Sunday, May 29, 2016

Social justice innovators shouldn't emphasize psychological harm

The New Yorker had a good article recently surveying trends in liberal arts college activism. Many thinkers have weighed in on this movement, which raises the status of concepts like 'safe spaces', 'intersectionality' and 'microaggressions'. It also includes an epistemological focus on identity-based, experiential expertise.

My initial take is that every generation develops its own fashionable rhetoric, and much of the current hotness is simply old wine in new social media bottles. To the extent that activists are pushing the same underlying values of racial, gender, sexuality, and disability equality, this is obviously true. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is pretty clearly a pure result of smartphone video technology.

But there are some intellectual shifts which seem genuinely novel.


It's really about psychological harm

The two most visible concepts are microaggressions and safe spaces. Fundamentally, I think, these are claims about psychological harm: specifically the persistent, low-level psychological stress and damage that members of disadvantaged identities experience in everyday life. These are good concepts, and their existence will probably bring about positive cultural change via greater awareness of previously-unacknowledged bias mechanisms.

To the extent that these new identity-based concepts attract research and data uncovering deep mechanisms through which systemic racism and bias operate, we all win. Cortisol levels and ego depletion probably matter, and it's cool to see another piece of the prejudice puzzle get voice. Depression and suicide are things, and the moves toward greater social acceptance and funding in these realms is awesome. A quote in the article even mentioned the idea that accepting more diverse and marginal students into their institution may lead to more psychological issues, which is quite un-PC (because of the 'mismatch theory') and very interesting.

But an over-emphasis on psychological harm is also possible, and some new tactics have unfortunately veered into this territory.


Happiness doesn't matter

Psychology mostly agrees: human happiness is highly adaptive, on average. Many people deprived of material capability are psychologically OK, and lots of privileged folks are miserable. Happiness, stress, and psychology research is notoriously unreliable.

To be clear, in some philosophical sense there's nothing more important than psychological well-being (aside from death). And in this sense, any perceived psychological harm is a harm in its own right. But ultimately, questions about psychological harm and perceived dignity are incredibly complex and ill-understood, and are deeply wrapped-up in intractable moral philosophy and methodology.

The effective altruism movement has made powerful strides towards bypassing this whole issue and reorienting social justice discussions around measurable data and uncontroversial absolute conceptions of well-being (like not dying). This is overwhelmingly a good thing. But some activists who prioritize subjective psychological harm as a focus of social justice represent an unfortunate backsliding, in this respect.

To the extent that new ideas are shedding light on mechanisms that affect measurable material disadvantages, they are good. But simply emphasizing the psychological harm among certain identities is a weak basis for policy reform, in part because everyone experiences harm, but mostly because it's just really hard to measure and conceptualize these things objectively.

J.S. Mill once wrote a little book called On Liberty, where his 'harm principle' was explicitly challenged by the limit-case of psychological harm and offense and to what degree coercive force should be used against it. Needless to say he saw a slippery slope. I see similar problems cropping up if social justice activists continue to focus on psychological harm instead of unambiguous physical outcomes.


Get back to science

My general impression is that by emphasizing psychological harm oriented around identity, many activists lose track of the absolute outcomes that these harms are mostly designed to address, namely stuff like opportunity, income, employment, crime, the physical effects of disability, etc. To the extent that psychological harms and inequalities affect these more measurable problems, they are incredibly roundabout and uncertain strategies to focus on.

The psychological tendency that's pushing these trends is understandable--it's is a textbook case of the (terribly named) narcissism of small differences. If you're spending your days at an institution, there's nothing wrong with thinking about and tackling local injustices. In some ways it reflects how far colleges have come in eliminating the most glaring examples of bias and injustice. But it's important to understand how psychological harm truly compares to other, more acute and measurable problems in the broader world.

Black college students might very well go through their four years of private college feeling awkward or unwelcome. This is a huge problem, and outrage is warranted. But it shouldn't intellectually crowd out policy issues like educational opportunity, occupational licensing, zoning, health care, monetary hawkishness, and insufficient resource redistribution policy. Most of the world is not like a college campus, and a social justice framework overly-tailored to college campus dynamics isn't good.

The general shift away from science-based, positivist rhetoric in social justice discussions (in favor of constructivism) is especially worrisome because it de-emphasizes not just poverty but also things like technology, climate change, asteroids, pandemic, and space travel.


But doesn't science just entrench the status quo?

A cynic might see technology and existential-risk concerns as luxurious, afforded only to well-established, un-stressed identity groups. These are things that Silicon Valley tech nerds worry about, after all. I guess I agree, but it doesn't mean that they're wrong. If humanity dies, race relations won't matter one bit.

Indeed, it seems likely that the most privileged group might take the lowest time discount-rate and be the least susceptible to cognitive risk biases about X-risk. A truly fascinating experiment would be to ask various activists what policy issues would command attention provided their top priorities were accomplished. Keep going down the list and eventually everyone should sensibly end up at X-risk and space travel.

I bring up X-risk mostly as a way to ground discussions of social justice in something tangible: it's literally the most important moral and policy issue, logically, and it can help place issues about psychological harm in context.

The article ends with a quote:
"There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives."
This is indeed true, but when it comes to life itself... that is a single-issue thing. Survive. If we all die, there is no struggle. There is no justice. Keep the struggle going. Promote science and technology and space.

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