- What are we arguing about this time?
- Free as in beer
- Sapir-Whorf politeness
- Phục Scunthorpe problems
- Neurodiversity and the public sphere
- Metaphor for communicative norms
- What would a functional public sphere look like?
- Context collapse
“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 necessarily correspond to anything concrete; they are invasive argument. 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 it 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 this phrase 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 as you are gathering about the death bed of your enfeebled grandmother is clearly a different thing and probably also clear. 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, and because of that lack of clean efficiency, plays a role only in someone else’s tired rhetorical strategy.
The semantics of free speech I thus 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 we inhabit, 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 apologise 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 one 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’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?
- Yishan on Twitter: “The best antidote to bad ideas is not to censor them, but to allow debate and better ideas.” How naive.
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.
- ‘I’m Overdue for a Discussion About My Role in Inspiring ‘Edgelord’ Shit’: A Conversation with Steve Albini
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.
Free as in beer
TODO: Observe that in the attention economy, demanding freedom of speech might indeed the same as demanding in the real economy, which is to say, probably not the optimal price. We only have so much attention to go around, and we do not want it flooded with the spam of contextless internet drive-bys.
See cheap talk.
Phục Scunthorpe problems
How could we lubricate discourse? Banning harmful stuff? Scunthorpe problems are a stylised example of the problem of discourse moderation at large, especially automatic moderation.
Algospeak refers to code words or turns of phrase users have adopted in an effort to create a brand-safe lexicon that will avoid getting their posts removed or down-ranked by content moderation systems. For instance, in many online videos, it’s common to say “unalive” rather than “dead,” “SA” instead of “sexual assault,” or “spicy eggplant” instead of “vibrator”.…
When the pandemic broke out, people on TikTok and other apps began referring to it as the “Backstreet Boys reunion tour” or calling it the “panini” or “panda express” as platforms down-ranked videos mentioning the pandemic by name in an effort to combat misinformation. When young people began to discuss struggling with mental health, they talked about “becoming unalive” in order to have frank conversations about suicide without algorithmic punishment. Sex workers, who have long been censored by moderation systems, refer to themselves on TikTok as “accountants” and use the corn emoji as a substitute for the word “porn”. …
Euphemisms are especially common in radicalized or harmful communities. Pro-anorexia eating disorder communities have long adopted variations on moderated words to evade restrictions. One paper from the School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology found that the complexity of such variants even increased over time. Last year, anti-vaccine groups on Facebook began changing their names to “dance party” or “dinner party” and anti-vaccine influencers on Instagram used similar code words, referring to vaccinated people as “swimmers”.
Adam Elkus, Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords:
Once upon a time — just a few years ago, actually — it was not uncommon to see headlines about prominent scientists, tech executives, and engineers warning portentously that the revolt of the robots was nigh. The mechanism varied, but the result was always the same: Uncontrollable machine self-improvement would one day overcome humanity. A dismal fate awaited us. We would be lucky to be domesticated as pets kept around for the amusement of superior entities, who could kill us all as easily as we exterminate pests.
Today we fear a different technological threat, one that centers not on machines but other humans. We see ourselves as imperiled by the terrifying social influence unleashed by the Internet in general and social media in particular. We hear warnings that nothing less than our collective ability to perceive reality is at stake, and that if we do not take corrective action we will lose our freedoms and way of life.
Neurodiversity and the public sphere
Another invasive argument 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).
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 (only suitable for minors accompanied by an adult, etc). 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?
Metaphor for communicative norms
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”.
We’ve got plenty of speech. We’ve got precious little public agreement on basic facts. The reign of massive amounts of unregulated free speech has not led to democracy, it’s led to a world of “alternate facts”.
If we want free speech that contributes to a marketplace of ideas then, despite the risks it poses to expressive autonomy and the frightening question of exactly who is going to do the regulating, we’ve got to find ways to regulate it.
Management of the discourse commons
A powerful idea that I want to return to.
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?
I like this because it slices up the debate in a more productive way. The least thoughtful of free speech proponents often seem to be arguing for a discourse commons that is everywhere ungoverned and tragic. But we know that this insane for normal commons resources. Sustainable commons management happens through institutions. They can be bottom-up or top down, they can be codified laws or they can be property lights or something informal and trust-driven. But when institutions are missing, commons management does not work, and if the only way I can read my news feed is by scrolling through troll flamewars then I can’t read the news.
In this sense arguing for “free” speech is ill-defined. Instead we might need to solve for a different criterion.
On what terms am I prepared to commit the constrained resource of my attention to a community discourse? How many “die in a fire faggot” attacks am I prepared to weather to comment on a news story? What credentials am I prepared to show to earn someone else’s attention?
As with other commons management institutions, we can imagine that this is a contextual thing. We can have different norms inside communities, inside schools, inside workplaces…
Crucially there is no connection between the state (say) declaring some speech illegal, and an individual community deciding that it is not appropriate inside this community.
I’m sure I can come back and make this point more compactly somehow. TBC.
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.2
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; 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. 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, 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.
- Understanding Context Collapse Can Mean a More Fulfilling Online Life
- Online Identity - Is Your Social Media Persona Real?
- “It’s Not Cancel Culture—It’s A Platform Failure.”
- Twitter, the Intimacy Machine - The Raven Magazine
I think I had heard this term before but it began to feel newly relevant after I encountered this Tressie Mcmillan Cottom interview:
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.
Connection to cheap talk.
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 where talking about the thing 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 communication is not harmful, or the harm is balanced by a benefit.
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. You can ask your neighbours about the sound system, and so forth.
What about when the room has 8 billion people in it? What about a room which usually has your friends in but sometimes has millions of people in? Is Twitter designed to stoke outrage by being precisely that?.
Another case study concept with a contentious, hot-button history.
Lilienfeld (2017) (crib notes) argues that there is not much empirical basis for any consistent natural category of action being microaggressive. People are obviously bigoted and prejudiced and thoughtless, all the time. The argument not about that, but rather
- The class of thing that are microaggressions is not really well-defined
- There is not compelling evidence that labelling and treating bad interactions as microaggressions is a helpful intervention for anyone
That is not a reason to say that we cannot use the concept, if we wish. In this case though, we should, rather, bear in mind that it is a purely moralistic argument to be made about communication styles, rather than a natural category of things in the world.
More aggressively, Nagai (2017) argues that microaggression research is pseudo-science (which is a much stronger claim). Monnica T Williams by contrast defends the microaggression field fairly comprehensively.
I argue they could all be correct; the stances that all these researchers publicly defend have surprisingly small overlap. People with stances that I might characterise as “microaggression-skeptical” usually give examples of cases of behaviours being classed as microaggressive which are extremely specific and essentially impossible for the purported aggressor to know. People more “microaggression-supportive” give relatable examples of casual bigotry which would clearly be burdensome to experience. Once you have read all the above references, here are some arguments for the “it is complicated and subtle” hypothesis:
Conor Friedersdorf, argues
Many acknowledge that there are minor slights that do cumulative harm, but believe there are better ways to address them. The scores of emails I’ve received in response to the article include people on both sides of the larger debate on whether “microaggressions” are a sound or unsound framework. Its defenders often fail to realize how many of its critics share their desired ends, if not their preferred means.
Amitai Etzioni, Don’t Sweat the Microaggressions
Fine, some activities are mean, and some are not, and people do not agree over which, and do not agree over the motives of the participants in the activity. It probably comes down to context. It feels like a better discussion to have would be over the mechanisms and social structures which would lead to everyone having a better time. How can we get to a less mean world?
More morsels? Here are some think-pieces.
Jonathan Haidt stuff. I was not especially taken with his previous models of morals, but his diagnoses of social media are interesting. His solutions need some polish IMO.
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.
Here are yet more.
- Scholar’s stage on twitter dynamics
- 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, 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.
Geoff Shullenberger, The Guild and the Grifters
The “grifter” accusation hints at a crucial backdrop of these ongoing ideological battles: the dismal and worsening career paths in both academe and journalism, both of which have become increasingly precarious industries in recent decades. As the aspirants and incumbents in these fields confront waning prospects, it is not surprising to see them organize informal guilds dedicated to protecting their interests. This, in any case, is one way to understand the tendency of journalists and academics on Twitter to line up in lock step behind certain orthodoxies and denounce dissenters as “grifters” and worse.
These sorts of collective action might be understood to proceed from rational self-interest. The enforcement of ideological shibboleths serves as a form of gatekeeping that limits the pool of competitors for limited positions. As skeptics of the notion of “cancel culture” often observe, the supposedly “canceled” often seem to have had no trouble reaching large audiences. But what if the real aim is to prevent the adherents of some views from having jobs in certain professions, and thereby to free up a few positions in the relevant industries? By that measure, cancelation has enjoyed some small success. The accusation of “grift” attempts to reinforce the guild’s monopoly by reminding us that those excluded from it lack the patina of institutional legitimacy.
The problem is that the expulsion of dissenters also accelerates the decline in stature of the legacy institutions themselves, which look less and less like neutral arbiters of truth and more and more like another set of self-interested competitors. This process is self-reinforcing: As establishment insiders are forced to compete with upstarts and outsiders, they also come to resemble them. The grifter accusation, then, is a convenient way to avoid asking why those who remain in legacy organizations have lost the trust of the public.
Likewise, assertions from academics and journalists that the University of Austin is a “grift” distract from a more concerning question: Even if it is a scam—Trump University redux, as some have alleged—how much would that set it apart from much of what occurs in the more respectable realms of higher education? Many critiqued the first degree to be offered at UATX, an “Entrepreneurship and Leadership M.A”.But if that sounds vague and slapdash, it is of a piece with an array of overpriced master’s degrees of dubious value, cash cows that keep the nation’s prestigious universities in business. * The silence is deafening
Good articulation off a point that we seem to find challenging to remember:
Imagine you’re at a dinner party, and you’re getting into a heated argument. As you start yelling, the other people quickly hush their voices and start glaring at you. None of the onlookers have to take further action—it’s clear from their facial expressions that you’re being a jerk. In digital conversations, giving feedback requires more conscious effort. Silence is the default. Participants only get feedback from people who join the fray. They receive no signal about how the silent onlookers perceive their dialogue. In fact, they don’t receive much signal that onlookers observed the conversation at all. As a result, the feedback you do receive in digital conversations is more polarized, because the only people who will engage are those who are willing to take that extra step and bear that cost of wading into a messy conversation.
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.↩︎
Blacklist is denylisted.↩︎