Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Arguments are about power

I can think of a few arguments that aren't about power.  For instance, when I was on the internet in high school, the things I argued about were whether 2.9999... = 3, and what happens when you put an infinite number of marbles in an urn.  I feel confident in saying that those arguments had nothing to do with power.  (Although, it should be noted that I eventually earned a modder position on that website, and helped control content.)

But a lot of arguments are really about power, especially the loudest and most volatile arguments.  That's often why they're so loud and volatile.  And when I say that the argument is really about power, that doesn't merely mean arguing about who has power, or who deserves power.  The argument itself is part of the power struggle.  Winning the argument materially gives you more power, independent of whether you won by being on the right side.

I admit this is a very cynical view.  Nobody on either side of an argument wants to say that it's really about something so crass and selfish as power.  Better to pretend that the argument is about what's true and righteous.  But if you actually care about what's true, it's clear that arguments are often not about what's true.  And we need to realize that power struggles are not necessarily bad, and that we're participating in power struggles all the time.  It is not wrong to want power, or to want someone else not to have power.  Although it can be wrong, depending on how you get what you want.

Some of the clearest examples are arguments over video games.  Many recent high-profile incidents  show how nasty video game culture can be, but that much has long been obvious to anyone who paid attention to gaming communities.  This is easily explained by an underlying power struggle.  As I said last year, there is a limited space for games in the market, because they're so expensive to develop and advertise.  In particular, this is true of so-called AAA games, which are the big-budget games we usually think of as being "hard-core".  Everyone needs to choose from the same small set of games, so the power struggle is over what games get made, what games get the money.

There's an image that shows up repeatedly in these arguments, the white male gamer who is afraid of other people stealing his hobby.  For example:
It’s hard for them to hear they don’t own anything, anymore, that they aren’t the world’s most special-est consumer demographic, that they have to share.
This is treated as a caricature, something pathetic and laughable.  But I think it's also true, gamers really are afraid of sharing space.  And furthermore, they are right to be afraid, because sharing may in fact result in diminished space for themselves.  If more AAA gamers are convinced that games need to represent women better, then everyone will be forced to play AAA games with better female representation, if they play AAA games at all. Those poor sexist gamers.  In losing the argument, they really are losing power.  Although maybe not as much power as they think.  I'm sure they will continue to be able to find some games that appeal to them.  And perhaps having more women will just mean that more games will be made.

The power struggle among gamers comes from control over the public good of video games.  Another public good I often concern myself with are identity labels.  Arguments over labels are also frequently arguments about power.  Who gets to control what a label means?  Who controls the public image?  Who controls the actions of any organizations arising from the label?

All the big wars over feminism in the atheist movement?  Those are clearly about power.  Power over who speaks, power over who makes up the movement, and power over what the movement focuses on.

When people harass Jen McCreight or Rebecca Watson to get them to shut up, that's about power.  When Jen McCreight invented Atheism+, that was creating a space where social justice is legitimate atheist cause, and that was about power.  When people mock FTB as "FTBullies", they're discouraging people from looking at FTB, and that's about power.  When people on FTB mock "brave heroes" and "freeze peach", or talk about how Skeptic Ink was founded on hating FTB, that's about power.  When Dawkins refers to PZ Myers as writing clickbait, and using it as an excuse to not link to PZ, that's about power.  And when you say that you're above all that nasty stuff, well, that's about power too.  Everything is about power, get used to it.

That's not to say that there aren't also arguments about truth in there.  Some groups don't use their power as well as other groups, and that's a truth we can argue over.  Anti-harassment policies at conferences seem like an obvious good to me, and the people who would use their power to remove them are basically incompetent leaders.  And by winning this argument, we take their power away.

But we can also take their power away by name-calling.  That's the truth.  And while I'm hardly a name-caller myself, it seems like you have to accept the tactic, lest you just forfeit the struggle.  But how is name-calling different from harassment campaigns, which we also know go both ways?  Do we have to accept harassment campaigns too?  I don't.

It's a rationalist fantasy that if we just all argue rationally and carefully work out the details, we'll agree on the conclusion and rid ourselves of conflict.  A good rationalist recognizes how small a role rationality really plays in the biggest arguments.