Cry rape

Now would appear to be the opportune moment to discuss the rape-specific aspect of the general euphemism treadmill phenomenon. This pretty much always happens but it’s been especially difficult to avoid lately. Basically, rape-culture-related claims are always described as one level less severe than what they really are. Rape gets euphemised as sexual assault, assault becomes harassment, harassment becomes “inappropriate misconduct” or some shit, and everything else basically falls off the map.

There are a few reasons why this is more than typical bourgeois overpoliteness. The first is the general instinct to soften claims against powerful people. It’s not exactly news that society is built around flattering the prejudices of elites, but there’s an ideological tilt to it as well: pretty much everyone gives benefit of the doubt in proportion to how powerful the target already is. Naturally, this is backwards. Claims against powerful people are automatically going to be downplayed simply by virtue of that fact; that’s pretty much what being powerful means. So it’s much safer to err on the side of viciousness, since there’s basically no chance a powerful person is ever going to face consequences that are too severe relative to their behavior (especially since they should all just be killed a priori). For example, the Iraq War is usually described as a “mistake” or “quagmire” or something along those lines, when the truth is that even “catastrophe” is far too genteel – what it actually was, and still is, is a war crime. People have literally been executed for less. But calling it a war crime isn’t going to bring Bush any closer to a guillotine, so if anything the correct move is to overstate the case just to push the envelope further in that direction (assuming there’s actually a way to overstate “war of aggression”). Being skittish about this completely defeats the purpose of bringing up the issue in the first place. Just throw the punch.

But this type of euphemism also plays an important role in rape culture specifically. One of the key aspects of rape culture is an implicit denial of not just the severity of particular cases of abuse, but of sexual violence as a concept. People sometimes like to say that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a person, but once the issue actually comes up it’s clear that they don’t really believe it. Typical excuses are frequently things like “she was being a tease” or “he’s a guy, he couldn’t help himself” or “what did she expect, doing <insert literally any action>”, and in cases of obvious guilt the lines become things like “she was acting friendly with him afterwards, so it couldn’t have been that bad” or “it’s not worth ruining his life over.” What’s notable about these arguments is not just that they’re always bullshit, but that they’re extremely weak. Swap murder in for rape and even vaguely implying any of these things would make you look like a straight up sociopath. After all, if someone has an “instinctive desire” to say, kill people and eat them, and if the victim of such a person “brought it on themselves” by acting carelessly, we don’t consider that to be any kind of excuse – if anything it just makes the person even more condemnable. In fact, these claims are so weak that they are only comprehensible at all if you are operating under the assumption that rape is nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Even things like theft and adultery that are genuinely several orders of magnitude less harmful than rape don’t elicit these kinds of responses. We don’t always think they’re that big of a deal, but we address them with an appropriate level of seriousness.

So one of the functions of euphemisation is to uphold this order of values. This begins with the false distinction between “violent rape” (or, in Whoopi Goldberg’s famously idiotic formulation, “rape-rape”) and “date rape.” Since the entire thing about rape is that it’s physical coercion, a lack of injury doesn’t indicate a “less severe” type of rape any more than asphyxiation or poisoning are “less severe” types of murder. Rather, the fact that some rapes involve more bodily harm than others simply means that in those cases an additional crime is being committed – they’re cases of rape and also battery or murder. Euphemising some rapes as “sexual assaults” is one of the ways that people convince themselves that a distinction actually exists, when it doesn’t.

Other distinctions do of course exist – the proper use of the term “sexual assault” is to indicate situations involving physical coercion but not intercourse. (There is some slipperiness here, but it’s a direct result of the slipperiness in what counts as “sex” in general; the assault part is actually very straightforward by comparison.) In fact, groping, which often gets glossed as “harassment,” is actually worse than assault. Assault, legally, requires only a physical threat rather than actual contact – actual contact is called “battery,” hence the term “assault and battery,” because they’re different things, but when you punch someone you’re committing both of them. Groping is sexual battery. Louis C.K.’s actions – masturbating in front of people in situations they felt unable to exit due to intimidation – are correctly classified as sexual assault. Direct verbal intimidation – for example, walking up to someone on the street and telling them “what you’d like to do to them” – is not “creepy” but is in fact assault.

Continuing down the line, “harassment” means to impede someone by creating a hostile environment for them. For example, the extremely lame joke that that one Uber guy made during the Uber meeting about how Uber is totally going to start doing something about sexism was described as “sexist” and “inappropriate,” but what it actually was was harassment. The attitude that it expresses stifles women’s actions on the basis of their being women and creates an environment in which they cannot operate effectively. It wasn’t “tone-deaf” or “out of place,” it was actively harmful (or it would have been, had there been any non-extremely-rich women present).

It’s important to insist on the correct terms not just for the sake of conceptual accuracy, but because without them, the real issue drops out of the picture. The issue is not about sex; sex in these cases is the means by which dominance is exercised. This obviously results in a unique set of dynamics – sex is uniquely suitable for exercising dominance due to the fact the we conceptualize ordinary sex as dominance in the first place – but getting rid of the sex doesn’t get rid of the coercion. Precisely because the issue is not really about sex, men who “act appropriately” are nowhere near off the hook. Recognizing the conceptual gap between sex and dominance reveals the possibilities of being a filthy pervert who only gets off consensually, and also of being a prude whose ordinary non-sexual behavior oppresses women. The Mike Pence Strategy of not interacting with women in the first place is actually just as bad as the Harvey Weinstein Strategy of using women for your own gratification in the course of working on their careers, because both have the same practical effect of relegating women to second-class status and denying them access to power. (Honestly, while it’s not for me to say, the Weinstein approach could be considered the preferable alternative, because someone like that might actually end up helping your career in the course of otherwise being a shitbag, whereas someone like Pence simply has no role for you other than “Mother”.)

Thus, the net effect of this whole chain of expressions is to negate the part of each concept that relates to the actual problem. Rape folds into sex, assault folds into flirting, and harassment folds into jokes and banter, and in each case the true central dynamic – coercion and dominance – precipitates out of the solution. (By the way, there’s still room for umbrella terms such as “abuse” or “violence,” and in fact it’s important to these terms when grouping together behaviors like Weinstein’s and C.K.’s, so that you’re accurately generalizing rather than conflating distinct behaviors.) The importance of defining deviance upward is not just not respond to the issue with the appropriate ardency, but to respond to the part of the issue that is the actual issue.

Doing this requires arguing in terms that the Keepers of the Norms will dismiss as “extremist” and “hysterical” and “shrill” and “intemperate” and I could literally go on all day with this, also you should probably notice how many gatekeeping terms are simultaneously sexist insults. While we do, at long last, have a culture that actually talks about abuse, this should provide no comfort. In fact, it introduces a significant new danger: the conversation about abuse is being conducted on patriarchal terms, with the implicit goal of channeling outrage and placating anxiety without actually changing anything. Seeing yourself acting in accord with rich fucks is the number one red flag that your tactics are counterproductive.

It is therefore critical to draw a distinction between extremism, which is potentially justified depending on how big the problem in question really is, and inaccuracy, which is never justified by any amount of good intentions. Centrist op-ed assholes fucking love to conflate these things, but they’re entirely different. You can be a frothing ideologue while also being right, and you can be a polite even-hander who is wrong about literally everything. In the same sense, though, trying to overstate the issue as much as possible (such as if, hypothetically, you were trying to make yourself look good on some kind of public forum) is generally a good way to take a correct stance and make it wrong.

Specifically, current events have encouraged a number of people to back themselves into the following corner:

I really doubt you could find a lot of women outside of ethnic cleansing campaigns who would be willing to describe their life experiences in this way, and if we’re talking about the experiences of successful women in Hollywood, which we mostly are right now, then this is downright farcical. (Also, acting all shocked and aghast about basic information that you didn’t know because you’ve somehow failed to ever pick up a fucking book in your life while transparently begging for head-pats re: what a good sensitive boy you are is not an attractive look.) (Also, if you’re a man and you believe this, you are the movie monster, so you’re ethically obligated to kill yourself, which you aren’t going to, so stop lying.)

The problem with this isn’t that it’s overwrought (although still stop it please), it’s that it’s a factually incorrect description of the situation. While all men are complicit in patriarchy by virtue of the fact that their gender allocates privileges to them without their consent (and this is actually bad for men in the long run, which is why patriarchy hurts men too), very few men are actual abusers. Rape rates along the line of one-in-four are occasionally cited as ridiculous overestimates, but what a number like that actually says is that the vast majority of women go their whole lives without being raped. And because predators are predators, they usually attack multiple victims, which means the number of male assailants is even lower than that. None of this makes the issue less serious – indeed, the fact that a tiny minority of abusers is able to define what gender means for an entire society is properly horrifying – but it does mean that the issue operates differently than a simplistic conception in which all men are constantly out to get all women (also, plenty of women are collaborators, which is one of the problems with “believing women”). Inaccuracy in the advocacy of a just cause harms that cause, and should therefore be considered just as dangerous as outright opposition. Once you’ve got the dynamics, right, though, you should address them in the most extreme terms that you possibly can. Being extreme when you’re wrong makes your wrongness worse, but being extreme when you’re right makes your rightness better. So, you should get things right, and you should be an extremist about them, in that order.

For example, one of the classic radical feminist arguments is that, because patriarchal society does not take consent seriously as a concept and instead assumes that male sexuality is inherently predatory, “rape” in patriarchal terms is simply sex that violates certain social norms. Thus, patriarchal ideology does not draw a real conceptual distinction between sex and rape, making it accurate to assert that, from the patriarchal point of view, “all sex is rape.” (To be clear, since everyone constantly gets this backwards, it is sexists who believe this proposition, and feminists who reject it in favor of the proposition that men are people.) To insist on this interpretation of the situation while simultaneously insisting on the facts that few women experience rape and very few men are actual rapists (as opposed to unreflective rape-sympathizers) is to describe the true dynamics of the situation with maximum severity.

No matter what issue you’re working on, you’re eventually going to run into a “Rolling Stone campus rape article” situation that puts you on the wrong side of the consensus and threatens to discredit your approach. The correct response to these events is to ignore them – you shouldn’t even try to argue against them, because even if you win, it doesn’t actually help your case. That Rolling Stone article appropriately reflects on no one but the people who wrote and edited it, and the lie itself reflects on no one but the liar. The fact that one person lied and one magazine sucks provides zero evidence one way or the other about how rape operates in society. I mean, if you seriously thought that no women ever lied about rape, then yeah, that’s news for you, but nobody’s really operating under that assumption, and no similar belief is required for making sense of the issue. There’s all kinds of fucked up people in the world, and getting hung up on the details of this or that case is exactly how you fail to understand anything. Narratives can be useful tools, but narrative cannot be allowed to supersede analysis. If your analysis is actually correct and not merely convenient, then it’s correct even in the face of complicated real-world situations, and you should continue to advance it even as a response to those very situations. The correct response to a woman falsely crying rape is for women to continue to cry rape.

I’ll close with a personal example. Back when I first started reading about feminism on the internet, I was briefly stymied by frequent use of the term “rape culture.” I’d be reading an article and finding it persuasive, but that term always caused me to stop short, since it seemed so obviously inaccurate. Rape is obviously officially proscribed by society, to the extent that you can ask pretty much anyone what the worst thing you can do to a person is and “rape” will almost always be right at the top of the list. So it seemed to clearly be “too much” to describe the problem as a pervasive cultural effect rather than specific areas that weren’t being accounted for or taken seriously enough. But I kept running into the term, so I kept having to think about it, and eventually I realized where the gap in my understanding was. First, “rape” as a term does not have a necessary mapping onto a particular category of physical behavior (because no term does), which means that the things people officially proscribe are only a tiny subset of what sexual violence actually is. Shifting standards from a general sense of impropriety to a specific technical definition of violation changes which things count as rape, and a lot of the things that count under the latter standard end up being things which most people condone. Second, just because people say they’re against rape doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything about it. (What cultural criticism does a lot of the time is just to get people to change the way they talk about things while continuing to take the same actions as they were before.) It’s easy to talk big in the abstract, but when an actual person is being accused of something, interested parties tend to revert to denial and excuse-making. And these problems aren’t personal idiosyncrasies, but rather general aspects of the way we define and discuss the issue as a society – they result in predictable behavior that has predictable effects. Ergo, rape culture.

In short, I learned something, and this only happened because the people I was reading were willing to describe the situation in extreme terms that were also accurate. If these writers had been describing the situation incorrectly, such as by saying that most men were rapists, I would have correctly concluded that they weren’t worth paying attention to, and I wouldn’t have learned anything. But if they had been accurate while also “to be fair”-ing themselves into oblivion, I would never have noticed that I was missing anything, and I would have considered myself enlightened without actually changing anything about my beliefs or behavior. Properly applied extremism is the thing that distinguishes empty talk from effectiveness.

If this really is a crisis, then it merits yelling loudly and unpleasantly enough to make people uncomfortable. Talking about “inappropriateness” or “misconduct” is not going to convince anyone of anything (because those terms are non-specific except for their built-in negative valence, they’re incapable of telling anyone anything they don’t already know). Correct analysis requires extremism, and actually doing something about it requires extreme actions. The best moderation can do is manage the danger, temporarily, until the day when it finally gets fed up with your bullshit and lunges.

Latin roots

This otherwise unremarkable article includes a rather curious construction:

My major concern about Clinton’s comments (aside from the fact that her identity instantly polarizes any discussion of this topic and makes “independent” inquiry impossible) is her use of the word “legitimacy,” a word that is derived from the Latin word legitimus, which means lawful. Does a legitimate election mean one in which no laws were broken by the winning campaign? Quite likely there has never been such an election.

If “legitimate” means “legal,” and every presidential campaign has involved illegal behavior, then it is literally Logic 101 to conclude that every presidential election has been illegitimate. One would think that the whole point of puffing oneself up and belching out a Latin etymology, all in italics and shit would be to draw precisely this sort of logically necessary conclusion, but, amazingly, the only purpose of the author’s nitpicking is to draw the empty conclusion that the official results of the election were the official results of the election.

Of course, if we’re going to take concepts seriously, then the question of “legitimacy” goes far beyond picking grammatical nits. The U.S. government’s claim to legitimacy rests on the idea of “the will of the people.” Because the citizenry is not directly involved in almost any government decision, elected representatives have to be able to claim that they’re just doing what their constituents want them to do, that people are “getting what they voted for.” This argument requires two premises to hold: everybody has to pay attention and vote, such that the input to the system is sufficiently representative, and the candidates have to accurately represent themselves and their interests, such that what people think they’re voting for is in fact what they’re voting for.

Neither of these premises actually holds. Relatively few Americans vote, and the electoral spectacle, as a rule, avoids discussion of policies and even values as much as possible in favor of pageantesque preening and reality-show drama milling. These problems are fixable; the solutions are mostly obvious and I won’t bother recounting them here. But nobody in the government is actually trying to fix them. On the contrary, politicians spend most of their time catering to the spectacle and actively suppressing votes. This, then, is the true sense in which elections are illegitimate: they simply to do not pass a reasonable evaluation of the relevant criteria.

For example, very few people voted Republican because they wanted corporations to get a huge tax break. Yet that is precisely the Republicans’ top priority; furthermore, they aren’t trying to convince anyone or even discuss the issue at all, they’re just trying to ram it through as quickly and with as little oversight as possible. Thus, this behavior is illegitimate on basic democratic principles, regardless of the specific institutional mechanisms by which it transpires. Talking about “legality” or “process” here entirely misses the problem.

But the criteria themselves are also not set in stone. Consider, for example, the debate over money in politics. Some people believe that, because those with money “earned” their money, they have the right to use it as they will to attempt to affect society. Others believe that politics should be a sacred ground where the pernicious influence of money is banished so the focus can remain on actual discussion rather than propaganda. This is a live debate on which there is currently no consensus among Americans, and which position you take directly determines which elections you can consider legitimate (if you take the latter position, then, again, no elections are legitimate). So if you only focus on legalities like campaign finance laws and bribes and things, you’re ignoring the bulk of the issue. The fact that particular actions happen to be legal at this exact point in time says nothing about the moral standing of the actors; on the contrary, it says something about the state of the law. It’s tautological to describe a particular government action as “lawful” when it’s the government making the laws in the first place. The reason Nixon was full of shit when he said that “if the President does it, it’s not illegal” was not because he was technically incorrect, but because that’s beside the point. If it happened to be legal to break into your political opponents’ facilities and steal their information, that wouldn’t change the moral legitimacy of an election whose results were premised on those actions.

This is also one of the many reasons why all of these Russia histrionics are so disgusting. We don’t need Russian interference to give us something to criticize about the U.S. election process. Even if the all of the imagined Glenn Beck chalkboard arrows turn out to be real, it would all still amount to nothing more than a drop of piss in our vast ocean of bullshit. We have several beams to remove from our own eyes before it will become worthwhile to bother with splinters like those.

People think the current situation, where everything is premised on lies and analysis has no impact, means that rationality has failed, but the truth is they don’t really know what it looks like. As soon as you fail to draw a conclusion that reason requires you to, you lose the name of action. Analysis doesn’t ever have an impact unless it ends in a fist. “Reason” in such a case is merely the guise you assume as a peddler of comforting fictions. The alarmist tenor of the moment is actually a perverse means of reassurance: it is the subconscious insistence that, once the crisis has passed, everything will go back to normal.

This is why theory matters – and why facts don’t matter until you have your theory right. Complaints about “re-litigating” this or that election are premised on the notion that elections are atomic: the only purpose of an election is to generate a result; the result has already been generated; there’s no point in discussing it any further. And it’s true that specific infidelities, such as Clinton’s financial arrangement with the DNC, stop mattering at some point. What is the point, though, is that revelations such as these show us not how things went down once, but rather show us how they always are. It’s not that we’re going to going to change the results or that Sanders “would have won,” it’s that, as long as this is the way things are, any candidate who is even remotely Sanders-like will always lose. Which of course means that we didn’t need really the revelations at all. We just needed to draw the real conclusions of what we already knew. The only way you can understand this is by figuring out not what happened but rather how things work.

The sticking point here is pretty straightforward. It’s cowardice. Literally all the signs right now are pointing not to the conclusion that things have gone wrong, but to the conclusion that the world was always constituted wrong. A situation this grotesque can only have arisen because it was inevitable. But that’s too scary, so people just don’t think about it. They feel like they need to say something “serious,” so they adjust their spectacles and cite their references, and then go right back to reading Harry Potter. Unfortunately, ceasing to believe in evil wizards is one of the basic preconditions for being an adult human. Trump being president is one problem. The fact that someone like Trump was able to become president is all the problems.

And it is in fact rationality that can solve these problems. Yes, I will admit that, despite everything, in the midst of insanity and in the face of looming catastrophe, I still cling to the dying embers of the oldest faith. Seriously though, rationality isn’t just a dull matter of calculating statistics and conjugating verbs. Real rationality means real engagement with the real world as it really exists. That doesn’t mean that things are always what they seem. It means that, behind the curtain, there is always a reason, a physical cause, that makes things seem the way they do. And because the universe was not designed but is rather an unintentional jumble of proteins, those reasons are generally not going to be appealing plot developments that slide easily into place. They’re generally going to hurt.

Etymology isn’t destiny, but it can help show you what the world is made out of – assuming you’re actually willing to find out. If you’re going to claim that you’ve gotten to the root of the issue, you’d better have dirt on your hands. There’s nothing more pitiful than fake scholarship.

See no evil

My last post requires an addendum. I mentioned that expecting social media companies to filter out bad political content is a fool’s errand, because all you’d be doing is shackling yourself to someone else’s biases. So there’s that, but there’s also a deeper, category-level confusion which has been occurring with increased prevalence and which pretty much nobody is picking up on.

Some time ago, Google changed its search interface to add little boxes and things for “recommended” results. This is supposed to make it easier to find answers to direct questions without having to go through a whole page of links. But people have been noticing that this approach leads to a lot of untoward results; for example, queries regarding the Holocaust used to produce Holocaust denial pages in the boxy results. It’s easy to understand why this happens: most people accept the occurrence of the Holocaust as a historical fact, so the only people who actually input queries along the lines of “did the Holocaust really happen?” are denialists (or at least budding denialists), who then click through to denialist sites. So the Google algorithm is just performing its usual function of showing people the most popular results correlated with their input.

There isn’t actually a way around this. As long as there are Holocaust denial sites on the internet, there will exist some query that directs you to them. I mean, if there wasn’t, Google wouldn’t be much of a search engine, right? But that doesn’t mean that there’s no problem here. Rather, the problem is specifically with the boxes that pick out some of the results and stamp them with the imprimatur of officiality. As long as that’s happening, Google actually is recommending those results. So the only sensible option here is to get rid of the boxy results. Google’s job is to show you what’s on the internet and nothing else.

Importantly, there is a technical reason why this is the correct solution. It is impossible for Google’s boxy results feature to work “correctly,” because it is internally contradictory. It is intended to be both a dynamically-generated response based on the most relevant data currently present on the internet and an Official Correct Answer. You can’t do both of those things at once. You have to pick one. Furthermore, picking the second one is also impossible, because the number of potential questions is literally infinite. What the boxy results actually are is an illusion. They look like a recommendation when they are actually no different than anything else that happens to come up in the list of results. The reason that boxy results specifically reflect badly on Google is because they are lies. It is correct to say in this case that Google is lying to you, even though the results are completely unintentional, because Google has constructed its interface to look like something that it is not, and is thereby conveying false information.1 So the only logically viable option is for Google to quit fucking around and just be a search engine, which, you might recall, was the whole thing it was good at in the first place.2

People seem to be having a certain amount of difficulty understanding this. Naturally, there’s always a performative moral crisis when something like this happens, but in this case the complaints are almost universally targeted at the same, specific, exactly wrong place. Consider this article, which correctly points out that the problem is specifically with the boxy results:

For most of its history, Google did not answer questions. Users typed in what they were looking for and got a list of web pages that might contain the desired information. Google has long recognized that many people don’t want a research tool, however; they want a quick answer. Over the past five years, the company has been moving toward providing direct answers to questions along with its traditional list of relevant web pages.

Type in the name of a person and you’ll get a box with a photo and biographical data. Type in a word and you’ll get a box with a definition. Type in “When is Mother’s Day” and you’ll get a date. Type in “How to bake a cake?” and you’ll get a basic cake recipe. These are Google’s attempts to provide what Danny Sullivan, a journalist and founder of the blog SearchEngineLand, calls “the one true answer.” These answers are visually set apart, encased in a virtual box with a slight drop shadow. According to MozCast, a tool that tracks the Google algorithm, almost 20 percent of queries — based on MozCast’s sample size of 10,000 — will attempt to return one true answer.

Unfortunately, not all of these answers are actually true.

and then immediately descends into psychotic gibberish:

Google needs to invest in human experts who can judge what type of queries should produce a direct answer like this, Shulman said. “Or, at least in this case, not send an algorithm in search of an answer that isn’t simply ‘There is no evidence any American president has been a member of the Klan.’ It’d be great if instead of highlighting a bogus answer, it provided links to accessible, peer-reviewed scholarship.”

. . .

The fastest way for Google to improve its featured snippets is to release them into the real world and have users interact with them. Every featured snippet comes with two links in the footnote: “About this result,” and “Feedback.” The former explains what featured snippets are, with guidelines for webmasters on how to opt out of them or optimize for them. The latter simply asks, “What do you think?” with the option to respond with “This is helpful,” “Something is missing,” “Something is wrong,” or “This isn’t useful,” and a section for comments.

This is all nonsense. The problem is that Google gives some of its results a false sense of authority, so the solution is for it to give a different set of its results even more of a false sense of authority, while also soliciting comments from everyone and putting in 3,000 different links allowing people to leave 30,000 different layers of feedback, because then the results won’t be confusing anymore.

Again, there are a literally infinite number of possible queries and results, which is the whole reason you write a search engine in the first place. Putting in custom results for specific queries both breaks the functionality of what Google is supposed to be doing, and is a futile game of whack-a-mole, a drop of water in a sea of bullshit. Furthermore, when you go down this road you’re trusting Google to provide the “right” results, which is a task at which it has absolutely no institutional competence. Is there seriously anyone who still hasn’t noticed that nerds are generally extremely bad at anything outside of their direct area of expertise? (That’s kind of the definition of “nerd,” actually.) To precisely the extent that you have a curated system, you do not have a search engine. You have some nerd’s journal.

Again, again, Google can either be a search engine or a source of direct information. It can’t be both things, and the practical effect of “solutions” like this is to transform Google into an extremely shitty direct information source. Think about this for literally five seconds: if the problem is that the web has a bunch of shitty content on it, then how is soliciting more information from the same place going to change anything? Are we seriously assuming that Holocaust deniers are going to be above gaming these sorts of things? The idea that individual people can change Google results by yelling at the company loudly enough is not any kind of solution; it’s properly horrifying. It means that search results are constantly subject to the random whims and biases of the people who are the best at yelling about things on the internet. This isn’t order; it’s chaos.

You may recall that the internet already has a source for crowdsourced direct information. It’s called Wikipedia. And, indeed, the problem that a lot of people are having here is that they are expecting Google to be the same thing as Wikipedia. In other words, they are incapable of understanding that a search engine and a source of information are different types of things, and thus, when one of them doesn’t behave like the other, they see it as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed”:

This is a really remarkable comment, especially coming from a guy with a fucking book emoji in his name. There’s not even an argument here, there’s just a completely unexamined assumption that Google and Wikipedia are directly comparable on some kind of “information quality” level or something and that one of them is “better” than the other. This is as far from intellectualism as it’s possible to get. (Don’t even get me started on the pathetic haughtiness of “do better,” as though it were any kind of meaningful statement (as though it imparted any semantic content at all), let alone a solution.)

Since I know I have to say this explicitly, I am absolutely not arguing that there is any such thing as a “neutral” platform or algorithm or that Google is not completely fucked up and deserving of excoriation. This isn’t about “neutrality” and “bias,” this is about what type of thing a thing is. What I am arguing is that things need to be criticized for what they are actually doing. It is correct for people to give Wikipedia shit about, for example, how it addresses trans people, because what’s on Wikipedia was put there by a specific person and approved by other specific people. Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” thing is largely bullshit, because you can’t actually do that, but it is correct for it to attempt to stick to the facts and avoid editorializing. There’s no point in complaining that Wikipedia doesn’t promote your own personal political philosophy hard enough. But when it comes to something like which gender you use to refer to a trans person, there isn’t a “neutral option,” and the issue can’t be avoided. You have to make a choice, and that choice merits criticism.

So, as mentioned, the part of the Google results that is actually wrong is the boxy results, and they’re wrong in general, not just when they display “wrong” answers. Aspiring detectives may have noticed that I lied earlier. The Holocaust denial thing didn’t actually come up in one of the boxy results, it was just at the top of the normal list. So the people complaining there actually were full of shit. More specifically, they were full of shit insofar as they were directing their complaints at Google. The existence of the site is the problem, not the fact that Google’s algorithm noticed that it was on the internet and displayed it to the people to whom it calculated it was probably relevant.

This does not mean the algorithm is “neutral.”3 There’s no such thing. There are a lot of different methods you can use to find and display search results. They can be based on the site’s overall popularity, or on how many people clicked through from a given source, or on how well the content appears to match the search parameters regardless of traffic patterns. You can even switch this around; you could, for example, specifically promote less popular sites when they match certain search criteria. This would distribute traffic more equally and advance less popular opinions, though it might also increase the bullshit ratio. Hell, you could even take all the valid results and just display them randomly – this would actually have the positive effect of promoting previously unknown sources (hi), even though it would certainly increase the bullshit ratio, perhaps by quite a lot (depending on the extent to which “authoritative” sources are actually bullshit in the first place).

These are the real choices Google has to make even if it stops lying, and any choice made here is going to have political results. Pushing all the results towards the New York Times center is just as much of a political action as promoting fringe sites. So criticism of the behavior of Google’s algorithm is in fact within bounds here, as long as that’s actually what you’re criticizing. Pointing out that one bad result appears in one place is not a real argument, because nobody actually put it there. In order to make that argument, you have to argue against the general behavior that results in that particular output, and when you do that, you are implicitly arguing against all of the behavior that results from the parameters you’re selecting for criticism. You can coherently make the argument that Google should be promoting more “authoritative” results, but only if you’re willing to accept that non-authoritative results that you happen to agree with will also get downgraded. And the reason I’m claiming that people are full of shit here is that I don’t think anyone actually believes this. What people actually want is for the bad results to just not be there, because their existence is actively immoral. Which is an entirely praiseworthy opinion, but you can’t just wish them away. You have to think about how you actually want these things to be determined, because the consequences are going to be far greater than the one or two bad results you happen to encounter. I mean, if you really do want only “officially approved” sources displayed when you perform a general internet search, I’m within my rights to conclude that you’re an authoritarian.

There’s a reason this is happening, though. Google is not trying to act as a search engine and failing; it is choosing to promote itself as an source of information and is doing so dishonestly. The reason it is making this choice is that it is what people want. People don’t actually want to know what’s out there on the internet. They want a magic box to give them the right answer. That’s the only possible explanation for the proliferation of those stupid talking internet cylinders. My ability to comment intelligently on this aspect of the problem is somewhat limited, as I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would a) pay to b) put a robot in the middle of their house that c) talks at them and d) constantly monitors them in order to e) sell them shit, all for the sake of f) an inferior version of the functionality that you already have on your desktop and know how to use, because you ordered the thing off of Amazon in the first place. That is literally my idea of hell. Anyway, the reason people buy these things, one supposes, is that they want to be able to yell indistinctly at a robot and have the robot give them the magical Correct Answer. In other words, they want to be lied to. In order to respond to this desire, Google has to be dishonest, because it’s not possible to honestly create an incoherent system.

Pressuring Google to censor “bad” search results one at a time doesn’t solve a real problem.4 I don’t actually object to Holocaust denial sites being delisted (good riddance, obviously), but I do object to intentional delusion. I object to people who think that removing unpleasant things from their field of vision is the same as improving material conditions for living humans. Indeed, what we’re really talking about here is removing unpleasant truths, because it is a real fact that these sites really exist, and that their existence accurately reflects the fact that large numbers of people sincerely believe these things. This is real news. All obscuring it does is make liberals feel better because now they don’t have to see the bad things. You may recall that this dynamic has resulted in some problems recently.

The true fact of the matter is that the world is a disgusting place. This should neither be accepted nor ignored. But not ignoring it also means not fooling yourself about where things are coming from. It means choosing high-value targets and not easy ones. It means understanding how the things you are yelling at work so that you can yell at them accurately. It means taking actions that actually move the world in a better direction instead of the ones that merely move you into a more comfortable chair. Above all, it means keeping your eyes open to the things that are the most disgusting to look at. The only option for interacting with reality is to learn how to navigate the sea of bullshit.

It is for this reason that category errors matter. If you can’t tell the difference between a racist website written by a person and the racist output of an algorithm, you are not actually perceiving reality. Even though those things are both wrong – even though algorithms can be just as blameworthy as individual people – they’re wrong for different reasons, and they require different responses. There’s a reason we have different names for different things. Different things are different. A search engine is not the same thing as a news site. Treating different things as though they were the same thing is called stupidity. It makes you wrong about things.

We also have a name for the desire to retreat from a complicated world into a simplistic shell of officially-verified Correct Answers. It’s called cowardice.

 

 


  1. So, strictly speaking, this is a UX problem and not an algorithm problem. The extent to which a program’s interface determines its functionality both apart from and synergistically with its back-end code is kind of a whole other thing, though. 
  2. In case you’re wondering, AI, in addition to not being a solution, is not even a unique issue here. An actually intelligent AI would actually be intelligent, i.e. it would be a person. A practical AI that is not intelligent is just a fancy executable. This is actually another category error: the kind of AIs we have right now are just really complicated single-function computer programs; the sci-fi type of AI is an actual agent with human-like general reasoning capabilities (or perhaps not-so-human-like, but at least functionally similar). No matter how impressive the former is, it’s not the same type of thing as the latter. People are constantly getting this wrong and freaking out over really simple programs displaying barely surprising behavior; frankly, I don’t understand why people are so eager to leap to the completely unsupported conclusion that robots are about to take over the world. Anyway, the point is that we ought to be using two different terms for these things, because they are in fact different things. 
  3. You might want to note that a search engine is actually an object – it’s a fixed block of executable code. Objects aren’t neutral, but that doesn’t make them the same type of thing as subjects.5 Objects do not (non-metaphorically) have things like “desires” or “goals.” They have inputs that they accept, internal calculations that they perform, and outputs that they generate. (This applies just as well to ordinary physical objects. When you throw a rock, the input is force, the internal calculations involve weight and wind resistance and ductility and soforth, and then the output is force again.) 
  4. Also, this isn’t even the half of it. Google is up to way shadier shit than this; specifically, Google’s advertising monopoly – the fact that it both sells ads and controls and extracts money from ad blockers, meaning it is effectively selling ads to itself – is a book-length problem with serious implications for how the internet is going to work. This is exactly why we have (or are supposed to have) antitrust regulation. Google shouldn’t be allowed to be both things. The extent to which this is a bigger problem than racist websites showing up sometimes cannot be overstated 
  5. The big plot twist is that, even though objects and subjects are distinctly different types of things, living in a material world means being a material girl. Er, it means that all people (subjects) are also objects. They’re physical bodies existing in physical space. Importantly, though, a person is not an object in addition to being a subject, but is rather one thing that is both an object and a subject at the same time, in the same mode of being. Reconciling this apparent paradox is one of the Great Problems.