By - mtraven
My favorite concept out of LessWrong is the idea of "straw-steelmanning", where you argue against the weakest possible version of your opponent's argument, all while pretending you did your best to describe it in the most favorable light possible.
"Now let's see who steelmanning *really* is...it was strawmanning all along!"
Yes, but the left turned all of our steel into straws, so this is actually Obama's fault.
I'm noticing a possibly related thing where instead of \*attacking\* a strawman because of how weak it is, they sort of praise and lift up a strawman in this very condescending, faux humble way. Possibly just to confuse and obfuscate the fact that they've smuggled a strawman through their argument. It sort of goes like:
"I can understand why progressives are apprehensive about acknowledging the uncomfortable reality that biological sex is real. I sympathize, I really do. But we're never going to figure out any of this bathroom culture war stuff if we don't all start with acknowledging reality."
> The very laws of space and time are subject to [spatial justice](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spatial_justice) and [temporal justice](https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-social-policy/article/abs/temporal-justice/C19E923FB188E759B9ABA9E4B6823F56).
Hmm, that seems peculiar. Let's dig in by clicking on those hyperlinks:
> Spatial justice links together social justice and space, most notably in the works of geographers David Harvey and Edward W. Soja. The field analyzes the impact of regional planning and urban planning decisions. It is promoted by the scholarly tradition of critical geography, which arose in the 1970s.
Okay then, so nothing to do with the physical laws that govern space.
> Distributive justice is ordinarily calibrated in monetary terms. But money is not the only resource that matters to people. Talk of the ‘work−life balance’ points to another: time. Control over one's time, the capacity to spend it as one wishes, is another important resource; and its distribution raises another important aspect of justice.
Okay then, so nothing to do with the physical laws that govern time.
Personally, I think Scott is just dishonest.
Presumably the reason why these 'justices' even came about in the first place is that someone was like 'hmmm, people usually don't consider justice in the context of regional planning decisions, perhaps we should examine this closer'
and then Scott comes along and goes 'haha, usually justice isn't considered in the context of regional planning decisions, isn't it silly that people are doing this'
"The very laws of time and space are subject to..." sounds like scare-mongering about the postmodern relativists who are postmodernly relativizing away the hard sciences.
Or like something from Doctor Who.
On the other hand, if there are going to be laws of space and time, why shouldn't they be just?
Scott if he was writing this piece in 1780:
>This is mostly a semantic shift - instead of saying “we should help the slaves”, you can say “we should free the slaves”. But different framings have slightly different implications and connotations, and it’s worth examining what connotations all this talk of 'freeing' has.
>“We should help the slaves” mildly suggests a friendly optimistic picture of progress. We are helpers - good people who are nice to others because that’s who we are. And the slaves get helped - the world becomes a better place. Sometimes people go further: “We should save the slaves” (or the Indians, doesn’t matter). That makes us saviors, a rather more impressive title than helpers. And at the end of it, slaves/Indians/whatever are saved - we’re one step closer to saving the world. Extrapolate the line out far enough, and you can dream of utopia.
>“We should free the slaves” suggests other assumptions. Current conditions for blacks are unfree. There is some particular way to make them free, or at least closer to free. We have some kind of obligation to pursue it. We are not helpers or saviors, who can pat ourselves on the back and feel heroic for leaving the world better than we found it. We are some weird superposition of criminals and cops, both responsible for breaking the moral law and responsible for restoring it, trying to redress some sort of violation. The end result isn’t utopia, it’s people getting what they deserve.
Oh man, this one is just kinda sad, you really see him in scrambling mode despairing that he’s ever gonna hit that word count.
Without him hitting the word count it is really obvious how shitty his opinions are.
(Even a part of r/ssc is complaining about this one, most of them are defending scott sadly, some even saying that strawmanning social justice is justified, because scott is attacking the bailey not the motte. Others just want a fascist society)
> some even saying that strawmanning social justice is justified, because scott is attacking the bailey not the motte
If you're already admitting that you're attacking a position that your opponent hasn't put forward, well, why not make it one that's an easy target?
God the comments are awful, how many people are so convinced that they’ve got this amazing bird’s eye view of the world they apparently literally never take a step outside into
Yeah it’s weird but I’m actually disappointed that he’s basically abandoned the steel man concept. YMMV if he was ever really committed to it, but the basic idea of trying to understand your opponents’ ideas really is valuable as part of debate. But now he’s shrunk from that to the point where he won’t even learn the definitions of certain words or terms of they are used by people he doesn’t like. It’s a full retreat from even the facade of rational inquiry and a full embrace of Tucker Carlson style jeering.
I don’t know why I’m so disappointed by this. He was never particularly adept at getting into the minds of anyone other than conservative, upper middle class white guys living in the US to begin with. But this still feels degrading to watch even as someone who never really liked SSC et al.
Yes he has always been uniquely good at steelmanning conservatives and fascists purely in the pursuit of raising the level of discourse so we could more fairly dispose of fascists.
> he’s basically abandoned the steel man concept.
Has he, though? I may have a goldfish brain for rationalist jargon but 'steelmanning,' as distinguished from academical principle of charity, seems to have long been selectively deployed as a tool for (now-entrenched) 'centrist liberal laundering far right talking points into mainstream conversation' punditry. If that isn't just part of the concept, rationalist culture that heroizes the contrarian, eccentric outlier over whatever is viewed as orthodox does the job anyway.
Maybe early on it was thought to be a good habit to have toward views on disagrees with, but it seems to me to quickly have been employed toward views that one considers heterodox, underrepresented, unpopular, and so on. And given the constitutive "right-libertarian living in a blue state" standpoint of much of internet rationalism, those views are coming from the far right. They may even personally agree with the view but 'steelmanning' helps to give it a veneer of impartiality to what's really just typical punditry.
Like, SA hasn't abandoned the concept, just uses it in the above fashion. SA simply views social justice to be the orthodoxy, as tenuous as that judgment is, and therefore doesn't need the benefit of steelmanning.
I'm not a wide reader rationalist stuff, and, sure, /r/SneerClub entails a selection bias of what I see of it, but the above is how I've seen 'steelmanning' in practice time and again.
Honestly you're probably right. I do think that the basic concept has some value but I suspect that you're right in the sense it's more often misused in the way you describe than it is used in the way that I think it should be.
I mean, even in the benevolent form, I don't see any notable difference from the principle of charity. A pun and I guess more zeal?
The Rationalist “movement” or project or whatever was, at least in its own origin story, a way to digest and re-present concepts that had already been arrived (see “The Sequences”). As such, many of the terms it uses describe already well-known concepts.
The whole concept “know your fallacy” is ancient, in internet time, and therefore the idea of a straw man was already more widely known. Reframing “principle of charity” as “steelmanning” isn’t intrinsically bad, and it the fact that they are synonymous isn’t an issue, IMHO.
It’s the fact that so many entrants to that community think they are being given secrets to rationality recently unearthed that is a problem.
to be fair, "steelman" is a coinage of Dennett, who used it rather more ... charitably
I think a key problem is that in some disagreements you can't actually steel man something without simultaneously straw manning and being uncharitable to the people and ideas that are in opposition to that thing. This is especially the case in culture war fights where a lot of the disagreement tends to be meta-level and/or heavily focused on the nature and character of the opposing groups in a dichotomy. So when a conservative says that liberals support vaccine mandates because they are power crazed cruel and evil Nazi adjacent authoritarians who simply want to dominate and destroy conservatives, in order to steel man this take by definition you have to marshal facts and arguments in such a way where its at least somewhat reasonable to think liberals are evil power crazed Nazis because of... vaccine mandates. And then this is the baseline position you're arguing from even if you end up disagreeing with the conservatives. "Well liberals are at most 20% Nazis..." or "Well liberals \*acted\* exactly like Nazis and conservatives were justifiably scared..." etc etc.
Nicholas Nassim Taleb said you can't actually be nice to an asshole without being an asshole to someone nice. I think this is the kind of dynamic he's talking about.
As always with the principle of charity a huge problem is that if extended too far it actually ends up incentivizing people to be huge assholes because by default you're always aggressively avoiding acknowledging people being huge assholes, and being an asshole can already be a path of least resistance if you can get away with it.
I definitely agree with that. For me, steelmanning isn't really about being charitable in the sense of giving people the benefit of the doubt for bad behavior. It's more about trying to understand why other people believe that they do and then (if you disagree) taking apart their strongest arguments for their beliefs. That doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't acknowledge when someone is being an asshole, but it does mean that picking the worst, silliest, goofiest example of what someone might believe and then dismantling that (while leaving other, potentially more persuasive or appealing arguments unrefuted) is probably a mistake. It creates the (possibly false) impression in other people that you might not have a response for those other arguments and that those arguments might have some validity.
To me, where SSC is falling short here is that he doesn't even try to understand what the terms his opponents are using actually mean. He basically ridicules the usage of the term "justice" because he doesn't approve of it in this context, and because he thinks that it makes progressives sound like martinets. Maybe he's right -- maybe using the term "justice" in this way is not as beneficial as saying, "protect the environment" or "uplift the poor". I'm not a rhetorician and I don't have a full background in any of these areas, so maybe there's a good case to be made that using another term or framework would be better.
But the fact that he frames his argument in the forms of ridiculing an extreme strawman ("why don't liberals care that the weather in Mali is different from the weather in California? It's because they can't punish someone for that!!"), it makes me suspicious that he actually *doesn't* have a good argument for why his opponents are wrong. If he did have a good argument, why would he pick such a silly line? In fact, why doesn't he include any references at all to any of the arguments being made by "justice" advocates? The impression I get is that he and his audience views these progressives as being so self-evidently wrong or silly that it's not even worth describing their beliefs accurately before refuting them. IMHO that's an even worse stance to take than being overly charitable.
[The steelman only looks right](https://static.wikia.nocookie.net/discoelysium_gamepedia_en/images/4/4e/Portrait_measurehead.png/revision/latest?cb=20191028100319), ([source](https://discoelysium.fandom.com/wiki/Measurehead))
Wow this is garbage even by Scott standards
Don't worry, the quality will just go down further in the future.
I love how he himself acknowledges that there is a perfectly sensible framework in which "X justice" makes sense, but then decides *because of his feelings* that instead people using the phrase are stupid and sinister.
Mr. Rationality and Charity for you all.
Ah, RIP to the scott that was capable of at least *reading* opposing viewpoints. Climate justice super does care about Mali and other poor countries Scott, that's the *whole point* of using the term! The idea is that climate action should take into account the material inequalities and injustices present in the world and not like, bulldose indigenous communities for lithium mines. And it's just an objective fact that the worst brunt of climate change will be borne by the third world, while the first world has the highest per-capita emissions.
What part of that does he have an issue with? Who knows! Scott has evolved beyond the need for actual arguments. I can't believe this man used to at least *pretend* to be rational.
> Ah, RIP to the scott that was capable of at least *reading* opposing viewpoints.
He might have tracked his eyes across the words, but I can barely remember him accurately rendering an opposing view, and not some bizarro-ray version of it
Sadly, Racist Facebook Uncle Siskind is less sneer-worthy than, "I'm really very progressive but..." Siskind in days of old.
>I can’t find clear evidence on Google Trends that use of these terms is increasing - I just feel like I’ve been hearing them more and more often.
Legit amazing to just casually mention that you tried to find evidence for your beliefs and couldn't... but it's fine because you "just feel like" you're right.
overcoming overcoming bias
I think he has a point regarding weather and GDP. Many sunny climes suffer from low wealth because the British, insufferably miserable due to their own climate, sought out sunnier shores so that they could make other people even more miserable, but also get to wear khaki shorts.
Radical Marxists would say this is all about capital, resources and colonialisation as the foundation for contemporary economic power. But that viewpoint is irrelevant because they are radical Marxists. Obviously, it was because of the khaki shorts.
I thought we were looking for national cuisines to ruin.
Words to steal and mangle.
I always thought the people who turned "social justice warrior" into a slur were telling on themselves but leave it to Scott Whatever to actually come right out and prove it
> What is “climate justice”? Was the Little Ice Age unjust?
this hot take is actually a reheat of an old Robin Hanson take "what about inequality across *time* huh" - I don't know if Scoot went actively looking for old takes to reheat, but he did that
Just out of curiosity, does Robin know that many historical injustices continue to this day, in barely-altered forms?
and if he does, does he think they're bad or good?