Loud Voices as Accessible Anecdotespost by ACrackedPot · 2021-05-04T21:13:22.199Z · LW · GW · None comments
I've been pondering something for a little while, which is that the standard take on political takes might be slightly off; I hear a lot about how people tend to listen to the (metaphorically) loudest voices in the room, drowning out the sensible discussion that is actually taking place.
And the thing is, I have some experience with some of these things. Some of the takes that are attributed to "loud voices" I have encountered over the years are things that I heard, years before, in some of the places I'm supposed to go to for sensible discussion - which is to say, I encountered some of the more outrageous takes, that "everyone" agrees only a few crazy people believe, in the wild. Not just in the wild, but teaching classes, and requiring their crazy be repeated back to them. Absent somebody turning global attention to them - giving them the metaphorical loudspeaker - they were, and remain, quiet.
But they were certainly loud and relevant to me, because people in positions of authority, people who should know better, were using that authority to demand other people repeat their inane nonsense back to them.
The concept of social bubbles may enter into things here; we could describe "volume", as a metaphor, as being about voices which cut across bubbles; things you can hear through a bubble. And this can kind of work, if you squint just right. But maybe, when we say say "loud", what we actually mean is "accessible". Loud is just a kind of accessibility that seems to work really well for voices, but I think "accessible" may cut more to the heart of the matter, in illustrating why some voices are "louder" than others.
And maybe a lot of the rhetorical confusion, about the difference between loud voices, and representative voices, is a result of the fact that "loudness" is a direct result of bringing voices which are local to a global focus, as a more or less exact response to the rhetorical demand that people's problems be representative. If you had said to my college-age self that a particular ideological bullshit wasn't a major problem in universities, I'd have shone every light I could on the bullshit I was putting up with in college; to the extent of my ability, I'd be making the voice loud.
Which is to say, the demands for evidence of a particular problem I had (which may or may not be phrased as claims that the problem isn't representative), are demands of accessibility to that problem, are demands for loudness. The argument that "The loud voices" aren't representative is not actually a counterargument for the problem of loud voices, nor is accepting it a solution - it is in fact a central contributing cause to the problem, because it means I have to start broadcasting cases exemplifying the issue, in order to make the problem sufficiently accessible to be taken seriously as a problem.
This is, in part, a product of a society that demands that problems be "representative" in order to be seriously considered. I can't complain about things that happen to me, individually; I have to find a way to frame them as a class action problem that requires a class action solution. Everything has to be shoehorned into this framework, no matter how inappropriate.
This is particularly insidious because it is a feedback cycle; the more voices are amplified, the more important it is to determine that a voice is actually representative as opposed to just being loud voices being amplified, the more incentivized people dealing with the voices are to try to amplify the voices of the people creating that problem.
So maybe I amplify the voice of the people creating my problem; publish their syllabus, perhaps, with a scathing criticism.
The problem, incidentally, was that an administrator somewhere had somehow managed to make an intro class mandatory, whose curriculum was a frankly absurd mash-up of Hegelian dialectics and a bunch of other things which I won't get into.
Now, for a counter-argument: "Representativeness is a specific claim about statistics; we can evaluate whether or not a position is representative with polls. You're just talking about increasing the amount of anecdotal data, which isn't even evidence."
Yes! Representativeness isn't just a claim about what the statistics say; as an argument, it is an implicit claim that that which isn't representative isn't important. Good anecdotes don't argue that more people experience a problem, they argue that those who experience the problem have an actual problem.
Toxoplasma of Rage as Availability
I've noticed a trend among many of my friends: There's an endless supply of evidence of how bad people on the other side of the political spectrum are, and a great missing empty spot where intelligent ideas would go. I've tried rectifying this from time to time, by introducing them to smarter people on that side. But they aren't really interested in the smart takes that disagree with them. The obvious answer is that sharing evidence against rival positions is loyalty-affirming, group-bonding behavior, but sharing evidence for rival positions is depleting loyalty - other people have written about this.
But I think it's important for understanding what makes voices "loud". This dynamic, which is essentially half of the Toxoplasma of Rage, increases the broadcast strength of bad arguments, to the point where I know people who legitimately think there are no good arguments for that side. Good arguments exist, they just aren't available, in the way that bad arguments are. Toxoplasma of Rage describes the arguments which are mutually bad; that is, situations where both sides can find the same situation to be loyalty-affirming.
Everybody shares the good arguments that reinforce their social bubble, so these are available; likewise, they share the bad arguments that reinforce their social bubble, so these are available.
"Hang on, weren't you just arguing against 'Representativeness'? This just seems like an elaborate complaint that your friends make non-representative complaints about other people."
If I complained about colleges forcing students to take particularly bad classes in Hegelian dialectics as part of their introductory coursework, I'd be complaining about a non-representative problem; I very much doubt very many colleges do this. If I made a sweeping complaint about the obsession of college administrators with Hegelian dialectics, that'd be pretty damned unfair.
Part of the problem, again, is the demand that problems be representative in order to be taken seriously; nobody complains about the junior senator of their state who happens to be in the political opposition, they complain about how the junior senator of their state's policies are emblematic of problems with their political opposition as a whole. "Look, all these people are like this."
Part of the problem is that even when people do complain specifically about the junior senator of their state, it's taken as a complaint about the political opposition as a whole.
And I don't want to argue here that "representativeness" isn't important, but also, it isn't actually important, because the whole of both of these problems can be summed up as the belief that, if a point of view were representative of a group of people, it would represent a problem.
And this argument is longer than I have time for here, so I'm going to leave a rather unsatisfying-to-me placeholder: If somebody's belief is a problem, it is a problem without respect to whether or not that somebody is a member of a group in which that belief is representative. The same is true of behaviors, which can also be loud.
"But it's useful to know who to vote for!"
Sure, but that's just a good reason not to trust information other people give you about it. Also, the outside of a bubble, given that the lack of accessibility is broached only with bad arguments, this implies a strategy: Write very bad arguments, the kind that will get repeated, which embed a hidden good argument inside them as a payload. I will note only that this strategy is already in use (by both sides), and it has been surprisingly destructive to social discourse. (Also, do you really want to impress the sort of people who are impressed by who can come up with the ugliest examples of the opposition?)
Supposing I broadcast the problem I had with my university, publish the syllabus; somebody else goes "Hey, yeah, I have that problem too", and proceeds to describe a situation which is superficially similar, which they say never bothered them before, but now that I've described the problem, they're suddenly aware of how much of a problem it is.
If queried, it turns out they're a philosophy major, and they're upset that they're being forced to read Hegel and learn dialectics, which they characterize as Marxist propaganda; prior to reading my complaint about my own class, they had no problem with learning this, but my framing of the problem has led them to conclude that being forced to read this particular material is in fact a problem.
In a certain sense, they're kind of complaining about the same thing; they're being forced to take a particular class. But also, they're a philosophy major, and the subject they're being forced to study is philosophy; that's literally what they signed up for. And by the same token, I'm being forced to learn something; isn't that what I signed up for? But no, my complaint isn't about being forced to learn something, it's about the absurdity of the course.
But in trying to make my problem representative, I had to define the problem in a way which makes it representative. So I start by arguing against mandatory courses. I continue by arguing against useless coursework. I continue further by talking about financial incentives, and other problems in the collegiate system, until my complaint sounds sufficiently representative of a broad problem with colleges, that other people can grapple with it and take it seriously.
I generalized my problem, in short.
The problem turns out to be that my generalization is leaky. The arguments I posed turn out to work pretty well in arguing why philosophy majors shouldn't be forced to read Hegel. The complaints I had resonated with people who resented situations which were similar; my complaints made the hypothesis that they should also be complaining about these things salient to them. Other problems start getting tossed into this generalization, which becomes recognized as a Real Problem with Society. The generalization expands; it becomes more salient, more problems are analyzed in its framework; the problem becomes bigger. More extreme solutions start to be proposed.
Now keep in mind, the problem I actually had is that my time and money were being wasted on a course that was transparently stupid makework, yet the generalization I produced can conceivably grow until the generalized problem is the existence of college itself - which was never my problem, and I now enjoy a reasonable salary in a professional position because of college. What even is this generalized problem now? I want nothing to do with it.
But the thing is - the generalized problem might not actually be an error.
The generalized problem has become a social movement. My little example of a problem made another problem more salient to somebody else, and then they made it available; that made another problem more salient to somebody else; and so on and so forth. Maybe all those people actually have a point.
Or maybe not. It doesn't even matter, the point is that it began when one "voice" was made inappropriately "loud", which is (kind of) what somebody might argue if I had published the syllabus as evidence in creating my arguments. They could appropriately argue that it isn't representative; that what one small community college does, isn't saying anything about what colleges do in general.
This can really go either way; I know people who imagine they're confronted constantly by social problems, because social media has made those social problems unduly salient to them. They know people exist who hate them, so they see people who hate them, even when they aren't there. And then on the other hand, you do actually need to be able to coordinate in this way to identify some social problems.
Increasing the salience of problems is costly, something I think most people here are aware of, but it can be a necessary cost to actually get the problems resolved, which I think most people here are also aware of.
I guess the major take-away here is that "loudness" is neither good nor bad. The phenomenon of "loud voices", likewise, can be a force for both social good, and social ill, but mostly comes down accessibility to that voice. I think they should be contextualized as purposeful and potentially useful anecdotes, however, and statistical arguments about them are largely missing the point.
I do see issues with the criticisms of "loud" voices, namely that they aren't representative, and take issue with the general question of representativeness as it pertains to groups of human beings - not because the question is never useful, because certainly if I were a politician looking to join a political party I would want to find the one which I am a more representative member of - but rather because the explicit formulation of the question (or an answer to it) is basically always formed with hostile intent.
That is, the question is fine, right up until somebody asks it.
Overall, I'm basically fine with some voices being louder than others, even if they seem disproportionately to have something crazy to say. Really, it's more interesting that way anyways.
Comments sorted by top scores.