Articulation as Skill, Articulation as Privilege

Context statement: Not all of the specific claims here are true. I want, rather, to highlight different strains of thought.


I like being around articulate people. Articulation is a skill one acquires, like so many other social skills, by actually flexing those muscles and seeing what works. So that articulate people have spent more time talking to people and understanding what they need to say to get through. Not only that, the fact that they talk more means that they have a better system of checks and balances for their thought; they’re more likely to have been pulled out of a rut of thought by someone else noticing that what they said doesn’t quite make sense.

Because of all this, a conversation with articulate people is more likely to be an interesting and provocative learning experience, even taking into account the fact that they’re also better at bulllshitting people.

Note, of course, that I’m not talking about charisma but about articulation; charisma is likely to have a subtracting effect.


And yet, and yet.


Articulation is a skill that needs to be developed. That development has to start somewhere. Forays into new things are hard, and often a certain sort of reaction to such an assay can be extremely detrimental.

And, of course, certain sorts of people are rather more likely to get such a reaction — the less charismatic rather than the charismatic, the abnormal over the normal (normality being measured on pretty much any axis), etc. We may call the property that causes this difference ‘privilege.’

Of course, even going beyond the first foray approximation mentioned above, these differences in reaction will persist, and venturing out into talking will always be a more comfortable risk for the privileged types, and therefore the set of articulate people will have a disproportionately high number of privileged types.

So, going solely by present skill to pick one’s social group causes the group to manifest a suboptimal status quo (assuming, of course, that the more articulate people the merrier). And, quite possibly there’s a positive feedback effect of some sort in which being screened off from from articulate people makes articulation harder to develop for the others beyond a certain level.

What can you do? The skills are useful.

Well, what you can do is have a suboptimal group and pay more attention to non-articulate people, so that you’re at least locally evening the playing field by a small amount. The only way things will get better is if everyone does it. And, if everyone does it for long enough, the inherent suboptimality of skill-based discrimination should disappear.


And then, the non-discriminatory habit you developed earlier becomes a horrible habit of giving a leg up to boring people.

And, after all, people are fucks; habits become fixed without accompanying conditionals. And habits of thought, especially, are horrible things that, on fixing, disappear from view and become part of one’s sense of defaults.

All of which means, you can’t expect the habit of giving a leg up to go away when it’s no longer needed. So, we need to vocally push back towards skill-based discrimination once we’re at this point; just as vocally as we earlier pushed away from it.


I suspect that a lot of your political beliefs can probably be deduced by where in this essay you most thought, “aha! He gets it.” and where in this essay you thought I was an idiot.

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What Feminism Taught Me

Two of the communities I’ve read obsessively on the internet are the social justice and the lesswrong.com-centred rationalist communities (henceforth LW and SJ, respectively). Both of these have taught me a lot. And the second one seems to me* to, with every passing day, hate the first more. Which is just sad; because the former has an extremely complicated picture of how social interactions work at various levels, which is at the very least is worth engaging with.

*To be clear, ‘seems’ is an important word here.

This, then, is me highlighting some of the commonalities of the two. In particular, I’ll talk about why some important LW ideas were completely unsurprising to me precisely because of my previous obsession with SJ.

1 The inside view and the outside view

There’s an episode of Boston Legal, both of whose leads are constant womanisers, where one of them is worried about being a misogynist – someone accused him of treating women as objects. Check it out:

[Ignoring the reply from the other guy,] He points out that one of the things that most turns him on about women is their intelligence. And then he concludes that he is objectifying them.* To put it politely, what the fuck?

*And this is not just in fiction. I remember telling people, slightly sheepishly, that when I was watching Anita Sarkeesian and Chimamandie Ngozi Adichie (two separate memories) (only two examples where I told people, not picked for diversity or whatever) for the first time I was distracted by how attractive they were. And both times the reply was, you understood what they were saying no?

Another useful question to ask is, is the manic pixie dream girl a sexist trope? Of course not, because not every character in a story can be equally developed, and it is the storyteller’s prerogative to tell the story ze chooses and figure out whom to develop in service of that story.

But let me tell you, both those are cases of… something wrong. See, neither Alan Shore nor the storyteller are acting out of intentional misogyny, and it isn’t even the case that their actions are better explained by ingrained misogynist beliefs. In fact, in a perfect world both would be perfectly acceptable.

But, we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in one where there is a wikipedia page on manic pixie dream girls, while manic pixie dream boys are so rare I know of but one example. We live in a world where men have the sexual-feeling-expressing prerogative and therefore feel much more freedom to act out their sexual desires than women (of course, Scott Aaronson exists; I don’t feel like arriving at a more correct statement so I’ll just cop out and say I’m describing the feminist consensus of reality here). And so, on average, each example of these things is another brick in the prison wall (heartfelt apologies to Pink Floyd for this one).

This has strong parallels with the LW concept of the inside and outside views. You might think you’re doing things for a particular reason, but that’s not good enough evidence that you’re not doing it for some other reason that can explain your actions. (There is somewhat more conceptual packaging in the SJ version, but I hope that the fact that there’s an essential similarity is clear.)

2 Everyone’s a misogynist/running on corrupted hardware.

This is something of a simple extension of the previous point. Because the fact that men and women have differing social roles has been part of the culture for so long, all sorts of default things that we do depend on the social roles differing. Like, the fact that my mom cooks whenever I’m at home while I lie in front of the TV. And therefore, the way you live is a part of the misogynist framework of the world.

In similar spirit, it is common lore among LWers that rationality is about ‘self-ing irrationality.’ The way to becoming better at truth is to realise that your brain is a source of irrationality. A lot of things revolve around the ways you can circumvent your brain’s idiocy.

Again, while the conceptual framework is somewhat different, there’s a core similarity in belief.

3 Ask/tell culture.

Suppose you’re an actual human feminist and you wonder, how do I maximally avoid the pitfalls that my model of social interactions tells me are everywhere? The answer, of course, is to be maximally clear! And so you end up with Captain Awkward and Ferrett Steinmetz and ask/tell culture (though, in this case, the feminists win, because they also worry about the fact that such a culture is absurdly easy to hack).

I don’t think this is an exhaustive list, but it’s non-zero in size and that’s something. Further things that I will explore (= irresponsibly speculate about), modulo my getting off my arse and writing, are why SJ ends up so toxic (actually explaining why the choices that led to this happened), a coherent account of SJ-thought (hint: much Gaussians), and what LW can learn from SJ.