American politics has become increasingly polarized in recent years. During the ongoing George Floyd protests, observers have pointed out that polarization has hit highs not yet seen in modern American history. Whether this trend of increasing polarization will continue is unclear. However, it is at least plausible that the trend is far from over, and therefore, broad picture implications are worth closer attention.
In this post, I will explore my preliminary predictions under a scenario where polarization continues to increase. While I think that full-scale war -- on the level of the civil war -- is unlikely to happen in the United States, for reasons I will go into below, I find that the most relevant comparison might be the Chinese cultural revolution. Although the comparison may seem exaggerated, it is still important to explore key similarities to the Chinese cultural revolution, and what is happening in the United States.
If the United States were to experience a cultural revolution-like event, it would likely affect nearly all areas of impact that effective altruists care about, and would have profound effects on our ability to produce free open-ended research on controversial issues. Given that many of the ideas that effective altruists discuss -- such as genetic enhancement, factory farming abolition, and wild animal suffering -- are controversial, it is important to understand how our movement could be undermined in the aftermath of such an event. Furthermore, conformity pressures of the type exhibited in the Chinese cultural revolution could push important threads of research, such as AI alignment research, into undesirable directions.
When discussing topics as explosive as the one in this post, it is important to stay grounded in solid reasoning and evidence, and to avoid the tendency of waging the war rather than understanding the war. Understanding Julia Galef’s scout versus soldier mindset is helpful here. While in this post I am forced to engage in speculation, it is my hope that readers will judge my argument based on its merits alone, rather than assuming that I’m trying to single out or attack a particular “side” of the current political debate.
Political polarization, as measured by political scientists, has clearly gone up in the last 20 years. It is unclear whether this recent trend is unprecedented, however. For example, some political scientists believe that current levels are higher than at any point after the civil war. Others are more skeptical.
For my purposes, it is not too important for my thesis that current rates are unprecedented. As an assumption for this post, I will only analyze scenarios where the rates of polarization continue to rise, until they reach extreme levels. I believe there are currently no good reasons to think that there’s less than, say, a 10% chance that polarization will get much worse. Given even a 10% chance, the effects of extreme polarization deserve scrutiny and analysis.
While effective altruists could just wait to find out whether polarization will get worse, I believe it is important to conduct this research early for two reasons. The first is that it may be possible to install norms in our communities that effectively guard against the most negative effects of polarization, and therefore, the earlier we detect these trends, the more likely we are to install such norms. Secondly, the very nature of increased polarization makes it more likely that future analysis will be affected by political pressures, and therefore early research will be more level-headed.
Academics have already explored the implications of increased polarization for eroding democratic norms (see here, and here). A central result of such research is precisely what one would expect. From Wikipedia,
Pernicious polarization makes compromise, consensus, interaction, and tolerance increasingly costly and tenuous for individuals and political actors on both sides of the divide. Pernicious polarization routinely weakens respect for democratic norms, corrodes basic legislative processes, undermines the nonpartisan nature of the judiciary and fuels public disaffection with political parties. It exacerbates intolerance and discrimination, diminishes societal trust, and increases violence throughout the society. [...] During this process, facts and moral truths increasingly lose their weight, as more people conform to the messages of their own bloc. Social and political actors such as journalists, academics, and politicians either become engaged in partisan storytelling or else incur growing social, political, and economic costs. Electorates lose confidence in public institutions. Support for norms and democracy decline. It becomes increasingly difficult for people to act in a morally principled fashion by appealing to the truth or acting in line with one's values when it conflicts with one's party interests.
It is easy to see how a society entrenched in political polarization could make coordination more difficult in a community like ours. As effective altruists, our explicit mission is to find the most impactful cause areas. In doing so, we engage in critical discourse and frequently debate controversial issues. However, if political pressures in the United States become strong enough, it may no longer be possible to speak openly about the issues we think are most important, since people will feel they must increasingly care more about appealing to a party line, rather than seeking truth.
Some effective altruists have already expressed concern about current trends in polarization. For instance, Seth Baum has written about how we might counter politically motivated misinformation about superintelligence, and Wei Dai has expressed his own worries that epistemic conditions are worsening. More research can be found in the Appendix. In contrast to these previous posts, my purpose is to explore political polarization from a broader perspective, while highlighting the sorts of political pressures that might be placed on our community in the near future.
Recent trends in political polarization
Political polarization has been on the rise since the 1990s and may be at an unprecedented level for the post-Civil War US. There are some political scientists who make the further claim that the last decade or so has witnessed the rise of both right-wing populism and far-left socialism in the West. While these claims are somewhat more controversial, it appears that extreme positions have increasingly been discussed in mainstream news and social media.
Polarization on the left
The popularity of the intersectional social justice movement has absolutely erupted over the course of the past decade. While many of the positions that social justice advocates espouse would be considered uncontroversial among EAs, here I will focus on the way in which the movement has affected political discourse. In particular, “calling out” and “deplatforming” people who are insufficiently committed to the social justice cause, or not careful enough with their language, seems to be relatively common as of the last five years or so.
In the wake of the recent killing of George Floyd, I’ve seen multiple people criticized for simply being silent during the riots rather than taking a position. Silence is seen by many as its own form of defection. Speaking personally, I’ve never seen such explicit examples of political conformity pressures in my life than in the last few weeks. Opposition to illegal acts such as rioting and looting is seen by some as racist whataboutism, as it is wrong to criticize the tactics an oppressed group uses to protest their oppression, and this tactic shifts the blame away from the police onto people of color. (This applies even though it wasn’t just black people rioting). Here is an example of a social democrat and Obama campaign member who was fired from his data analysis job merely for citing research that found riots weren’t effective. This kind of action would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Since most American educational institutions and mainstream media sources lean toward the political left, the left arguably controls the current dominant narrative. Thus it is important to consider how these institutions have reacted to the rise of the intersectional social justice movement. One recent example is that UC Berkeley has put in place a diversity statement requirement for new hires, which according to academics such as biologist Jerry Coyne, philosopher Brian Leiter, and economist John H. Cochrane, constitutes an ideological purity test.
One professor from UCLA was recently put on suspension for denying a request from black students that they receive special final exam accommodation due to the recent protests. This came after a petition calling for his termination received over 20,000 signatures, and described his response as an “extremely insensitive, dismissive, and woefully racist response to his students’ request for empathy and compassion during a time of civil unrest.” While the petition focuses on the particular language used in his email, I encourage readers to read the email themselves to decide whether something like this would have been considered normal even five years ago.
Another recent event worth noting is the rise of the police abolition movement. It's pretty clear to neutral observers that abolition is poorly thought out. Websites advocating abolition give almost no explanation for how a society without police would enforce laws, despite law enforcement playing a central role of government going back thousands of years. (One exception is that anarcho-capitalist advocates of police abolition often mention private policing as an alternative.) But the important part is that this policy proposal stands less on its merits and more on the power it derives from shaming those who disagree. People who oppose police abolition are regularly derided as racists on some sections of the internet. For a visceral example, see the response that the mayor of Minneapolis received after he stated he didn’t support the “full abolition” of the Minneapolis police department. This is a powerful social pressure for many.
Recently, I noticed that JK Rowling was attacked by a Twitter mob for a tweet that suggested that biological sex is real. As far as I’m aware, the dichotomy of biological sex and gender identity was well-accepted among social justice advocates about 5 years ago, but now prominent LGBT advocate George Takei has tweeted that it’s ignorant and transphobic to “defend” biological sex as a concept. While it’s true that binary biological sex isn’t a perfectly unambiguous and binary categorization, as the existence of intersex people demonstrates, it arguably is a boundary that it makes sense to draw. This example shows that changes in ideology can occur within a very short period of time, and statements that would have been considered moderate or even progressive a decade ago can get one cancelled today.
Closer to home for the rationality and EA communities, population geneticist and blogger Steve Hsu has recently come under attack by a mob of left-wingers who believe that he is sympathetic to the alt-right. You can read more about this on SSC. This demonstrates how effective altruists are at risk of having to self-censor their thoughts to avoid being cancelled.
Polarization on the right
Because most mainstream news organizations, social media companies, and universities are left-leaning, the right-wing has not been able to enforce its hegemony through deplatforming in the same way that the left has. Instead, right-wingers have recently tended to be the ones who push for stronger norms of freedom of speech. Historically, it seems that whichever side is less culturally powerful is more likely to advocate for freedom of speech (since it benefits them). In the past, the left occupied this underdog position, which can be seen for example in the socialist free speech fights of the early 1900s and the anti-war Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. If the right were to hypothetically gain control over the institutions that shape and censor discourse, it seems likely that the left’s and right’s roles in the free speech debate would swap.
According to Pew Research Center data, while the American left has become far more polarized in its values in the last two decades, the right’s views have remained largely stable. Despite this, in practice it appears that the far-right fringe has more cultural relevance than it did in the 90s. The alt-right movement which peaked around the 2017 Unite the Right rally is the most extreme example, but many would cite Donald Trump and UKIP as more moderate examples of the recent rise of right-wing populism.
While Trump’s policies are in some ways more moderate than the traditional Republican platform, he has repeatedly made provocative statements that sparked controversy and backlash, and probably contributed to the recent rise in polarization. A recent example is his tweet, later censored by Twitter, that included the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It is personally clear to me that far-right communities have felt emboldened by Trump’s election in a way that could not have been matched by a hypothetical election of Mitt Romney, or John McCain. The explanation for this seems to be that Donald Trump was endorsed early in the 2016 primaries by far-right extremists such as Richard Spencer, after he became known for making racially insensitive comments about Mexicans. Despite his politically moderate stances, his rhetoric has been widely described as demagoguery, which has led to enormous amounts of media coverage -- both positive and negative. The result of this extremely excessive media coverage has been to entrench political biases in the American population.
One particular risk from the right that’s worth worrying about is a scenario in which Trump loses the 2020 election, but disputes the results and refuses to concede. The evidence for Trump refusing to concede comes from a variety of statements he has made in the past. Throughout 2016, Trump had questioned the legitimacy of the election, suggesting that it would be “rigged” in Hillary Clinton’s favor. The day of the election, when asked, Trump did not commit to accepting the results if he lost. Even after winning, he further claimed on Twitter that millions of people had voted illegally for his opponent. Since that time, Trump has repeatedly alleged that Democrats are attempting to rig the election against him. Recently, his allegations have involved claims that mail-in voter fraud will tip the election in favor of Biden, which prompted Twitter to censor/fact check him for the first time ever.
While a constitutional crisis may appear unlikely, it’s important to note that it is not unprecedented for a presidential candidate to dispute the results of an election. After the 1800 election, losing candidate and outgoing president John Adams refused to be present for the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson. In 1824, Andrew Jackson had alleged that the winner John Quincy Adams had entered a “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay, the sitting speaker of the House, which historians generally consider to have led to increased political tensions for the next four years. In 1876, the dispute between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden was strong enough that the north ended the era of Reconstruction in order to appease southern voters. Most recently in 2000, Al Gore refused to concede until the Supreme Court ruled against him in Bush v. Gore, roughly a month after election night.
Scott Aaronson recently reviewed legal scholar Lawrence Douglas’s book Will He Go?, which explores this very hypothetical. In his review, Aaronson estimates a 15% chance that a scenario like this will unfold. This Metaculus question puts the probability of Trump contesting the results of the election at 57%, but it’s important to note that he may initially contest the results and change his mind after the official electoral college vote. I would also highlight these other two relevant Metaculus questions. If Trump indeed refuses to concede, it would undoubtedly result in extreme polarization and bring the stability of American democracy into question.
Both the political left and the political right have come to view the other side more negatively than in the past. According to Pew Research, 71% of Americans currently view the conflicts between Republicans and Democrats as “very strong” compared to 56% in 2016, and 48% in 2012. In the same survey, Democrats were more likely to see conflicts between rich and poor, black and white people, rural and urban areas, whereas Republicans primarily saw conflict between the parties. Though, both sides agreed that the strongest conflicts were between the parties.
Similar surveys have revealed negative attitudes present between both sides of the political spectrum. For example, one survey showed that 75% of Democrats viewed Republicans as being more closed-minded, and 55% of Republicans viewed Democrats as being more immoral. The same survey showed that the last few years have seen declining ratings in how members of one party view members of the other, with a possible acceleration in 2019.
Civil War (United States)
The Civil War is an obvious historical parallel, given that it was the United States’ greatest moral and political crisis, resulting from a gradual buildup in tensions between members of two political factions. If something like the Civil War were to happen again in the United States, it would obviously be a big deal that effective altruists should pay attention to. However, I’m not convinced that a civil war-level event is particularly likely.
One difference between the situation in 1860 and today is that the divide over slavery fell very closely along north-south boundaries, while current political polarization does not have sharp geographic boundaries, but is mainly urban-rural. Since urban and rural areas rely critically on each other for resources, it is unlikely that an urban-rural war could be logistically feasible. Furthermore, while some people have expressed separatist aims in the past (such as for Calexit), the United States appears to have a very strong political tradition of suppressing rebellion, and has thus far successfully maintained its status as the world’s oldest major constitutional republic.
According to Adam Przeworski, there is a very strong inverse correlation between national wealth, and political violence. The United States is currently the wealthiest nation in the world, with very high per-capita wealth, and unexceptional (though worsening) income inequality. More broadly, Steven Pinker has extensively documented the long-run decline of violence in the world in his books The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Enlightenment Now, but in case you are skeptical of Pinker’s reliability, Max Roser has also written this page on Our World In Data outlining the same thesis. Although small-scale insurrectionary experiments like the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone may persist in the coming years, it does not appear particularly likely that large-scale violent rebellion will sweep through the United States any time soon.
Since the Civil War was the ultimate test of the constitutionality of secession, it is very unlikely that legal secession could succeed either.
Cultural Revolution (China)
The Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) aimed to purge “counter-revolutionary” capitalist ideology from Chinese society and to ensure the dominance of Maoism. Some of the actions taken to achieve this goal included destroying old artifacts/texts, sending dissenters to jails and re-education camps, and sometimes killing dissenters.
Since some readers may not be familiar with Chinese history, you can consult Appendix 2 for my summary of the main events during the Cultural Revolution.
While this may sound very different from the current situation in the US, there are a number of similarities:
- The Cultural Revolution targeted traditional values, and received power from young people (mostly students) who cared most about the revolutionary values in China.
- Actions taken to counter traditional values ranged from renaming streets, to destroying historical sites, books, and artifacts. Similar measures are ongoing in 2020.
- The leftist thread of thought present in China at the time isn’t that much different from the thread of thought that exists today, though there are obviously clear differences (e.g., in the modern US there is far more focus on marginalized racial groups).
- The cultural revolution targeted free speech in particular, and that effect has lasted until today in China. There are numerous examples of contemporary leftists in the US downplaying the importance of free speech.
Why effective altruists should care
Let’s suppose that something vaguely resembling a cultural revolution will take place. Obviously this would have a lot of effects on society as a whole, but how would it matter for the effective altruism movement in particular?
One risk is that the EA movement will be criticized for being too white and for not focusing enough on intersectional issues. This could lead to EA leaders frantically trying to signal that they care about diversity and funding more social justice causes regardless of their effectiveness. And if the EA movement fails to take a sufficiently strong stand, it may get labelled as right-wing or counter-revolutionary and lose status among left-wing academia and media outlets. (In fact, similar accusations have already been made, e.g. see this Vox piece which criticizes the movement for not having enough diversity, and this paper linking long-termism to white supremacist ideology (rebuttal). It seems likely that more accusations will be made in the future.)
Another risk is that the field of AI alignment could become politicized. Perhaps AGI safety will become associated with one side of the political aisle and the other side will adopt a stance of skepticism toward the risks of AGI. This is what happened with climate change and to some extent with the COVID-19 pandemic, so it could play out here as well. Seth Baum has written articles about “Superintelligence Skepticism As A Political Tool” and “Countering Superintelligence Misinformation” which cover this issue. Similar to how pandemics were rarely discussed in partisan terms before COVID-19, the current non-partisan discussion of AI alignment seems unlikely to last.
There are several past examples of scientific research being stifled by ideological constraints, with for instance Lysenkoism being responsible for massive famines in the Soviet Union. With AGI, the stakes are potentially astronomical. I’d recommend the piece “Politics is Upstream of AI” for discussion of how political factors could affect AI development, but more research is needed on this topic.
Furthermore, animal farming abolition and wild-animal suffering could become politicized. Zeke Sherman has proposed a scenario in which political correctness impedes research into animal cognition and welfare in “The Future of Animal Consciousness Research”. There are many crucial considerations in the field of animal suffering reduction, such as how much moral weight to assign to beings of different complexity, whether welfare is net-positive or net-negative, and so on. If political dogma prevents us from honestly investigating these questions, the results could be catastrophic for animal welfare.
These are just a handful of examples of how polarization and restrictions on free speech could negatively affect EA discussion, but I hope they are convincing enough to not dismiss this risk as negligible.
What effective altruists can do
Even if we acknowledge that a cultural revolution is plausible, and that it would have implications for EA cause areas, it might still be unclear what exactly can be done to prevent it or to mitigate its harms. Influencing broad political and cultural norms does not appear at first glance to be tractable or neglected. Before dismissing this cause outright, I would suggest that EAs consider the following three points.
The first is that even if we can’t prevent a cultural revolution from occurring, we can reduce its impact on EA members and organizations by encouraging them to relocate outside of the United States or the West. It might be beneficial for effective altruists to be prepared to move to multiple alternative countries as backups should one option undergo a cultural revolution. Even the smaller change of relocating to rural areas may soften the blow of a cultural revolution centralized in cities.
I have not yet determined which developed countries are the best destinations for migration, but right now I believe the strongest candidates may lie in Asia and the Eastern Bloc. Japan may be one good option, since it has high living standards and a favorable diplomatic relationship with the West, while maintaining its own unique cultural and political identity (for example, resisting communism during the twentieth century).
Secondly, effective altruists are disproportionately employed at companies like Google and Facebook. The policies of social media giants can influence discourse norms on the Web and therefore society as a whole. While EAs working at tech giants may not have enough power within the organizational hierarchy to make a meaningful difference, it’s something worth considering. Another way in this vein that EAs could make a difference is by creating or popularizing discussion platforms that promote rational argumentation and mutual understanding instead of divisiveness (related post).
Thirdly, and most importantly, even if I can’t yet come up with a specific bullet-proof intervention, I believe that the importance of the issue necessitates that the effective altruist community take it seriously, e.g. by conducting more research. It would be prudent to get to work as soon as possible for reasons outlined in the background section.
Appendix 1: Previous EA-adjacent writings on this issue
Wei Dai has written about the balance of intelligence vs. virtue signalling and his observation that polarization has resulted in decreased epistemic conditions.
Kyle Bogosian has outlined his perspective on the costs and benefits of speech policing in “Tentative Thoughts on Speech Policing”. He has also written about “Political culture at the edges of Effective Altruism”.
There was an EA Forum debate consisting of two posts: “Making discussions in EA groups inclusive” and “The Importance of Truth-Oriented Discussions in EA”.
Kelly Witwicki has written about how and why effective altruists can make progress in making our movement more diverse.
If there’s more I’m missing, feel free to provide links in the comment section.
Appendix 2: Timeline of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
The Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) aimed to purge capitalist ideology from Chinese society and to ensure the dominance of Maoism. It followed the 1963 “Socialist Education Movement”, in which intellectuals who opposed Mao were sent to reeducation camps in the countryside.
In May 1966, Mao wrote about the need to identify and purge “counter-revolutionary revisionists” who had supposedly infiltrated the ranks of the Party. Mao recruited students and workers to form the paramilitary Red Guards and other rebel groups. By August, Red Guards in Beijing began to commit a massive slaughter of 1,772 people in what became known as Red August. Over 30,000 homes were ransacked and over 80,000 families were forced to leave the city. This was just the first of many massacres committed at various points during the active phase of the Cultural Revolution.
Around the same time, Vice Chairman Lin Biao announced the goal of eliminating the “Four Olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Actions taken to achieve this objective ranged from renaming streets, to destroying historical sites (e.g. temples), books, and artifacts. Religious clergy were arrested and sent to camps.
By December, Mao declared an “all-round civil war” to settle the dispute between his radical faction and the more moderate establishment. In 1967, as radical groups seized power from local authorities across many cities in China, a “violent struggle” began between these different factions.
In May 1968, Mao announced his campaign of "Cleansing the Class Ranks", in which tens of millions of people were sent to reeducation camps and somewhere on the order of a million people died.
The targets of the Revolution consisted of the “Five Black Categories”: landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, “bad-influencers”, and rightists. In addition, academics and intellectuals were often persecuted or killed.
In April 1969, Mao declared that the active phase of the Revolution was over, but in actuality it lasted until 1971. The final death toll from the Cultural Revolution is disputed, with upper-range estimates as high as 20 million.
Great work, thanks for writing this up! I agree that excessive polarisation is an important issue and warrants more EA attention. In particular, polarisation is an important risk factor for s-risks.
It is worth noting that this is a US-centric perspective and the broader picture is more mixed, with polarisation increasing in some countries and decreasing in others.
Olaf van der Veen has written a thesis on this, analysing four possible interventions to reduce polarisation: (1) switching from FPTP to proportional representation, (2) making voting compulsory, (3) increasing the presence of public service broadcasting, and (4) creating deliberative citizen's assemblies. Olaf's takeaway (as far as I understand it) is that those interventions seem compelling and fairly tractable but the evidence of possible impacts is often not very strong.
I myself have also written about electoral reform as a possible way to reduce polarisation, and malevolent individuals in power also seem closely related to increased polarisation.
I don't know how well that would work in the US--it seems that existing public service broadcasters (PBS and NPR) are perceived as biased by American conservatives.
A related idea I've seen is media companies which sell cancellation insurance (archive). The idea being that this is a business model which incentivizes obtaining the trust and respect of as many people as possible, as opposed to inspiring a smaller number of true believers to share/subscribe. One advantage of this idea is it doesn't require any laws to get passed. (As polarization gets worse, I expect passing depolarization laws gets harder and harder.)
Here's another idea for the list: https://twitter.com/JohnArnoldFndtn/status/1266701479404060678
It's weird that so many people want to analogise the current situation to the cultural revolution - the case of a murderous autocrat, when they could choose McCarthyism (or indeed the first Red Scare), which have the same element of finger-pointing but without the violence. The cultural revolution analogy is clearly way overblown and diminishes the credibility of any claims made.
Moreover, why would one focus on the possibility of a new civil war, when a new cold war seems 1-2 orders of magnitude more likely, and no less important?
The Cultural Revolution analogy may be more fitting in some ways though. For example it pretty quickly devolved into factions of Red Guards fighting (physically as well as rhetorically) each other to show who is more "red" or more "revolutionary", which is a bit similar to how many people being canceled today are Democrats who strongly oppose Trump. (See this and this.) My knowledge of history is limited, but I'm not aware of this kind of thing happening during the Red Scares?
I agree that the current situation is like McCarthyism/Red Scare. The question is whether it will get worse; hence the comparisons to things which got worse.
If the question is whether it will get worse, then comparisons to events which were similar to the current situation are just as relevant as comparisons to events which were worse (or even more relevant, if the latter types of events didn't pass through a phase similar to the current situation along the way). E.g., if there were 5 periods of history that at some point passed through a stage similar to the current situation, and 2 got much worse from there while 3 didn't, that's good to know for things like crude reference class forecasting. In contrast, focusing solely on the 2 periods that got worse or solely on the 3 that didn't would give a misleading picture. (Those are made-up numbers.)
That said, I think the question this post focuses on is more what the consequences would be if it does get worse. E.g., the author writes "As an assumption for this post, I will only analyze scenarios where the rates of polarization continue to rise, until they reach extreme levels." And that does push in favour of focusing on historical events that were worse than the current situation. (It's very possible that this is what you meant.)
With that in mind, perhaps history-pedant's comment could be interpreted as either:
(I'd of course have to leave it to history-pedant to confirm whether either or both of those ideas were what they intended to convey.)
My position is more like the following:
Disanalogies with the cultural revolution:
I agree it's appropriate to compare to the Red Scare and I wish people did that more. However, I was responding to a comment suggesting that it was inappropriate to compare to Cultural Revolution. I think it should be compared to both; the Red Scare would be an example of a situation like this that didn't get worse, and the CR would be an example of a situation like this that did.
(As an aside, I don't know enough about the Red Scare to say whether it was worse or better than the current situation. Also, to say it's so unlikely that we'll reach the extreme scenario is premature; we need to get a dataset of similar situations and see what the base rate is. We know of at least a few "extreme" scenarios so they can't be that unlikely.)
I'm not personally taking a stand on how similar the Red Scare and the Cultural Revolution were to the current situation, or how likely it is that we'll reach various more extreme scenarios. And as I mentioned, I do think there are arguments for making the analogy to the Cultural Revolution, especially if the objective is to analyse what might happen if this gets much more. (Though there are also arguments against making that analogy.)
But I interpreted your prior comment as saying "Our objective is to address the question of whether it will get worse. Therefore, we should focus on comparisons to things which got worse." Which would seem mistaken, because, to get a good dataset and see what the base rate is, we need to look at comparisons to any situation that was at some point similar to the current one, whether or not it got worse.
But maybe you actually meant "...Therefore, we should think about (without necessarily focusing on) comparisons to things which got worse, as well as comparisons to things which didn't." Is that what you meant?
(I think one reason that that interpretation didn't come to mind is that this post didn't discuss the Red Scare, so it's not the case that this post made both analogies and then the commenter suggested it should only make the analogy to the Red Scare.)
Yeah, what I meant was the second thing--I was responding to someone saying it was weird to bring up the cultural revolution; I was explaining why it was perfectly sensible to do so. I didn't say we shouldn't also talk about the red scare. Perhaps I misinterpreted the original comment though -- maybe they were not so much saying it was weird to talk about the CR, but that it was weird to not talk about the Red Scare, in which case I agree.
I agree with those who say that the analogy with the Cultural Revolution isn't ideal.
Yes, there are some relevant similarities with the Cultural Revolution. But the fact that many millions were killed in the Cultural Revolution, and that the regime was a dictatorship, are extremely salient features. It doesn't usually work to say that "I mean that it's like the Cultural Revolution in other respects - just not those respects". Those features are so central and so salient that it's difficult to dissociate them in that way.
Relatedly, I think that comparisons to the Cultural Revolution tend to function as motte and baileys (specifically, hyperboles). They have a rhetorical punch precisely because the Cultural Revolution was so brutal. People find the analogy powerful precisely because of the associations to that brutality.
But then when you get criticised, you can retreat and say "well, I didn't mean those features of the Cultural Revolution - I just meant that there was ideological conformity, etc" - and it's more defensible to say that parts of the US have those features today.
Thanks for the write-up. I think historical examples can be helpful in understanding the nature of current social tendencies, but I also think it is important to precisely analyse the possible deleterious impacts of de-platforming or "cancel culture", which differ substantially from the analogous occurrences you cite in the Cultural Revolution. In particular, I think it is necessary to distinguish between the first-order effects, which I think are not very severe, and the second-order or third-order effects, which are more concerning.
By first-order effects, I refer to the instances you cite of cancellation-for-cultural-heresy.
First, the immediate stakes are far lower - in the Cultural Revolution, "counter-revolutionary revisionists" were sent cross-country to re-education camps, tortured, killed, even eaten. As far as I am aware, none of these things have happened recently in America to public figures (or made-public-by-Twitter figures) as a result of the sort of backlash you discuss.
Second, the scale of the first-order effects, although difficult to precisely ascertain, probably appears to be much larger than it actually is due to availability selection effects (similar selection effects to those which lead to scope insensitivity in e.g. videos of deaths from police brutality as opposed to deaths from coronavirus). Particularly egregious cases of cancellation - which certainly exist (such as the case of citing detailed studies on police brutality by race you mentioned) - are probably pretty rare on the whole, just as particularly egregious cases of police brutality are pretty rare on the whole. Both, of course (and far more the latter), are concerning when they do occur, but they should be considered in context, and one has to be very careful as an observer to understand the selection effects at play.
Third, at the moment, this cultural movement (whatever you want to call it) is not orchestrated top-down or directly backed by the formal structures of power (legislative, executive, and judicial branches of American government, and the military), in stark contrast to the Cultural Revolution. Unless this changes (which is possible), I think this makes violent conflict quite unlikely (also for the reasons of interdependence between urban/rural areas that you cite), and it means that constitutional protections (although under threat for other reasons) are not directly at risk for reasons of "cultural heresy".
For these reasons, I think the first-order effects are not that concerning, and the comparison to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution on that basis is not particularly well-founded.
I think the higher-order effects are more serious.
First, cancellation-for-heresy can create a "chilling effect" where intellectuals and public figures are unwilling to voice their true opinions for fear of being accused of heresy and losing their jobs or reputations. Fixing the underlying problems - whatever the particulars - requires a dispassionate analysis of the facts of the matter, and an appreciation for the real scale of particular problems independent of availability heuristics - so the "chilling effect" may actually achieve the opposite of its nominal intent and prevent people who would have otherwise been e.g. doing research into evidence-based police reform strategies from doing so, and thus prevent the results of that research from being enacted into policy.
Second, the contortions induced by conformity to this kind of pressure, e.g. the about-face of many health professionals and public figures on the coronavirus dangers posed by Black Lives Matter protests vs. Trump rallies, whatever their private views may have been, have potentially serious consequences both to immediate behaviour (COVID19 will spread at a protest without regard to the political motivations of its attendees), and to public trust in institutions, already at a low point and continuing to fall. Considering the current US coronavirus death toll, I think these kinds of second- and third-order consequences (although certainly not solely a result of this cultural phenomenon) are much more concerning than the immediate first-order consequences of "cancellation" or the like.
EDIT: I want to highlight this take by someone who's much more knowledgable than I am; you should probably read it before reading my comment.
This hasn't happened yet, and probably won't happen any time soon, but it's conceivable to me that it might happen eventually if things get much worse. What if we saw a resurgence in targeted killings in a world where police have been abolished/shamed into inaction and discussing the killings in the media is seen as blowing a dog whistle? (However, even in this world, one could move to a part of the US where the rate of private gun ownership is high... from what I've seen, rioting hasn't really been taking place in those areas.)
The Cultural Revolution was not backed by the formal structures of power. The Red Guard organizations precipitating the revolution were frequently in opposition to established party structures (and each other). Here are some quotes from Mao: A Very Short Introduction:
Lack of top-down authority could be a bad thing. With the current situation, since there is no cult of personality, there is no one with the authority to be a 'Black Hand' if things get truly crazy. Memetic evolution seems to be the primary master.
On the other hand, there is the point that police, military, and privately-owned guns in the US all appear to not be very inclined to revolution, at least for the time being.
Right, and the Democratic Party would have to be much weaker as an institution to allow a leader with this intent to gain power. This is why political scientists seemed happy with the results of the primary -- it meant we had at least one partially functioning major party.
In case it is of interest, Gwern provides a good summary of the Cultural Revolution in his review of Frank Dikötter's book, The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962-1976.
Great post, and thanks for writing it. One note: if polarization is defined as "more extreme views on each issue" (e.g. more people wanting extremely high or extremely low taxes), then it does not seem to be happening according to some research. The sort of polarization happening in the U.S. is more characterized as ideological sorting. That is, views on any particular issue (abortion, affirmative action, gun control) don't have more mass on the extremes than before, but the views in each political party are less mixed.
This is nonetheless important, and I don't think it radically changes much of what you said. Affect toward the opposite party is still much more negative than before. But it might suggest we should be more concerned about the conflict between the parties itself (e.g. abusing constitutional norms, cancellation) and less concerned about their policies per se.
People keep saying this as an argument for why we won't have a civil war, but it seems pretty weak to me:
1. Logistical problems mean a war would end quickly, not that it would never happen at all. And a civil war that ends quickly would IMO be almost as bad as one that takes longer to end.
2. The previous US civil war was not an urban/rural divide. But plenty of modern civil wars are; it's pretty standard, in fact, for a central government controlling the major cities to wage war for several years against insurgents controlling much of the countryside.
As for the cultural revolution: As far as I can tell it wasn't actually very top-down organized. It was sparked and to some extent directed by revered leaders like Mao, but on numerous occasions even the leaders couldn't control the actions of the students. There were loads of cases of different sects of Red Guards fighting street battles with each other--not the sort of behavior you'd expect from a top-down movement!
What I'd like to learn about is the culture in china before the massacres began. Were people suspected of being rightists, counter-revolutionaries, landlords, etc. being deplatformed, harassed, fired, etc. prior to the massacres? Was there an uptick in this sort of thing in the years prior to the massacres?
I agree that the urban/rural divide as opposed to clear cut boundaries is not a significant reason to discredit the possibility of civil war, however, there are other reasons to think that civil war is unlikely.
This highly cited article provides evidence that the main causal factors of civil wars are what the authors call conditions that favor insurgency, rather than ethnic factors, discrimination, and grievances (such as economic inequality). The argument is that even in the face of grievances that cause people to start a civil war if the right conditions are not in place the civil war cannot even get off the ground. A huge caveat here is that political polarization is not measured in this article, so this article does not rule it out as a significant factor.
The conditions in America do not favor insurgency. America has huge military, intelligence, and surveillance resources that she can use to counter insurgency, and there are few underdeveloped regions where the insurgents could hide.
Great post, thanks for writing this!
Aside from the interventions you and Tobias list, promoting (participation in) forecasting tournaments might be another way to reduce excessive polarization.
Mellers, Tetlock, and Arkes (2018) found that "[...] participants who actively engaged in predicting US domestic events were less polarized in their policy preferences than were non-forecasters. Self-reported political attitudes were more moderate among those who forecasted than those who did not. We also found evidence that forecasters attributed more moderate political attitudes to the opposing side."
However, people who are willing to participate in such a tournament for many months are presumably quite unrepresentative of the general population. Generally, my hunch is that it would be very difficult to convince many people to participate in such tournaments, especially if this requires active participation for a considerable amount of time. Still, promoting the institution of forecasting tournaments would have several other benefits.
(To be clear, I'm not sure that this intervention is particularly promising, I'm mostly brainstorming.)
Good point. Maybe it could be possible to convince some pundits and thought leaders to participate in such tournaments, and maybe that could make them less polarised, and have other beneficial effects.
Opposing view: I don't think these are real concerns. The Future of Animal Consciousness Research citation boils down to "what if research in animal cognition is one day suppressed due to being labeled speciesist" - that's not a realistic worry. The vox thinkpeice emphasizes that we are in fact efficiently saving lives - I see no critiques there that we haven't also internally voiced to ourselves, as a community. I don't think it's realistic to expect coverage of us not to include these critiques, regardless of political climate. According to google search, the only folks even discussing that paper are long-termist EAs. I don't think AI alignment is any more politically polarized except as a special case of "vague resentment towards silicon valley elites" in general.
Sensible people on every part of the political spectrum will agree that animal and human EA interventions are good or at least neutral. The most controversial it gets is that people will disagree with the implication that they are best ways to do good...and why not? We internally often disagree on that too. Most people won't understand ai alignment enough to have an opinion beyond vague ideas about tech and tech-people. Polarization is occurring, but none of this constitutes evidence regarding political polarization's potential effect on EA.
I think this comment provides a useful perspective. And your second paragraph sounds to me like highlighting that EA's largely "pull the rope sideways", in Robin Hanson's terms:
(Relevant, more recent Hanson post: To Oppose Polarization, Tug Sideways.)
If I wanted to argue against your perspective, I'd say something like "We indeed don't have strong evidence of political polarisation's effect on EA. But it will necessarily be the case that we don't have such evidence until the patterns we're worried about have already started, and likely reached a point where it's much harder to stop them than it would be to prevent them now. So even if we're in a world where polarisation will be a real problem for EA, your critique could be raised for long enough to delay work on the problem. And it's therefore worth at least scoping out the problem in advance, even if we must rely on analogies and speculative arguments."
If I wanted to argue against that, I'd probably say something about the analogies and speculative arguments being relatively weak (even for analogies and speculative arguments). And something about how scoping out this problem with a post like this could itself pose risks of increasing partisanship/polarisation within EA, or of drawing a "culture wars spotlight" towards EA.
Overall, I feel fairly unsure which perspective I'd lean towards. Though I do very tentatively feel that this post may have had a higher level/proportion of support than I expected, given the quality of arguments and analogies made.
Maybe EA can't affect political polarization nearly as much as the other way around - political polarization can dramatically affect EA.
EA could get "cancelled", perhaps for its sometimes tough-to-swallow focus on prioritization and tradeoffs, for a single poorly phrased and high profile comment, for an internal problem at an EA org, or perhaps for lack of overall diversity. Less dramatically, EA could lose influence by affiliating with a political party, or by refusing to, and degrading norms around discourse and epistemics could turn EA discussions into partisan battlegrounds.
This post makes a lot of sense, I definitely think EA should consider the best direction for the political climate to grow in. We should also spend plenty of time considering how EA will be affected by an increasing polarization, and how we can respond.
EAs in policy and government seem particularly interesting here, as potentially highly subject to the effects of political climate. I'd love to hear how EAs in policy and government have responded or might respond to these kinds of dynamics.
One question: Should EA try to be "strategically neutral" or explicitly nonpartisan? Many organizations do so, from think tanks to newspapers to non-profits. What lessons can we learn from other non-partisan groups and movements? What are their policies, how do they implement them, and what effects do they have?
Thanks for this post, very interesting!
What does "cancelling" mean, concretely? I don't imagine the websites will be closed down. What will we lose?
Off the top of my head: The ability to host conferences without angry protesters in front, the chance to be mentioned in a favorable manner by a mainstream major news outlet and willingness of high profile people to associate with EA. Look up what EA intellectuals thought in the near past about why it would be unwise for EA to make too much noise outside the Overton window. This is still valid, except now the Overton has begun to shift at an increasing pace.
Note that this is not meant to be an endorsement of EA aligning with or paying lip service to political trends. I personally believe an increase of enforced epistemic biases to be an existential threat to the core values of EA.
This portion of the PBS documentary A Century of Revolution covers the cultural revolution:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJyoX_vrlns (Around the 1 hour mark)
Recommended. One interesting bit for me is that I think foreign dictators often appear clownish because the translations don't capture what they were speaking to, either literally in terms of them being a good speech writer, or contextually in terms of not really being familiar with the cultural context that animates a particular popular political reaction. I think this applies even if you speak nominally the same language as the dictator but don't share their culture.
"While Trump’s policies are in some ways more moderate than the traditional Republican platform". I do not find this claim self-evident (potentially due to biased media reporting affecting my views) and find it strange that no source or evidence for it is provided, especially given the commendable general amount of links and sources in the text.
Relatedly, I noticed a gut feeling that the text seems more charitable to the right-wing perspective than to the left (specific "evidence" included the statement from the previous paragraph, the use of the word "mob", the use of concrete examples for the wrongdoings of the left while mostly talking about hypotheticals for the right and the focus on the cultural revolution without providing arguments why parallels to previous right-wing takeovers [especially against the backdrop of a perceived left-wing threat] are not adequate). The recommendation of eastern europe as good destination for migration seems to push in a similar vein, given recent drifts towards right wing authoritarianism in states like poland and hungary.
I would be curious if others (especially people whose political instincts don't kick in when thinking about the discussion around deplatforming) share this impression to get a better sense of how much politics distorts how I viscerally weigh evidence.
I am also confused whether pieces that can easily be read in a way that is explicitly anti-left wing (If I, who is quite sceptical of deplatforming but might not see it is as a huge threat can do this, imagine someone who is further to the left) rather than mostly orthogonal to politics (with the occasional statement that can be misconstrued as right-wing) might make it even easier for EA to "get labelled as right-wing or counter-revolutionary and lose status among left-wing academia and media outlets.". If that was the case, one would have to carefully weigh the likelihood that these texts will prevent extreme political outcomes and the added risk of getting caught in the crossfire. (Of course, there are also second order like the effect of potential self-censorship that might very well play a relevant role).
Similar considerations go for mass-downvoting comments pushing against texts like this [in a way that most likely violates community norms but is unlikely to be trolling], without anyone explaining why.
Prompted by this post, I've started a collection of EA analyses of political polarisation. It's looking a little lonely so far - just this and 3 other posts - so if any readers know of other relevant work, please mention it in a comment there.
[meta] Why does the comment count not match the actual number of visible comments? Is this a bug or are some comments being deliberately hidden? As of this writing (and not counting this comment), I can see only one of the supposedly four comments posted.
I think the forum software hides comments from new users by default. You can see here (and click the "play" button) to search for the most recently created users. You can see that Nathan Grant and ssalbdivad have comments on this post that are only visible via their user page, and not yet visible on this post.
Edit: The comments mentioned above are now visible on this post.
Issa is correct about comments from new users being counted but hidden (until a moderator approves those users). Deleted comments also show up in the comment count for a brief time, though they get removed from the count eventually (otherwise, spam would create a lot more "ghost comments" that are current visible).
Tool by Jon Haidt for reducing polarization: openmindplatform.org
It's a free, interactive course, which takes only ~1.5 hours total.
You can use it individually, or you can start your own group and be able to track your students' progress.
I just finished it yesterday, highly recommend.
Fun Fact: Someone from OpenMind did a lightning talk about it at EAGxBoston 2019.
Interesting article, thank you.
This indeed seems a plausible risk, which warrants some attention. However, you also write:
In combination with its context, I interpret this sentence as claiming: "Climate change and COVID-19 became partisan issues; therefore, AI alignment is likely to also become a partisan issue." That seems to me a strange claim. We could also point to a huge number of issues that haven't become partisan issues. For example, I'm not aware of risks from earthquakes, asteroids, tsunamis, floods, bushfires, or cyclones becoming partisan issues.
Perhaps there's a reason that AI alignment is most analogous to a certain class of issues that have tended to become partisan, and less analogous to issues that remained non-partisan. One reason might be the involvement of large companies in AI. But I think we'd need to flesh that or a similar argument out more, and canvass more examples, to conclude that it's likely that AI alignment will become a partisan issue - and I think pointing to climate change and COVID-19 alone is insufficient.
(To be clear, I'm not saying I'm confident no such argument could be made, and I'd be interested to see someone attempt to make it. Also, I haven't actually read the Seth Baum papers which this post links to.)
Really thanks for this post. I have some questions:
1) I wonder if you think the current polarization might be somehow associated with these possible trends:
a) Increased use of social networks, misinformation and The revolt of the public;
b) The rise of a new cold war – where countries engage in memetic warfare, and elites become divided over international policy;
c) Something even broader, like Peter Turchin’s Secular cycles (or more accepted Kondratieff cycles, if you don’t like something resembling Harri Seldon’s psycho-history). These inequality-polarization-populism-conflict trend seem to be as old as Urukagina's rule.
2) Do you think the current issues in American universities are more comparable to the Cultural Revolution than to May ’68 in France (which led to social disruption) - or maybe other examples of student activism? This seems to be historically more common. A very important disanalogy between the Chinese Revolution was that it was perceived to be fueled by the Great Leader, which is not presently happening in any student activism I’m aware of.
I agree with this trend being very concerning.
One aspect that was not covered much in your post is how the EA community might be affected by increased polarization. Organizations/movements getting caught up and divided over the culture war is a frequent pattern (see e.g. the New Atheists), which would at the very least probably be very bad for trust and discourse norms in the community. Given the low percentage of some minorities in EA and EA's close relationship to academia, it is very conceivable that EA could come under more scrutiny and pressure in the future.
Of course this should be discussed in much more detail, but my intuition is that it would be beneficial to take actions to prevent that by remaining unoffensive to "both sides". Examples could be hiring practices that prevent discrimination and are meritocratic, or policies against sexual harassment that are supportive of the victim and prevent decision-making by outrage.
I want to highlight reddit as a social network which could be especially valuable to get a job at. It seems to have a combination of
I've been trying to figure out why cancel culture is so powerful. If only ~7% of people identify as pro social justice, why are social media platforms so freely bending to their will? Surely it's not out of the goodness of their hearts, what is the commercial motive? I don't buy the idea that it is simply a marketing stunt. Afaict a pro-SJ stance does not make a company look much more favorable at this point.
But then I found this:
For context, Facebook is the social media company that has been most reluctant to be political, and apparently this is really making them bleed financially.
Why are marketing people so willing to go out of their way to do "the right thing" instead of the profitable thing? Is this something cultural? Some more digging showed that the NAACP and the ADL are leading this charge of boycotting Facebook, but I don't know what to make of that.
I added up the numbers in the first article and got around $634m of total 2018 ad spend, vs 2019 facebook revenue of 70700bn - less than 1%. Many of those companies only say they are 'pausing' or 'for July', rather than stopping. Finally, a company that was re-considering its facebook ad spend for unrelated reasons might want to frame it as a moral stance.
Perhaps principle-agent problems are at play; individual ideologues put SJ ahead of corporate profitability, and the much larger number of ordinary people are afraid of being bullied so do not speak out. But this is obviously not a full explanation.
Social media relies a lot on small and upcoming businesses to become advertisers and influencers on their platforms. These businesses might have a higher fraction of ideologically driven members as compared to large businesses.
I agree that "cancel culture" taken to its extreme could threaten the scope of causes EAs could address without facing significant backlash. Matt Taibbi wrote a compelling article on the way this trend has affected our press:
According to your own source, I think your characterization of income inequality in the US as "unexceptional" is misleading. Among wealthy nations, America does appear to be a significant outlier by that metric.
I'd be interested to hear some reactions from EAs abroad on this article's characterization of the American "far left." As I understand it, many of Bernie Sanders' proposals would be considered moderate in Europe, and are certainly economically moderate relative to New Deal Era programs in the US. I think his brand of economic populism is quite distinct from social justice oriented liberalism, although there is overlap between the two.
Finally, when evaluating the risk of an event like the one you're describing, we should consider that establishment politicians appear to be extraordinarily resilient to being "cancelled." Consider, for example, that the presumptive nominee of the Democratic party was able to overcome a well-documented history of racism and the emergence of a #MeToo story that should have been significantly more scandalous than the one Democrats tried to use to block Kavanaugh in 2018. As far as I can tell, corporate-aligned politicians of both parties have been overwhelmingly successful in wielding propaganda to quell significant threats.
To me it seems that the focus of the post is on socio-cultural issues rather than economic. To wit, Bernie Sanders may be categorzied as part of the far left, but the focus of his platform and message were economic rather than socio-cultural. Arguably, the culture war is almost entirely focused, well on culture: i.e. the number of people being cancelled over demanding lower taxes is zero.
So from my European perspective: Yes, Bernie Sanders' economic proposals seem moderate (but not all of them: "Break up the big banks" ) but the "social justice oriented liberalism" does not.
That makes sense. The way the article was linked on the rising "far left" seemed to imply it was a concerning trend that young people were supportive of Democratic Socialism, despite the author never elaborating on why that would be a specific risk to EA.
Perhaps it would have been clearer if the risk was broken down as a set of movements or politicians that could spawn an authoritarian government, which doesn't map very well onto a left/right spectrum.
I am speaking purely as an speculating layman, but hasn’t Europe failed economically and militarily compared to American and Asian countries?
If you go by GDP per capita, most of europe is behind the US but ahead of most of Asia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)_per_capita (growth rates in Asia are higher though, so this might change at some point in the future.)
In terms of the Human Develompment Index https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Human_Development_Index (which seems like a better measure of "success" than just GDP), some countries (including large ones like Germany and the UK) score above the US but others score lower. Most of Asia (except for Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan) scores lower.
For the military aspect, it kind of depends on what you mean by "failed"? Europe is clearly not as militarily capable as the US, but it also seems quite questionable whether spending as much as the US on military capabilities is a good choice, especially for allies of the US who also possess (or are strongly connected with) other countries who possess nuclear deterrence.
I enjoyed this blog post on disanalogies between the Cultural Revolution and present-day American political unrest. An excerpt:
I'd strongly suggest adding this post to appendix 1, especially given its 235 comments.
I appreciate your post but I take issue with the fact you focused on both sides of the political spectrum. In my opinion, the political left is a far greater risk. You cited the alt-right, and the tiny Unite the Right rally, but the alt-right has almost no cultural relevance compared to the amount of media attention it receives. As for the idea that Trump will threaten the peaceful transition of power, I anticipate this will just be another failed prediction, along with the predictions that Hillary would win, and that Mueller would find evidence of collusion. As you mentioned, the left directly threatens free speech, a cornerstone of this nation. It seems especially important to shoot straight here and not deflect out of a faux sense of neutrality.
As the post does not focus on assigning blame, it seems objectively relevant to include the alt-right. Of course definitions vary over what exactly the alt-right is but at a very basic level it is indisputable that the election of Trump has increased polarization in a way that I doubt a Mitt Romney (farther away from the far right than Trump) presidency would have.