Eisenstein's (minor) Error
The psychologies of the Covidian and why you can't Steelman them
Charlie Eisenstein is a thoughtful writer who I’ve encountered more and more as the post-pandemic world rolls on. He seems to align much better with my own opinions with regard to the environment, medicine, and our general overall collective psychosis than most.
In his recent writing1, I was struck by this thought. Which I think encompasses part of what makes Charlie such an apt thinker, but is also just incorrect as to a matter of fact. He writes, addressing a commenter on a previous post
One of the main themes in the comments was betrayal and a shattering of trust. Many people are asking, Do we just forgive and forget and go back to normal? One commenter put it like this:
How do we move on with these people, some of them cherished friends and community members, in a way that honors and respects the pain, anger, anxiety, etc that went with being excluded or shut down or simply disengaged with as a result of our (courageous) positions taken over the last two years?
I imagine that people on the other side of the issue might express a similar sentiment. They might say, “How do we move on with these people who flouted the advice of the best experts, ignored the consensus science, tried to enroll us in their dangerous conspiracy theories, and thus put us all at risk?”
There is, however, a profound asymmetry between the two sides. One side experienced ostracism, censorship, cancellation, loss of jobs, loss of licenses, and exclusion from public spaces, while the other did not.
Firstly, I applaud Charlie for immediately noting and addressing the asymmetry in outcomes and not totally falling into the trap of false equipoise.
But as to the statement I bolded, I think there is a subtle error here.
You see, what Charlie is doing here is a sort of “steelmanning”2.
An inversion of the classic “straw man” argument (in which you substitute a weakened version of your opponent’s position and refute that weak version instead of addressing his actual position), with the “steel man” you create an even stronger version of you opponent’s argument, either to show off that you can refute even a version of their argument that they themselves would admit captures its essence better than they could (what I call the Socratic roundhouse slam dunk), or (more congenially) to really hammer down the exact point at which you differ so that you can come to a mutual understanding.
In general, steelmanning is a very good heuristic/technique for conducting productive arguments and organizing your thoughts, and it is a sign of a serious thinker. But it can have some perils of its own.
For instance, when thinking through broader ethical implications or is dealing with practical realities, one can be tempted to substitute the steelman for the actual man—in essence giving too much credit to people. It can thus shelter you from the reality on the ground (perhaps should be called the “flesh and blood man”?)
For example, consider the 2020 election. Last year, Darryl Cooper of the “Martyr Made” Podcast3 wrote a twitter thread “explaining” skepticism from Trump partisans with regard to the outcome of the election.
This is a great example of steelmanning. And I say this as someone who thinks the 2020 election was stolen.
The median 2020 “the election was stolen” partisan does not hold the opinions that Darryl attributes to him or her, and his or her reasoning isn’t very much in line with that Darryl presents. His thought process is much simpler—my guy lost, so the game was rigged, the other side are scoundrels. In spirit, it is not really different from the Clinton voting Russiagater or Stacie Abrahms. Or the “Hail to the thief! Bush stole Florida/Ohio” claims from over a decade ago.
In close elections, the losers will feel cheated and angry, that explains the phenomena of most discontents with regard to the election, all the rest is is intellectual gloss.4
Try and find the steel man Darryl describes and you’re likely to come up dry or at least wear out a pair of sneakers looking for him. But throw a horseshoe in most of the rural/small town areas with a lot of Trump support and you’ll likely land within 10 yards of a person who thinks “Yup, they cheated and stole it because they are demonic pedophiles”. The man of flesh and blood is quite different from the man of steel.
So back, to what Charlie is saying here. Is there anyone who fits the bill of supporting the covid regime and thinking “How do we move on with these people who flouted the advice of the best experts, ignored the consensus science, tried to enroll us in their dangerous conspiracy theories, and thus put us all at risk?”, is there a real, flesh and blood, person who corresponds to this sentence?
No, that is a nearly non-existent steel man.
The point of reference I like to use here is that of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
In that case, the equivalent person might be the one who says something like
“How do we deal with all these anti-war people? Who refuse to believe the assessments of our best intelligence experts, disregard the military consensus that Saddam is dangerous, spout nonsense conspiracy theories about ‘blood for oil’, and put us all at risk?”
Now, if you’re like me and you lived through the buildup to the Iraq War5 and its consequences, you may have just ruined your keyboard spitting out your drink laughing at that statement.
Nobody, I repeat, nobody held that position sincerely.
Sure, some warmongering neocon think-tankers would ape it on Sunday news shows. But time has proven them to be utterly full of shit, even for those who couldn’t see that from the start.
No, the support for the Iraq invasion fell into two clusters:
Elite supporters, those inside the beltway “consensus” hivemind, whose narrow and broad interests were felt to be served by the invasion and the growing war on terror—journalists get bloody combat and drama, defense contractors getting fat contracts, military officials who could justify their existence and claim glorious victories, neo-con and neo-liberal intellectuals who viewed it as an opportunity to play the world as a game, etc.
Average supporters, who were people driven by the basic “Current thing” phenomena we see today. Bombarded by propaganda, desperate for a sense of unity or collective purpose, adverse to social conflict (go-along-to-get-along types). They viewed any opposition as the crowd would the audience member who refuses to stand up at the critical moment in the game, or who refuses to play along and hide when there’s a “surprise” party.
Neither of these two types sincerely held their position because they so judged the facts, neither was genuinely perplexed or bewildered by the other side “not following consensus”, neither bothered to think through the agency of their opposition.
If they had been they would have encouraged and engaged in debate and discussion—instead, they black-listed The Dixie Chicks, wore American flag lapel pins, and chanted “Support our Troops” to silence opposition. Statements like our pro-War reformulation of Charlie’s covidian position would serve only instrumentally or as rationalizations.
The same thing has happened with the covidians, they too fracture into “Elite supporters” (bureaucrats, pharma executives, academic technocratic maximalists) who are cynically operating in their perceived collective and individual self-interest, and average supporters, who are merely traveling along with a kind of psychological herd instinct, channeling the same forces that makes everyone cheer and act ridiculous at a sporting event.
But there isn’t a covidian who genuinely just stares in frustrated bewilderment at the opposition “why can’t they Trust the Science?!”. From the “elite” covidians, such a statement, if spoken, is only meant instrumentally to identify you as a baddie, a la “why can’t they Support Our Troops?!” From the average covidian, (much less likely to be spoken) it is expressive of a kind of frustration “why do you have to be difficult, can’t you just go along?!”, based on the child like belief that it would all just go away, the war would be won, the pandemic over, if it weren’t for the people not going with the flow and listening to
mom and dad the experts.
So, there is more asymmetry than Charlie notes. He is wrong in thinking (hoping) that there is some kind of mirror version of himself on the other side of this issue—some kind of parity in the levels of sincere curiosity. But there isn’t. What we have seen here is a type, a pattern, a cluster way of sociological opinion formation which serves other purposes, and is not and cannot be a rational assessment of facts or ethical judgment of values.
Still as to the ultimate question of how do we reconcile ourselves with our fellow covidian man, after seeing the crazy irrationality and despicable lack of character over the last two years?
I can’t answer that for others, but I’ve just simply come to accept that the only way to keep myself from being miserable is to lower my standards and expectations from other people.
I can only get but so upset when a dog eats garbage and vomits, it’s what dogs do.
Likewise, when I see someone getting whipped up to delusional levels from the “current thing”, or some Ivy league grad maliciously exploiting the same, I recall:
As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.
An excellent podcast and one I highly recommend. The Jim Jones episodes would be given Pulitzer equivalents in a just world.
What was more interesting in 2020 was the over-the-top, censorious reaction by the establishment to this mostly natural and well established sore-loser post-electoral phenomena. That reaction came from two sources—their fears and the unpredictability of Trump and his position of power at the time, and the fact that they did in fact steal the election this time.
It really is crazy to me that kids in college now have no memory of this and now I have to qualify it. And soon all will have been born after it.