Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

What’s a liberal to believe any more?

on 2021 July 1

The plea for a big tent

With political polarization at an all time high, some of us who historically considered ourselves further left than either of the parties will now have to rename where we stand. I’m still “left” in the sense that I wish the world had open borders and equitably distributed land, I wish we would go carbon neutral, I wish we could eliminate extreme poverty and wealth, and so on. But I’m not on board with eliminating police or curtailing freedoms or putting causes of identity above traditional principles of justice.

Some people are taking regular progressive ideas and making them so extreme that I can’t support them any more. Some of those extremes are:

  • Guilt by association – white people being called guilty because of the actions of their ancestors
  • Compelled speech – such as requiring that people use correct pronouns for others
  • Eliminating police and prisons to the extent that there is no penalty for hurting others
  • Reparations paid based on genetic markers or skin color
  • Pushing the responsibility for ones trauma triggers on everyone else
  • Punishing failures to be accessible – such as missing image descriptions for blind people
  • Canceling well known people for being “problematic”
  • Canceling powerless people for being “problematic”
  • Criticism of culture blending (using words, wearing clothes and adopting anything “from another culture”)
  • The idea that no one should ever be hurt or that life is not primarily suffering
  • Substituting oppression labels for credentials

With many of these things, the more hard and strict they are, the more “radical” and laudable they are intended to appear, as if we are competing to be the most strict and to drive out any nuance. If you follow these things to the limit, you lose compassion and would no longer be communicating. But I feel it is actually more radical and more difficult to listen and accept differences, than to fight, win, and cancel your opponents.

I suspect that the most marginalized among us are not participating in this kind of new-leftism, and actually it is people who are fairly high up on the social ladder who are doing this the most. And I further suspect that they are doing it because it is helping them rise higher on that ladder by pushing the rest of us down.

It’s especially ironic to silence all dissent when the underlying motive is putatively to include marginalized people. I would know if the new ideology was actually inclusive and empowering because I would feel its effects on me. The people with the loudest voices would be championing outsiders like me and giving all of us more of an equal voice. But I can tell that the ideology is not actually inclusive or empowering because every brush-up I have had with it has been in the form of an attack against me rather than support of me.

People who are more marginalized than me have essentially no hope of being heard over the battle cries. The extreme irony is represented by the person who is marginalized by being between worlds and labels – say half native American and half European, who’s bisexual – they get attacked the hardest because they represent the opposite of at least one thing being fought for by each of the sides.

So what’s an alternative? Things that are actually “radical” (if the word has any meaning left), and which I support include:

  • Upholding free speech and the other pillars of the Bill of Rights, even if people are shamed and criticized
  • Competitive and transparent markets
  • Restoring large parts of the earth to non-human use, including eliminating land ownership and migration barriers
  • Understanding there is no such thing as race; moving beyond race as the cornerstone of social order
  • Local direct democracy and many levels of governance all the way up to a world democratic government
  • Pluralism protected, whether integrated or in isolated communities
  • Including people (not just helping) because they are human, not because of certain limited identity labels

We need structure and compassion. The structure is fair market regulation, voting, transparency, blind justice – the dull, stabilizing things. The compassion is the welfare state, prioritizing health over defense, and listening to people who come from an uncomfortably different point of view. Liberals should be fighting for all this, not seeking attention for being the most extreme. We’re individuals, and we’re families, and we’re one world. All of us need to accept that we are different and make the tent big enough to hold all the contradictions. We need to do this because it’s the only way to win over the actual enemy. The actual enemy is not slight differences of liberal opinions; it is the authoritarian rigidity and white supremacy of the extreme right, which treats dissenting people as unworthy of a voice, or even unworthy of life.

Appendix A: The most problematic word

People say a component of a mechanical system is “problematic” when it is developing problems and threatens to break. We can use the word for elements of culture too (terminology, policy or arguments) when the thing is likely to provoke objections. Something is problematic if it is ill-conceived, or possibly well intentioned but not workable. Some people frequently label other people as problematic, which is… problematic. People are not broken, ill-conceived or non-workable. You might not agree with them but calling them problematic is both denying their humanity, and at the same time refusing to engage with the ideas in question. It’s an intellectual-sounding criticism that is just a veiled insult.

Appendix B: Identity politics

I’ve often wondered where “identity politics” comes from. At one time, no one talked about marginalization based on myriad identity labels, then it became popular. So something must have provoked it.

The most reasonable theory to me is that the mechanics of oppression creates labels when the powerful seek to eliminate a threat to dominance. The people in power choose sex or color or something as the determinant, but it could be anything. Castes in all cultures are not necessarily determined by genetics; they could be based on family history. The dominant class is always inventing a new thing as a determinant to prevent encroachment on their authority.

However the theory that seems to be taken for granted by journalists is that identities are manufactured by people to name the ways that they themselves are marginalized, as a way to form unions. According to that view, it comes from the bottom, not the top.

The two are kind of opposite and kind of the same. If power centers had never discriminated against people based on their so-called identity traits, then we wouldn’t feel attached to those traits as “identities”. There would be a range of characteristics that people have but they wouldn’t form distinct “groups”. We would not often feel a kinship with others based on having a similar appearance, if those appearances had never been used as weapons.

The conservative media message is something like “Oh no, there’s yet another group that is demanding protected status! Why can’t they just leave things alone?” The opposing message is often something like “We’re marching towards equality, one protected group at a time!” But there’s a blind spot in the sense that the separation of those people into a “group” in the first place was done to oppress them. So using group identity feels like using the master’s tools.

When I see people’s on-line “about me” paragraphs containing a list of identity labels, I feel the whole conversation has gone to mush because those are not good or bad things, nor are they even discrete things. One bio I came across recently listed the founder of some organization as being “intersectional”. What now? Maybe that’s a way of saying she’s even more oppressed than people who have one or two distinct labels because she is between labels and therefore does not have the union of sisters in the fight.

Appendix C: Social media culture

It wasn’t always like this. As a reminder, here are some of the things that happened before digital connectivity. When you were planning to visit someone, you might agree on the date and time days or weeks in advance, and then not call or write again in the meantime until the moment you showed up. People did not “check in” often to see if plans were still on; plans were more often set long in advance and people used calendars. Conversations were limited to the number of people who could stand in a circle speaking at a normal level. Anything larger than that circle was mediated by a leader or by some known rules of engagement. Most communication involving more than two people was done in settings where either a distinct set of people was invited, or anyone at the place was informally included.

First-generation digital communications (email, chats, forums, and early web) mostly mirrored the old way. When second-generation social media took hold, people collectively gave up the reliability and reciprocity of how humans had always communicated. My first thought after learning about the paradigms of twitter and facebook was: “That’s unreliable and ridiculous! How would you know if your message even reached the other person?” I thought that the lack of ensuring reliable communication was a design oversight. It turns out that yelling things into the void and relying only on probabilities to determine who reads it was the intentional design.

I often think about whether in pre-industrial through modern times, “inclusion” was really the norm. I don’t think the word was used the way it is now, and that’s evidence that it wasn’t a thing that needed to be named. There’s never been equal power or equal access across society’s tiers, but at least in stable times in villages, it seems like the assumption was that no one was an outcast unless specifically shunned by the church using some process.

The problem with the new way for someone like me is that it amplifies the ranking disparity between people. The threshold for being a legitimate human is higher, so that people like me are cast out of most opportunities to communicate at all.

There are so many other recent changes in culture that aren’t strictly within social media culture, but I wonder if it is all connected. Working at an IT job used to have expectations of independent results but now it’s only about team results. There is less commitment to correspondence-type relationships (such as exchanging ideas on subjects). I used to have the feeling that a lot of things were open to the public and I was allowed to be there, but now I feel disallowed. For example in the 90s I taught ESL along with many other volunteer things that there was a need for, but now I find it is impossible to break in since ESL has become a competitive business. The custodial economy has ballooned, yielding competition where there used to be openness. Even just 12 years ago a support group I went to was a place where people brought their problems – it was where you went went when you needed to admit that you were broken; but the most recent support group I went to was more show and tell and self-promotion, where people hid their problems.

Reputation is more all-or-nothing, and it appears to follow the trend of the wealth gap where the underclass is growing and there are a few megabillionaires. Preoccupation with reputation is of course not new, but I think people now feel they are in more danger when having a perceived association with a low ranking person, because as other people discover that association, the erased or canceled person’s impurity is then felt to bring down all their associations.

A trend of increasing the gap (of reputation or wealth, or any arena) is that a larger pool of people are moving below the imaginary line of okayness, and thus adopting the terms of the previously smaller group, which ultimately further erases the lowest people. Previously middle class people who find themselves in relative poverty may give the message “this is what poverty looks like”. Then the word “poverty” comes to mean something less extreme, but no new word is coined for the smaller group of people who had been in poverty before and are now more fully erased from public consciousness. This is very apparent in disability circles as diagnosis brings more people into the system. The new autistic people are the largest and most capable group of autistic people that has ever existed. Those of us in the middle range find that the oxygen is all being taken up by that group, and the people who are much more autistic are ironically now less included in autistic social space.

It’s very hard to track these trends over time because the people who used to talk are now invisible and the new set of people talking are using the same words.

As a side note, I’m building a new social media platform that aims to formalize the older way of ranking and measuring credibility, which would be going against some of these trends. We will see if it works.

Appendix D: Multi-variable calculus

I have another whole paper here hiding in this appendix. This is the paper on why it’s “radical” and “liberal” to propose boring policies. Fearing it might be boring, I’m hiding it here.

Creeping: If you find yourself on the edge of a cliff and start to lose your footing, you cannot immediately start running away from the edge to stay safe, because that may cause you to slip and fall off. Instead you might need to balance there for a bit, then creep away from the edge in the most careful manner. This is true for social systems and public policy as well, because any system that is hovering near its limit risks going over that limit whenever a regime change or some other “bold solution” is effected. This paper advocates for “multi variable creep” as a policy mindset rather than any bold, fast, or single-variable thinking.

I started thinking about policy-making in depth in the transit world after I met people whom I disagreed with who were putatively on the same side as me. These are people who also describe themselves as left or progressive as I would, and who want many of the same things as I do, but not for the same reasons. In particular I met people who were rail-fans: they wanted trains to be built at any cost, everywhere, because they were emotionally attached to trains. That’s not a good reason for public policy. Of course they would use all kinds of talking points, like energy efficiency and safety and the effect of trains on urban revitalization. They had studies to prove it, but really all those things were justifications hiding the root cause of their position. If anyone brought up any question or statistic that put one of the justifications in doubt (like the numbers showing that trains are no safer than cars in cities), that person was branded as a right-wing enemy of progress and more counter-studies would be brought up in retaliation. A person who really wanted to pursue the goal of safety would be genuinely interested in what studies say about different transport modes, but someone who is a rail-fan just uses “safety” as a go-to argument to support their position without being open to the actual results of studies on the topic. In a similar way, some people are single-variable types: they might be all about the environment, or all about alleviating poverty, and they might be willing to sacrifice other things for their thing. Through my involvement in that, it helped me see how those bigger public decisions – like which kind of transport system to invest in – are connected to so many other issues like health, poverty, economic productivity, environment, and others, and how all those things need to be improved together, not in competition against each other.

Multi-variable creep is the approach to policy-making where policy changes are selected that move a variety of measures gradually toward success at the same time, instead of moving any one of the measures quickly.

What do we do when we are trying to make something better in our own lives? We can focus on the one thing and try to achieve it by pushing aside all other concerns. Or we can have a broad focus on several things at once and achieve only a little of each. For example, if I want more light in my living room I could put in a giant window, and this would definitely meet the objective. But it could also compromise security, make the building less efficient, or overheat the room. On the other hand, if I’m considering safety, efficiency, comfort, and other variables all at once, I could think of a less extreme, and maybe cheaper way to improve all those variables.

Or, if a family is financially stretched to the limit each month, a combination of sightly faster commute time, a slight change in after school activities, and a slight increase in wages could ease the situation more effectively than a bigger change in just one of those areas.

Taking any complex system (health care, transport, whatever), if we continually shore up leaks and loopholes and get improved outcomes through a series of adjustments, rather than trying to overhaul it all at once, that would be multi-variable creep.

Geometrical representation. If you are math inclined, here is a representation of the idea in geometry. Take a 4×4 grid and suppose the choice exists to expand it by adding cells in one of three ways: (a) two more columns, (b) two more rows, or (c) one more column and one more row. You will get the most new area by adding a column and a row. Adding two rows (or columns) increases the area by 8 cells, while adding one of each increases the area by 9 cells.

The more dimensions (variables) there are, the more dramatic the difference is between focusing versus spreading the increases. For example with a five-variable hypercube, there are 1024 cells in the 4x4x4x4x4 cube. If you expand by five units all in the same dimension, you get 9x4x4x4x4=2304, or a 225% increase. But if you add only one unit to each of the five variables, you get 5x5x5x5x5=3125, or a 305% increase

The geometry doesn’t prove anything; it’s just one way to think about it.

As a tool for building agreement in contentious areas, a multi-variable approach can focus on the measure of the solution rather than on the particular policy. As a rule people agree more on goals than on what they think will achieve them, and many people are simply wrong in their predictions about the outcomes of policies. Some examples are: bypass routes to alleviate city traffic, a border wall to stop illegal immigration, and more testing to keep teachers accountable. All of these actions usually do not have the desired effect for reasons that experts in those fields would know, but the rest of us might miss. So we spend time arguing whether the thing will have the desired effect, when we should be spending the time discussing the effect we want. Most policy outcomes are predictable.

Since policy outcomes are predictable, health experts can tell us whether an action will yield an improvement in health, military experts can say if it yield an improvement in security, and so on. We can all mostly agree on goals, experts can inform us on effects, and leaders can choose those things that yield benefits in all areas.

Unintended consequences are the counterpart of anything “bold” and successful. Some big centrally planned things like elevated urban rail were fantastic in Chicago and New York at making travel fast, but they created terrible places.

The approach in a nutshell:

  • In the policy area, identify connections to other areas. Examples: transportation nearly always affects health; education affects equity and racism; housing policy affects policing.
  • Choose goal kings that represent a few measurable statistics covering all the affected areas. Examples are mortality going towards zero, elimination of poverty, or 100% availability of the electric grid. These are ideals, not the measure that we realistically expect.
  • Dream up alternatives for the main policy area.
  • Let experts inform us of the outcomes of those alternatives on each goal king, numerically. Will building a pedestrian overpass on 94th street affect problems in public safety? How much will it reduce transport deaths? What effect will it have on pollution?
  • Price the alternatives. (Cost is not a goal, but can be balanced against effects.)
  • Pick the ones that move the measures towards goals in the most areas.

2 responses to “What’s a liberal to believe any more?

  1. Adelaide Dupont says:

    “But I feel it is actually more radical and more difficult to listen and accept differences, than to fight, win, and cancel your opponents.”

    In other words – I would sooner be happy than be right.

    And thank you for your 7 truly radical points and the Approach in a Nutshell.

  2. starlys says:

    Edit from the author: A friend got mad at me for using the term “wacky extremes” to describe things they might believe in. I only intended to criticize ideas, not people. So I clarified the second paragraph, removing that term.

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