A Delicate Balance.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with it: each paragraph could easily be a whole post in its own right. But I think now is the right time to put them out there. Many of these beliefs are more than a year old in my mind, but I have been thinking about them a lot in the past year; and as I look back, I realise that I haven’t really gotten them out in a coherent, accessible form. They’ve mostly appeared in the form of ephemeral comments on Facebook or Tumblr, and it’s high time I put them in one place. The ideas discussed below also follow a common theme to which I find myself returning again and again, and I could easily find more to which it is applicable.

My beliefs are not typical of any particular orthodoxy. On the whole, I think this is something to be proud of. One should not believe a thing just because other people do, but rather because the thing stands on its own merits. That said, you simply can’t investigate everything fully enough to be justified in believing it from first principles; but in cases where you can’t afford the effort, it’s not appropriate to just throw up your hands or to believe what you like. It’s imperative to accept the expert consensus, if there is one, or the null hypothesis, if there isn’t. This is precisely an example of the sort of nuanced balance I’m talking about. It’s not that both sides of an issue necessarily have a point, so much as that it’s very rarely the case that any given “side” has things entirely right; and that one side has a given thing wrong is no guarantee that the other doesn’t also.

Some other examples:

I’m a feminist, and I think both that Germaine Greer is a bigot for thinking trans women aren’t women and that Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t deserve most of the praise she gets just for transitioning — she’s still a privileged conservative and wholly unrepresentative of most trans people’s experiences.

I’m an environmentalist, and I think nuclear power is not nearly as objectionable as fossil power. I believe this for environmentalist reasons, such as that it releases less carbon dioxide (and, for that matter, radioactivity), and is orders of magnitude less dangerous per GWh. As such, it would be far preferable to use it as a stop-gap rather than keep burning coal and oil until renewables take over. The only reason I’m not advocating more fervently for its use is that we don’t need it as a stop-gap any more — we can already make the switch to renewables in the time it would take to replace fossil power with nuclear.

I’m a Bayesian rationalist, and accordingly don’t believe in things like gods or the utility of death. But I think a lot of the things that are popular in the “rationalist” community, such as strict utilitarianism, advocacy of cryonics or the idea that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is the only coherent one, are utter bunk. And the common disdain for “politics” among rationalists generally only serves as a mask for libertarianism or even neoreactionary beliefs, which are hardly rational.

I’m in favour of many fundamental structural reforms to the way society is run, such as a universal basic income funded by very high externality and rent taxes on harmful activities like mining, polluting, or being Rupert Murdoch. I’m equally certain that no matter how revolutionary some of these reforms may be, revolutions are almost always terrible means of achieving them. (This particular dichotomy is one of the main themes of my forthcoming novel, of which I wrote what I expect will be the final line a few weeks ago, although there do remain a few crucial chapters still incomplete.)

I am a keen believer in the usefulness of having a standardised language, especially for such a broad lingua franca as English for most of whose speakers it is a second or third language. And I don’t think this contradicts my similarly firm belief that those who speak nonstandard dialects shouldn’t have to unlearn them in order to be taken seriously. Similarly, I don’t like linguistic prescriptivism as a principle, but I abhor misuses like alternate for alternative that only serve to muddy the language’s ability to make often useful distinctions. (I’d like to think that these dichotomies and others like them make me a good editor; having solid reasons for supporting certain prescriptivist practices makes it much easier to let go of any prescriptivist instinct in the cases where the reasons don’t apply. Conversely, it also makes it much easier to objectively explain my work in the cases where they do, and providing quality feedback is one of the most important parts of an editor’s job.)

This does make it difficult to explain myself concisely, and it’s very easy to be misinterpreted. People assume that because I hold one belief I subscribe to an entire ideology of which it is a part, when that is seldom if ever meaningfully true. In acknowledging that Islam deserves much of the blame for acts of Islamist extremism, for example, I don’t want to be taken as condemning the rest of the Muslim population, because they are not to blame — much less as condoning violent and misguided retaliation.


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