Blindingly obvious

Assume there are infinite universes. You don’t actually have to believe this. Just… imagine. Infinite universes with infinite possibilities. We’ll call it the multiverse.

Let’s imagine we map all the moments in the history of our world to separate universes. So what happened five minutes ago? Different universe. And it might as well be, right? We can’t access the past in any real way other than looking at history and memories.

Take a universe from, say, 500 years ago. It’s not super important when, but a few hundred years seems good for illustrative purposes. It’s quite a bit different. Imagine being able to go from this universe to that universe and have a conversation with a someone. Anyone. Doesn’t matter who.

Think about all the things that are blindingly obvious to you. The earth goes around the sun. Stuff is made of smaller stuff. Time is relative. Democracy is the best form of government. Free speech is sacred. Whatever. Stuff you think is kind of axiomatic. Imagine explaining these things to that someone.

How might that go?

Well, probably not very well. Things aren’t blindingly obvious instantly. In fact they’re not even blindingly obvious from culture to culture in the here and now, especially when you move away from rigorously provable things like “the earth goes around the sun”.

Now imagine someone comes from a future universe to talk to you. They start telling you stuff that seems blindingly obvious to them.

How might that go?

Again, probably not well.

Why is that?

Dying is worse

It’s important to remember that solution to a lot of problems looks like enabling the problem. It’s OK to acknowledge this. It’s OK to be frustrated by this. But it’s important to not get locked into a “pure” morality—or, to put it another way, it’s critical to be flexible about solutions.

That’s not to say we can’t disagree about these things. Of course we can! But don’t disagree reflexively (don’t use the moral muscles you’re used to). Disagree reflectively. Think about whether or not there might be something else at play when talking about problems and their solutions. Is there a deeper problem? Can it be fixed or treated or dealt with in a way that seems unintuitive?

Take racism. Just for right now let’s put systemic racism aside and use the common “discriminating on the basis of race” definition.

We can all agree that discriminating on the basis of race is wrong. But then aren’t affirmative action programs racist?

We shouldn’t be afraid to say… yes. They are. They are absolutely discriminatory. Because we’re not trying to fix “discrimination on the basis of race” with affirmative action. That’s not the problem. The problem is something else, a deeper, more pervasive problem that has the effect of discriminating on the basis or race without seeming to actually do that.

We’re not trying to fix people; we’re trying to fix systems. The system is the deeply embedded discrimination built into our hiring practices, university selection processes, and so forth. Where qualified candidates are being denied opportunities because they’re a certain race. We do that by intentionally making space for these people. This has the local effect of discriminating against someone, but the system-wide effect of making a more just society for everyone. (And obviously this is just one thing that we do; there’s opportunity for lots more.)

Or take drugs. We can probably all agree that being addicted to drugs is bad.

So then aren’t safe injection sites just enabling addiction? Isn’t decriminalization just tacit approval?

I hope you can see where I’m going here. It’s important to say… yes. Safe injection sites do, on the face of it, enable addiction. But they do that in order to try to prevent worse things like disease and death. And decriminalization aims to treat addiction instead of punishing it. Both these initiative aim to create a path out of addiction. Dying is worse. Going to jail is worse.

These solutions aren’t super-intuitive.

But maybe that’s an indictment of our moral imagination. The idea that you can punish someone into not taking drugs, or that tut-tutting at racial slurs is going to fix racism… these shouldn’t be the first tools in our moral toolbelt. Sometimes it takes a deeper imagination (a more prophetic imagination) to seek answers to problems.

Words don’t have meanings

Seriously. Words don’t have meanings.

I mean, this sounds pretty silly. Of course words have meanings. You’re reading this blog post, it makes sense, you understand it, words have meanings.

So this is going to seem pretty pedantic, but let’s think about you think about when you think about “have”. I have an arm. The arm is part of me. What I call “I” contains this thing called “arm”. Think of any of a billion other examples (and probably some counterexamples) and it’s clear that to have something like a meaning, an arm, a temper, a wallet, is sort of to have that thing as an attribute, or to contain it, or to own it.

That’s what I think of when I think of “have”. You can probably find lots of other ways people use “have” but I’d argue my way is the first one that pops into your head.

Which is kind of the point. How can “have” have a meaning if there are multiple conflicting definitions. How can we disagree about the most common usage of “have” if it has this property of meaning?

You can probably see where I’m going with this. We give words meanings.

Or to put another way that will absolutely get some hackles up: The meaning of a word is a social construct. Just like… well… lots of things. Maybe everything.

We’re so used to words that we take them for granted. I forget that words aren’t blobs of meaning. I forget this every day. I forget that word are made up of letters (except right now, when I’m typing this; I’m acutely aware). I forget that letters are made up of curves and lines. I forget the words are arbitrary, the symbols are arbitrary, the construction is arbitrary. All that. Because frankly if I remembered it, I’d go a bit mad.

The important thing to remember is that words don’t have meaning. We give words meaning. We do. Not the dictionary, not grumpy old librarian, not your English teacher. There’s never been a time where proper English existed. There never will be.

Shakespeare used “generous” to mean well-bred. You don’t. It changes all the time and this is fine.

So anyways that’s why I call mean on a grill barbecue, and I call meat + peppers + tomatoes + beans chili.

Bullet Points for a (I honestly had to look this up) Thursday Evening

  • There’s so much wrong with Conservatism in the US it’s hard to know where to start. Buuuuut I’ve got an analogy. Republicans are like medieval doctors. They’re not wrong: The west has been sold a bill of goods. There’s a disease. So they reach for the only tool in their toolbox, only problem being that tool just makes it worse. Trickle-down economics might as well be bloodletting. You don’t get there via evidence-based economic policy. You have to get there sideways via ideological orthodoxy. Medieval doctors had their humours, Republicans have their trickle down economics.
  • The was probably more evidence for humours tbqh.
  • Lots of chatter re virtue signalling lately, not all of it absolute trash. Most of it’s aimed at progressives (projection, motl). Was talking to an anti-deficit person earlier, saying Ontario is within sight of balancing the budget. The response was to move “so what” and then a move to different topic. But if you’re really a deficit hawk this is fantastic news! We’re trying to get out of this hole, to un-mortgage our children’s blah blah blah. But of course the anti-deficit stuff is just theatre. I haven’t found no sincere anti-deficit folks but few. Very few. I kind of think a lot of this is outrage theatre: You just want a stick to beat the Liberals with.
  • Same for anti-feminists outraged at how feminists are supposedly not outraged about Saudi treatment of women. Outrage theatre. Virtue signalling. Performative morality. They don’t care, they just want a stick.
  • Which is, by the way, a big part of why online debates don’t work, and why centrism is doomed. The stuff people say they care about is never actually what they actually care about.
  • By the way I do think the West has been sold a bill of goods. I don’t like protectionism, I don’t like globalism, I wish there was a third way. Whatever we’re doing now really isn’t working
  • Trump is a symptom.