Against ‘badness’

What does Slate Star Codex, Elon Musk/Tesla, Donald Trump, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and libertarianism have in common? It’s not politics. Sam Harris and Donald Trump couldn’t be further apart ideologically and temperamentally. Same for Jordan Peterson fans, who reject the identity politics of The_Donald, but perhaps agree on other issues.

The answer is, all of their Reddit communities also have corresponding ‘sneer clubs’ such as /r/enoughpetersonspam and /r/enoughmuskspam. A sneer club is a community whose purpose is to denigrate the community that it is ‘sneering’. Then there are other types of sneer clubs, such as ‘badness’ subs, such as /r/badphilsophy, which is the sneer-equivalent of /r/philosophy, and there is /r/badeconomics which sneers at /r/economics. And there is /r/badeverything, for badness that defies categorization. There are probably a couple dozen of these, one for each major discipline of study. ‘Badness’ subs are not as bad as sneer clubs, but can still be pretty hostile to outsiders (or as some call, the ‘outgroup’).

Why do certain communities attract sneer? There is no baseball sneer club or NBA sneer club, but there are a lot regarding intellectual and political subjects and people. In an attempt to put myself in the perspective of a sneer-er, a unifying theme seems to be an amalgamation of nominalism, monism, idealism, and a skepticism of materialism and naturalism. It’s sorta anti-science and anti-realist. This explains why Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson (especially regarding lobsters and hierarchy ) are frequent targets. There is a rejection in the belief that science, ‘universals’, and rationalism and pure reason can explain the world, but rather that the world is unpredictable, chaotic, and messy, and that people are not rational actors that adhere to utility functions, but rather are subjected by the whims of their emotions too.

These communities reject the Randian ideal of atomic individualism and self-sufficiency, and that man is guided by only reason and is elevated only by his own individual merit. Elon Musk, perhaps, personifies such an archetype, which explains why he is a frequent target of these groups.

Maybe science does not have all the answers, especially to non-science questions (this is the is-ought problem, also known as the naturalistic fallacy). In trying to understand the ‘sneer’ perspective, maybe science is a tool that works well for describing how or why something works (positive), but fails when applied in a prescriptivist or normative manner, such as policy or wealth inequality. Sam Harris’ singling out of Islam but giving a ‘pass’ to Christianity, similar to that of Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitches, explains a good chunk of the sneer directed at him and other atheists–by other liberals.

Trump has a sneer club, but being how polarizing he is, is not surprising. In a community as large and diverse as Reddit, a lot of people are not going to like Trump, and that’s fine. But the existence of sneer clubs for non-political figures points to a sort of deeper philosophical disagreement.

Regarding Jordan Peterson, who gets probably more sneer than anyone else, a large portion of the scorn is political/ideological along predictable party lines, such as Peterson’s social-Darwinist interpenetration of hierarchies, his opposition to the social-justice left, his belief that the hierarchies that arise in meritocratic capitalistic societies are ‘just’ (just-world fallacy), his criticisms of postmodernism, and so on. The second part of the scorn lies in the belief that Dr. Peterson is a ‘dilettante’s philosopher,’ who appeals to those who want a simple explanation/narrative that confirms their preexisting world view/biases, without having to read the source text themselves. There is a sort of STEM-like appeal in Dr. Peterson, in that, much like a handbook of formulas, one can circumvent time and effort required to understand philosophy and psychology by just listening to his distilled and possibly wrong explanations. I’m not going to debate these points, because that’s not the point of this post, but those seem to be common objections of him.

The ‘badness subs’ are likely in response to the constant misinformation experts encounter on the ‘main subs’, so they decided to create their own dedicated communities for refuting such misinformation, but with some sneer thrown in.

Here’s my ‘olive branch,’ if you will. I hate badness too. We can all agree badness is…well…bad. Misinformation should be dispelled. When someone someone talks about dollar collapse and hyperinflation in the U.S., or how quantitative easing is the same as money printing, the badness alarm goes off. That’s why I have a blog, in order to refute badness where and when I see it. But that is not a reason to mock and sneer at our intellectual and ideological opponents for being mistaken; rather, we should politely and patiently correct them. If “we’re” right, and if truth is on “our” side, then our arguments should be able to stand on the merits of their correctness, without having to resort to sneers as a crutch. As for the sneer clubs, the anti-HBD people are never going to see eye-to-eye with HBD people, and those who dislike Jordan Peterson are unlikely to ever come around, because their opinions of him have already been formed, and such disagreement stems from fundamental differences of values. Maybe we can be more civil in our disagreements, but our external values and beliefs are unlikely to change (however, a shared internal value system may provide some hope).