Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Outrage and Orkut

Since 2005 I have been an active member of Orkut discussion forums, discussing international relations, economics and politics with a highly diverse multinational group.

We discuss anything. Most of us have been on Orkut for several years so we have grown used to encountering totally incompatible world views, violent and outrageous ideas that never reach mainstream media. Islamists, Hindu extremists, Communists, anti-Muslimists, pacifists, neo-conservaties, anarchists and other radicals clamour for attention and domination.

One side-effect of this vigorous debates has been a great desensitisation to controversial topics. We simply don't acknowledge taboos, to us nothing in politics is sacrosanct. This experience wears down the impulse to respond with outrage to strange ideas.

Unfortunately offline most debate does not function like this. Mainstream media tend to ignore extreme arguments and societies develop taboo topics that are meant to go unquestioned. Desensitised from my time on Orkut, I naturally take a direct approach to debates elsewhere, quickly questioning concepts taken for granted by others. By challenging these sensitive issues I am sometimes met with astonishment and rage.

So here are nine taboo topics of the kind we cover in Orkut, yet make people uncomfortable outside:

New Racism
Famous scientist Dr James Watson was lambasted a few years ago for blaming African poverty on the low intelligence of Africans. Racism's association with Nazi Germany made it a taboo topic; now any support for scientific concepts open to biologically-influenced behavioural differences in races is thoughtlessly denounced.

But Dr Richard Lynn's 2002 book IQ and the Wealth of Nations explicitly links economic development with the varying intelligence of their inhabitants. Lynn argued that IQ is highest in wealthy East Asian nations like Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, followed by West European nations like Germany and Sweden. IQ is lowest in poor African countries.

Lynn emphasises the detrimental effect of malnutrition on intelligence, but also accepts genetic differences between races. His 2006 book Race Differences in Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis argued that the racial groups developed different levels of intelligence because of the different environmental pressures they endured. Northern humans supposedly faced Ice Ages which increased the selection pressure and made the groups more intelligent than their southern cousins.

Of course it may all be nonsense but too often these politically unpalatable ideas are simply dismissed from public debates without consideration. Racism is presumed bad, so anyone promoting it is silenced with contempt.

Digital child porn
The creation of child pornography may involve the abuse of children, which most of us consider unacceptable. However the creation of digital pornographic images, straight from the imagination of the artist, does not directly harm anyone. If paedophiles exchange or sell digital art of child pornography, should they be punished?

A common argument against this is that these artificial images may normalise the sexualisation of children to paedophiles and lead them to abuse children in reality. An opposing argument focuses on the apparent dramatic decline in sexual violence coinciding with the liberalisation of pornography, suggesting that porn may act as a substitute for rape.

Again this debate is almost impossible to hold in public because many people will be so outraged and offended by the idea of child pornography that advocates of liberal laws will be shouted down.

Don't support the troops
We just passed Remembrance Day/Armistice Day/Veterans Day with its usual signs of respect for soldiers, part of a wider consensus on showing soldiers respect for risking their lives to protect their countries.

There are lots of uncomfortable questions to ask about this respect.

Nazi Germany must have produced its own great, honourable and brave young men, as did the Soviets and the Taliban. George W. Bush called the Al Qaeda attackers of 9/11 'cowardly', yet they sacrificed their lives for the cause. If not willingness to take risks to serve nations or ideals, what determines bravery?

If memorial days are meant only to show respect to the soldiers of one side it seems less a celebration of their individual acts of bravery and more a confirmation of the ideologies that sent them to die. The peer pressure to respect the troops may be a cynical way to prevent people from questioning wars. People who do question this are condemned for insensitivity and lack of patriotism. Laurence M. Vance makes the point very aggressively here:

Why should we call them heroes, give them military discounts, grant them veterans preference, express our support for them with ribbons on our cars, honor them with a holiday, hold military appreciation church services for them, and thank them for their "service"?

...So why should a Vietnam veteran be proud? He was typically young, ignorant, deceived, and drafted. He may have fought obediently, valiantly, selflessly, and fearlessly, but since he had no business fighting in Vietnam in the first place, I have nothing to thank him for.

...What, then, should we thank our soldiers for? Should we thank them for fighting an unconstitutional war, an unscriptural war, an immoral war, an offensive war, an unjust war, or a senseless war?

Anything to do with nationalism
Flags are pieces of cloth, nations have imaginary borders, but it is still difficult to question patriotism or nationalism without being called a traitor.

Immigration control
Sometimes the very people proudly celebrating national soldiers criticise immigration controls as racist. However there are solid arguments for maintaining extremely tight immigration controls, not least Professor Robert Putnam's argument that ethnic diversity harms society:

In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to "distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.

In Japan the value of ethnic homogenity was openly acknowledged, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone remarking once that lower academic results by American students could be blamed on the high presence of blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in the US. Some observers argue that Japan's unusually low level of violent crime is partly explained by its lack of diversity.

Meanwhile Professor Jerry Muller explains Europe's modern history of peaceful coexistence in terms of successful ethno-nationalism. The terrible wars of the early 20th century helped to divide Europe's ethnic groups into highly homogenous nation states (Belgium and Switzerland being the big exceptions). After World War II, millions of Germans fled or were forced out of their neighbouring countries into Germany, a process Winston Churchill supported:

Expulsion is the method which, so far as we been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble… A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed at the prospect of the disentanglement of population, nor am I alarmed by these large transferences.

Finally the rise of far-right parties in several European countries suggests that lots of indigenous (as the BNP calls white Europeans) people fear the increasing populations of immigrants. Perhaps the failure of mainstream parties and media to discuss negative effects of immigration has given strength to the extremists.

A list of countries by GDP per capita (PPP) is topped by the following:

1 Liechtenstein - mixed democracy where the Prince still holds considerable power
2 Qatar - monarchy
3 Luxembourg - democracy (with constitutional monarch)
4 Bermuda - democracy with constitutional monarch
5 Norway - democracy with constitutional monarch
6 Jersey - democracy
7 Singapore - authoritarian republic
8 Kuwait - autocracy (broadly speaking, considered "authoritarian regime" in The Economist's Democracy Index)
9 Brunei - monarchy
10 Faroe Islands - democracy

The high score of several autocratic states is explained by some as a sign of the failure of democracy to manage economies. People in democracies supposedly vote to rob other citizens via taxing, eventually bloating the state spending on welfare to unsustainable levels. Politicians have a short-term incentive to please the masses so they raid the state's coffers and spend as much as possible.

Monarchs, however, are going to hand the state down to their children so they have a long-term perspective.

I find this argument unconvincing but still, it would be nice to have it considered. Democracy, too, should be no taboo topic.

Historical taboos on incest make sense since sexual relations between close relatives can produce genetic diseases in the offspring.

However sterilisation or contraception can greatly reduce the risk of producing children of any kind. So does that make incest alright? Having rejected traditional discrimination against homosexuals, should modern societies also withdraw prohibitions on incestuous relations? In any case debates on this may be hampered by the disgust many people feel for the idea of incest.

Sex and intelligence
Back to the troublesome Dr Richard Lynn who this time argues that men have a higher average IQ than women. Lynn uses this, and other biologically-determined behavioural differences, to explain the low participation of women in high-intelligence careers. I'd like to see him argue that at a feminist conference!

Rape about sex, not power
Professor Randy Thornhill and Professor Craig T. Palmer dismiss the modern consensus that rape is about male desire to dominate females and that rape is a symptom only of dysfunctional sexist societies. Men rape not to dominate women, they say, but because rape was a successful behavioural trait for reproduction. Men who raped women in the past were evolutionarily successful, passing on their genes. The desire to rape is similar to the desire for consensual sex in that both gave the man higher reproductive success.

They add that how a woman dresses may alter her risk of rape. This particular concept is such a taboo that they actually predicted they would be 'condemned' for mentioning it.

That a woman’s manner of dress may affect her risk of rape is eminently reasonable in view of what is known about certain sexual adaptations of men. The following combination of sexual adaptations is expected to lead some men to rape: eagerness to have sex with new partners, impulsiveness in the pursuit of such partners, sexual motivation upon viewing women’s secondary sexual traits, and tendency to conclude that a woman is signaling sexual interest when she is not. This is not to say that most rape victims will be wearing miniskirts, or blouses that reveal their breasts. It is to say that dress is anticipated to be a risk factor in some situations, especially when coupled with other risk factors that stimulate men’s sexual motivation.

(Some evidence to support Thornhill and Palmer's views comes from the fact that an overwhelming proportion of female rape victims are of the age of greatest sexual fertility. In evolutionary terms it would make little sense to rape an infertile child or old woman, yet if rape is about domination we would expect it spread more evenly through the age groups.) Needless to say, their findings were met with controversy and outrage.

So that's the last of the nine. I don't subscribe to some of these concepts but I see no reason for them to remain unmentioned in public debates. Everything is open to question.


  1. On criticisms of democracy, check out my blog, the "Anti-Democracy Agenda":



  2. Nice one, thanks Erich, I'll check it out!

  3. I have much the same experience with Orkut. I love how all kinds of opinions that I don't usually hear are presented and viciously defended! It's why it's still one of the sites I visit the most when I'm online.

  4. Thanks Vidar, I find it a positive experience, even though occasionally the fights do get out of hand!

  5. heck, there was even a fundamentalist raelian on orkut, that's one opinion that we would rarely find.

  6. Haha, ah yes! A pacifist Raelian, believing that Earth's life was created by aliens. He took a lot of abuse, poor guy, but he soldiers on and still pops in now and then to argue his point :D


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