quoi. And the reason you can't quite pin down the general feature that defines them is that they so effectively nailed the multidimensional context problem, that they were perhaps the best possible words you can personally imagine for communicating that message in that singular, contingent moment. Because the moment is singular and it's the nailing of that context that impresses you so forcefully, we experience its uniquely effective truthiness as an ineffable, non-generalizable feature. All of this is simply to point out that the truth value of any statement is actually a function of how well one communicates a particular signal in the form of contingently and instrumentally-selected, context-conditional symbols. Here the instrumental optimization is with respect to the objective of signal fidelity and noise minimization. That's a strategic, instrumental sub-goal to the final goal of being radically truthful and honest (a non-instrumental or substantive value or goal.)

If I say the same exact thing to these two different rooms of people, when the meaning of my words is fundamentally different to those two groups; that's not some kind of radical authenticity or commitment to the one whole truth. It's idiocy in the technical sense, devotion to a private language. In the words of Wittgenstein, forget about it. It's the apotheosis of delusional narcissism. And one of the reasons why so many people are feeling so insane right now is that smart people with a fairly balanced and independent view of the world are precisely those who are becoming less and less able to express themselves; these are the people who feel more than others that suddenly everything is escaping the grasp of human cognition.

Can customer segmentation and personalization techniques really offer a rigorous protocol for making objective truths equally sensible and transmittable to various pockets of social reality (what I have elsewhere called hard forks of reality)? Well, let's play out the example, and we can see how plausible it sounds. For the example I've been using, I could write a blog post making the one same argument, except the web page titles and the first page headers would be served differently depending on whether my free Google Tag Manager infers that the visitor is a left-winger or a right-winger (perhaps from some combination of other measured factors; maybe female millenials who recently visited the Democratic Party website get tagged as leftists, while white males in their twenties coming from Youtube get segmented as right-wing— whatever, this can be improved over time by testing the results). If a visitor is segmented as a leftist, the post might be entitled "Youtube Is a Nazi and I Am Punching It in the Face," which translates my mission into the exotic dialect that leftist opinion managers speak, allowing my breath to become living speech among leftists. If a visitor is segmented as a right-winger, the post might be entitled "Biggest Red Pill Ever (How to Trigger Every Snowflake)." I might use Google Optimize (also free), not only to trivially create my two different web page experiences, but to also give me a direct measure of the effects of the experiment. Through constant iteration, I will converge toward the two, true, optimally aligned translations.

Now mind you, in this example, the content of each blog post would be exactly the same, other than the titles. But in the future we might manipulate every single word, when we have such a sufficiently precise model and the necessary data to conduct accurate and systematic subcultural/ideological translations at such a high resolution.

A problem arises regarding whether this does not become instrumental manipulation for the ulterior motive of my own personal power. So far I've stipulated that, by the definition of the thought experiment, I'm maximizing a certain conceptualization of truth value. But in practice, especially if I am selling things on the side of my truth-maximization goal, bias seems doomed to creep in. This is an empirical problem that turns on having a defensible measure of truth value, that is not simply a proxy for "how many books I sell, because by definition my book is the truth." This is not a trivial problem, but the main reason we don't have such a measure and an easily implemented tool for it yet (Google Truth?) is simply that the non-instrumental communication of truths generally does not pay. In fact, it tends to do whatever is the opposite of pay. It's expensive to produce and it makes most people dislike you. Maximizing your own income helps you live, it wins you friends, and makes you happy (up to a point). Maximizing truth value makes it harder to live, it loses you friends, and it makes you tired with nothing real to show for it (most of the time). Is it really any wonder that we don't have fancy and free Google tools for customer de-segmentation, when segmentation is what makes money? It's almost evolutionarily impossible to imagine under contemporary capitalism. Although perhaps, as information processing power becomes so strong and so free and so available, then maybe, just maybe, like a few days before the singularity takeoff, a few hackers will find it easy enough to code up this kind of system.

One thing you could do is somehow measure each segment's picture of the world after reading the blog post, and see if they moved closer together. Maybe you could measure this with facial responses using their web cam or something, or ask them in exit surveys, or look at behavior later on. The degree to which they moved closer together would represent the translation consistency, at least. If the initial truth is actually an error, then you're screwed, and optimizing for this measure won't help matters. But this measure would be a start, for an objective criterion to maximize, separable from selfishness-biased variables such sales or click-through rates. If initial truth statements were somehow vetted, perhaps with reference to some larger objective database or something, then optimizing for the translation consistency would be a pretty good "performance indicator" for a philosopher or scientist blogger. I want to say this would represent instrumentally optimised, substantive (non-instrumental, i.e. honest) communication.

The two different blog posts may accent or emphasise different components of the one truth, but any particular communication item is always going to over- or under-emphasise partial aspects. This is simple, textbook, random error in any particular communication. In some sense, you could argue that segmenting and personalising the framing of a communication in this way, should increase the average accuracy of what one says overall, in the same way that increasing the sample size of a well-conducted survey will tend to push your sample stats closer to population values.

I suspect many humanists, philosophers, and social scientists may be discomfited by my thesis, but this is partially because most of them don't know how to use customer segmentation and personalisation techniques. It would be found simply ridiculous if the future of intellectual transmission might rely on tools that incumbent intellectuals find at once too vulgar and too difficult. For me, this indicates only one more exciting opportunity ripe for the taking by the next generation of truth-maximizing enterprises.

By the way, how did you like the title of this blog post?

Educated Errors? On Perceptions of Trump's Ideology

More educated individuals generally know more than less educated individuals. If you test what they know about any random political issue, for instance, uneducated individuals are more likely to give an incorrect answer, or say "I don't know," relative to more educated individuals. At first this sounds obvious, but what if the correct answer to a question is that we don't know?

If you think that the purpose and main effect of education is to increase a person's store of true information, then an educated person should be more likely to say "I don't know" when asked what they think about an objectively unknown or uncertain matter.

But what if education does not increase one's store of objectively true information so much as it increases one's familiarity with respectable or high-status opinions? That is, education may primarily educate one about what educated people feel and believe. In this model, education is mostly about gaining familiarity with the ideas and gestures that are valued by the already educated classes, and having some dedicated time to practice mimicking them. Getting educated is not really about developing a fuller or more accurate model of the world, it's about learning to pass as a member of the education club, to get hired by employers who obtained their employment power through their own educated credentials.

If this is the case, then it's possible that more educated people would be less likely to admit "I don't know" in the face of really-existing uncertainty, and would be more likely to say whatever they think other educated people would be most likely to say.

It recently occurred to me that perceptions about Trump provide a nice opportunity for exploring this question empirically. For someone who is so ideologically polarizing, Trump is ideologically ambiguous. Yet, educated opinion seems to be that he is a major reactionary — even fascist perhaps. Either I'm incorrect in my sense of what educated opinion is, or this is perhaps a case where the educated tend to be in agreement — incorrectly.

What is Trump's Ideology?

First, we should establish what is objectively known about Trump's ideology (especially what was objectively known around November 2016, because the survey data we'll explore were gathered at that time). For the bulk of his adult life as a public figure, he was a moderate Democrat. As discussed in Bob Woodward's recent book Fear, this was taken very seriously in the early days of his campaign strategy discussions.

“You’ve got some problems on issues,” Bossie said.
“I don’t have any problems on issues,” Trump said. “What are you talking about?”
“First off, there’s never been a guy win a Republican primary that’s not pro-life,” Bossie said.
“And unfortunately, you’re very pro-choice.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have a record of giving to the abortion guys, the pro-choice candidates. You’ve made
statements. You’ve got to be pro-life, against abortion.”
“I’m against abortion,” Trump said. “I’m pro-life.”
“Well, you’ve got a track record.”
“That can be fixed,” Trump said. “You just tell me how to fix that. I’m—what do you call it? Pro-life. I’m pro-life, I’m telling you.”

It was also mentioned in this conversation that Trump only ever voted in one primary, suggesting that his ideological preferences are probably just not strongly formed. Here's another choice selection from the Woodward book, revealing Trump's profound ideological ambiguity going into his campaign:

An hour into the meeting, Bossie said, “We have another big issue.”
“What’s that?” Trump asked, seeming a little more wary.
“Well,” he said, “80 percent of the donations that you’ve given have been to Democrats.” To Bossie that was Trump’s biggest political liability, though he didn’t say so.
“That’s bullshit!”
“There’s public records,” Bossie said.

Even when you look at the positions that define his Presidential agenda, he's ideologically ambiguous. As Nate Silver has put it, “extremely conservative stances on issues such as immigration with surprisingly moderate (or even leftist) ones on other issues such as trade — with a lot of improvisation (and inconsistency) along the way.”

In a November 2016 article entitled, "We’ve Never Known Less About An Incoming President’s Ideology," Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight presents the table below. Donald Trump is the second-least conservative Republican President in the last 40 years (only GHW Bush was more moderate than Trump).

FiveThirtyEight

I went and wrangled the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study dataset, which has been one of the most common sources of data for many of the buzzy analyses you might have read about in the past year or so. As the figure below shows, the most common perception of Trump's ideology is "I dunno." That's pretty interesting. The second most common is "Very conservative."

So given that "we’ve never known less about an incoming president’s ideology," and that one could make a decent data-driven case that he is a moderate Democrat or a moderate conservative, it seems to me that "Not sure," was arguably the most objectively correct answer. "Somewhat conservative" and "Middle of the Road" also seem like arguably correct answers. But the fashionable perception of Trump as "very conservative" is, as far as I can see, basically incorrect. If this was a quiz and I had to grade it, I would be inclined to mark the answer "conservative" as wrong, too, given Trump's significantly left-leaning policy positions and his history as a pro-choice Democratic Party supporter.

When you look at perceptions of Trump's ideology by education level, as shown in the figure below, you can see that education is negatively correlated with uncertainty ("Not sure," the pink bar all the way to the left). This would be unremarkable for most survey questions, but given Trump's unique ideological ambiguity in November 2016, this pattern may reflect how education has more to do with demonstrating knowledge of respectable beliefs than with analytical or empirical sophistication. 

In the above graph, it's difficult to eyeball the other proportions. So let's zoom-in on the arguably most correct, uncertain answer and what I take to be the respectable/fashionable but incorrect answer (that Trump is either plainly "conservative" or "very conservative.") In the figure below, it's easier to see that education is not only associated with a clear decrease in reasonable uncertainty but a modest increase in the fashionable view that Trump is clearly conservative. Post-grads are not much different than those who have minimal contact with college life, but finishing high school and having some college experience are both associated with clear bumps toward the view that Trump is clearly conservative.

Educated overconfidence Trump's ideology

Overall, these data are not very strong evidence of anything, but they do give a little indication that I may be onto something with my hypothesis — that education may, in some cases, be associated with less correct beliefs. A larger hypothesis might be that, in any context of increasing uncertainty, there will be more and more margins at which the less educated are accidentally more sophisticated than the educated.

Why Do Muslim Immigrants and Western Leftists Like Each Other?

It's fairly well known that Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to support left-wing political parties, but it's not obvious why, given that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of Western social liberalism. It's even more puzzling why Western leftists so actively support the in-migration of Muslims, given that Western leftists just as actively excommunicate from their own ranks anyone who opposes key planks of social liberalism — nay, anyone who does not sufficiently profess their love for key planks of social liberalism. So then why do Muslim immigrant populations like left-wing parties, and why do Western leftists want Muslim immigrant populations, when each group hates the defining features of the other group's worldview?

Perhaps one might question the premises of this puzzle, so before I attempt a solution to the puzzle, let's go over the premise that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of social liberalism and the premise that Muslims in the West support left-wing parties.

If you think I'm exaggerating the deep ideological conflict between Islam and social-justice leftism, consider the following. One Gallup poll in 2009 found that zero of the 500 British Muslims in the sample found homosexuality "morally acceptable" — and only about half thought it should be legal (a rather low bar for social liberalism). If you look for the most generous estimates of Islamic sexual liberalism in the West, you can find about 52% of American muslims in 2017 saying that homosexuality should be accepted by society. You can find other estimates in between these two, for different countries and years in the recent past. Presumably, assimilation has some effect, so you have to imagine that new immigrants and asylum-seekers are, on average, on the lower end of these estimates.

One might also wonder if Islam really makes immigrants more likely to support left-wing parties (controlling for other factors correlated with leftism, such as youth). Maybe Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to be socially illiberal only because they are disproportionately young, uneducated, and poor. Nope. The graph below is from Piketty's recent paper on political cleavages, specifically from his discussion of the case of France, where support for left parties is 42% higher among Muslims than non-Muslims.

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Those other factors do have effects, but being Muslim still has a unique positive correlation with support for left-wing parties:

More precisely, socio-economic control variables reduce the Muslim left-wing preference from +42 points to +38 points in 2012, and adding foreign origins (including separate dummies for each region of origin) further reduces the effect to +26 points (see Figure 2.6k). In other words, for given gender, age, education, income, wealth and region of origin (for instance North Africa), there is still a sizable effect associating self-reported Muslim identity and left-wing vote. One natural interpretation is that Muslim voters perceive an additional, specific hostility from right-wing parties (and/or an additional, specific sympathy from left-wing parties), as compared for instance to voters with North African origins but who do not describe themselves as Muslim. [Emphasis added. -JM]

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Piketty finds the same pattern for Britain. Piketty's explanation is probably not wrong but it's rather unsatisfying. It's not the focus of his paper so don't write him rude emails expressing dissatisfaction with this explanation. It's just that... to say that Muslims like left-wing parties because right-wing parties hate Muslims, is only to rewrite the algebra. We can just as well pose our puzzle as: Why does antipathy to Muslim immigrants come in a right-wing package, when the offending Muslim viewpoints are primarily offensive to left-wing social liberalism? Right-wingers in the West might very well think, "Good! These incoming Muslim men know a thing or two about enforcing traditional gender norms and keeping out the gays! Maybe they'll rub off on us and forestall our downward spiral of degeneracy!" This sounds impossible to imagine, but that's the puzzle; why is this impossible to imagine when it's at least as plausible, and arguably more plausible, than what we are observing empirically. It sounds very implausible that someone who likes to wave a placard expressing love for brown-skinned folks who hate most queers also likes to denounce white people for only loving nine out of ten queers. And yet this occurs today. If Piketty's solution is unsatisfying, then what's a better explanation?

Wait no longer, because I have the answer. Well, a hypothesis. Which means I personally believe it is the answer (at the time of this writing).

We are accustomed to seeing today's leftist activists as extreme ideologues. The reason contemporary leftist culture is so baffling to so many people is that — it's presumed — they are overly possessed by an ideology; they are extremists on some set of principles; they are crazy because they are too radical, with respect to some set of ideas that is assumed to be underlying their speech and behavior.

Recall my article from a few months ago, analyzing the General Social Survey. I found that the anti-free-speech leftists, the most visible of left-wing activists today, are not technically more extreme leftists; rather, these 'authoritarian leftists' seem to be drawn from those who identify as only somewhat leftist. In other words, they are extreme on some dimension, but it's not leftism per se.

This dovetails with the hypothesis I would like to make here. Contemporary left-wing activists do not suffer from ideological possession or overly extreme devotion to any ideology. In fact, they lack ideology. That's the answer. The contemporary left is simply a grievance processing machine. Ideology has nothing to do with it. Ideology has as much to do with left-wing activism as Mozart has to do with the garbage disposal beneath your kitchen sink: You might hear it on their commercials, but that's about it. The inventors were not listening to it when the idea first presented itself. It plays zero role in the machine's function, which is why the machine runs perfectly fine no matter what the user happens to be listening to. This is why many left-wing activists today can hate one person for being a queer-hater and then profess love for some other queer-haters, all in the same day.

Many people will not believe my hypothesis, because it seems obvious that left-wing activists are constantly referring back to certain shared mental structures. That's true, but that's not all that ideology involves. Political scientists have long observed that vague 'worldviews' don't necessary qualify as ideologies. One of the key marks of ideology, properly understood, is constraint (Converse 1964):

"constraint" or "interdependence" refers to the probability that a change in the perceived status (truth, desirability, and so forth) of one idea-element would psychologically require, from the point of view of the actor, some compensating change(s) in the status of idea-elements elsewhere in the configuration. 

Philip E. Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics, 1964

When I say that left-wing activists are relatively non-ideological, I am not saying that they are not possessed by certain consistent social-psychological processes; I am only saying that the main process is not primarily ideological in this technical sense, because a hypothetical change in one node of the belief-web does not require any change in any other node of the belief-web. Ideology implies a kind of automatic, mechanical updating of the belief-web, given some exogenous shock. It's this functional automaticity, taken to extremes, that makes us think of ideologues as robot people.

And there is good empirical evidence that, in fact, it's conservatives who are motivated by ideology, while leftists mostly care about group interests. See Grossmann and Hopkins (2016). In a nutshell, they look at the language used by lefties and righties when they articulate their likes and dislikes. Do they relate their likes and dislikes to certain ideas or principles, or do they refer to how different groups are affected? They find a pretty huge difference, as revealed in this graph from their 2015 paper (which pretty much speaks for itself):

This finding deserves to be better known. If there is an ideology of left-wing activists, it is that there are no principles other than getting stuff for groups who don't have as much stuff as other groups. If you fervently believe that, it can look and sound a lot like an ideology. And you can call it an ideology if you'd like — if it looks like a duck, and walks and quacks like one, then ain't it a duck?—the only problem is that this will make you baffled by all the patent logical inconsistencies. One of the reasons why leftism today is so baffling to so many people is because people expect these "ideologues" to be possessed by some set of principles, and then people burn a lot of glucose trying to infer what these principles are. To no avail.

This non-ideological ideology of left-wing activists also helps to explain why leftists love Muslim immigrants, and why Muslim immigrants vote for left-wing parties. Leftists love Muslims because Muslims have grievances that left-wing parties can profitably process for them. Why Muslims love left-wing parties should now be obvious: it's because they have grievances in need of processing, and the left-wing parties are structurally incapable of opposing, let alone stopping, anything Muslim immigrants think or do — on account of their non-ideological, i.e., unconstrained operating philosophy.

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