Friday, October 14, 2016

Why It's Imperative to Treat Social Justice as a Religion

I've talked before about why it is reasonable to consider zealous forms of social justice as a (quasi) religion.  After reading Peter Turchin's excellent book UltraSociety, I think I need to restate the case from a slightly different, more pressing direction.

United States (and perhaps many other Western) societies are fragmenting.  The current US political election attests to this.  Both sides are vehement about the moral value of their candidate: Democrats for cosmopolitanism & rule of order and Trump for nationalism & elite destabilization.  Negative sum attitudes and the "bothering" of fellow citizens (legal & illegal) is certain to continue. No matter who wins the election, the blowback will exasperate rather than dampen the growing dichotomy.

Moral values adhere societies.  Western society has certainly lost a lot of its asabiya. How to get it back?

The big lesson is that pluralism is essential.  Beneke shows, that in America, punctuated periods of pluralism correlate with increased levels of toleration, social progress, and perhaps societal progress.  Certainly pluralism provided an escape valve for balkanizing tensions.  The one time it didn't civil war ensued: federalism with a flat social structures and extreme forms of liberty with retrograde heirachical structures were immiscible.

We're back at that point.

Failing to consider Social Justice as a religion makes the probability of achieving a pluralistic solution less likely.

Cultural selection encountered a stable point for large group cohesion in the expression of Big Gods (moralizing agents who can see people's intentions, care about your intentions and meet out punishment & reward).  Effective rule of law can certainly supplant semi-embodied dieties.  But we still need an ability to see each other as governed by moral principles.  This is the rub.

Social Justice's moral principles are very amorphous.  They don't have the systemic theological quality that universalizing religions do (at least yet).  Things are still congealing.  This is part of the problem.  Rapidly evolving moral values present an existential trust threat.  While this may seem silly, what humanist is going to kill a right-wing survivalist.  Nonetheless, its a (irrational) factor that must be weighted.

Additionally, Social Justice does not consider itself a religion.  Indeed the intersections associated with its roots are very intertwined with the marginalization of formal, empowered, religions.  While this marginalization is very naive (aren't safe spaces very similar to religious spaces, and social justice university very similar to old religious universities), society needs a structure that is going to facilitate social justice's pluralization.  We need a way to allow social justice's to talk about, share, and value their own specific world view, while allowing others to politely disagree without resorting to hate-fact wars, rhetoric and uni-directional dialogue.

The best way to do this is via structures everyone understands.  This is religion.  Religions are allowed to have very vehement beliefs that outsiders might consider loony and dangerous if universalized. For instance, mormons and muslims consider alcohol (and recreational drugs) bad. If forced on all society you'd have all the social problems of the prohibition era.  Yet this within-group belief doesn't threaten others (at least very much).  We need to be able to do the same with Social Justice: see parts of the movement for the good that it does, and see the hyper-sacred aspects for the religious spandrels they are.  But, more than this, we need to have a way to politely say, I support your right to believe and proselytize your values without forcing me to acquiesce my own values and without forcing me into an embittering defence (or offence).

Give people space for their beliefs, and have an easy structural solution for letting them be who they are and letting you be who you are.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Pepe as Quasi-Religion

If you've read other posts on this blog you probably are aware that I interpret quasi-religion in a functional way: a social structure characterized by adaptive group dynamics coalesced by morality and sacralizing acts.  I use List & Pettit's judgement aggregation work for morality and Atran's In God We Trust for sacralizing acts.

In practice this means I tend to interpret religion rather liberally: it's mainly constrained by the role of Big Brothers, Big Brother feedback, and resonating rituals and hypersensitive sacred value norms.

So with this in mind, I've been finding the emergence of Pepe fascinating.  What are the main things to watch for?
  • Does its satirizing provide group-level protections for individual agents?
  • Around what things will group level morality emerge?
  • What are its sacramental acts (if any)?
The most interesting thing about the Pepe meme is its ironical essence.  While many Pepe memes are downright disgusting, my academic interest isn't determining moral values or costs. Rather, it's seeing what dynamics a given social phenomenon captures or portends.

One thing Pepe introduces is a bifurcating phase change between social justice norms and individual independence norms.  This is representative of a classic-levels-of-selection tension.  In this particular case, one side pushes to eliminate discrimination (certainly a noble goal - although means definitely matter), the other side pushes against this (or perhaps for some sort of individual liberty).  The sacred values of both sides clash.

Social justice's sacred values seems to center on removing all quarter for discrimination.  Rituals associated with this revolve around social change acts, protests, & virtue signalling (individually and via mob action).  The sacred value on the Pepe side have yet to settle.  My suspicion is that it will settle down around acts of irony and satire: a very unusual, Volterian position.

It's unusual because pure acts of protest are parasitically dependent upon their host: conditions change and the core unifying act dissolves.

In terms of quasi-religion, mocking and ridicule will be the equivalent of social protest and action. The interesting thing here is that such satire is really easy to do.  Fighting against something is always easier than fighting for something.

Because low brow satire against things doesn't have as much unifying power as protests & rallies for something, alt-right satire is at a population-limit disadvantage.  In this dimension it can't unify as large a grouping as social justice.  However, satirical meme production has minimal costs.  On this dimension it has a slight population-limit advantage over social justice virtue signalling: finding someone or something to signal against isn't quite as easy as whipping up a piece of low-brow satire/offense.

Pepe also gets a slight population advantage limit because rebellion in the West is socially favoured over hegemony (within-group competition at the nation level currently seems to be favoured over between-group competition). So Pepe has room to grow as long as:

  1. Pepe meme costs are low (anonymity can be maintained so norm enforcement punishment is minimized)
  2. Existential nation-level threats stay minimized (between group selection pressure stays below within group pressure)
Point 2 is an interesting one.  Existential threats from tolitalitarian Islamic extremists are minimized by social justice values.  Existential threats from internal right wing extremist are maximized.  Pepe is set to receive high levels of norm compliance enforcement.  This should drive the group into protective adaptive group dynamics (which certainly can be facilitated by quasi-religious dynamics).

However, the most interesting thing here is the moral mission likely to emerge with Pepe: A duty to mock and ridicule.  This is a very odd religious value to have.  It very much reminds me of pre-revolutionary 18th century France during the time of Voltaire and the popularization of satire.  

It also reminds me of  D.S. Wilson's analysis of self-interest vs. group-interest in religions

mutual help
Table 1: classically religious "altruistic" groups

rational self-interest
blind desires
irrational values

Table 2: Randian "self-interested" groups

From this analysis, Pepe, is likely to turn into a self-interest weapon.  Ridicule is directed at those things an individual wants to take down, rather than those thing the group necessarily wants to take down.

Extreme individuality sews the seeds of its own group destruction.