23 November 2020

Authoritarian psychology and the liberal democratic ethos

A clarifying observation from my secret cousin @Politigoth:

By their nature, authoritarians respect authoritarian action. Their worldview is shaped by fear of punishment. Therefore if no one will be punished for a thing, there is no reason not to do that thing. Without punishment, all actions are valid. This is true in both religious and secular contexts. In short, if there's nothing to make you afraid of doing X, then you can do X.

People who are not authoritarians don't work this way, don’t think this way and don't operate on these principles. But because of this, they make the crucial error of thinking that letting actions perpetrated in bad faith slide in the name of “someone has to make the first move” will engender a good faith response. They are continually disappointed, because this is (here's the punchline, folks) not the lesson authoritarians learn from this gesture. They learn that rules don't apply to them, and that there is no authority that will call them to account.

This is important to understand, especially in this moment when we are experiencing breakdowns in liberalism as in liberal democracy.

Liberalism builds institutions like legislatures as a forum where constituencies with divergent interests hash out their differences in a human process of compromise and reciprocity. It mythologizes the virtues of giving up some things you want and accepting some things you do not want so that we can all get along. This is a good myth.

But one thing that the last decade plus has taught me is that authoritarians were always just playing along with this ethos, only pretending to believe in this ideal. This breakdown in authoritarian pretense makes libdem governance hard to maintain.

Defenders of the libdem order yearn to continue to act as if we have a healthy libdem order. We do not want to act harshly, because we want a society which is not harsh. We offer our open hand, to show what we want, because we would respond to that in kind. “When they go low, we go high.” But this reflects, in part, our difficulties understanding the thinking of reflexively-authoritarian people.

Authoritarians presume that the world is cruel, that authority & power are inherently cruel, and that obedience to right authority defines the good. This is why they accept political authority which harms them, so long as it harms others more; such is the nature of power. This is why religious authoritarians look to a God of harsh judgments; such is the nature of power. This is why religious authoritarians are baffled that people who do not dread divine retribution can live moral lives; how do we recognize the good? As @Politigoth says, offering the open hand sends them a confusing signal. (If you want to understand authoritarian psychology and its consequences, I strongly recommend psychology prof Dr. Bob Altemeyer's study The Authoritarians.)

This clarifies the importance of something that has been much on my mind. Defenders of the libdem order err in leaving out elements of our own ethos for how to act. As I summarize in a recurring refrain on Twitter the libdem ethos says:

  1. Generously start with a presumption of good faith
  2. Vigilantly watch for bad faith actors
  3. Stringently document the bad faith actors who appear
  4. Ruthlessly exclude them once demonstrated

On Twitter I often lament how liberals-as-in-Democrats have failed at the necessary ruthlessness, and how the press have failed at the vigilence and stringent documentation. (I also occasionally lament when social justice advocates have elided the stringent documentation, or the starting presumption of good faith.)

I tend to think of this in terms of creating good incentives for building and maintaining a libdem order, but @Politigoth reminded me of something at least as important. Libdem ruthlessness when necessary bridges the gap in psychology between egalitarians and authoritarians.


After watching @Politigoth in a lively discussion of this point, I realized something else about authoritarian psychology. She argues, correctly, that Biden’s plan to govern with gestures toward reconciliation with conservatives will backfire, and the lack of consequences for their bad faith actions in support of DJT will read to them as a demonstration that Democrats are chumps who deserve contempt ... and also that their actions were not really wrong, because there were no consequences for them.

This make me register how, to the libdem sensibility, when someone offers clemency to bad faith actors, this incurs on them a debt. They have harmed the social and political order and need to make amends. They have been granted undeserved grace on a provisional basis, will be watched more carefully, and need to invest in demonstrating that they are commited to acting in good faith and to the health of the system.

This does not register at all with authoritarians. When they break faith — which they will — they will feel baffled by how we are even angrier the next time. It will feel disproportionate to them, because they will not see the history and larger failure.


A comment by pacerme on a post at Emptywheel:

I truly fear the codependent belief that Dems have acted out for years, that taking the moral high ground is the moral equivalent of letting bygones be bygones. This would be what happens in domestic violence when he/she or they forget about the beating last night and move on hoping it will never happen again.

Ignoring the broken laws of the Republican Party. From Iran contra, to Plame, to Iraq war, to Russian interference in our elections, to literally torturing children on the border in a way that will alter their brains for life. Dems behave with this moral superiority that is really just codependency. Instead of living in the truth and allowing the natural consequences, as provided by our laws, the Dems intervene like the father who calls in legal favors for their drug addicted child to save the family name. Never realizing that by interfering with the natural consequences, the perception of truth is altered for the addict and that this interference may well only bolster the disease and hasten the fatal illness of addiction. (If left untreated). This doesn’t require chastisement or anger, but love and the discipline to refuse to protect that addicted child from the consequences of the disease, or the violent partner from the consequence of violent behavior.

If you love your country, you let the truth and it’s consequences reign. And if you are behaving outside of dysfunction you allow the consequences to speak truth to the nation. No matter how unpopular or risky that is. To refuse to do so under some self righteous belief of superiority, some hope that if we ignore it it will go away will continue to chip at our democracy. Dysfunction is contagious. Taking the moral high ground means applying the legal process for truth’s sake despite the consequences.

Pew political typology

Pew Research have an interesting typology for breaking Americans into political tendencies which attempts to be more sophisticated than the classic linear political spectrum (or libertarians' two-dimensional political compass), offering nine types.

Persuasive Litigator offers a useful summary:

Solid Liberals

  • Largely white
  • Well-educated (most are college graduates and nearly a third have a postgraduate degree)
  • Express liberal attitudes on virtually every issue
  • Highly likely to have acted in or contributed to protests against President Trump in the past year

Opportunity Democrats

  • Agree with Solid Liberals on major issues
  • But less affluent and less politically engaged
  • Somewhat less liberal, both in their attitudes on issues and in their self-descriptions
  • More likely than solid liberals to support corporations and large companies
  • Believe that most people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard

Disaffected Democrats

  • Disproportionately racial minority
  • While holding positive feelings toward the Democratic Party and its leading figures, they are cynical about politics, government and the course of the country
  • Financially stressed
  • Supports activist government and the social safety net, but most say government is “wasteful and inefficient”
  • Most believe their side has been losing in politics
  • Fewer than half believe that voting gives them a say in how the government runs things

Devout and Diverse

  • Faces higher financial hardships than Disaffected Democrats
  • Most religiously-observant of all Democrat-leaning group
  • Least politically engaged of all Democrat-leaning groups
  • About a quarter lean Republican
  • Critical of government regulation of business

Core Conservatives

  • Only 13 percent of the public, but 43 percent of politically engaged Republicans
  • Financially comfortable and male-dominated
  • Overwhelmingly supports smaller government, lower corporate tax rates
  • Believes in the fairness of the nation’s economic system
  • Expresses a positive view of U.S. involvement in the global economy

Country-First Conservatives

  • Older than other Republican-leaning groups
  • Less educated than other Republican-leaning groups
  • Unhappy with country’s  course
  • Focused on immigration and globalism (both being negative)

Market Skeptic Republicans

  • Like other Republican-leaning groups but sharply diverging from others on financial issues
  • Only about a third of Market Skeptic Republicans say banks and other financial institutions have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country
  • Supports raising taxes on corporations and large businesses
  • Believes that the economic system favors powerful interests

New Era Enterprisers

  • Fundamentally optimistic about the state of the nation and its future
  • More likely than any other typology group to say the next generation of Americans will have it better than people today.
  • Younger and somewhat less overwhelmingly white than the other GOP-leaning groups
  • Strongly pro-business
  • Generally thinks that immigrants strengthen, rather than burden, the country


  • Non-voters
  • Non-affiliated with any party
  • Not engaged by the political process
  • Not interested or informed in political issues

I have some reservations about this typology, in part egocentrically I cannot find myself on it, and I suspect that the types are quickly shifting in this moment of political reälignment — but digging into the detailed Pew description is worth your time if you care about this stuff.

04 November 2020

A parable about service design

So I wrote this message and attached it to the support tickets for a product which broke.

I write this in sympathy for the person who is trying to fix WD support & service and needs ammunition for making the argument that changes are necessary. I hope this serves you well. I invite you to contact me at miniver@gmail.com if you would like further help.

WD failed me at every turn, in the simplest imaginable customer service situation. The service reps did not fail me; every one of the many I have worked with in this misadventure has been professional, friendly, and eager to help. Your systems failed them, and thus failed me, in numerous ways.

Over two months ago, I bought a double hard drive from WD; one of the two drives failed in its first day of operation. I contacted Support, did as they directed. After numerous chats, emails, and phone calls I still do not have a working product.

You sold me a product which did not work. When a service rep hears this, they should say, “Golly, we are so sorry. I will have a replacement in your hands tomorrow. We will throw a shipping sticker in the box so you can put the broken thing in the box and ship it back to us.”

This was a choice WD made. You not empower the service reps to just do the right thing.

For the benefit of whatever numbskull will tell you that this reflects an extravagant level of service for a little $250 product, allow me to spell out the foolishness of penny pinching. When one goes to a restaurant, one cannot see into the kitchen; if one finds dirty silverware on the table, one suspects an unsanitary kitchen. Less responsive customer service and tech support suggests a lack of pride and diligence. I have no real ability to judge the quality of the hard drive itself, but I can see whether you strive to make the device which holds my precious data reliable enough that a bad one constitutes an emergency which you correct as swiftly and easily as possible. If you cannot afford to do this, it means that your drives break all the time. If you do treat it as an emergency and treat me well, it reflects a commitment to the product which would lead me to recommend your product.

Instead, I was told that first I must ship the broken drive back to you, then on receipt you would replace it.

This was a choice WD made. You did not empower the service reps to just do the right thing.

I asked whether to return the entire unit, or to pull the failed drive and only return that. The rep told me to return only the failed part. That would turn out to be the wrong advice. Following this incorrect advice would later present a significant problem.

This was a set of choices WD made. You did not empower the service reps to just do the right thing.

The rep gave me a URL linking to a widget for printing a shipping sticker … which asked whether I wanted to send it the fast expensive way or the slow inexpensive way. You expected me to pay for the cost of correcting your failure. Insulting.

This was a choice WD made. You did not empower the service rep to just do the right thing.

So I wasted my time and your money on a second conversation with a rep, explaining that I refused to pay for the shipping, for the obvious reasons. The rep apologized and said they could not give me a paid shipping label.

This was a choice WD made. You did not empower the service rep to just do the right thing.

The rep passed me along to another person. I had to wait to have that conversation, with no visibility into when it would happen.

This was a choice WD made. You did not empower the service rep to do the right thing.

So then I sent the drive back. And waited. And waited.

This was a choice WD made. You did not empower receiving to give me immediate confirmation.

Eventually the next phase in my adventure began. I was contacted and told that I would not simply receive a replacement drive because I should have sent the entire unit.

This was a choice WD made. You gave me the wrong instructions. And you did not empower your people to just correct for the failure on their end.

I then had a series of exchanges with various people on your service team: phone calls, chats, email messages. I encountered people who thought I had not returned the drive, people who thought I asked you to send the broken drive back to me, people who informed me again that I should have sent the entire unit. There are now four separate “service incidents” on your clumsy service website, making it to retrace my steps. (Reference numbers 200824-000594, 201024-000608, 201027-001294, and 201105-001104 if you care to dig.)

This was a choice WD made. You did not create systems which clarified my communication with service reps.

I repeatedly asked to have a replacement drive sent to me. Reps kept telling me that they could not do this.

This was a choice WD made. You did not empower the service reps to just do the right thing.

Eventually, I started yelling angrily at reps on phone calls. I confess that this was strategic, a ploy to get my problem addressed. But it was also easy, because I was angry.

This was a choice WD made. You did not empower the service reps to just do the right thing.

Finally, I had a call in which I managed to get myself passed to someone actually empowered to send me a working drive. The conversation required wrangling and stubbornness and yelling, because it started with the rep telling me that they could not correct my problem.

This was a choice WD made. You did not empower the service reps to just do the right thing.

At the time of this writing, I have been assured that both my broken drive and a working one are winging their way toward me. I have received a mailing label so that I can return the broken one to you, because you think you need it, so this belated completion of customer service comes with an additional chore which I must perform.

These are choices WD made. You did not empower the service reps to just do the right thing.

I am the kind of person who buys a little baby RAID array, is stubborn enough to get this sorted out, and is stubborn enough to write you this letter. How many people do you imagine that I will tell to never buy a product from WD?

I write this because service design is part of my profession, and I have sympathy for the person in your organization who I imagine must have lost countless fights trying enable your service organization to live up to their sacred duty to your customers, and who needs customer stories to tell. I wish them luck, because you have obviously made their job impossible so far.

These are choices WD made. You did not empower the service manager to just do the right thing.

01 November 2020

The Craft: Legacy

The TLDR: It is a charming trifle made for teenagers, with a bit of interesting cultural politics. If you love the exuberantly hokey original, you will like this revisitation.

The film is not the cunning indie masterpiece one might hope for. The plot does not really make sense; one gets the sense that it suffered some trimming in service of a brisk runtime. The characterizations are thin. The magic doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Someone on the production has clearly had a look at proper modern witches because there is some real-deal witchcraft flavor thrown into the cauldron; tastes will vary among Pagan friends whether you find it charming or frustrating to see this sprinkled over the very imaginary version of witchcraft portrayed in the movie. The scares are not very scary. The transgressions are not very transgressive.

And none of that matters. It is not that kind of movie.

The young actors playing our little coven do not quite have the latent star power of the crew from the original — how could they? — but they deliver the goods. All four are charming and magnetic and completely sell how delighted they are to be friends doing magic. Cailee Spaeny as Lily, our central character, does some real acting, which pays off in how the movie plays her close relationship with her mother; I look forward to seeing her in more roles. And it was wise of the production to spend a few extra bucks to get David Duchovny to show up and have fun as the new stepdad our heroine is wary of.

There was some nice stuff for me as a production design nerd. The Spooky Book Of The Craft (inherited from the original film?) has a spot-on Early 1970s Small Press look. The girls’ wardrobes feel real; there’s a nice moment in which a hidden witchcraft theme in the costuming is demonstrated to have been hiding in plain sight. The Somewhat Spooky big old house Lily and her mom move into both has the right atmosphere and feels like a real place. And the coven’s makeup case full of magic supplies was my favorite character of the movie.

The movie’s cultural politics are deliberately and very explicitly woke in a breezy way that gives me hope for the Youngs. Attention to cultural politics stuff that was a fight for geezers like me not so long ago is just assumed to be part of the world of these characters. Toxic masculinity is a key theme that surfaces in a few ways without devolving into Boys Are Bad. There is a Representation Matters moment which is deliberately and refreshingly fleeting; the movie registers something important, registers that it is important, then swiftly moves on because our characters are not wrought about it. Magic is used as a device for talking about consent practices, even. The movie is not perfectly thoughtful on this stuff — I had reservations, and I presume that people with more skin in the game than I have will have more — but it bothered to be good enough to be worth criticizing.

And it is just fun. The girls are bursting with life, full of big feelings and adolescently irresponsible with their magic powers. It gets a lot of mileage out of some cheap, simple special effects. They get a bushel of Hero Walks and Hero Moments. The callbacks to the original film are cheap shots that work.

And thanks to either re-shoots or cunning, the trailer is full of misdirection, so there are a couple of nice surprises.

If you are reading this, you are almost certainly too old to be the target audience. It is a movie made for teenagers. But that is a nice place to visit.