Boringness & The Principle of Charity

Epistemic status: Suggestive. This post is expository on one of my ideas in an area I know know a little about.

Which arguments are boring?

I think this question is an important source of confusion in conversations between rationalists and more left-wing types

Rationalists tend to place a very high value on respecting discourse norms. One important norm is the Principle of Charity: when a statement is ambiguous, one should assume that the speaker meant to convey the best, most reasonable interpretation. Generally, this principle is a really good thing; it allows parties to signal respect and good will, guards against malicious misinterpretations and other smear tactics, and helps focus the conversation on the best and most interesting arguments and counters.

That said, there are ways to abuse this principle, and I think the Left is often more cautious and aware of these abuses than they get credit for. Take these recent remarks by Carl Higbie of the Trump Super PAC on creating a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries:

Higbie: ” …it is legal, they say it would hold constitutional muster. I know the ACLU is gonna challenge it, but I think it’ll pass and we’ve done it with Iran back a while ago, we did it in World War II with the Japanese which, y’know, call it what you will, was maybe wrong, but..”

Kelly: “C’mon you’re not proposing that we go back to the days of internment camps, I hope…”

Higie: “No, I’m not proposing that at all Megyn, but what I am saying is that we need to protect America first…. just saying there is precedent for it, and I’m not saying I agree with it, but…look, the President needs to protect America first, and if that means having people that are not protected under our Constitution have some sort of registry so we can understand, until we can identify the true threat and where it’s coming from, I support it.”

So what’s the most charitable interpretation of Higbie’s statements? I think it’s something like this:
“There is a legal precedent for a President to issue an order requiring certain people to submit to invasive or uncomfortable requirements in the interest of national security. The Supreme Court ruled that Japanese internment, a much more invasive requirement than a registry for immigrants, was constitutional. I believe that this precedent extends the President the legal power to create such a registry, and furthermore, *if* that registry is necessary for the national security of the United States, I would support it.”

The above interpretation seems pretty reasonable to me. There is a long legal tradition supporting SCOTUS’ reluctance to challenge the other branches when national security is involved. Korematsu v. US is a very controversial decision, but it could plausibly serve as a precedent for a registry. Furthermore, *IF* the creation of a registry was *necessary* to protect national security, supporting it would be reasonable.

But I don’t think that’s what Higbie meant. Part of the reason I don’t think Higbie meant that is that it’s *BORING*. Megyn Kelly’s viewers do not care about the doctrine of judicial modesty. Higbie does not have any special insight to share about the scope of Korematsu v. US. No one is currently debating whether it would be okay to do X if X were absolutely *vital* to America’s continued safety as a nation. The most reasonable interpretation of what Higbie said, *IS SOMETHING HE HAS NO REASON TO SAY*.

I think this is also true of the second most reasonable interpretation (which might be basically the same as the above, but maybe a little sloppy on the legal details), and the third, and the fourth and so on. By the time we get to something the spokesperson of Donald Trump’s Super-PAC might go on Megyn Kelly to defend, the most reasonable interpretation is something *extremely* scary to a great many reasonable people. Higbie knows that what he *really* means would set off alarm bells for many people who are not particularly liberal. So he words his response carefully to preserve a bland, but reasonable interpretation of his statement, which he can sort of gesture to during the inevitable backlash. His uneasy tribal allies are reassured that he didn’t mean that *scary* thing, and confirmed in their view of liberals as hysterical PC police, always interpreting conservatives in the worst possible light. A lot of rationalists *also* think of liberals as hysterical PC police, and *they too* are willing to give Higbie the benefit of the doubt.

This is not quite the same as a motte-and-bailey retreat. If pressed, Higbie might endorse a robust (read: scary) interpretation of his position. But he knows that if he is careful to leave a tame option open, many of his allies will *never bother to ask* what he really meant. The will just go on defending him as though he meant something totally innocuous. He doesn’t have to retreat, he knows his friends will retreat *for* him.

I think often when left-leaning people go into full on panic about statements from conservatives, *especially* Donald Trump and his allies, they are choosing what they think is the *most likely* interpretation, not the most charitable. Many lefty-folk have a cached belief that conservative elites hide their crazy and aggressive beliefs behind a veneer of intellectual rigor and formality. Conservatives have a parallel narrative about liberals and “tolerance” or “respect for equality”. On this, I think rationalists are generally more sympathetic to the conservatives than the liberals, and often wrongly so.

You might think that this *particular* example is unfair to rationalists. After all, most of them are pretty smart and Higbie’s subterfuge was not particularly subtle. My response is that I chose Higbie’s argument *because* I think it’s an obvious example of this pattern. Rationalists might not be taken in by Higbie, but I have seen rationalists fall for more subtle versions of the same trick. Many rationalists are former blue-tribe liberals, and I think the corrective backlash against liberal excesses encourage tribal bias towards conservatives, especially on issues involving race, gender, or social justice more generally.

When evaluating arguments on these topics particularly, ask yourself both “is this interpretation charitable?’ and “is this interpretation so bland and timid that no one would bother to bring it up?”

(Obligatory disclaimer: Liberals do all sorts of sneaky definition switching too including this kind, many rationalists already know this and don’t make this mistake, there are sometimes charitable and interesting interpretations that horrify liberals but not other people, and liberals who appear to not be respecting the principle of charity are often just not respecting the principle of charity. )


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