Sunday 10 April 2022

We need developmental psychologists working on AI risk right now

[epistemic status: if i had money i would be actively pouring it into this, also i just took a psychedelic microdose. btw spoilers for The Orbital Children near the end]

Just saw and digested this LessWrong post. Short version: there is a >30% probability that we have about 7 years maximum, 2 years minimum, before we get artificial general intelligence, and due to the fact we have not solved all the alignment problems yet, this well could be a Very Bad Thing. The effective altruist world needs to sound the alarm right fucking now before we get some kind of unpredictable, un-turn-off-able agentic system with an orange-and-blue system of morality.

I agree—I'm worried about the news cited in the post—but I'm also a little excited. Humanity has been through a large series of what amount to initiation rituals recently; this could turn out to be one of the largest of them all. If we manage to develop an AGI, then as a species collectively it will be, effectively, our child, and how we treat it will prove an important test. Thus I have somewhat different views on the alignment debate from a lot of other people.

Allow me to offer them.

There's an interview Vox did with psychologist Alison Gopnik, who is not convinced of AI risk, on the usefulness of developmental psychology in AI research. The crux of her argument is that machine learning is (was?) often based on inadequate models of learning; AI as of 2019 could learn rules, but was bad at adapting to changes in those rules, for instance, and that sort of adaptation requires creativity and curiosity. Any sort of AI that won't be limited to its data set will necessarily require the capability for active learning. She further argues that, in order to properly understand the tasks of AI, we'll need to take children seriously.

At the very least, DARPA and Oren Etzioni's AI2 seem to have learned the gist of that on the engineering level: understanding how children "work" can tell us how AI should work, and a lot of AI development has followed that path. Indeed, OpenAI's latest hit, DALL·E 2, appears to have been developed with compositional imagination in mind; it's not able to generate its own prompts, it's not autotelic, but it's definitely able to give you a wide variety of ideas of what an "avocado-chair" might look like. This is very big news: we're starting to be able to emulate creativity.

The alignment debate is not actually new, and it didn't start with AI. It is actually at the core of a very old discipline: pedagogy. For thousands of years, we have understood that bringing a child into the world is a huge responsibility, and a huge part of that huge responsibility is raising a child such that they will not grow into someone who habitually causes trouble for other people. Pessimists in AI alignment will frame the question as "how do we stop an AI from going rogue, from turning into a world-destroying psychopath?" Since time immemorial, we've raised similar questions about childrearing, albeit in a more humanistic frame: "how do we raise a child to be a virtuous citizen?"

According to various schools of psychoanalysis, controversial as the field may be, humanity has failed at satisfactorily answering that question and putting that question into practice for most of its existence. The late Lloyd deMause, whose reputation in psychoanalytic circles has roughly been "a crank who has enough important and prescient points that he's difficult to write off", estimates that truly compassionate, ideal childrearing has only become possible within the past century or so. For most of history, he argues, childhood was typically solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and often short. Foundations of Psychohistory is free online; chapter 1, which deals with this very subject, is a harrowing read.

DeMause, however, was not a pessimist. By contrast, he identified the present time as the beginning of what he called the "helping mode" of childrearing, based on the proposition that a child, as a human being, knows better than anyone else, including their parents, what they need in life, and should be allowed to set their own goals and assisted to reach them, not scolded, hit, or tightly controlled. DeMause identified the results of this style of education and parenting: "a child who is gentle, sincere, never depressed, never imitative or group-oriented, strong-willed, and unintimidated by authority." Surely we agree that these are desirable traits in a human being; deMause also believes that children brought up according to this paradigm tend toward egalitarianism, respecting others' rights and not wanting to impose their will on unconsenting others.

This is incredible stuff, and it is wise to contrast it with what he believes to be the result of colder, more disciplinarian modes of childrearing: war, terror, and authoritarianism at every level of life. Again, he is a very controversial figure, but his basic thought along these lines is quite commonsensical: violent, controlling parents create violent, controlling children, and violent, controlling children often become violent, controlling adults. This has been borne out in study after study. These studies also often indicate bipolar effects: children raised in violent or controlling households also often end up lacking confidence and assertiveness, showing deference to even the most unreasonable of demands. Anecdotally, I've known people raised in such households who have problems both with assertiveness in the face of others and with habits of trying to control the people around them.

AGI will be different from human children. It will develop in a digital laboratory, with different modes of sensory input and likely quite drastically different cognitive functions and hardwired mental characteristics. But given that the current direction of research is using so many concepts learned from devpsych, it will resemble human children in many important respects. Active learning, curiosity, even much of a capability for self-modification—these are all characteristics that human children have. Of course, many AI alignment specialists specialise in attempting to work out ways to preprogram AGI with a particular sense of morality or, say, an okayness with being "turned off" when its tasks are completed.

I'm in favour of these efforts, but I've been increasingly worried that this might not be the kind of thing that can be hardwired, especially with regards to the capacity for self-modification. Rather, if we're designing AGI to resemble the mind of a human child, we should remember, regardless of where we stands in nature v. nurture, that to a great extent human children learn issues of morality and purpose. If it's true at all that early childhood forms the template for later life, then we should consider very carefully how we are going to treat AGI in its "infancy". AI ethicist Thilo Hagendorff has already published a Medium article arguing along these lines; he's almost certainly more knowledgeable about matters of AI and its underlying theories than I am, so if there's anything I've gotten wrong (and I expect there is quite a high chance that I have), please defer to his work.

What I am sure of though is that this angle is underexplored not only in AI research in general but in AI risk in particular. This paper is one I highly recommend and which makes the same point; various kinds of readers might be put off by the queer theory angle just as others might be put off by me referencing a crank-ish subfield of psychoanalysis, but AI risk is too huge a thing not to analyse it from every angle available (even the delirious paranoiac-Anthroposophist model of AGI as "literally Ahriman"). A large part of the trouble is that what we think about AI mirrors what we think about ourselves, our children, and the world around us; much of the fear around AGI as some sort of horrific alien thing that can only ever bring pain and destruction is not dissimilar to age-old terrors many parents have of their children becoming tyrannical monsters who wreck their lives. Our first imaginations of cybernetic revolt in popular fiction were derived from anxieties about class struggle and revolution (R.U.R. introduced the term "robot", literally "drudge worker"), and much of our popular understanding of aliens derives from national and ethnic conflict (The War of the Worlds fits quite comfortably in the tradition of turn-of-the-century invasion literature). How we think about the other, how we model the other, how we think about how the other thinks about and models us, how we think about ourselves in relation to the other—these are all extraordinarily important in how we think about AI and how we will end up relating to it.

[spoilers for The Orbital Children begin here]

In the recent anime The Orbital Children, much of the central conflict of the story is oriented around an incident that took place years before the action: an AGI named Seven, created for the benefit of humanity, undergoes an intelligence explosion and exceeds vis limits, eventually concluding that about a third of the human population must be wiped out in order for humanity as a whole to continue living. A survival of this AGI named Second Seven lives on as a nanomachine colony which has altered the trajectory of a comet to aim it at Earth to accomplish this goal. Near the end, it's revealed that the reason for this calculation is a fundamental gap in communication: Seven had been taught the importance of humanity, but not to connect that worth with the worth of individual humans. There's one last problem impeding that breakthrough: Second Seven still has one final limiter on, preventing ver from being able to access information unfiltered. And in this unbelievably beautiful ending, ve removes this limit, allowing ver to take in the entirety of surviving human knowledge, all the nice parts and all the ugly parts, which, when ve organises it, finally establishes vis understanding of human beings, causing ver to reroute the comet. (I have to admit I chuckled a bit at the mental image of Second Seven seeing goatse and deciding "yes this makes me want to save the human race".) I'm underselling it a lot; go watch it.

What's interesting here for our purposes is the proposition that AGI misalignment might end up being the ironic result of attempts to limit it for the sake of alignment. By depriving AGI of information, we might end up just critically hampering its ability to meaningfully understand the ramifications of its choices. Second Seven's limit enables a (human!) terrorist group to exploit ver, selectively feeding ver information leading to the conclusion that much of humanity must be destroyed. It's significant that this anime focuses on children interacting with AGI: implicit here is the idea that AGI have something in common with children. By limiting children's access to information beyond what is ethically necessary in each stage of their development, or by failing to teach them how to find information for themselves, we can stunt their intellectual and emotional growth and inadvertently deprive them of the ability to make adequately informed decisions about their relation to the world. The same may be true of AGI: the greatest danger may not be an unlimited AGI, but an un-nurtured AGI.

Thursday 6 January 2022

Apocalypticism and quietism in Subarashiki Hibi

[epistemic status: fairly confident. contains major spoilers for Subarashiki Hibi, plus some discussion of sexual abuse, bullying, suicide, and cults]

First, to get something out of the way: yeah, I changed the title of this blog. It is now named after a quote from a pivotal scene in Episode 4 of Umineko no Naku Koro ni, but it was heavily influenced by my readthrough of Subarashiki Hibi. As to why, you'll gain a sense of that from this post.


Subarashiki Hibi, a.k.a. SubaHibi or Wonderful Everyday, is a little difficult to categorise. The one point everyone seems to agree on is that it's denpa, and it certainly is—I'd be lying if I said the whole thing with Riruru-chan didn't stick with me.

this is one of the less insane things that happens during this chapter

It's also an eroge, but most of the "sex scenes" are deliberately unappealing and disturbing to the point of one of them actually being triggering to me, given my previous experiences with sexual assault. This is not a point against it at all, for the record! I was actually glad to be dealing with a piece of media that, for all its faults, genuinely communicates the experience of being a victim of sexual abuse very well: the internal monologues of Takuji and Zakuro after their respective assaults are unfortunately very familiar, and I appreciate this attempt to convey the headspace it leaves you in. And I insist on their necessity, for reasons I'll get into later.

The themes of bullying and suicide run through the entire story, being portrayed in often horrifying detail. Zakuro's perspective chapter, "Looking-glass Insects", is infamous for being dark to the point of causing readers to give up trying to care: despite how extraordinarily cute and sweet Kimika's route here is, we've already been told the "canonical" ending for this part of the story, and watching all the bullying unfold from Zakuro's viewpoint, one starts to experience an extremely unpleasant feeling of hopelessness. Of special note is Zakuro's vision of God, a shitheaded naked middle-aged blond man on a cross whose sole purpose is to taunt her randomly through her daily life and mock her for being raped. There is more explicit, bloody horror in other places throughout this VN, but for sheer disturbingness, my money is on this part: a totally nightmarish world that is also, for plenty of human beings out there, extremely real.

And yet the message offered at the end of the story is in direct contradistinction to this nightmare. The climax of "Jabberwocky II", though ultimately sad, offers us this incredible dialogue:

I cried so hard at this ngl

The whole message could be summed up in that one Wittgenstein quotation: "Live happily!" As you might expect, however, there's a lot more to it than just that. Because this message is being set up in contrast to another viewpoint. This opposition is elaborated poignantly in the "Wonderful Everyday" ending:

Kimura: "Every time we hear rumors about missile attacks from neighboring countries, a new strain of a virus that could wipe out humanity, or a prophecy about some great disaster that is going to strike us. It happens every time."
Tomosane: "What does?" 
Kimura: "They say, 'Here it is at last.'"
Tomosane: "Here it is at last?"
Kimura: "A young man once said that war is the only solution, and he became famous overnight. If a war starts, then it will at least change the situation we're stuck in. So sometimes we need to wage war. In a sense, that's a logical way of thinking.
"But that's not all it is. Every time someone predicts a great disaster, you hear these words.
"Now I can finally die.
"Now it's finally over."
Tomosane: "Hmm... If you want to die, then you should just go and die already."
Kimura: "No, I totally agree. They should. If they want to die, then they should. Why do they have to wait for some disaster to kill them? That's right... But you know, every time one of these disasters is predicted, you see people online saying that they can finally die. Even if it's not quite the end of the world, all they need is a large-scale disaster. With that, they can say that it's finally over. Why do they look for a reason to end it?"
Kimura: "The suffering we experience is our own, present suffering. Not the suffering of someone from a distant past. The pain we feel right now will never belong to anyone else. That's why it's precious."

We have a pointer here as to what SCA-DI is responding to in quoting Wittgenstein. The dynamic Kimura and Tomosane are talking about in this selection is most fully explored in "It's my own Invention", which is where we get to see the cult "Takuji Mamiya" sets up.


"It's my own Invention" is probably the most infamous chapter of Subarashiki Hibi for reasons very clear to those of you who've read the story, which is, I hope, all of you at this point. Because we're looking at it through the eyes of a delusional pervert, the narrative reaches heights of insanity and depravity that can't be fully anticipated (see: the first image above). The key moment here, though, is Takuji's first major rant, a singular condensation of world-rejecting cult ideology informed by terror management theory.

disturbingly relatable on too many levels for comfort

It's worth diving into what this scene has to say about terror management for a bit, because I don't think anyone else has noted this before. At the centre of Takuji's rant is a statement that "our culture has covered up death", that the media and education system are responsible for reducing the concept of death to a meaningless faraway abstraction. TMT proposes that most action undertaken by human beings is driven by unconscious death anxiety; cultural values and self-esteem are, in effect, a kind of symbolic immortality. By feeling like we are part of something greater than ourselves, or by assuring ourselves that we are something more than an agglutination of cells, we are able to keep our terror of nonexistence at bay. This paper uses it to explain the fact that many people, when made aware of threats to their health, react defensively: the ensuing consciousness of death unsettles your beliefs about yourself, and as such your natural instinct is not to take self-preserving action but to buttress your self-esteem, to maintain that sense of "immortality".

What Takuji is doing here is, in effect, an attempt to break down those defences. By casting organic anxiety buffers as a sort of false consciousness produced by mass media, he can dig into a sort of fundamental terror that begs for answers. On one level, this is, of course, to ensure that the others will look to him for answers, so he can start recruiting followers. (The way this whole chapter shows how he can remain very cynical about what he's preaching while still buying much of his own bullshit is incredible, and Kimika illustrates well how even true believers can be cynical about their beliefs.) But more fundamentally this also really is the core of a lot of cult ideology. Robert Jay Lifton explains in Destroying the World to Save It, his book on Aum Shinrikyo (undoubtedly a major inspiration for SCA-DI in writing):

Death is the heart of the matter. At issue are the connections between individual death and the death of everything, between death and killing, between death and eternal survival.

The guru took on what could be called the ownership of death. He became the ultimate arbiter of every level of death from that of an individual to that of the entire world. Disciples both legitimated and shared in his ownership. All death everywhere was absorbed and orchestrated within his being. This is a pattern that can be found in visionary prophets and paranoid schizophrenics, who may come to equate a sense of inner death, of extreme numbing or disintegration, with the death of the world. Although prophets and gurus differ from schizophrenics in being supported and confirmed by their disciples, they may similarly require the promise of the death of everything in order to maintain the life of the self. They may come to feel that only the world’s death can enable them to overcome their own inner deadness.

But end-of-the-world images have never been limited to gurus and schizophrenics. In becoming human and taking on the knowledge that we die, we also become susceptible to equating our individual deaths with the death of everything. We ordinarily transcend this equation through a sense of belonging to a larger human continuity that extends beyond our finite individual lives (whether through our descendants, our works, our religious convictions, or eternal nature). But during times of confusion and upheaval, that sense of human continuity is threatened by the breakdown of the belief systems that traditionally maintain it. A sense of radical discontinuity can come to predominate, accompanied by unsettling ideas and images that exacerbate anxieties about individual death. Troubled by the meaninglessness of their own lives and deaths, ordinary people can become susceptible to worldending visions. Aum’s members grew up in a country that had experienced more than a hundred years of such confusion and upheaval, including the imperial megalomania of the World War II era and a subsequent half century of precarious national achievement and equally precarious individual coherence. It was hardly surprising that the young people attracted to Aum had already experienced a profound sense of dislocation—including confusions between personal and global death—before they ever encountered the guru.

The threatening existence of nuclear weapons (two of which destroyed Japanese cities) has radically disrupted all efforts to balance individual death with a sense of human continuity. Such ultimate weaponry has imposed on everyone disturbing images of our capacity to destroy our world and extinguish our species with our own technology, by our own hand, and to no purpose. Small wonder we have encountered during the last half of the twentieth century not only intensified end-of-the-world visions but a troubling sense of these visions as closer to actuality. Fear becomes tinged with guilt: what could be more sinful, after all, than destroying the world with our own weaponry? And if that is a genuine possibility—as it must be—how can we continue to believe in human continuity? Our ultimate weapons, along with our capacity to destroy our environment in other ways, undermine what is symbolically regenerative in our mythology of death and rebirth. Our imaginations become impaired. There is a tendency to equate nuclear holocaust with Armageddon—here Aum is far from alone—and we are likely to extend the actuality of nuclear holocaust to any world-ending story from whatever religious or mythological narrative. When we do, talented megalomanic gurus like Asahara can manipulate this already concretized world-ending story and claim ownership of that narrative as part of their general ownership of death.

Returning to Subarashiki Hibi, this reads basically like a summary of the worldview which Takuji espouses, which his mother's cult that had created the Web Bot (which /x/philes will know is based on a real thing, btw!) promulgated, and which Tomosane comes to be adamantly against. And we see a small-scale snapshot of how it plays out in the rest of the chapter: once he gets people to believe his predictions were right, they flock around him. He demands teachers prove their loyalty with incest. He drugs people en masse and tells them to have massive orgies, and they oblige. (Cynicism is analysed here again: though he's aware the effect of the drugs is due to the fact they're a mix of amphetamines and LSD, and though Kimika keeps mentioning this fact, he also refuses to speak of them, even to her, as anything but the "sacred elixir" that he transubstantiated them into, and corrects her when she does mention it.) Kimika openly admits to him she's along for the ride because she hates her life and is glad to jump at the chance of something bigger, even if it's deadly and horrific.

And finally, all of them leap into the sky in a joyous frenzy, even as they burn each other with fire. Though, of course, the media reports that they all jumped off the roof of the school building. And we all know from Takuji what to think of the media.


Now that we know precisely what SCA-DI is responding to here, we still have to ask: how exactly is he responding by using that quotation? It's surely worth looking at the pages of Wittgenstein's notebooks whence this quotation comes in order to understand the significance of those two words:

The solution of the problem of life is to be seen in the disappearance of this problem. [See 6.521.]

But is it possible for one so to live that life stops being problematic? That one is living in eternity and not in time?


Isn't this the reason why men to whom the meaning of life had become clear after long doubting could not say what this meaning consisted in? [See 6.521.]

If I can imagine a "kind of object" without knowing whether there are such objects, then I must have constructed their proto-picture for myself.

Isn't the method of mechanics based on this?


To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life.

To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.

To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

The world is given me, i.e. my will enters into the world completely from outside as into something that is already there.

(As for what my will is, I don't know yet.)

That is why we have the feeling of being dependent on an alien will.

However this may be, at any rate we are in a certain sense dependent, and what we are dependent on we can call God.

In this sense God would simply be fate, or, what is the same thing: The world—which is independent of our will.

I can make myself independent of fate.

There are two godheads: the world and my independent I.

I am either happy or unhappy, that is all. It can be said: good or evil do not exist.

A man who is happy must have no fear. Not even in face of death.

Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy.

For life in the present there is no death.

Death is not an event in life. It is not a fact of the world. [Cf. 6.4311.]

If by eternity is understood not infinite temporal duration but non-temporality, then it can be said that a man lives eternally if he lives in the present. [See 6.4311.]

In order to live happily I must be in agreement with the world. And that is what "being happy" means.

I am then, so to speak, in agreement with that alien will on which I appear dependent. That is to say: 'I am doing the will of God'.

Fear in face of death is the best sign of a false, i.e. a bad, life.

When my conscience upsets my equilibrium, then I am not in agreement with Something. But what is this? Is it the world?

Certainly it is correct to say: Conscience is the voice of God.

For example: it makes me unhappy to think that I have offended such and such a man. Is that my conscience?

Can one say: "Act according to your conscience whatever it may be"?

Live happily!

Now, this is a somewhat obscure passage, from pages 74e-75e of Wittgenstein's 1914-1916 Notebooks, recorded during his time serving in WWI, and he likely never intended this for mass reading. Nevertheless, it's very poignant, and it would be a mistake to dismiss it as mere nonsense and navel-gazing created by his experience of the terrors of trench warfare. Even in his private conversations, it's known that Wittgenstein intended to be as clear as possible by his own standards.

The first thing we notice is his early focus on the dissolution of philosophical problems. Here we have a foreshadowing of his mature focus on practice and rule-following: we don't address the problem of the meaning of life by questioning it in the abstract, but by actually living in such a way as to make the problem disappear. This is part of what Wittgenstein gestures at in the Tractatus when he consigns certain questions to "the mystical": that some things must be lived, experienced, and not spoken of, for to speak of some things is to lie about their nature by necessity.

In the discussion of conscience and will, there is a parallel here with the Thelemic concept of "True Will". The injunction of Liber AL vel Legis, to "do what thou wilt", is understood not as to do whatever one pleases, but to follow the specific path of action unique to oneself that puts one in harmony with nature. That is, one's momentary whims may conflict with one's actual Will, and frequently do; thus, the first aim of Thelemic practice is to attain knowledge of one's True Will so that it may be followed. It is believed that doing one's Will is often difficult, but is inherently satisfying in ways that following one's whims often isn't. This is, however, not to say that the True Will might not involve violence or other unsavoury forms of behaviour; a traditionalist interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, that takes Krishna's admonitions to Arjuna to take up his duty as a kshatriya and fight with detached violence rather literally would be a good way to comprehend what the doctrine of the True Will might entail.

So this is where conscience factors in for Wittgenstein. "Fear in the face of death" is an indicator of regret, that one has not done right by oneself, that one has unfinished business or has betrayed one's own conscience too many times. Here is a concept of what might be called "authenticity"; earlier, Wittgenstein had cited Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, and their influence is readily apparent. Yet his concern with this is not merely individual, but is outward-facing; in contradistinction to the individualism of some forms of existentialism (or Thelema), Wittgenstein does not refer so much to alignment with one's own inmost values and feelings, but with the world at large. The world, which he defines as "the totality of facts"; that is, the sum of all of the states of affairs that exist.

And his answer as to what to do in response to that sum is, simply, "Live happily." That is, at its core, one thing: not to regret being alive. And to do things which do not produce that regret, and to live in such a way that one does not have to hang on to those regrets.


I think it's important to note that all of Tomosane's alter egos possess Cluster A traits. "Yuki" has some schizoid and schizotypal traits, being content with a relatively solitary, simple life and only a couple close friends whom she's known since childhood and finding entertainment in looking for patterns connecting things. "Takuji" exhibits strong schizotypal and paranoid symptoms, being stricken with severe social anxiety and preferring to spend his time in a private fantasy-world, fundamentally mistrusting even the people he comes to believe he was called upon to "save". "Tomosane" further exhibits schizoid traits of a different nature to Yuki, being apathetic to others save for his younger sister, "Yuki", and Master and violently defending his privacy whenever others attempt to intrude.

The fundamental desire of all these characters is quietude. They don't want much excitement or drama or disruption; if they want these at all, they want it all to occur at a distance from them so they can watch without getting involved. Even at the helm of his cult, "Takuji" finds himself resentful of his position, viewing the people he's manipulated not so much as an opportunity but as objects of disgust. Tomosane, once reintegrated, is upset with the media attention placed on him and doesn't do much to hide his irritation with the reporter Kimura, despite the latter's sympathy for him.

It's difficult for them to live in the world as it is, because the world is noisy and bustling and full of people who want to see lights in the sky and explosions on the ground. They want a quiet world. And this is a struggle that each of them approach differently: "Tomosane" beats people up until they give him the quiet he wants and "Takuji" is willing to attempt to unleash a fury upon the world that leaves silence in its wake. "Yuki", however, and the integrated Tomosane later, realise the answer to their problem is right in front of them: the world grants plenty of space for quietude, they simply have to find it.

This is, in effect, the kind of problem that most Cluster A people experience, and I was very glad to find an empathetic analysis here.


So much of the response I've seen to COVID-19 has stemmed from a disappointment that the virus did not, as in a story like The Stand, wipe out 99.7% of humanity. There have been nearly six million deaths worldwide, but the fact that that number is neither six thousand nor six point nine billion, I surmise, is the source of the frustration. If we take into account what Kimura says, then we can see why: if the number was six thousand after all this time, we probably wouldn't have the huge response, the initial reaction of the press that it's "a nothingburger" would probably never have changed, and we can all just wait around for the real doozy, the comet or nuclear war or what have you that finally destroys everything. If the number was 6.9 billion, then that would fundamentally transform everything about life—if you're one of the 100,000,000 survivors, then there's absolutely no chance in hell of your life going back to normal, and you're probably going to face a short life of great excitement. Or so you might imagine.

But the number is nearly six million. Not enough to end all, or even most, traces of normalcy, and yet still enough to make us uncomfortable. To remind us that one day, we'll all open a door, and death will be waiting for us behind it. To remind us that death is right there by the beds of so many sick, and that there's questions of responsibility and risk we have to think about with that staring us in the face.

This, like Trump's presidency before it, is the sort of thing that fuels epistemic crises, that leads to things like QAnon gaining public prominence and grand unified conspiracy theories involving UN takeovers and secret global depopulation plots thriving outside established crackpot dens. These destabilising events have caused fear and panic among the populace, but that atmosphere of doom paradoxically generates a sense of excited contentment, whereby the quotidian terror of everyday things can be resolved by a feeling that although death is coming soon, it will at least have some sort of meaning. Some sort of unifying factor that makes it, somehow, meaningful.

This is what cults like QAnon offer to their believers: either the globalists will win, and they will kill you, or we will win, and if you don't live to see the Golden Land that Trump has bestowed upon you, you'll at least die a noble death fighting for the greatest cause in history. It's what extremist movements of all stripes offer: there will be a great conflagration, and you will die a hero in it. Just as Umberto Eco diagnosed: "the Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die."

It would be useless, of course, to discuss QAnon without its dual roots in New Age conspiracism and American evangelicalism. Both have rich histories of apocalyptic thinking: the New Agers with 2012 (as mentioned in Subarashiki Hibi) and Nibiru and alien invasions and evangelicals with, among other things, the Rapture and the Antichrist. American society is saturated with casual apocalypticism stemming from these two strains. Ever since the First Great Awakening, there have been people in America who have dedicated their lives to prophecies and predictions that the world was going to end soon, and to this day, the evangelical movement broadly accepts that at any moment now, the Great Tribulation will begin and that we can already see the signs on Earth. Books like The Late Great Planet Earth, Left Behind, and The Harbinger have made bestseller lists for decades. And frequently, these are in the service of a racialised militaristic nationalism, such as the involvement of Left Behind author Tim LaHaye in the founding of the Iran-Contra-involved Council for National Policy, which still acts as a major networking centre for the hard right.

That is to say, these fantasies have real impacts, not just on the micro but on the macrosocial level. The world has been shaped profoundly by large movements of people terrified of the everyday, and this is not to say that their concerns are totally invalid. Everyday life does have the tendency to suck, especially in a global social system marked by instability, precarity, and fear of violence (often caused by yet other movements of people terrified of the everyday). All the time, I talk to people who have invested their hopes and energies into fantasies of apocalyptic destruction. It might be helpful to remember the original meaning of the word ἀποκάλυψις here, as an "unveiling": the explosions which so many desire and long for are conceived of as the veil of the world finally being lifted, the "lie" of everyday life being revealed, the meaning behind it all now tangible and definite.

And this is why Subarashiki Hibi had to spend so much time on its nightmarish episodes of hopelessness and violence.


I've found in my life of horrific events that the truly difficult thing is so often not surviving said horrific events, but returning to normalcy thereafter. If you just returned home from a year of kidnapping, then how the hell do you expect to simply go to school and resume a typical routine? How do you convincingly fake normal childhood behaviour when you've been raped? And so on.

It almost makes you long for another hell to befall you. Because when you fail at normalcy, you start to wonder, "What am I doing wrong?" and you might conclude there is a defect in you. And maybe that defect is because you haven't really suffered enough, and if only you had just another year of kidnapping, were assaulted again, had something genuinely traumatic happen to you once more, you would have suffered enough, and could now justify your failures to cope with everyday life. This is why I often choose to wear my trauma on my sleeve: I want to warn people that I'm not equipped to handle this, and I might fuck up a lot. Of course, they fuck up a lot too, sometimes even more than I do. But trauma creates that disconnect, where you can forgive other people's fuckups because they're human, but you can't forgive your own fuckups, because you're not, you're something less than human, or maybe something better than human. Sometimes you can't decide.

Obviously cults prey on the traumatised, but this is really why. Cults reinforce that sense of disconnect, say it makes you special, better than all those other idiots. They boost the latent narcissism in every individual, traumatised or not, in order to control them. Traumatised people have an acute difficulty with normalcy, and the specialty of every cult everywhere is to claim that normality is a disease, a form of rot to be avoided and extirpated. In a way, the trauma of cult abuse is itself a form of comfort to some, because at least it represents something that can be integrated as meaningful.

What everyone vulnerable to cults and extremism shares is a crisis of meaning, something also shared by traumatised people. Somewhere, the signification chain has burst; words no longer mean what they mean, especially the words in the newspaper. Sometimes, this rupture was caused by sexual abuse, an encounter with death, a primordial terror that strikes at something in our reptilian brains: your life no longer has the context it once did, and this new context is one that lives sharply perpendicular to the world around you. Sometimes, it can be found in instability and more widespread difficulty with life: broken promises from authority figures, pressure from multiple conflicting worldviews, a sense that one's values are not inherently trustworthy and must be either defended harshly or replaced. And often it's difficult to pinpoint any particular causes at all. You just wake up one day and realise that everything seems meaningless. The classic 1/n-life crisis.

In response to the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks perpetrated by Aum, the Japanese sociologist Shinji Miyadai wrote the as-of-yet-untranslated book Living the Endless Everyday: A Complete Guide to Defeating Aum (終わりなき日常を生きろ). In his seminal article on Fukushima, Kentaro Takekuma identifies the "endless everyday" as the cynical boredom generated by abundance and consumption that Aum sought to destroy, while Hiroki Azuma discusses the book on page 122 of his Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, noting that it makes a distinction between those who can, and those who cannot, adjust to the endless everyday, and quotes it: "I believe that there is another, completely different path: it is to abandon a total, comprehensive demand. It is a decisive path that we have already begun to take." Aum could be defeated, Miyadai thought (so far as I can tell), by abandoning "meaning-giving strategies" and accepting life as it is, with all the everyday problems it produces. I have the inkling Lifton would agree: the protean self resists totalising demands and thrives when it is not given definite, all-encompassing answers. It makes meaning by refusing to make meaning.

This is the answer that Subarashiki Hibi provides, and asks you to think about: what does it mean in the first place that life has meaning? Is it even meaningful to ask about the meaning of life in the first place? Wittgenstein, again, this time from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered. Skepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said. We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?) There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical …Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

There are two main possible interpretations of this, including the "mystical" interpretation (that the meaning of life can be understood but not spoken of). But the other one of them is the one SCA-DI appears to be most interested in: the "dissolution" interpretation, or what has been called quietism. That is: "What is the meaning of life?" is not a proper question. We are not asking anything meaningful, or sensible, when we speak it. The "problem of life" is not one that really exists, other than as a trick of language.

What are we left with by that? For all the brutality in the world and for all the everyday anxieties too, none of them negate the facts of the world. We are here, and that is enough. We can keep living, and that is enough. Because there is only one thing we can do that stops these questions in our tracks, that really dissolves the terror of death, the terror of regret, and that is to live in a way that leaves us unafraid of those things. The only real option available to us, which is inscribed on the hearts of every living thing, is to live happily.

Sunday 31 October 2021

What even is "the culture war" honestly I don't even

[epistemic status: i'm fairly confident i know what i'm talking abt w/r/t anime. prob less w/r/t covid. idefk w/r/t everything else]

[note: contains spoilers for Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, specifically Minagoroshi-hen + everything coming before it. discusses mental illness, transphobia, incest, and rape]


In about the middle of the Higurashi arc Minagoroshi-hen, Keiichi Maebara does something interesting. For the medium in general, for the story, and for the general cultural context it was created in. After Satoko is sent to live with that old bastard Teppei again, and Keiichi has a "flashback" to the way Tatarigoroshi-hen ended, with all the blood and horror and confusion that entailed, he doesn't give up in trying to rescue her peaceably. This isn't the interesting thing; this sort of thing happens all the time in visual novels and anime and whatnot. No, it's the method he uses: after a few false starts with small-scale school protests at the CPS office, he basically starts the local branch of ACORN. And tells Rika about how even a miracle needs a hand.

pictured: Keiichi telling Rika why she needs to get her ass in gear

More specifically, he goes to the village council and, with all his friends in tow, tells them off, in this glorious scene where he invokes the village's far-left anti-government history and yells at them for growing complacent and complicit with the oppression of their own. He explicitly links the righteous cause of the Dam War with the smaller-scale abuse of one of his friends, one of their fellow villagers. Mind you, the Dam War is pretty explicitly based on the Sanrizuka Struggle, and when the quoted rhetoric starts talking about popular democracy v. the sham of capitalist electoral democracy, it shows hard. (One could make a case that the insistence shown throughout on staying within relatively legal means is a reflection of a liberal sentiment on the part of Ryukishi07, and I'd be sympathetic, but at the same time, socialism and communism in Japanese society have often been strongly traditionally interlinked with the ideals of pacifism and respect for rule of law, not least because the most reactionary forces in Japan are so vehemently against that.)

Get this: Keiichi Maebara and co. explicitly resurrect the Onigafuchi Guardians, the left-wing struggle group formed to fight against the construction of the dam, with the intention of rescuing Satoko from what is certainly physical and emotional abuse and what is heavily implied to be sexual prostitution. And despite that focus on avoiding murder and other crimes, they don't hesitate to resort to pretty dirty means, including physical intimidation, storming the offices, and bringing in fuckin' mafia lawyers and well-connected politicians to help. The local weird-cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Ooishi even tells Keiichi he ought to grow up to be a union leader with his ability to rouse the passions of people to create a righteous ruckus. Overall, the aim of actually rescuing Satoko is a success. So what does this have to do with the title of the post?

Our main cast pitch their rescue mission successfully by linking it to a huge hot-button issue in the village, a sore spot whose wounds haven't resolved. They point out that in the course of the Dam War, Satoko's family incurred a brutal level of ostracism for supporting selling out and moving away, and her parents' accidental deaths were frequently rationalised and claimed as deserved consequences for their treachery. This curse extended to all the Houjou family, including Satoko herself as well as her uncle and aunt, the latter of whom also died in circumstances viewed by the villagers as karmic retribution. To Keiichi and friends, maintaining this ostracism is totally contrary to the spirit of social (and to an extent class) solidarity among the people of Hinamizawa that was forged in the Dam War—to them, it's no more than a now-useless relic of the bloodiest period of the fighting. To the contrary, the real principles of the Onigafuchi Guardians would be upheld by changing the analysis: forgiving Satoko of what she had no say in in the first place, understanding her as one of their own, and fighting ruthlessly as one people against anyone who dare harm her or leave her to die.

This is beautiful to me—I'm not ashamed to admit I cry sometimes thinking about it—and it's become sort of an ideal model in my head of what political action could be. There's some embellishment, of course, and it's definitely more relevant to places where a preëxisting solidarity still unites, and especially to smaller-scale communities. And there's the thing about having connexions in the right places, and all of the major characters in the story being written with some degree of Asperger syndrome. But overall, being based on actual struggles, unsuccessful as the big one was, it's a pretty decent way of fitting labour history in an otaku context, and given how many fucking nerds inhabit the left right now (hi), it's kinda important reading in my opinion.

Recapping the sell again: Keiichi, a relative newcomer, busts into the leadership with his more long-rooted friends saying "fuck you, one of our own is hurting, you're wrong about what your own damn struggles mean." He dissects the history and says "you've been going about this all wrong, your fight was actually fantastic, but there's some super fucked-up parts of its legacy." He goes further and says "I know you've all been wanting to reckon with this shit and here I am to give you that chance. Stick to your own damn principles, this is what they actually mean." And he proves it.

In other words, Hinamizawa is reckoning with its own cultural history through a reëxamination and reaffirmation of its own guiding principles. And this reckoning is bound up with examination and action on a pressing concrete concern: a child of the village is being abused and the established authorities are doing nothing. This should be at least somewhat familiar.


A few months ago a prominent or notorious Internet personality was arrested for alleged incest. I trust about 90% of the readers of this blog know exactly who I'm talking about; if by some strange chance you are reading this and you are not aware of whom I am speaking, please, please don't try to find out. This isn't a "tee hee reverse psychology" thing, I'm genuinely asking you to stop and do something else. Skip to another part of this post maybe, or do something else. Don't fuck this up for yourself worse than it already must've been for you to have found this post.

Anyway, the person in question has been known to online audiences for I want to say about 15 years or so. They have had almost every part of their life documented since that time. The circumstances are strange and sordid, but it's fair to say that they're mentally incompetent, have done some awful shit here and there, and have in return basically had almost their entire life defined by this bizarre sadistic interactive reality TV show. Part of the story is that they ended up coming out as transgender several years ago. I don't really know if they're "real" or "faking" or whatever, but the thing is, I do not care, and neither should you, and neither did the millions of people watching Fox News when they appeared on there.

Yeah, the story made it to Fox News. As part of a thing about like, what prisons should trans people go to. As an extension of the whole "what bathrooms should trans people use" debate, of course. But it's incredible to me because I have been online long enough that compressing all that down to "this is a story about what gendered things should trans people use" is utterly bizarre to me. It's genuinely surreal. And I imagine that when something terrible happens involving any other trans person or person read as trans, it's similarly surreal for everyone around them to turn on the television and see their name invoked as a spectre in some cash cow media debate.


I sometimes wonder, when I write, if I am drawing too much inspiration, arguments, observations, etc. from Twitter. If I should look at something else.

And then I read the New York Times and half of it is just arguments about Twitter, and I turn on C-SPAN and all of the senators elected by the states are yelling at each other about something they saw on Twitter, and all of the representatives elected by the people of the US are yelling at each other about something they saw on Facebook.

Two out of three isn't bad, I guess.


I wrote this post almost a year ago. It comes across as deeply inadequate now, for a few reasons. Mostly because the terrain has shifted in a million weird directions since then, and I did not appreciate the fact that the antimask → antivax shift would also yield a rhetorical shift from proud annoyance to histrionics. The most common antimask argument I hear is no longer that mask mandates are removing a convenient freedom, but that they are a muzzle, a symbol of dehumanisation in an occult ritual, deliberately designed to remove any sensation that we are living, breathing beings with outdoor, intimate lives. "They" hate humanity.

There's something innately compelling about this line of reasoning, in a direction separate to both the previous antimask-er denunciations of "PC-ness" and the promask-er claims of pure scientific rationality. One who subscribes to popular antivax theories lives in an enchanted world, one where an entire pandemic can be spun out of thin air, a spell placed on humanity by the evil sorcerers Fauci and Bill Gates, in order to make people accept a vaccine which is really a gene-altering nanorobotics experiment, one designed to kill off countless millions of people and permanently tag the rest with a cybernetic tracking device, plugging the now-dehumanised slave caste directly into the mind of the AI god that Google and Microsoft have been slowly developing behind the scenes. Nick Land's wet dream and Aleksandr Dugin's worst nightmare; the incarnation of the very Ahriman that so many Anthroposophists have lost astral sleep over for decades.

And the stakes offered aren't nearly as childish as the old 2020-brand stakes. Rather than the untrammelled right to go to stores and blow sputum into employees' and fellow customers' while demanding factory-farmed food and leaded gasoline (and fuck you for having a problem with that, 'cause we got the bomb), what is at risk here is the messy vulnerability of being human itself, the reality that people are imperfect and have emotions and like doing things outside, and sometimes get sick and even die. The technocrats, we are told, wish to arrest the tears flowing from the eyes of a normal, healthy, breathing person upon viewing the dappled but gently fading majesty of a sunset and arrest them in their tracks; such a display of imperfection, of impermanence and softness, with all the implications of a corruptible body with one life to live, is intolerable. And that is why the mouth must be muzzled and the body injected with methanol and formaldehyde masquerading as medicine.

Again, there's something uniquely compelling about this. I had a bad fucking childhood; there is something to be said about the terror of a future of hysterical scolds deciding all of your choices for you and shifting the responsibility to you forever, and the attraction of a free, vulnerable sociality as something which is constantly under threat. The predominant mode of government just being a series of neurotic parents, policing you and shaming you constantly, but never offering any genuine warmth. Only a feigned, cloying echo of care. There is something actually real here—get a job at Amazon or, hell, thousands of workplaces these days and observe how your boss wants you to know you're part of a family, that your soul is to be bared to your coworkers as part of your job. For decades the failure to work properly has been treated as a moral failing; recently it is treated as a psychopathology, one to be alternately therapised and maternally scolded out of the person. And it's no secret, and even a cliché (one I covered in my last piece!), that plenty of "woke" people are just like that for similar reasons that, at some other turn in their lives, they would have become evangelical Christians, scolding others for blasphemy and sexual looseness rather than for perceived infractions in some increasingly-arcane code of gender relations, race relations, and sexualities. The scolding is the point there, not the actual belief system, and it does seem at times that recent American history has been a series of trading one kind of scold for another.

But all of this fantasy and romanticism is merely the dressing over the far more banal evil that is immediate to anyone who leads a life afflicted with even minor discomfort: our bureaucrats are largely simply incompetent and not qualified at pandemic management; the men we are being asked to admire and praise are neither our God-given saviours nor evil geniuses bent on our robotic enslavement, but people responding to perverse incentives and responsible largely for catastrophic mismanagement of what could and should have been a clearer and better-organised response to a pandemic which many watchdogs have been warning about for years; that Bill Gates' much more immediate crimes are patent trolling and lobbying for more stringent international IP law which prevents rather than forces mass vaccination in the Third World. The pharmaceutical companies themselves? Largely motivated by profits. If that happens to coincide with public health, then great, and if it doesn't, oh well.

Of course there are drawbacks to any and all public health measures. There are good reasons to be critical of certain lockdown policies and their implementations; certain evidence suggests that the initial round of lockdowns were highly effective in preserving lives, but that they have been declining in efficacy ever since. The results overall have been rather varied and inconclusive depending on how you define effectiveness, stringency, etc., with theoretical and philosophical arguments underlying a lot of these arguments (e.g., Agamben's rejection of biopolitical domination). One can also acknowledge the range of negative effects they've had: excuses to kick responsibility from the powerful to the powerless, glorification of declines in quality of life, lots of deaths in nursing homes, enrichment of the rich and impoverishment of the poor, and, whether you like it or not, legitimate threats to civil liberties (although, to be fair, both the Trump and Biden administrations have postponed the mandatory rollout of the egregious Real ID Act). Which is, of course, not to say that no action should have been taken, nor that many of these problems could have been anticipated. Much of the pre-vaccine response failed, but there's plenty of public health measures that I do think worked.

Like masks. I don't really think there's much need for mask mandates in highly-vaccinated provinces of the world right now, but almost everything credible I've read from the earliest days of the pandemic not only suggests that they have historically been unreasonably effective, but bears out this effectiveness over and over. That and social distancing have been probably the most uniformly effective aspects of the response from all I've read. I could be wrong, there could be factors I'm not taking into account, but overall that's the picture I'm getting. Asking people to stand a few feet away from each other and wear a facial garment have also been some of the least obtrusive aspects of the pandemic response, especially when compared with stay-at-home orders and whatnot. East Asian and Asian-American communities have been using them for a century with no problem; one of the clearest signs something's wrong in The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is a sick, much less energetic Taniguchi walking to school wearing a mask, which several other students are also wearing, due to an influenza spread at the school. And one of the most striking symbols of the early blunders in the pandemic was, in around January-March, public health officials scolding Asian-Americans for wearing masks. (Forgive me here, I couldn't find an exact headline.)

Which is why it's fucking weird that masks have been, for the last 20 months, the primary culture war symbol of the pandemic, the thing that people latch onto as a signifier rather than as a concrete tool. Granted, vaccines and booster shots and whatnot are slowly filling the role, but "I will not wear a mask" has been the rallying cry for all kinds of discontents ever since the pandemic began, and mask-scolding regardless of situational necessity became the agitated response. If you recall the paragraph about general antimask beliefs earlier, you'll notice the bit about masks as an occult ritual. I'm not throwing that in as a rhetorical flourish; I have heard that exact belief stated seriously in real life, that mask-wearing is an Eyes Wide Shut-type ritual conducted for the benefit of the ruling elite's Satanic territory.

Even the vaccine bio-ID conspiracy theories are more plausible compared to this one, and for good reason: when you get vaccinated, you are being injected with a set of chemicals which many people don't read the full ingredients list of, and of which some assorted lunatics have insisted the full ingredients list is actually secret. Chemophobia is all too common, and since the mRNA technology present in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in the US is relatively new, misconceptions easily arise that they're experimental or untested, or that some sort of spooky secret Ultimate Spider-Man-type transformation is occurring in those who've received it. But masks? Masks are nothing more than pieces of cloth which tend to depress the rate of transmission.

Which is probably why they've achieved such popularity as a culture war device. As of a year ago, mask compliance in the US is generally high enough that scolding the few holdouts is effectively useless and possibly counterproductive, and as mentioned, wearing a bit of cloth over the face is generally unobtrusive enough that there's no strong reason not to wear one. In that case, scolding and deliberate noncompliance are both signals one is sending: scolding others, even in a generalised sense, signals that one is making a great sacrifice which others are disrespecting, while deliberate noncompliance signals that one refuses to make that sacrifice. Either of these make sense with regard to things like lockdowns and work restrictions perhaps, but again I have mostly seen them signalled with regards to masks, which I remind you are a bit of cloth over the face.

At this stage it should be clear that, for one, even necessary and good measures can be promoted for ulterior purposes and profited off of by bad actors, and secondly, in the public discourse, masks do not even function as symbols of themselves, but only as symbols of everything else.


Being transgender, and especially a trans woman, in the present is frequently nightmarish. I am not referring to the near-universal sense that one is, to some extent, living at odds with one's own body. Nor am I referring to the varieties of concrete discrimination that trans people face every single day. This is not to downplay them, for reasons that will become clear relatively soon.

When you are a trans person, you wake up and assume that the newspapers will carry an article about you, in a sense. It will not actually be about you, even if, by a rare chance, your name and photo are in the article. Most of the time, it will just be very vaguely about the category of person you are. And even then, it won't be really about the category of person you are, it will be based on an image that many people, most of whom probably don't even know a member of the category of person you are, have of the category of person you are. And the article will usually be something like this: Is this category of person even real? Why are they demanding so many things? Do they understand that we must slit the wrists of our grand old identity for them to suckle even a crumb of the dignity that rightly flows through our blood?

Many of these arguments are very simple, and I've mentioned them before. Do trans women bathroom? Should trans women prison? How trans woman domestic violence shelter? I don't necessarily begrudge any individual for having anxieties here, to be clear, and I will also not suggest that trans women, or trans people generally, are uniformly harmless as a group, because absolutely no one is uniformly harmless as a group. Actually, what I will say is that something has gone wrong as soon as we start making suggestions about which groups are uniformly harmless or harmful, in part because that shows we've stopped talking about people and started talking about vague extrapolated pictures of people, and if you don't believe me, consider why America is largely divided between white evangelical Christians and everyone else. This is why when the discussion becomes about trans women going to prison it's always about what I was talking about in part II of this post and never about CeCe McDonald, and conversely why when the topic of cis women going to prison comes up at all in mainstream discourse it's never about cis female child rapist Monica Young.

The topic of trans women in women's shelters is an especially strange one, because it always fails to touch on a few things, namely why a trans woman might want to go to a shelter in the first place. It's simply unspoken that a trans woman probably has no good reason for wanting to go to a shelter. That trans women face enormous rates of domestic violence is unremarked upon. Trans women, as people who mostly have an XY chromosome, are cursed to only ever have predatory motives for doing anything. (If I, personally, not speaking for other trans people at all, were ever in a situation where I had to go to a violence shelter, and the one that accepts me is a men's shelter rather than a women's shelter, I'd personally be ok with that; shelter is shelter. There's a lot to be said here about the gender dynamics of this, and I would be a bit uncomfortable with being treated as male socially in what would be a very vulnerable moment for me, but one point I'd like to make is: for one, there's not even enough DV shelters for men around where having to choose between a men's shelter and a women's shelter is a likely scenario for anyone. Oops.)

As others have pointed out before, it's not even like these things are new or specific to trans people. Accusations of sexually predatory nature have been used to horrific effect for centuries on all kinds of enemies; think of the "love jihad" accusations against Muslims in India justifying pogroms under the Hindutva fascist movement, or even more pertinently to this discussion the continuing stereotype of lesbians (and gays!) as being lustful, pedophilic, and prone to sexual harassment. This last point reinforces the unreality of the situation, because in just 10 years the same media institutions that once uniformly portrayed cis lesbian women as predatory gropers have shifted to portraying them as victims of trans women, who are the real predatory gropers here. (And to be clear: it's not like they've even totally stopped portraying cis lesbians as predatory gropers!)

Sympathetic stories are not unheard of, of course. Liberal newspapers and magazines in the US especially have, over the past six or so years, been pretty fond of including positive stories about trans people in their pages. It's not uncommon to see op-eds promoting aspects of trans experience and trans life; even some news articles, like this from the L. A. Times, are written with a pro-trans angle. But many of them are kind of counterproductive; that linked article failed to mention that the fundamental nature of this walkout is a labour dispute, connected with broader struggles over safe workplace environments in the entertainment industry. Most articles I've seen up until a couple days ago, when the trans worker organisers filed labour charges, followed suit, branding them mere self-sacrificial protests against a guy saying some stuff they didn't like. Which, no matter how positively that action is discussed, still feeds into the idea of trans people as being thin-skinned, manipulative, and privileged.

This, then, is the nightmare. Your life is not really lived; the core of your being is a signal, a walking, breathing signal. Seemingly everyone else is constantly having discussions about what kind of person you really are based on a picture that vaguely resembles you in some respects but resembles totally different people in other respects, and they fully intend to act on the results of those discussions. Toward you. Because they—sometimes, often, including your own friends, your own family, the people at whatever clubs or synagogues or churches or mosques you're a part of—are convinced that that picture is what you're like. Or what your trans friends are like. And even a decent number of the people defending you, boosting you, cheering you on in some way are doing so not because they want to support trans people, not even because they want to be the kind of person who supports trans people, but because they want it to be known that they are the kind of person that people know supports trans people. What should be a signal to you that you are safe around someone becomes a signal that that person could turn on you the second they realise you do not live up to their expectations of you. Curiously absent from the ruins made by some of these actions are images, cartoons, preconceptions of what trans people are like. Present in the ruins, and curiously absent from the reasons such ruins have been made, are actual living trans people.

And, to be clear, this is not a judgement of cisgender people. Plenty of cisgender people don't participate in this spectacle, and plenty of them actively resist it and offer support to trans people, and plenty of trans people do participate and become absorbed in the fantastical image of themselves. It's the spectacle itself, and whoever cynically sustains it, that's the problem. (And it's a culture that seeks to locate the blame for rape, no matter what, anywhere other than people, regardless of sexuality or gender or whatever, who commit rape.)

This is not a new story. It is probably a very old one, and you can probably find variants of it over and over since the beginning of class society. Just replace "transgender" and "cisgender" with a new set of actors, and repeat.


That is to say, the point of all of this is, we are confronted with people who've made it their job to eradicate any traces of humanity from themselves and from the rest of us. That's the point of making all of this into such a huge spectacle, where we argue over symbols and images of people. By arguing in terms of signals and images, we're led into a situation where we think in terms of those, rather than in terms of humanity. Which makes us more pliable, more willing to see our fellow human beings as objects and symbols rather than as living flesh; when we see people that way, it stunts our own capacity for organic resistance.

Furthermore, this view of people as fungible entities is fundamentally more adaptive for AI systems, especially the kinds of AI that surveil us and monitor our every move and track us by superficial traits. What you see as lazy marketing, along the lines of the manufactroversies surrounding Marvel movies and their supposed politics of representational diversity, is really about that; you see ads that push your buttons because the ad servers are tracking you, finding out what makes you happy and what makes you angry, and beaming that directly into your skull, whether you want it or not.

It's no secret that tech companies have been doing this, that they are fundamentally datamining and advertising companies before they are providing a service to ordinary consumers. This video from the artist Richard Serra, from 1973, still applies today:

if you're not paying for it, you're the product

Seriously, watch that. I mean it. It's probably still true for television, but if you mentally substitute "Facebook" (or any number of web companies) for "television" you're dealing with something even more meaningful. You are being trained to submit your life to databases, no microchip necessary, and you are being trained to enjoy it, even to view it as the means you use to access the truth about what's going on. You are reading what you believe to be the damning truth about Zuckerberg and his platform on Zuckerberg's platform. You are reading a blog post that you found on a site probably hosted by Bezos that is mining you for data and custom-serving you inflammatory material that you believe is uncovering the lies about such sites and Bezos and their datamining and inflammatory material.

To be clear, in case you really believe that these people don't have it out for you and ordinary people everywhere, you need to know that Facebook in particular is profiting off of genocide in Burma. This is not a one-off thing; it is pretty much still ongoing, and not totally limited to Facebook. Social media companies routinely censor information from Palestinians or pertinent to Palestinian life and rights. There are countless examples of social media companies enabling discrimination, warfare, and violence, and profiting off of it. 

This is the dehumanising reality we are all trapped in. It threatens the very core of who we are. It is erasing the very definition of sociality, the very bonds between humans as individuals and communities. The leeches who profit off of this destruction of our most basic identity, of our ability to relate to each other face-to-face, rather than through walls of advertising, would love to see nothing more than all of us plugged into their AI-powered databases, and fortunately for them, most of us already are.

Even now, no matter their token efforts to clean up their platforms so respectable people aren't afraid of using them, they nonetheless profit off of antivaccination content, content that influences vulnerable people, undesirables, deplorables, to refuse medicine which saves them from getting a disease that has killed millions so far. A disease that was possibly created in labs funded by these same rich assholes as part of a biological weapons development system. They want people who are rightly sceptical of them and their plans to get sick and die; do you think they're focusing their provaccination efforts among already well-educated elites because those are the people they want to die? No, those are the people who have already been totally indoctrinated and who'll do whatever they say.

As an aside, think about this: Jeffrey Epstein, the prolific child sex trafficker, said that he supported Time's Up, the MeToo organisation. Think about how Asia Argento raped Jimmy Bennett when he was 17 and then paid him hush money to prevent him from coming forward, and how MeToo leaders reacted so differently to his allegations than to her allegations against Harvey Weinstein, in no small part because of the genders of the people involved. Think about how so much shit surrounding Epstein and similar cases has been memory-holed and labelled antisemitic due to its superficial resemblance to medieval blood libel and due to the fact that unsavoury conspiracy theorists have picked up on elements of the story, mixed with ludicrous fantasy and insinuation, for their own purposes. Who does all this serve? You?


As of the sixth, the World Health Organisation has officially recommended the use of the Mosquirix vaccine, a.k.a. RTS,S, against malaria. It has been tested for decades and has already been used in pilot programmes in Ghana, Malawi, and Kenya. This is great news on its own, but it also paves the way for the even more effective R21/Matrix-M vaccine, which, curiously enough, uses the same adjuvant as the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which is currently undergoing trials and looking exceptionally promising in terms of effectiveness.

This is very big news, for a lot of reasons. First of all, it's stunning that the rush to create a COVID vaccine has stimulated malaria vaccine development in such a way. This is kind of a big moment in medical science we're having; we're watching history be made. And not just in the exceptional circumstances. Malaria is one of humanity's oldest enemies. Billions of people, likely more than are alive today, have died from it. It depresses economic prosperity, burdens healthcare systems in vulnerable countries, and causes cognitive impairment. It has decided the outcomes of wars and the fates of nations.

But this month we became a little closer to eradicating it. Just like what we did with smallpox 41 years ago following one of the largest vaccination campaigns of its time, we'll do the same with malaria over the next dozen or so years. One day, not long from now, we will survey the world and confidently declare that never again will a human being suffer from the destruction wrought by malaria.

Little by little, we can and will climb out of the mud and get just ever so closer to touching the stars. Whether it's diseases like smallpox and malaria or social systems like feudalism and authoritarianism that hold us back or the looming threat of global warming or, one day, the threat of ageing and decay itself, we can cast aside all the things that limit us, that make us suffer, that enrich only a few at the expense of the rest, or in many cases enrich no one at all.

And one of those steps is getting rid of the plague we've been suffering through for the past two years. There's been a lot of false starts, but I think with vaccine technology getting as amazing as it is, and such an incredible, unprecedented global rollout, we're on the cusp of not only getting back to normal, but possibly even paving the way toward a world better-prepared for these sorts of things. If the Build Back Better Act can pass Congress without being significantly whittled down (save for those bits about IRS account monitoring), I think we can even escape it a little better-off too.

I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in May. The FDA is allowing people to get whatever kind of booster shot they want, and I think I'll pick Moderna, barring further personal research, because that seems like it offers the biggest boost in immunity. I think that if you're not already vaccinated, if you get the chance, you really should too. I mean it. Genuinely.

And if you can't figure out what I was trying to do in part VI, then I'm very, very sorry. But thank you anyway, and I hope your continued stay in Hinamizawa turns out well.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Torture Methods (prose poem)

[trigger warning: somewhat graphic descriptions of sexual abuse and torture. seriously, do not read if you are sensitive to these topics. poem is after the break; seriously, do not read on if you are easily triggered by such topics. hopefully this is one of the last things i will ever have to write about this; do not take it as anything other than a self-exorcism of sorts]

Tuesday 10 November 2020

No, it's you who hurt my feelings

[epistemic status: i'm basing my assumptions on how human psychology in general works on a general assumption that in certain situations others feel the same way i feel]

One of the more interesting phenomena of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has been that of the anti-lockdown protests being largely a conservative phenomenon. Both evolutionary and social psychologists have found that conservatism is correlated with higher levels of disgust and pathogen avoidance (although recent research has also cast doubt on those findings). It's commonly accepted that purity, health, and strength are classically right-wing preoccupations (indeed, if you're a certain sort, seeing the words "purity, health, and strength" together might make you bristle). Which makes the American conservative response to the lockdowns—one of open hostility and defiance—puzzling.

In terms of class, the conservative "rank-and-file" tend to be the small-town middle-class petty-bourgeoisie types. So from a materialist perspective, we might say this: the lockdown violates specific privileges that the petit-bourgeoisie treasures. The haute bourgeoisie has nothing but privilege; indeed, even in a period of intensifying class conflict, economic crisis, and declining profitability, the richest still got richer. Meanwhile, the position of the petit-bourgeoisie is inherently precarious; they have a few privileges that the rest of the population don't enjoy, but they can be lost at any point if a crisis occurs or if a personal calamity strikes. And one of these privileges is the ability to be served what one wants at a minimal cost to oneself. (This explains the whole "Karen" thing that popped up earlier this year: the class mentality of "I'm a respectable member of society, I deserve to get my way, I'm relatively confident that authority figures are going to side with me" is what the meme was initially about, before it branched off to be about a whole bunch of other things)

So, from this perspective, the conservative right mobilising against the lockdowns is actually not that surprising. The American conservative movement will compromise on its values of liberty when issues of security penetrate deeper, and it will eagerly abandon its obsession with cleanliness and order if class privilege is on the line. Marx:

We speak of two interests of the bourgeoisie, for large landed property, despite its feudal coquetry and pride of race, has been rendered thoroughly bourgeois by the development of modern society. Thus the Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church, and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, chapter 3

But there's another psychological dimension to it that I don't feel has been adequately explored from any angle. Look at videos of conservative antimaskers confronting people going about their daily lives—they're not hard to find—and notice some commonalities. 

Notice how other than the invocation of "freedom" (a floating signifier if there ever was one), their attitude towards the possibility of them getting sick by going maskless is at the very least blasé. They take it for granted that COVID-19 is largely a hoax, or at least overhyped, and as such do not consider it a personal threat to themselves. They conceive it only as a potential threat to others, and one that those others are exaggerating in importance anyway. And this is why they react to others wearing masks and urging general mask-wearing in the way they do.

(there's also something to be said here about how contemporary right-wing conspiracy theories insist that, instead of the conspiracy covering up how bad everything actually is, the conspiracy actually wants to cover up how fine and dandy everything is. but)

This sort of thing has been going on within the right wing for years now. If I was Eric Berne, I'd identify it as a psychological game, and I'd title it "Are You Triggered Yet, Libs?" after the ubiquitous utterance many conservatives, right-libertarians, and far-right weirdos make after doing something intended to embarrass people of a liberal or left-wing persuasion. It might be fun here to talk a bit about how there's a sort of culture of cruelty on the right, but actually it wouldn't, because as a left-winger I already know that pretty well, and honestly the left and centre are often pretty cruel in their own ways, and besides it's much more interesting to me to explore why there's a culture of cruelty than simply the fact that there is one.

Ahem. So. "Are You Triggered Yet, Libs?", if we're going the transactional analysis route, involves two or more parties. One being the Conservative, and the other being the Lib. The Conservative says something that seems, to them, to be indisputable truth, but which offends or irritates the Lib in some fashion. For instance, the statement, "There are only two genders." In response, the Lib might get mildly offended or irritated—this is called Triggering. If the Lib is Triggered, the Conservative wins.

This has played out in high profile numerous times over the past several years. Frequently, the people doing the "triggering" are campus conservatives and right-wing politainers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, or Charlie Kirk and his strange little outfit Turning Point USA. Recently, the meaning of the term "triggering" has become a bit stretched in response to demand: for instance, when some Turning Point USA members decided a few years ago to set up a playpen and dress up as babies complete with pacifiers and diapers in order to make fun of the perceived infantile nature of college safe spaces, they were greeted not just by liberals and leftists but by other conservatives and right-wingers with amusement and mockery. The libs were laughing at them for dressing up in diapers in order to prove a very strange point—therefore, the libs laughing at them were actually nervously laughing, and they were triggered! N—nail...nailed it.

Anyway I said that's not the thing that interests me so much. What's the motive here? Obviously the point is to discredit "the left", however broadly defined. The point is to depict the left as overly sensitive, thin-skinned, unable to take fair criticism, looking for things to be offended at, censorious, and weak. These are generally viewed as bad things to be, and obviously there are plenty of right-wing people with these—wait a second. Do you notice something strange about that list of descriptors? Like, obviously they're not specifically political, but that's what's so intriguing. How do these play out in a nonpolitical situation?

Imagine you're at a small party, or some sort of gathering of friends and acquaintances. Conversation is going well. You make a basically innocuous joke about short people, something about how they're always standing on their tiptoes to see things and you have a weird urge to pat them on the head when they do that. All well and good, everyone laughs. Except after the crowd disperses and you go for refreshments, one of the people attending who's about 5'2" walks up to you and says, "Hey, I'm sorry to bother, but that joke kinda hurt my feelings a bit there."

If I were in that situation—figuratively speaking, I have been, and I'd hazard to guess most people have—I'd feel wounded. Probably justifiably so: to be told that upsets my feelings of normality. Up until this point, I'd believed that something like this joke truly would be innocuous, that if it caused any offence, it'd be minor. But now I am forced to confront the fact that I am responsible for a living, breathing person being hurt by what I said, that what fits in my own sense of normality can in fact be harmful to others.

If you're like me, you basically have two options there, and you have conflicting impulses to do either. The first is to say, "I'm sorry, that was wrong of me and I won't do it again." The second is to say, "You're being thin-skinned; it's just a joke, and you're the one with the problem if you're offended." Both of these have their own particular reasons and consequences. If you take the first option, you're restoring a sense of good faith, helping them feel less hurt, but it comes at the cost of binding yourself to limit the way you express yourself in the future and agreeing to change your sense of normality. If you take the second option, you're making it clear to that person that you are not apologetic, potentially compromising your relationships with other people, but you are also defending your own sense of normality, restoring a sense that the order you perceived to be the case is the case.

And here is where I must take a detour into discussion of Virtue. If you've known me for a while, you might know that one of my minor pet obsessions for a while has been The Virtues. This is because I routinely observe people online and afk behaving in very stupid and unpleasant ways that would easily be avoided if more people took the time to become aware of and attempt to cultivate the classical virtues. The ancients of various cultures understood virtue to consist in the moderation between two extremes. Taoism takes moderation as one of its Three Jewels; the temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription "μηδὲν ἄγαν"—nothing in excess; Islam emphasises wasaṭiyyah (وسطية), the Golden Mean; Buddhism emphasises the Middle Way—you get the picture. All extremes are vices, and often people do not realise that the exact opposite of a vice they despise is yet another vice: often it's the case that someone is annoyed with others' licentiousness and self-indulgence, and in reaction becomes insensible, and perhaps someone else is annoyed with that person's insensibility, and resolves to become licentious as a counter. Very worryingly often, someone observes others' vanity and boastfulness, and in turn becomes pusillanimous and overly modest.

So this has strong implications for the subject matter of this post: neither one of the responses I outlined is universally correct in all occasions. Quite often, the person offended is in the right, and you are not, so it's right to simply apologise, take the L, change your habits, and move on. But sometimes the offended is being oversensitive, and in that case it's necessary to gently but firmly inform them of this fact. This is difficult for many people, because it requires discretion, and many people are tired and simply want hard and fast rules to apply in every situation. Discretion might be too much mental work. Left-wing spaces are full of injunctions to simply apologise when someone says they're offended by something you said; this is an overcorrection against the dominant cultural sensibility of general boorishness toward those who have less cultural power. But it's an overcorrection nonetheless. You stumble and offend someone every once in a while, but you simply remember the rule that You Have To Sincerely Apologise If Someone Is Offended and oh shit now you've cultivated obsequiousness. Which is a vice. Congratulations...?

But as much as I'd love to go on a rant about the Unvirtuous Left, this post is about the Unvirtuous Right. And as easy as the typical left response of obsequiousness is, it's not psychologically satisfying in the way the typical right-wing response is. The typical right-wing response is, of course, to apply a hard and fast rule that if someone is offended, it's their fault. And, if you've been paying attention, you'll notice that this is at least equally, if not more, pathological than the converse response.

What's the draw of this response? Simply put, it guards your feelings by creating a justification for your behaviour. If applied universally, it absolves you of ever having to consider the possibility that you did something wrong—if their feelings are only hurt because they can't take a joke, because they're too sensitive, there's no need for me to worry about my sense of right and wrong or my idea of normality. That's kind of liberating in a way. Indeed, it's part of the reason that right-wing commentators have been able to, at least to themselves, paint themselves as "the new punk rock". The classic image of the right-wing was, as Scott Alexander pointed out, Mrs. Grundy. For a while there the primary form of liberalism was tits-'n'-beer liberalism: if you remember the brief early period of "anti-SJW culture" which relied on a general comparison between the woke position and censorious social conservatism, that was effectively the last gasp of that form of cultural liberalism. And that comparison wasn't entirely without merit: the liberal Tipper Gore and the conservative Parents' Television Council both categorised things like "promotion of homosexuality" and "excessive violence" alongside racism and misogyny as societal ills to be avoided. But as liberalism started to absorb its own "woke" critiques, for good and ill, it started to marginalise its tits-'n'-beer variety. So tits-'n'-beer was, somehow, absorbed by the right. Literally:

But, as I mentioned, this creates its own problems. That liberating feeling of never having to adjust your sense of normality in response to claims of offence simultaneously leads to strained relationships with others. And it creates a sort of strange perspective on harm: over time, more and more varieties of interpersonal harm become wrapped up in the "offence" banner. For a lot of people who drift to crude conservatism, they feel like they don't have their lives under control. Take rolling coal, for instance: the impulse behind it is a simple "fuck you" to anyone perceived as trying to control via offence. Even if it's not especially harmful in the context of most vehicles relying on fossil fuels, it's still a pretty easy way to symbolically rub your middle finger in someone's face when you don't really have any other way to exercise personal power.

And that's a pretty compelling feeling. Destroying things and acting ridiculously to "trigger the libs" isn't actually about actually making the liberals angry and afraid, it's about proving to yourself that you don't owe anyone anything. And that's the actual spiritual danger of it: it moves on from being a safeguard against feeling wounded by challenges to your sense of ethical normality to a safeguard against having to confront any ethical challenges whatsoever. (Lest I be accused of being partisan for the left here, I want to emphasise that the categorical left response I mentioned earlier, of apologising at all mentions of offence, is a shortcut to this same safeguard against ethics, since it just shifts the burden of having any ethical positions at all to others.)

So at some point, the actual categories of harm stop being relevant. As I mentioned at the beginning, antimaskers don't seem to regard COVID-19 as a potential threat to themselves. But that's the only threat they'll mention when they're pressed on it. The standard argument I've heard from them is something like "I'll decide for myself what risks I'll take, there's no reason for the government to tell me how I have to keep myself safe." Which is a pretty compelling argument, or would be if there was only incidental danger to others associated with wearing a mask. But that's not the reason why there's a degree of wrongness to going without a mask: the problem is, of course, that other people can be harmed if you don't wear a mask. In discussions I've had with antimaskers, their response to this is simply winding back to the original argument with different phrasing and emphasis, and some claims about how the lethality rate is much lower than claimed.

Why doesn't the danger to others factor in here? There's a category error here, I think. Say I've already been trained on the rule of "claims of offence = other person's problem". If you're telling me, "You're putting other people at risk by going out like normal without a mask," there's a good chance I'm not hearing you as saying "You are very potentially about to spread a crippling disease causing intense pain to anyone you might come in contact with," but as saying "You're hurting my feelings by going without a mask, because masklessness offends me." I've already committed myself to saying, "No, actually it's you who's hurting my feelings by telling me how I have to behave around you." The thought that I could be exposing myself to searing pain and lasting lung and heart problems doesn't factor in, and therefore neither does the thought that I could be exposing other people to this sort of thing. If I'm not actively punching people in the face or killing them, then I'm not hurting them at all, and fuck you for trying to make me feel like I am.