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Why Do I Hate Pronouns More Than Genocide?
Self-reflection on what drives moral outrage and why I am not an effective altruist
When I talk to people from foreign countries, I often ask them what the “Current Thing” is back home. I suspect every culture exposed to mass media must have a similar phenomenon, and knowing what exactly dominates the headlines can tell you a lot about a place. A year or two ago I asked a woman from South Korea what people in her country were talking about. She said a man had molested a little girl, a judge gave him a light sentence, and society was outraged.
This made me wonder why something like that is never the Current Thing in America. You’ll often hear explanations for cancel culture that say things like “people just enjoy being part of the mob.” Which is true, but it doesn’t explain why the mob goes after relative trivialities. In summer 2020, a soccer player lost his job because his wife posted supposedly racist things about BLM protesters. Why do we cancel the family members of racist posters, but not murderers and rapists?
Having come out of academia, I’ve known many liberals, and I’m also an observer of our political culture. Following Kahneman and Tversky, we can say that there is a “System 1” (instinctive) and “System 2” (analytic) morality. I’m sure if you asked most liberals “which is worse, genocide or racial slurs?”, they would invoke System 2 and say genocide is worse. If forced to articulate their morality, they will admit murderers and rapists should go to jail longer than racists. Yet I’ve been in the room with liberals where the topic of conversation has been genocide, and they are always less emotional than when the topic is homophobia, sexual harassment, or cops pulling over a disproportionate number of black men.
Hearing about what the Current Thing in South Korea was gave me an idea for an article. I would talk about how deformed liberal morality is. Deep down, leftists care about racial slurs more than genocide, misgendering more than cancer, fake gender income gaps more than factory farms and torturing children. But it didn’t take long for me to realize I’m not all that different. As Scott Alexander recently wrote,
sometimes pundits will, for example, make fun of excessively woke people by saying something like “in a world with millions of people in poverty and thousands of heavily-armed nuclear missiles, you’re really choosing to focus on whether someone said something slightly silly about gender?” Then they do that again. Then they do that again. Then you realize these pundits’ entire brand is making fun of people who say silly things (in a woke direction) about gender, even though there are millions of people in poverty and thousands of nuclear missiles. So they ought to at least be able to appreciate how strong the temptation can be. As Horace puts it, “why do you laugh? Change the name, and the joke’s on you!”
Deep down, I know wokeness is not the most important issue facing humanity. I would contend it’s more important than most people think, say top 5-10 depending on how you count. Twice this year, there have been stories of women’s tears bringing down male scientists of unusual ability, one who had been working at MIT, the other running the “cancer moonshot” at the White House. I suspect that there might be some correlation between unique male talent and the likelihood of inspiring a PC mob to come after you (see also Roland Fryer). Regardless, wokeness is probably not as important as, for example, advancing anti-aging research. Part of my choice to write about it is that I feel like I have something unique and original to say on the topic. That means I can be most effective when talking about it, but that’s partly by design. I’ve hated wokeness so much, and so consistently over such a long period of my life, that I’ve devoted a large amount of time and energy to reading up on its history and legal underpinnings and thinking about how to destroy it. If I’d studied anti-aging research or space travel as much, I would probably have something interesting and useful to say about those topics.
System 1 Morality is Ego Gratification
When I arrived at my last academic conference at the American Political Science Association in 2019, I stopped at the check-in table and picked up this pin.
I had never seen a pronoun pin before, and decided to take this one as a souvenir. I already had one foot out the door and knew that I did not want to spend the rest of my life around academics. The pronoun pin represented everything I hated about leftists, “experts,” and intellectuals, and I keep it around where I work for motivation. I’m looking at it as I write this.
Of course, this is deranged. Of all the things that can motivate me, why did I pick a stupid gesture that has close to zero direct impact on human flourishing and wellbeing?
I think the answer goes something like this. Our System 2 morality works in a way such that if you put me and an SJW in a room, we would agree that society should punish murder more severely than either using racial slurs or announcing your pronouns. This is despite the fact that emotionally, neither of us has that strong of a reaction when it comes to murder. An exception for an SJW is when say a white racist or a cop murders a black person, while for me it might be mass murder committed by communists.
System 2 relies more or less on reason, with all its flaws. It provides a check on instincts going too far, which is why even the most liberal jurisdictions don’t make racist comments punishable by life in prison, even if leftists are instinctually more morally outraged by them than they are by violent crime. See how quickly they look for the “root causes” that make thieves and killers the way they are in order to morally excuse their behavior, a courtesy they never extend to bigots or Republicans.
So what is it that is driving System 1 morality? I think it’s based in part on the story we tell ourselves about our lives and our relationship with the rest of society. We want relative status, and to feel better than other people. Emotionally, I don’t identify with the tribe of “people who don’t commit genocide.” That tribe is way too large to provide me with relative status, and doesn’t even particularly appeal to any of my inherent strengths. In this theory, “status” can be only in one’s own mind, as for me I’m very willing to say things that I think are true even if they are unpopular as long as I think I’m right.
My System 1 morality is based on what makes me unique. Subconsciously, I go through a process that is something like this.
There are dumb people in the world who think dumb things. That’s not very strange, but what’s interesting is how smart people tend to be wrong about as often. This is because they are conformists, weak, and subject to social desirability bias. I am unique in both being highly intelligent and resistant to groupthink, which is why I always arrive at the correct position on every important philosophical or political issue. But while I’m only a 1 in 1,000 level IQ, I’m more like a 1 in 100,000 non-conformist, so the latter is more important to my identity. Wokeness is the dominant System 1 morality of the weak conformists, so they are my main enemy and I will work hardest to reduce their status.
The wokes might have an internal dialogue that goes like this.
Most people are small-minded, tribal, and ignorant. Those who are more intelligent and willing to reflect a little bit see that racism, sexism, and heteronormativity are serious barriers to equality. Most scientists, academics, and thinking people more generally are liberal because this is obvious to anyone who seriously contemplates social and political issues. I am one of those serious and moral people, so of course I believe in overcoming white privilege and trans rights.
I hope I didn’t strawman the liberal internal dialogue. I’m confident I didn’t because frankly I think my own internal dialogue sounds a lot crazier. What’s easier to believe? That intelligence and reflection lead people to better social and political views? Or that I am a 1 in 1,000 IQ and 1 in 100,000 non-conformist, which makes me a 1 in 100 million guy who stands above not only dumb people, who I barely think about, but even the relatively smart portion of humanity too? Moreover, I’m convinced the paragraph above is not a strawman because I almost didn’t need to write the dialogue, as the social psychologist John Jost said almost the exact same thing a decade ago.
Haidt fails to grapple meaningfully with the question of why nearly all of the best minds in science find liberal ideas to be closer to the mark with respect to evolution, human nature, mental health, close relationships, intergroup relations, ethics, social justice, conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, and so on. He does not even consider the possibility that research in social psychology (including research on implicit bias) bothers conservatives for the right reasons, namely that some of our conclusions are empirically demonstrable and yet at odds with certain conservative assumptions (e.g., that racial prejudice is a thing of the past). Surely in some cases raising cognitive dissonance is part of our professional mission.
I even think there is some truth in the liberal dialogue. Steven Pinker’s idea of social progress puts a lot of faith in the power of ideas, arguing some people just needed to make the arguments that slavery and war are bad, and in part because of the inherent strengths and wisdom of those arguments, we now have very little slavery or war. I find that argument compelling, mainly because the material explanations for the declines of slavery and war seem extremely weak. I just think something has gone wrong in the process. Maybe we picked the low hanging fruit like “slavery is bad” and those who style themselves intellectuals have been grasping for something else to make themselves feel superior to the masses ever since.
So I am like liberals in being driven by emotion and the need to gratify my ego. I believe I am unlike them in that my emotions are driving me towards truth and ultimately trying to create a better world, thanks to having the unique high-IQ, low-conformity combination.
Why I Dislike Even Non-Woke Academics
Among academics, I’ve seen many who do serious work and others who write the kind of nonsense that gets featured on the New Real Peer Review account. It has always frustrated me that the real scholars don’t seem to have much dislike or animus towards the “studies” types. I imagine that if shamans were given medical degrees and allowed to work in hospitals, real doctors would see that as an insult to their profession. Those in construction I’d like to think would hate it if people in their industry were building houses that always collapsed and giving everyone else a bad name. A System 1 morality that leads a profession to maintain some quality control among its own can be a very good thing, even when it is driven by ego gratification, as all System 1 morality is.
Academics don’t do that. If you’re a professor working towards a breakthrough in quantum computing, or even trying to use data in a careful way to get an estimate of the costs and benefits of immigration, you officially have the same job as someone who argues that General Relativity should be doubted because there aren’t enough black female physicists. To the extent he thinks about politics at all, your typical professor in just about any field is more concerned with QAnon and creationism than he is with gender theory and postmodern attacks on science, despite the nonsense coming out of academia being the fault of his own profession and ultimately more influential. The reason, I think, is that academia selects for people with a subconscious internal dialogue that goes like this (no attempt to steelman being made here).
I am an intellectual. I produce charts, graphs, and a lot of words. I go to conferences and lecture in front of captive audiences of young people that the government pays to be there so they can get a credential, and we all pretend like I have something useful to tell them. Others who also write things down and get paid to do that are part of my tribe. My main enemies are those who take intellectuals like me least seriously, and also those who present ideas by typing up Facebook wall rants filled with spelling and grammatical errors. Sure, there may be some silly things going on in academia, but we’re all in the same boat because we are all part of the class that achieves status by jumping through the right hoops and presenting what we have to say in sophisticated-looking formats.
My dialogue goes like this (individuals can have multiple simultaneous dialogues, so this one is not inconsistent with the one above).
I care about truth. Those who are saying the most clearly false things and given status for it are my enemies. It doesn’t matter if on the surface it looks like me and a women’s studies professor are doing the same thing because we both write papers that include references. In fact, those who say and write absurd things are even more grotesque while doing something that looks like “science,” because it makes a mockery of something sacred and creates more difficulty in discerning truth from lies. I group myself in with the restaurant manager who is going through his books and making sure the numbers add up, while putting the fortune teller, the race scholar, and the DEI administrator in the opposite camp.
Intellectuals who become obsessively anti-woke care about truth, and take deep offense at the kinds of things that are being said in the name of scholarship. Wokeness draws particular ire because, while it may not be the most harmful set of beliefs that has ever existed, it is certainly in the running for most clearly false and intellectually indefensible. I’m convinced that if aliens not subject to any kind of Social Desirability Bias with regards to our species came to earth and could investigate the intellectual merits of different human beliefs, gender blank slatism would be close to the first thing they would dismiss. The ideas that America is a white supremacist nation and all ethnic groups would have equal life outcomes if not for pernicious discrimination are only slightly less crazy. I think socialist economic ideas probably cause more harm than wokeness, but it would take aliens a little more investigation to find out why. It’s possible not to understand that markets are better than central planning because you are lazy or dumb. Lazy and dumb, I can live with. But that’s not why people believe in gender blank slatism. Rather, they are missing some instinct that allows them to use common sense to see through ideas that are fashionable and high status, but clearly false. There’s no minimum IQ threshold necessary to understand why Lia Thomas is funny. Opposition to gender theory unites every non-leftist across the entire bell curve, from the “Let’s Go Brandons” to Elon Musk. Whether one finds what is happening to women’s sports absurd is something akin to a pure test of conformity to elite messaging.
An individual concerned with truth – and whose self-esteem is based on thinking of himself as the kind of person concerned with truth – naturally finds wokeness uniquely offensive regardless of how damaging he thinks it is. This should be even more true when the individual belongs to the same profession as the wokes, for the same reason you’d expect pilots who take themselves seriously to be the group most angry at a new generation of aviators that is always crashing planes. Pilots, one assumes, take seriously the ostensible purpose of their profession, which is getting aircraft safely from one location to another. Most academics, unfortunately, do not, and are therefore comfortable with the absurdity in their midst.
Anti-woke academics sometimes lament that those who agree with them about the excesses of identity politics don’t speak up more. They attribute this to the need for self-preservation and a lack of courage. There is something to this, but it’s also more than that. Even the scholars that aren’t doing clown work get their own sense of self-worth from being part of the same club as those that do. There might be two academics who can agree wokeness is absurd when having a dialogue using System 2 morality. But one feels compelled to speak up while the other stays silent because they have different System 1 moralities. The individual who sees his tribe as “intellectuals” rather than “truth-seekers” does not have a strong enough emotional reaction to Critical Race Theory to take a stand against it, even if he thinks it’s wrong. Of course, other academics actually believe in some version of wokeness, and those ones are even more dominated by a System 1 morality obsessed with superficial status.
This solves another paradox, in that the liberal coalition includes both the most impressive people in society, and the most absurd. Physicists at MIT and community college administrators who majored in Latinx Studies belong to the same party. It is unhealthy that one of the most relevant cleavages in our politics is based on the style in which people present their ideas, regardless of quality. It would be better if more members of the governing class saw themselves as part of the truth-seeker tribe rather than that of “individuals with degrees who write a large number of grammatical sentences with references.” Prominent people – particularly in fields like business and tech where interest in truth is inherently rewarded – starting to question the nature of expertise and becoming explicitly anti-leftist is a sign that we may be headed in that direction.
Why I Am Not an Effective Altruist
From those who reach out to me, it seems that I have two broad categories of fans, belonging to two communities that rarely overlap. There are conservatives and libertarians, on the one hand, and rationalists and effective altruists, on the other. I greatly admire the cognitive habits, self-awareness, and honesty of the latter group. But I share many, though far from all, of the tastes, instincts, and priors (or prejudices) of the former.
If I was willing to completely embrace effective altruism, at this point I would say my self-reflection has led me to a point where I no longer want to worry about wokeness, and I’m going to move on to AI alignment or something.
But I only want to be a rationalist to the extent that I want to think in probabilities and avoid the delusion and lack of self-awareness that most people have when talking about political and social issues. Those who hate white people are convinced that they’re actually worried about police brutality, just like those who dislike foreigners have convinced themselves that tariffs make the country better off, and people who are jealous of the rich pretend as if their activism is about helping the poor.
Sometimes my own politics come down to “I just hate X, and like Y.” But when that happens, I want to be honest about it, both to myself and others. And if that’s what’s driving me on a certain issue, I want to question my instinct, and see whether it isn’t rooted in a trait that on further reflection reveals itself to be ugly or harmful.
I dislike obesity, piercings, and most tattoos unless you’re in a biker gang or the Azov Battalion and they show commitment to something. One of my deepest instincts is that I like men who look and act like men, and women who look and act like women. When feminists say that there are double standards in how we treat the sexes, I say of course you are right, and that is good and natural.
I think this revulsion towards androgyny is a prejudice that dare not speak its name on the right. Conservatives share pictures of hulking “trans women” and short-haired they/thems in Libs of TikTok videos, but don’t have the language skills or self-awareness to admit that they simply dislike how weirdos look and enjoy bonding with others who feel the same way. Whenever a plus-sized model is put on the cover of Sports Illustrated or Vogue, conservatives start screeching about “glorifying obesity.” These are the same people that giddily mocked the Obama administration’s healthy lunch program, and show no interest in public health measures until forced to look at fat women in swimsuits. I share the same instincts, but would rather be honest about it. Of course, I’m not unaware that one of the many double standards we live under is that liberals can openly indulge in their aesthetic preferences, which take some absurd forms like finding the way heterosexuality works problematic.
I love Libs of TikTok because the videos she posts do a perfect job of drawing out people’s instinctual reactions to things we can’t honestly talk about. Those that dislike androgyny and appreciate conventional standards of beauty will come up with other reasons as to why they’re appalled by her content. This has taken the form of saying that they represent teachers “grooming” children, or conservatives creating a new standard that teachers should never talk about their personal lives, even if they’re heterosexual. Liberals make conservatives feel like they have to censor their aesthetic preferences — by classifying those preferences as “hate,” “bullying,” “undemocratic,” etc. — and then make themselves feel smart by pointing out that conservative arguments make no sense. Even though I find the System 2 arguments conservatives make on LGBT issues mostly lacking, I feel kinship with those who “get” Chris Rufo and Libs of TikTok, and distant from those that don’t.
In February, conservative media reported that Biden had appointed to the Office of Nuclear Energy an individual named Sam Brinton (they/them), a drag queen who engages in “dog role-play.” I made some comment on Twitter that maybe his credentials look good, but such hobbies are signs of some kind of instability or mental illness that probably says something about his ability to do the job.
Others chimed in and argued that’s unfair, including Claire Lehmann. My first instinct was to argue back, but when I thought about it I realized that I wasn’t that confident in my original assertion. And then I realized that it didn’t matter for my position at all; here the disgust instinct was so strong that I simply did not want this person to have a position of status or influence. I think many people share my views and would probably have trouble working with they/thems but are forced to keep quiet due to civil rights law and human resources. And this could provide a reason not to give they/them a job. I’m smart enough to come up with a good utilitarian argument when I need to, and that’s what most writers with conservative instincts do in a situation like this. I sort of believe this particular one. But again, my policy position here doesn’t depend on whether any empirical claim is true or false, and I don’t feel like “doing the work” to understand why dog role-playing is something I should tolerate.
I think indulging in what are today called “sexist,” “homophobic,” and “transphobic” instincts – up to a certain point, of course – can be defended on utilitarian grounds. But even if I was convinced it couldn’t, and someone proved to my satisfaction that, for example, encouraging children to explore their gender identities at a young age would somehow lead to a happier and healthier society, I would still oppose it. My mind could probably be changed if it turned out that the benefits of teaching kindergartners gender theory were truly massive, say a doubling in GDP growth, indefinitely compounded over time. Barring that, I’m happy to go with my instincts. To take a counterexample, something like surrogacy sort of grosses me out, but I can get over it because it creates more children that are likely to live good lives, and I’ll probably feel the same way about artificial wombs when they become available. But if there are massive benefits to encouraging gender non-conformity, they’re far too small and uncertain for me to override my System 1 morality.
The discussion above solves the pronoun mystery. Declaring pronouns represents the convergence of perhaps the three things I hate most: conformity, an acceptance of androgyny, and lack of self-awareness. How the practice reflects conformity and an acceptance of androgyny is obvious enough. Lack of self-awareness means the pronoun people saying that they do it so “others can feel safe” or some such nonsense when it’s obviously pure virtue signalling. Putting #BLM in one’s bio is at least an honest profession of one’s politics and tribal identity. Announcing pronouns does the same thing, while pretending it is saving lives or just good manners.
I grabbed the pronoun pin on my way out of academia because it inspires me in a way that a chart on GDP growth doesn’t, even though the rational part of my brain knows that the rate of economic progress is more important. And focusing on things I hate helps my “productivity function,” as Tyler might say. By writing about wokeness, I think I’m addressing the issue that I should be working on based on three criteria.
How important is the issue for making the world better?
How much can my writing on this topic influence the world?
How motivated am I to write about this?
From my perspective, wokeness is very important, I have something new and original to say about it, and the topic inspires me like practically nothing else. But again, I know it’s nowhere near the most important issue I could be focusing on.
Effective altruists I understand as stopping after 1 and 2. I imagine them being intrinsically motivated to work hardest at whatever they rationally decide maximizes the number of utils in the universe, so there is no reason to ask question 3. But they are very unusual. We lesser mortals need something more than an abstract love of humanity or desire to minimize suffering across all sentient life to be passionate about a cause. For me, like most people, it’s aesthetic preferences and ego gratification, which involves contrasting myself with and trying to reduce the status of others who represent things I dislike, while trying not to turn into a monomaniacal “own the libs” fanatic. Perhaps that means I am an effective altruist after all because by taking 3 seriously enough I am in fact maximizing my positive influence on the world. But that feels like cheating, that I get the joys of indulging my aesthetic preferences and stroking my ego without enduring the sacrifices required to be a good effective altruist. It certainly seems as if I’m doing something inherently different than those that try to make as much money as possible so they can give it all away to worthy charities.
To the extent that effective altruism can bring self-awareness and convince us to temper or override the preferences of System 1 morality when their effects are too harmful, I applaud the movement. But no, I’m not going to stop tweeting about fat swimsuit models and go buy mosquito nets for Africans instead.