Misnorms abound

A few times I’ve watched right-wing friends take a sudden and obsessive interest in a scientific controversy.

Two big ones are climate change and covid. They decide to do their own research, and dive into the literature. By “dive”, I mean they will read one papers or maybe two, and massive heaps of skeptical articles about those papers.

Then, having done their own research, they will confidently announce that this body of work is irregular, suspicious, and clearly unscientific.

My response to them is something like this: “How do you know what is scientific? To what are you comparing this work? Can you show me some examples of work you’ve examined that does conform to your understanding of scientific norms?” Invariably, the answer is “no” but never confessed directly but, rather thickly coated in longwinded, convoluted, hydra head-sprouting reasons why it doesn’t matter.

If I were a better person, I’d leave it there. But I am not a better person, and I turn nasty and sarcastic, and make accusations: “You have absolutely no interest at all in science, and you never followed any scientific program until this one, which is an object of political obsession. So why are you so confident that you even know what is normal in science?” … “You’re a classic case of Dunning-Kruger.”

And please understand, I don’t make this attack merely skeptically. I have a much better idea than they do what science looks like close-up. For one thing, I’ve studied norms of scientific practice. And, further, when I was young I worked in a laboratory. While I was there I made the same mistake my right-wing friends make. My laboratory was obviously the sketchiest, most reckless laboratory in the world. But after reading up on the matter, it turns out it was all pretty damn normal. It was my own imagined norms that were sketchy and reckless.

You might wonder why was I reading about science and what scientific practice looks like when observed close-up.

The main reason was that my own profession, human-centered design, suffers from the same problem. All too often, non-designers expect design to happen in some vaguely methodical, unmessy way that has little to do with how design work gets done — and they get extremely uptight and resistant when they witness real design work close-up. This causes endless problems, especially when we need them to participate in design processes, as happens on almost all service design projects,

I made up a name for this kind of ignorant, semi-fantastical notion of how something probably, vaguely, ought to happen. I call them “misnorms”.

Lately, I’ve found a new and especially vicious form of misnorm, this time among progressives. It infects even reasonable people, and especially compassionate, reasonable people. They all judge Israel’s war in Gaza by misnorms of war.

They have never looked at war close-up. They do not know what lawful, responsible conduct of war is and how it compares to actual genocide. They hear “proportional response” and think they get the gist of what that means. They think they can plug war statistics into a spreadsheet and make objective moral calculations. And they haven’t looked into the realities of war in any detail at all. They know it mainly through video clips of WWII or the Vietnam War or Desert Storm, all of which were controlled or supervised by the United States military. This war is the first one filmed on camera phones and controlled by a government other than the USA.

We think this war is different and worse than all other wars, when in fact this war is just filmed differently and for different purposes to serve the interests of different group. Some of these interests are those of foreign powers. (Hamas cannot annihilate Israel through military force. But it can through manipulation of gullible, sentimental, and self-loathing Western elites.) Others are domestic power interests — namely, those of our own professional class, aka yours. Some of them are petty careerist interests (like playing nice with Hamas in order to continue enjoying the same access to Gaza as one’s rival reporters). Some are commercial. (Subscription journalism must supply the kind of morally-gratifying product that its consumers demand. They’re not paying to have their views challenged.)

It would be different if they were pacifists and unconditionally condemned all war. But they don’t. These people, according to themselves, are radicals. These are not limp-dick liberals. Radicals believe in violent revolution. As long as an underdog is doing the killing, and those killed are categorizable as powerful oppressors, it’s all perfectly fine. Punch up as savagely, sadistically and hatefully all you want. (This is the sacred double-standard of Progressivism, which applies to all groups except Progressivists themselves, who not only morally permitted but morally obligated to punch down with devastating force in defense of all the defenseless. If you are a Progressivist, you don’t even need to be warned not to reflect on this condition. You feel it in your gut that, I don’t know… there’s just something wrong with this criticism.)

Fact is: War is hell. It always is. We have always been shielded from the worst of it. Now we are being shown the worst of it on purpose. No population is ever fully responsible for what its government does, but in modern warfare the population suffers the consequences. There are always significant innocent or even dissident casualties. To require political unanimity as a condition for military attack means an end to all war. Again, pacifism is fine. But to support terrorism against innocent civilians — or to claim no civilian of an “occupying” or “colonizing” power can ever be innocent is blatant hypocrisy. Proportional response is not a matter of casualty count. It is a matter of military value of targets relative to civilian casualties. Hamas intentionally conducts its war in a way that kills as many of its own people as possible when Israel make proportional responses. Don’t use words if you don’t fucking know what they mean.

Until Progressives make some minimal attempt to understand norms of war, their opinions on the normality or abnormality of this particular war are as ignorant and worthless as the QAnon opinions on science. And I am unwilling to discuss worthless opinions with ignorant blowhards.

And the same goes for political norms. I’m not listening to another ignorant right-wing or left-wing opinion on what is a normal liberal-democratic view and what is “hard right” or a obviously a nefarious left-wing conspiracy (‘coz how else can you explain it?). People toss around accusations of nazism and fascism without ever having bothered to inform themselves on the history or beliefs of real right-wing authoritarians. Gists do not work, and they are just artifacts of simplistic ideological misnorms.

. . .

I will, however, continue to discuss these matters with people who have informed themselves, and are able to bring new disruptive facts or perspectives to the table. This kind of informed argument can actually change my mind.

And I will also converse with people who are curious, who are aware of how much they do not know, and who might change their minds or even form an initial opinion.

Basically, if the possibility of changing minds exists, I’m ready to talk.

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