Culture, Biases, and Empathy

A few disclaimers before I start:

  1. This is a complicated issue. While I may simplify definitions or arguments for the sake of making a point, I realize the truth is more complex than that.
  2. I’m not completely sure about the conclusions, and this is not a topic that I am an authority on. Still, there are some things that I find so disturbing that I feel the need to say something, even if it is just armchairing.
  3. Culture can be taboo, especially to criticism. I realize this.
  4. I am going to throw in more caveats than usual, particularly because of the first three reasons. The last post I wrote in this area, on the social construction of progress, seemed to strike the wrong nerve even among some of my friends, so I’ll be extra careful here. I feel that I shouldn’t need to make such disclaimers, and hopefully this will clarify understanding rather than confound it.

The topic for today is the criticism of other cultures. In particular, we are very reluctant to criticize even a tiny facet of another culture, and while this is for good reason due to the not-so-friendly history of cultural superiority, I think we have overcompensated in the moral relativism direction and have ended up shielding even the worst culture-specific behaviors from criticism.

Wariness in Criticizing Cultures

As noted in the social progress post, much of our (post-)modern reservation to proclaim objective truths is well intentioned: to prevent future atrocities from happening as a result of the feelings of cultural superiority. The Holocaust comes to mind immediately, and European colonialism is another.

However, to (theoretically) renounce objective truth altogether would go too far. Then on what grounds do we have to say that stoning someone for adultery is wrong? Or rather, how can we criticize a culture that practices stoning as punishment for adultery? Or a culture with the punishment of 200 lashes for the crime of being raped? (Yes, you read that right—200 lashes not for the perpetrator, but for the victim.) We don’t have any grounds to make such criticism on at all, if we subscribe to extreme moral relativism.

Of course, this is an extreme scenario. The average person doesn’t watch a video of a woman being stoned to death and then say, “That’s okay because it’s okay in their culture and we have to respect that.” The reaction is outrage, as it should be.

Cultural Anthropic Principle

I want to take one step back and talk about a peculiarity in the logic of cultural critique: a selection effect on what we are saying. It is similar to an effect in cosmology called the anthropic principle: given that we are observing the universe, the universe must have properties that support intelligent life. That is, it addresses the question of “Why is our universe suitable for life?” by noting that if our universe were not suitable for life, then we wouldn’t be here making that observation. That is, the alternative question, “Why is our universe not suitable for life,” cannot physically be asked. We must observe a universe compatible with intelligent life.

A similar effect is found in some areas of cultural analysis. We have, for instance, many critiques of democracy written by people living in democracies. One might ask, what kind of criticisms do people make within a totalitarian state? The answer might be none: given that a writer is in a totalitarian system, their critique of the totalitarian government may never be published or even written in the first place for fear of imprisonment by the state. The net result is, given that we are critiquing our own political system, we are most likely in an open political system. This seems to answer the question, “Why is political analysis democracy-centric?”

The same principle applies to the criticism of cultures. More intellectually advanced cultures tend to be more open to self criticism and be more wary of criticizing other cultures. So, a culture that is wary about criticizing other cultures tends to be more intellectually sophisticated, and thus often are concerned with epistemological questions of cultural analysis in the first place and can often give a better answer than one that is less self-aware.

Cultural Exclusion, Bias

In any discussion with one person criticizing another culture, the go-to defense is, “You are not from culture X, so you cannot possibly understand X.” This seems to be a very exclusionary argument that implicitly denies the role of empathy. By saying “you cannot possibly understand,” one implies that there is something mysterious that cannot be shared with someone outside the group.

I’m all for people of different cultures to communicate and get along with one another, but the mindset of “you cannot possibly understand” seems to reinforce cultural divisions and deny the possibility for mutual understanding.

Along the lines of “you cannot possibly understand,” a related argument is, “You are from culture X, therefore your opinion is biased,” where X usually equals Western culture.

Of course opinions are biased! But it’s not as simple as biased vs unbiased (and does an unbiased person even exist?)—there is a whole range of biases along different dimensions. To reiterate my favorite Isaac Asimov quote:

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

Interestingly enough, the context of this quote (source) is that it was in response to an English major who “…went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern ‘knowledge’ is that it is wrong.” Asimov’s response signifies that wrongness exists as not a dichotomy, but a scale. (It is kind of ironic that Asimov was the one who argued that wrongness is relative, to an English major in 1989.)

So yes, we are biased, but that does not mean we should just abandon cultural analysis. As we understand biases more, we get better at working around them and minimizing their impacts. One example is the anchoring bias, which says that if you are trying to guess a number but think of some other number beforehand, your guess will move slightly closer to that other number. For example, in situation (1), I ask you, “What is 1000 plus 1000?” and then ask you to estimate the price of a car, versus (2) I ask you, “What is a million plus a million?” and then ask you to estimate the price of the car. You will give a lower estimate in the first case and a higher estimate in the second case, even though it is the same car! To work around this, try to not expose someone to arbitrary numbers beforehand if you want an honest estimation from them, for instance. (For more on biases, see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Probably, we cannot eliminate all biases from our minds. But in regards to cultural criticism, bias cannot be used as a disqualifier. In 12th grade history, we had an essay where one of the points was to analyze and contextualize sources, e.g. looking for bias. Some of my classmates apparently had used the “you cannot possibly understand” mentality on the source analysis. Our teacher had to announce in class that “This author is not from country X and therefore must be biased when talking about country X” is not a valid scholarly argument. From my college experience, professors explicitly warn against doing this as well, so to be clear, my argument on cultural criticism is not targeted against academics (who I think are approaching things correctly), but against a popular/cultural sentiment.

This recent Buzzfeed article “Why Muslim Americans Are Giving ‘Alice In Arabia’ Major Side-Eye” is an apt example of this sentiment. It’s interesting that the criticisms are not of the content but of the context—that the writer is a white woman and therefore must be racist and cannot possibly understand Muslims. I won’t say too much more about it here, but it’s pretty interesting and solidly demonstrates the point of this post. It isn’t even criticism of culture so much as even portrayal of/writing about another culture. Which leads me to…

Personal Investment and Empathy

“You cannot possibly understand” as an argument seems to deny empathy. The point of empathy is you can understand someone else. More specifically, we are concerned with intercultural empathy, trying to understand another culture. There are plenty of people who come from multicultural backgrounds and who have adapted from one culture to another, so it happens all the time.

Recently, I also ran into the argument of “you are not personally invested in X, therefore you have no point in talking about X,” which is again a denial of empathy and an affirmation of total self interest. This argument was made in a comment to the social progress blog post, and the commenter ended with the following:

Your stakes in this critical project are low, and you’re yelling that from your desk chair for some reason.

I think the implication was that since I’m not a humanities major, I shouldn’t be interested in talking about the humanities. Really? In addition, this sentiment is simply historically wrong. From a previous blog post:

It is important to keep in mind that when groups do agitate for rights, their practical purpose is to convince whomever is in charge to give them rights. Just looking at American history, we see that every time there is a major social revolution granting rights to a previously discriminated group, the government itself contained extremely few, if any, members of that group.

Abraham Lincoln was white, and so was the rest of the US government when the Civil War occurred. When Congress granted women the right to vote, there were no women in Congress. And when the LGBT community first agitated for rights, no member of Congress of such an orientation had openly declared it.

According to the commenter’s logic, these rights revolutions should never have happened because there was no personal investment for any white member of Congress to support rights for racial minorities, or for any male Congressperson to support rights for women, or for the straight Congress to support LGBT rights, etc.

And according to the commenter’s logic, pretty much everything I talk about should not be talked about. I’ve spoken in the past about LGBT rights and perceptions, women’s rights, and the wealth gap, even though I’m straight, male, and will be working on Wall Street. So why do I write on these topics? One word: empathy. (Arguably, even my atheism-related posts are not really personally invested: I’ve never felt discriminated against due to my atheism. It’s sometimes more of giving a voice to those who are prevented from having one.)

“You are not personally invested in X” is not as common as the other sentiments, but I feel that it needs an explanation. Maybe we are so well conditioned to look for biases that we assume everyone must have some personal vestment/personal reason for doing something. Perhaps it does stem from similar lines of thinking to “you cannot possibly understand.” If you assume that everyone is purely self-interested, then this argument is not as ridiculous, but it’s still shaky at best.

In all, we must be careful in analyzing other cultures, minimize the impact of our biases, and use empathy to even try to understand those whom we don’t normally associate with. And most of all, we need to move beyond “you cannot possibly understand.”

The Construction of Social Progress: Can Civilization Move Forward?


In the past year, I have used the term “social progress” in 6 different blog posts. It referred to various topics, including LGBT rights, women’s rights, and views on race, not to mention advances in medicine and technology. Implicit were the assumptions that civilization can move forward, and that having having a more equal society does constitute social progress.

Progress and Postmodernism

As it turns out, this type of thinking is not a given. Under postmodernist thought (whatever this phrase means), the idea of social progress is taken skeptically and questioned. Granted, the questioning is done with the noblest intention. Postmodernists argue that metanarratives of progress have, in the past, led to the cruelties of European colonialism, Fascism, and Communism. In each case, those who thought they were more civilized or who thought they could bring about a more civilized society ended up being brutal tyrants. Progress was thus a tool by which the rulers ruled the oppressed. Progress was and is, in the extreme, nothing more than a social construct.

I wonder if this fervent skepticism toward social progress is an overreaction. While I could write an entire post or more specifically about this, I reject postmodernism overall and consider myself under post-postmodernism, remodernism, metamodernism, or whatever word you prefer to describe the cultural state after postmodernism. Admittedly, I recognize that my own thoughts cannot be fully disentangled from postmodernist thought (which is itself a postmodernist way of thinking), but I can try to move forward.

The reason I bring this up is that postmodernism and progress are more intricately tied than just a loose sentiment that progress doesn’t exist. Postmodernism also rejects objective truth (either to some degree or often all-out); if you have been in an English class, you’ve probably learned that all truth is subjective. Herein lies another issue, as the concept of progress entails that society is objectively moving forward, that there is some objective truth, a conflict with postmodernism.

To add one more grain to the heap, there is a modernist vs postmodernist dichotomy between prescription and description. The significance of this is that modernism and progress are inherently compatible: modernism tried not only to describe the world, but also to prescribe that we should try to achieve social progress (even if it did not reveal how). Postmodernism, however, as a purely descriptive framework, is incompatible with the concept of progress; it could not advocate for social progress even if it were not a social construction. (This leads to a chicken and egg problem: Does postmodernism reject progress because it rejects prescription, or does it reject prescription because it rejects progress?)

The Existence of Social Progress

Despite the postmodern rejection of progress, it is very easy to show that progress does exist. Ask any postmodernist if they would rather contract polio or measles or chicken pox right now, or not contract any of them. Clearly, everyone agrees there is some objective truth and an objective scale of progress on health and medicine. “But that’s falling into the technology trap,” one might object, “you cannot tie together technology and progress because of nukes.” But this is like saying Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity was was the cause of the Cold War. This type of thinking misses the big picture, and it misses the fact that technological advancements have made the world a much better place.

Even then, supposing you are still against technology despite medical or other technological advances, say you are not a heterosexual, white male. Would you rather live in the United States of 2014 or 1814? Does your answer not signify the existence of progress?

What about even if you are a heterosexual, white male, would you rather live in the England of 2014 or 1314? That is, would you rather live in a society with the homicide rate of 1314, or in a society with a 95% lower homicide rate? (p. 61 of this book)

Here is the Social Progress Index, which ranks countries based on aggregate scores on Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity:


Using numerical data is a modernist approach, and a caricature postmodernist might flinch upon seeing the United Kingdom as being considered more “progressed” than Nigeria. Of course, we must be very cautious at how we interpret this data. For instance, the UK’s higher position than Nigeria does not constitute grounds for invasion and colonization as it may have in the modernist era. But these numbers do form grounds for critical analysis.

Yes, much of progress is socially constructed. Many of the earlier (i.e. modern) approaches were naive and led to atrocious results. But the solution is not to forsake progress altogether, but rather, to gain a matured understanding of it. This first step towards true progress requires the acceptance of progress, the rejection of postmodernism.

Slavery, Sochi, and Steroids: When Does Competition Go Too Far?


In the Olympics (and sporting in general), it is generally considered wrong for an athlete to take performance-enhancing drugs.

Let us take one step back and ask, Why?

Is there any a priori reason that substances like steroids should be banned? Is eating an athletic diet also “cheating”? What about genetic mutations—wouldn’t it unfair if I have a gene that, given all else equal, allows me to run 20% faster than you?

(These are the conversations I have on Friday nights.)

One main point of the Olympics is to test the limits of what humans can do. Someone ran 100 meters in 9.8 seconds? Awesome! Someone ran it in 9.6? Even better! I want to see that! But suppose someone ran 100 meters in 9.4, but was later tested positive for banned substances. Then who is the fastest person in the world at running 100 meters: athlete 9.6 or athlete 9.4?

It depends, of course, on how we frame the question. If we ask, “What is the fastest valid 100 meter dash in Olympic history?,” the answer is 9.6 seconds. But if we ask instead, “What is the fastest time ever for a 100 meter dash?,” the answer becomes 9.4. It would still be true that the fastest time in which a human ran 100 meters is 9.4 seconds.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that eating an athletic diet makes your time 0.2 seconds faster at the 100-meter dash, and taking illegal substances can also boost the time by 0.2 seconds. Then we might have the following 100-meter times:

Normal Diet Athletic Diet
No Doping 9.8 9.6
Doping 9.6 9.4

In this case, the fastest time is 9.6 because as a society, we agreed on the rules that eating a diet to enhance performance is good, but taking a drug to do so is bad. However, does this mean we are missing out on a possibly faster time, the 9.4?

It is unfair if only one athlete is allowed to use a certain tactic to enhance performance, so let us suppose that we are now looking at the top three finishers, off by 0.1 seconds each. Assume everyone is following the same rules. Here is a the same chart, now showing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd times:

Normal Diet Athletic Diet
No Doping 9.8, 9.9, 10.0 9.6, 9.7, 9.8
Doping 9.6, 9.7, 9.8 9.4, 9.5, 9.6

We can assume that the fastest person is the fastest in all four boxes, the second fastest is second, and so on. Now, we only consider doping to be cheating because it’s agreed upon that it is cheating. Eating an athletic diet, on the other hand, is not considered cheating, so we… don’t consider it to be cheating.

This raises the question, is there any point to these artificial rules? A competition is concerned with relative times and not absolute times (even then, the absolute times are only interesting because we compare them to the absolute times in years past, hence making them again relative times). Under the restrictions of diet or doping, the relative times are all the same. So are the rules simply arbitrary? Should we allow doping because it will reveal the full potential of human beings?

My intuition is no, and there are arguments for and against. One of the immediate objections is that doping is unnatural. But so is eating a diet specifically designed to optimize your athletic performance. So that argument doesn’t quite hold.

One of the more legitimate points is human health. We know that performance-enhancing drugs come with a range of side effects. Let’s say that a regular user of PED’s has their lifespan cut by 1 year. In addition, if PED’s are legalized, then everyone will start using them, because there would be no way to seriously compete without them (like it is futile to compete while on a diet of donuts and soda today). So is it worth shaving 1 year off of every athlete’s life to improve the absolute numbers, which don’t matter, by 0.2 seconds? Obviously not. (Is it obvious?)

However, what about a situation where the “absolute numbers” do matter? Let’s say that an asteroid is headed towards Earth, and all the scientists and engineers with the relevant technical skills are working on how to deflect it. However, they are still working 8 hours a day. Should we be able to force them to go to 10 hours, or 12 hours, or even 16 hours? (Of course, given the gravity of the situation, no pun intended, these people are probably voluntarily willing to work harder anyways, but suppose they are not.) In this scenario, there might be 100 teams with 100 different solutions to deflect the asteroid. The best solution has a 47% chance of success. But if everyone were instead working 16 hours a day, the best solution might have a 70% chance of success. Do we force longer hours?

What about a doctor who is trying to cure cancer? Should this doctor be allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs so that he might have a slightly better shot at the big issue?

And what about capitalism? The free market provides the ultimate competition: your 100-meter speed is now your wealth and status. How far will you go to improve it? Should the government restrict your ability to create wealth?

The title of this post starts with “Slavery,” so what has that got to do with anything? Well, under an “anything goes” structure, allowing slavery might be the only way a country can support a certain level of economic production, perhaps in order to defend itself. This does not have to be an economic slavery—it could be political slavery, or totalitarian rule. Imagine we detect an alien fleet that is just blowing up planets of the solar system and is headed to Earth. Is martial law justified?

And here’s a more realistic issue: Should a country be allowed to do whatever it wants in order to develop? In response to climate change and environmental damage, the developed countries of the world are starting to decrease their pollution levels, particularly of greenhouse gases, by using more renewable energy and being more environmentally aware. Should a developing country be exempt from the rules and be allowed to power itself solely using cheap but environmentally harmful fossil fuels, because it can’t afford renewable energy?

If everybody is sitting in a crowded theater, and you have a really lousy view, should you be allowed to stand up (and take away the view from the person seated behind you)? See this post for similar issues.

In the end, the absolute numbers don’t matter most of the time—it’s the relative that matters.

Credit to Jesse Orshan for this discussion.

Internet Trolling

Whenever you hear something dumb—and I mean really, unbelievably, absurdly dumb—there is always something that top that: the YouTube comment section. xkcd seemed to think there is nothing “quite as bad”:


But a couple of months ago, when our Internet overlords forced YouTube comments to require a Google+ account, the Internet itself responded with a massive backlash. We could no longer remain anonymous. It was the end of the world, almost as if we had to adapt to writing comments using a real-identity profile system that almost anyone can see and where you have no real privacy because all of your information is stored by a multi-billion dollar company.

One of the most significant reasons the YouTube comments were so bad was that everyone could be anonymous, and thus have no accountability like they would have in real life if they uttered something so dumb in public. As someone who has managed forums before, with first-hand experience in dealing with flamers, spammers, and downright immature idiots, I found myself on Google’s side of the fence when the Google+/YouTube controversy started.

Internet Trolling

My last post on trolling was over three years ago, titled “A Sociological Perspective on Internet Trolling.” I looked at the origins of Internet trolling and attributed it to the combined factors of decline of impression management and decline of social control, both of which resulted from from the interaction of a large number of anonymous, unconnected people. (By “decline of impression management,” I mean that people on the Internet have less of a need to maintain a reputation. And “decline of social control” is what it sounds like: there are fewer influences and incentives for civilized behavior.)

The Origins of Trolling

In just a little more than three years later, however, the landscape of the Internet has changed significantly. Social media was still fighting a campaign of conquest back then, but now it is the established empire. This forces a reevaluation of Internet trolling. Social media has significantly reduced, if not negated, the effects of anonymity in regions where most of Internet interaction takes place. But trolling still exists, albeit in a different form.

Additionally, the definition of trolling needs to be reexamined. From Wikipedia on Dec. 8, 2010 (given the topic, I think the Wikipedia definition gives a more practical, if not more accurate, definition than from a formal dictionary):

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Note that I have highlighted the phrase “with the primary intent.” This made sense in an age when forums, chat rooms, and blogs were indeed the primary methods of mass online communication. It was difficult to imagine that someone could be a troll “accidentally.”

But here is today’s Feb. 2, 2014 definition:

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Today, accidental and intentional disruptions are both considered trolling. In addition, the 2010 definition started by saying that a troll is “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community,” i.e. an action-oriented definition. If you do X, then you are a troll. By contrast, the 2014 definition starts by being results-oriented, a troll is “someone who sows discord on the Internet.” Hence the possibility of accidental or intentional trolling.

So what does the change in definition say? It means that trolling has evolved, and we may trace the evolution of trolling to multiple factors including:

  1. A change in mode of mass Internet communication, e.g. with social media, it is now easier to be in a situation where you might be a troll, even if unintentionally.
  2. A change in usage of the Internet, e.g. computers vs smart phones.
  3. A change in Internet policies and rules, e.g. the decline of anonymity imposed by Google.

Mode of Communication

In 2010, Twitter was still in its relative infancy, not quite the publicly traded company it is today. But the Twitter style of communication is very different from that of a “forum, chat room, or blog” that both definitions of trolling included as examples of online communication. On Twitter, the 140 character limit severely limits the amount of context, explanation, and room for justification. Thus it is extremely easy to misinterpret posts on Twitter that would not be misinterpreted in a more classic online community.

While factually true and supportive of an arguably legitimate point, this tweet by itself looks incredibly offensive, and the “point” that it seems to make is not the point it was intended to make. Indeed, it generated a lot of controversy. Indeed, here is a link by the same author, Richard Dawkins, talking about the same subject, but using a different medium. Interestingly, he was very aware of Twitter’s inflammatory nature, and in fact the aggressive-looking post is actually a toned-down version of one that could have compared Jews and Muslims:

Twitter’s 140 character limit always presents a tough challenge, but I tried to rise to it. Nobel Prizes are a pretty widely quoted, if not ideal, barometer of excellence in science. I thought about comparing the numbers of Nobel Prizes won by Jews (more than 120) and Muslims (ten if you count Peace Prizes, half that if you don’t). This astonishing discrepancy is rendered the more dramatic when you consider the small size of the world’s Jewish population. However, I decided against tweeting that comparison because it might seem unduly provocative (many Muslim “community leaders” are quite outspoken in their hatred of Jews) and I sought a more neutral comparison as more suitable to the potentially inflammable medium of Twitter. It is a remarkable fact that one Cambridge college, Trinity, has 32 Nobel Prizes to its credit.

In any case, is Richard Dawkins a troll on Twitter? My answer would be a qualified yes. The main caveat is that trolling usually derails the topic, i.e. “disrupt[s] normal on-topic discussion.” However, Dawkins is not trying to bring an existing discussion off topic, but instead, responding very relevantly to a false claim (details in the link). On the other hand, Dawkins is indeed an intentional provocateur, so it would seem that the general context of Richard Dawkins overrides the specific context to this incidence.

Now, if a public intellectual can be a troll, what about the average person? Or the below-average person? What about the “[The Moon landing] is so obviously faked its unbilevable, why r people so gullible??? Morons” type of people?

Of course, Twitter is just one example of many of the changes to social media over the past four years. It may be part of the shortening trend, i.e. the average length of what people read and write becomes shorter over time (books, to articles and letters, to blog posts, to Facebook statuses, to tweets). But it is clear that the Twitter-style confusion is partly due to the platform itself, that the lack of context would not be as extreme as in a forum, chat room, or blog.

Physical Usage of the Internet

The way people access the Internet is changing as well. While 21% of cell phone users used a smartphone by the end of 2009 [Nielsen], the number was 56% in 2013 [Pew]. In addition, a much higher percentage of activities are being done on smartphones now, thus the phone interaction with the Internet has increased by multiple factors since 2009/2010.

In addition, Internet usage is different on the smartphone vs on the computer [Harris]. This is probably tied to various factors including ease of typing (typing longer documents is more difficult on a smartphone), convenience/situational (e.g. using navigation or checking in on a smartphone), security (sensitive work material would probably belong on a computer, as would online shopping with credit card info), etc. As the Harris poll suggests, many of the top uses are device-sensitive.

The length of a piece of text is quite related. While the Harris poll reports social media used roughly evenly on computers and smartphones (with computer usage slightly more overall), there are also different kinds of social media. I might almost exclusively use WordPress on a computer to have better access to faster typing and to resources like research, links, or images; on the other hand, for Twitter, I might use a smartphone more. I would claim that part of the recent change in Internet trolling is due to the rise of smartphones.

Internet Policies

External regulations usually play a part, and in the case of the Internet, the story is no different. While the Internet is generally a rule-free, anti-establishment institution, it can be governed, often with massive backlash. In the midst of backlash against Google for being too much in control and for taking away our privacy, don’t forget when the government tried to pass SOPA, Google was on our side.


It is also interesting that the recent integration of YouTube commenting with a Google+ account has a significant precedent in the online gaming world: the integration of Blizzard forum posting with a RealID. This mid-2010 event provoked massive controversy and was eventually rescinded.

According to Blizzard, one of the reasons was the rampant trolling [previous link]:

The official forums have always been a great place to discuss the latest info on our games, offer ideas and suggestions, and share experiences with other players – however, the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild…. Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before.

Now replace “Blizzard” and “the forums” and “games” with “YouTube” and “the comment section” and “videos” It’s interesting how this is echoed by Google did three years later. Of course, companies always have financial incentives as well, but it is uncanny that both list troll-fighting as reasons for the changes. On the other hand, it looks like Google succeeded where Blizzard failed.

Accidental Trolling

Accidental trolling is a new enough phenomenon that deserves its own section. While trolling doesn’t seem to happen on Facebook as much (though a couple of incidents did occur to me last year), we have already seen what it can do on forums as well as on Twitter, the difference being that on Twitter, the veil of anonymity is replaced by the shortness of speech.

Trolling from anonymity:

  • Identity not connected to real life, thus no accountability, no external reason to maintain reputation.
  • Others are anonymous as well, thus there is even less reason to refrain from insults or flaming.
  • No police or authority figure to enforce rules. There are admins and moderators but this is often insufficient when the amount of posts is absurdly large (e.g. Blizzard forums or YouTube comments).

Trolling from short speech:

  • No facial expressions or body gestures, thus no information about the tone or mood of a contextless sentence. Even sarcasm has to be extremely carefully crafted, otherwise it fails to be noted as sarcasm.
  • Generally little context about the statement. If someone makes a one-sentence claim about physics, it could be: (1) a physicist saying some profound statement about physics, (2) a physicist clarifying some commonly misunderstood notion, (3) a physicist responding to a claim, (4) some physics student writing about what they learned, (5) someone just making stuff up about physics, (6) a fiction writer making a life analogy to a basic concept in physics, (7) a fraud making a New Age claim about quantum healing, (8) a comedian making a joke about something in physics, etc., and it would not be trivial to discern these based on a short, aphoristic saying.
  • Limited space. For example, in a single tweet, I might address part of some large issue simply because I can’t address all of it in 140 characters, and then I get called out on tunnel-visioning to that one part and ignoring everything else. This is less of an issue with longer posts, but it still happens.

Note that the second category, trolling from short speech, is much more prone to accidental trolling, hence why accidental trolling is a more recent issue.

Accidental trolling also occurs from numerous cognitive fallacies. Confirmation bias and selection bias are the king and queen of online flaming. Using the advantage of the limitless information available on the Internet, it’s very easy to find information supporting your own position as well as to ignore contradictory evidence. Thus it’s easy to find articles all over the Internet that seem quite well-researched at first, but then you realize all the research is completely one-sided. This can cause a lot of trolling as well: given an obviously biased article, some commenter might point to some contradictory evidence to hint at how biased the original article was, but the contradictory evidence given happens to also have fallacies, and thus begins a flame war of commenters talking past one another.


Some sites have measures in place that (intentionally or not) reduce trolling, though sometimes at other costs. Tumblr, for instance, does away with the classic thread responding, thus eliminating the very possibility of how most trolling starts; on the other hand, it’s hard to have discussions at all, and it is often a pool of groupthink, with too similarly minded people repeating each other with little influence on the outside world. Reddit has a voting system that should theoretically send the trolls to the bottom; on the other hand, sophisticated trolls (again, whether intentionally or not) might make some statement that seems good at first, getting many upvotes, but in actually just derails the discussion or is a strawman argument, thus getting people who agree to upvote, making the voting system based often on how much people already agree with something, rather than based on the merits of one’s argument or position. If anything, Facebook is the most anti-troll of the major social networks, simply because it uses very real identities, thus people generally don’t want to say anything bad that others close to them can see.

As we have also observed, one method of actively fighting trolling is to remove anonymity, as in the cases of Blizzard and Google. However, this will generally (and perhaps unsurprisingly) produce significant backlash, and even if implemented successfully, it doesn’t fully solve the problem, because anonymity is not the only cause of trolling. In addition, we would need to resolve the factor of lack of context as well.

Thus two important theoretical measures for countering trolling are: (1) lifting the veil of anonymity, to instill the maintenance of reputation and social control, and (2) the increase of context, letting others judge something for what it is, rather than for a distorted vision of what it is.

As the differences between 2010 and 2014 show, trolling is a rapidly evolving issue in the online world that becomes ever more important as the world, not just America, becomes increasingly online. Progressing forward with what we know is the best course of action. And as one of my favorite YouTube commenters ever said, “It’s 2011. Can we get some color photographs of the moon already?

On God and Victim Blaming

For the response to a response to this article, see link.

Everyone is familiar with God rhetoric and with victim-blaming rhetoric. But what people don’t seem to realize is that the two are very similar, and when you think about it, you find that God (as the fictional character in the Bible) is the ultimate victim blamer. The following screenshot is from the comment section of a post by “allallt” called “A Non-intervening God and The Problem of Suffering“:

Victim Blaming

Sure, so if God kills a thousand people in an earthquake, then it’s the peoples‘ fault for settling there, not God’s. What about hurricanes? Well duh, 21st-century America is just asking for God to send them. (Ignoring even the most basic science, let’s analyze this from the perspective of someone who really holds these views.) Of course, the religious user ends the discussion several comments down with “I will pray for you.”

The “just asking for it” rhetoric is absurd. Does this imply that if someone didn’t “ask for it,” they will be spared of the full consequences? Former Representative Todd Akin (from last year, Republican of Missouri) seemed to think so:

At the time, the press correctly made a huge deal out of this (as well as of other fellow religious Republicans). The trouble is, if you thought that was bad, then you may be shocked to hear that even the most fundamentalist Christians with the most primitive views about rape don’t come close in comparison to fundamentalist Muslims, who have a much more degrading view of women and have given one woman a 200-lash sentence for the crime of being raped. Well, to make it better, she was originally sentenced to only 90 lashes, but then since her lawyer tried to bring this absurdity to light in the international press, the Saudi Arabian court extended it to 200 lashes and a 6-month prison sentence. I really wish I were making this up.


In 2005, Australian Muslim preacher Faiz Mohamad said in a 1000-person lecture, “A victim of rape every minute somewhere in the world. Why? No one to blame but herself. She displayed her beauty to the entire world…” You know it’s a sad state of the world when a whole class of people make Todd Akin seem like a feminist in comparison.

Is it a mere coincidence that the most extreme victim blamers are often the most religious? I would argue it is not a coincidence, and that the two are very intertwined.

God, the Ultimate Victim Blamer

Now that I have your attention, I would like to take a step back and explain the purpose of this article. In general I think many well-meaning people (both religious and nonreligious) completely ignore the relation between religion and society, or at least publicly ignore it due to the taboo against discussing it. On the contrary, there are very significant correlations between religion and social/political views, and it’s some of these that I would like to bring more awareness to.

So why is God the ultimate victim blamer?

All the rapes, murders, and genocides in the Bible indicate not only that God approves of humans doing the victim blaming, but also that He does the victim blaming himself.

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.” (2 Samuel 12:11-14)

Make ready to slaughter his sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants. (Isaiah 14:21)

What a great leader, showing such shining examples of paragon virtue to His followers! Of course, many Christians instinctively say, “But that’s the Old Testament, and that doesn’t apply because Jesus.” That objection is technically invalid because Jesus and the New Testament explicitly say the Old Testament still applies. This is often denied, and even if the Old Testament were completely ignored, it’s not as if the New Testament is made up of radiant moral perfection.

God is also the ultimate sexist, who, even besides all those passages about rape, said infamous things as

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)

And even without citing particular passages, some of the central messages taught to everyone reek of victim blaming. The New Testament says plenty about Hell, but what other is Hell than God’s punishment for beings that He himself created? In the moral behavior setting, if someone sins and deserves going to Hell, then why did God create such a person who would commit that sin in the first place? “I created something that was flawed, therefore I must punish it for being flawed.” The whole mentality of “God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose it” is practically the definition of victim blaming. I would urge anyone to compare that to the “they asked for it” mentality. Finally, the predestination setting is just as bad, if not worse—now you are being punished for being the victim of pure chance.

While the Bible is quite horrible at talking about gender equality, there is one book that is arguably worse: the Quran.

. . . If you fear highhandedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great. (4:34)

. . . Wives have the same rights as the husbands have on them in accordance with the generally known principles. Of course, men are a degree above them in status . . . (2.228)

Of course, now I’m going to get the “You’re taking it out of context!” objection. So please tell me, what kind of context I am supposed to take 1 Timothy 2:12 under that makes it okay to tell women to shut up? I’ll await your answer in the comments.

In all, the rhetoric of religion and that of victim blaming are very similar, if not identical. Their similarity is moreover not a coincidence, but rather a lingering effect of a time when people believed every word of the Bible/Quran (and many still do). In our age, it seems that to be a “good” Christian is to follow as little of the Bible as possible. So does the best Christian completely ignore it?

More on Pride in Randomness: A Take on Race and Miss America

I would like to begin by sharing a TED Talk (above) by Cameron Russell, a model who admits that her success has been due to winning the genetic lottery. It is a very open talk that highlights the role of luck, of things beyond our control.

Now this article is another followup to “Pride in Things Out of Your Control.” It is especially about the general response to Nina Davuluri’s winning of Miss America, as well as the response to that response. Namely, there were many angry racist replies that an Indian American had won, and there were many replies to those, rightfully calling out the racism of many people. Beyond this, it did not seem there was anything otherwise unusual about this incident.

However, there is another response that occurred. Many people became proud of her not only for winning it, but for her being Indian American. Now I think it is absurd to be proud of one’s race, or of other races, and the reason basically stems from your race being a random attribute that you have no choice over. Moreover, isn’t the act of being proud of Davuluri for being Indian American in itself racist? Does that imply you wouldn’t be proud of her if all else about her was the the same except her skin color?

These thoughts didn’t occur at the time, but I was provoked by one of my friend’s Facebook posts:


My friend criticizes being prideful of something random. Some responses:


I feel like this is also a remnant of Asian cultures tending to glorify people of their own race far more so than other groups of people. Some responses to this:


Indeed, saying “I am proud of her because of what she has accomplished” is much different than saying “I am proud of her because she is Indian American.”

Let me copy down the important part of the text here:

However, that’s separate from her race, although closely liked. I just don’t see a justification for celebrating her race in itself as I’ve seen tons of people do. I would like to be in a world where race is just a characteristic that happens to be. Oh, she happens to have brown eyes and happens to be black. Okay. Is any Indian-American who ever does something going to be seen through the race lens first? Isn’t it the point to move past that and into a more egalitarian society? Celebrating her race isn’t helping us achieve that.

Just over the past few years we’ve been seeing famous Indians who aren’t seen for their “Indianness” – Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling come to mind. We should evaluate people according to their achievements, given their circumstances – incidental qualities should be ignored.

Replace Indian with black, and you get the following part of a talk by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, where he says that in one of his interviews, he realized it was the first time a black person was interviewed for something in which race was never brought up. He was interviewed as an astrophysicist, not as a black astrophysicist. This kind of thing needs to happen to truly move on from racism: (36:30 to 38:00)

People aren’t proud of Tyson for being black—they’re proud of his expertise of astrophysics and his public figure status. Only when people are proud of someone NOT for their race does society get past the race barrier.

Just to see how ludicrous it is, pretend the attribute was not race, but some other equally random property. Imagine if in every interview of Sylvester Stallone, the primary focus of the interview was on his face, asking him about his struggles because of it. Imaging groups of people with face deformations saying how proud they are of Stallone because of his face. Yeah, it’s pretty absurd.

My favorite article regarding the Miss America incident is this one from The Nation: “Miss America Nina Davuluri Is Not a Symbol of Progress,” by Samhita Mukhopadhyay. While I disagree with the assertion made in the title that Davuluri is not a symbol of progress—I believe that there was progress made, just not as much or in the same direction as what most people think—I agree with its overall message. An excerpt:

We can’t let this nasty display of racism back us into a corner. As tempting as it might be, to suggest that Davuluri’s win signifies progress for South Asians in America is to defend the Miss America pageant itself. And there isn’t really much about Miss America that could be considered progress for anyone (except maybe the steady decline in ratings over the last forty years, that might be a sign of progress). Miss America’s role in the public imagination has always been the product of objectification. It’s a beauty pageant after all, and the winner embodies the ideal American woman—prized as an object of beauty.

According to this article, the pageant may have helped ease racism a bit, but it has only helped to entrench the gender status quo.

To be sure, optics matter. The minor net good is that little South Asian girls may feel better about themselves when they see a beauty queen that they can relate to. But Miss America still sends a message to girls and women that what you look like determines what you are worth. While it’s tempting to frame Nina Davuluri’s win as a victory for equality, let’s not get confused— the Miss America pageant is fundamentally about objectifying women and limiting their possibility to what they look like in a bikini.

This is where Cameron Russell’s TED Talk comes in. Russell realized that her work is a genetic lottery and that it is hard for her to be proud of it, nor can she recommend young girls to want to be models. Compared to the Miss America pageant and either response to it, both undeserved hate based on race and undeserved praise based on race, Russell’s TED Talk, also on the same subject, is far more supportive of social progress.

So what is the correct response to the recent Miss America pageant? I don’t know, but talking about race either way should not be one.

Cultural Values


After looking over some posts from this blog, I realize I almost never post anything having to do with being Asian American. Out of 384 posts so far, only one directly relates to this topic, and even that was only in response to another article.

This post will explore my experience as an Asian American and also why I never talk about being one.

Pride in American Culture

Perhaps there is a second article on my views of being an Asian American, though again, it was only used as an example in a larger context. The post, “Pride in Things Out of Your Control,” criticized being proud of something that is based on luck. One of the most relevant examples I came up with was my cultural/national identity:

The key difference is that nationality is something I could theoretically change. Had I the inclination, I could feasibly move to some other country than the US. Yet no matter how much I might want to be of some other race, I can’t revoke being Chinese. Thus I cannot be proud of being Chinese in race, but I can be proud of being American in nationality.

This is something I still stand by, and it is the reason I almost never talk about being Asian. From the same article:

I happen to be Chinese, but I have never felt proud of being Chinese, simply because I had no choice whatsoever in being born Chinese. In fact, I would far more strongly identify as “American” rather than “Chinese,” since there are some things I actually can make decisions between, e.g. Eastern vs. Western philosophy, cultural values, and freedom of speech; and in each case I agree more with the American side.

What exactly are these differences in philosophy and cultural values?

Liberalism and Freedom

As much as we like to joke about the shortcomings of the American political system, the US government is a blessing compared to the Chinese government.

The freedoms we take for granted in America are nonexistent in many areas of the world, China included. Here we can slander the government, mock politicians, and even negatively portray the president. Try doing that in China. Actually, don’t.

We have not just the freedom of speech, but also the freedoms of thought and information. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are inaccessible in China, largely because the government doesn’t want its citizens to learn any information from people of other cultures, as they would be too difficult to censor. For instance, they surely wouldn’t want people knowing about the Tiananmen square massacre (even though most people have probably heard of it but aren’t sure whether it is true).

Tiananmen Square Tank

In addition, we have a corporate media, which is at least far better than a government media. While they can go over the top sometimes, at least our news agencies deliver shocking news when it exists. On the other hand, the government media is very unreliable and is fond of covering things up. I recall a train derailing that provoked a lot of controversy when the government did not say anything about it for a long time. There’s also the Beijing smog incident, where the central media understated the extent of the problem and Beijing citizens had to resort to the US embassy’s particulate readings to get a sense of how bad the pollution was.

Now, enough of the government. Even within the US, there are many cultural differences between Asian Americans and Americans in general.

Creativity and Individualism

The most relevant difference for me is that American culture puts so much emphasis on the individual, and this I strongly agree with. In the post, “A Chinese Kid’s Response to ‘Chinese Parenting,’” I talked about how there were a lot of forced ritual activities, but I failed to emphasize in that post how the activities were all staple Asian activities that did not even remotely try to set one apart. Play the piano? Yes, I’m sure that will set you apart from all other Asian kids. Go to Chinese school? Study for the SAT? The whole system was really formulaic and focused as much as possible on conforming. (I ended up quitting the first two and not even starting the third. Instead, I learned chess, played the trumpet, figured out how to code, read novels, and started a blog.)

Sure, a conforming society might be good if the sole aim is to keep order, as in a police state. But for society to advance, for technology to be revolutionized, for literature to be written, for art and music to be made—these all requires creative feats by the individual. This is yet another reason I cannot stand Chinese culture: there is almost no promotion of creativity.


The Rebel

Very similarly to individualism, the rebel archetype, which is about the worst thing possible in Chinese culture, is cherished in American culture (and Western culture in general).

The Master said, ‘In serving your father and mother you ought to dissuade them from doing wrong in the gentlest way. If you see your advice being ignored, you should not become disobedient but should remain reverent. You should not complain even if in so doing you wear yourself out.’

—Analects of Confucius

Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

—Oscar Wilde


Education vs Learning

There is a well-known stereotype of Asians placing so much emphasis on education. However, the point of this emphasis at least early on is almost solely for grades and test scores, not to actually learn stuff. I wrote earlier in the year about how even in college, there is an insane amount of GPA-centrism.

Here is an excerpt from the Chinese parenting post which summarizes my view on grades (written regarding high school):

Not that I cared less about education; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I became learning-focused instead of grade-focused. In class, I would be the one asking bizarre questions about material that seemed only remotely connected to the curriculum, but I never asked such a cringe-inducing question as “What percent of the grade is this assignment?” or “Is this for a grade?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” or, my favorite one yet, “Is there extra credit?”—and by the way, I’ve heard these countless times in high school from my Asian peers.

A Mark Twain quote on this topic:

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

—Mark Twain



In summary, the reason I rarely ever talk about being Asian American is that I identify culturally as American, and I don’t find Asian cultural values worth preserving. Yeah, that sounds pretty harsh, but that’s what I have to say.