2 articles Articles posted in rationality

Duck Dystopia

So Phil Robertson, whose tangled beard and folksiness until yesterday graced A&E’s “Duck Dynasty”, doesn’t like gays, and isn’t too clear that he likes African-Americans either.

It’s a shock, of course. Nobody thought that if we kept cramming doltish shitheels onto the airwaves, that one or two of them might turn out to actually mean it. Two days ago we thought Phil was a role-model; now we know he’s not. It’s a loss, to which we all feel called to respond.

As usual, it was Sarah Palin who was loudest — perfectly enunciating the ideological incoherence of the right. “Intolerants!” she cried. Meaning those who are intolerant of Phil’s intolerance. The word is already a meme.

This, of course, is another signal contribution of the “liberal fascism” discourse, the discourse of the oxymoron. Intolerance of intolerance is hypocritical, the line runs. If liberals really meant their liberalism, they would be tolerant of intolerance in the same way they are tolerant of difference in gender, race, and sexual orientation.

Even if the accusation were true, it would mean only that the right and the liberal left were morally equivalent; it would mean only that the left is sometimes intolerant, just as the right proudly already is. The accusation amounts to no more than the basest possible tu quoque: “at least we know we’re scum.”

But, of course, it’s not true. It’s neither hypocritical nor incoherent for an opponent of intolerance to be intolerant of intolerance: that’s what it means to oppose intolerance.

Tolerance is the basic value of liberalism that allows for difference in gender, race, or sexual orientation: to tolerate on equal footing its own opposite, intolerance, would be to undermine itself, to prefer exclusion of, and damage to, the very system of differences the existence of which tolerance was meant to enable. Intolerance of intolerance is tolerance. The accusation that liberalism is hypocritical when it does not tolerate intolerance literally cannot be true: it is purely illogical. Liberalism is at its most consistent and true when it is intolerant of the intolerant.

It is of course deeply strange to see conservatives coming out against intolerance, as it always is whenever they find a racist, sexist, or homophobe whom they think they’re not hearing enough from. “Intolerants!” is an utterance of hilariously pure psychological projection. But Sarah Palin is a professional yahoo; riposting her arguments argumentatively is not the point, as they are intended for people who either do not know what an argument is, or do not care.

More interesting is the form which the liberal intolerance to intolerance is currently taking. Phil’s conservative supporters have asked that he receive “freedom of speech.” Give Phil his First Amendment freedom! they say. Well, Phil has his First Amendment freedom, because that is a freedom secured only against the government. The First Amendment does not much govern our interactions with our employers. Those are governed more by the freedom of contract that exists in American capitalism — and that is exactly the reasoning under which the right wing has argued for the firing of Martin Bashir from MSNBC and the right of Hobby Lobby not to pay for insurance that covers abortion and contraception.

So it’s a little surprising to me that the liberal reply to Phil’s conservative backers has amounted to: “Phil is free to say what he likes in GQ, and A&E is free not to employ him.”

Legally, this is true. That is a correct statement of the actual status of the First Amendment and the freedom of contract in America. But it’s still an uncomfortable thing for anyone nominally on the left to advocate. Phil Robertson is, of course, a public figure, and with public figures, all bets are off — but there is still something to be said for the general freedom not to be fired for speech not directly connected to your job.

It’s not clear that, as such a public figure, Phil Robertson enjoys any speech not directly connected to his job, just as Martin Bashir didn’t: Phil’s job is to be a body of free-floating redneck signifiers that can be plastered on camo hats, t-shirts, and christmas wrap sold at Wal-Mart. But let’s generalize the case. It is surprising to many, but in most parts of the country you can be fired for most any “protected” speech, if your employer takes exception to it. The same reasoning being applied by liberals to Phil allows your asshole boss to fire the person down the hall for putting an Obama or Planned Parenthood sticker on their car. (Yes, people have been fired for that, and yes, the courts have said it’s okay.)

Most people can’t risk losing their jobs, and if they know their boss is likely to retaliate against political speech, their political speech is effectively constrained. In this way, freedom of speech is a version of the mere freedom to starve.

And who most suffers in this way for their political speech? It’s not rich, white, Christian conservatives.

Liberals are supposed to like freedom of speech. Indeed, it’s one of the arenas in which the unproblematic differences of which they are so tolerant are supposed to be allowed to manifest themselves. Thus, I find it quite strange that the liberal argument against Phil Robertson has so far taken the form of an appeal to the freedom of contract that directly cuts against the actual freedom to speak.

Conservatives are wrong to demand that Phil needs to be given his “First Amendment” rights — he’s got them. But there is an important intuition inside all the ignorance: if you don’t have any rights of free speech against an employer, your right to free speech doesn’t mean much. If your right to free speech is trumped by your employer’s commercial concerns, your right to free speech doesn’t mean much. Profit is what matters.

That’s the only principle which is ever enhanced in these controversies. The Chick-fil-A kerfluffle was paradigmatic. The matter was framed as a conflict of two ideological positions: one favored by the owner of the restaurant chain, the other favored by people who boycotted it. Bigotry and anti-bigotry were both placed as “controversial” positions in equal contention; the only principle that seemed to be agreed-upon by all parties, even to the extent that it hardly needed to be stated, was commercial freedom, the freedom of contract. The owner of the restaurant could do with his money what he wanted, and give to homophobic groups; his opponents could do with their money what they wanted, and eat elsewhere. Contractual freedom was the point of ideological agreement that created the terms of the debate for everyone.

But for anyone on the left, that is a desperately retrograde premise. It atomizes and commercializes the basis of communal action against a sick status quo. It rules out precisely the notion that some questions of value ought not be merely fiduciary, that they should be subjects of a more concerted and deeper debate on a political level. This is something the right today may understand better than the liberal left.

Given that liberalism is, and has to be, intolerant of intolerance, it might be both more consistent and more forthright for liberals to claim that hate speech — and let’s face it, what Phil said was not just an abstract statement of disapproval, it was nothing but revulsion and hatred — ought not enjoy social and legal sanction in the first place. The “marketplace of ideas” is a threadbare fiction: in a sphere of contending memes in which nothing is taken to be of greater or lesser inherent value, all that stands firm and invariant is the ideal of the marketplace itself, the locus of one-to-one contractual, commercial relations, that leaves out precisely solidarity, ethics, and robust politics.

In fact, our reified ideal of the marketplace omits the regulatory requirements necessary to the proper functioning of an actual marketplace: there are rules against false advertising and fraud in real markets, because those destroy the basis of commercial trust necessary for a market to work. But in the “marketplace of ideas”, we hear that the only remedy to bad speech is more speech. Even when the bad speech is of a sort that distorts, erodes, and ultimately destroys the liberal polity itself, we are told that the only thing to do is to close our pocketbooks or post to twitter. To behave this way is all too tolerant of intolerance. It is an idea of politics drained of all blood, but not drained of all import.

Its prevalence explains why we find ourselves inhabiting a dead politics whose carcass is being picked clean by sand fleas like Sarah Palin.

Neurath’s Boat and the Righteous Bubble

I’m going to begin this blog with a few posts on its purpose, nature, and intended tone. Here is one.

On the Internet, there are two cultures – even going back to the days of the BBSes, there always were. One is loud, vituperative, and denunciatory. The other is shocked by the first.

Here is a recent example of the second culture – a Wall Street Journal article describing yet another study explaining why we’re so rude on the internet (anonymity, it’s always anonymity) and how that harms our polity. This has become a commonplace.

I’m not so sure.

The article describing the study was more interesting than the study. The protagonist, or sacrificial victim, of the piece is a poster called “ER Doc”, who gets flamed for offering an informed opinion on a list of dog-bite incidents by pit bull terriers. The WSJ reporter takes a dim view of ER Doc’s interlocutors:

Then a childhood pal of Ms. Bristol piped up with this: “Take it from an ER doctor… In 15 years of doing this I have yet to see a golden retriever bite that had to go to the operating room or killed its target.”

That unleashed a torrent. One person demanded to see the doctor’s “scientific research.” Another accused him of not bothering to confirm whether his patients were actually bitten by pit bulls. Someone else suggested he should “venture out of the ER” to see what was really going on.

“It was ridiculous,” says Ms. Bristol[.]”

Hm. Frankly, most of those replies to ER Doc don’t even sound rude. They’re exactly the questions you’d ask if you were conducting any kind of academic inquiry into ER Doc’s conclusions. And that is precisely the style of inquiry held up as the ideal from which “internet rudeness” supposedly strays. Where’s your data? Do you have more than anecdotes? Do you even know the accepted definitions of terms (here, dog breeds)? Or have you not been listening, and expected to drop in and shut everyone up on the basis of a putatively impressive credential? That’s another way of being rude – both rude and paradigmatically irrational, when you’re arguing something incendiary (here, implying that some people’s pet dogs should be euthanized). I would expect such a response as a bare minimum, and it’s hard to see how it’s improper.

What we lack here is a good model of conversational expectation – virtually everyone who writes “incivility on the internet” articles would be horrified by even mild academic Q&A sessions. Every part of people’s claims are hashed over, often in raised voices. Academia is not a tea party, even when everyone is doing it properly and playing by the rules. The level of discourse at a tea party is not the model of reasoned discourse, nor how things are done when Rational People get together to Have Their Rational Discussions – those often get quite tense, and certainly ought to cut deeply into the muscle of what anyone says. There’s a troubling conflation of, on the one hand, tough questioning and passionate argument, which I think are not only fine but completely in keeping with the ideal of deliberative inquiry, and, on the other, verbal assault (threats, humiliations, vicious epithets, racism and misogyny and so on). I think most people, in practice, are pretty good at seeing the difference.

Except when the inquirer is after something we ourselves said – then it all feels pretty mean. Spinoza noted that in our fondness for our own opinions, we tend to identify them with our own selves, and when our opinions are attacked, we feel the attack bodily, as an attack on our own being. But that’s not how it is, and it’s precisely what a reasonable person, or at least a person trying to be reasonable, has to get past.

The claim “we are rude on the internet and we must stop doing that because we are fracturing into different universes of discourse and it is wrecking our democracy” – this is an easy claim to make, but I think it’s mostly false, definitely ahistorical, and ideological. The assumption that without calm amity, minds do not change is, I think, demonstrably untrue – I know that I’ve changed my mind both in amicable conversations and not-at-all amicable ones (bellyflopping in an argument in front of other people has a way of clarifying the mind). And we know that calm discussion has no special power to crack open and merge separated universes of discourse: as the Public Conversations Project‘s section on abortion found, long-term, calm, reasoned conversation over a divisive issue tended to re-assert social pressure for politeness, but it manifestly did not bring people’s opinions together or even open up common ground: opinions became even more polarized.

Johnathan Haidt’s book the Righteous Mind is one that echoes the Wall Street Journal piece above. He thinks the internet has brought a historical break in our “national conversation”, which is qualitatively worse now, and it’s because we each live in self-reinforcing, filtered bubbles of opinion. We hang out online with only the like-minded, we consume media that only echoes what we already think. That’s true, but it raises a question: has there really been a time when human opinion was not formed mostly by a process of selection bias? Was there ever a time when our political discourse was not noisy, noisome, and scurrilous? I think even casual acquaintance with our history shows that this is not just wrong but an absurd claim. (The names they called Jefferson!) I don’t think the level of political acrimony is unique even in American history, and saying that discourse is too divisive now is one that’s too easy to make when social subalterns have just started gaining their own voices. That’s one reason I think the Righteous Mind ended up being a deeply conservative book (in the end, it was blue-staters who were really guilty of living in a bubble).

That’s not to say it isn’t a complete waste of time to argue with people who are Wrong on the Internet. It usually is. But it’s not because they’re loud, and it’s definitely not because “minds never change.” You can change a mind when you start from somewhere close to where it already is, not from the far side of some massive gulf you have to yell to be heard over. And minds move gradually, inch-by-inch. Opinion change is a nonrandom walk – a series of twitches and stumbles, really. I’ve had my mind changed more, and more fundamentally, by interacting with people who are like-minded, but not perfectly like-minded. I share their basic assumptions, I easily assume their sincerity and good faith, but precisely because of this I do not need to be spoken to by them in the kindest terms. I check myself, I think more, I read more, and I take a step. Then another step. And those steps change the nature of the intellectual community around me – it repopulates with different “like-minded” people as my mind changes. After a time, I find I am in a quite different place, with quite different people, and I no longer share the same assumptions as the people with whom I began. In so doing, I sail past the implicit barrier of Davidson’s model of interpretive charity in Neurath’s boat.

(You’ll want to know what that last bit means. The philosopher Donald Davidson said that, in argument, you will often find things in your opponent’s position that seem unreasonable or foolish or unfounded to you; it is your duty to reconstruct your opponent’s argument into the strongest case that you can, and then try to disprove that; in so doing you avoid arguing against straw men. Yet it has been noted by others (José Medina and Naomi Scheman, for example) that Davidson’s model has a flaw: you may be wrong in your reconstruction, because what seems to you the strongest version of their argument will rest on your own background assumptions, which may be wrong – and your opponent may have better ones. “Neurath’s boat” is a metaphor by the philosopher Otto Neurath about language: you rebuild the boat while you’re already at sea, so you can’t just start over and rebuild it all at once, because you’ll sink, but you can do it if you do it one little piece at a time (you use temporary extra pieces to keep water from rushing in). After a while you have a completely new boat, even if you never lay up and rebuild the boat from scratch. See?)

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