Brainpower Tax

Original Post


A thought about insidious social patterns.

Note: I normally try to write balanced (or at least convoluted) takes on things, but that isn't going to work here. So if your are a progressive and insist on reading this, you will probably be offended. I think that is what's called a trigger warning, which means people aren't allowed to be offended. At least I think that's how it works.

A recently had an epiphany cause be reading things on the Internet. I now understand why I find easily-offended/-upset people so annoying. The source:

The first thing to notice here is the linguistic spin. The question of whether someone "appreciates", "understands", "acknowledges", or similar is unfair. It implicitly divides the world into those who know the truth (and are therefore correct), and those who also know the truth, but are refusing to admit it (and are therefore evil). The question about the truth, and the various arguments for and against, has been swept under the rug. In logic, this would be a form of poisoning the well fallacy.

Of course, there is the fallacy fallacy: Just because the argument for something is flawed doesn't mean that the conclusion is false. We still have to decide this in some other way. And before that, we have to figure out what the question even is.

In this case, the root question is very old. Do words mean what the person who says them intends them to mean, or what the person who hears them assumes that they mean? There is no simple answer. If I say that I prefer "vanilla" ice cream, by which I mean chocolate ice cream, the error is on my side. However, if I mean "vanilla" and the listener thinks that I am referring to the brown kind with the cocoa, that is his error. And words change their meanings over time (e.g. "minion" used to describe something or someone valued for sentimental instead of pragmatic reasons). It is all very complicated.

But enough of that rabbit trail. When various groups object to previously-acceptable language, they are effectively demanding that everyone else not use that language so that they don't have to be offended. And that requires everyone else to put a bit of effort into watching what they say (or do). It's not a lot of effort for any given thing, but with all the causes out there it builds up. And everyone is supposed to do it.

And thus we come to my insight. This is a tax. Not of money, admittedly, but of brainpower. Everyone else is being expected to subsidize their priorities. In fact, I not sure that "tax" is exactly the right term. Which topics get subsidized is determined by connections, media power, special interests, and yes, money (lawsuits), not by votes. The system is also maintained by fear and semi-arbitrary attacks of some violators, not by a consistent law code. If this is a social "government" imposing the tax, it's an corrupt, oppressive one. If it's not a government, the term want is "protection money", or maybe "extortion".

On the other hand, good governments do charge taxes, and gangs can use their money for good works, even use it better than the government would. (The Muslim Brotherhood used to run a fair number of the perfectly-good schools in Egypt.) And the Fascists did improve the trains, the Nazis ended an economic crisis, and the Maoists stamped out foot-binding. Just because a group is evil doesn't mean everything they do is bad. So we need a way to figure out when taxes are justified.

The normal approach to this is utilitarian. A tax is justified if the good done by the taxes is greater than the good that could have been done with the same wealth if the original people had kept it. In this case, the good done is the interest groups that don't get offended. The cost is the brainpower required to maintain the system. Admittedly, we could extend this so that the benefit includes the people who are happy about the society and that rules produce, and that cost includes the people who are unhappy with it. But that would make things more complicated, so lets keep it simple. The brainpower tax is justified if the emotional benefit to the interest group outweighs the nuisance to the rest of society.

At this point, it seems that all we have to do is find a way to quantify the emotional benefit and nuisance cost, and all will be good. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. Utilitarianism seems harmless on the surface, but in the depths lurks a Lovecraftian horror: the utility monster. A utility monster is an individual who feels emotions much ore strongly than others, and thus must be considered as more important than anyone else (or even than everyone else) when deciding what is best. There is no defense against it, so the utilitarians keep it buried, and try to forget it, and dread that its awakening.

It seems that Social Progress has discovered the utility monster. They cannot raise it, but they know it is there, and what it must be like. So they create their own pale imitations, far weaker than the true monster, but still with the power to shake the world. It don't think they did it on purpose; instead they just used what worked, and learned form each other, and they learned the truth.

The greater the wrong, the more you have a right to demand for repair. But social wrongs are partially subjective, and their degree depends on how they make people people. So if people feel more wronged, they can demand more. In fact, you don't even have to feel more wronged (subjectivity again), you just have to convince people that you do. Or maybe that you would be right to feel that way. Its all a bit vague.

We have inadvertently created system where you gain influence by making your own situation appear worse. And, not surprisingly, most interest groups take advantage of this. Feminists, for example, put a lot of effort into repeating that homemaking is demeaning (something I have never heard from anyone else), and using that to demand ever more "equality" stuff to right this ever-graver injustice. The U.S. has a whole cohort of racial activists who frame everything in terms of white people oppressing black people (~12%), completely ignoring the other groups, including east Asians (~5%) and Hispanics (~16%). And we have the gay rights movement (and now the transgender movement) operating on the assumption that it will cause unconscionable harm to their charges if they every have to encounter a competing viewpoint.

Not that only progressives do this. I know a number of Christians who take it as assumed that all non-Christians are actively trying to attack their values all the time. They give the strong impression that they will not be satisfied until every conflicting voice is silenced, and have developed some mighty-odd sociological theories to justify this. My personal favorite for nuttiness is using the increasing fraction of men who play computer games over the last 50 years (a period of time in which all computer games were made) as proof the society has gone badly wrong.

The difference seems to be that while the nutty Christians just expect you to listen to them complain about the world, the progressives want you to change. It feels like they have decided that the mere knowledge of dissent is harmful, and so, to right the wrongs, it must be crushed (or at least driven underground). And to get that, everyone must pay a substantial tax to their ideals.

And thus we come to the final layer. On some level, it is not really about not offending people. It's about making you think about their ideals, even adopt them. A way to correct the injustice without that isn't any good.

As an example, perhaps 100 years ago (I think it was), the feminist movement noticed that the pronoun "he" could be male or generic, but "she" could only be female. It struck them as unequal, and they have been making a fuss about it ever since. In fairness, it is unequal. I don't think there is any serious doubt about that. The uncertainty is/was over a) whether, of all the problems in the world, this should be a priority, and b) whether their proposed solutions (use "they", avoid pronouns, etc.) were worse than the problem they attempted to solve.

For a long time, I would have supported either of 2 solutions
  1. Make "he" became generic only and add a new pronoun (possibly "che") for male (to match "she").
  2. Eliminate "she" entirely and use "he" for male, female, or generic.
But lately I have realized that there was an even better way to deal with this. We could declare that "he" is male or generic and "she" is female or generic. That way, when you have an generic individual, you would choose "he" or "she" and use it consistently. Then, when you had another generic individual, you could use the other one, and people wouldn't get confused. The old-fashioned people who thought this was all a load of nonsense could just keep on using "he" and it would be perfectly acceptable. Feminists could make a point of always using "she" and feel they were making the world a better. Immigrants whose first language just had one pronoun could just call everybody "he" (or "she") and that would be OK as well. The best part is that nobody would have to think about it, so there would be no brainpower tax.

But for some reason (and I don't think it is that nobody thought of it before), that is not how things are done. Instead, we have a system without a good generic pronoun, and people have to think about it all the time. The transgender movement has gotten in on the pronoun thing as well, and from the mount of fuss they make, they wouldn't like a system like mine either. The goal isn't to avoid accidental offense; it's to make people think about their ideas all the time. It's about them expanding their own identity into other people. In the end, it's about power.


I got the following useful response:
So I've got a couple points to make. ☺ Firstly I agree that trigger warnings and being offended and such have gone a little over top as of late. On the other hand, just because what you say offends someone doesn't take away your right to say it as much as you can't not make people be offended. The way I go about it is that I try not to be a horribly offensive person (racist, homophobic, sexist, etc) and then when a situation arrises where someone either says that I have said something offensive or I can tell by the way they are acting that I have, I re-evaluate my statements and then decide if what I said was really offensive, be it to that individual or to groups of people as a whole. In general I just would not mention those topics around those people again or change my word choice if I see it to be a small but significant issue. This is how I deal with gender pronouns, so if I use the wrong one and a person corrects me I just make an effort to use the one they have asked, mainly because it's an easy fix, and I would like it if people used my correct the oed has made it grammatically correct to use they in singular form now ☺ I do agree that sometimes this is used to push an idea or agenda, but for the most part, I have found at least, that it's either a) legitimate and something we should be thinking about or b) small enough that the "hassle" it would cause me is worth not offending people. Or in certain cases I feel that the person is being unreasonable I would just avoid them in future...
My response was:
  1. Seems reasonable, although there will no doubt be disagreement over what constitutes "something we should be thinking about". My objection is more to where people get offended at the weirdest things because they might be racist, sexist, etc.

    For example, some women get offended if a man assumes that he is better at math (apparently "women are bad at math" is a common stereotype). In my case, however, I just assume that nobody is as good at math as me unless proven otherwise. It isn't true, but it works in most cases, and it is completely unbiased.

  2. I don't care what the OED says. I still think "they" is a worse generic than "he" because the difference between one and many people is larger that the difference between male and female.

An Apology / Retraction


One of the annoying things in world is logical inconsistencies, often identified as hypocrisy. Personally, I would prefer to keep the term "hypocrisy" for not people not doing what they say they should (a failure of will/morality), but oh well. I can live with it including inconsistent claims.

I figure the reason this happens so much is that the world is complicated. Everything ties into (almost) everything else, and it's impossible to see all the connections at once. There are just too many of them. That is one of the reasons I post essays on Facebook: I am hoping that other people will read them and tell me what's wrong with my thinking. Then, next time, I can make more subtle errors instead.

I recently wrote a post with an especially bad inconsistency. The basic idea was that the world was acquiring too many political correctness rules about how you have to phrase things, and it takes too much effort to keep track of them all. Instead, I thought we should write acceptability rules that included what people already did, thus making everyone's lives simpler. For example, instead of arguing about which is the single correct generic 3rd-person singular pronoun (he, she, it, they), we should just declare them all acceptable.

It turns out that there are (at least) 2 problems with this. The first one was pointed out by my friend Alyssa, who has a long, if sporadic, history of puncturing my insufficiently-self-critical thoughts. The world needs more like her. She pointed out that keeping track of e.g. which pronoun someone wants takes almost no effort. She is completely right about that, which made me realize that, contrary to what I implied, it is only the ones who want to regulate non-person-specific speech (e.g. Facebook posts) that bother me.

The second one I came up with myself. (Did I mention I want me people to tell me why I'm wrong?) You see, there is (at least) one more person trying to regulate speech patterns than I saw, and that person is me. I saw that the people who recently started demanding that the Mexicans who snuck (sneaked?) into the U.S. be called "migrants without proper papers" instead of "illegal immigrants" (which is shorter) are attempting to control people. I didn't see that, if I try to stop them, I am doing the same thing. That's the problem with freedom -- it's so very hard to insist on. In any case, trying to force people to support Chaos over Law is hypocritical. So I should probably stop.

Oh well. Life goes on.

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