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Respectability Is Not Worth It (Reply to SlateStarCodex)

I've had some vague notion of trying to contribute more to other intellectual communities, but whenever I start to write a quick reply, I end up hunched over in a room gone dark from nightfall with a word count that seems self-indulgent for a reply on someone else's blog. This was going to be a comment on Scott Alexander's post from yesterday, Respectability Cascades.

Here's Scott's post in a nutshell. There are some reasons to think intellectual and cultural progress comes through low-status, unrespectable types militantly pushing some topics against the patient caution of respectable opinion leaders (e.g. militant queers forcing recognition of homosexuality and gay rights, against those who sought to do it discreetly). But then there are some reasons to think progress is thwarted by the unwashed militants (e.g. scientists say that Alex Jones pushing the line that "they're turning the frogs gay!" harms real progress on the kernel of truth in this claim). He ends the post asking: Which is the right strategy? Push something from a low-status angle to create social permission for the more respectable rungs to go with it, or exercise discreet respectable patience ala the Pinkers and Haidts of the world?

The crucially missing fact in Scott's setup of the problem is the ongoing and seemingly irreversible fragmentation of respect or prestige hierarchies. Scott refers to respectability as if it is one pyramid around which everyone’s respect is organized. But it's not anymore, like, at all — and I think this is the source of his admitted confounding. Alex Jones is close to the top of one respectability hierarchy — for his tribe. The Pinkers and Haidts are at the top of theirs, no doubt, but now their tribe is only one of many, and to be frank it's not exactly composed of the movers and shakers of the world. Once upon a time there was this notion that the appeal of becoming an establishment intellectual is to win the ear of those in power, but now that politics is so endogenous to technocapital, the only exclusive audience you win by achieving institutional respectability seems to be 'people who still buy books off the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores, and take their cues from traditional authorities such as the NYT' or whatever). In other words, it's conceivable to me that the tribe-audience you win from playing the patient/respectable gambit increasingly selects for precisely those who are not moving and shaking things.

In the epoch of mass broadcast media, the official institutional hierarchy could accurately be referred to as  respectability itself, as Scott does, because this was the only respect that mattered: it was the only respect that could win you access to the public, and of course the public’s respect tended to follow semi-automatically. The problem today is that the sum total of social respect allocated to Alex Jones is probably greater than that allocated to someone like Pinker, but to the degree that educated weirdo bloggers are socialized as prestige-tribe members, this feels sad and yucky and our esprit de corps kicks in and we continue to insist Alex Jones is obviously the opposite of respectable. But he is clearly, widely respected, by many, and it is now we who have a hard time updating our schemas, especially when our own status and influence are contingent on our type of people remaining the presumed definers of social reality.

We can even see this within Scott's post. For example, Scott says that Alex Jones has harmed the cause of endocrine health, but his only empirical support for that is “scientists say so, non-scientifically.” Does anyone really think physiological scientists have good intuitions about the empirical dynamics of cultural change and public opinion? I doubt it, but they have many good reasons to dislike Jones; to be disgusted that such a vulgar conspiracy theorist is trafficking in one of their precious, hard-earned insights; and to feel competitively threatened, even. I mean, there is not a long distance at all between Jones-style populist insanity and, say, public contempt for academic science and the faction of politicians keen to strangle academic research funding; not to mention that the Joneses of the world really are chipping away at the perceived credibility of scientific communication, etc.

Scott’s own personal story is a lovely anecdote suggesting Jones is more likely helping the cause, even if our normative status assignments are very confused in 2019. As Scott explains, he learned about the scientific finding while doing his pre-med, he then ignored it, and only came back to it because of all the buzz. Scott is essentially citing Jones as an influence on his thought and cultural activity, but it's just unthinkable for us to put it that way. For my part, I never even heard about the issue until the goofy hysterical talking points circulated. With that, I assumed it was a grain of truth surrounded by mostly bullshit. But now Scott’s endorsement of the basic idea increases my confidence a lot, and I will tell people that, and maybe none of this would be happening if it weren’t for... Alex Jones. So let’s face it, even though we are smart and sophisticated people our intellectual progress and cultural activity is now being shaped by Jones as much as by Pinker. I believe many respectable people — including many esteemed scientists — find this too insane and horrifying and threatening to admit, let alone grapple with, but I don't think that should convince us otherwise.

This is the crisis we are living through. I used to think the crisis was “fake news by lunatic fringe conspiracy theorists,” but now I think it’s equally “self-serving reality-denial in the professional class becoming legible as such by the masses, now choosing liars that suit them better.” The more the respectable institution-dwellers maneuver to retain their premium of credibility through anything other than whatever real edge on the truth they might possess, they become their own Infowars for the Educated. It’s hard to read the NYT today and not get a strong sense this is already irreversibly underway.

So what to do? It’s really simple, I think. So simple it's practically unthinkable to those whose social capital depends on sophistication: Say whatever you believe to be true, in uncalculating fashion, in whatever language you really think and speak with, to everyone who will listen. First of all, it’s a simple heuristic with the advantage of being an ancient ethical precept. But more interestingly, today, it’s increasingly clear that this defines the lines along which reality is fragmenting. We have inherited a culture based on a compromise with truth (modify your personal optimal expression of truth to make it palatable for a mass audience, and we’ll let you on TV, basically.) That’s all crashing down now, and everyone is fleeing to whoever seems best to them. If you're just saying everything true you possibly can, in good conscience, you're not only being a good person but you're going to be one of the most attractive intellectual source-options for all people similar to you (even if you're insane or rough around the edges, simply because almost all other people are up to their necks in social compromises and they speak like ~10% of the truths they could).

We might think Jones is an insane liar, but he’s not compromising the truth any more than all the Pinkers and Haidts are. It's the same structure: Tell truths but make them optimally palatable to your target market. If we see Pinker/Haidt as normatively superior, it is only because educated liberal-minded sophisticates like educated liberal sophistication and dislike low-IQ conservative people. In a next stage, though, the huge Jones audience will fragment further as the next wave of reality entrepreneurs create new worldviews better optimized for particular audience segments currently stuck under the big Jones tent.

Most of the "big" players in independent media represent examples of this, with respect to the previous generation of big-tent broadcast personalities. Joe Rogan is the Tom Brokaw for everyone who only ever watched Brokaw because there was no producer of daily media who specialized in the unique combination of martial arts, weed, and stand-up comedy. In ten years, there will be a very successful media personality who specializes in martial arts, weed, stand-up comedy and, say, Christianity. And they will get all the Christians currently listening to Rogan everyday, and so on.

I see no way this dynamic gets arrested. All anyone can do is all anyone should have done all along: tell the truth as radically as you can, in your own language, to whoever will listen. This will peel some people away from Jones, and away from the corrupt parts of the institutional narratives, and it will contribute to creating new communities holding up their own forks of social reality. It's the only ethically honorable thing to do, and it just so happens to be the most influential, as well.

If we are creating oases of stable, cooperative, autonomous sense-making, maybe they will get better and better at communicating until some kind of new and improved social reality begins to re-aggregate. Or infinite fragmentation, I don't know, but this seems like the best bet individually and collectively. Of course, Scott is already doing this, indeed he's a paragon of it. The next stage is just to make these processes more transparent and reproducible, and to more fully accept that there is no longer one social reality with one hierarchy of respectable intellectual influence. The more fully we integrate this new fact, the sooner we can all cease making futile compromises with the truth.

I don’t think the Pinkers and Haidts are bad, because they set their intellectual life strategies in a different epoch, and it’s nearly impossible to change gears as rapidly as our culture now changes its gears. But to answer Scott’s question, I do think that for people young or fluid enough to set or reset their intellectual strategies, everything points to: tell every truth you can sooner rather than later, do not wait for permission and trade as little as possible for the benefits of mainstream respectability. I can’t guarantee I am right, but I can say I’m practicing what I preach, and so far my results are as predicted!

Is parental social status a mixed blessing? On toleration for occupational drudgery

Many people assume that coming from parents with high social status is an advantage, because it would appear to increase the probability of gaining high social status for oneself. But what if parental social status is more like a weight on one's shoulders, an obligation heavy enough that, in some cases, it might even be a losing ticket in the lottery of life?

My parents have very low social status. I am a statistical oddity for having become a tenured academic, which is a relatively high status position (although I wager it's falling in the ranks as academia becomes discredited).

But I've been an academic for five years now, and with every passing year it gets harder and harder to understand why my job is worth doing. The volume of patently nonsensical and often ethically dubious make-work is so high that one of the chief intellectual puzzles I've become the most fascinated by is simply why everyone around me (myself included) is willing to work this job. And people are not just willing to work this job, they even continue to eagerly compete for it. That this has become a puzzle to me suggests that something about me is losing the capacity to do it, and yet for the moment at least — I'm still doing it.

In other occupations, the answer to such a question is obvious: people put up with all the nonsense either because they have no other choice, or because the money is worth it. But what is peculiar about academia is that most academics are skilled and connected enough to do many other things,  and the money is usually better in private-sector versions of academic fields. So if I am right that academia is becoming less and less worth it, given increasing loads of nonsense, I do think that the continuing passionate interest in either obtaining or maintaining academic careers is indeed a puzzling instance of lemming-like, behavioral inertia. But to call it herd behavior is too easy and not really satisfying. How or why does this particular herd dynamic hang together? A good theory would explain why academic investment varies across individuals (e.g., why is it becoming weaker in me, but not others?).

One possible explanation is the drive to meet parental expectations. The rationale is simple. If both of your parents were professors, or they had some other high-status occupation, you'll have a higher tolerance for nonsensical make-work, because you don't want to fail in the eyes of your parents. Quitting because of a too-high volume of nonsense would be existentially much more difficult than it would be for me, as their parents would view it more negatively than mine. Plus, they would feel their parents' judgment more because their parents' status gives their judgments greater credence. My parents, on the other hand, basically think I'm a highly-successful genius no matter what I do, and if for some reason they were to downgrade their opinion of me, my superior education would blunt the effects of that downgrading on me. Therefore, for an academic from high-status parents, maintaining their academic position is more rewarding than it is for me. They feel like they are representing something larger and historical and their parents actually follow what they do. I am doing something that most of my family does not really understand or care about.

For the moment, I'm carrying on. The big question is whether I am carrying on for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. My statistically improbable status background could give me a valuable edge in clarity, allowing me to see things that others can't see and act on them with a greater daring that others cannot access (namely, that perhaps academia is a sinking ship from which one should jump sooner than later). Or, my statistically improbable status background could just make long-term success in a high-status career more difficult, and the correct attitude and behavioral adaptation would be to suck it up and stop rationalizing my weaknesses. I still don't know the answer to this question, but I believe my basic observation about the causal role of parental status may be correct.

Does a country's separation of powers affect its status culture?

I was recently wondering whether countries with more centralized executive and legislative powers (less checks and balances) might have more status-intensive cultures — or in some way a qualitatively different type of status culture. My hypothesis is inchoate but here it goes.

When a government has few checks and balances (e.g. the UK is known for having a pretty centralized, unified government), the flow of public funds into civil society is highly conditional on the subjective status-estimates of a small set of people (those in government). By subjective status estimates I mean the personal impressions of the rulers regarding what people and projects out in the world are good, valuable, desirable, attractive, etc. When a government has a lot of checks and balances, the flow of public funds into civil society is not as conditional on the subjective status-estimates of one small set of agents — it's conditional on many different socially separated sets of agents.

The two countries I have the most experience living in, the US and the UK, occupy the two opposite poles with respect to the centralization of power in a unified government. And it seems to me that status-signaling activity in these countries is different in a noticeable but predictable way. These are just impressions and could be totally wrong, but here's what it looks like to me. It seems to me that much of UK civil society revolves around satisfying the whims of some superior, who is mostly concerned to satisfy the whims of some other superior, and so on upward... But at the top of almost all of these different chains of deference in different subspaces of civil society, is the whim of one group: the government in parliament at that time. This is why, I think, there is a lot of volatility in the priorities of civil society organizations in the UK (the "strategic plan" of a university can easily change once a year for some stretches), and yet the volatility seems strangely correlated (some change in a university's "strategic plan" sounds oddly like some new messaging you encounter from some other Arts organization. There are weird lags and interactions as you descend the pyramid from parliament to civil society, of course, but the diversity of civil society organizations all seem roughly attuned to the one fickle center at the top. So all the status-games feel, to me, weirdly and claustrophobically entrained.

In the US, it's obviously not that status competition is less prevalent, but the many status games of different civil society actors don't all trace upward to one master at the top of the pyramid. It's much more fractured, regarding who different civil society actors are trying to impress. But because it's more fractured, this means individuals have a relatively wider choice of what particular status game they want to play. Those who are immersed in one, don't pay as much attention to those who are playing another. If you find one status game really irksome, then you can potentially switch into another (relative to a country such as the UK).

One can then speculate about what types of people are selected for by these different contexts. I find the overly synchronized, centrally entrained status games of the UK kind of creepy, personally. I think it might make people marginally more delusional. It seems to me that people in the UK, including really smart people, are more likely to take arbitrary government directives as anchors of reality, whereas Americans have more mental leeway to, as it were, take 'em or leave 'em. When everyone else is attuned to the same center, it makes sense that you might mistake what's coming from the center as a vector of reality itself, rather than one contingent possibility among others. Americans often seem "kind of crazy" to non-Americans, and this might help to explain it. The highly fractured nature of government power in the US might make the American individual feel and act kind of like a free agent navigating many contingent possibilities of what reality even is.

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