Rants About Stuff Other People Have Written – Political Edition

Here is my take on some recent articles that, in the broadest sense of the word, are about political matters. You may notice the absence of a topic that is currently far more important than anything discussed here: The European refugee crisis. However, during the writing of this post alone, so many rapid developments changed the whole situation so quickly that anything I would have written at one point would have been outdated at the next. So all I will say here is that, regardless where you stand on the issue, I will remind you of the existence of charities you can donate to to alleviate the plight of people in war-torn regions, however little you may have needed that reminder and whatever it is worth to you.

Now, enjoy (or hate me for) my foolish opinions:

1. Electing political outsiders

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex tries to explain the current success of populist politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Donald Trump in the US. Essentially, he believes that the political spectrum has gotten so divided (at least in these two countries) that it’s no longer really possible for candidates to find a sweet spot between appealing to hardcore ideologues and appealing to more moderate positions. Once they get elected, however, they have to deal with reality, and that means that they have to betray their base in a very transparent way. Which, in turn, fosters an increasing hatred for the political establishment, so the fact that centrist politicians disdain and actively speak out against a demagogic candidate starts to work in their favour:

The most salient feature of Trump – I would say the only salient feature of Trump – is that the establishment hates him. Reince Priebus goes to sleep at night and has nightmares about Trump. The liberal media has important-looking people coming on in suits saying it’s a national embarrassment that anyone could vote for Trump. But in signaling terms, what they’re unintentionally saying is “Moderates hate this guy! He’s too politically incorrect to win over Democrats! Only vote for him if you’re a real Republican.” And Republicans are eating it up. It doesn’t even matter that he’s not that conservative in real life, the media has conducted his campaign for him. Every bad thing the media and the establishment say about him will just make him more popular.

To me, who lives on the other side of the Atlantic/the English channel, that seems like a very persuasive analysis. The only things I have to add are these:

While people certainly are influenced by their desire to signal membership in a group (strong leftist/right-winger), one should, as always, be careful not to see other people’s politics as exclusively motivated by ulterior or irrational motives while regarding one’s own views as only well thougt-out and belevolent. As I noted before, there can be a reasonable side to apparent ideological stubbornness, and even if you don’t believe that is the ultimate cause of other people’s political views, it should be addressed how supporters of populist candidates will usually rationalize their decision: The establishment doesn’t hold more moderate positions because they have to deal with reality, they hold them because they make it easier to hold on to power and gain the respect of the political in-group they are, once elected, a part of. Therefore, they will remain dishonest in words and idle in actions on some issue the supporter of populism cares about. (“Cares about” usually is an understatement: He or she may believe that complete disaster is imminent if something isn’t done about that issue as soon as possible.) And therefore, some complete outsider to the political mainstream is needed to shake the system up and set things right again. That person should be immediately elected to a high position, such as head of government or party leader, so she can change the system rather than gradually becoming part of it.

This type of argument isn’t actually limited to supporters of extremist politicians: A political moderate may believe that partisan bickering has become unbearable and some “unideological” outsider candidate (or party) is worth backing. Of course, the “unideological” label will sooner or later be questioned and eventually destroyed by people with strong… well, ideologies. In any case, perhaps it should be pointed out to people willing to support such “nonconformist” candidates that their plan might horribly backfire: Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that you’re right, the problems you care about are as important as you believe they are, and that there is a realistic possibility of executing the political proposals you support. (I am not necessarily saying that may not be true in some cases.) Then the person or party you want to catapult to the front and center of your national politics still has to work with the old establishment you despise so much. “Your” favourite candidates may not owe something to anyone in the mainstream political in-group, but conversely, none of these people owe anything to them, and they usually have actively alienated this elite in the preceding campaign: If Donald Trump really is elected American president, he will have to work with almost every single person he is insulting right now. To take an example closer to my home: If a eurosceptical (in the broadest sense) party actually comes to power in a country, they usually still have to form a coalition with other parties, and then negotiate with the leaders of other European countries, as the Greek Syriza had to learn earlier this year. (On the bright side, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t see their concerns as very justified or their policies as very realistic, one could also argue that this minimizes the damage such “maverick” individuals or groups can do, but that’s still not a very good argument for them.)

Maybe electoral decisions in most countries would be wiser if people remembered this point.

2. Inequality and “all our needs are social”

Branko Milanovic, a Serbian-American economist specializing in inequality of wealth and income, recently responded to philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt on the idea that this kind of inequality isn’t actually morally important. I have kind of agreed with Frankfurt’s point of view for a long time: I consider poverty important, defined as people living under a certain absolute threshold of wealth, but not inequality, defined as how far apart the wealth of the richer and the poorer classes in a given society is (and many or most frequently used measures of poverty are actually geared toward measuring inequality). To illustrate the difference, in a village inhabited almost entirely by billionaires except for one single millionaire who lives there, too, one could hardly say that anyone is poor, but there is gross inequality, with the millionaire being much poorer than his other plutocratic neighbours – in this extreme example, one could hardly view his plight as an important social concern. This is why I could not define my political views as left-wing: I am not against a (possibly very generous) welfare state, but I am against political measures whose main or exclusive goal is to make society “more equitable” (rather than alleviate poverty), unless existing levels inequality can be shown to have significant consequences for something else that I do care about, like crime or violence.

Milanovic tries to counter this sort of attitude in a well-written argument that can be paraphrased like this (numbering of the points mine, not his):

  1. People always define their well-being relative to others, e.g. someone in a rich society may be ashamed not to wear a moderate to high quality shirt in public, while it may be less important in a poor society where clothes are scarce. As this example illustrates, this is particularly true for matters of social acceptibility, which is always relative to the wealth of a social group.
  2. Because our needs form within a social group and relative to how rich it is, we can’t distinguish between the needs that are our own “authentic” desires and those that only arise because we envy higher-status people in our society. This makes it futile to embrace one as a morally significant guideline for political demands while remaining indifferent or even hostile to the other.
  3. If we are to be concerned only with absolute poverty, why would we be concerned with poverty in “Western” societies such as Europe or the US at all? The people considered “poor” in those countries still live very luxurious lives, compared to poor people in many other parts of the world.

(I urge you to read the whole thing before you proceed, so you can judge for yourself how accurate this summary is.)

However, I think I can answer the question in point 3: First of all, defining “absolute poverty” on a global level as having less than one dollar a day effectively means formulating the goal that everyone in the world should have more than that at some point, which may be good enough for the moment. But I personally hope that, at some point, the world will advance far beyond that, making some other defining line of absolute poverty necessary even on a global level. But adapting it to the newfound wealth of the world’s poorest doesn’t mean this has to be based on wealth or income disparities, for even if that is a relevant factor in the increasing personal needs people will formulate in such an event, it isn’t the only one. For even if a need is dependent on the society one lives in, that need not mean that the only explanation for that need are equality/inequality concerns:

One reason for this is that people usually make different future plans depending on the kind of society they live in: If you have completely geared your life and education towards going to university and your community has implicitly promised you that you could do so, then ultimately not being able to attend it is different to you than it would be to, say, a person in a rural area who never expected to attend an institution of higher education, striving to take over her parents’ farm one day instead. This example is a bit silly, as being able to study is not usually recognized as a universal human right in even the richest societies currently in existence, but one can imagine some simpler cases of future planning (being able to go to the baker tomorrow, etc.) that would be relevant in our context. Another aspect to consider would be that certain situations have to be dealt with differently once a society’s wealth increases – imagine someone who could, in principle, live without the internet, if it wasn’t an indispensable tool for communication and job search in the place where he lives. And even the first example that Milanovic provides – originally due to Adam Smith -, the “roughly-hewn shirt” that one would be content with in a poor society while in a rich society he “would be ashamed to be seen in public without a linen shirt”, is somewhat self-defeating in this regard: If somebody adapts to other people’s social expectations, that’s at the very least not directly a matter of wealth inequality.

But an, in my mind, even more important point in answering the “Why concern about poverty in industrialized nations at all?”-question is that if you recognize some human desires, such as healthcare or freedom from starvation, as basic needs that should be fulfilled for everyone, then in practice, that will always mean “fulfilled to the extent that the kind of society you are currently living in can provide them”. As an example, before the invention of penicilin, it made no sense to talk about an otherwise terminally ill person’s “right” to be provided with this drug. Not being able to take it also couldn’t serve as a distinction between “rich” and “poor” – neither the wealthy nor the unwealthy can use a medicine that doesn’t exist yet. But once penicilin has been invented, it makes sense to demand that a health care system provides it to people whose life would be in danger without it. And the same goes for countries that are separated by geography, rather than time period. And all this, I believe, too has very little to do with inequality.

But even if we admitted that we can’t distinguish between “authentic” and (equity-based) “social” needs in a person’s psychological motivations, it’s still a logical leap to say that, therefore, we can’t make that distinction in the moral justification for a certain policy: One person’s desire for the newest Iphone may become so intense (because, say, she’s a fanatical Apple fan) that it rivals another person’s wish for decent clothing, and for both needs we may come up with an explanation that it could only arise in the specific communities they live in. But I think most people would agree that one has a stronger case to be provided with the object of her desire than the other. This whole part of Milanovic’s argument implicitly seems to assume that readers already agree with some form of utilitarianism.

And I even doubt the basic premise that “authentic” and “social” needs can never be told apart: The desire for food of someone suffering from starvation seems hard to conceive as socially relative, as does the pain of someone who has a wound. Perhaps you could still claim that the intensity of such feelings is somewhat greater if you don’t live in a poor country or a warzone where these situations are constant problems, but even if that was true, I think it is clear that’s not nearly the full picture. Now, is the fact that different needs influence each other really equivalent to the idea that they are indistinguishable? I’m very sceptical of that.

To round things off here, I might mention this empirical economics paper that I recently came across in another context. I haven’t gotten to read it, yet, but judging by the abstract and first sentences, its results don’t seem to support a “keeping up with the Joneses” theory of human well-being at all.

In all fairness, I should mention that Milanovic’s blog post is in response to a specific argument by the aforementioned Professor Frankfurt, whose view of the topic may not be quite equivalent to mine.

3. Sexism in video games

On to a topic that people are completely calm and reasonable about, and have been for about a year right now: The question of whether video games promote sexism against women. As a) I’m not a gamer and b) I don’t regard the topic as particularly important to non-gamers, I didn’t think I would ever write about this. Nevertheless, it was impossible not to get curious at some point, so I did somewhat follow the debate. My two cents were, and are, that the criticisms of video games, while interesting, strongly rely on mostly unexamined normative premises that are neither trivial nor shared by all well-meaning people in our society, and sometimes also interpreted the games in very one-sided ways. But, of course, the underlying empirical issue is whether or not the games really have an impact on male or female attitudes towards women. Which brings me to this article (from “New Republic”) that tries to refute the view that gamers merely exercise fantasies without consequence for their real-world attitudes. Thinking about and digging a little more into the studies the author cites, my first impression is that there are some glaring holes in his case, which is what baited me into even discussing the matter on this platform.

Let me emphasize that there is no particular reason why you should listen to me on this subject: Not only am I not a gamer, I am not a psychologist, either. I am also somewhat biased against feminist viewpoints, ever since I was bitten by a feminist raccoon as a child. I still hope you find my comments interesting enough to take the time to read them, but if you are really interested in the topic, I strongly urge you not to rely on them, and do your own research if you want to arrive at an informed opinion. In the interest of stylistic elegance, I will talk about the matter with more certainty than I actually possess (sounds familiar?). It should also be noted that I am talking about the specific evidence quoted in one specific article. Even if that evidence is insufficient, the view it is alleged to support may still be true and supported by other, better empirical investigations. Finally, I may not know or have missed some details in the experimental design of these empirical investigations that address the concerns I am bringing up here. After this extensive list of disclaimers, let us start:

In support of the notion that video games promote harmful gender attitudes, the article mentions five studies, while dismissing one study that critics of that view have pointed to. If you know a little about the problems of empirical studies – the margins of statistical significance are still broad enough to get quite a few confirmations of false hypotheses just by chance, which is exacerbated by the fact that researchers have a tendency to publish their results when they support their favourite hypothesis while abandoning them in the desert when they fail to do that, and the biases of a scientist can influence test subjects in sometimes subtle ways – you also know that being able to cite one or even six studies for one’s side of an argument is not conclusive proof of anything. Just recently, an investigation into the reproducibility of psychological experiments demonstrated how important these points are. In the case of the specific studies from the “New Republic” article, it gets worse: Several of them investigated various hypotheses on how video might games promote sexism, and while some of them passed the test, many more were disconfirmed. (E.g., one found video games to have no influence on so-called “negative sexism”, another failed to find a connection to rape myth acceptance, etc.) Consistent with what I wrote above, this does not mean they have been conclusively refuted. But when you are investigating six different hypotheses (as one of these studies did, corroborating only two of them), it is rather plausible that there will be an increasing chance for false positive results. Yet, the “New Republic” article only mentions those parts of the studies that fit its overall narrative.

Another question I would ask is whether this research really tells us that much about the questions it purports to address. After all, we basically have two kinds of studies supporting the idea that certain video games promote sexism here: 1) Some just look at general attitudes among the “gaming population” while 2) three of them look at people’s psychological response immediately after playing certain types of video games (e.g. with a strongly sexualized female character). Presumably because people with certain personalities and attitudes may be more attracted to a medium than others, rather than said medium creating these attitudes, the article itself admits, regarding the first kind of evidence, “While this research is suggestive, it’s not direct evidence that video games impact sexist beliefs.”

But do even the controlled experiments in the other studies really tell us what we want to know? Yes, one found people to judge a case of sexual harrassment more mildly after exposition to images of sexualized female video game characters, another found more people saying they would trade sex for career favours with a female subordinate after they played a popular dating game. But imagine a study found that people will judge a case of murder more mildly directly after watching an episode of “Dexter” – would that immediately lead you to the conclusion that the series is partially to blame for a lower appreciation for human life in society? Isn’t the result that someone is still strongly emotionally influenced by a fantasy directly after engaging with it different from a result on the long-term impact it has? (The sexual harrassment/dating game paper actually admits that problem in its “Discussion” part, by the way.) Is this really a problem, unless the video game is played by, say, a judge shortly before deciding on a sexual harrassment case? As a layperson, I am tempted to answer “No.”, “No.” and “No.” and add, “I want a study that tracks the effects of playing video games on actual gamers over an extended period of time.” But the only study mentioned in the article that does that is precisely the study that does not support the notion of video games promoting sexism (and I held the same position long before I read the piece or wrote this blog post, I swear). The author swiftly dismisses it because it has a rather narrow definition of “sexism”, basing it on the answers to just three questions. That is certainly a good point, but considering e.g. criticisms of “damsel in distress” situations in video games, I wouldn’t regard these three questions as irrelevant, either.

I could go on about various other problems, such as the use of a dubious concept called “benevolent sexism” in one survey, but there is a much more interesting point at the end of the article: If we admit that some media, such as certain TV shows, can have a positive effect on society (e.g. gay couples being positively portrayed on TV leading to more acceptance of gays), we must also admit that there may be harmful effects. That’s a common sense argument that can be understood without going into details of scientific studies, and in fact seems more persuasive to me than any of the scholarly articles the author cites. I don’t know if the “improvement of society by media” theory actually is true or supported by evidence, but let us assume it is:

Then I would still object that a) the charges of sexism in video games are not always, but often, different in character: If a female character wears a “ripped and revealing nightgown” (example from the article), that’s not like a direct, obviously intentional negative portrayal of women. Rather, the usual claim is that this will have an unintended effect based on unconcious “objectification” of women, which people of all genders may perform. Maybe this theory is true, but at any rate, the TV series cited by “New Republic” don’t provide an apples-to-apples comparison in this regard. Moreover, I would claim that b) many fantasies provided by various media, not just video games, work only because there is a consensus with the audience that they are, in fact, fantasies. I am not sure how many people would still care for Tarantino movies if the kind of violence he portrays actually was part of our everyday life. I believe people go to see his movies precisely because they want to see something that could not really happen – and actually shouldn’t. And I would claim that the same goes for many of the tropes that are being attacked as sexist. In the case of positive portrayals of gays, biracial families etc., on the other hand, I claim that the intention and effect are very transparently the opposite: Yes, nice people from a group you are prejudiced against really do exist, and there are many of them.

This is not to say these objections, even if I am right about every point, put the topic to rest, but as someone who is sympathetic to what the “New Republic” article calls “cultural libertarianism”, I’m not yet persuaded the problems it describes are as significant as it claims they are.