Sometimes people speak to be understood. Sometimes they speak to fit in. Sometimes they speak to manipulate others, etc. These different purposes are called simulacrum levels, after Baudrillard.

Strawperson writes a comment here which summarizes the simulacrum levels in their own words. This has been discussed on Less Wrong in a few places, but I will give my own explanation here in the way that makes sense to me.

Note: norms in some online discussion groups are to shy away from political examples, because they can be distracting. I think they’re essential in this context so will use them despite the potential distraction. Stay focused :)

  • Level One is talking about what’s there:
    • “there’s a lion across the river” means you saw it, or have reason to believe it exists, and wish to communicate that honestly.
    • “American cities collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on policing” and “thousands of Americans die every year from drug smuggling”: These are concrete factual statements which you can look up. When you read statements like this, it is often intended in support or opposition to a particular political narrative (and in that case would fall under level 2) – but it is a good exercise to try taking them at face value, because if you knew your interlocutor was speaking at level 1, then they would expect you to do so.
    • Similarly, “defund the police” at level 1 simply means you would like to reduce funding to police departments; and similarly for “build the wall” – you would like to build some particular wall. (Stick with me if it feels odd to interpret these political statements for their pure meaning without “reading into them” any further! See below.)
    • Per Baudrillard, a statement at this level is a faithful attempt to represent reality.
  • Level Two is trying to manipulate people by pretending you’re operating at Level One. You hope to be interpreted literally.
    • “there’s a lion across the river” could mean “I want you to panic that a lion might be nearby” or “I want you to go hunt the lion with me” or “I don’t want you to cross that bridge”. The person speaking this may be lying – they don’t actually care whether or not there is indeed a lion – but they hope that the listener will take them literally and act accordingly.
    • “American cities collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on policing” and “thousands of Americans die every year from drug smuggling”: You can sort of sniff out level-2 speech when reading these factual statements, because so often they are used to support or oppose a particular political narrative. Most of the time, someone writing this is trying to get you to support some cause of theirs.
    • Trickily, “defund the police” at this level means something like: people need to hear that police might not always be great - we need to counter racist “law & order” initiatives. (i.e., it doesn’t really matter to the speaker whether or not it would be better if police departments had less money; a level-2 interlocutor is pushing you in a direction, not conveying facts.)
    • “HODL your bitcoin” – people who are invested in Bitcoin convincing others to hold on, not sell. They want you to think it’s because Bitcoin will be worth more someday, but really most people who say this are just trying to convince others not to sell in order to reduce supply, pushing the price higher.
    • “I did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky” – Clinton intended the listener to take away that there had been no improper sexual contact, but in fact there had. He later argued that this wasn’t a lie based on the definitions given, but he certainly gave misleading testimony.
    • To Baudrillard, a statement at this level “masks and denatures” reality: the truth value matters little, it’s the implications that matter (though if the statement were proven false then there might be bad consequences for the speaker)
  • Level Three is about signaling, being accepted in the world. You’re saying something where the primary concern is what other people will think of you, having said it:
    • “there’s a lion across the river” is not a great example, because we have no cultural context in which to interpret the statement. But imagine that there were two tribes, the river-crossers and the non-crossers, who often argue fiercely about whether or not to cross the river. The statement might be used as a symbol of membership in the non-crossers.
    • “Defund the police”: at this level, people who say it are letting you know that they’re part of / want to be part of a certain political group. “Black lives matter” is similar – it carries little information at level 1; speakers say it because it gives them a positive feeling that they are fighting against racism, and indicates membership in the group.
    • “Make America Great Again” is another example, maybe a bit less meaningless than BLM, but still mostly meaningless. People speaking this hope to be interpreted as part of a certain group. America’s actual greatness or lack thereof is not really under discussion here, but it is a reference to the idea that America has been declining in the world and something should be done about it.
    • To Baudrillard, these statements “mask the absence of a profound reality”: they have very little to do with reality or what the speaker believes would be better, but they seem to be “about” a real thing in the world, and the people who say them are primarily saying them because they have an urge to be part of the group. Maybe the statement takes a stance on an active political issue, so people feel like they’re doing some good for that issue by repeating these statements.
  • Level Four is pure politics: there’s no reality that you’re taking into account at all. People making statements like this are hoping to be interpreted as though they’re part of a political group, but they transcend any group belonging drive – they are calculating which is the best thing to be saying in order to achieve their goals.
    • Official pronouncements to “wear a mask” – since COVID-19, mask-wearing to prevent disease transmission has been politicized: an official telling people to wear a mask (or not bother with it) is interpreted more as a signal of that official’s political loyalties. Few will change their behavior based on these statements – everyone has already decided what their personal mask-wearing policy is. The official knows this, they just want people to know which side they are on.
    • Campaign slogans: political campaigns test out various slogans to figure out which ones work best to convince people to vote for them. The content of the slogan is not based on anything in the real world other than how people will perceive it.
    • “defund the police” would have poor optics for Biden, so he doesn’t say it, regardless of what he believes about police department funding.
    • “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” – Obama said that in 2008. In 2012, he came out in favor of gay marriage. It’s impossible to prove it, but I suspect he was in favor of gay marriage much sooner than 2012, and only came out in favor of it when polling indicated that it was OK to be in favor of it.

Since I read about simulacrum levels from Zvi and Ben Hoffman in 2020, I’ve been seeing them everywhere. I find that most people are speaking at level 3 or 4 when talking about politics. Level 1 is where I try to be with my friends and at work, and in most of this blog. I definitely spend some time at level 2 and 3 in e.g. my BLM post – level 2 when I end with “change the policing system” (because I felt it was directionally correct regardless of the actual initiative) and level 3 when I titled the post “Black Lives Matter” (hoping to be perceived as being on the correct side of history with this stuff). I do have plenty of level-1 thoughts I shared in the post as well.

After noodling on the simulacrum levels for a few months, I started to feel like Level 1 is somehow best: it seems like it would be an interesting utopia if we could all trust each other to always be at level 1. I know others who talk about simulacrum levels tend to say things like “we all operate at all the levels at various times,” but I wonder whether it would be possible and desirable to create and enforce a community or society where the expectation is that you pretty much only communicate at level 1. It seems like lying to manipulate, and tribalism, are a couple of today’s worst problems in the way humans interact – could we just eliminate all that pain?

Setting aside whether or not this is a good idea, let’s talk about how it might be achieved.

Societally, we already have a taboo against lying - if someone is discovered to be a liar then they will suffer consequences. But operating on level 2 is a bit distinct from lying. You can be saying true things with an intent to manipulate, convince a jury, etc. I wonder if the taboo against lying could be extended into a taboo against “speaking to manipulate”? It’s a bit harder to prove intent to manipulate; but it still seems like we might be able to do this if we tried. I’m unsure whether there are societally-useful instances of level 2 speech that wouldn’t be better just laying out what you know and letting people make their own decisions. I would want to enforce this culturally in a level-1 utopian society – reward people for speaking at level 1, punish for lying or manipulating people. This all seems “doable” from the perspective of setting cultural standards for a new society.

What about addressing level 3, e.g., enforce taboos against “speaking to fit in”? This seems a lot harder; I can’t think of existing taboos similar to this. I’ve occasionally read essays decrying cliches and repetition in political speech, like this one by Orwell – “orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” But this is more about the writing quality than attitude or thinking quality.

Paul Graham has written down some patterns of the independent-minded in How to Think For Yourself (fastidious about truth, resistance to being told what to think, and curiosity); but this does not lead well to a recipe for a culture. In fact it’s something of the opposite, leading to a conclusion that the only people suitable to participate are ones who are already pretty good at being independent-minded. This is one angle, but I am interested in trying to figure out if there’s a way to get people to speak less at level 3 regardless of what’s going on inside their head.

What if we banned culture-war catchphrases? For example, stop people from saying “Black Lives Matter” or “Make America Great Again”? Such a restriction would probably seem quite stifling, and would also not work because people would find more complicated ways of communicating at level 3 that are not so easy to ban. You have to address level-3 speech at the point where people start to feel an urge to try and fit in.

Could you prevent “in-groups” from forming, thus removing the necessity of speech at level 3? Maybe: Where do in-groups come from? Either they are imported from outside, or they arise naturally in a group from people taking sides on issues. To block the former, you could create a taboo on waging external culture wars like Slate Star Codex or Coinbase. To block the latter is a bit trickier.

I don’t remember having any internal “wars” with my family of 4 growing up. I do, however, remember having them in my undergraduate program house of 40. We had battles about constitutional amendments and bylaws changes, about alcohol use, about how we would be viewed as a house by the rest of the campus, about whether to take action and remove problematic house members. These were difficult and important questions. But I don’t remember them being enough to create tribes, i.e., people who spent much time speaking at level 3. Level 3 arises when people feel threatened enough that they need to band together into long-lived sub-coalitions, and I don’t think that was an issue for us. It probably helped that it was filled with undergraduates who were only there for up to 3 years–not really enough time to get really entrenched in something! So, it does seem that there is an anti-level-3 effect from either being small enough or short-lived enough; but inconclusive either way at this point, and it is not clear how to apply this to a larger, more permanent society.

Could we notice and break up in-groups if they do form? In my program house, we had plenty of exclusive subgroups: the heavy partiers; cooking club; a women-only support group. Could you make a rule like “if you are having a party, everyone is invited”? Probably counterproductive: the women benefited from that group and I think especially from not having men in it! Exclusive subgroups are here to stay–and I expect that people would want to form them even if they were explicitly banned.

What else? It seems like people band together when they feel threatened. So maybe don’t have internal threats? One way you might feel threatened is having few options to get your needs met. If the community is great at creating options and making people’s lives better, then maybe people wouldn’t feel that they needed to band together in an adversarial way, and level-3 speech wouldn’t arise. On the other hand, it seems like most human societies somehow devolve into tribal politics when they get big enough, so it could be hard to avoid that fate; still, trying hard to stave it off might be worthwhile.

One source of threats is feeling marginalized, so that leads to the idea to create an inclusive space where people’s issues are taken seriously. I know very little about this, but I would assume it means official dispute resolution processes that actually work quickly, with effective disincentives including rapid banishment where there’s been serious enough misbehavior.

Another source of threats is not getting your needs met, especially if the decisions seem unfair. I’d be inclined to (as society grows) try decentralizing decision-making processes – having small groups that mostly determine their own fates, deciding things via compromise, and having it be as easy as possible to switch groups if you can’t get along with your current group.

Would the sum of all these things be enough to kill the need for simulacrum-level-3 speech in a carefully gardened utopia? Possibly – hard to say, but feedback is welcome. I might someday want to experiment with this.

(I don’t have many insights to write about level four at this point.)