A place for new ideas to settle.

07 January 2015

Rhetorical imperialism

This post is a partial follow-up to: But first, you've got to get MAD!, Atheism doesn't mean you're smart, and Diagnosis of an overwhelming fear pt. 2


My friend Asher has a new post about dealing with bigotry in online spaces. It's enough to get me up and writing on this theme again, after several forays in the recent past (see above). Because I'm never in complete political-ideological agreement with anyone I know at any given time, at least on this blog, let's start with what I do agree with:
I actually used to argue with bigots, to engage with them rationally, and to try to convince them. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time and effort trying to convince random dudes on the Internet that no, my sexuality was not a mental illness, and that no, there actually is no scientific basis for an innate intelligence difference across racial groups. In every instance, I had all the evidence, but they had all the stubbornness. In every instance, they forced me into retreat and became the self-proclaimed winners of the debate. I have gradually stopped bothering with these kinds of dudes, partly out of exhaustion, and partly out of a reluctance to grant their arguments any manner of legitimacy. If you publicly engage in a debate with someone over whether the Earth is flat, you give the impression that the Flat Earth side actually has some weight, that it is actually worth considering, and that it may even be supported by enough evidence to make it a reasonable counterargument to a conclusion reached through thousands of years of scientific inquiry. I am tired of trying to convince Flat Earthers, and I am tired of trying to convince their pseudoscientist counterparts in areas of race, gender, and sexuality.
This is very much a common opinion among science writers and bloggers: The Skeptic's Dictionary calls it pseudosymmetry of scientific opinion, and Chris Mooney wrote in Discover magazine that this is how pseudoscientists and cranks "hijack reality." And it's definitely appropriate to consider this effect in debates on scientific facts. For example, in the extreme case of someone who claims the Earth is flat (or hollow, or that we're inside the hollow earth), we can hit them with a mountain of evidence that points away from that claim, and towards the claim that the Earth is round. Short of severe epistemological differences ("I know the earth is flat because spirit beings from XII-vibrational Venus told me so!") it's merely (ha) a matter of comparing the evidence.

But here's the first quibble. The only 100% accurate claim about physical reality is [symbol that represents the whole of physical reality], so one goes off the rails a bit if one claims that, e.g., "flat earth theory is utterly absurd, obviously the earth is a sphere, that's just science." A spherical Earth is less wrong than a flat earth, but the Earth isn't a perfect sphere: it's sort of bulgy. One of the fascinating and useful takeaways from the presentation on "Faith and Science" (full write-up forthcoming) was that religions tend to overcommit to scientific claims, which, as the claims are refined or discarded in light of more/better evidence, tends to make said religions look outdated and stupid. Keep this point in mind; I'll return to it later.

Asher continues:
There are a lot of reasonable objections to this resignation on my part. Some may point out that [...] The point isn’t necessarily to convince [the other side], but to offer a substantial and visible counterweight to their prejudiced ravings, to signal to bystanders: “These bigoted ideas aren’t reasonable, and plenty of people disagree with them.”
Indeed, in public fora where interested but non-committed bystanders exist, one might have a productive debate, even if there's an extremely low likelihood of changing the mind of one's interlocutor (or indeed one's own mind being changed). This is why, for example, the Campus Christian Fellowship and other interested parties jump at the chance to engage Brother Jed "BroJed" Smock when he comes around to WWU every spring.
Given that Jed has been doing his fire-and-brimstone (and real-life-cartoon-character) thing for decades now, no amount of earnest pleading by Jesus-loving undergraduates is going to sway him, but onlookers might realize that one version of Christianity seems much better than the other. Indeed, some of the more savvy CCFers engage bystanders directly, apologizing for Jed's behavior and offering to explain what Christ is really about—at the next CCF meeting. I have to give them credit, it's a smart move.

Online spaces are much different though. There's no guarantee that third-parties are listening, and in fact, this is rather unlikely in most spaces. Facebook readers are usually friends with one poster or another. Forums or websites are often already dedicated to one side or another. I agree with Asher that there's not much point arguing with, say, a random RedPiller who barges in to a Facebook group about feminism: the audience is almost entirely on one side, they're already against him. So it's a waste of emotional energy. Same with leading a brave one-poster crusade into r/TheRedPill trying to convert them all to liberal feminism, they're all against that. Sisyphus himself would shake his head and tell you it just ain't worth it. On this point, Asher concludes:
The solution that a lot of people have arrived at is simply blocking bigots from their forums and social media groups. This entails a recognition that, while we can’t pretend that racists and misogynists don’t exist, we ought to be able to build and protect some spaces where they can’t spout their drivel. We ought to be able to build and protect spaces in which certain prejudiced sentiments cannot be expressed. We ought to be able to build and protect spaces in which marginalized people feel safe and comfortable. We do not owe bigots platforms.
Sure. I'm fine with "house rules" like this, in the context of political spaces. Everyone needs a little peace and quiet now and again.


Now here's the part I don't really agree with:
If the overwhelming majority of people in a particular community agree that transphobic speech ought to be rejected, they have every right to prohibit and suppress that kind of speech.
When a community (or an "overwhelming majority" in the community) decides to ban a category of speech, that's cause for concern. Not on free-speech grounds per se; though that's an issue that might arise. Rather, the problem comes from the nature of categories as conceptualized by humans: categories are fuzzy. Humans tend to invest categories with a central prototype, against which every candidate for membership in the category is compared.

As a canonical example, those of us who grew up in northern-latitude cultures might have a songbird (say, a robin or a sparrow) as the prototype for the category «bird», and then would describe a noncentral example (say, an emu) as "technically a bird" or "sort of like a bird" if you saw one without context. Certainly if asked to draw a bird, a European or American child doesn't usually tend to draw emus.

It's the same with, say, «transphobia». There's a prototype for what it looks like when someone's spewing hatred against trans people: I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader to think about your own prototype. But there are plenty of noncentral examples too, that may or may not fit inside the fuzzy boundaries of «transphobia». For example, is misgendering someone on the Internet transphobic? Maybe! What about in real life? Less clear! What about suggesting that gender-nonconforming people stop making up pronouns like "fae/faer/faerself" and use something more reasonable to remember or pronounce, like (singular) "they" or "ze"? More controversial!

There might be some reasonable disagreement on the margins, because those margins are fuzzy. (I mean that asserting that there can be no reasonable disagreement is absurd and overcommitted.) Calling down the banhammer for fuzzy infractions (rather than prototypical infractions) has a much greater risk of driving away useful allies. This, in turn, might lead to a shrinking of the space of acceptable speech, leading to more fringe-infractions... the overall result could be an evaporative cooling effect.

The other danger comes from exporting these private norms into the public sphere. In a different post, "Neo-Nazis and Free Speech," Asher writes:
I am not particularly invested in the free speech rights of neo-Nazis. The purpose of white nationalist speech is less to advance ideas and more to intimidate and threaten already marginalized groups. It is not political speech; it is harassment. Now, I’m not advocating for a sweeping, McCarthyist censorship campaign against racist fascists. I am suggesting, however, that white nationalist “speech” probably shouldn’t be something that free speech advocates and First Amendment lawyers rush to defend.
Here, the arena is not someone's Facebook page or blog, it's American society. And the suggestion is that maybe we just shouldn't care when neo-Nazis' speech is curtailed, because, I mean, neo-Nazis you guys! Sure, when arguments are soldiers, and any perceived aid and comfort to the enemy is a betrayal, this feels like a natural course of action to take.


Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex notices a weird fact about his life:
I inhabit the same geographical area as scores and scores of conservatives. But without meaning to, I have created an outrageously strong bubble, a 10^45 bubble. Conservatives are all around me, yet I am about as likely to have a serious encounter with one as I am a Tibetan lama. (Less likely, actually. One time a Tibetan lama came to my college and gave a really nice presentation, but if a conservative tried that, people would protest and it would be canceled.)
I went to quite a liberal school, enough where a few students complained that even being slightly conservative was a losing social proposition. And it's true that the College Republican club dissolved for lack of membership, for example; yet I don't think WWU is utterly devoid of politically conservative students. They just don't speak up.

I have a friend who's currently student-teaching in a small town in Missouri. Naturally, that community is far removed from her natural habitat (so to speak) of the Bellingham or Seattle areas. And yet certainly there are non-trivial populations of conservatives in Bellingham and Seattle.

My parents aren't religious, so we didn't live in a very religious social sphere. I've been to a few church events over the course of my life; they've all felt weird. I can't even conceptualize what it feels like to live in a church community where that's the central focus of daily life. The Monday-Wednesday-Friday-and-twice-on-Sunday kind of churchgoing is just alien to me, and yet lots and lots of people do it.

I've said before that justice requires closeness. Now I should stipulate that I mean closeness in the full sense of the word; not just existing near different people, but knowing that you exist near different people, and knowing what those differences are. Civilization isn't very civilized if it's disconnected; yes, my vision of justice is topological.

But even more pragmatically, we should feel very anxious that we aren't connected to big chunks of society, because they might have a good and worthy idea that we haven't even conceptualized. How confident can we be that our social-ideological bubble covers the totality of good-idea-space? And how confident can we be that, even if we can think of all the good ideas, we can even think of all the best reasons for those good ideas?
There are things in this world that are worth praising greatly, and you can't flatly say that praise beyond a certain point is forbidden.  But there is never an Idea so true that it's wrong to criticize any argument that supports it.  Never.  Never ever never for ever.  That is flat.  The vast majority of possible beliefs in a nontrivial answer space are false, and likewise, the vast majority of possible supporting arguments for a true belief are also false, and not even the happiest idea can change that.
Here is what I'm going to call rhetorical imperialism. Much like Eddie Izzard's fictional conquistador declaring ownership over inhabited land with a smug "Do you have a flaaaaaag?" the rhetorical imperialist sharply proscribes the conversation space, claiming it entirely for their Side in the ongoing ideological battle. Again, there are pragmatic considerations here: the anti-fascist's "no platform" strategy is, however they may justify it, censorship, and even knowing about censorship can raise its favorability rating among people.

And again we encounter the specter of fuzzy boundaries. Neil Gaiman said it very well, in a post about defending freedom of "icky" speech:
The CBLDF will defend your First Amendment right as an adult to make lines on paper, to draw, to write, to sell, to publish, and now, to own comics. And that's what makes the kind of work you don't like, or don't read, or work that you do not feel has artistic worth or redeeming features worth defending. It's because the same laws cover the stuff you like and the stuff you find icky, wherever your icky line happens to be: the law is a big blunt instrument that makes no fine distinctions, and because you only realise how wonderful absolute freedom of speech is the day you lose it.
This is true even for thing as "obvious" as underage sex—not child pornography, that's very different—yes, it can be "icky," but other people probably find stuff you like "icky" too, so unless there's some other tangible reason to crack down on that sort of material you can't ban one "icky" thing without risking that banhammer being used against your favorite things in the future.

The "anti-fascist" line seems to be that fascism literally is violence, that there's a sharp memetic gradient between fascistic thoughts and violent actions against the outgroup. Oddly enough I think this is dangerously close to viewing certain people as sub-human: that is, sub-humanly capable of owning their thoughts and actions. There are individuals and groups whose humanity I tend to discount—neo-Nazis, for example. They represent such an abortion of empathy that sometimes I do wish they could be locked away from decent people forever. And yet if I started a campaign of harassment and violence against those people, would I really be better than the fascists


Consider another example. From SkepChick, regarding advice to avoid "feeding the trolls" by not publicizing online harassment:
The abuse will continue to come, because they don’t want attention – they are bullies. They want power over you. They want your silence, and they got it. If you think that ignoring assholes and bullies makes them go away, you are wrong, and you are only making shit worse by running around being a patronizing prick who tells victims to shut up.
This is rhetorical imperialism at work. Gone is any room for hashing out a policy, for the policy debate has been decided for you (which is not all that much of a good thing). Now the discussion space has been sharply bounded, and the only acceptable discourse revolves around How should we properly publish abuse?

Moreover, this particular quote is rather interesting in its logic. "Don't publicize abuse" isn't that loaded of a policy statement, and Skepchick isn't misrepresenting the (in their eyes, "apparent") message either:
What you think it means: Just don’t reply to people or publicize their insults and they’ll go away! All they want is attention.
Right. But then, if that's the silence they want... that means people are bullying other people on the Internet and expecting no response at all. Um...?

Sort of related is Bruce Schneier's sort-of-famous essay, "Refused to Be Terrorized":
But our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to not panic every time two Muslims stand together checking their watches. There are approximately 1 billion Muslims in the world, a large percentage of them not Arab, and about 320 million Arabs in the Middle East, the overwhelming majority of them not terrorists. Our job is to think critically and rationally, and to ignore the cacophony of other interests trying to use terrorism to advance political careers or increase a television show's viewership.
The unifying theme here is that it's very natural to try to make an end-run around a scary problem, and (figuratively) nuke it from orbit rather than deal with it on its own terms. Humans love to make rules, and humans also love to cheat, so the method becomes obvious.

But this way lies disorder and perverse incentives that nobody actually would claim to want, if you asked them.

When urban centers faced an epidemic of crack cocaine and drug-related crime, almost everyone was glad that mayors started getting "tough on crime" and that the Federal government declared a War on Drugs. Now we have no-knock raids, and civil asset forfeiture, and SWATing, and military-grade vehicles driven by small-town cops, and on and on.

When 9/11 happened almost everyone was glad that Congress "did something" and passed the Patriot Act and declared a War on Terror. Now we have terrorism charges getting thrown around in order to circumvent Constitutional due-process rights, and "enhanced interrogation," and rendition (well, we were doing that for a while), and on and on.

Can anyone guarantee that they're so enlightened that a true "war on fascism" wouldn't have similar unpleasant and anti-civilization badstuff consequences? What about a "war on harassers"? War is, after all, hell. Specifically, a duchy of hell in service to Moloch:
The idea of liberal strategists sitting down and choosing “a flagship case for the campaign against police brutality” is poppycock. Moloch – the abstracted spirit of discoordination and flailing response to incentives – will publicize whatever he feels like publicizing. And if they want viewers and ad money, the media will go along with him.

Which means that it’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship case for fighting police brutality and racism is the flagship case that we in fact got. It’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship cases for believing rape victims are the ones that end up going viral. It’s not a coincidence that the only time we ever hear about factory farming is when somebody’s doing something that makes us almost sympathetic to it. It’s not coincidence, it’s not even happenstance, it’s enemy action. Under Moloch, activists are irresistably incentivized to dig their own graves. And the media is irresistably incentivized to help them.
Lost is the ability to agree on simple things like fighting factory farming or rape. Lost is the ability to even talk about the things we all want. Ending corporate welfare. Ungerrymandering political districts. Defrocking pedophile priests. Stopping prison rape. Punishing government corruption and waste. Feeding starving children. Simplifying the tax code.

But also lost is our ability to treat each other with solidarity and respect.

Under Moloch, everyone is irresistably incentivized to ignore the things that unite us in favor of forever picking at the things that divide us in exactly the way that is most likely to make them more divisive. Race relations are at historic lows not because white people and black people disagree on very much, but because the media absolutely worked its tuchus off to find the single issue that white people and black people disagreed over the most and ensure that it was the only issue anybody would talk about. Men’s rights activists and feminists hate each other not because there’s a huge divide in how people of different genders think, but because only the most extreme examples of either side will ever gain traction, and those only when they are framed as attacks on the other side.
As Ginsberg wrote: Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments! Nothing pleases Moloch more than doing something that ends up being worse than if you had done nothing. And this is exactly what rhetorical-imperialist tactics are. To paraphrase Thor in The Avengers, it signals to the universe of discourse that you're ready for a higher form of war.

Rhetorical imperialism is a sort of double standard. One lays down some very strict rules against enemy ideologies, and then decides that the rules are a sufficient guide to future police actions; moreover, that anyone guilty of rules infractions must be an enemy. Yet it assumes that the rules themselves need no policing; that, as in olden times, they are given by divine right and revelation.

(Look up religious debates with presuppositionalist apologists and you'll see what I mean.)

It becomes a sort of sick irony if the imperialist believes their enemies to be conspiring to attack from outside the bounds of discourse—fascist rhetoric as a smokescreen for physical violence, say—and therefore conclude that the proper course is to just shrink the bounds of discourse and start playing outside them anyway. How else can you enforce "no platform"?

(And yes, there's a difference between legislation and direct action. In this case though, I'm not convinced that the difference is meaningful enough for direct action to avoid all of the problems I considered in the post.)