Musical Outgroups

[Content warning: Politics. Something I will regret writing.]

A lot of this extends from Scott Alexander’s I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, but if you don’t want to read the whole thing I’ll quote a few key definitions up front. Specifically:

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

And then the kicker:

And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Scott’s post was written in 2017, which now feels like a very different time. I’m not good at fancy metaphors and stories like Scott, so instead of gently guiding you to my point I’m just going to say it: I don’t think the definitions of these tribes, or the description of the Red Tribe as an outgroup of the Blue Tribe, is correct anymore. Things are different here in 2020.

After four years of Trump as president, the Red Tribe has changed in a couple of important ways: it’s gotten smaller, and it’s gotten weirder. A lot of moderate Republicans and previously-Red-Tribe folks have been disgusted by Trump, and while it might be a stretch to say they’ve completely crossed the floor, it’s hard to call them Red Tribe anymore. As a result, the folks that remain in the Red Tribe have consolidated around increasingly explicit anti-science beliefs and other strongly polarized and “fringe-feeling” positions.

That combination of being both smaller, and weirder or more “fringe-feeling”, is really important, because all of a sudden the Red Tribe doesn’t make a good outgroup for the Blue Tribe: it’s not close enough, and it’s not dangerous enough. To quote Scott again:

Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

(Tangential note that this is mostly what I was trying to express with my Law of Cultural Proximity.)

Now clearly this process isn’t finished yet, and it may still reverse: the Red Tribe remains a decently large percentage of the American population, so it remains a strong political force capable of opposing Blue Tribe values. But from the position of somebody already living in a Blue Tribe bubble, the Red Tribe suddenly starts to feel too “distant and exotic” to be a proper outgroup. A game of Musical Outgroups begins: the Blue Tribe needs to find a new outgroup.

Again following the narcissism of small differences, the obvious candidate for a new Blue Tribe outgroup is of course the still-half-formed Grey Tribe. But unfortunately the Grey Tribe really is only half-formed, and until recently there was a pretty healthy spread of people across the Blue-Grey spectrum. Categories are fundamentally human constructions (see e.g. The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man For The Categories), so the Blue Tribe isn’t interested in picking out only the folks who satisfy some platonic ideal of Grey-Tribe-ness as their outgroup; they’re just going to slap a line somewhere in the middle of the Blue-Grey spectrum and call it a day. Besides the obvious Silicon Valley Grey-Tribe tech-bros, who else is on the far side of that line? Neoliberals.

In the new American order, the tribal landscape is more fragmented than before. The Red and Blue Tribes have both become smaller and more politically extreme versions of their 2017 selves. Three new tribes are being forcefully ejected into the wilderness as a result. The Red Tribe is purging itself of compassionate conservatives and the not-explicitly-antiscience; think Ross Douthat and Mitt Romney; I’ll call these the Pink Tribe. The Blue Tribe is purging itself of the previously-defined Grey Tribe, as well as a moderately large contingent of non-Grey neoliberals typified by people like Hillary Clinton; I’ll call them the Purple Tribe.

What comes next is hard to predict. Pink and Purple seem like natural allies, and I can see the Grey Tribe joining that alliance for pragmatic “enemy-of-my-enemy” reasons. But the two-party system throws a real wrench into things. Perhaps, if the Red Tribe continues to shrink and lose cultural relevance, the two-party divide will pivot (as it has before) to be a Blue-Tribe vs Pink-Purple-Grey-Tribe division. On the other hand, if the Red Tribe begins to recover post-Trump, or if Pink, Purple, and Grey can’t find enough common ground, then I can see the smaller tribes being squeezed out of existence between dominant Blue and Red cultural forces.

International Conflict X-Risk in the Era of COVID-19

Jeremy Hussel had a great comment pointing out something which is easy to forget – major disasters often have multiple quasi-independent causes. Many things go wrong all at once, and any safeguards are overwhelmed by the repeated issues. COVID-19 could clearly be one of those root causes. What might be others?

Another clear source of turmoil for the western world right now is domestic politics. America has a historically unpredictable president and is heading into a divisive election year where the two candidates are both likely to be very old. The UK is finally going to leave the EU and hasn’t yet struck a deal to determine what that actually means. Canada (where I live, though less critical on the world stage) was in the middle of its own domestic crisis around Native American land rights and infrastructure projects before that got overshadowed by COVID-19 – our railroads and as such some parts of our supply chain had been shut down for weeks already by protesters.

A third source of problems might be the “oil war” between OPEC and Russia, but I don’t know enough about that to really write about it usefully.

With all that said, the thing that I am most afraid of right now is China. China has been very aggressive on the world stage in the last couple of days, and I fully expect them to continue that pattern. Why wouldn’t they? Just as their country is recovering from the virus and starting to pick back up, the crisis in America and Europe is still growing. They are feeling strong while Western democracies are weak, divided, and looking inwards, and we should fully expect them to take advantage of that power imbalance in the short term to do things like finally and properly annexing Hong Kong (predict 50% that by the time COVID-19 has run its course in North America, Hong Kong has lost whatever quasi-independence it might have had).

The question is how far they will go, and how will we (our governments) react? In normal times I would expect them to be cautious but I would also expect a cautious response from western governments. With the current volatility in the American system and the antagonism built up over the previous Chinese-American trade war, there is substantial risk of something escalating out of control. A full military conflict between world powers at this point in time would truly be something else going terribly, terribly wrong.

Link #81 – The Story of Us

Warning: very, very, very long. As of writing it’s not even done yet (10 of a putative 12 posts have been published). That said, it’s a fascinating read so far and highly recommended. If you’re a long-time reader of a certain part of the internet (this blog, Slate Star Codex, 538, etc) then it retreads a lot of familiar ground at first. However chapter 10 (and from the sounds of it the as-yet-unpublished chapter 11) contains more interesting and new thoughts. I’m not sure if it’s possible to just start there, since it builds on a lot of metaphors introduced in earlier chapters, but it would be interesting to try.

One point really stood out to me since I’ve been assuming the opposite. Previously I would have drawn on Haidt and argued that the competing factions of the current American culture war have fundamentally different values, but the linked articles make an interesting claim that they actually share a pretty mixed bag of values – the real conflict is because they share fundamentally different empirical beliefs about reality thanks to increasing media polarization, The Big Sort, etc.

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Optimizing for the Apocalypse

If you’ve read many of my past posts, you’ll know that I have sometimes struggled with an internal conflict between what I would basically characterize as conservative or right-wing intuitions, and a fairly liberal or left-wing set of concrete beliefs. It’s also one of the things that I mentioned in my initial brain-dump of a post after reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I guess this is technically a continuation of the posts spawned by that book, but it pulls in enough other things that I’m not going to number it anymore.

Haidt’s book doesn’t really address my internal conflict directly; what it does do is talk about liberal and conservative moral intuitions in a way that I found really clarified for me what the conflict was about. Conveniently, in the way that the universe sometimes works, shortly after thinking about that topic a bunch I then read A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum. This post by Scott Alexander has nothing to do with Haidt, except that it ends up doing for the “why” of the question what Haidt did for the “what”. And so I now have a pretty nicely packaged understanding of what’s going on in that section of my brain.

Moral Foundations Theory

Let’s start with Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. According to Haidt there are six “moral foundations”: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Each of us has moral intuitions on roughly these six axes, and the amount of weight we put on each axis can vary between people, cultures, etc. Conveniently according to Haidt, the amount of weight we put on each axis tracks really nicely as part of the right/left political divide present in the Western world. Libertarians (sometimes called “classical liberals”) strongly value liberty; liberals (the left) put much more emphasis on harm and fairness while mostly ignoring the others; conservatives (the right) value all of them roughly equally, thus leaving them as the effective champions of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

This is already a very helpful labelling system for me, since it lets me be clearer when I talk about my conflicts. I tend to believe in a lot political ideas that are associated with the left, like a robust social safety net. But, I believe that loyalty, authority, and sanctity have real moral value, and are generally undervalued by the modern left. This isn’t a direct logical conflict (there’s nothing about loyalty that is fundamentally incompatible with a robust social safety net) but it does put me in a sometimes awkward spot between the two “tribes”, especially as the left and right become increasingly polarized in modern politics.

Thriving and Surviving

So Haidt’s system has already been pretty helpful in giving me a better understanding of what exactly the conflict is. But it doesn’t really explain why the conflict is: why I came to hold liberal views despite conservative intuitions. I imagine most people with my intuitions naturally grow up to hold fairly conservative political views as well; it’s the path of least internal resistance. This is where thrive/survive theory comes in. Alexander summarizes it like this:

My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

This is conveniently similar to behaviour observed in the wild among, for example, slime molds:

When all is well, the slime mold thrives as a single-celled organism, but when food is scarce, it combines forces with its brethren, and grows. 

This combined slime mold expends a great deal of energy, and ends up sacrificing itself in order to spore and give the mold a chance to start a new life somewhere else. It’s the slime mold equivalent of Gandalf facing the Balrog, spending his own life to ensure the survival of his friends.

And, it also conveniently aligns with Haidt’s moral foundations: of the six foundations, there are three that are fundamentally important for the survival of the group in an unsafe environment: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The other three (care, fairness, and liberty) are important, but are much more likely to be sacrificed for “the greater good” in extreme situations.

This all ties together really nicely. I grew up in a stable, prosperous family in a stable, prosperous country that is still, despite some recent wobbles, doing really really well on most measures. The fact is that my environment is extremely safe, and I’m a sucker for facts combined with rational argument. But twin studies have generally shown that while political specifics are mostly social and not genetic (nurture, not nature), there is a pretty strong genetic component to ideology and related personality traits which, I would hypothesize, boil down in one aspect to Haidt’s moral foundations.

In summary then, the explanation is that I inherited a fairly “conservative” set of intuitions optimized for surviving in an unsafe environment. But, since my actual environment is eminently safe, my rational mind has dragged my actual specific views towards the more practically correct solutions. I wonder if this makes me a genetic dead end?

In other words: I want to optimize for the apocalypse, but fortunately the apocalypse seems very far away.

Where the Magic Happens

A quick follow-up Q&A to some comments received (both publicly and directly) on this post. The comments and questions have been heavily paraphrased.

But what actually is moral capital? That doesn’t seem to be what those words mean.

I’m using it per Haidt, and I agree the definition he gives isn’t quite in line with what you’d maybe intuit based on the words “moral” and “capital”. In The Righteous Mind he defines it fairly precisely but also fairly technically. I won’t quote it here, but this link has the relevant pages. Better yet, the New York Times has a decent paraphrase: “norms, prac­tices and institutions, like religion and family values, that facilitate cooperation by constraining individualism”. Between the two of them those links do a pretty decent job sketching out the full idea.

But is it really true that societies with more moral capital are healthier, happier, more efficient etc? What specific claims are you making?

I am unfortunately running off of intuition and some half-remembered bits of Haidt’s book (now returned to the library), but I can at least gesture in the right direction. There’s lots of work showing that belonging to a tightly-knit social community is good for happiness and mental health. Think religious communities, or very small towns; the most stereotypical examples in my mind (combining both religion and small town) are an Israeli kibbutz, or an Amish village. If I remember correctly, Lost Connections by Johann Hari has a good summary of a bunch of this research and related arguments.

Similarly, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence in the business world (it’s a more recent phenomenon there so I don’t know if it’s been formally studied yet) that the most competitive and efficient businesses are the ones that can foster this kind of belonging in their employees. It’s certainly working for Netflix and Shopify.

Being highly aligned and high in moral capital doesn’t prevent conflict or “bad politics” though?

It definitely doesn’t prevent conflict. It definitely does help prevent bad politics. In a high-moral-capital political environment, the conflicts that arise will be about means, not ends. It might be instructive to look at, for example, progressive and conservative opinions on safe injection sites. Progressives tend to believe in reducing harm. As such, two progressives debating safe injection sites will be able to have a well-reasoned and fairly trust-based debate about whether safe injection sites, or harsher penalties for possession, or this, or that, will have the best effect of reducing harm. They have different means, but the same end, so they ultimately feel like they’re on the same side.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are worried not just about the individual harm of drug use, but also its effect on moral capital. To a conservative, safe injection sites are likely a non-starter because while they do reduce harm, they have the net effect of enabling drug use and the concomitant erosion of moral capital. A conservative and a progressive debating safe injection sites are looking for fundamentally different things, a gap which is much harder to bridge with social trust.

Isn’t there a middle ground between a perfectly aligned but un-free society, and one that devolves into anarchy?

Of course there is, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. We are, quite literally, living it. But since I was writing for a primarily progressive audience who wants to move towards more personal freedom, I tried to emphasize the conservative side of the argument more. There are dangers in too much personal freedom, and advantages in requiring some conformity from a group.

How exactly is this a utilitarian argument for conservative politics? Your argument missed a step somewhere.

Yup, sorry, I over-summarized. To be a bit more explicit:

  • Societies with more moral capital tend to be happier, healthier, more efficient, etc. than their counterparts with less. This is what utilitarians want.
  • Conservative policies tend to focus on creating moral capital, at the expense of personal freedoms and preventing harm.
  • Progressive policies tend to focus on personal freedoms and preventing harm, at the cost of destroying moral capital.

(Obviously utilitarians tend to want to boost personal freedom and prevent harm too. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s a matter more of priorities than of absolute preference.)

Progressives want as few people to suffer as possible even if it inconveniences the majority, while Conservatives want to promote sameness and fairness as much as possible even if some people slip through the cracks.

Not actually a question, but a really good paraphrase of part of the argument I’m presenting here, and part of the argument Haidt makes in his book. It misses some dimensions (e.g. weighing personal freedom of choice into the mix for progressives, not just the avoidance of suffering), but very broadly Haidt is pointing out this distinction and then saying roughly “either side is terrible when taken to its ultimate extreme; we must find a balance”.

The Needs of the Many

This post is the third of what will likely be a series growing out of my thoughts on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. Here are the first and the second.

Spock: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Kirk: Or the one.

–  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Ah, Star Trek. Remember when Star Trek used to be considered progressive? I do, or at least the tail end of that era. Nowadays quotes like this feel oddly conservative in certain contexts. Today’s progressive viewpoint is all about the tyranny of the majority, breaking down power structures, and ensuring that everybody is free and valued equally in all of their diversity.

Most days, without thinking too hard, I manage to believe in both of these viewpoints. I believe in fighting for a world where people are treated equally without regard for their race, their gender, their religion, their culture. And I believe that when given no other choice, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. If one must suffer to save the village, then so be it.

But there is a conflict here.

It’s one thing to believe in the needs of the many from a personal perspective, and to freely make that personal sacrifice for the greater good. It is quite another to believe in it absolutely, and to therefore bless the tyranny of the majority as a net utilitarian positive. It’s actually kinda funny, since I tend to think of progressives as the more utilitarian, while conservatives are more deontological, but in this case it’s the progressive camp that clings to the right of personal freedom and the conservatives arguing for utilitarianism. Further proof, I suppose, of Haidt’s claim that neither moral theory is particularly well-aligned with human moral instincts.

In contrast with the quote from Star Trek, here’s a quote from a modern progressive TV show:

Tan: What’s wrong with wanting something that you just want, not that you need?

Joey: The way I grew up, I got it in the back of my head that that was selfish, you know, and so maybe that’s something I need to unlearn.

– Queer Eye: Season 3 Episode 2 (2019)

Thirty-seven years later, the progressive viewpoint is no longer “for the greater good”. Instead it’s become “for the personal good”. I want to be clear here that regardless of politics, basically nobody regards “the greater good” or “the personal good” as fundamentally bad. It’s just a matter of priorities: where before the greater good was seen as more important than the personal (when they even conflicted), now it is the reverse.

This raises another more interesting point though: when do the greater good and the personal good conflict in real life? Opponents of utilitarianism have lots of thought experiments they like to trot out at this point (for example, killing one healthy person against their will in order to harvest their organs and save five others). But these scenarios are oddly empty of the practical, day-to-day moral decisions that people tend to make in real life.

One of Haidt’s principle goals in The Righteous Mind is to clearly articulate the value systems of both progressives and conservatives in a way that is, if not precisely “objective”, at least fair and understandable to both sides of that debate. It is this articulation which brings him to the idea of a society’s “moral capital”, which is itself the linchpin of this conflict between the greater and the personal good. Interestingly I accidentally hit upon a very rough definition of “moral capital” myself in an off-hand comment a few years ago, so here’s me quoting myself:

[S]ocio-cultural conformance is a powerful force multiplier because it builds trust and lets people work towards implicit common goals. Society can afford and absorb some people who break the mold, but eventually the system decoheres.

Another way this sometimes gets talked about is through the phrase “Highly Aligned and Loosely Coupled”, which (I believe?) started out in Netflix’s culture document and has now made its way into a bunch of other corporate cultures. A group of people, whether a tribe or a company or a country, who are closely aligned on their long-term goals as a group, can afford much less internal communication and “bad politics”, and end up both more efficient and happier. Now, “alignment” and “conformance” have fairly different connotations in terms of amount of freedom, but practically they end up meaning the same thing: everybody believes the same thing and has the same shared vision of the future.

I admit to wandering around between a couple of different concepts so far, but here’s where we tie it all together. Haidt’s “moral capital” is in a very real sense “the greater good”. A highly aligned, highly conformant society is generally happier, healthier, and more efficient than one in which every social interaction has to start from first principles and deal with the risk of the unknown. The cost of this greater good is, of course, the personal good: a highly conformant society sucks for people who don’t want to conform, either because they have a specific different set of values or just because they’re generally non-conformist. Conversely though, a totally free society where personal good is king becomes anarchy, which ends up being bad for everybody. It’s a very weird kind of prisoner’s dilemma game we’re playing with each other.

At its heart this whole essay has been a strong utilitarian argument for conservative politics. Since I have a lot of friends who are both utilitarian and fairly progressive, I’m curious to see the hot water this gets me in 🙂

P.S. I realize this never really tied back into culturism like I promised in that post. It’ll bubble to the top of my brain again, I think.

This post sparked a bunch of confusion and good questions; a follow-up post addressing some of that is here.