More than the Minimum
When I was on the debate team in high school, everyone’s favorite argument was “if we do what the opponent wants, it will lead to nuclear war.” A long, implausible causal chain would inevitably tie the most benign of policy to nuclear war. (Jeremy Rifkin was usually cited.)
I don’t think adults are any less dramatic. Everyone thinks the fate of the world (or worse, the country) depends on their side winning.
We kids may have been modest in stopping at nuclear war. True and total damnation comes only from Tod. Some believers in the past and present have convinced themselves that their side winning was more important than their lives or those of others. This is a problem if you want to have a nice civilization where people can coexist peacefully:
Suppose I am a radical Catholic who believes all Protestants deserve to die, and therefore go around killing Protestants. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, there might be some radical Protestants around who believe all Catholics deserve to die. If there weren’t before, there probably are now. So they go around killing Catholics, we’re both unhappy and/or dead, our economy tanks, hundreds of innocent people end up as collateral damage, and our country goes down the toilet.
So we make an agreement: I won’t kill any more Catholics, you don’t kill any more Protestants. The specific Irish example was called the Good Friday Agreement and the general case is called “civilization”.
I find this is plausible model for how liberalized societies came to be. Liberalized societies set limits on what people can do no matter how strong their beliefs are and how high they perceive the stakes. Miraculously, it works.
A bunch of people in the United States think that half the country supports policy that is the literal moral equivalent of murdering children. And all they do is hold up signs about vote for people to pass regulations. That is beautiful and amazing.
It was not pre-ordained to be this way. Pro-life people could have concluded that murdering their opponents is morally preferable to allowing abortions to continue. A couple did in fact come to that conclusion and bombed clinics. They are now in prison, and it is likely that some pro-life people helped put them there. Again, beautiful and amazing.
We have collectively decided that the real enemies are those who think their side winning is more important than complying with civilization’s implicit pact. We are perfectly happy to send missiles to weddings and funerals when we think we might kill one such person because we judge it to be that important.
This state of affairs is special not only within the scope of human history, but also special with respect to the tiny silver of time where there has been civilization.
In liberalized societies, it is normal to go to the store and buy something from someone who is a different race, religion, and political orientation. Sure, you can refuse to hire someone based on their sexual orientation, but if you were to actually ask your plumber about her sexual orientation before giving her the job, it would be intensely weird.
The resulting trade between people of different groups has additional positive effects. When our own Dr. Saunders’s attempted boycott of transsexual patients ended, he learned he learned his prejudice lacked a good basis. Interacting with the enemy keeps our differences in perspective and exposes the humanity of our opponents. Boycotts do the opposite, but with added ferocity.
It was different back in the ancestral tribe (I speculate). We would use all means available to punish the enemy. The tribal leader would prevent the sinner from using shared resources. The rest of the tribe would speak and act against him. Trade and friendship would cease. There would be few situations in which any distinctions were drawn among these methods of punishment.
This no-limits behavior would necessarily keep the maximum stable size of the tribe small. Small groups can agree on everything. Large groups will always have pockets of dissension. If the response to dissent is limitless, then you can’t stay a large tribe for very long.
To form a big tribe, we needed to find a way to compartmentalize our areas of disagreement. We needed to find a way to continue to trade with those we disagreed with even while continuing to disagree with them.
So, we made a binding pact to restrict ourselves from using force even when we think the moral calculus speaks in its favor.
Thinking back to that ancestral tribe, I can think of three broad categories of punishment that could be lathered upon our opponents:
- the law (tribal elders?)
- public speech
- private interaction (both the law and private interactions may or may not include violence)
Some of these methods influence each other. The law can set limits on or mandate private interactions. Public speech can eventually lead to new laws. Let’s set aside these mutual influences for a later date.
In practice, we might continue private interactions while punishing our opponent through public speech:
I’ll still buy your bagels, but I will say bad things about you publicly.
or continue private interactions while punishing through the law:
I’ll still buy your bagels, but I will pass laws to prevent your kids from going to school with mine.
or suspend some private interactions while continuing others:
I’ll buy your bagels, but don’t you dare date my daughter.
We should be more hesitant to use some of these methods than others. Whatever norms we establish for these methods may eventually be turned upon us once the Protestants take over. Be gentle when establishing those norms.
The law, for example, should be used to punish opponents rarely and minimally. The law is something you can’t ignore or opt out of. If our opponents murder, of course, then we probably do need to use the law to stop them, but in general, we should try to use this method less rather than more. I think this is why most modern societies make it difficult to pass new laws and have constitutional restrictions on what kinds of laws they can be.
Public speech, in contrast, seems to be a relatively safe way to punish our opponents. Speech makes our opponents unhappy, but leaves their livelihoods intact. Seen in this way, even overly hostile speech isn’t really so bad compared to the alternatives.
You can call for the unconditional boycott of anyone and everyone you disagree with. But you shouldn’t. Be picky. Here are the guidelines I find myself following:
- I will only boycott a company if I would also boycott a person for doing something morally similar at their own person-scale.
- I will only ask others to boycott a company if I view what they are doing as unusually bad when viewed in the spectrum of current beliefs in the society. There are two reasons for this. (1) To boycott based on a belief that is widely held leads to balkanization. This is illiberal and bad for civilization. (2) Mass boycotts are unlikely to be effective if the positions held by the targets are widely held. The target will still have plenty of customers even if you and your supporters pull off a perfect boycott on your side, which you can’t.
- I will personally boycott anything I want, even if it isn’t unusually bad in comparison to the spectrum of beliefs in the society. There is a large class of products I don’t buy even though almost everyone else does. But I don’t call on others to boycott them. Save your mass organized boycotts for things you can get a lot of people to agree is reprehensible. (youtube)
Of course, you think these rules ought not apply to your special issue, which is far too important.
The price of civilization though is that we exercise restraint even then. From inside their heads, your opponents think their getting their own way is just as important. Worse, they are willing to go much further than you to win. We are better off enforcing the agreement that good people restrain themselves from certain types of attacks. Keep those claws retracted except for those battles you must win.
Additionally, it’s worth noting the lack of success with many forays into censorship and boycotts.
Rufus’s review of the history of the Corcoran museum included the museum’s reversal of its plan to host the some controversial photography. This censorship led to the retaliatory boycott of the museum by other artists. The museum eventually closed, which left artists with one less venue that will host their work. Where are the winners?
The Legal Right to Free speech
Randall Munroe’s recent XKCD was well-received by many.
I hate this comic. It views “the right to free speech” as a legal requirement to be regrettably complied with. It places no value on free speech as a matter of principle.
Just because the first amendment to free speech speaks only of the government does not mean that the rest of us should feel free to shout down (youtube) those we don’t agree with. Yes, I know you think your opponents are assholes and that you are simply using your own free speech to prevent them from speaking, but that actually makes you at least as much of an asshole as them. Retract those claws.
I think part of the reason Randall drew this comic was a sense of his side winning in the marketplace of ideas. The most recent boycotts seem to be of bigots and other unsympathetic characters. Munroe isn’t thinking about the McCarthy-era blacklists that were simply private boycotts of workers holding legally protected but worse-than-assholish political beliefs. Are these the norms of private behavior we wish to emulate and carry into the future?
Free speech ought to be more than just a legal right. It should be an enthusiastically embraced principle. We should actively seek out and promote those who are silenced. This is the principle that undergirds banned books lists. Most books on such lists never faced any legal restrictions, but were removed from collections on the taste grounds endorsed so wholeheartedly by Munroe. Yes, restrictions based on taste are slightly less pernicious than those enforced by governmental decree, but there’s still enough left to make for some pernicion*.
Enthusiastic support of free speech means that you seek to host controversial speakers you disagree with even though you aren’t legally required to. It means you don’t seek to take away someone’s livelihood for holding views that are statistically moderate for the population. It means that you actively seek out and read the work of smart people you hate. It means defending the rights of neo-Nazis to assemble because “Southern cities tried to shut down civil rights marches with similar claims about the violence and disruption the protests would cause.”
Do not think these arguments won’t be resurrected again one day to silence you.
* Apparently, it is a word.