Pseudonym Writes

Just another site by someone who refuses to give their own name.

Month: March, 2015

Privilege vs. Forces

Thing of Things

I’ve been thinking about alternatives to privilege-based models of oppression.

For the unfamiliar: the privilege-based model essentially divides the world into the privileged and the oppressed. For instance, white people are privileged and people of color are marginalized; straight people are privileged and LGBA people are marginalized; thin people are privileged and fat people are marginalized. The privileged group has negative opinions about the oppressed group. In addition, various institutional things screw over the oppressed (for instance, redlining, the illegality of gay marriage, and too-small airline seats).

However, I think there are some serious problems with this sort of model.

First, there’s the problem I wrote about in this post. Privilege models fail when the intersection of a privileged identity and a marginalized identity ends up giving you worse outcomes than the intersection of two marginalized identities. For instance, men of color are far more likely than women of…

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Some Random Thoughts On “Sneer Culture”

What is “sneer culture”? It’s … a thing … oddly, I can’t find where I first heard the term defined.

Try this:

When I think of sneer culture, I think of people who would never donate a cent of their own money to help the fight against AIDS, but will always go out of their way to mock HIV denialists and make them feel stupid, even if they’re minding their own business and not bothering anybody. This seems to me unvirtuous – I explained part of the reason here. But I think another reason is that when there are nonconformist beliefs that seem correct to me, or at least to have some fragments of correctness in them that are worth teasing out, the sneer culture people mock them just as hard as the HIV denialism. And when there are popular beliefs that are just as wrong as HIV denialism but would take some courage to go up against, then they don’t contradict them at all.

There’s correcting false beliefs as a terminal goal – which is rarely best achieved by mocking people – and there’s mocking people as a terminal goal – for which it is often useful to choose targets with false belief. People who have mocking people as a terminal goal scare me.

Or this:

What sneer culture members have in common is that they’re strongly reinforced by sneering, seek out provided info that they can sneer at, and hang out with other people who sneer at things in a group where they know they have an approved target.  There are more skillful professional sneerers who specialize in feeding those audiences, but the masses below are just as much a part of the culture.  “Lol homeopathy” skepticism is sneer culture, just as “Burn down the churches” atheism is hate culture, but neither of these are apex predators of Blue-coded spaces (if I understand correctly what that term means).

When I was writing the Sequences I was, in retrospect, flirting perilously close to sneer culture about religion, even though I had guardrails against ad hominem (there is nowhere I was flirting with hate culture, I think; I knew what Diane Duane would say about that).  I would not write “The Amazing Virgin Pregnancy” again, knowing what I know now.  It is too dangerous to seem to be inviting other people to laugh with you at an approved target.

Personally, my favourite definition is this.

Feh. I just typed up a whole thing on Sneer Culture and then my computer crashed and I lost it. I’ll probably write something shorter and stick it on Tumblr instead.

Anyway, I can assure anyone who’s wondering that there is Sneer Culture in the Red Tribe.

Red Tribe media works pretty much the same (terrible) way Blue Tribe media does. There are Red Tribers who will helpfully explain to you that there are studies disproving gay marriage, environmentalism, anti-racism and anti-sexism, abortion, taxes, every “sex-positive” thing; in fact, pretty much everything controversial (except for gun control, for some reason, the debate around which runs on Obvious Truisms.) A lot of transphobia runs on Sneer Culture; practically all of it, in fact. There’s a lot of sneering at the idea of feminists proudly dressing like “sluts” and then getting angry at anyone who helpfully suggests this might attract rapists.

I think Sneer Culture is extremely bad for it’s members, but arguably a useful resource, in that it’s existence can helpfully point out the weak points in essentially any movement. This requires people to actually seek out and engage with the actual criticism of their own ideology, however.

If you’re dealing with a certain kind of scrupulosity-type thing, I find reminding yourself that the Hated Enemy actually does contain plenty of terrible people can be useful for the purposes of helping you steelman the stupider people on your own side. Of course, you should only do this if you’re already being at least this charitable to the other side.

In conclusion: ner ner neh ner ner, Christians were talking about this problem and devising countermeasures before your civilization’s antecedents first arose. The recommended countermeasure is “humility” (not congratulating yourself on ow much more humble you are!), and remembering that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, especially you. IOW: you are anaspiring rationalist, not a True Rationalist, and you are wrong about some things you are currently very confident in.

In The Future, No-One Will Care About Security

The present is weird.

The present is always weird, of course – because every age is a product of a thousand strange and complicated forces, and they twist our societies into truly odd shapes. And people always seem to forget it, every time, because “normal” is … normal, to us. Even if it might take years of study for an outsider to understand our particular period in history. If you were an outsider.


Anyway, this is on my mind because I was reading some reviews of the classic sci-fi short story The Cold Equations. I won’t spoil it, if you haven’t read it – although it’s a pretty straightforward piece, especially now, when the twist feels less twisty because we’re not in the same cultural context it was written in. (Good, though, in my opinion.)

The story opens with a conventional-ish rocket being launched on a vital supply mission from a Hyperspace cruiser dropped briefly into realspace. The lone pilot in this stripped-down little ship – which has distinctly limited fuel – discovers a stowaway hiding in the cupboard …

… and about half of the reviews I’ve seen begin complaining that this is completely impossible.

Now, you can quibble over whether the cupboard is clearly far to large for a supposedly bare-bones mission – whatever, it’s part of the conceit, who died and made you in charge of worldbuilding? The author says the cupboards on a mission like this are big enough, just go with it. But the biggest sticking point seems to be the simple idea of stowing away on something.

After all, why didn’t they have tighter security? Someone could have put a bomb in there, or something! What were they thinking?


Modern terrorism is really quite interesting. Yeah, I know, I’m on a watchlist now. But it is.

I’m Irish, so perhaps I have a slightly unusual relationship with terrorism. It wasn’t so long ago that being literally blown up by terrorists was an actual, ever-present threat in parts of Ireland. That, and the fact that every flight I’ve ever been on had holes in their security you could drive a truck though (I know, watchlist) makes the whole “war on terror” thing seem … a little silly?

And it is silly, I should make that clear. Not because I’m Irish; the same sort of overreaction happens all the time and everywhere, now. It’s not a national thing, it’s a cultural thing.

(Hmm, how long ago would that sentence have been an oxymoron, because “cultures” and “nations” were the same thing?)

Some kid goes into his highschool and shoots the place up. Now, there are genuine questions why this happens (it doesn’t, here in Ireland.) But still.

There is an immediate national, even international crisis. Is is because gun laws aren’t tight enough? Is it because our modern media glorifies violence? Is it because of videogames, or mental illness, or are we not reaching out to kids enough? Is it … across the country, across the goddamn world, debates rage and untested new policies are implemented … because of, perhaps, at worst, maybe two dozen people died.

In a world of seven billion people. In a world where, by my back-of-an-envelope calculations, your child is about five hundred times more at risk crossing the street. This is such a miniscule risk the human brain is literally incapable of comprehending how small it is; it is so small you physically can’t take it into account without overcompensating by several orders of magnitude.

It’s a small flipping risk, is what I’m trying to say.

But it’s a news story. So it’s available.

And people rail at Republicans for wanting to play with their guns at the expense of children’s lives – won’t somebody please think of the children! – even when, as far as I can tell, the best available (terrible, unreliable) evidence suggests that guns in the US save a slightly more than they kill. Even when, according to this random internet article I just googled up for a handy talking point, the GOP preventing people from getting “Obamacare” cost maybe 10,000 lives in 2014.

But yes, I’m sure fifteen, twenty people a year dying from something you have no actual evidence is causally connected to Republican policies is just as important, maybe more so.

(Not that conservatives are exactly off the hook, since “videogames/rock music/D&D are corrupting our kids!” codes conservative, and the anti-videogame thing has been almost exclusively founded on the idea that they somehow caused school shootings.)

Why do we do this? Why do we panic about school shootings and terrorist plots, and pass stupid laws to “stop” them? Why do we freak out about illusionary plagues and This New Sex Thing kids these days are totally doing and crime waves that are absolutely sweeping the nation, we swear, look here are three similar news stories (one of which is fake and one of which is out of context)?

Well, duh, it’s the media.

But seriously, this is massively skewing our society’s perception of the world and it’s risks. Why do you think we don’t let children play on the street anymore? Why do you think we have fad diets, and health scares, and Cancer Cured In Mice Using Lingonberries?

There’s no War On Heart Disease, or War On Malaria, or even a War On Cars.


Gosh, but terrorism is really popular among … well, even in the “western” world, honestly. Makes you long for the days when wars were fought by armies lining up in neat lines, doesn’t it?

(Yes, it does. The Geneva Convention is founded on the premise that combatants won’t attack civilians or use unnecessarily inhumane weapons, on the understanding that enemy combatants will do the same. Asymmetrical warfare breaks that essential symmetry.)

So … why?

Personally, I blame Western Imperialism. But not for the reasons you think.

See, The West(tm) has a significant tech advantage in warfare. But more importantly, they have a significant money advantage, and and industrial complex backing them.

In the Bad Old Days, this meant you went and found someone who didn’t have those things and told them you were in charge now, Or Else. (And then you shot a few, just to be clear on that Else was.) These days, this generally considered uncouth and in any case too hard, so we just roll in when someone’s doing something we don’t like for *ahem* incredibly subtle strategic reasons. Same difference. You show up with an army, to a place without much of one.

When the other side has tanks, and air support, and more troops, and is usually armed with better weapons, and they have some fancy new toys they’re dying to try out … well, it’s a tricky strategic problem, to put it lightly. The Roman Legions couldn’t have done it, for all that they toppled nations and steamrollered vast armies. Historically, quite a few civilizations have essentially (to simplify a bit) been wiped out for having much lower military disparities with their enemies. If this was an episode of Star Trek, it would be beyond Kobayashi Maru it would be somewhere between the Borg, and one of those space-god races from TOS that you tried very carefully not to offend in case they squished you.

How do you fight a war against an enemy that’s more powerful on almost every conceivable dimension?

Well, a solution was found, of course. It’s obvious to any modern tactician.

That solution was that you find one of those big, powerful military installations; or, better still, a bit of the huge civilization backing them; and you blow it the fuck up. And then you disappear, and you do it again and again, and again …

… it’s actually kind of a terrible strategy, in a way. You pretty much have to use isolated cells, because otherwise you’re too easy to find; which means it’s impossible to call off the attack or make any kind of coherent demands. It’s pretty much impossible for you to take down a civilization that way, and it’s close to impossible to take down much in the way of serious military infrastructure that way. You’re now engaging in the aforementioned asymmetric warfare, which means you’ll be treated somewhat worse than most societies have traditionally treated spies and traitors and criminals. You’re massively, massively pissing off the enemy, which means your “side” will suffer atrocities.

In fact, there’s a serious case to be made that terrorism has never worked – and I say this as a citizen of a state that was literally founded by terrorists, as a result of a lengthy terrorist campaign. The only way terrorists ever win is when both sides are so tired of fighting they both give in to each other at once; and even then, it’s a leaderless cell structure, so all the worst bits of your “organization” will cheerfully keep on going until they’re all dead or they find something better or even more illegal to do.

Even the silliest organization tends to realize that negotiating with blackmail is a bad idea, so you don’t even have that. You just … fight.

But it’s the only weapon that works against the imperial war machine. You can see yourself, your movement, is making a difference, making the enemy hurt some fraction of the hurt they’ve caused. And the effect is magnified, compounded, in the funhouse mirror that is modern media; until your little campaign becomes, reflected, a vast host marching beneath a glorious banner, rising up to overthrow the Empire …

It’s all smoke and mirrors, of course, even if the smoke is coming from the barrel of a gun. But in a world where things are just right, when the panopticon sees enough to be afraid but not enough to catch you, when you’re vastly outclassed but can still improvise large-scale devastation on a short timescale, when every attack that fails is forgotten while every attack that succeeds is written in fire in the minds of nations … it can work. For a while.

It doesn’t work for anyone, of course. But it works, just the same. For a moment, when things line up just right.

For the present.