Separating Signal from Noise

The difficulty of assessing the state of the gay revolution, and the six information traps that cause it

Answering the question “Will the gay revolution succeed?” is difficult.

It’s also important, not just for the mental wellbeing of gay men, but for larger political and social strategy.

Unfortunately: (1) there are a ton of confounding variables to deal with, and (2) traditional gay culture and its attendant institutions seem to be unaware of these to a large degree—they’re playing with a map that doesn’t match the territory.

To get to the truth of the matter requires separating a little signal from a lot of noise, and recognizing that things are often not as they appear.

This essay is a list of six things I think about when I try to interpret information related to the state of the gay revolution. They’re not necessarily all distinct, just different parts of the same elephant. Each really merits its own essay, but the point of presenting them all here is to demonstrate how difficult discerning gay reality is, given all the distorting noise.

Contents:

  1. Context and time are needed to make sense of discrete events

  2. Social change is driven by mimesis, which both giveth and taketh away

  3. The lesson of the random walk: beware false dynamism

  4. A bias for bad news and fighting villains prevails, distorting the picture of reality

  5. Internal emotional states don’t reliably map to external conditions

  6. Choosing the right metrics is hard

(1) Context and time are needed to make sense of discrete events

It’s often hard to judge the larger cause, consequence, and magnitude of events as they’re happening—that doesn’t mean impossible, just difficult.

Below is a graph of SSM (same-sex marriage) legal status in the United States. From its maker: “Plot shows proportion of US states and the District of Columbia with:

  • historical/traditional definition of marriage (gray);

  • legislation enacted to ban same-sex marriage (blue);

  • constitutional bans on same-sex marriage (yellow, includes states that also have legislative ban);

  • statewide legal same-sex marriage (green).

  • Red bar shows period in which DOMA prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages.”

If you were on the ground prior to 2003, it might have seemed like social conservatism was claiming resounding, insurmountable victories against SSM. And even though Massachusetts became the first state to legalize SSM in 2003, it was met with an avalanche of state-level constitutional bans.

But all hope was not lost, and it was darkest before the dawn.

SSM bans were not mighty victories—they were a panicked rearguard action against a superior advancing force. They were reactionary fortifications put into place as defense, and as far as that goes they were of Maginot-style quality.

Of course, nationwide legalization wasn’t inevitable, at least not in 2015 with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

>>The upshot: if you want to understand the true nature of events (like SSM marriage bans), you need to examine a wide context of information, not just the discrete event. Things might look dark, but the sun’s just under the horizon. Things might look bright, but it’s just an afterimage burned onto your retinas. Events need to be examined in context.

(2) Social change is driven by mimesis, which both giveth and taketh away

Mimesis is a process of imitation. It’s been widely analyzed across different fields, but for the purposes of this essay it means “imitation of beliefs.” It’s how ideas—fashions, values, priorities—diffuse throughout a culture. One person copying another, often unconsciously.

Social change relies, in part, on mimesis.1 What’s socially acceptable can spread rapidly throughout generational cohorts, especially younger ones, and especially since the advent of social media and modern communications technology.2

This doesn’t mean that everyone becomes principled defenders of newly accepted social mores. Many are just doing some version of “this costs me nothing, maybe gains me some social clout for being progressive, everyone else is doing it, why not?”3 rather than “in this essay I shall derive the validity and necessity of same-sex marriage.”

But mimesis isn’t a force for progress, it’s merely a force. As we’ve witnessed in the past decade, social media enables fast diffusion of many different ideas, many of which are…regrettable.

So if you were, say, on the winning end of a social movement driven by mimesis, you should recognize that, until you consolidate your victory more completely (via institution building, law, and cultural products), your victory can turn to ash. Mimesis can turn hearts away from you as fast as it turned them toward you, given the right instigation.

>>The upshot: As far as the gay revolution goes, then, the questions are: how much of the victory is consolidated? How many allies are merely mimetic vessels, for now filled with gay acceptance?4 What instigating events might swing mimesis against gay acceptance?

(3) The lesson of the random walk: beware false dynamism

In his essay “Avoiding False Dynamism,” Ben Parry gives a simple overview of how radical changes in systems, despite outward appearance and initial intuition, can just be random5:

“…consider a random walk. To generate a simple random walk, imagine a system of a single variable starting at 0. Flip a coin. If you get heads heads you will add one (+1) to the variable if tails you will take away one (-1). Your variable now has the value 1 or -1. Repeat the process taking the output following the first coin flip as the new value for your variable. Flip a coin again and either add one or take away one. This will give you a new value for the variable (in this case: 2, 0 or -2) which can in turn be plugged into the following coin flip.

As this process goes on and you take more steps the system will move ("walk") randomly through time. You can plot this on a chart as a line. When you do this for multiple random walks you can start to get a sense for how the process operates. No two walks are ever exactly alike. Each generates peaks and valleys that appear like the complex arcs of a unique trajectory.”

Windfalls and downturns can happen due to nothing you’ve done, and keeping the lesson of the random walk—the lesson of false dynamism—in mind is useful.

In business it might play out like this: a company that makes widgets has an amazing quarter. The new, recently-installed CEO gets a big bonus, gets invited to give lectures at Harvard Business School, is written up in all the finance magazines, and is generally the toast of the town.

As it turns out, everyone in the country just really wanted to buy widgets for a few months because of a viral trend on TikTok, and the company’s sales fall precipitously back to baseline after the one atypically good quarter. The CEO didn’t have anything to do with rising sales, they were just sitting in the right chair when randomness hit.

>>The upshot: So, when thinking about the gay revolution in all its aspects, I wonder, for example: which advocacy groups actually do effective things, and which are just sitting in the right chair? And also: which opponents of the gay revolution are actually effective, and which just happen to have the mic?6

(4) A bias for bad news and fighting villains prevails, distorting the picture of reality

There is money and attention in providing sensationalized bad news, and there is money is saying things that boil down to “the other team did something terrible!” If it bleeds, it leads, we must fight the villains, and so forth.

In the case of most media, this means you won’t be getting the full picture of what’s going on. In fact, you might tend to think things are worse than they really are, which causes a whole host of other problems.

This bias for bad news exists in the gay world as well.

In the case of advocacy groups, it means they have a tendency to exaggerate anti-gay prejudice in society, and create villains where there are none or few. The writer Brad Polumbo lays this out plainly with regard to the Human Rights Campaign’s actions in recent years, and quotes the economist Thomas Sowell to excellent effect (emphasis Brad’s):

“Those individuals who happen to be in charge of a non-profit institution at a given time can substitute their own goals for the institution’s ostensible goals or the goals of their founders … Much money can be dissipated in creating luxurious surroundings in the organization’s workplace or arranging showy conferences in posh hotels and resorts, held in upscale locations around the country or overseas. Non-profit organizations that are financially dependent on current contributions … have similar incentives to alarm their respective constituencies over various social, political, or other issues, and few constraints to confine themselves to accurate or valid bases for those alarms.”

Further: gay commentators on social media tend to focus on bad things as well (see @mattxiv for an example). Even if their intentions are good, and they probably are, the effect of their relentless presentation of things going wrong and problems that need fixing is much the same as mainstream media’s effect on the broader populace: media consumers get the impression that things are worse than they are, which leads to the deployment of incorrect solutions and unneeded social prophylactics, not to mention worse mental health.7 (I wrote about this goodness deficit here.)

>>The upshot: This bias for the bad that pervades media and advocacy institutions means that their information isn’t dispositive when determining the state of the gay revolution. They will overstate problems, and understate/omit good things. So any reliable picture of reality requires going around them, and will likely contradict them, at least in part.

(5) Internal emotional states don’t reliably map to external conditions

A lot of gay men deal with the downstream effects of shame in their adulthoods. If you’re gay, you’ve likely encountered this idea through books like The Velvet Rage. If you’re straight, you’ve perhaps encountered it through Brené Brown.

The summary: shame, or fear of being unloveable, will make you act in a variety of self-destructive ways. One common way is acting how you think others want you to act, so you can receive their approval. Not only will you lose your sense of self doing this, you’ll experience emotional storms when you don’t receive external validation. It’s not a good way to be.

The shame gay men feel about their sexuality often comes as a result of, well, being shamed for it. In childhood. In their teenaged years. By parents. By television programs (looking at you, Friends). By almost everything and everyone—I can attest to this personally.

BUT: society changes, and so do people. It is bonkers how much homosexual affirmation and acceptance have skyrocketed in our culture in the last decade, while the inner state of many gay men has moved very little.

In the interviews I’ve conducted for this project, and just existing within gay culture myself, it’s clear that many gay men feel some version of: “I have shame surrounding my sexuality, and that indicates that the world is terrible for gay men.” The emotion is valid, the conclusion is not necessarily.

Shame, like stress, is not dispositive. It doesn’t tell you how the world is, but it does tell you to pay attention. Emotions are bells that ring and say “pay attention to this thing,” but you have to use your conscious mind to figure out what the indicated thing means, and whether your emotion was well-calibrated to it.

>>The upshot: What does this mean for people interested in the state of the gay revolution?

First: many gay men aren’t reliable narrators, so their word about the state of gay acceptance isn’t law. They ascribe their bad internal states to a correspondingly bad external world, but their internal states are often the result of something else. In other words, “lived experience” is a data point, not a trump card.

If you want the truth of the present, you need to take their version of things with a grain of salt. Note: this doesn’t mean that anti-gay prejudice doesn’t exist, not by a long shot; nor does it mean that the feelings of these men aren’t valid—they are responses to something real, their shame.

Second: it is worthwhile to notice which gay institutions and activist individuals note the point above and try to remedy it, and which just harvest the fear and negative outlook of gay men for money and attention. This, in itself, is a useful data point about the state of the gay revolution, and shows how well gay institutions and culture are developing (or not).

(6) Choosing the right metrics is hard

How would you even measure the success of the gay revolution if you wanted to?

There are certainly easy things to do, like look at diversity statistics from corporations and other institutions—although, as Alison Taylor of NYU’s Stern School writes here, those are often misleading; the landscape of diversity disclosure is reality-warped just like the media. One salient point: companies that perform badly are disincentivized from reporting at all, since they’ll be penalized for it!

Or maybe you could look at the percentage of Americans who say they support same-sex marriage—Pew announced it’s a record high! This is a relevant data point, but it only explains how (mostly) straight people regard gay marriage, and leaves out the culture and institution building that gay people are doing.

Unfortunately there is no easy quantitative way to measure any of this, although certain quantitative points are useful. In my initial project overview, I laid out three ways to evaluate the gay revolution:

  • Culturally: do the ideas and norms that prevail after the revolution increase individual and collective well-being? Does the culture retain an ability to harbor several rival ideas peacefully, occasionally synthesizing them? Is the culture dynamic or decadent? 

  • Institutionally: can the institutions (instruments of coordination) of the revolution transition from a revolutionary footing to a more conventional mode of operation, and self-repair as necessary?8

  • Individually: do most individuals buy into the revolution, even if not initially? Is their acceptance bottom-up, top-down, or conducted via intermediary layers? 

>>The upshot: There’s no way to measure these easily. I mean, this whole essay is about things that make that task difficult. But I think I’ve made excellent progress so far, if only because I’ve learned how to interpret the data I’m given from various sources, and how it is distorted. This reveals much in itself.

I hope you’ll follow along as I continue, and leave any comments (constructive critiques included) that will make my progress smoother.

1

The other important component is some version of Planck’s Principle: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

2

See this post, which highlights a study diving into the spread of behavior on social media “Stop that! It’s not Tourette’s but a new type of mass sociogenic illness.” (Note: I am generally very suspicious of studies like this on principle, but it seems OK. Nonetheless, caveat emptor.)

3

In the modern context, this is rendered as “love is love.”

4

The ally that is firmly committed 60% is better than the one provisionally committed 100%. In the modern political landscape, that means something like “a lot of Republicans could be friends of the cause, and a lot of Democrats could block progress.”

5

Of course this example is just for a one-dimensional random walk, but the idea of false dynamism remains the same for higher dimensions.

Further, in my essay I flesh out an example of randomness that Ben gives, that of a business cycle: “We can learn something from this about our own lives and ventures. We always experience some amount of random change. Staying our current course our stove will break and need to be replaced, our tastes will change and we begin a new diet, our company's core product may be discovered by a new demographic boosting sales or there could be a shift in public mood and new regulations come in that harm our profits.”

6

There are definitely degrees here, and organizations can be both, depending on department and issue.

7

@theboringgay’s Instagram is another example of an account that still generally focuses on problems, although it is atypically solution-oriented.

Also, the other problem with the “problems-based” approach more generally is that it focuses on mitigating bad things, but doesn’t focus on cultivating good things. I wrote about the problems with this lopsided approach on Twitter:

8

Samo Burja’s Great Founder Theory has proven useful here so far.