The two best blog post comments ever written were both about the social game theory behind offense.
Yvain:Handle's comment explains the same idea in much more detail:The offender, for eir part, should stop offending as soon as ey realizes that the amount of pain eir actions cause is greater than the amount of annoyance it would take to avoid the offending action, even if ey can't understand why it would cause any pain at all.In a world where people make decisions according to this principle, one has the incentive to self-modify into a utility monster who feels enormous suffering at any actions of other people one dislikes for whatever reason. And indeed, we can see this happening to some extent: when people take unreasonable offense and create drama to gain concessions, their feelings are usually quite sincere.
You say, "pretending to be offended for personal gain is... less common in reality than it is in people's imaginations." That is indeed true, but only because people have the ability to whip themselves into a very sincere feeling of offense given the incentive to do so. Although sincere, these feelings will usually subside if they realize that nothing's to be gained.
This is the dream time.How do you immunize against offense reactions?To answer that question you need a theory of what feelings and displays of offense reactions are for and where they come from.
Naturally, the answer is pretty complicated, especially since there is an element of the strategy of escalation and conflict involved, and there’s an incentive for deceptive bluffing about levels of precommitment. But it’s pretty clear that they don’t bear much stable relationship to the actual content of provoking stimuli, so it’s extremely social context-dependent.
In my model, people have a little subconscious social-game-theory module that is constantly busy calculating and working all the angles. A very important factor is when the game-theory module detects that they are in a situation in which intentional lying or exaggeration would be beneficial to their interests.
But because most of us express ‘tells’ in our body language when we consciously lie, and other people have decent subconscious ‘intuition’ systems that translate these tells into emotions of suspicion, it helps if one doesn’t actually have to consciously ‘lie’, which has to involve an element of subconscious self-deception.
So the game-theory module completely bypasses the ‘elephant-rider’ consciousness (which might threaten to evaluate any major reaction as being completely unreasonable and totally out of proportion), and sends a signal directly to the emotional centers to pump up the chemicals that generate the genuine experience of extreme outrage, insult, and offense.
Instead of fighting this urge, the much-slower-to-the-game consciousness takes the emotional state as a given and presumptively ‘valid’, and just plays clean up and retrospectively invents patently ridiculous narratives that try to rationalize why an outburst was ‘justified’. It somehow applies a dose of rationality anesthetic like a mosquito does when it bites, so that one just simply accepts this story when it is in one’s social interests to do so, no matter how facially absurd it is.
A prediction of this model is that the loudest complaints and strongest passions of offense would occur at precisely the places where there is least likelihood of offense, and where they would be of the smallest magnitude – like elite Academia. Or the UC-system education and law schools in that Heather MacDonald article. How else would you explain it? People develop genuinely thinner skins when they subconsciously grok that it serves their interest to do so.
The question becomes how does the game-theory module determine this interest by evaluating observations and environmental and social cues? What it is really trying to probe for, as usual, are any deviations between the ‘true’ status and social ranking (“who would beat whom, or support whom, in a fight”) and the currently formally accepted hierarchy.
“I’m a beta male now, everyone thinks that and treats me like that. But I’ve been getting stronger, and the old chief (or silverback) is getting older and weaker. Am I strong enough now, such that if I bait him and pick a fight, I’d come out on top and be the new alpha?”
The game-theory module is looking for situations just like this, and when it’s time to pick a fight, it doesn’t make you think “It’s time to pick a fight to test the waters”, it makes you feel “God dammit the way that silverback treats me – with a lack of respect – is infuriating!” and then you just impulsively lash out in sincere rage.
And one of the easiest things to look for is the reaction to conspicuous displays of offense by people like you and who are similarly situated, and towards people who formally hold high status and authority.
If you observe that when challenged, the people who are supposed to have all the status and authority (like faculty and administration), and who one would instinctively expect to swiftly and severely push back against such probative mau-mauing by purportedly lower-status people (like students), instead always back down immediately, no matter what, and do whatever they can to placate their accusers, refuse to contradict them, and to defuse the situation and make it go away as quickly as possible, then you have found your deviation. Your little game-theory module says, “Aha! That’s what I figured. The real status ranking proves I’m the one who is really on top. If it’s not because of me, then it’s because they recognize that the strength of my political coalition is such that the people who have my back can destroy them, whereas they cannot touch me.”
But in the natural world, a successfully picked-fight will flip the social positions of the combatants, which will tend to calm the situation. However, in our world, after one of these outbursts of offense, everyone just goes back to their former social positions and following the same rituals of interaction, which is absolutely guaranteed to cause a perpetual, unstoppable explosion of similar incidents.
Furthermore, if there really is no possibility of pushback, then there is no logical limit to the kinds of things that can and will generate real, intense offense. The claims will become increasingly trivial as you progress from actual impolite behavior to ‘negligent, unintentional microaggressions’ until finally you reach the extreme case where any action (from, say, a professor to a student) that fails to conspicuously demonstrate the utmost respect, deference and submission will cause real feelings of humiliation and anger.
It will devolve into the equivalent of classic bully behavior, “Are you questioning me?!” Or, “What’s that face? Did you just look at me funny?!” And even into imagined states of mind, “I think that he thinks that he’s better than me. How dare he!?”
Of course, our society signals to everyone that the universally accepted rationalized justification for all this is hate, prejudice, and X-ism, which leads to more frequent and increasingly delusional and spurious claims that it is a broader and deeper problem than ever before in exactly the places any sane person would least expect to find it.
The “Are you questioning me?” scenario is exactly what happened in those incidents cited by MacDonald, and is the most dangerous manifestation of the problem because it makes it impossible for anyone to defend themselves through discourse or dialogue. To defend yourself requires that you find some error in the accusation which means that you win in a status fight because you are right and the accuser is wrong. But the status fight was the whole problem, so the questioning itself must itself be wildly outrageous to the accuser.
If it is also evil (i.e. offensive, hostile, threatening, aggressive) to even question the assertions of the person accusing you of evil, then you’re toast. (This is what just happened between Smith and Hanson, by the way).
And without any limit, you are also on a slippery slope. The fact that every savvy person in charge of these institutions recognizes the fact of this impossibility of defense is why there is never any pushback or attempt at defense, and instead prefer to throw some perfectly innocent scapegoats on the pyre in the hopes that it will satisfy the angry gods. This is what creates the obvious lack of even the possibility of negative consequences (notice the school wouldn’t even reveal a hoax to save itself) that is the cause of the whole problem. So you get a positive-feedback loop which sets up the vicious cycle to singularity.
And this is why pushback is essential, and why it needs to be swift and severe. Nice people think they are being enlightened and caring are trying to be polite and considerate and compassionate and ‘welcoming’, and go out of their way to indulge their underprivileged fellows and not cause offense or hurt feelings. But instead, the little subconscious game-theory modules of those fellows are correctly interpreting all this – and especially the supine hypersensitivity to accusations of sin – to be ‘weakness’, which means it’s a good time to pick a fight, which leads to hair-trigger hypersensitivity that is salivatingly eager to detect any hint of offense, no matter how implausible.
That’s what Randy M means by, “I’d say stop reflexively honoring them.” If you incentive offense, you will get more of what you’re subsidizing. The way to actually generate less offense is to make it clear that complaining about unmeasurable feelings won’t usually get you very far, and that false or trivial complaints will get you ostracized.
I’d imagine that the typical person’s model is that the behavior of others causes feelings in a victim, and so then, when people are treated disrespectfully or bullied by jerks, they’ll still experience the same amount of psychological trauma, but now they’ll have to suffer in silence and bite their tongues lest anyone make fun of them for being a weakling weenie.
But no, that’s not how it actually seems to work most of the time. Instead, when people see that there’s no point in complaining, they genuinely do not have nearly the same level of emotional response, and much more stoic, and are less subconsciously tempted to hysterically blow something out of proportion and make mountains out of molehills. In other words, the true model is incentives cause feeling cause rationalizations about the importance of other people’s behavior and whether or not one is a victim.
This model would predict counter-signalling, and that the same insults poking fun at the same attributes when made by a person who won’t back down if challenged with an escalation of, “I’m offended!”, will produce no actual feeling of offense. The well-known rules of comedy in terms of who can poke fun of whom for what (or use certain expressions without being accused of hate or ‘appropriation’) also follow.
The logic of this case is extendable to all kinds of emotional responses to social interactions, and is certainly the cause of much of the shift in observed and reported sensitivity to certain kinds of incidents that is correlated with overall social, political, and ideological change.
More outrage at more trivial ‘slights’ isn’t a result of more progress and increased refinement of sensibilities, but simply the result of everyone’s intuitive and subconscious understandings of who really holds status and power and the ability to impose negative consequences.
Finally, to the extent one accepts my psychological model, one has to ask whether this is a usual case of the typical progressive reaction to try and make things better for less privileged groups by making things easier for them only ending up having the unintended consequence of making things worse for them by negatively altering their decisions and conduct when their behavior adjusts to new incentives.
The obvious analogy is to giving blacks welfare only to notice that within 20 years their communities are beset with social pathologies not as a coincidence, but as a consequence, because we gave a man a fish instead of creating a world in which he could and would fish for himself. (I’ll use blacks as an example, but the logic applies more generally)
In this case, in our effort to help blacks succeed in school and feel as comfortable as possible we have committed ourselves to detecting, investigating, and eradicating every last possible trace of anything that anyone claims could possibly be racist. In case we missed anything, we agree to take seriously any and all claims of offense and bend over backwards to remedy the situation, accommodate the complainants, and purge the sin.
But what that has done is put the little game-theory modules in all their heads on constant reality-status-deviation five-alarm emergency mode, which has warped their brains, made them completely race-obsessed and hateful of those in ‘oppressor’ groups, and given them perpetual chips on their shoulders the size of redwoods.
They’ve all become Anthony Fremont from The Twilight Zone episode It’s A Good Life. People that have been granted God-like powers of personal destruction if they ever decide to target someone.
I view modern faculty members as the adults in that show. They may even be Anthony’s parents and love him, but still, Anthony will kill them for nothing and they can’t escape. So they are constantly terrified and sweating and walking on eggshells lest their masters start to imagine that they’ve been thinking bad thoughts about them.
Nobody wants to hang around someone like that – it’s like walking through a minefield. Eventually you’re going to do or say something and off goes the mine. Naturally, that is going to exacerbate, not alleviate, social isolation and mutual distrust.
But the real ironic tragedy is that all this offense-obsessiveness steals from most talented black students the opportunity to achieve conventional career success in their professions, which was supposed to be the original intent of all this effort. Instead, a huge portion of them end up diverted into being permanent, professional salesmen in the race-card printing industry. They are consumed with their own blackness and on related subjects.
I’m amazed and depressed with how standard it has become for a black graduate student to write their thesis on some impact of racism or, well, just ‘being black’, and then going on not to teach chemistry or practice law, but to become diversity specialists and inter-cultural dialogue lecturers, and critical-race-theory scholars and so forth. And, of course, when it becomes professional, there is constant pressure to find and theorize about ever more subtle examples of racism. In other words, they are employed to supply the insatiable demands of the confirmation-bias market with ever more narratives of rationalized justification. What a disaster.
And this, too, only intensifies the problem of representation in other professional fields, and feelings of oppression and outrage.
Until we get to where we are today, where our society is the least bigoted it’s ever been, but is experiencing the highest wave crests ever in a perfect storm of delusions about prejudice.
Both of these comments were responses to Yvain. Maybe after that second one he'll have gotten it.