Beware RightTalkism

Some religions put “right belief” as a core principle in their qualifications for belonging, if not for eternal salvation. I have coined this religious phenomena as “Beliefism”. (More)

[In contrast to Christianity,] In Rome, individual expression of belief was unimportant, strict adherence to a rigid set of rituals was far more significant, thereby avoiding the hazards of religious zeal. (More)

“A purely symbolic congressional act is one expressing an attitude but prescribing no policy effects. … The term symbolic can also usefully be applied where Congress prescribes policy effects but does not act (in legislating or overseeing or both) so as to achieve them. … in a large class of legislative undertakings the electoral payment is for positions rather than for effects.” David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection

The word professionalism originally applied to vows of a religious order. By at least the year 1675, the term had seen secular application and was applied to the three learned professions: Divinity, Law, and Medicine. The term professionalism was also used for the military profession around this same time. (More)

A profession is an occupation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain. … There is considerable agreement about defining the characteristic features of a profession. They have a “professional association, cognitive base, institutionalized training, licensing, work autonomy, colleague control… (and) code of ethics” (More)

Robin Hanson argued some time ago that politics isn’t about policy. … “We (unconsciously) don’t care much about the consequences of such policies – we instead support policies to make ourselves look good” … How would we know if Robin was wrong? I think that no matter what your policy priors are, there are some obvious things policy should incorporate if in fact we did care about policy outcomes. The lack of these policy features suggests to me that Robin is correct. (More)

Folk activism … leads activists to do too much talking, debating, & proselytizing, & not enough real-world action. We build coalitions of voters to attempt to influence or replace tribal political & intellectual leaders rather than changing system-wide incentives. (More)

The numbers of women or people of color in management do not increase with most anti-bias education. “There just isn’t much evidence that you can do anything to change either explicit or implicit bias in a half-day session,” … anti-bias training can backfire, with adverse effects especially on Black people, perhaps, he speculated, because training, whether consciously or subconsciously, “activates stereotypes.” … likelihood of backlash “if people feel that they’re being forced to go to diversity training to conform with social norms or laws.” (More)

The answer to racist policing … starts with hiring. The majority of police officers do not have four-year college degrees. They don’t start their career with a foundational education that will broaden their worldview, make them empathetic to other cultures or understand human psychology. (More)

The Chinese legal system originated over 2000 years ago in the conflict between two views of law, Legalist and Confucian. The Legalists, who believed in using the rational self-interest of those subject to law to make them behave in the way desired by those making the law, were accused by later writers of advocating harsh penalties to drive the crime rate to near zero. They supported a strong central government and equal treatment under law. Confucianists argued for modifying behavior not by reward and punishment but by teaching virtue. …

resembles the conflict between 18th and 19th century British approaches to crime and punishment. The dominant view in the eighteenth century saw criminal penalties as deterrence, their purpose to make crime unprofitable. The dominant view in the nineteenth century saw criminals as victims of their own ignorance and irrationality, the purpose of penalties to reform them, make them wiser and better. … Both approaches survive in modern legal theory and modern legal systems. …

One might interpret the [Chinese] examination system as a massive exercise in indoctrination. …Those who had fully internalized that way of thinking would be better able to display it in the high-pressure context of the exams. … The Confucian solution was education and example, making people want to be good and teaching them how. The ideal Confucian Emperor would never punish anyone for anything, merely set an example of virtuous behavior so perfect that it would inspire all below him. Seen from that standpoint, it made some sense to set up a system designed to produce good men, put them in power and then leave them alone. (More)

An “ism” is a system of beliefs, and many isms are versions of “righttalkism”. That is, they are systems which claim that one of if not the most important way to make the world better is to push most everyone to more oft and loudly express good and deny bad beliefs. Such pushing is done via early-life education, later-life sermons and retraining, favoring right-thinkers for prestigious positions, and seeking out and punishing deviant heretics.

As the examples of Christianity and Confusianism illustrate, righttalkism has been quite common in history, though righttalkists have varied somewhat in where and how much they tolerate deviants. Rightalkism is arguably the main justification offered today in support of most religious activity, education, news, licensed trained professionals, social media conflict, etc. Which adds up to a big fraction of human behavior.

While widely expressed beliefs surely do have some causal effect on the world, most versions of righttalkism seem to me clearly false in far over-stating that influence. That is, pushing right talk is vastly over-emphasized as a way to make a better world. And the reason why seems obvious: political coalitions continually vie for dominance, and when beliefs are markers of coalition membership, then coalitions can win by promoting those who share their markers and hindering those with conflicting markers. That is, coalitions win by helping us and hurting them.

Yes, right talk can sometimes help to promote right policy. And coalitions can gain by promoting policies that favor coalition members, and also policies that help larger social units, at least when such gains will be widely recognized and credited to the wisdom and generosity of that coalition. Its just that coalitions gain far less from righttalk via these channels than via more directly helping members to win over members of other coalitions.

While politics is usually less about policy than people pretend, it could be that you are unusual in caring more than most do about good policy outcomes. In that case, you should care less than do most others about righttalk. You should care less about changing the rightness of what is said via news, schools, social media, care less about how many people are exposed to such messages, and care less about the righttalk of people chosen for prestigious positions.

Instead, care more about concrete non-talk actions, and about talk that can’t be easily classified as supporting or opposing existing coalitions. Instead of joining in on existing political battles, pull the tug-o-war rope sideways.

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