I've noticed I strongly favor words beginning with intense, brash sounds. Words which invite you to say them quickly and loudly. The paradigmatic example might be the greeting: "WHAaat's up, DUuude?" Only after returning from 6 years in England do I realize the quality-of-life cost of misalignment between natural diction and social environment. In England, people often greet each other by softly mumbling something under their breath vaguely in the direction of the person they're greeting. It's hard to communicate how genuinely difficult it was for me to behave this way. We're likely to underestimate the quality-of-life implications of tiny things that happen many times every day. Even after being back in the USA for 8 months, I still consciously experience some joy upon exclaiming phrases like "WHAaat's up, DUuude?"
This is my #metoo moment. Coming from a working-class Irish Catholic family in the Northeast of the USA, I am only now awakening to the severity of my oppression all these years...
More seriously, I really do think it's conceivable that working-class, off-white men (e.g. Irish, Italian) have heritable dispositions toward louder, wilder, more intense speech. And that American and British WASPs either have heritable dispositions toward meeker, more docile speech, or they have traits that better allow them to cultivate such speech — either of which creates a higher cognitive load for wild men, such as myself, who would seek to enter the WASP World Order. There are no laws or rules prohibiting me from entering and climbing the hierarchy of international academia, for instance, but compared to an otherwise-equal WASP, everything is going to be a little more painful for me. The satisfaction of it all will be weaker, and the little annoyances greater. I'm not complaining at all — ultimately I consider it much more blessing than curse to be temperamentally unsuited to the institutional order.
One piece of data consistent with this theory is that, throughout my life, I've had way more close Italian friends than you'd expect from chance alone. In high school and college you could arguably chalk it up to where I lived in NJ and Philly, although if you drill down into neighborhoods and social circles I honestly doubt I was disproportionately exposed to Italians. But in England too, two of my closest friends were Italian nationals, and now that I think about it we often lamented our WASP subjection, even if we didn't phrase it that way... One of my mother's closest friends is an Italian national who was our neighbor for a few years in NJ, but she was the only Italian in our neighborhood; it's not like my mom was surrounded by them. And my mom isn't very social.
I also think this would be consistent with life history theory, i.e. WASPs evolved a basket of traits that make sense for slower, safer reproductive strategies (meekly mumble whatever you can manage with your boss's dick in your mouth, proceed to enjoy a secure retirement); whereas off-white Catholics evolved a set of traits for faster, riskier strategies (talk shit, drive fast, and fuck mad hot bitches — then get stabbed dead in a pool hall!)
What do the WASPs do with men like me, who make it all the way to 33 without getting stabbed and still insist on driving fast and talking shit?
Eliot blogs at Mad Black Freud. He wrote the book Zizek in the Clinic. He came all the way from LA to visit me in person. I enjoyed hanging out with him and getting to know him better. You can also watch this talk on video.
What's really at stake here, I think, is the attack on representational thought... That's one of the core components of the Deleuzian project. Deleuze argued that any philosophy presents an image of thought and that this image of thought, it's not really explicit. It's never really demonstrated or proven. It's sort of a presupposition. Whenever a philosopher or any type of thinker or theologian or whatever presents a philosophy, there is in the background a certain image of what thought is and what thought should be, and what thought can be, and that's never really fully spelled out. It's never really justified.
It's essentially a kind of aesthetic. And there are different images of thought. This is something that Deleuze really wants to show to us… That we have a choice: an essential, irreducible kind of freedom or aesthetic decision to make about what type of thought we want to engage in.
In retrospect, "choice" is not the best word, because Deleuze wants to steer us away from any naive conception of free will. One is almost tempted to use an ugly deconstructionist term here, such as undecidability. The key point is that an 'image of thought' is extra-rational. It's never justified or formalized rationally, although it's implied in modes of justification or formalization. We might not "choose" our image of thought, exactly, although there is a kind of pre-rational selection process that sorts creators and their creations. Perhaps we could say that our 'image of thought' chooses us...
We’ve all been there: You’ve had a couple drinks, you’re having fun talking with someone, then you blurt out a controversial opinion and everything goes belly up. Maybe your interlocutor scolds you, maybe they just walk away, or maybe nothing happens but there’s gossip a week later…
If you have controversial opinions, what you need is a method for knowing — in advance — whether your conversation partner can handle them. It needs to be simple and quick enough to be practical, but it needs to be scientific enough to offer real predictive validity.
It recently occurred to me that there exists a statistical technique that solves exactly this problem. It’s called recursive partitioning, and the practical tool it produces is called a decision tree. If you have data on public opinion and other demographic variables, you can use statistics to determine which chain of questions will give you the best guess about someone’s position on any given issue. If we create a decision tree to predict their position toward suppressing naughty opinions, then we have a simple, practical, and scientifically valid “life hack” for avoiding IRL flame wars.
I did this last week and the results are very interesting. If you’re interested in the statistical details, or you’d like to run the code yourself (perhaps on a different outcome variable), you can find all of that here. In this post, I’ll focus on the social and practical implications.
Here’s all you need to know about the stats. In this analysis, “being a wokescold” is proxied by whether or not someone thinks racist speakers should be allowed or disallowed. For possible predictor variables, I included a handful of variables that are reasonable to ask someone about or easy to observe yourself.
sex/gender = variable named sex
race = variable named race
left/right identification = variable named pol
family income = variable named realinc
college attendance = variable named college
word knowledge or verbal skill (proxy for IQ) = variable named wordsum
I then conducted recursive partitioning, which breaks the data down into the sequence of branches giving the most predictive traction over the outcome variable.
Figure 1 plots the resulting decision tree.
The graph is fairly intuitive, and if you’d like to understand the numbers better, see my more technical post over at jmrphy.net. Here I will give you a more concise and practical translation, resulting in a simple heuristic you can memorize.
If you meet a random person, there’s a 38% chance they’re a wokescold (defined as wanting to suppress racist speakers; one can debate this, but whatever, it’s a decent proxy).
The very first and most important question you can ask someone, to avoid a flame war, is: “Did you ever go to college?" If they say yes, the probability of them being a wokescold drops to 29% and that’s your best guess: They are probably not a wokescold. Nothing else will improve your guess from this point (at least from the variables we selected).
Now, many of you will say: But it’s the college-educated wokescolds one should be most afraid of! True. The limited utility of this analysis is also it’s primary social-scientific value: It reminds us that college-educated wokescolds remain a relatively minor anomaly, quantitatively speaking. Being educated still means you’re much more likely to support unsavory expression. It’s true that educated wokescolds are often the most dangerous landmines we’d like to tiptoe around, and unfortunately my particular analysis this week will not help you on this front. Fortunately, I have an alternative algorithm custom made for this use-case: If they went to college and they’re also a female with dyed hair, hold fire on your nuclear takes: They are probably a wokescold. Unless they’re Amber Frost.
If they never went to college, the next question you have to ask yourself is whether they're smart. You probably don't want to give them a vocabulary test, but conversation is pretty revealing. If they are smart, you infer they are not a wokescold (40% chance). If they are dumb, it's now a coin flip (50%).
Next, what is their race? This you can probably guess yourself. If white, this bumps them very slightly toward not being wokescolds (48%). If non-white, this bumps them toward being wokescolds (57%). From here:
If they are white and male, there's a 45% chance they’re a wokescold so you infer they are not — and that’s your final guess. If they are white and female, you should see if their family is rich or not. If rich, they are slightly less likely than a coin flip to be a wokescold (46%); if poor, they're slightly more likely than a coin flip to be a wokescold (54%).
If they are dumb and non-white, there is a 57% they’re a wokescold and that’s your best guess.
A heuristic you can memorize
(This only applies in America, mind you, the land of the free.)
If they’re a female who signals creativity or virtue (e.g., dyed hair, bumper stickers), don’t share any edgy takes (this is post-hoc to the model, just a precaution in light of data limitations and researcher experience).
If they went to college, they’re probably not a wokescold. You may gradually begin to share your edgy takes.
If they did not go to college, but speak more intelligently than average, they are probably not a wokescold. You may gradually begin to share your edgy takes.
For all others, the safest decision rule is to not share edgy takes. Bonus rule only if you can master the above 3-step algorithm and you have an appetite for risk:
If they are rich white people, you may gradually begin to share your edgy takes.
What about ideological identification?
The most intriguing result here, to my mind, is that ideological identification totally drops out — it appears to have no predictive power! As I wrote in my technical post:
[That ideological identification has no predictive power] is fascinating, given that many people today tend to think of speech suppression as a fashion on the educated Left! And it is, but that's only a highly visible minority. Political scientists would not be surprised by this result: We've long known that leftists and educated people are always more supportive of free expression (you just don't hear about those people in the media right now).
Please note that the model here does not provide especially satisfying statistical discrimination. It’s better than nothing, but one must still proceed carefully. Always begin by sharing mildly provocative takes, and watching your interlocutor’s reactions. Do not advance to nuclear takes until several acts of mild edgelording produce only smiles, laughter, or excited edgy reciprocity. With additional data and more sophisticated modeling, we may hope to derive more confident predictions for more ambitious social maneuvering. Until then, be careful.
Aquinas wanted to say that — he did say, famously, in the Summa Theologica — if we say God is wise, and then we say that Socrates is wise, we're not really saying the same thing. We're saying what is a kind of analogy. That's the argument. And that was the dominant viewpoint but then this guy John Duns comes around and he's like, hold up homie. It ain't like that. Actually, when we use words to describe God and we use words to describe earthly things, those words actually mean the same exact thing, and that's okay. In fact, it's even a good thing.
To this day, scholars and theologians debate, what are the implications of these different perspectives? And you have some people today, like Radical Orthodoxy, a group of theologians, mostly in Britain, who are anti-Duns Scotus. And they say that Duns Scotus was one of the big problems that led to the weakening of Christianity and the development of secular culture. By saying that we speak of God and we speak of earthly things in the same words, that mean the same things, this was the belittling of God and a kind of arrogant elevation of earthly things that ultimately allowed us, as a species, to have done with the idea of God. That's one of the arguments put forward by the Radical Orthodox people.
But then there are also interesting theologians today who make the opposite argument... That Duns Scotus was accurate, and had salutary implications, even for Christianity.