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Showing posts from September, 2017

Did Confrontation Really Work in the Civil Rights Movement?

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I've recently wrapped up reading Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire, the book covering 1963-1965 in a three-part series on the civil rights movement. I've been reading through the series in large part for its insights for animal advocacy in particular and social and political dynamics in general. The civil rights movement is one of the most commonly cited pieces of evidence for why protests and grassroots activism work. (It's certainly overly cited in the animal advocacy context.) Despite that, I'm ending the book with doubts about whether confrontational activism worked even in the civil rights movement.

To be clear, Pillar of Fire and its prequel Parting the Waters document short-run nonviolent triumph over the forces of segregation: children pushing through firehoses in Birmingham and marches to the Selma voting registrar's office. The civil rights movement's discipline yields political rewards. The political party most allied to them, the Democrats, win an e…

Locals Thwart New Kansas Tyson Plant—Why Doesn't This Happen More Often?

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In the annals of social movements, one of the ones that most clearly achieved its objectives was the wave of U.S. anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s. Across the U.S., those who lived near nuclear power plants picketed, blockaded, and disrupted construction of plants, including taking strategic advantage of the Three Mile Island incident to effectively end nuclear power across the U.S. Nuclear power in the U.S. now has a monumental stigma against it quite unlike other developed countries—nuclear power is even a primary source for France's energy infrastructure. (U.S. policy is likely mistaken, as nuclear power is relatively safe).

This week, Kansas offers some inspiration for animal advocates on a model we should consider. Tyson is being forced to back out of a huge new chicken facility after 2,000 out of 5,000 residents of neighboring town Tonganoxie protested last Friday over environmental concerns.

Tyson is scrambling and will likely find somewhere to build not too far from there,…

How Sharp a Turn Did Humans Take in the Industrial Revolution?

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Luke Muelhauser at the Open Philanthropy Project has a thought-provoking post arguing that most of human history is roughly the same plodding along in boring conditions until the industrial revolution, in which productivity exploded, countering what people have gotten in history. You can see a visual illustration of this in the graph on the right.
I think this gets a whole lot right about the way history has gone. It irrefutably gets a lot right when you talk in terms of sheer magnitude of living conditions: the amount of good things multiplied many times over in a short period of time.
As one of the commenters pointed out, there could still be importance to earlier eras of history–potentially as much importance as in post-Industrial Revolution history. The reason is this: if our interest is in relative progress, then one man's flat line is another man's explosion. If human progress followed an exponential function, then when an "explosion" happens depends on the scale…

What I've Been Reading/Watching/Listening To

Here are some recent things I've been following and would recommend:

Books:
Pillar of Fire - The second part in a fascinating three-part series on the civil rights movement.
Tales of the City - Serialized fiction by Armistead Maupin in the 1970s on countercultural life in San Francisco.

Articles:The Unilateralist’s Curse: The Case for Principle of Conformity - A philosophy paper that hits on a surprising dilemma and argues for a conclusion most philosophers would not like. The Resegregation of Jefferson County - A disheartening New York Times Magazine feature on the state of the South.We need to nationalise Google, Facebook and Amazon. Here’s why - The title speaks for itself, but I think this is a topic that has had surprisingly little discussion relative to its importance. How bosses are (literally) like dictators - A Vox piece on workplace democracy, or the lack thereof. Another rarely discussed issue with real importance.
Films:
Hacksaw Ridge - Mel Gibson's recent movie follows a …

Sympathizing with the Christian Dissenter in Hacksaw Ridge

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I watched Hacksaw Ridge this weekend, Mel Gibson's movie about a literal Christian soldier during World War II who becomes a medic after completing basic training without picking up a gun. He's a Seventh Day Adventist, which makes him a pacifist (as well as a vegetarian).

I found myself empathizing and sympathizing with him more than I'd expected, including in moments that pertained less to his pacifism than to his religion–a puzzling predicament for me as an atheist Jew. Faith is the opposite of how I try to operate. I try to be skeptical of everything and believe things based on proof (all while knowing that this is unattainable).

Yet once I have arrived at a conclusion, and pending further evidence forcing me to revise my beliefs, I believe strongly in acting: whether it's direct activism as I've done in the past, research, or donating money. Acting requires commitment. Even when the evidence points one way, social norms often point the other way. Those social nor…

Is Instinctive Conformism an Actually Rational?

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Many of us grow up questioning conformity. Even those who don't go through a teenage rage phase get a good deal of anti-conformity in school thanks to the Enlightenment. It turns out some of the human tendency toward conformity may be rational, and for fairly subtle reasons.
I read up last week on the Unilateralist's Curse, the problem covered in a brilliant philosophy paper by Cambridge's Nick Bostrom (h/t Buck Shlegeris). The Unilateralist's Curse occurs when a member of a group sharing a common altruistic goal takes an action that hurts the goal because that member mistakenly believes the action to be helpful. If members of a group are each appraising the likelihood of an action being helpful and choosing whether to take the action independently, the action is more likely to happen than it should be.
An example is this: five people have discovered a technology with the potential to cause grave harm and are deciding whether to release it or not. Even if four out of the…