- What are we arguing about this time?
- Sapir-Whorf politeness
- Phục Scunthorpe problems
- Neurodiversity and the public sphere
- What would a functional public sphere look like?
- Inclusive governance for speech acts
- Awaiting filing
“Freedom of speech.” “Political correctness”. “Cancel culture.” “Safe spaces”. “Woke police”. My current working theory to explain the function of these terms is that in contemporary usage they predominantly are a kind of natural by-product of humans encountering massively networked communication and trying to bring traditional mental models to bear on it, but they do not correspond to anything concrete; they are pure rhetorical moves. Upon first approximation “freedom of speech” looks like something that one person uses to accuse a second person has deprived them of it, but I think people want to mean more than that. If you expose virtually any common pre-existing western ideology to the realities of modern discourse its proponents will find themselves vexed, confused and eventually emit one of these words as a pain response.1
What free speech, for example, might mean in the classic public sphere of Habermas is relatively clear, I think. What it means in the era of micro-targeted filter bubbles might seem to be similarly clear, but only IMO to people who do not think about it. I cannot help but feel that even talking about “freedom of speech” in that context fails to cleave reality at the joints, playing into someone else’s tired rhetorical strategy.
The details of the terms themselves I don’t find particularly compelling or useful as a starting point to understand what is going on ten burns deep into a twitter beef, but because of the rhetorical environment, I am required regularly to opine about it, so here are some links. Some will inevitably fall into the trap of treating these concepts as well-defined in even adverse circumstances, for which I apologies in advance; it seems to be natural for humans to think of difficult subtle situations as righteous struggles against obvious maleficence.
So, back to our buzzwords. What are these things? Who has them? Will they give them back? Have any of these things gone mad? Is renaming things that sound bigoted reverse bigotry and if so, when? Whither enlightenment? Whence liberalism? Where thought police? Why public shaming? How riot? Wow trolling. Are you only saying that because you are in the pocket of Big Word? Are golliwogs banned? Is that a thing? Does it matter if so?
What are we arguing about this time?
Maybe I should ditch this page entirely and consider only public opinion dynamics?
A Letter on Justice and Open Debate kicked off a recent iteration of free speech discussion. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, reads it as ineffectual or possibly counterproductive posturing and dissects the issue into some useful categories, although I shy from endorsing his overall conclusion. Sean Carroll is not a fan of the Harper’s letter either. Oliver Traldi would like the argument for the entailments of speech consequences to be more inclusive.
Cutting closer to the quick, IMO, than any of the above. Lili Loofbourow analysed this propensity from the trenches in the way by suggesting we those who do not live on twitter all day are misunderstanding the mechanisms of infowar:
I get the longing—I even share it—but the naivete is annoying. Online pundits should know (and factor in) that social media as a “public square” where “good faith debate” happens is a thing of the past. Disagreement here happens through trolling, sea-lioning, ratios, dunks.
Does that lead to paranoid readings and meta-debates that seem totally batshit to onlookers who aren’t internet-poisoned? Yup! “All Lives Matter” sounds perfectly reasonable—as a text—unless you know the history of that discourse. (And you’ll sound pretty weird explaining it.)
“Why would you refuse to debate someone who’s simply saying that All Lives Matter?” is the kind of question an Enlightenment subject longing for a robust exchange of ideas might ask. Well, the reason is that most of us know, through bitter experience, that it’s a waste of time.
It wouldn’t be a true exchange. We know by now what “All Lives Matter” signals and that what it signals is orthogonal to what it says. Your fluency in this garbage means you take shortcuts: you don’t have to refute the text to leap to the subtext, which is the real issue.
To outsiders, that leap will look nuts. That’s obviously what all the coded Nazi shit is for and about—the 14 words, the numbers, the OK hand sign that both is and isn’t a white power sign, the Boogaloo junk. They’re all ways to divorce surface meaning from intentional subtext.
Yes, this is bad for discourse! Yes, it inhibits intellectual exchange! Yes, it makes productive dissensus almost impossible. But that’s not because of “cancel culture” or “illiberalism”. It’s because in this discourse environment, good faith engagement is actually maladaptive.
It’s possible and likely that knowledge gaps between people who are online too much and folks who aren’t are making things worse. If Atwood (or whoever) isn’t online much, she might be shocked to see people accuse a nice-looking boy in a Hawaiian shirt of wanting a 2nd civil war.
It might indeed look like cancel culture gone mad. He’s just standing there! Civilly! Offering support to Black Lives Matter protesters, of all things! Can’t we all, whatever our disagreements, come together in support of a good cause?
It’s also possible that people who’ve learned to read through stuff (to whatever bummer of a subtext we’re used to finding there) sometimes overdo it. Some of us might reflexively ignore the actual text—fast-forwarding to the shitty point we “know” is coming even if it isn’t
“Free speech defender,” for ex, will mean something different to an idealist than it will to someone who watched reddit hordes viciously defend revenge porn and sites like
r/Jewmericawhile people whose pictures got posted there begged for help.
Free speech! they were told.
Anyway. Sure, good-faith debate would be nice. Instead, the internet pressure-cooked rhetoric. Again: people can watch the same argument be conducted a million times in slightly different ways, and that’s interesting, and a blessing, and a curse
It produced a kind of argumentative hyperliteracy. If you can predict every step of a controversy (including the backlash), it makes perfect sense to meta-argue instead—over what X really means, or implies, or what, down a road we know well, it confirms.
This isn’t great. People talk past each other, assume bad faith. But it’s not the fault of “illiberalism” that good faith is in short supply. And if that’s where your analysis begins, I can’t actually tell whether you’re naive or trolling. And I’m no longer sure which is worse.
There is a lot going on in this analysis and I want to reframe it in terms of what it crystallised for me. One implication for me is “In these kind of debates, there is a red queen problem. We are all constantly getting onboarded by being used as cannon-fodder on someone else’s rhetorical battlefield”. This leads me to wonder: Do we even need any malice for this effect to arise? Obviously there is some out there, but it is even necessary? Is the mechanism of mass communication itself sufficient, at least as we currently structure it? Take any blow-up here (here’s one, PAX being raped to sleep by dickwolves), which is about some people being cross at one another in the video games world, in which the author thinks the other side is being malicious. Maybe they are, collectively, in that author’s framing. But it is easy to imagine more than that, that no-one individually could be behaving with anything but the best of intent and everything would still be terrible. I mean, more plausibly, most participants are behaving with the usual human mix of thoughtlessness, laziness, obstreperousness and incompetence, and mediocre intentions, and maybe there are a couple of trolls. But whatever, I think it is possible that even the best intentions and the best competence would not save this kind of epiphenomenon from arising, that (to a degree) the malice of sides does not depend upon malice of individuals.
Rather the group dynamics of asking people to be nice to one another, or productive just don’t scale up in that way. We have mental models based around our success with resolving disputes between peers and kin, and it just does not even make sense in the absence of the shared understanding represented by the group. Maybe there is no response to two people feeling hurt in this context that leads to them sorting it out, now that hundreds of bystanders are invested in it in their own ways. Maybe when 500, or 50,000 individual are invested, the notion of coming to a mutual personal understanding is simply ill-posed, at least on the scale of a human lifetime. Does that seem plausible?
This is a kind of Dunbar number argument for social cohesion. We assume that for humans, trust-building and group-coordinate via conversation and mutual accommodation between \(N\) individuals takes a certain amount of time, say \(N\times x\), and that when you run out of free hours in the day, the wheels fall off. Instead two more subgroups will form instead, and then per default explain their failure to coordinate with the other group in terms of the other group being arsehats. That is, I am supposing that the best case dynamic under a naïve social structure might still be acrimony. Throw in a few agents provocateur, bona fide arsehats and sociopaths and things could be worse.
If we return to Loofbourow’s analysis again, about weaponised debate, might have a yet more negative take of what free speech might be in the ill-understood big-tent of technologically-mediate discourse: A term that, ince invoked, makes an awkward conversation into one with sides and especially at least one losing side.
Here is a pop summary, Online Trolls Also Jerks in Real Life: Aarhus University Study:
“We found that people are not more hostile online than offline; that hostile individuals do not preferentially select into online (vs. offline) political discussions; and that people do not over-perceive hostility in online messages,” the researchers wrote. “We did find some evidence for another selection effect: Non-hostile individuals select out from all, hostile as well as non-hostile, online political discussions.”
Disclaimer: I have not read their methodology. But the summary suggests an alternative effect: that online discussions feel hostile because only hostile people hang around to participate in them.
A more invective-flavoured analysis is Venkatesh Rao’s internet of beefs:
Conflict on the IoB is not governed by any sort of grand strategy, or even particularly governed by ideological doctrines. It is an unflattened Hobbesian honor-society conflict with a feudal structure, at the heart of which is an involuntarily anonymous, fungible, angry figure desperate to be seen as significant: the mook.
The semantic structure of the Internet of Beefs is shaped by high-profile beefs between charismatic celebrity knights loosely affiliated with various citadel-like strongholds peopled by opt-in armies of mooks. The vast majority of the energy of the conflict lies in interchangeable mooks facing off against each other, loosely along lines indicated by the knights they follow, in innumerable battles that play out every minute across the IoB.
Almost none of these battles matter individually. Most mook-on-mook contests are witnessed, for the most part, only by a few friends and algorithms, […] In aggregate though, they matter. A lot. They are the raison d’être of the IoB.
The standard pattern of conflict on the IoB is depressingly predictable. A mook takes note of a casus belli in the news cycle (often created or co-opted by a knight, and referred to on the IoB as the outrage cycle), and heads over to their favorite multiplayer online battle arena (Twitter being the most important MOBA) to join known mook allies to fight stereotypically familiar but often unknown interchangeable mook foes. They come prepared either to melee within the core, or skirmish on the periphery, either rallying around the knights riding under known beef-only banners, or adventuring by themselves in unflagged, unheralded side battles.
Adam Elkus, Speedrunning Through The Language-Game:
Make an outrageous and frivolous statement (or amplify one), and then turn the tables on the people who react to it. Point it out and you may encounter outright denial or convoluted hand-waving. Inevitably, the person in the weakest position is he or she that “believes in words”. It is common for people to say insane things simply for attention (its just clickbait!), or justify them by referring to layers of meta-positioning that renders ambiguous what they actually believe (it’s signaling, its opening the Overton Window, etc). That is, assuming that “belief” is a meaningful category at all in an era of advertising and PR. And often it is less sinister than merely bizarre and absurd.
Another tendency of interest was explained neatly by Tanner Greer, for the particularly important case of opinion leaders and pundits and how they are by definition especially likely to be detached from typical experience. Our think pieces about how the world works are likely to come from pundits with a public profile, that being what a public profile is, and the world inhabited by such people is different than the world that the majority inhabit. We are getting our models of the world from people in a special bubble of experiential bias.
This is the first difficulty that comes with a growing follower count on twitter. As the count grows, the number of different communities you are projecting to grows as well. Soon, large numbers of people start to follow because they see you as a representative of a certain strain of thought, or as a key voice in a particular conversation they care about. They are not sympathetic to your ideas or even merely intellectually interested in them; instead they follow you to keep tabs on what you and people like you are saying. Many actually despise you and your ideas to their core (in twitterese, they are a “hate follow”).
My friend Matthew Stinson described this shift as that point where “interactions stop being inquisitive and start getting accusatory. “Points for my side-ism” becomes a real thing.” Twitter’s retweet mechanism makes this problem far worse. All one needs is a snarky RT for these people to take what a thought they dislike and BOOM!, project it into communities it was never intended for as the perfect example of what they all should be hating at that moment.
Thus if you have a large follower account your experience on twitter goes like this: you share a thought optimized for Group X. Members of Group Y, Group Z, and Group V automatically start sharing it as the textbook example of why Group X deserves crucifixion.
Other questions are: Is creating a petition to have someone’s professional recognition revoked censorship? Is publish shaming free speech? Is de-platforming censorship? Is presenting both sides neutral? Is Enlightenment liberalism a coherent and desirable thing?
As far as I am concerned the answer to all of those is clearly I need more context please, which is not a fun or useful answer. Introducing the terminology of right to free speech (or the justness of cancellation) does not simply matters and allow us to analyse things more clearly in public discourse in the age of sound-bytes, trolling and bots.
Possibly a question about how to optimise discussion would be more useful. Looking at models of emergent behaviour under certain argument dynamics could be useful, and deciding what type of public discourse system we would all buy in to in order to optimise for correctness, or innovativeness, or robustness, or emotional safety or something.
Case study: this recent blog post on petitioners trying to remove professional honours from Steven Pinker for saying some stuff, which instantly demonstrated to me power of online discussion to buzz-saw that your hand off if touch it. First, mostly we agreed that we all like Enlightenment virtues, whatever they are, then we accused everyone else of not adhering to said virtues in our interpretation, then we all took a turn fulminating publicly about the other side, and misunderstanding strategically/performatively/lazily. This is not, by far, the worst example of this dynamic, it is just that this is taking place in a corner of the internet beloved of thoughtful nerds who one would hope can do good debate if anyone can. Lesson: the internet seems not to provide the right structure for fruitful debate in even favourable circumstances.
In this gumbo of weaponized rhetoric and radicalization… what?
At what scales can we address free speech etc? TBD. In traditional media, probably we historically had an idea how “speech” might be “free”.
The concepts that make sense for the social media moshpit are still evolving.
Does inclusive language increase inclusion? The most salient case study in this for me is gender-inclusive language and there are some further musings there, although they are not particularly deep either.
I would be mildly surprised if using gender-neutral job description had in itself a large effect on the friendliness of a job for a person of a given gender, because I spent a long time dismissing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as an undergraduate. However, I could be wrong; see Sczesny, Formanowicz, and Moser (2016) for a review of research in this area.2
But maybe language-to-change-individual-behaviour directly is not the aim, language-to-change-organisational-behaviour is. Perhaps using gender inclusive language, as a slightly tedious thing to orchestrate, is an effective signal of institutional commitment to non-discrimination. That is certainly why I attempt to use inclusive language, even though I personally sceptical that this small change in itself will do anything to my own latent sexism. If that is table stakes for more substantive action, it does not seem to me personally unaffordable.
Phục Scunthorpe problems
How could we lubricate discourse? How about with more computers? Scunthorpe problems are a stylised example of the problem of discourse moderation at large, especially automatic moderation.
Neurodiversity and the public sphere
To my meagre understanding, the point of trigger warnings it to help Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers manage their symptoms. But providing trigger warnings is also a hot-button issue about which the internet is reliably mad. I am definitely not across it why it is a hot button issue, although I get the sense that the debate is one of those sprawling internet tar pits that I should relish being able to be ignorant of while I can.
Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder argue, based on (Jones, Bellet, and McNally 2020), that evidence does not support the hypothesis that trigger warnings reduce trauma in PTSD sufferers in particular, nor people in general, and so are probably not helpful in educational context. See also Colleen Flaherty, New study says trigger warnings are useless. Does that mean they should be abandoned? which summarises (Sanson, Strange, and Garry 2019). Because this is psychological research with all the degrees of freedom, sampling biases and ethical constraints that implies, as pointed out by Cosma Shalizi, perhaps this is weak evidence.
I am not quite clear what the divide is supposed to be between Trigger warnings and the classic content warnings as seen in workaday media classification systems. It doesn’t seem controversial that we provide parental guidance warnings to manage children’s access to content that society classifies as inappropriate to children. It does not seem that much of a stretch to regard it as compassionate to enable individual adults to likewise to likewise manage a burden psychologically difficult content for themselves, regardless of whether it is helpful or not. Once again, I presume that the internet would not be mad if the crux of the argument were anything so simple.
Side question: does classic content classification help children in any verifiable sense?
What would a functional public sphere look like?
There are a few projects like this about, attempting to be the liberal discourse they wish to see in the world:
Persuasion is a publication and community for everyone who shares three basic convictions:
- We seek to build a free society in which all individuals get to pursue a meaningful life irrespective of who they are.
- We believe in the importance of the social practice of persuasion, and are determined to defend free speech and free inquiry against all its enemies.
- We seek to persuade, rather than to mock or troll, those who disagree with us.
In the past years, the political and intellectual energy has been with illiberal movements. Too often, the advocates of free speech and free institutions have been passive, even fatalistic. It is high time for those of us who believe in these enduring ideals to stand up for our convictions.
Or, more exotic for me, Open Source Defense — “100% gun rights, 0% culture war”.
Public discourse is not necessarily fun
An interesting inroad into this is Tressie Mcmillan Cottom interview transcript:
One of the things I like to say to people is that we think that broadening access in any realm — we do this with everything, by the way. It’s such an American way to approach the world — we think that broadening access will broaden access on the terms of the people who have benefited from it being narrowed, which is just so counterintuitive.
Broadening access doesn’t mean that everybody has the experience that I, privileged person, had in the discourse. Broadening it means that we are all equally uncomfortable, right? That’s actually what pluralism and plurality is. It isn’t that everybody is going to come in and have the same comforts that privilege and exclusion had extended to a small group of people. It’s that now everybody sits at the table, and nobody knows the exact right thing to say about the other people.
Well, that’s fair. That means we all now have to be thoughtful. We all have to consider, oh, wait a minute. Is that what we say in this room? We all have to reconsider what the norms are, and that was the promise of like expanding the discourse, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten.
TODO: Touch upon: context of harmful words.
You don’t want to discuss a rape without giving sexual abuse survivors the option to tap out to aggravate trauma.
You don’t want to discuss vomiting in front of one of my sympathetic vomiting friends (unless you want a lap full of vomit).
Too much tweeting
GAMESTONK and you are manipulating the stock market.
If I play my massive sound system outside your house I probably want to check that it’s OK with you.
At the same time, the words that are harmful in one context are necessary in another.
In the examples are above there are some easy cases to detect where talking about the problem is obviously a great idea; A sexual abuse survivor needs to represent their experiences to a counselor or a court of justice. My vomity-friend might need to talk to a doctor about that some times. I am pleased to be able to mention various stocks without giving financial advice. If no-one ever plays a sound system, we will never get to dance. In these contexts the harm of the harmful speech is reduced, or balanced by a benefit that makes the harm worth it.
OK, but the above contexts are easy. In a room full of friends we can easy work out who is queasy. Abuse survivors can communicate their needs to trusted, ideally.
What about when the room has 8 billion people in it?
Management of the discourse commons
My big takeaway from the patterns Ostrom identified is that sustainably managing the commons requires a high degree of context among participants. Most failure outcomes can be traced back to context collapse. This is true whether you’re an open source project or someone with a large Twitter following.
Ostrom paints an eerily accurate picture of the problems we see today:
…no one communicates, everyone acts independently, no attention is paid to the effects of one’s actions, and the costs of trying to change the structure of the situation are high
Whereas in the sustainable, “smaller-scale” CPRs she looked at,
…individuals repeatedly communicate and interact with one another…[When individuals] have developed shared norms and patterns of reciprocity, they possess social capital with which they can build institutional arrangements for resolving CPR dilemmas.
Ostrom’s framework is more about managing physical resources like trees and water and stuff. But we can maybe imagine casting civil discourse as a metaphorical resource and then ask ourselves: are we doing any of the things that science suggests we need to do to manage it?
Inclusive governance for speech acts
It gets much harder when the problem is write large. What may we say about the speech of thousands of people we will never meet or consult about what it is harmful for them to say to audiences that they may never consult?
Let us pick an innocuous case, the Inclusive Naming Initiative. This is a small-stakes example, about which I personally have no strong feelings (I confess to mild sceptical feelings about the process, which I will expand upon), which has the great virtue of documenting their own shortcomings. About that I do have strong feelings: which is rare, and brave and should be celebrated. They maintain a denylist of words that are not allowed in software, upon pain of being excluded from various software distributions and thus failing to achieve their project goals.3
TBD. I am interested in the kind of example this represents. I should explain what the document actually does, but I’m just dummping some notes for later.
- Represents a concession to people who might reasonably feel they have been offered few concessions
- Documents the various ways that language can be hurtful, which TBH had some things in that had never occurred to me before.
- High transparency; e.g. openly explains that this is a contingent, contextual and changing list designed to accommodate the cultural norms of a particular Anglophone community.
- the vast majority of the stakeholders on either side of this issue had no say in the decisions made for them.
- The price is born predominantly by small volunteer community groups even though it was decided largely by large corporations.
- Despite pro #3, makes no accommodation for cultures other than its particular target audience.
The pair of pro and con #3 is a beautiful example.
The underlying assumption of the whitelist/blacklist metaphor is that white = good and black = bad. Because colors in and of themselves have no predetermined meaning, any meaning we assign to them is cultural: for example, the color red in many Southeast Asian countries is lucky, and is often associated with events like marriages, whereas the color white carries the same connotations in many European countries. In the case of whitelist/blacklist, the terms originate in the publishing industry—one dominated by the USA and England, two countries which participated in slavery and which grapple with their racist legacies to this day.
They have shown their working here; they reassure me that I could not have deduced the badness of this word from its history or usage if I am not immersed in the history of the UK or the US. To be honest, I am pretty sure that most of the anglophone world has used black in a similar way.
Also, it is possible that people have real and pressing distress cause by wanton use of the word blacklist, sufficient that it is reasonable to ask that a concession is made by global develop communities for their benefit.
There is no divinely appointed correct way of weighing up the relative costs and benefits to the affected communities here. I certainly do not consider myself qualified to measure the relative harm. I have no skin in that game.
It is possible to imagine that if the communities who did have skin in this game were in communication with one another, they might come to an agreement about mutual concession that they would make to each other’s sensibilities, perhaps compromises going forward, and maybe to reciprocate on future matters of interest. And so the process of coalition building would go on.
But there is no channel of communication here, no chance for mutual consent, no process to solicit consent. Not between hundreds of thousands of stakeholders who are not in touch with most of the other participants. The experience for the vast majority of people involved in this (admittedly low stakes) battle is ultimately one of appealing to an external authority to pick a winner in the governance of the shared discourse commons. I do not know how to improve this process, but it feels unsatisfactory.
More morsels? Here are some think-pieces.
Elizabeth Harman, on academic freedom, argues that racist research must be named and allowed:
I do want to make an important concession. Should we subject our norms of what counts as research misconduct to ongoing scrutiny? Absolutely. Should that ongoing scrutiny take our society’s pervasive racism into account? Yes. But academic freedom must continue to protect much research that is immoral in one or another way. This immorality needs to be recognized and discussed, but not punished.
Freddie deBoer, Planet of Cops declaims more poetically thank usual on teh Cansel Culture. In between the invective there is an interesting attempt to tackle process, rather than intention or outcome, which we do have a hard time disentangling in online arguments about who is being sanctimonious and who is being a troll. This process-based argument is prominent in many pundits, and at this point we have wandered perhaps into community governance.
Ben Burgis, discusses symbolic versus substantive battles. His concerned that the coalitions formed by arguing over speech might be the wrong ones to enact change that the speech seems to concern.
Don’t mistake the makings of a festival for a coalition with meaningful power.
Here are yet more.
- Scholar’s stage on twitter dynamics
- Contrapoints on canceling
- Tim Sommers, This Title Only Appears to Convey Information on some issues in posturing around rights and marginalisation
- Scott Aaronson, Quantum Dominance, Hegemony, and Superiority on a rage toxoplasmic recent controversy in naming things.
- Julia Galef’s Free speech roundup.
- Robin Hanson’s throwaway line about costing free speech.
I would like to have a link on the difficulties of coordinating on justice via mob rule, public shaming and petitions, wherein we look at the coordination problems here, and separate the problem of identifying injustice/inefficiency/existential threat, and the problem of calibrating a political response. Sideline in altruistic punishment and feedback loops. TBD.
I am increasingly sympathetic to the idea that most arguments that I find myself in, in the public sphere, are unresolvable. The reason is this: If any given argument were resolvable it would likely have resolved itself by the time I got there, so it would follow that I would be unlikely to find myself in it, wandering randomly around on the internet. The arguments that dominate are ones that have sufficient memetic force to keep everyone involved perpetually stoking the flames so that they are still hot by the time I arrive.↩︎
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, BTW, is better described as a family of hypotheses, on the theme of ”how the language we use affects our ability to think things.” It is dual to Lexical hypothesis, which supposes that language adapts to the kind of things that we think, i.e. same kind of thing with the direction of causation reversed. Neither is in much scientific favour.↩︎
Blacklist is denylisted.↩︎