On Gift Horses

My criticisms of this essay: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/11/09/looking-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth

I respect Scott Alexander as a writer and a thinker, and that essay is good. I have a lot I want to say about it. For example, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” and “What happens at Yale is important because Yale is culturally influential.” But what stands out to me the most is his points about writers calling social justice activists “babies.”

Writers for large magazines don’t get to decide the titles of their articles. A lot of those articles had more substance than the pseudo-Nietszchean ideas Scott was pointing to. Though, I agree that “look at these pampered babies” was a common theme. But there are at least three ways the “they are coddled babies” criticism can be given substance.

It is morally appropriate to ask to be respected, but it is possible to ask for too much respect. Obviously demanding deference and submission from every stranger you meet is asking for “too much respect.” So there are two monsters: Scylla and Charybdis.

Scylla: Getting too little respect.
Charybdis: Demanding too much respect.

If the norm is you are never allowed to demand respect, then you will be constantly humiliated and demeaned, and you will have no way to fix it. (Scylla)

If the norm is, you are allowed to say to someone “you are not showing me enough respect,” but you are never allowed to say in response, “No, I think I’m showing you the appropriate amount of respect,” or “No, I think I’m showing you too much respect” then there is going to be no deterrent for ever more demands for respect. And if any sleight, no matter how small, can result in socially sanctioned outrage, it can descend into bullying behavior: “Are you questioning me!”, “Did you just look at me funny!” Power corrupts, and an ability to demand ever more respect is a type of power. (Charybdis)

When people say you are a coddled baby, I think they are often saying “you are an entitled baby who is demanding more respect than is morally appropriate.” They are trying to avoid Charybdis which is a reasonable goal.

Critics are also often doing simple whataboutery. (“Whataboutery” is saying, “why are you talking about X when there are bigger issues?”) Usually whataboutery is shunned. Wikipedia even calls it an informal fallacy. But this is a tricky issue. Whataboutery is sometimes reasonable! It is not a defense of something bad to point to something worse. But it is at least sometimes morally bad to ignore worse things. If I received a paper cut while someone was stabbed right next to me, it would be appropriate not to complain about my small cut. Arguing that whataboutery is never legitimate is tantamount to the claim that is is not possible to divert attention in a way that is problematic. “Hey don’t pay attention to that guy on the ground! Attend to my paper cut!” Attention is, in some contexts, zero-sum. Effective Altruism is basically a group dedicated to whataboutery.

How much Stoicism individuals or groups should have is a difficult question. As I wrote elsewhere, “I think, in general, more emotional resilience is a good idea to foster for the same reason more physical resilience is a good thing to foster: Things can go bad, and you won’t always have your crutches.” Saying we have too little emotional resilience can be a reasonable prudential concern.

You can steel man the “coddled babies” criticism into three distinct and legitimate complaints: (1) you are demanding more respect than is morally appropriate, (2) you are diverting attention from worse things in a morally problematic way, and (3) you do not have the emotional resilience necessary for a healthy life and our colleges should be doing something to fix that.

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