Monday, March 28, 2016

How to social engineer women, pickup artists, and everyone you know

I've been waiting for Amber A'Lee Frost's article on pickup artists ever since she teased it over beers a while back, and now that it's out one passage in particular set me to thinkin':
...when I did a return tour through the sodden pages of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, I was transported back to my job bartending in college towns, immediately irritated by memories of serving drinks to hostile frat boys. I remembered being stiffed, screamed at, shoved, and threatened, and once heading off what would have almost certainly been a date rape. No, I decided: I am not totally immune to disgust.
What I find interesting, in retrospect, is that from here my immediate instinct was to wonder what can I personally make these men stop these disgusting things?

First, I started thinking about all of the #problematic ways that I was contributing to the problem - for instance, years ago, I bought Neil Strauss's book The Game so that I could hate-read it, and more recently I watched a few episodes of The Pickup Artist when it was on VH1. These consumer practices, I thought, obviously have to go.

Then I started thinking about how my rhetoric and general behavior also facilitates pickup artistry. Should I even be laughing at these people, I wondered, as if they're a trivial source of amusement rather than a serious problem afflicting women every day? Perhaps the right thing to do would be to stop joking about pickup artists, and to even shame and pressure other people into not joking about them, either - I could try to create a culture where being a pickup artist is a grave, serious offense. But then, I realized, this might just politicize the problem, and polarize everyone into pro-and-anti-pickup artist camps. Perhaps, instead, we should create a culture where everyone ridicules PUAs? Maybe I should not only laugh at them, but get other people to laugh at them too, so that pickup artists are just too ashamed and embarrassed to keep up their schtick. But in that case, I need to push back against the humorless/pious types who are only empowering PUAs by forcing us to take them really seriously. But how can I do that? How can I make everyone adopt just the right attitude towards pickup artists so that they'll go away?

This is the sort of thing that liberals think about constantly. Incidentally, there's another group of people who think about how to manipulate other people in the exact same way: pickup artists.

Liberals as pickup artists

One of the more bizarre features of modern liberal discourse is the degree to which it depends on interpersonal social engineering. The basic premise is that through all kinds of influence tactics (example-setting, call-outs, signal-boosting, legitimizing / delegitimizing, enabling, and so on) you can get the people around you to behave certain ways. If for example I "normalize" something, I can in some real, empirical way actually get other people to behave as I want them to. Liberals call this "normalizing", PUAs call this "patterning" or "programming", but it's operationally identical. It assumes that people basically just mimick each other, and has its conceptual roots not in a scientific understanding of human behavior, but in pre-scientific theories of sympathetic magic. This kind of pseudo-science characterizes most of these theories of social engineering; they rarely have much basis in hard science, if any at all.

Let's dig into this a little: consider, for example, the liberal notion of "shaming". Though we usually take it for granted, there is in fact an empirical theory of behavior being stipulated here: if I give someone negative feedback, they will be less likely to engage in associated behavior in the future. Perhaps this is because I have intellectually persuaded them in some way; perhaps this is because I have made the behavior psychologically unpleasant, and they are simply avoiding negative stimulus; perhaps there is some other mechanism at work here - it doesn't really matter. For shaming to work, it's both necessary and sufficient that my negative feedback, for whatever reason, puts an end to undesirable behavior.

This, hilariously, is the mirror image of the PUA theory of "negging" - which stipulates that you use negative feedback to provoke desirable behavior. And it turns out that both theories fail in the exact same way: they don't consistently work. Shaming a bro who's using racial slurs may deter him from doing so in the future - but it might also get him to double-down and use them even more. Negging a lady might very well grab her attention and prey on her insecurities - but it might just make her mad enough to throw a drink in your face. These tactics both try to elicit a predictable responses from people through negative feedback, and they both fail because people are unpredictable.

And that's the standard failure of both liberals and pickup artists, isn't it? Liberalism proposes that I can make sexism go away by using gender-neutral pronouns - and then some sexist laughs at me for using s/he or zhe. Pickup artists propose that I can turn women on by using tons of double entendres - but watch what happens when you try one of these. These are all failures that come from trying to find simplistic ways to control people who are extraordinarily, almost unthinkably complex. They have nothing to do with a rational, empirical understanding of human behavior; they just reflect the will to dominate others, and the condescending belief that other people can be easily manipulated with simple tricks.

The left alternative

Fortunately, social engineering is not actually a lost cause. There are in fact things we can do to build a world where people have more progressive attitudes and behavior. These things are a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult than the interpersonal gimmickry of liberalism, but they do have the advantage of actually working.

Consider, for example, Katie J.M. Baker's now-classic Cockblocked by Redistribution. Here, Baker reviews the experiences of a semi-famous pickup artist named Roosh, and arrives at a remarkable observation:
Marginalized women who need male spouses to flourish might, indeed, find pick-up artists alluring. But women in countries that have gender-equalizing policies supported by an anti-individualist culture may not.
The implications here are quite direct: if you are a pickup artist who wants to manipulate women into fucking you, you should agitate for a government that is as economically inequitable for women as possible. Specifically, you should oppose free health care and education, generous maternity pay and parental leave, paternity benefits, universal child care, and so on - all policies that Baker identities as cultivating an egalitarian culture inimical to pickup artistry. Neurolinguistic-programming and elaborate kino strategies probably won't do much to land you a woman, but if you vote the right way, you can create a patriarchal society where you can get all the women you like.

Or perhaps, instead, you want to make people behave quite differently - you want a world where women can exercise greater autonomy, and where men stop behaving like pickup artists. There's a proven way to do this, too: it's called Denmark. Just ask Roosh. The liberal tactics I briefly considered, like shaming and ridicule, seem to be unreliable at best; but if you create a generous and egalitarian welfare state like the Nordic social democracies, it appears that you predictably create a more egalitarian society where pickup artists quickly become an endangered species.

Either way, note the profound difference between left social engineering and the liberal / PUA approaches we described before. To put it simply, leftists believe that you can only engineer widespread changes in behaviors and attitudes by dramatically changing the circumstances that people live in. This usually involves direct interventions by the state. Liberals and pickup artists believe that it doesn't take anything nearly this big; getting people to behave certain ways is just a matter of personally manipulating them the right way, through persuasion or guilt-tripping or inspiration, etcetera.

Leftist approaches to social progress are often accused of oversimplification, of "reducing" human behavior to economic determination - but really, the opposite is true. Liberalism is the truly reductive and simplifying ideology. It asks us to regard each other with absolute condescension, as if all it takes to change someone is the right persuasive or manipulative gimmick. Liberals are the people who tell us that Trump voters can be seduced with just the right John Oliver zinger, like Mystery getting a woman's number by using just the right pickup line; liberals are the people who, like pickup artists, always think "no" just means "try a little bit harder to persuade me". Leftism, however, respects the complexity and autonomy of the individual so much that it suspects nothing short of a political and economic revolution can fundamentally change the way people relate to each other - and that ultimately, we can only make this happen by working together. When's the last time a pick-up artist said anything like that?