Further Comments on a Joke

[Note: I really should stop using these sexy, clickbaity titles.]

About a month ago I wrote my last post as an April’s Fools Joke. It was, supposedly, an opinion piece arguing against secret ballots. It’s core argument was that secret ballots enable people to exercise power without accountability, and this is unaccaceptable. My intent was to criticize such accountability-based arguments for restricting free speech and anonymity by applying them to an area where there’s a generally acknowledged near-sacred right both to exercise a modicum of power and to do so anonymously, without having to face social censure or consequences. We recognize that there are strong reasons for voting to be in secret, and I think most of these reasons apply to speech as well.

I packed the piece with unjustified assertions, gross moral overconfidence, erroneus and backwards references to science, plus quotes and allusions meant to show that there’s something very wrong here. Interestingly the joke wasn’t quite as obvious as I thought it would be. Of the feedback I got, a few didn’t seem to get it and noted that it missed the main reason ballots are secret: to prevent vote buying. Granted, I didn’t bring that up because the piece wasn’t about voting per se. Others got it first after noticing the date, and one told me he got it just because it was my blog and knew it was quite far from what I usually think.

In this late follow-up — which I meant to publish much sooner after the original but life gets in the way, for example by making me spend two weeks in bed with covid — I’ll repeat the joke piece, now with many, many footnotes explaining why certain things are there, what they mean, and what I really think about them. It’ll be ranty at times and I hope you’ll excuse me. Of course explaining a joke tends to ruin it… so you’ve been warned: joke about to be ruined.

Abolish Secret Ballots

[Note: This is a guest post by O.B. Haag-Lieg[1] of the Open Vote Initiative]

It’s time to put an end to secret ballots — it’s time for an #OpenVote.

I know how it sounds, and I understand. Anonymous voting used to be an important protection. However, that was when we had a culture of repression[2]. In modern democracies we have open discussion and nobody is unfairly harassed by the powers that be for criticizing the status quo. On the contrary, today it’s anonymity that enables harassment. That raises the question if the dangers of allowing anonymous voting has begun to eclipse the benefits. I for one am convinced that it has.

We need to acknowledge that there’s an essential difference between healthy dissent and acting on false, outdated and dangerous beliefs[3]. Secrecy was meant to protect the powerless, not those acting in bad faith[4] and voting for harmful policies by malice, selfishness, or because of being fed disinformation[5]. Yes, it’s good when anonymity stands as a bulwark against oppressive power, but it’s bad when it stands as a roadblock against healthy influence[6].

The core of democracy is accountability. Having to gain and keep the support of the electorate holds leaders accountable to the people, that is what makes democracy what it is. But it doesn’t go far enough. By having to approve of politicians, the people are the true rulers, and as such they must also be held accountable[7][8].

Accountable to whom? To each other!

Secret ballots has gone from having guaranteed democracy to becoming a threat to it. Today we have the frankly intolerable situation where selfish or ignorant people can vote for policies that harm others[9] and there’s no way to hold them accountable for their actions. How is this at all fair? It has got to end. The right to vote doesn’t mean the right to vote without consequences.

With open voting, where everyone’s vote would be registered in a public record (a blockchain solution would be ideal[10]), every citizen would be accountable, not to an oppressive regime, not to an elite at the top of the pyramid, but to their fellow citizens. The difference is stark; unlike in formal hierarchies when power comes from grabbing it in the most ruthless way possible, becoming influential in free social communities is the result of others granting their attention and trust to the clearly wisest and most empathetic among them. While in the past anonymity hid knowledge from power hungry elites, it now hides it from deserving community leaders who’ve earned their positions fairly — because truth, prudence, and wisdom reliably reflect positively on the person in possession of them[11].

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Under an open voting scheme you can still keep your views to yourself all you want. Just don’t vote. Keep what you want private as long as you forfeit your right to make decisions that affect other people. It’s actually very simple: if you don’t want to be seen you don’t get to be heard[12].

It’s a healthy principle because we all know that anonymity makes us worse people. Scientists have demonstrated the “watching eye effect” where just putting up a picture of a pair of watchful eyes makes us more likely to put our coffee cups in the dishwasher instead of in the sink. Anonymity, on the other hand, gives us road rage and online trolls. Removing anonymous speech would be a great leap forward[13] for accountability, but speech is only soft power. The hard political power of the vote is what it all comes down to in the end, so that’s an even clearer cut case in favor of accountability.

Yes, as any parent of teenagers knows, we make better decisions when watched by our peers[14]. We listen to our better angels, make the right decisions, and apprehend the truth the best when under the scrutiny of others. How could this be any more obvious? If it wasn’t true there’d certainly be a lot of waste in society on things that are just for show[15].

Antisocial modes of decision making where everyone votes their own interests, atomized, “free”[16] to be as selfish and biased as they want, hurts the vulnerable and destroys communities and the planet[17]. The “wisdom of the crowd” principle tells us that the more interconnected we are and the more we know about each other’s beliefs the better decisions we make[18], and the famous “convergence experiments” by Solomon Asch[19] showed us how being sensitive to feedback and influence from others improves our decision making.

We must harness these effects for positive change. All that’s required from the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing — but to do something we need the means[20]. We must know when something has to be done, who needs to be properly educated[21] or, failing that, encouraged to remove themselves from the exercise of power.

Abolishing anonymous voting isn’t a big change. The proposal is modest[22], but with great potential to empower those with moral clarity[23] and let them know where the problem lies. Politics today is too anodyne and bloodless, plagued by timidity and self-doubt[24] that keeps us from fighting for what we know is right. Making everybody take their stance in public would reinvigorate political life. Many are angry about stubborn obstacles to change, and that pent-up energy can and must be channeled towards something positive. We must use that anger, it gives us focus, makes us stronger[25].

Today, people can exercise voting power without having to justify themselves to coworkers, friends and family or the public. Open voting would solve this problem through its positive knock-on effects. You could be held accountable not just for your own vote and thus your own influence on society, but for the votes of everyone you know and associate with. Before dating, befriending or hiring someone you’d be able — duty-bound! — to check their vote and then decide whether you can in good conscience support them[26][27].

It will be impossible to not take your responsibility for preventing harm[28]. That’s the beauty of the Open Vote Initiative. It’s accountability all the way down, for your own life and for the lives of others[29]. Only that way we can make sure everybody is on the right side of history, and thus exercise what the social scientist Timur Kuran called “preference verification” — the gradual personal betterment that reveals that your true desire is the good as judged by the community[30].

The antisocial will stop voting, but in the long term this will become suspicious as well. Why don’t you vote? If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem[31]. If you think something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be thinking it in the first place[32]. Because you know when you’re wrong, deep down, you know when you’re trash[33]. Deep down, you know that you deserve to be punished[34]. In the future this problem will be gone, because not voting will be like not being on social media: a sure sign someone is not quite to be trusted[35].

At the Open Vote Initiative we believe that when you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place. So, what we view our role as, is giving people that power[36]. We want to shine a disinfecting light all across society. Anonymous voting erect barriers and prevents the healing effects of social influence from reaching into every heart and mind. Anonymity and the pathologies that fester in the shadow it provides has created vicious polarization[37], and something needs to restore harmony by finding and curing, or isolating, the disease vectors[38]. That way we can build true harmony: a deliberative democracy[39] where everyone has gets to be deeply involved. We will then leave behind our trivial, selfish lives, and be reborn with a greater purpose[40].

Democracy dies in darkness[41]. Grant us an #OpenVote — our very own Agent Orange[42] to clear away that which keeps us in darkness, and make way for bright lights shining on our human faces, forever[43][44].


“O.B. Haag-Lieg” is intended to sound like “obehaglig”, which is Swedish for “unpleasant”, “unsettling”, or possibly “creepy”.

It’s easy to notice repression when it happens to things you like, and a lot harder when it happens to things you don’t like. Then it just feels like enforcing standards of decency — which is exactly what repressive culture of the past thought of itself as doing.

This one’s a doozy. I got a direct message on Twitter saying that somebody’s friend in a private chat reacted to this sentence with “jesus christ” and I consider that a success. It’s awful. I took a kind of evil delight in typing it out because it goes so much against what I believe. A lot of problems and polarization stems from moral overconfidence and the idea that “good things” and “bad things” have some clear difference between them that makes them entirely different things. Good and bad is in the eye of the beholder; not a property of the thing we’re talking about but a solely a property of our opinion of it. There’s no justification for putting “good examples of X” and “bad examples of X” in two different buckets and give the buckets different labels and pretending the placement has anything to do with fact.

People really do act in bad faith sometimes, but I also often find this phrase used to mean something like: “trying to argue for opinions that I find illegitimate” or “tries to expose contradictions or limitations in my views”, or even “tries to prevent me from achieving my political goals”.

Complaining about the belief that people disagree with you because they’re either evil or duped by evil — and not because there can simply be justified disagreement and no right answer to many questions.

Same point as above more or less: “there’s a difference between *positive sounding description of thing* and *negative sounding description of the same thing*”. No, the difference is not in the thing, but in ourselves.

Accountability is a common argument for policing speech, with the argument that it has consequences and thus counts as an exercise of power. By that standard so many things are exercises of power that it seriously starts infringing on the exercise of rights. And the two concepts, while both positively loaded (for the most part and for the time being), are in direct opposition. I said in Platist Politics that rights appeal to people with a certain psychology because it means “no questions asked”. You don’t have to consider the consequences or consult anybody beforehand. In other words, a right means no accountability. If rights are any good at all, accountability isn’t always good.

This argument makes sense. It’s not persuasive — not to me, but that’s simply because I don’t like the conclusion and not because the argument doesn’t have a certain logic to it. It’s put together with as much sense and validity as most political arguments are, and it illustrates, I think, how unpersuasive the average argument is. Nobody cares because the purpose of unpersuasive arguments isn’t to persuade those who don’t like the conslusion, but to let those who do like it think they have good reason to.

Everything harms somebody or something. Appealing to potential harm is an argument that sounds a lot stronger than it is (see last note), especially since it tends to privilege immediate, concentrated, and emotionally impactful harm over diffuse, long term, and less obvious harm.

Of course a blockchain. You have to have a blockchain.

Read this in a deeply sarcastic voice. It’s meant to satirize the idea that popularity, charisma, social skills and the clout that comes with them is synonymous with wisdom and good judgment.

I’m pleased with this particular sentence despite hating its point. Nice turns of phrase are similar to the unpersuasive arguments discussed above: they don’t convince anybody but make those who already agree feel vindicated. It feels like such a perfect encapsulation of the truth when you believe it, and such an abvious case of reduction, overreach and sophistry when you don’t. They work much better as rhetorical weapons than they should because for some dumb, buggy reason we think things are truer when they sound snappy (like if they rhyme). I almost didn’t want to include it here in case somebody would think of using it for real.

The reference to The Great Leap Forward is of course not an accident, and would be quite tasteless in a real opinion piece.

Come on! How more obviously sarcastic can you get? Teenagers are the undisputed masters of doing stupid shit to impress each other, and while adults are more mature the difference isn’t as big as we’d like to think.

…which there obviously is. Massively so. I was thinking of the book The Elephant in the Brain when I wrote this, but there’s even more than discussed there.

Putting scare quotes around words for no other reason than to imply (rather than state and argue for, or state and admit as mere personal preference) that it’s not a legitimate concept is one of my least favorite pieces of discourse practice.

This is an argument to the effect of “we must have the means to monitor people’s decisions so they can be made to make sacrifices for the common good, whether they want to or not”. I understand this impulse and that the justifications can sometimes be compelling, but it’s still creepy as hell. I have a deep-seated suspicion of people who seem just a little bit too willing to tell others what they can and can’t do. It’s a last resort, not the first.

It’s the other way around. The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki details the conditions required for the effect to occur, and one of them is individual independence. In other words, it’s required that people’s decision-making is not tightly interconnected and influenced by each other.

The “convergence experiments” are really the conformity experiments, which showed (modulo replication crisis…) that social pressure can be devastating to truth and accuracy. In Asch’s experiments, a big minority of participants were willing to affirm things that were clearly and obviously false to fit in with the group.

As above, snappy phrasing (especially when very abstract and general) is easily abused.

Using the word “educate” like this is the epitome of arrogance. It implies your own views are synonymous with the truth and the only reason others disagree is because they haven’t been sufficiently informed (plus a healthy dose of classism on top). It’s like Christians knocking on doors and asking people if they’ve “heard the good news” but without the politeness.

Any piece like this must have a modest proposal reference.

The phrase “moral clarity” is another one of my pet peeves. It’s what extremism feels like from the inside. I see it as coming from confusing your own subjective moral intuition with some external, objective truth. In reality such intuitions tend to be self-serving, heavily socially influenced, and prone to tunnel vision. They can’t be trusted. Most moral positions have reasonable objections to them and controversial ones definitely do. Not feeling significant inner doubt and humility in the face of this, and instead consider such selective blindness a virtue (in the form of apprehension of a higher, pure truth that didn’t actually exist when Plato dreamed of it and still doesn’t) is a huge red flag.

Yeah, that’s our problem, people aren’t confrontational enough.

“Use your anger” and “It makes you stronger, gives you focus” are quotes from Emperor Palpatine. I always considered the moral philosophy of Star Wars a step above that of most other pulp exactly because of its message that using anger, even when justified, as a source of power will turn you evil — and that calm, dutiful composure is the only way to stay uncorrupted. Wanting to harness anger for agency and power is common enough for me to find it perfectly believable that the author of this piece would use those phrases approvingly.

There’s a very particular delight in writing something you find abhorrent but with a tone of over the top, gushing enthusiasm (it’s what makes a good villain speech so satisfying). I’m not necessarily proud of it, but it’s true. In this case it’s encouraging people to bring politics into every sphere of life and sever personal relationships over it. I can barely imagine anything more psychologically and socially unhealthy. Friendships across political boundaries are valuable social infrastructure. They’re bulwarks against extremism and dehumanization, and they make us better people. It also internalizes part of the cost of a “total war” approach to politics.

There are good reasons for the increasingly old-fashioned norms of not talking religion or politics with strangers and acquaintances. It’s hard-earned wisdom that makes it possible to keep the peace and cooperate even when we hold beliefs and sentiments that offend each other, which we do and always have done. Writ large, these norms are the essence of liberal tolerance, a core stabilizing feature of modern societies. There’s this paragraph about liberalism and tolerance (by Scott Alexander) that I wish I’d written:

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

But yeah, sure, let’s break it.

This is a reference to an earlier post where I expressed my dislike for ideologies that heap endless responsibilities on you.

This is a reference to the German film The Lives of Others, about Stasi’s surveillance of suspected political dissidents in 1980’s East Germany.

Kuran is actually known for the opposite. His concept “preference falsification” refers to expressing preferences you don’t really have, due to social pressure. The idea was put forward in his 1995 book Private Truths, Public Lies.

Also one of my all-time least favorite phrases, and a reference to Platist Politics.

A paraphrase of “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”, a frankly alarming quote on privacy by then Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

I have a deep aversion to people, any people, being called “trash” (or “scum”, or anything like that). Hearing somebody speak of others like that makes me worry about what they’re capable of.

This references a quote by Dolores Umbridge: “Deep down, you know that you deserve to be punished. Don’t you, Mr Potter?”

This is in effect an argument for softly compelled politicial speech. Here’s a recent piece in Arc Digital about that being a bad idea. It has plenty of quotable passages but I’ll just pick this one near the end:

Politics has its place, but that place shouldn’t be everywhere, all the time. When politics is pervasive, it is worse. There must be space for political neutrality, and this means that we must be able to remain silent on political matters in most contexts without (too many) adverse social consequences.

I didn’t think of it when I wrote the original, but I should have found a way to reference Havel’s greengrocer somewhere here.

It’s not entirely fair to put Mark Zuckerberg in the company of Emperor Palpatine, Dolores Umbridge, and the Borg Queen(see below), but I couldn’t resist this quote. It sounds all nice but I find it really easy to read a naive and dangerous populism into it. It reminds me of 90’s era internet utopianism: “it will improve communication and create harmony and understanding across the globe!” Yeah, about that… we’re not mature enough for great power to just be handed out on the street. Facebook (and Twitter) are not exactly great poster children for what happens when everyone has power in the way I interpret Zuckerberg as saying. Power should come with friction and indirectness that makes it hard to use impulsively and with great leverage. Making power more evenly distributed can be a good thing, making people less vulnerable to the power of others is a better thing.

Meant to satirize the idea that only one side (the other, obviously) is responsible for polarization.

Like I said about “trash” above, equating people to disease vectors (with “fester” or “disinfecting”) is some scary, dehumanizing language. Also, of course, it’s an example of staggering overconfidence and intolerance to consider other people’s beliefs a disease to be eradicated.

I have a personal dislike of the concept of deliberative democracy (although I might not be using the term exactly right, please bear with me). I don’t mean it’s evil or sinister or anything, it’s more that I feel it’s a certain kind of person who wants it — the kind of person who is politically engaged and enjoys and has confidence in the political process. If you’re like that it makes sense to believe that others are the same and that they truly want and should be involved too. But people are different.

If you also have a gregarious, extraverted personality where you don’t mind getting into public disagreement and don’t mind being misunderstood or disliked by some, and are relatively adept at building alliances and making yourself sound good to others, then expanding the scope of politics also benefits you and people like you, and feels like a good thing. I’m by nature a private person who dislikes most public debate, is distressed by conflict, don’t trust the political process to produce good decisions, and thus prefer politics to be dry and boring and play as much of a background role in life as possible. To me, this attitude feels threatening.

In Star Trek, the Borg share all their thoughts with each other in a giant cybernetic hive, ultimately erasing their individual minds. The joke post is on the surface about voting, but is also me railing about how much I dislike insufficient respect for privacy and demands/pressure/expectations to share feelings and thoughts I consider intimate and personal. The Borg is the ultimate reductio-ad-absurdum of this tendency and this line quotes the Borg Queen in the Voyager episode Dark Frontier:

Borg Queen: Congratulations.
Seven of Nine: Regarding?
Borg Queen: Assimilation is complete.
Seven of Nine: 300,000 individuals have been transformed into drones. Should they be congratulated as well?
Borg Queen: They should be. They’ve left behind their trivial, selfish lives, and they’ve been reborn with a greater purpose. We’ve delivered them from chaos into order.
Seven of Nine: Comforting words. Use them next time instead of “Resistance is futile.” You may elicit a few volunteers.

I might be old-fashioned, but I think of both strong personal feelings and political opinions like genitals. They’re certainly important, and there are contexts in which bringing them out and engaging with them is fun and rewarding, but you need to be mindful of consent. Don’t take yours out if it’s not clearly appropriate and welcomed by all relevant parties, and you don’t pressure others to show you theirs unless you’re sure they’re into it.

Subverting the slogan of the Washington Post here, again to point out that good-sounding phrases can easily be reinterpreted and used for bad purposes.

Even if some had not understood that this was all sarcasm by the end I was certain this would do it: a positive reference to an infamous poison that caused birth defects and enormous environmental damage when used to find people in hiding.

I rather liked ending the piece with this combination of light shining in your face (as in an interrogation), and the classic “boot stamping on a human face, forever” line from the most famous book of all about robbing people of their privacy, individuality, and freedom of conscience.

In the end I felt somewhat uncomfortable writing this piece, as I always do when engaging in rhetoric. Even if this is satirizing rhetoric itself by doing it badly and for a bad cause, I can’t escape that making sarcastic argumentation and referencing villains etc. does mean making implicit arguments myself. These can be criticized as subjective, exaggerated, hysterical, or unfair — and they kinda are. I have no particular defense against that accusation.

What I have done is push my opinion by bringing up a bunch of idea fragments, insinuations and unflattering imagery that gesture in its general direction — just like the shitty opinion pieces I usually love to hate. Turning it all upside down and into a joke is putting a little bit of artistry into it, but it doesn’t make the substantial argumentative content any better. I’ve used the satire format to hide my case’s lack of rigor; it’s still “arguing by smell”, saved by decent production values. At the end I guess I’ll just have to say what I said on Twitter when I first posted it: I indulge in this stuff sometimes for the same reason I’ll eat an unhealthy snack now and then. I hope to make up for it with plenty of protein and fiber in my other posts.

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4 thoughts on “Further Comments on a Joke

    1. Thanks. I guess I consider a satirical piece a joke though? As in something you don’t mean and is intended to be funny. Maybe my English sense is slightly off here.


  1. “Accountable to whom? To each other!”
    Even asking the question explicitly, let alone answering it, is something of an ITT failure in my opinion, because (modulo my perception of the arguments) the cases I randomly see tend to assume the answer is “public opinion” and don’t seem to have a conscious model of what that means.

    Blockchain: in my experience the people who would propose/endorse the main topic and those who would add blockchains to their pocket watch if they could are basically disjunct sets. The latter tend to be the worse sort of ancaps (the former an-socs).

    11: Severe intuitive socialconstructionists would endorse it unironically. (Even without that, halo effect.)

    “Anonymity gives us road rage” – Luckily I’m not an American, but I thought that it’s personal, i.e. people do it to a particular person/driver/car they snap at. The dehumanization of the potential targets (the other actors in the environment being cars rather than fellow monkeys; or do most people instinctively look for the driver behind the windshield and I’m weird for not doing so?) may contribute to it, though.

    “All that’s required from the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing — but to do something we need the means”
    Interpretation matrix time! The proportion of society that are “good people” (and actively evil people and passively mistaken/ignorant people) fluctuates *wildly* in how this sentence fits with the rest of the argument. (The primary way to save it is to say that good selfless people coordinate their activism, while the evil selfish people don’t coordinate, thus the former enjoy greater ability to educate/bully the clueless, then eventually censor the evil people. Of course, the usual culprits would endorse this claim.)

    Anger: interesting one, over at Vividness “wrathful practice” is described. Oh course, that philosophy is thoroughly uninterested in staying uncorrupted. However, all of this is built on a massive amount of reflection and self-awareness that is thoroughly missing from the imagined “straight” author. (Kegan 3, 4, 5 pattern)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make good points. When pretending to be someone else there’s always the risk of being too explicit with things that the person you’re pretending to be would just assume and leave unsaid. It’s a hard needle to thread.

      You’re right about blockchains. I just wanted to joke about blockchain obsession.


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