To preface, this article is not about actual robots or how to ethically constrain their behavior. I understand how you could get that impression from the title, but there’s a reason I chose it which will become clear shortly.
I’ve become more active on Twitter over the past year as I gradually wean myself off Facebook. Trading one vice for another, I’ve begun to feel it was a downgrade in many respects.
For those not in the loop, ever since porn was banned on Tumblr, there’s been a tremendous exodus of Tumblr users to Twitter which suddenly and severely altered the tone of that site. Something like the Eternal September but with a decidedly vindictive, critical theorist slant.
This is how Twitter became the current primary battleground between former Tumblr users and everyone else. Every so often you’ll see the fallout from their most recent witch hunt, wherein a famous person said something which drew their ire, so they ran a fine toothed comb through that guy’s post history looking for certain key words. This happens on Reddit as well, to a lesser extent.
This is the robot morality I intend to examine herein. It is an unconscious, unthinking morality which distinguishes valid people who may live from invalid people who must be destroyed, entirely by a key word search rather than conscious interpretation of their intentions.
I became aware of this problem, and sufficiently annoyed to write about it, when I wrote a single sentence comment illuminating parallels between social justice and Christianity; The user I replied to complained that Christianity ropes you in by making you feel as if your existence is sinful, that you’re fundamentally broken and can only be considered a good person by adherence to a narrow set of rules.
I snarked that it sounded like social justice, because it does. They are very similar in some respects, both convicting us all of ancestral sin, positioning conversion as the only path to absolution, and themselves as the exclusive arbiters of morality. This observation never fails to provoke cognitive dissonance in a certain type of person.
Like clockwork, the response I got was a histrionic declaration that they were “calling me out” for “bigotry against minorities and women”. Not because I actually feel any negative emotions towards either group. My posting history contains no slurs however far back one searches, and nothing at all remotely possible to construe as racist or misogynistic.
Rather, they spotted the kind of rhetoric they would expect from THE ENEMY and assumed the absolute worst of me, totally confident in their powers of discernment. I know they read my posting history because they linked to an unrelated statement about religion they felt I should be ashamed of, unable to find any ammunition relevant to their actual accusations. They found nothing supporting their slander, but felt justified nonetheless.
Why not? In their mind, they’re one of the good guys™. The good guys™ can do whatever they feel is necessary. It’s okay if the good guys™ make false accusations, because they simply “guessed wrong” but had good intentions. Right? Besides, if you object to being falsely accused, it must be because you’re guilty.
If ever you do squeeze an admission of error from them however, you can still expect them to place some of the blame on you for giving them the wrong impression. The only way to avoid this, of course, is to be as overtly woke as possible. If you’re not all the way at one extreme, then you can’t complain if they assume you’re all the way at the other.
What mature adult behaves like this? Like some sort of political terminator, a single issue, one dimensional keyboard warrior who scans all communication for possible signs of the opposing tribe, then shoots first and asks questions later.
It seems like it’s becoming the norm rather than the exception, however. If ever you become anybody of note to the general public, you can expect the inquisition to come for you, scouring your post history for anything they can use to destroy you. It doesn’t even have to be intended to disparage anybody, you just need to have used one of the words from an always-changing list.
“Retard” is one of those words. I grew up with it, it was always fine to use until about 5 years ago. How did that change? There wasn’t a vote. Which means a small group of people decided for everybody else what words we can use, under penalty of professional ruination. Who are those people? Where does their authority come from? Were they elected to any sort of office?
They’re certainly not mentally disabled themselves. I’ve never witnessed in person or on video a mentally handicapped person becoming offended by someone’s use of the word “retarded”. Which means the people policing the use of this word are being offended on their behalf, assuming they would be hurt by it regardless of context.
I’m autistic, and I don’t feel offended by the use of the word autistic as a pejorative. 99% of the time it’s just being used as a placeholder for retarded, because that’s off-limits now. Autistic is also becoming a forbidden pejorative because those same morality police presume to be offended by it on my behalf.
As if I don’t know any better, and if I weren’t autistic, I would automatically agree with their value system and be offended by what they feel ought to offend me. A decision I am well and truly capable of making for myself.
Am I really the disabled one, anyway? I don’t sort people into good and bad categories based on word use. My process of analysis is just a tad more complex than that. It matters to me what their actual meaning and intent was.
If someone says “That game is so autistic” should I be offended? I’m not a game. They weren’t talking about me. They don’t necessarily dislike me or intend any emotional harm. If they say “That movie was retarded”, do they hate the mentally handicapped? No, of course not. They simply need a word that means “not well thought out”.
Is mentally handicapped even okay to say now? I’ve lost track. Dumb, stupid, idiot, moron, imbecile and retard were all medical terminology once. They fell into common use, then out of it, one at a time. What changed? Not the meaning of those words, but public understanding of that meaning. As soon as most people cottoned to the meaning of the new word, it was replaced.
There was/is an ongoing attempt to obfuscate by controlling what words are socially acceptable to use. Newspeak, by any other name. Control language, and you control what concepts people are able to communicate to one another.
The concept we’re being prevented from communicating is that some people/things/ideas are stupid. Badly designed, poorly thought out, products of incomplete consideration and that this is a bad thing. That last part is the problematic bit; the implication that it is better to be smart than stupid. That there’s such a thing as “better” and “worse” to begin with, as that’s hurtful to people who don’t measure up in some area.
This notion that truth is of secondary importance to avoiding emotional injury is the driving force behind the ideology underlying robot morality. But not everybody’s feelings are protected.
I’ve asked on occasion whether we must all humor the wrong beliefs of creationists concerning the age of the Earth, else we’re guilty of creationistphobia. Their brain short circuits, they insist it’s a bad analogy but can never explain why, and before long have resorted to insults in lieu of argument.
If they were truly well intentioned and protected everybody equally from emotional harm, I might at least feel some sympathy. But they’re not, and they don’t. They don’t care if flat Earthers get their feelings hurt when someone contradicts them about the shape of the Earth. But they do care very much if you tell a trans person there are only two types of gamete. That sex is bimodally distributed, and bimodal distribution is not a spectrum.
Underneath the facade of peace and goodwill to everybody hides the authoritarian imposition of the collective’s values onto outsiders. Also the selective protection of persons they define as valid, while at the same time tossing under the bus anybody not included in that definition. If that sounds familiar to you, there’s a reason for that.
It isn’t about kindness, beyond using the good name of kindness as a shield from criticism, and a pretense which frames everybody they find fault with as enemies of kindness. More often than not, they don’t even really take issue with the statements they dig up. They take issue with the person.
They want that person humbled and ruined for being an undesirable non-person according to their value system. They can’t find any actual wrongdoing to accuse them of. But they can find crude language. Never mind the context, they don’t concern themselves with that because they aren’t actually appalled by it except performatively.
It is only a tool to them. Ammunition which they can use to harm someone they hate for other reasons. Much in the same way that historically many critics of the church who also happened to be homosexual were professionally ruined by the exposure of their homosexuality to the public, by defenders of the church who perhaps didn’t even particularly see anything wrong with homosexuality, it was just the easiest way to discredit and impoverish an enemy of the church.
It’s much the same in the modern day, except that instead of digging through somebody’s private life for evidence of homosexuality, we now go looking for any time somebody has used a mean word. Not to demean anybody. Not out of prejudicial malice towards that group, but a movie or something.
The words on their list are sufficiently emotionally charged that the context is irrelevant, and they know it. They have also ingrained their own values in the public consciousness by fear; we absorb and internalize their rules so we can avoid running afoul of them, for no reason other than fear of bringing down the witch finder generals on our own heads.
It all requires our participation though, and that we silently assent to the validity of robot morality; that meaning and intent aren’t what determine the moral quality of a person or statement, but the presence of specific words.
The authoritarians responsible for promulgating and popularizing robot morality are really a small group of people having an outsized effect by the use of time honored psyop methodology. Shouting people down, being performatively appalled, giving everyone the impression that they are some sort of fearsome authority which must be obeyed.
What if we just…don’t? What if the self aware humans still alive out there just shrug at the shrill buzzwords and gesticulation? What happens to the power of the naked emperors when public belief in their majestic raiments, enforced by fear, begins to dwindle?
I hope we find out, and sooner rather than later. Robot morality is fit only for robots. If it’s a living, breathing person reading this with a real heart that pumps red blood, keep your brain switched on. Meaning matters, intent matters. Do your own interpreting, and decide for yourself.