Decoupling Revisited

[Note: By coincidence I publish this on the same day Jacob Falkovich discusses decoupling in Quillette. Neat.]

The article I published last month about the spat between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein has been a lot more successful than I expected. Lots of views, lots of shares, and lots of interesting discussion in multiple places. It also increased the visibility of this blog a fair bit — since I published it traffic has been between ten and twenty times higher than before. Awareness of erisology as a subject has also increased. It’s been mentioned on Slate Star Codex, and the subreddit dedicated to it has gone from 100 to about 440 subscribers and appears to have come alive somewhat, so that’s great.

The part that really caught on is the idea of “decoupling” that I brought up close to the end. I quoted Sarah Constantin discussing the work of psychologist Keith Stanovich:

Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.


Speculatively, we might imagine that there is a “cognitive decoupling elite” of smart people who are good at probabilistic reasoning and score high on the cognitive reflection test and the IQ-correlated cognitive bias tests. These people would be more likely to be male, more likely to have at least undergrad-level math education, and more likely to have utilitarian views. Speculating a bit more, I’d expect this group to be likelier to think in rule-based, devil’s-advocate ways, influenced by economics and analytic philosophy. I’d expect them to be more likely to identify as rational.

I argued that the question of decoupling or non-decoupling of scientific questions from their political context fueled the disagreement between Harris and Klein. I also tried to explain this by pointing put that they come from different intellectual cultures (science and political journalism, respectively), which in turn select for people with different personal dispositions.

High-decouplers isolate ideas and ideas from each other and the surrounding context. This is a necessary practice in science which works by isolating variables, teasing out causality and formalizing and operationalizing claims into carefully delineated hypotheses. Cognitive decoupling is what scientists do.

To a high-decoupler, all you need to do to isolate an idea from its context or implications is to say so: “by X I don’t mean Y”. When that magical ritual has been performed you have the right to have your claims evaluated in isolation. This is Rational Style debate.


While science and engineering disciplines (and analytic philosophy) are populated by people with a knack for decoupling who learn to take this norm for granted, other intellectual disciplines are not. Instead they’re largely composed of what’s opposite the scientist in the gallery of brainy archetypes: the literary or artistic intellectual.

This crowd doesn’t live in a world where decoupling is standard practice. On the contrary, coupling is what makes what they do work. Novelists, poets, artists and other storytellers like journalists, politicians and PR people rely on thick, rich and ambiguous meanings, associations, implications and allusions to evoke feelings, impressions and ideas in their audience. The words “artistic” and “literary” refers to using idea couplings well to subtly and indirectly push the audience’s meaning-buttons.

To a low-decoupler, high-decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened, while to a high-decoupler the low-decouplers insistence that this isn’t possible looks like naked bias and an inability to think straight. This is what Harris means when he says Klein is biased.

But Klein is a journalist, and as that he belongs with the literary intellectuals. To him, coupled ideas can’t just be discharged by uttering a magic phrase. The notion is ludicrous. Thinking in moral and political terms is not a bias, it’s how his job works and how his thought works. Implications and associations are an integral part of what it means to put forth an idea, and when you do so you automatically take on responsibility for its genealogy, its history and its implications.

In retrospect, I was somewhat careless to articulate this the way I did. I blame seduction by an elegant narrative and the fact that I had no idea it would attract as much attention as it did. If I’d known I think I would’ve phrased it differently. In reality things are a lot more complicated than just “some people will decouple things and others won’t, and these types tend to self-select into different professions”.

It’s not quite right to frame decoupling as simply a skill the way Constantin (and Stanovich?) does. At least not the way I think of decopuling — which, admittedly, is probably broader. While there is some asymmetry in that abstract and hypothetical thinking don’t come naturally to humans but have to be learned, the difference between decoupling and non-decoupling isn’t purely or even mainly about ability. In many cases, the explosive ones like Harris-Klein especially, it’s more a matter or opinion which approach should be used. That’s why I’ll use the word contexualizing instead of non-decoupling from now on, to indicate that these are two different practices.

Five descriptions

If I were to characterize “decoupling” in a more complete way I’d use five partial descriptions, each capturing a different aspect of the phenomenon.

1) Ability
It’s certainly an ability to some degree. People are differently capable of abstract hypothetical thinking, and Luria’s work suggests that most people in premodern conditions can’t do it at all because they’ve never needed to do it in real life.

2) Inability
It can also be described as a deficiency of contextualization skill, i.e. an inability to understand how people work and what associations and interpretations something will evoke in them.

3) Disposition
Putting 2 and 3 together and refactoring a little bit we get decopuling/contextualizing as a disposition — a tendency, habit, or preference to think of things as isolated or in context, and of vague association and extrapolating interpretation as valid methods or not.

That’s three descriptions of decoupling as a personal trait. What’s left?

4) Opportunistic practice
A criticism against my explanation of decoupler vs. contextualizer as personality types has been that it’s not predictive: decoupling or contextualixing isn’t about personality types but simple politics. People just do either depending on what’s ideologically expedient[1]. There’s a lot of truth to that. Decoupling is also an opportunistic practice.

5) Local cultural norm
I described decouplers and contextualizers as congregating in different fields with different norms (and this is part of the reasons conflicts across fields get so hairy). Some of it is probably social drift — fashions that get entrenched by selection effects on personalities and ultimately unrelated to the topic itself[2]. But there’s also the simple fact that some disciplines are better conducted with a decoupling approach and others are not. In engineering you need to isolate parts from each other to keep the system manageable, while in political campainging you need to think about all possible associations, interpretations and reactions before you do anything at all.

Four classes of disagreement

I tweeted this a while ago:

math tweet

Some of my earlier posts have been about concepts that “reduce” particular disagreements to instances of well-known types. Partial narrative clashes, flipped signal-corrective attributions and fighting for the right to determine the meaning of words are a few examples. Decoupling and contextualization is another one, one I’ve used mentally for a long time but haven’t really articulated well until I read Drossbucket’s post on it.

Now, for what sort of issues do decoupling vs. contextualizing constitute the “meat” of the disagreement[3]? I have four categories.

1) Relevancy of narrative fit

What’s “narrative fit”? Well, some factual claims fit smoothly with some narratives and stick out like a sore thumb against others [4]. Using the Harris-Klein case as an easily available example, the claims in question is Murray’s belief that interracial IQ gaps likely have a genetic component and that the environmental component can’t effectively and reliably be improved. Some worldviews, like white supremacy — which Klein fears the most — can integrate such ideas without having to make any major changes. His own anti-racist worldview has a lot more difficulty dealing with them, were they to be true.

As I discussed last time (and as he more or less said himself) it’s important for racial justice in America that white people see the plight of black communities as caused by racism — so that it’s their responsibility to fix. To maintain the strength of this specific narrative while accepting Murray’s claims would require some serious philosophical remodeling work, if it’s even possible.

Another case like this is of course the Google Memo. James Damore’s application of some quite (scientifically) uncontroversial psychological findings to the distribution of men and women in the tech industry was as incendiary as it was precisely because it fit well with and threatened to give renewed life to slowly dying ideas of female inadequacy that kept women out of intellectual fields for centuries (regardless of whether he intended to or whether what he actually said implied it). If you wanted to you could frame it as “triggering a collective-memory PTSD episode” in some women.

So, claims can often be seen as strengthening some narratives, and as weakening others by injecting difficult-to-integrate ideas into them. The question from “decoupling or contextualization” perspective becomes: should we or should we not take this into account when evaluating claims?

2) Relevancy of source and intent

This one is pretty straightforward. Should we consider who something’s coming from when we evaluate it?

There are a few varieties of this question. One is factual claims. In an ideal world we shouldn’t care who makes a factual claim, because everyone can examine all the relevant evidence themselves. But in the real world we have to depend on heuristics like trust and credibility. That’s why we don’t believe reports from the tobacco industry saying that cigarettes are harmless, and it’s why Ezra Klein doesn’t believe Charles Murray’s interpretation of the data on intelligence — Murray has political opinions and this means there are other potential reasons than scientific correctness for why he interprets data the way he does — reducing his credibility[5].

Another case is when someone makes policy or proto-policy suggestions. We want to know why. We want often find their reasons and their underlying convictions more compelling than the content of the policies themselves (and may in fact view policy ideas more as a sign of group alignement than the other way around), because we don’t support policies as much as we support people we think have our back[6]. Supporting an idea means supporting the person, which means granting them status and power, which means indirectly supporting everything they want to do.

In other words, we might suspect someone intends “reasonable suggestion A” to soften people up for “radical suggestion B” that they also favor. Should this make us more weary of A than if someone else had suggested it?

And then there’s of course the identity politics angle, which I’m sure everybody already knows so I won’t belabor the point. The question is: Does your opinon on any issue relating to [demographic group] by default trump someone else’s if you’re [demographic group] and they aren’t? Or using the phrasing from the Harris-Klein article: have some people(-groups) been wronged in such a way that they are owed uncritical agreement?

And then there’s the matter of how to feel about creative works when the people who made them are objectionable. How should we judge the beautiful music of raging anti-semite Richard Wagner? Can you be a fan of Roman Polanski’s films? Who’s up for watching reruns of The Cosby Show? What about House of Cards?’

What about discoveries and inventions? Henry Ford was also a big anti-semite. Thomas Edison was an all-around prick. Almost everyone in history was a racist by modern standards. The world is full of statues of warmongers, despots and mass murderers. How do we deal with that? What about Columbus Day?

To be fair, Columbus is more of symbol than a person at this point, which slides us nicely into the next category.

3) Relevancy of symbolic and historical associations

I’ve only fairly recently become aware of what to an outsider like me is a strange feature of American culture. Apparently it’s taboo for a white person to dress up like a black person for pretty much any reason. This appears to hold even if the costume is clearly of a particular person and not a stereotype, and not insulting in any way. While it’s perfectly normal to imitate another person’s hairstyle and hair color with a wig or dye job, or to use a fake moustache or whatever, using make up to imitate skin tone is apparently off limits. From a “decoupled” perspective, this is strange. Why is one aspect of appearance ok and not another?

Because of the symbolic meaning of the act. Historically the practice is associated with segregation and mocking the appearance and culture of black Americans. The question of decoupling or contextualization then becomes if this symbolic association is necessarily “there” or not.

Another example I recall is from 2010 when the Swedish crown princess was getting married. There was a small controversy around her wish to be led to the altar by her father the king and “given” away. She though it’d be cute and romantic I suppose, but some protested and said that this practice is symbolic of old patriarchal traditions of weddings as a ceremony where “ownership” of the bride is transferred from the father to the husband. This is not according to Swedish custom and “importing” it was seen as highly problematic by some commentators. But clearly the princess isn’t property, and the concern is purely symbolic.

I could go on with examples here. Maybe this should even be its own post BUT EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED AND I CAN’T STOP WRITING PLEASE SEND HELP. I’m reminded of an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where Captain Benjamin Sisko (who is black) is uncomfortable spending time in a holographic simulation of a 1960’s casino because the real version of the place wouldn’t have allowed him in. Or just a few nights ago I watched the third episode of season 2 of Westworld (spoilers) and found out that there is, in addition to the titular Old West version, a theme park using a British Raj setting. This was the object of some controversy in a comment thread I read. Can you enjoy yourself in that park without it being an endorsement of British colonial rule in India?

I could also talk about the issue of old books being altered or censored because they contain for the time normal but now offensive parts. Or, to use a far-right example for contrast: I’ve heard the argument that minarets are offensive because (I don’t know to what extent it’s accurate) they were, historically, erected in conquered lands as a symbol of Islamic supremacy.

This never ends[7]. The question here is whether a practice can/should be divorced from its full historical associations. There’s a clarification to be made here: it’s one thing to ask if symbols can ever be separated from their maximal context, and another to ask if any maximal context interpretation, however far-fetched, is valid. Making that distinction brings us to the next category.

4) Relevancy of related issues

Is an issue separate from other issues, or should we let the answers to other questions affect how we deal with this one? Questions are related, and when we answer them we have to cut out a piece of a seamless web and slap label on it. How big should those pieces be? Or in other words, how fine-grained should our resolution for identifying individual issues be?

Is the business practices of Monsanto relevant for whether a particular GMO crop should be allowed? Is the status of other GMO crops?

Is the social effects of religion a different issue from it’s truth or are they one and the same? Is the male-female wage gap a different issue from the prevalence of groping on the subway or are they part of the same phenomenon? Is acceptance of homosexuality a separate issue from declining marriage rates? Should bad effects of some government regulations be held against other government regulations? Or state-driven enterprises? Or wealth redistibution?

Are “drugs” a coherent category? Does shallow consumerism, environmental degradation and lack of health insurance among poor people belong together under the umbrella of capitalism? Is the suffering of farm animals relevant to whether meat is healthy?

Is “patriarchy” a coherent concept that can be discussed as a single thing?

Is “political correctness”? Cancel culture?

Is “racism”, “the media” or “religion” as wholes things it makes sense to debate and have opinions on?

Should we make a distinction between finding something annoying, disliking it, wishing it didn’t exist, publically condemning it, wanting to socially punish it, and wanting to legally punish it?

Even when issues don’t belong together logically and/or causally they’re often structurally, socially and emotionally similar and that makes them feel like a single thing — with a single positive or negative valence that “informs” our reactions to single instances. I would be extremely surprised if not atheists were also less likely to consider the social effects of religion to be beneficial or religious music to be beautiful, and if being concerned about the welfare of farm animals didn’t correlate with belief in the unhealthiness of meat.

But wait, is the unhealthiness of meat one issue? What about beef vs. chicken? What about processed meat vs. fresh? Is added nitrite a defining difference? Hormones? Organic and non-organic production? What if it’s unhealthy in one way but healthy in a different way? Health is a multidimensional attribute, you know. The web or issues is fractal, so I ask again: how fine-grained should our resolution be? How narrow our scope?

To the decoupler, resolution should be high and more importantly, scope clearly defined — or the conversation will become intractable and leaky and we will have to depend on horrible, contextualizing, social heuristics like personal credibility. To the contextualizer, resolution can be lower and the scope boundary fluid — or the conversation will get bogged down in irrelevant details and myopic pedantry.

The disagreement between Harris and Klein is especially complex because it contains sub-issues of all kinds: Should you be extra careful speculating about things that may grant ammunition to racists? Is the fact that Charles Murray works for a conservative think tank relevant to the validity of his interpretation of the data? Does it matter that he uses a phrase by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, to describe his politics? Should the scientific weaknesses of earlier “race science” count against drawing conclusions from current research, because they’re one big category?

Note that I don’t claim that any decoupling disagreement can be sorted into one of these buckets, because the borders are fuzzy and many of the biggest, hairiest disagreements become big and hairy exactly because they have a complex internal structure of cross-wired sub-issues. This is an attempt to decouple the set/structure of overlapping parts to make it more legible.

Three factors

Now I want to shift perspective a bit. After “what is decoupling” and “what sort of disagreements are about decoupling” we go to “what determines whether someone decouples or contextualizes in a given case?”. While you can’t predict it just by knowing their personality (despite what I implied last time — partial narratives and all that), I suspect that if you knew all the three factors I’m about to discuss you’d do very well.

1) Personal disposition

I’m repeating myself a little but the first factor is, I maintain, personal disposition. Some people (Robin Hanson comes to mind, referred to by Jacob Falkovich as a “black belt decoupler”) really have strongly decoupling minds and tend to discuss things in the abstract much more than others, regardless of the topic. Extreme, pathological levels of decoupling is, it seems, indicative of autism (and pathological levels of contextualization might be indicative of some kinds of schizophrenia??).

2) Threats[8]

Humans are sensitive to threats. Even a slightly off noise from the car engine, rustle in the forest or seedy character on the street can put us on edge. False negatives are often a lot more costly than false positives and our threat detection faculties have evolved to reflect that.

Threats that don’t apply to us don’t have that same automatic response. That matters a lot when it comes to indirect threats with a long causal chain between the threatening object and the actual harm. A peanut farmer doing their work is indirectly hurting people allergic to peanuts by putting what is to them deadly poison on the market, increasing their risk of death. An extremely contextualizing peanut allergist (is that a word?) could theoretically perceive a peanut farmer as a threat, because our (largely subconscious) threat detection system is constantly working on exploring the causal chains that could hurt us, with positive results popping up into consciousness. If you’re not allergic to peanuts you won’t even think of those connections.

Of course we’re not talking about peanut farming but expressing ideas like Murray’s. But the principle is the same. If your threat detection system finds a dangerous outcome — viscerally dangerous to you or your loved ones, abstract moral concern is often not enough — then it will sound the alarm on that whole chain and the chain will light up to you. This is, by the way, why people will get upset by materially irrelevant, purely symbolic displays of power by people not on their side. It’s a canary.

In other words: If there’s a plausible threat further down the line, you’re going to contextualize more.

3) Background culture

The third factor is simply to what extent the surrounding culture considers two things to be coupled. To go for an extreme example: you can’t walk around wearing a t-shirt with a swastika on it, no matter how much of a non-Nazi you are. That’s true even though the swastika is an old hindu symbol and has been used throughout history by plenty of other people besides the Nazis.

For this women’s hockey team, photographed in 1916, the swastika symbolized luck.

Still, if you tried wearing such a shirt and defend yourself by saying “it doesn’t necessarily imply Nazism, you know” things aren’t going to go well for you. You’re expected to know that other people will almost unanimously interpret it as representing Nazism. It’s common knowledge — what symbols are made of.

But in an alternate history where for some reason others didn’t stop using the swastika it would have many meanings (the limit case of which is no meaning at all). If you then wanted to make the argument that someone shouldn’t wear it because of the connection to Nazism you’d have a lot less to stand on. As the meaning of a symbol gets more ambiguous, more responsibility for a negative interpretation rests on the receiver. If a militant Serbian nationalist gets angry with you for wearing a necktie because neckties were invented in Croatia, it’s pretty much all on them.

Two strategies

Now let’s get decoupling and contextualizing insights to work together on the issue of the political meaning of heredity (of intelligence and other traits) — a meaning I think needs to change. The third of the three factors is the one easiest to change by discourse-wrangling, so that’s what I’ll focus on.

In a “narrative fit” sense, heredity is seen as belonging on the political right. But that, I’d argue, isn’t because heredity by itself implies right wing ideology[9]. It’s because the existing narratives/ideologies that fit it best (Social Darwinism and White Supremacy, respectively) are located on the (far) right. There’s a cultural construct in place that funnels power from the idea of heredity towards these ideologies, and this preexisting cultural association makes it more likely that any one person will consider them inextricably linked.

Note that the three factors interact, and especially 2 and 3: if someone is threatened by B and B is widely considered implied by A, then obviously just A is going to seem threatening.

This creates a common incentive for people threatened by B and people believing A but not B to decouple the two in the eyes of the wider culture. That sounds great for the heredity question — Harris and Klein should be on the same side! Why aren’t they? They aren’t because they disagree on whether that decoupling can be done (sure, there are other reasons too). Harris is optimistic and Klein is pessimistic, and perversely, being pessimistic means you’re incentivized to do the opposite you would do if you were optimistic.


The optimistic believe in using compartmentalization to prevent ideas from propagating throughout the system and reach areas where they can be dangerous. The pessimistic believe effective compartmentalization is impossible and that potential danger instead has to be tracked down and destroyed. One way to destroy an idea is to discredit it by pointing out its relation to bad ideas, which means reinforcing the sort of links your allied decoupler is trying to break.


Maybe it’s not so much a matter of optimism or pessimism but of necessity. If you believe there are many potentially dangerous truths waiting to be discovered, then you must believe that decoupling is possible, or you have no hope. If you don’t believe there are many such truths at all, and that people push those ideas because of biases and/or ill will, then no decoupling is necessarily needed. You can just destroy the pathogens, because there’s no particular reason to believe they will keep coming back stronger and in greater numbers.

Harris clearly believes that dangerous knowledge will be discovered whether we want to or not, and we need to be able to handle it. So he wants to compartmentalize. He wants to break the connection between heredity (and whatever specific information about it we will discover) and the political ideologies it’s thought to funnel power to. His (decoupling) position is that it the link can be broken by assertion, and that’s what he does, many times, in his conversations with Murray and Klein.

The contextualizing position is that you can’t just cut the link, because that creates a narrative vacuum and the link will just repair itself as soon as you look the other way. There needs to be something there to make sense of the data and integrate it into a meaning-making story.

If you want to stop certain flows of support from scientific results to narratives you can try right at the source and make everyone keep quiet — the contextualizer’s solution. Or you can try to cut if off mid-stream by loudly rejecting the validity of the implications — the decoupler’s solution. But none of those are stable. If the source claims are true shutting them down is not a workable or acceptable option, but they do have to go somewhere. Potent ideas not integrated into any ideology is the conceptual equivalent of free radicals: they’ll find something to react with. This is underappreciated by the decoupler.

A compromise is to reroute the flow towards other narratives. That takes more work and it’s harder to feel successful in the short run, but it’s a far better and more stable long term solution.

One new ideology

What really needs to be built is a narrative that’s comfortable with heredity but has a politically egalitarian message. If the left doesn’t manage this soon they’ll leave the field wide open. I don’t think that’ll happen. I’m quite convinced that a robust “hereditarian left” is going to form in the next decade or so (I made a half-jokey attempt to imitate what it could sound like).

There’s plenty to work with. Once during their conversation Klein says something important to Harris that doesn’t get any further development; he says it can be argued that heritable intelligence demolishes the idea of moral desert when it comes to wealth, and justifies more redistribution, not less. Harris is sympathetic. There are also evolutionary explanations for cooperation, reciprocity and intuitive egalitarianism to deploy in a broadly pro-biology version of center-left politics.

This isn’t a new idea. Peter Singer’s book A Darwininan Left is almost 20 years old now, and John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice is even older.

But it’s still early days. I couldn’t even make the Google Trends graph I was looking to put here — one where the phrases “hereditarian left” or “darwinian left” are slowly climbing in popularity — because the volume is too small.

I suspect the reason it hasn’t caught on is intra-left ambivalence on what horse to back. Once you switch there really is no going back (and it’s hard to be the one doing it first). This isn’t unlike a company resisting inventing something new that might cannibalize sales of their profitable but obsolescent existing products. And I do think “blank slatism” is obsolescent. With genetic sequencing technology advancing quickly it doesn’t have many years left. And when the shift finally happens it’s going to be quick.

So, come on. Get cracking. The thinkpieces aren’t going to write themselves. Not until we have AI, anyway.

• • •


Scott Alexander offered this, well-phrased as usually, criticism on the Slate Star Codex subreddit:

My impression is that a Martian would consider “we shouldn’t study the genetics of race just in case it promotes racism, which can cause genocide” equally plausible to “we shouldn’t study the economics of inequality just in case it promotes communism, which can cause genocide” or “we shouldn’t study psychiatry, because we might learn some things that stigmatize people with psychiatric diseases, which can cause genocide”, or “we shouldn’t study evolution, because that could cast doubt on the Bible and destroy the moral foundations of our society, which could cause genocide”, or two hundred other possibilities along the same lines.

Since worrying about any of the others isn’t correlated with worrying about the race-science issue, I don’t think it’s a question of fixed cognitive styles. I think it’s just politics, pure and simple.

Yeah, guilty. I glossed over that in the article. I did almost have a section on how Klein, described by me as a non-decoupler, likely would have no problem at all decoupling, say, privilege discourse from communistic atrocities while maintaining that intelligence discourse can’t be decoupled from fascistic atrocities (personally I think such links should be viewed similarly in both cases, i.e. with great skepticism). But I decided to skip it for reasons of narrative coherence and article-already-being-9000-words-ity.

For example, I think art has become much more of contextualizer’s field over the 20th century, largely for fashion reasons. I think it’s to the art world’s detriment that it’s gone as far as it has. You can write ridiculous parodies of it with only slight exaggeration.

The solution is to bring this particular difference to the surface and discuss it explicitly instead of engaging in proxy warfare in the banana republics of the object level.

Or ideologies, which are related but not the same thing. I prefer to see the relation between them the way I did in Partial Derivatives and Partial Narratives: you get an ideology when you integrate over partial narratives).

Harris does have a response to this. He says that he doesn’t share Murray’s politics — he shares Klein’s attitudes, broadly — and he still believes Murray’s reading to be reasonable.

Studies I can’t be arsed to find again show that people will often think differently about a suggested policy based on what party it’s supposedly coming from, which isn’t crazy if you haven’t got the expertise or time to understand and evaluate it yourself.

The same thing happens with words. The phrase “what a gyp” has its origin in prejudice against Roma (“gypsies”), but very few people think of that today. If you don’t know, intend any harm or even think about it, is it still offensive? Do words retain their past symbolic associations even after most people have forgotten them? For how long? For what people? At some point it becomes ridiculous. There’s a joke in 30 Rock where Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) objects to being called a “buffoon” on the grounds that it’s “a fifteenth century word for black pirate! Racist!”.

I chose to go with the threat angle here because it’s more emotionally intense and immediate, but of course there’s also an element of potential gain. Contextualizing is a great source of legitimation for picking fights, because it radically increases the pool of reasons ýou can consider something a problem. Winning battles tends to come with rewards, like more power for people like you, less power for your enemies, higher status for you in your group, or warm fuzzies for simply fighting the enemy — even if only symbolically. It feels like you’re doing something.

It may imply that certain specific policies are not likely to work or requires too much of something (money, effort, competence, authoritarianism) to be workable. But “left” and “right” are much broader concepts than that.

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22 thoughts on “Decoupling Revisited

  1. On item 3, there is a double ‘without’:

    “Can you enjoy yourself in that park without WITHOUT it being an endorsement of British colonial rule in India?”

    Was it a mistake, or were you intentionally trying to test us?


  2. Finally catching up on this after having a bit of time off my usual internet reading… decoupling seems to have spread around a lot! I like ‘decoupling’ vs ‘contextualising’ – a lot less clunky than formations like ‘low-decoupling’.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Unfortunately, my take on the discussion is that Harris has similar problems to Klein re: decoupling. They were both guilty in that conversation of being unable to evaluate each instance of a thing on it’s own rather than imposing their reaction to supposedly ‘allied’ views.

    In particular, I think Harris (quite understandably) has trouble disentangling his (appropriate) anger at being unfairly targeted by the left from his inclination to sympathy to others who might be subject to that treatment. While Klein talks a good game whenever I hear him in conversation but then doesn’t walk the walk when he publishes his views (or in editing Vox).

    For instance, he should very much have known that the characterization Vox published of Harris wouldn’t be taken as the relatively friendly disagreement he presented in the interview would stoke extreme moral condemnation when published.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I think I brought it up somewhere (unless it got cut, unsure): Harris puts the Vox article and Klein’s behavior in a context that Klein doesn’t want, which is similar to what the article itself does to him – although that allegation is more serious and damaging.

      And I do believe Klein understood at least partly. There is evidence that he thinks this is just the “rules of engagement” and is surprised Harris is so angry about it. In the article I’ve assumed his honesty about that but I’m not sure I actually believe it.


      1. I’m a little more sympathetic to Klein’s reaction insofar as he didn’t write the article and the person who did is his employee so he can’t totally throw the writer under the bus.

        I do think Klein is inclined to look first to political consequences while Harris more to literal truth but ultimately I think it’s a conversation where both parties are so emotionally invested in their side of the discussion that I was impressed it went as well as it did. Remember this discussion didn’t happen in some vacuum after the article went up but after both parties had to fend off heated attacks alleging really extreme bad faith from twitter etc.. about their behavior in this context. In some sense it’s like a discussion about whether your wife was a slut in college (well to those people who care about that sort of thing) in that it takes great discipline to not let one’s emotion take the wheel.

        To be clear I’m essentially agreeing with you…just pointing out that I don’t think there is any reason to doubt Klein’s good intentions here since he’s human and we know humans are really really damn bad at reaching objective conclusions once they are emotionally invested in the issue.

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  4. FWIW, I think your association of literary mindset with high-coupling was perfectly justified. The emphasis on linguistic history (see Derrida’s “trace,” or the obsession with etymology) and the “legacies” of institutions, or the opinion that certain attitudes of historic figures cannot be separated from other of their ideas—these are all quintessential “literary” attitudes, which coincide with the concept of poetic “charge” (accumulated, contextual, many-layered meanings of words, where the multiple layers are evoked simultaneously and talk to one another).

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  5. A Hereditarian Lefty – Would be Something to Be.

    The closest somebody whose work I know has come to such a status of a new working-class hero are the books of the German ex-banker and Social Democrat’s ex-minister turned political writer/analyst Thilo Sarrazin – who does explicitly rely on the work of Charles Murray.

    Thilo Sarrazin holds firm to the blessings of the a) high-taxation social state, b) the classical nation-state with borders and immigration control, and c) hospitality for politically suppressed refugees. – In parts at least close to Steve Sailer’s citizenship concept and – all kinds of policies in Europe right now like Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian version or Mette Frederikson’s Danish version of the Thilo-Sarrazin’s attempt. Switzerland not to be forgotten with its all-parties coalition – including the immigration critics of the SVP.

    Other writers to mention here could be Christophe Guilluy (“No Society”) and David Goodheart (“The Road to Somewhere”).


    Your connect/disconnect idea reminds me of Hegel, btw.


  6. My impression is that a Martian would consider “we shouldn’t study the genetics of race just in case it promotes racism, which can cause genocide” equally plausible to “we shouldn’t study the economics of inequality just in case it promotes communism, which can cause genocide” or “we shouldn’t study psychiatry, because we might learn some things that stigmatize people with psychiatric diseases, which can cause genocide”, or “we shouldn’t study evolution, because that could cast doubt on the Bible and destroy the moral foundations of our society, which could cause genocide”, or two hundred other possibilities along the same lines.

    idk, perhaps the hypothetical Martian would be baffled the idea of studying the ~genetics~ of groupings that aren’t actually based on/natural divisions of genes..?


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