Issues with steelmanning

People’s views don’t make sense. People do not have nice coherent philosophies. People are not consistent, people don’t think through the implications of beliefs, people are irrational. Of course people believe what they believe for a reason, in that things have explanations. (If you drop a pen you are holding up, it falls. Why? Because you dropped it. While under the effects of gravity.) However, those reasons are not “they are perfectly rational beings who sat down and thought about it, free of all bias, and came up with their politics/philosophy/etc.” They aren’t even “they are mostly reasonable with regards to politics and came up with their political views after some deliberation”. The reasons have to do with a complex jumble of the motivators that drive humans. Humans are complicated. Humans are not anywhere near reasonable when thinking about things like politics and religion. Tribal and territorial wars sometimes bear superficial resemblance to civil discussion but only as another memetic weapon (this is a lie. Sometimes they resemble civil discussion because the participants think that civil discussion is virtuous. Humans are complicated.) Steelmanning implies that the reason behind people believing something is that it makes sense. This is, well, factually false.

Making things make sense is a fun thing to do. A lot of what we do is for fun and I tentatively support the claim that blogging is usually morally abhorrent by some theoretical version of virtue ethics which I don’t endorse but view as a good thing to point to when somebody asks what a morality is. However, assuming we have some goal beyond having fun drowning ourselves in politics, well, there is a world to save. Or information to acquire or predictions to make or whatever it is you value. Being epistemically charitable in the sense of considering the possibility that others’ ideologies are as sensible is your own is reasonable. Acting as if others’ ideologies are actually sensible isn’t. (If what you want is to gain status, charity probably works pretty well in certain communities.) I’m not sure what the advantages of a better version of steelmanning which produces more true statements are, but if we’re valuing having lots of true statements anyway we might as well try to produce more.

I’ve noticed myself being more charitable to the right. (I am not sure “the right” is the correct gerrymandering here.) The process by which this happens is something like this: when somebody expresses an opinion far enough to the left of mine, I perceive it as misguided and annoying. When somebody expresses an opinion far enough to the right of mine, I perceive it as evil and my brain yells “nobody thinks of themselves as evil, their position must make sense to them, think more.” There are confounders here: when I see a person/group accusing another person/group of being inherently evil for politics, I automatically defend the accused party, and most of such accusations are from the left (I don’t know if this is because of characteristics specific to my social circle or a wider phenomenon and I’ll need to look into it more before I can comment on causes). (As I was writing this, I checked Twitter and saw somebody calling an article about how abortion is okay “pure evil. It’s not wrongheaded, it’s not foolish, it’s not mistaken – this is pure evil.” My reaction to that was the same as my reaction is when pro-choice people talk about how evil pro-life people are—”they have different beliefs about what constitutes babies, they don’t think that [pro-life talking point]/[pro-choice talking point] is okay”) Also, nearly everyone I know to the right of me is very reasonable and ingroup-y, while a lot of the opinions to the left of me which I see are something like people I follow on tumblr for their usual non-politics content but don’t really know. When people express opinions in the second category, they frequently turn out to be some sort of mainstream tumblr leftists, for whom I feel no sympathy (I believe the positive term for “politics hipster” is “contrarian”? I usually don’t feel sympathy for ideologies with too many followers) but don’t alieve that they’re evil. This almost never happens with people to the right of me because, well, they talk about politics all the time. Boring-left people are everywhere, boring-right people are dark matter universe (if an actual Republican reads this, please let me know).

Steelmanning has a depth-first problem. To some extent this may be peculiar to me, but it an existing effect if perhaps not as big one as I think. Much like nitpicking, it is mostly applied to that which is close by, not that which is important. Pathological steelmanning, much like pathological criticism, leads to being eaten by internet politics at no gain, though perhaps in a more dignified way. Charity and civility are good in that they make everything nicer and probably more correct (although also just closer to the mean of the group in question), but being charitable to whatever’s in your face in a way which implies a time investment leads to some unfortunate time allocation. All time-eating automatic reactions to politics which is nearby have this problem. (I do also oppose spending lots and lots of time thinking about the ideal system of government and writing blog posts about it. Um. Theoretically oppose. Not oppose in the sense of not doing it. Internet politics is great at making the people involved in it think that it matters. It’s lying. It doesn’t.) Just because we’re being nice while being eaten by politics doesn’t mean we aren’t being eaten by it.


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