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Liberalism and the End of History: Rules, Laws, Political Correctness and Free Speech

This post is a bit late in coming, but I’m combining different lines of argument to get at what I think is an interesting and controversial result. But because what follows is going to be complicated, I want to take the time to ensure that I’ve got it right.

Modern left-liberals believe 3 things, and it seems that these three things form an inconsistent triad. At least one of them will have to be given up. Let me roughly state what these three things are and I’ll try to show why they are inconsistent.

1. People are morally obligated to respect others, including members of minority groups by avoiding, in their conversations, use of certain words and phrases that are racist, homophobic, transphobic, fat-phobic, able-ist or in any way derogatory of those who lack privilege. In fact, violation of this obligation is reasonable grounds for criticism and censure by others.

I will call this obligation spelled out in 1, the obligation to be politically correct (PC).

2. People have a right to free speech

3. Even if minorities formally have equal legal rights and formal opportunities, persistent substantive inequalities can be just as important vis a vis political justice.

On the existence of Rules

Kazzy asks:

Yes, when I say “rules”, I mean that which we enforce with authority.

I do not think white people should use the N-word. If I heard someone use it, I might even say, “You shouldn’t say that.” But the only mechanism through which I’d actually try to stop them would be education… Dialogue… Conversation.

Does that mean I think “White people shouldn’t say the N-word” is a “rule”?

To which the answer is yes.

According to HLA Hart,

where there is such a rule deviations are generally regarded as lapses or faults open to criticism, and threatened deviations meet with pressure for conformity, though the forms of criticism and pressure differ with different types of rule.

Secondly, where there are such rules, not only is such criticism in fact made but deviation from the standard is generally
accepted as a good reason for making it. Criticism for deviation is regarded as legitimate or justified in this sense, as are demands for compliance with the standard when deviation is threatened. Moreover, except by a minority of hardened offenders, such criticism and demands are generally regarded as legitimate, or made with good reason, both by those who make them and those to whom they are made.

(HLA Hart, The Concept of Law[1], pp. 55-56)

 

When someone without N-word privileges uses the N-word, his or her use of it is normally considered grounds for criticism. When Kazzy, along with most other people in the English speaking world urge people not to use the N-word, we create social pressure to conform with that directive. We generally regard such criticism for using the N-word as legitimate. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is a law. But this distinction may not be as significant as it immediately appears.

According to Hart, a legal system has rules of recognition, change and adjudication. So Hart clearly does not intend the above account to apply merely to legal rules. After all, according to Hart, if you criticise yourself for failing to wake up at 7 am (presuming you ordinarily do so), then you have made waking up at 7 am a rule for yourself. Even if this latter sounds dubious to you, the widespread avoidance of saying the N-word and the quick criticisms of anyone who does say it point to the existence of a rule.

But is it coercive?

At this point you might say that fine. Not saying the N-word is a social rule and is probably even a rule of social morality. But its not coercive and that is what matters. I think we should pause here. If you are willing to declare the sort of social pressure that makes people avoid saying the N-word non-coercive or at least not relevant, you should be willing to discount the social pressures that influence many women to choose “mommy-track” or other pink-collar jobs (supposedly more fulfilling but definitely less financially remunerative work). Modern day feminism (and for that matter a lot of modern liberalism) is not going to be happy with a thin liberalism that only secures formal equal liberties and opportunities. The existence of equal formal liberties is fully consistent with the existence of asymmetrical dependence and domination relations that are shaped and maintained by informal social pressure. One enduring feminist complaint has been that a lot of work informally regarded as “women’s work” commands lesser or even no pay. If you are committed to the notion that informal social pressure is just as (or even almost as) problematic as overt formal coercion, then the informal social pressure to refrain from saying the N-word should be almost or even just as problematic as a law that criminalises its use. But I doubt anyone here actually believes that there should be a law against saying the N-word. Contrast this with the way liberals talk about workplace equality. There, liberals are consistent. Not only is it wrong for the government to coerce women to prevent them from entering the workplace, it is also wrong for anyone to criticise women for entering the workplace. In fact, liberals believe that it is acceptable to publicly criticise people who criticise women for working instead of staying home. Contrast this with how even liberal Christians[2] find it problematic to publicly criticise someone for not being Christian. For the liberal Christian, religion is a matter of private morality[3] and it is thus inappropriate to publicly criticise people for failing to be Christian even if he thinks that people ought to be Christian.

Another way to appreciate the contradiction involved is to look at Vikram’s account of what justifies freedom of speech. On Vikram’s account, free speech is a truce. However, logically, that is not the only symmetrical coordination point. Why couldn’t there be a truce where everyone agrees not to say offensive things about the other person? In fact, isn’t that the more common solution that we find in playgrounds?

Does the coerciveness in fact matter?

Vikram’s point is defensible only if it is rational to prefer having the risk of being offended and being offensive to someone else to not being offended and not being able to offend others. On a utilitarian calculus, if Americans by and large share this preference, free speech is a utility maximising rule. However, if that is the case, a general PC norm should be sub-optimal. The requirement to be respectful of everybody heavily restricts what one could permissibly say. And this restriction is sufficiently burdensome as to outweigh the burden inflicted on people when disrespectful terms are used on them. Or, at least, so we must presume if we are to think that free speech is the appropriate truce point. Notice here that the primary consideration is not the burden imposed by a given punishment, but the balance of benefits and burdens that are individually and collectively incurred when everyone complies with the rule. Thus, any additional burden imposed by instituting a legal rule against saying the N-word matters either very little, or not at all. In addition, given the fact that people can lose their jobs or take enormous hits to their political careers by saying the N-word in others’ hearing[4], it is hard to believe that a $1000 fine could make things so much worse as to make the response disproportionate. It would seem amazingly coincidental that the spontaneous social response to the public utterance of un-PC statements was so exactly proportionate that any further legal response necessarily becomes a disproportionate response to undesirable speech acts. Thus, if we want to maintain a defence of free speech, consistency requires that we limit our criticism for un-PC statements to those persons who have already committed themselves to respecting members of that group[5].

A Third Way?

One problem with Vikram’s argument is that it is not universalisable. It might be that the American people prefer to risk being offended than to have limitations imposed on what they want to say. Certainly, the widespread prevalence and support of the no-N-word rule seems to be counterevidence to this claim. But, it is implausible to think that people in other societies would have the same preference ordering. If people in other societies preferred that they were prevented from saying offensive/disrespectful things to being allowed to say those things but risking offense from others, there seems to be nothing we could say that would show that people in the other society have a wrong preference ordering.

Perhaps there is something we could say in defence of free speech, but it is a more modest defence than even Vikram’s already modest defence. What separates the societies which prefer that everyone’s speech be restricted to those that prefer that everyone’s speech be free? We can make the following diagnosis: In the former, people’s utilities take a relatively larger hit when they feel that they have been criticised or disrespected. One explanation (not a justification) for the Charlie Hebdo attacks is that those fundamentalist Muslims felt that the jokes were threatening to the very core of their identity. The thing about most of us in more secularised countries is that we don’t take such criticisms so personally. Even the Christian right in America don’t take criticism by the likes of PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins that personally. It is, in a certain sense, an intellectual exercise[6].

Let us modify Vikram’s example a bit. Suppose the Catholics and Protestants are killing one another at least partly because they keep saying horrible things about the other. Recall that there are multiple ways in which to configure the truce. In the short and medium terms, the sort of truce that would, in a lot of such cases, work is one where they are not only not allowed to kill one another, they are not allowed to say anything bad about one another (at least in front of the other). If they were allowed to speak freely, the mutual killing would continue. Suppose now, there is a rather tense, but peaceful coexistence. As the violence recedes into history, a new generation would grow up with no memory of inter religious violence between Catholics and Protestants. The peaceful coexistence would be less tense. They may also be slightly more willing to regard criticism of their religion as something other than an existential attack. They might be willing to relax restrictions on speech slightly. Suppose these restrictions are relaxed just a bit. Those who grow up in those conditions are likely to be just slightly more used to criticism that is not an attack on their core identities. That generation is going to prefer even more freedom of speech than the previous generation. In Singapore, the younger generation is more comfortable with criticism than the older generation. Eventually, we may suppose that in some future iteration, society will be comfortable enough with criticism to permit full freedom of speech. It seems that this is now the case with America. When society has reached that point, they are going to be less willing on the whole, to entertain restrictions on speech. So, although there are other possible equilibria, free speech is the only stable one. Perturbing the other equilibria is likely to send those equilibria further in the direction of greater freedom of speech. Perturbing the free speech equilibrium will send it to another equilibrium which also respects free speech, if any are available, or result in the original equilibrium obtaining again, if none others are. A similar account can be provided for other liberal norms. If I am right about this, then Liberalism, especially neoliberalism/neoclassical liberalism can thought of as the end of history. This is borne out by two trends. The first is an expansion of civil rights in spite of resistance from the right. The second is in the spread of neoliberal capitalism globally. Of course, as radical as my thesis may be, all I have stated is an is, not an ought. So, let me address that now.

The intuition that I wish to support is that in order for something to count as a moral ideal for a society, it must be stable for the right reasons. A set of social institutions is stable for the right reasons when the moral dispositions of those who are raised under those institutions motivate them to support said institutions. Perhaps this notion of stability is not sufficient to establish that something is a moral ideal, but it is necessary. Moreover if every other account of justice other than liberal ones fails to satisfy this condition, it is sufficient to establish that at least some liberal account of justice is true.

The argument for the stability requirement proceeds as follows.

1. If some institutions encapsulate a moral ideal expressed by a given set of principles, they would, if instantiated, be perfectly just according to that set of principles.
2. If an institution contains within it features at t1 that would cause it to change in such a way that at some subsequent t2, it was unjust (as according to the principles it encapsulates) in some respects, then the institution was flawed at t1 itself. In fact, the institution can be said to have been unjust at t1 itself.
3. If one is free to idealise people’s motivations in any way one chooses to, then there are potentially an infinity of institution+motivation combinations that could satisfy a given principle.
4. If a given level of idealisation does not allow for the selection of some institutional forms over others, that level of idealisation is inappropriate for institutional evaluation
5. One should place realistic limits on how the motivations of the people in society are idealised. (from 3 and 4)[7]
6. If an institution requires a sense of justice that people cannot ordinarily bring to bear even under favourable background conditions, then the institution itself is flawed. (from 2 and 5)
7. If no institutions could stably instantiate a principle, then that principle cannot be instantiated (from 1 and 6)
8. If “ought” then “can”

Conclusion: A principle which cannot be stably instituted under favourable but realistic circumstances is not one that we ought to encapsulate those principles in our institutions. (from 7 and 8)

Since only liberal institutions are stable for the right reasons, only fully liberal institutions can be perfectly just.

Conclusion:

So, let’s bring this back to the rule of social morality which tells us not to say the N-word. We could say one of two things about it. We could either say that it is in fact stable for the right reasons and thus perfectly consistent with liberalism just as a law banning N-word would not be stable for the right reasons and is thus inconsistent. It is at least somewhat unclear whether this can be said about all PC requirements.

For some of the PC requirements, which we cannot say are stable for the right reasons, we might say that they are good half-way houses. Temporary truce points on the way to a better kind of social morality. In this case, one reason not to have a law which expresses these rules is that making it into a law ossifies those rules. I am somewhat inclined to think this plausible as at least in SSM, it is the law which has been lagging behind social morality. The problem is that this does not square with what Hart and Gaus say about social rules in the absence of rules of change. In a pre-legal system, the social rules are harder to change. Making something part of the legal system according to both theorists is supposed to de-ossify the rule. One way we could resolve this is to say that the sort of rules which are supposed to be de-ossified by incorporation into a legal system are different from the sort of rules of social morality we are talking about. Or we might just say that Gaus and Hart are wrong about this. Perhaps this should be decided on a case by case basis. What are your thoughts?

For PC requirements that we could not justify in either of the above ways, we may very well have to conclude that those demands are unreasonable.

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[1]This is a book that everyone should read. It is still, by far, one of the best books on jurisprudence out there. In fact, it is far better than Ronald Dworkin’s Law’s Empire

[2]I mean Christians who are politically liberal, not necessarily theologically liberal.

[3]The difference between private/community morality and social morality is really important here. I would recommend reading PF Strawson’s 1961 paper, Social Morality and the Individual Ideal.

[4]If you don’t believe me, I dare you to non-ironically use the N-word in front of your colleagues in casual conversation to refer to African Americans. If you don’t get fired or at least severely reprimanded, I will pay you $50.

[5]After all, there is no inconsistency in believing that women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ people are deserving of our respect in those particular ways, but that fat shaming is fully legitimate or that disability advocates are just silly in insisting that they are not disabled, only differently abled.

[6]Incidentally, this is partly why the west is seen as decadent. You take religion so lightly that you tolerate blasphemy.

[7]Admittedly, the move from 3 and 4 to 5 requires more argument than I am willing to provide here. But, 5 nevertheless seems right to me and it seems pointless to idealise people to an unrealistic extent which still falls short of complete idealisation.

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169 thoughts on “Liberalism and the End of History: Rules, Laws, Political Correctness and Free Speech

  1. This is well-formed.

    In the sense in which you lay out, free speech in America, while formally greater than in many other places, is in practice significantly subordinated to other values. This is why I have such little time for those who preach about their near-absolute commitment to the value of free speech and find fault with the degree of others’ commitment to it who claim to value it. Usually in practice on a spectrum taken in theoretical perspective they’re really only a little further out on the spectrum of what they’re willing to sacrifice for free speech than those who are willing to rhetorically represent their commitment a little bit more realistically.

    That being said, it’s still a value, even though it’s not a hard commitment. This is something that I think is important to grasp about at least American politics and even moral thought, if not politics and moral thought much more widely. Generally, when we say we are ‘committed’ to a value, in fact by that we mean we are committed to nodding in its direction to some degree or other (sometimes to a quite significant degree!). Rarely does it mean we claim to intend to vindicate a full commitment to the value in question, with no significant tradeoffs for other values.

    So it’s not merely free speech that goes by the wayside in this sense, but the other two liberal values you lay out, as well as nearly all others. American social morality is in practice an exercise in constant, conceptually unprincipled quick-and-dirty value balancing.

    As a discussion prompt to the group, I would ask this: what moral social values, if any, do you think enjoy near-exclusive prioritization commitment in American society, or at leas the liberal portion thereof? I.e., that we in practice live out a commitment to fully vindicating against any conflicting moral claims? What moral-social values do you think you, personally, might have such a commitment to?

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  2. Keeping everybody in line with the norms of the group is something that is and (apparently) has always been exceptionally important even when the norms create inconsistent duads/triads/quadrads/etc.

    The usual solution is to publicly affirm all of the norms and pick and choose which one you’re going to be a hypocrite about. You can usually tell which group any given hypocrite is a member of by which norm(s) they pick because that’s probably (not always, but probably) the norm that they’re least likely to experience painful (fsvo “painful”) altruistic/third-party punishment from people that they’d mind getting the punishment from.

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    • “You can usually tell which group any given hypocrite is a member of by which norm(s) they pick because that’s probably…the norm that they’re least likely to experience painful…punishment from people that they’d mind getting the punishment from.”

      Yep. Pretty much the only difference between modern Democrats and modern Republicans is which parts of the Constitution they think we shouldn’t strictly adhere to.

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  3. I think one thing that makes these issues more confusing is that it tends to combine liberals with the farther left. Lee has frequently pointed out that the farther left have always considered freedom of speech to be a kind of “bourgeois freedom” and subservient or unimportant in the grand schemes of economic leveling, anti-Imperialism, anti-Capitalism, etc.

    Chait also had one more go at the issue:

    http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/02/political-correctness-good-for-the-left.html. Chait writes;

    “Conservatives fail to understand political correctness because they find the whole left half of the ideological spectrum too alien to dissect with any precision, and they have no interest in distinguishing the near left from the far left. Just the opposite, in fact. But since conservatives do have a real interest in talking about p.c., both when it is real and when it isn’t, they have lamentably influenced how liberals themselves understand the issue.”

    The debate is also whether liberals or the farther left are the real drivers of change in the United States. Alyssa Rosenberg and Ross Douthat both think that the farther left drove more changes to American society than liberals in the recent fights of this debate.

    “So the question of whether this method is effective at helping the left vanquish its enemies passes over the far more urgent question of what it does to the character of the left itself. Rosenberg, and some other critics, have taken issue with my premise that liberals, rather than the left, deserve credit for the leftward march of American history. This is an enormous and hazily defined disagreement that depends on what one means by “the left.” My essay describes p.c. ideology as a form of Marxist thought, substituting race and gender identities for economic ones, and assigning political rights on the basis of class identity rather than individuality.

    I’d argue that the historical record of Marxist regimes is an unambiguous disaster. Marxist regimes have failed everywhere they have been tried — not because of external pressure or the idiosyncratic personal failures of their leaders but flaws inherent in its ideological structure. Marxists are very good at crushing critics of their policies, but rather bad at devising the policies themselves. Those two facts are not unrelated. The construction of effective policy requires internal reasoning, not the automatic identification of all criticism as the representation of a privileged class. That is to say, the liberal ideal of free government is still the right one.”

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    • So your argument is that PC is a form of Marxist thought, and regimes based upon Marxist thought have all been huge disasters, so PC is bad? This doesn’t pass the smell test. “The liberal idea of free government is still the right one.” Yes, of course it is. Weren’t we were talking about social sanction against explicit expressions of racism? What does the one have to do with the other? Abstracting this discussion to the level of philosophy and grand political ideologies, as you seem to be doing here and as Murali does in the OP, confuses more than it clarifies on this topic.

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      • Not quite. I am probably not as pro-Capitalist as Chait but I am not a full anti-Capitalist either. Markets are good for some things but not for all things.

        What I am trying to do is stress that there are differences between liberals and the farther left that are being ignored in these debates.

        I’ve said this before but I don’t think of politics as a line but as more of a circle and I think that the far left and far right have much more in common than they want to admit. Both tend towards a kind of utopian thought that I don’t trust very much. The far left and far right both seem to have variants of the world will be a shiny and happy place if we all do X, Y, and Z and this is a wrong to me. The world will not be a better place if we all embraced Jesus as the Messiah or we all admitted that monogamy doesn’t work and we should all be poly or all be kink. The world would not be a better place if we all lived on communes as vegan farmers or abstained from cursing and drinking.

        I am deeply suspicious of any ideology that claims there is The Good Life as opposed to the concept of a good life. There are seven billion people in the world with seven billion different ideas on what makes life good. Getting everyone to agree to the idea of The Good Life which consists of X, Y, and Z is both a folly and dangerous.

        Free Speech is a good value because it acknowledges the grey muck of everything and that we will never have a world of perfect agreement. I think Chait is right to the extent that the current defenders of P.C. seem to think that there is a universal value system which can be opposed writ large on the entirety of humanity. I would call this the illiberal left.

        People deserve to be treated with dignity and decency. This can and does include the right to fight against antagonistic slurs and language. But it does not include the right to declare certain topics or viewpoints verbotten.

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      • But this underlies the fact that the original political correctness and today’s political correctness are entirely different concepts. There is no general secretary of the social justice warrior party dictating what people will be criticized on twitter for saying today. There is no NKVD murdering people or sending them to the gulag on the basis of their real or imagined failures to toe the party line, and the speech policing that does occur is in the service of protecting various marginalized groups rather than propping up the policy of a massive, powerful state. Suggesting that there’s a meaningful line we can draw from one to the other is Jonah Goldberg-style argumentation, in which we take superficial similarities and use them to tar something we don’t like with an association to some of the worst horrors of modern history. Why can’t we just discuss what political correctness today actually is?

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      • the speech policing that does occur is in the service of protecting various marginalized groups rather than propping up the policy of a massive, powerful state

        And yet, it comes overwhelmingly from people who would like our already massive and powerful state to become more massive and more powerful.

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      • There seems to be a huge disconnect on what people are referring to when people talk about P.C.

        I don’t really care about criticizing Jonah Goldberg or other right-wing dudes. Nor do I think Chait does despite the blowback he got on his initial article. The issue is when we feel like everything needs to come with a trigger warning. Something that is hotly debated among the left or the idea that one should only like entertainment that passes ideological purity tests (which I would mock equally in the right) is what gets to be problematic.

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      • “I am deeply suspicious of any ideology that claims there is The Good Life as opposed to the concept of a good life. There are seven billion people in the world with seven billion different ideas on what makes life good. Getting everyone to agree to the idea of The Good Life which consists of X, Y, and Z is both a folly and dangerous.”

        Welcome to the Libertarian Party. Here’s your complimentary gun.

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      • Not quite. I am not a full on believer that markets can solve everything and do believe that government has a responsibility and an ability to be a force of good in the life of people through the welfare state, public schools, public libraries, public parks, public transportation, universal healthcare, etc. I believe in a very strong welfare state.

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      • Sure. It’s not like libertarianism is a one size fits all solution, based on applying a single principle to every situation:

        Same sex marriage? Get government out of the marriage business!

        Funding public schools? Government shouldn’t be running schools!

        Vaccinations? Let the market in health insurance solve that!

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      • From what I’ve seen of libertarianism that’s exactly how it works . One would think that the numerous times “the market” has failed to solve a problem would give pause to such a line of thinking, but the Fallacy of Revolution (“THIS time, we will do better! We can foresee no problems, therefore none will come!”) and the Fallacy of Libertarianism (“Freedom is measured by the aggregate absence of laws”) seem impervious to logical counterargumentation.

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  4. 1. People are morally obligated to respect others, including members of minority groups by avoiding, in their conversations, use of certain words and phrases that are racist, homophobic, transphobic, fat-phobic, able-ist or in any way derogatory of those who lack privilege. In fact, violation of this obligation is reasonable grounds for criticism and censure by others.

    I just don’t disagree with this; nobody is morally obligated to say or not say things as individuals. What is morally obligated is recognizing the othering built into so much speech we think normal. Many of the adjectives we use to indicate someone who’s weak in some way, for instance, draw an analogy to someone who’s female. That constantly sets women up as a class of people not so worthy.

    So the moral goal here is not to get people to stop calling other people pussies, its to recognize that it degrading to women. The moral goal here is not to get people to stop calling people niggers, it’s to recognize the historic weight of subjugation and shame that the word nigger invokes.

    It’s not so much that the words are bad, but that they’re used to invoke immoral things that were once perfectly socially acceptable — discrimination against specific classes of people. It’s the discrimination that’s immoral; the words only so far as the reinforce that discrimination as a social norm without question.

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    • A minor quibble. Discrimination is not, per se, immoral. In fact, it’s a normal human activity that allows us to survive. When directed at specific classes of people? Perhaps. And I mean ALL people. So called reverse discrimination is just as wrong as non reverse. But discrimination in how one wants to live, where one wants to live, who one chooses to associate with, etc. is not wrong.

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      • Reverse discrimination?

        It depends what you mean by that. Bunch of folks bigoted against white people simply because they’re white? Yeah, that’s as much othering as anything. But a bunch of white people whining about people of color getting into elite colleges of good jobs or social-safety net benefits ‘unfairly?’ That’s typically the complaint when I hear when folks complain about reverse discrimination, and it just reinforces their right to discriminate against others.

        What about the white-on-white discrimination, like ‘elite liberals?’ Is that discrimination, too?

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      • But discrimination in how one wants to live, where one wants to live, who one chooses to associate with, etc. is not wrong.

        “Discrimination in where one wants to live”, when it consists of white-only neighborhoods with sales restrictions, deed restrictions, and similar arrangements? That is redlining, racially motivated segregation and ghettoization. It is wrong.

        “Discrimination in who one chooses to associate with”, when it consists of denying service to people in theoretically open-to-the-public businesses is in fact wrong. It demeans those who are denied service and denies them their constitutional right to participate fully as equal members of society.

        Both of these things you claim not to be wrong are horrifically wrong and I encourage you to get your 10,000 mile moral checkup.

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      • @a-compromised-immune-system

        Where did I say I supported the things you claim I support? As to “redlining”, I never said such. As to business, well, we’ve had that debate before and I’ll stand on my comments in those threads. Guess I’ll have to spell it out for you.

        If I choose to live in a location filled with academics that is my choice, just the same if I choose to live out in the sticks with the farmers and ranchers. It’s my choice if I do not choose to be have friends who differ in their political views than I do. It’s my choice to live in an apartment in a high rise vs a single family mcmansion. These are all discriminators that I chose to enjoy my life. None of them are “wrong”.

        I would suggest that you are the one who needs a check up. The “jump to conclusions” light is flashing red on your dashboard.

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      • “But discrimination in how one wants to live, where one wants to live, who one chooses to associate with, etc. is not wrong.”
        it’s your failure to be clear about what you meant from the get-go that is the problem. “Freedom of association” is the catcall of the bigot.

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      • “Freedom of association” is the catcall of the bigot.

        So let’s apply this insight to the dating scene.

        “What do you mean you don’t want a second date? You’re a bigot!”

        Yeah, I’m not feeling it.

        Now, of course, maybe the whole “finding a neighborhood that you like but also can afford” thing doesn’t map 1:1 to dating, but there are enough parallels that I think I’m willing to bite the bullet on this one.

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      • “We reserve the right to refuse service to jerkfaces like you” is a lot more troublesome of a concept than “I have the right to live where I want, move where I want, and date who I want”.

        If all you’re arguing is that bakeries are obligated to give Bill Jack a cake decorated with homophobic slurs, then argue that without telling anyone that anyone who disagrees with you is using dog whistles.

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    • I like this comment. It reminds me of a number of conversations I’ve had about the Confederate flag, where it becomes apparent that what I want from people who disagree with me about it is not that they stop flying it because they don’t want to get yelled at, but that they realize what flying it communicates to other people, and that those people can get that message without being dumb or wrong or out to get them.

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      • 30 years ago that would be enough. Unfortunately today instead of taking it down, grousing a bit about how their confederate dead-ender sensibilities were “right” and “just” and then going on about their lives, they’ll go on the internet to Stormfront or PoliceOne or another haven of likeminded individuals and proceed to get riled up even further about the injusticies perpetuated on them by the… n-word… in the White House (emphasizing the word White the whole while).

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      • This is an inherent problem of the Internet and you sort have to take it as a double-edged sword. If the Internet can produce communities were LGBT teens in small towns can find and support each other, it can also have groups like VDare or StormFront or PoliceOne. There is no way to create magic, happy internet that has “Small town LGBT teen” group and doesn’t have StormFront.

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    • Well said, . Using “pussy” to denigrate someone is offensive to most women. That is a fact. It is demonstrable. The problem comes less from people ignoring that fact and using the term in spite of it. The problem comes from people insisting a demonstrably true fact is untrue.

      So call someone a “pussy” or don’t; the choice is yours. But the facts are not yours to decide. If you choose to use that word, you are choosing to offend a majority of women. Period.

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      • The question is whether women are reasonable in demanding that I don’t use the p-word. Well, its just one word and there are a lot of women, so maybe they are reasonable. But that licenses all sorts of groups to demand that I don’t use a whole bunch of words. For example, disability advocates say that I shouldn’t use the words retarded, idiot, lame, blind and deaf as insults. And there seems to be no principled reason to think the latter are unreasonable if the former isn’t. But now we may have to re-evaluate whether demanding that people not use certain terms is reasonable. Again, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But we may have some reason to think that alleged moral requirements that become too demanding cease to be obligatory and become at best supererogatory. For instance, most people are going to say that it is obligatory to help save a drowning child even if doing so would ruin a good suit (at least some positive duties of aid are obligatory). But, few of us would think that it is similarly obligatory to donate most of your money to the global poor, at least up to the point where your decrease in marginal utility matches the poors’ increase in marginal utility.

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      • Is saying, “Dude, that’s offensive,” equivalent to ‘demanding you not use the word’? The OP seems to suggest as much but I’m not sure you’ve really made that case.

        I mean, if I say, “Dude, Sam’s chili is awesome!” am I demanding that you eat Sam’s chili?

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      • their demand you not use a word is nothing more than other speech that points out that you’re being rude.

        If you want to be rude, go for it. I know a lot of artists who are intentionally rude. As I writer, I sometimes opt for rude words, phrases, etc. But I do this knowing that I’m being rude.

        That’s the only repercussion, really. There’s no law, there’s no ‘go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.’ There’s just rudeness. It’s not about the words, it’s about the intent of the words. For instance, SC state senator, Thomas Corbin was challenged by the only woman in the State Senate over sexist remarks at a legislative dinner recently. His response? ““Well, you know God created man first. “Then he took the rib out of man to make woman. And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat.” He didn’t say pussy. But the p-word is just a disguise for the intent he was after.

        It’s not the words, , it’s the intent to other that PC-speech policing is about.

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      • I’m calling motte and bailey here. Almost no one ever just means “Dude that’s offensive” When they say that something is offensive, they also imply that that is why you shouldn’t say it.

        I mean, think about why you would even bother pointing out that something is offensive.

        1. To inform the person that he has said something offensive and thus give him an opportunity to correct himself if he was so inclined.

        2. To criticise that person and to generate a sufficient volume of such criticism so as to apply social pressure on recalcitrant speakers.

        I mean, when you say “Dude that’s offensive” you are engaging in moral criticism. And the practice of moral criticism is not a purely descriptive enterprise. It is prescriptive as well. The only way you can deny that is by saying that you don’t intend anything prescriptive when you say something is offensive, but in that case, that just means that you are odd, not that the general practice of moral criticism is not a prescriptive enterprise.

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      • You are really stretching the definition of “demand”, .

        Sure, there is judgement and criticism inherent to, “Dude, that’s offensive.” And even if there is an inherent message of, “You shouldn’t say that,” that doesn’t rise to the level of a demand and certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a rule. It just doesn’t. That isn’t what those words mean.

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      • I’m not a word fetishist. But to describe using the p-word or the n-word as merely rude seems to indicate that it is on par with picking your nose in public. Merely rude does not evoke the response that the words have. In fact, in your very next sentence, you point out that it is the intent behind the words. And the intent behind the words cannot itself be about rudeness because the only way in which an intent can be rude is if the intent is merely to use some rude words. The intent is disrespectful in a way that you regard as morally wrongful.

        See my response to Kazzy, above with regards to moral criticism

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      • you’re afraid that social condemnation will limit some people’s ability to speak freely. So what? If it matters to enough someones enough, they’ll speak.

        My problem with this is that social criticism is not a restriction on speech, it’s just another form of speech. It’s not censorship that stops speech so much as fear of losing one’s honor that restrains speech.

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      • “You shouldn’t say that,” that doesn’t rise to the level of a demand

        Errm, except that it is very plausible that “You shouldn’t say that” is semantically equivalent* to (or at the least semantically implies) “Don’t say that”. Since the latter is a demand, the former is as well.

        and certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a rule. It just doesn’t. That isn’t what those words mean.

        When you expect a person to regularly comply with the demand and criticise him in the event of failure to do so, you are treating that demand as a rule for that person even when that person is yourself.

        *Seriously, read RM Hare’s The Language of Morals

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      • It’s not censorship that stops speech so much as fear of losing one’s honor that restrains speech.

        Its not the patriarchy which prevents a given woman from entering the work force so much as her own fear of losing the love and support of her family.

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      • Its not the patriarchy which prevents a given woman from entering the work force so much as her own fear of losing the love and support of her family.

        WTF? I mean, seriously, dude, WTF?

        And I’m not calling you rude or demanding that you stop saying such things. I’m honestly asking “WTF?”

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      • ButI’m not doing either of those things. I’m saying — often explicitly — “You can but you shouldn’t.” And I rarely criticize. I might point out why the person shouldn’t and if the choose to continue to do so, I might opt not to associate with them. No demands, no rules. Dude, this is a total strawman. And a complete manipulation of language. Responding to people’s speech is just more speech. Or exercising one’s right to associate/disassociate.

        In all honesty, this is a bunch of overly verbose bullshit masking as serious analysis. Wait. Am I allowed to say that? What are the rules here?

        You really can’t see the ridiculousness of telling people that we should respond to a white guy using the N-word with silent acceptance because free speech? You don’t see how utterly assbackwards that is? Isn’t that putting in place just yet another “rule” by your definition?

        Also, in the future, I ask that you check with me before using my comments as fodder for a post. Ask! Wait… Am I rule making again? Infringing on your rights? Because I think this post might be censoring me…

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      • Its not the patriarchy which prevents a given woman from entering the work force so much as her own fear of losing the love and support of her family.

        There are actual harms (misogyny, racism, etc., often built into our language.

        I gave you an example when I told you you throw like a girl,) with minimal harms — someone might chide me for implying girls can’t throw well. That’s a type of speech that harms all women by reinforcing the view that they’re not as good, never will be as good.

        Then there’s the right for me to say that to you, which is what you seem to be defending here; as if that right is a harm equal to the harm to all girls.

        But to me, there’s some apples and oranges here. I expected some sort of ‘take that back,’ reaction. But if some other commenter had said the same thing, out of the context of this discussion, it’s harm have gone by unnoticed. (In fact I use ‘you throw like a girl’ a lot to indicate built-in misogyny here because I saw it used on several occasions to suggest someone was less-than-they might be; probably thanks to a certain kids movie about sandlot baseball.)

        So when I complain about those kinds of things here (and I do it a lot, I’m mostly surprised I haven’t been run yet,) I’m doing the stuff you’re concerned about — voicing my opinion to change how people talk. But your concern here, that I’m shutting down conversation with my concerns of how others speak, is itself the very thing you’re worried about. It’s recursive.

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      • Is “companies shouldn’t have to pay for birth control” considered oppressive? If so, why? (In light of this thread where it’s being argued that “shouldn’t” does not imply a belief that another’s behavior should actually be constrained.)

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      • you change that to ‘companies shouldn’t have to pay for health care insurance as part of wages,’ and I’m with you. You start segregating out specific health care needed only by women, and you’ve lost the argument to good, old-fashioned sexism.

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  5. I do not understand the “argument for the stability requirement.”

    I do not understand the meaning of “idealisation” and variants as used in statements #3, #4, and #5, and specifically what it means to be “free to idealise.” Free for whom, when? I also don’t see where #8 comes from, what it is supposed to mean in this context, and why it’s necessary to the conclusion.

    It is also unclear to me why “stable for the right reasons” doesn’t convert to some version of a tautology, the right reasons being right because the stability they stabilize is stabilizing or self-stabilizing: What is stable is right, and what is right is stable. Eventually, the good becomes what we identify as continuing indefinitely.

    We might, for instance, wonder why the bad isn’t good, according to this argument. Since the bad produces the will to make better, and always has, and since the will to make better is good, the bad is good, which is absurd. I believe that in fact the opposite of this argument might be self-consistent, but that no one or hardly anyone would recognize it as good or a model for moral governance or moral ideals, although, again, I do not have confidence that I understand the argument.

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    • let’s start with the easy one. “ought” implies “can” is analytically true.

      I can understand how 3, 4 and 5 would look strange to anyone who doesn’t know exactly what is going on in my head. Let me try to explain what was going on. With 3-5, I was trying to do two distinct but overlapping things:

      1. Mainly, I was trying to pre-empt the objection that if some future injustice happens, or if an institution later becomes unjust even under favourable but realistic conditions, that would be because people are fundamentally flawed, not the institution.

      2. To accomplish 1, I was replying to David Estlund’s paper “Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy”. In it, David Estlund argues that we can get some institutional principles by idealising unrealistically. 3-5 are my reply to Estlund.

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      • As for the easy one, not so easy, or so it has been argued, in various ways, ever since anyone every dreamed up an ought. The uncertainties of human affairs and life on Earth make the view you take to be analytically true impossible to maintain: It perhaps ought to be taken to be true, but it cannot be.

        As for 3 – 5, I do not have access to Estlund’s paper, but, similarly, the notion that consideration or maintenance of practically or commonly unattainable ideals, under whatever terms, might be practically or commonly useful, or necessary, also has an exactly equally long history – a history exactly as long as history because history as a meaningful history is inconceivable without them.

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      • Well, it seems to me that the moral ought is fundamentally prescriptive and prescribing impossible courses of action seems nonsensical to me. I think a lot more work has to be done to show that impossible ideals have some indispensable role to play in our theorising.

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      • This is pure Kantian antinomy on theories of justice. Ideally, one might say, the moral ought would be prescriptive: We would never ask of anyone or of society what cannot be achieved, or fault any individual or group for not having done what cannot be done. However, we never know with certainty on anything that counts to us what cannot be done or achieved, or for that matter what it is “realistic” to expect, ahead of time. Our judgment of what is “realistic” is itself a derivative and retrospective judgment based on past failures to achieve what in one way or another we were mistaken to have designated possible. So we would not know what to “prescribe,” or, more accurately, to judge revisably as prescribable, if not for the use we have made of the ideals that you are describing as useless.

        It seems clear, to return to my starting point, that your notion of a broadly acceptable and accepted, stably self-reinforcing, just and beneficial realistic ideal is itself just such an ideal in realistic costume, which you yourself are using in order to describe an ideal order governed by it. As for the burden of proof, it would rest on anyone who would proffer this self-contradictory ideal realism as a replacement for the more common and practical recognition of uncertainty. I do not know whether I can manage to eat my vegetables. I think I ought to eat my vegetables. In an ideal world, for me, I would eat a balanced diet. Only afterward, after repeated failure to approach that ideal, am I able to say that, for me, eating a healthy diet was impossible, or my attempt to do so was simply unrealistic, given the kind of person I have revealed myself to be.

        Somewhat similarly, we will generally agree that rape and murder are intrinsically bad or, as per Posner, torturing babies for fun is always wrong. To say so is immediately to propose a world in which no babies are ever tortured for fun. So every moral ideal immediately conjures a utopia, a world in which, for instance, no babies are tortured, no one ever murders or is murdered, no one ever rapes or is raped, CK eats his vegetables, and Murali is always fully persuasive. We may choose not to state the ideal as our goal, but it is implicit in any practical and would-be consensual determination of a right or wrong that is either intrinsically right or wrong or to be held to be.

        As for the actual uses made of the unattainable ideal, and as for those revisions in our notions of the realistic that we call progress, there is much more that could be said. The specific question for me in relation to this discussion is whether these questions are more a sidebar to the rest of your argument or bear directly on it. I think they may bear directly on it, but, even if they turn out to undermine it significantly, I could still consistently assert that it was valuable. A conclusion, for instance, that your argument is too idealistic, and therefore contradictory, would not prevent me from asserting that something very worthwhile and useful might still be found in it or done with it. Of course, you do have the option of attempting to prove that your idea or ideal is useless and absurd, in order to defeat my argument in favor it.

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    • I believe that in fact the opposite of this argument might be self-consistent, but that no one or hardly anyone would recognize it as good or a model for moral governance or moral ideals,

      Interesting; because that’s something I have considered; and I sort of come to a conclusion that moral is not a fixed point, but a moving consensus that evolves and changes over time. The refinement might be that stable social systems can deal with social instability that seeks to widen opportunities to people somehow disenfranchised.

      I’ll give you an example; there’s a Jimmy Stewart/Carol Lombard movie where the two marry after knowing each other for one day. Stewart takes his new wife to meet his mother, and she’s horribly distressed by this; so she tells Lombard how important it is to focus on establishing a career; to which the new bride answers that being a wife is a career. (Movie’s pretty awful, but the opening, up to this scene, is worth watching for this scene.) Today, of course, someone who aspires to making a career as a wife is, generally, considered spoiled and privileged, and real women work; and there’s some moral judgement and aspiration cast on those ‘career wives,’ aka homemakers. And we don’t even have such a concept for husband, that compares to ‘career wife,’ do we?

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  6. Actually what I find interesting is the speech suggested would fail under the golden rule or its equivalent in whatever belief system you may have (as it seems in either the positive or negative formulation the golden rule exists in most faith systems). Put it this way would you wish to be called the names involved? (Or the equivalent names if genders or races differ) For example if whites were called gringos or a honkey etc would they be offended.
    Perhaps then one has to make a judgement of how important the speech is relative to the offense to the other person, as well as asking what would you do if the tables were turned. Because free speech means at least my right to protest your speech as much as your right to say it, as long as no violence is committed. So to take an example from the past the KKK has the right to march, but those who oppose them also have a right to march, and indeed to yell insults at each other, but any physical altercation goes outside free speech.

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    • +1,

      I think there’s some confusion in this debate about rules (social mores and behavior standards) vs. laws and regulations. I sort of get the feeling that conservatives expect liberals to go around coding PC into laws. And the liberals who would do just that aren’t PC, they’re.

      Hysterical.

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      • A good way of putting it. First Amendment rights apply only to government action or inaction, not to private actions. Now in one sense many universities have coded PC into their rules, although its not clear that public universities as elements of the government really can do this, (while private universities and colleges can). So some liberals have done that with campus conduct rules, which may be why conservatives think the way they do.

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      • What if someone were to say to feminists that equality between men and women only applies to equality before the law and formal equality at the workplace? I’m sure that feminists would cry foul. The rest of society haranguing women into staying in the kitchen is not a problem right?

        The point being this: if you think that informal social pressure is sufficiently problematic when it comes to conservative social mores keeping women in the kitchen (even though they have the formal liberty to work) then you should be equally concerned about progressive social mores that prevent people from voicing their views even if you think that those views are utterly wrongheaded. Similarly, if you don’t think that the latter is a problem, then you lack the conceptual tools to adequately criticise the former.

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      • “I sort of get the feeling that conservatives expect liberals to go around coding PC into laws.”

        Uh, Title VII? PC is law, insofar as my speech might create a hostile work environment and a legal obligation to show me the door.

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      • When you’re engaging in Title VII violations you are definitively harming someone else with your conduct. It’s very similar to the case of Title II violations because in both cases you are engaging in an attempt to deny another citizen their right to equal participation in society, and debasing both the targeted group and the concept of citizenship itself.

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  7. I’m not saying that they are necessarily the same or that they are necessarily different. I’m saying that if the social pressure involved in criticising women who enter the workforce matters, then so does the social pressure involved in criticising those who use racist or sexist language. If the latter does not matter, then neither does the former. Modern day feminism is largely focused on hostile work, education and home environments, which while not exactly coercive in the federal agents at the door sense, still generate social pressure which has the concrete effect of causing many women to choose not to work. They think this type of social pressure matters a lot, even if not exactly as much as overt coercion. If this type of social pressure matters, then surely it matters when that pressure is used to influence what people say.

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    • False equivalence. If jailing political dissidents is wrong, so is jailing murderers.

      Promoting racism/sexism is not morally equivalent to promiting equity. Folks have the right to do either, yes, but they are not morally equivalent and thus justify different responses.

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      • Yeah, there’s a difference between pushing an old lady into the path of a bus and pushing one out of the path of a bus. To say “well, aren’t we just pushing old ladies around in both cases?” is to ignore a very important distinction.

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      • There is a difference. The morality of murder is not contested in the same way. Everyone agrees or is at least rationally committed to agreeing that laws against murder are required. If we care that our laws are to be justifiable to everyone who is to be affected by it, it is not enough that you and half the country believes in that sort of gender equality, it must be the case that everyone even the conservative who ostensibly doesn’t believe in gender equality is actually rationally committed to that account of gender equality. Is gender equality (in the thick sense) just one more contested value or is it more. If it is more, it must be shown to be so. That has not been done.

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      • I was going to post the same point as this (different analogy, but same idea).

        Still, I guess the issue being raised is this: a standard defense against the charge of tyranny/oppression made against political correctness is that PC stuff is mere speech, so it can’t possibly be coercive at all, not the teeniest tiniest smidgen. (Rather than that it is acceptable coercion, like fining speeders.) Hence the apparent contradiction in pointing out and arguing against the social norms that give us white privilege, patriarchy, etc.

        It might do the left some good to admit that of course social pressure is a kind of quasi-coercion, and the mistake is to pretend we can do without that kind of coercion altogether. Even some hypothetical “PC-free utopia” would require a kind of Prime Directive norm that it is unacceptable for any idea to be unacceptable (except this norm itself).

        I also think the relative coerciveness of traditional social views is an important point that puts many of the anti-PC and “freeze peach brigade” in an inconsistent position of its own. Something I rarely saw pointed out in all the conversation about Phil “Duck Dynasty Guy” Robertson was that until very recently, being openly gay would have lost most celebrities a lot more than sponsorships. And in much of the USA there’s still a significant thought-police-equivalent patrolling (at least, by some people’s standard of “thought police”) against homosexuality.

        In particular, there’s something truly outrageous about someone trying to defend their own or someone else’s opposition to gay marriage on no grounds other than their right to free expression. Which they indeed have, but they’re carving out some arbitrary definitions of freedom and such if they want to avoid committing a double standard.

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      • you’ve got it. It is a quasi coercion. And in a certain sense, we cannot do without some form of it. The problem is, it seems that we all agree that when it comes to actual coercion, we have one set of things which we coerce (and refuse to coerce) but that set changes when we talk about quasi-coercion. People don’t have any way to account for the difference. I offer some solutions at the very end that might square that circle, but I’m not sure that works either.

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      • Part of the problem with some particular kinds of coercion, however, is what I’d call the Wal-Mart problem.

        If your particular identity involves some variant of “Oh, I would never shop at Wal-Mart”, it has, at that point, become impossible for you to boycott Wal-Mart.

        Which brings us to a related kind of coercion: what I’d call the “All-American Muslim” problem. A show that you don’t watch but has advertisers that you do patronize can have its advertisers called up and told “stop supporting this crap or I will stop buying stuff from you”.

        You can, of course, spend your money however you wish and patronize any businesses you wish and, for that matter, tell any businesses you wish about why you are or are not buying from you but, for some reason, I find the latter type to be a lot more problematic. It seems to switch from “*I* won’t watch this show” to “Other People shouldn’t watch this show”.

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      • Jaybird: What’s wrong with believing that other people shouldn’t watch something?

        Even if we take politics out of the equation, mere aesthetic preference does this (in a way, under some circumstances). If there’s a TV show we enjoy, then we might want lots of other people to watch it — both because we think they would enjoy it (a benefit in utilitarian terms) and because a successful show will continue. If there’s one we dislike, we might prefer that others not watch it — either out of a paternalistic attitude that they’re not getting the “true” enjoyment they would if they watched something else, and more generally because we’d rather that the shows we think are “bad” lose their timeslots to the ones we think are “good”.

        If a problem with believing other people shouldn’t watch something is that it’s a kind of thinking that bleeds into serious suppression (by government or otherwise), then surely under the same logic, supporting a political candidate must bleed into vote fraud or voter suppression. After all, if I want Smith to defeat Jones, then I want Smith to defeat Jones, by any means, right? (Or do I have another choice — a sincere wish that the Jones supporters will walk a road to Damascus and join the Smith cause? Am I allowed to think that way?)

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      • What’s wrong with believing that other people shouldn’t watch something?

        Believe whatever you want.

        Please don’t think that I’m telling you to believe anything different.

        My problem is with “I’m going to ensure that you won’t watch this thing.”

        Compare to “I’m going to make sure that you won’t read this thing.”

        Now, I suppose, we could say “We make sure that kids can’t read this, or that, or the other thing all the time!” and go from there to me telling you what you can and can’t read.

        But I’m not your dad. I don’t feel it’s my place to tell you what you can and can’t read or otherwise be your gatekeeper.

        Now, I can *DISAPPROVE*. I probably do. You read too much crap. You should spend more time reading technical manuals. Like me. But there’s a difference between me disapproving of what you read and me trying to prevent you from buying it or to prevent it from being published in the first place.

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      • The “left” (and let’s not pretend we’re dealing with anything that might be considered the “far left” here, as some particularly out of touch folks would have us believe, but instead a fairly mainstream variant with its primary interests in issues of social and economic equality instead of, say, being primarily obsessed with what Republicans are saying these days) is well aware of the power of shaming and social stigma, and you’ll find the discussions if it even on the dreaded Twitter.

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      • A boycott that says “I will no longer patronize a store that I disapprove of” is a boycott that I really can’t see anybody disapproving of. (They may disapprove of the disapproval of the *TARGET*, but I can’t imagine anybody disapproving of the act in itself.)

        Do you not see the difference between that and censorship?

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      • Perhaps a distinction between ‘censor’ here (a government action) and censure (an expression of disapproval) would be useful.

        Public airwaves are censored for seven unspeakable words. But if you speak those words in a public place, while you might be censured by others within hearing, you will not be censored; though there is hope that that being censured might lead to self-censorship.

        With boycott, I don’t see how that even relates to the conversation; we can each choose where to shop based on a host of preferences, including potential censure of our shopping choices. When I went into the glass shop the other day to take photos, the owner told me that’s the biggest problem they have; a lot of their potential customers won’t go there because they fear being censured by other people who see them shopping there. But the shop does function under government censorship — they sell ‘tobacco’ products. You can purchase cigarette papers there, but not rolling papers.

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      • Well, the Duck Dynasty guys were mentioned along with their loss of sponsorships as the result of their “freeze peach” and the people who got up in arms about that.

        The tactics used against Duck Dynasty reminded me of the tactics used against All American Muslim. I was probably thinking that turning the tables might get people to wonder about whether they opposed the choice of tactic as opposed to the choice of target.

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      • Jaybird: I think there’s a very strong difference between boycotts and censorship, though plenty of people don’t (as you know), at least in their rhetoric. But I thought that boycotts and social shaming was the core topic of discussion here, not “true” censorship by way of threats to safety, FCC fines, various laws, etc.

        As a side note, it’s a good way to see that someone is losing the broader argument; if conservative defenders of Robertson had the courage of their convictions, they would have said “Bad-mouthing him is wrong simply because he’s correct about homosexuality and race.” A variation of which is my position on the All-American Muslim controversy; my emphasis wouldn’t be “It’s just generally wrong to boycott” or “You shouldn’t use social pressure to make someone feel uncomfortable about expressing themselves” but rather “Your opposition to the show is clearly rooted in bigotry.” Or to use your words, the salient question is about targets rather than tactics.

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    • If that’s the route you’re taking, fair enough. Where you’re losing me, then, is how any of this is something that is related specifically to liberalism or PC.

      What you are describing (and please correct me if I’m wrong) is something like this:


      People around you can create social pressure to make you say, not say, or act in ways that you might not have spoken or acted were it not for said social pressure.

      This seems obviously and universally true, for all groups of people in all societies. Therefore, I’m not sure how far we can get by looking at why the Left does this, in the same way I don’t know that we can really learn anything about the Left by trying to discern why they eat food and have sex.

      There is a tendency for both younger people and political warriors to think of PC as a new and dangerous/wonderful (depending on who you are) thing, but the truth is that it’s simply what groups of people have always done.

      When my father was a young man, you could use the n-word as much as you wanted and not worry about being ostracized by most of society. It was simply a word, they would have argued, and why would anyone object to a word? On the other hard, you would be ostracized for using the f-bomb, the s-word, and even by using the word “damn” in casual conversation.* In fact, I’ve noticed that in these threads the word “bitch” when referring to a woman has come up as an example of something feminists coerce people not to use, but it’s worth remembering that for a long time prior to it being perceived as a feminist issue you would have been ostracized from polite society — and possible censored by the government if you attempted to do so in print — for referring to a woman as a “bitch” because it was seen as an obscenity.

      PC isn’t really new or unique. It’s just a catchy-sounding label that got attached to what everyone everywhere had always been doing when it was being done by one specific subset of people.

      * True story: When I was young the television show MASH aired an episode where the plot ran in what we would now call “real time,” with a clock at the bottom of the screen showing how long the doctors had to have one no-chance-of-surviving patient die in order to use an organ to attempt to save another slight-chance-of-survivng patient. Near the end of the episode there is a scene where the organ has been transplanted, but they aren’t sure if it will save the patient. At this point Hawkeye, the show’s protagonist, says the line “Live, you bastard, live!”

      That week, all of the major news networks made an announcement about the show as a warning to potential viewers because of the word “bastard.” CBS, which was the network that produced MASH, spent most of its news show on the night the episode aired talking about how they would be using this word.

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  8. I had to speak with a male student — 3rd grader — about using “like a girl” as an insult. When I asked if he knew why it was offensive, he said it was mean to the target, another boy. I had to explain it was actually mean to girls — all girls and women! — because it is saying girls/women are bad, something you don’t want to be like. Blew his mind because we so rarely frame our response in this way. I credit an exchange with you (I believe about “douchebag”) for helping me understand that.

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    • Question on this…

      The insult “you throw like girl” directed at a boy would indeed be an insult. But why would it be an insult to a girl? Assuming that, on average, girls throw less well than boys in terms of speed, accuracy, etc.

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      • It’s implying that it is acceptable to not teach girls how to throw. Or that girls don’t or ought not to use proper throwing motions.

        A proper, hard throw is done from the midline, with most of your body’s muscles getting at least some workout.

        Girls are often not taught to throw like this, and if you ask them to throw a ball, they’ll just use their arm. Which makes a pretty pathetic throw.

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      • Even if it were objectively true that girls throw less well, telling a boy he throws “like a girl” would still be deeply insulting to girls. Imagine an American man being told he’s short “like a Japanese man”; that would be fundamentally racist, despite the fact that Japan has the shortest average height among all countries. It brings in an irrelevant comparison, strongly implies an untrue generalization that any and all Japanese men are short, could imply inherent worth being connected to height, and so on.

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  9. Since when is Australia not secular? How about Israel, for that matter?
    Banning of free speech is not something unique to the religiously motivated.

    I find myself rather loathe to say that people around here support free speech. There’s having principles, and then there’s “I am willing to suffer the consequences of my principles.”

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  10. Well written but I think you have left something out. There is a marked difference in the effect of positive and negative speech.

    Facebook has since the beginning been hounded by users who ask for a “dislike button” to go with the “like button”, but they steadfastly refuse. The logic of the refusal is a point relevant to this discussion. They have expressed an interest in finding ways to allow people to recognize and support sad occasions such as the death of a loved one but “We need to figure out the right way to do it so it ends up being a force for good, not a force for bad and demeaning the posts that people are putting out there.”

    The same logic applies to positive and negative speech as a whole. People who complain about “political correctness” are in essence trying to gain support for a society-wide “dislike button” to be thrown at disadvantaged groups in order to demean them. Words such as the n-word or other racial or sexual or stereotypical slurs are designed in tone and meaning to do but one thing: harm others.

    I must also take issue with how you frame your discussion because your framing leads to a strawman argument. You state the “rules” as such:

    1. People are morally obligated to respect others, including members of minority groups by avoiding, in their conversations, use of certain words and phrases that are racist, homophobic, transphobic, fat-phobic, able-ist or in any way derogatory of those who lack privilege. In fact, violation of this obligation is reasonable grounds for criticism and censure by others.

    I will call this obligation spelled out in 1, the obligation to be politically correct (PC).

    2. People have a right to free speech

    3. Even if minorities formally have equal legal rights and formal opportunities, persistent substantive inequalities can be just as important vis a vis political justice.

    The problem with your phrasing is as follows.

    Obligation 1. is to be enforced socially. People who are known to be bigots, sexists, racists are generally to be shunned. Nobody is protected socially from the effects of their immoral actions designed to harm others.

    Obligation 2. is incompletely phrased. People have freedom of speech in the eyes of the law, subject to certain reasonable restrictions (you may not falsely advertise products, make false medical claims, shout fire in a crowded theater, openly advocate for the assassination of elected officials or other persons, engage in “fighting words” or attempts to start riots or engage in other threats of violence, or engage in certain speech using the voice of the goverment). In other words provided you don’t violate certain restrictions, you cannot be jailed for your speech. Adverse actions taken against you by an employer or social peers are a matter of private conduct between you and them, not a matter of government enforcement.

    Neither Obligation 1 nor Obligation 2 are inconsistent. They deal separately with the spheres of social conduct and enforcement and government conduct and enforcement.

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    • This comment catches the issue exactly in pointing out that free speech is a restriction on government not on private uses. I think many forget that free speech as at least stated in the US constitution is “Congress shall make no law”…, extended to the states by the 14th amendment. Or to quote the Texas constitution (other states have similar statements) “ec. 8. FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND PRESS; LIBEL. Every person shall be at liberty to speak, write or publish his opinions on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that privilege; and no law shall ever be passed curtailing the liberty of speech or of the press. In prosecutions for the publication of papers, investigating the conduct of officers, or men in public capacity, or when the matter published is proper for public information, the truth thereof may be given in evidence. And in all indictments for libels, the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the facts, under the direction of the court, as in other cases”
      So except for those who have not read the words of the documents, it is clear that free speech is a restriction on government not on private parties.
      Actually if you look at the incorrect larger view, then of course if you say something and I object free speech grants me the right to object and protest just as much as it grants you the right to say the thing in the first place.
      Obligation 1 is a social/moral obligation put another way do not offend folks with your speech.

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    • People who complain about “political correctness” are in essence trying to gain support for a society-wide “dislike button” to be thrown at disadvantaged groups in order to demean them.

      Your overly broad application of inferred motives creates a problem for everything that you say after this. In reality, all sorts of people complain about political correctness for all sorts of reasons. Some of those people are reactionaries complaining for reactionary reasons, but some are people who hold free expression paramount to the possibility of hurt feelings and some are progressives legitimately concerned about the potential for abuse. And some are just largely apolitical people who want to have a conversation or tell a joke without having some busy body butt in and play language police.

      If you want to make a reasonable defense of political correctness, the first thing that you need to do is to stop defending this false notion of what political correctness actually is. Own up to the fact that PC is not constrained to positions like don’t call people the n-word.

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      • I would consider someone who “holds free expression paramount to the possibility of hurt feelings” to be a reactionary complaining for reactionary reasons.

        “Largely apolitical people who want to have a conversation or tell a joke without having some busy body butt in and play language police” is exactly the kind of nonsense I’d expect to hear from that sort of reactionary as well.

        Complainers about political correctness are arguing that their right to be a reactionary asshole should trump the harm they do to everyone when they cross the line socially, and arguing that they should suffer no social consequences for being an asshole. I hold the opposite position, I think assholes should be shunned until they demonstrate that they have stopped being assholes.

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      • I would consider someone who “holds free expression paramount to the possibility of hurt feelings” to be a reactionary complaining for reactionary reasons.

        Then you are wrong.

        Complainers about political correctness are arguing that their right to be a reactionary asshole should trump the harm they do to everyone when they cross the line socially, and arguing that they should suffer no social consequences for being an asshole. I hold the opposite position, I think assholes should be shunned until they demonstrate that they have stopped being assholes.

        And this is a pretty good example of what it means to be arguing over whose turn it is to hold the whip.

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      • “this is a pretty good example of what it means to be arguing over whose turn it is to hold the whip.”

        Probably more true than anyone knows, or intends.

        The idea of restricting speech by various means- social, legal, financial- is always present, and always will be. What 21st century Americans mean by “freedom of speech” is tolerance of speech within certain parameters established by the various stakeholders over the past 2 centuries.

        All the PC debate about is moving those boundaries by new stakeholders.

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      • I would consider someone who “holds free expression paramount to the possibility of hurt feelings” to be a reactionary complaining for reactionary reasons.

        …and there you have it, the formula for the conversion of anti-bigotry into bigotry and the end of freedom of expression as a “paramount” value. The crudely self-righteous terms of the rest of the comment are typical. We’ve, of course, already discussed this pattern extensively. Almost as bad for the left that it presents itself that way is that it seems unable to register how bad for its prospects presenting itself in this way is… and so on.

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      • and

        Well-put.

        Without recycling recent discussion, mainly brought on in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we can observe what a ridiculously subjective standard “hurt feelings” is: Once upon a time, the suggestion that the Earth was not the center of what was then understood to be the cosmos and what we now understand to be a solar system hurt many people’s feelings. For it to be suggested that Jesus Christ was a man like any other, and that the miracles associated with his life are stories meant to impress the ignorant observably “hurts the feelings” of believing Christians. For it to be suggested that Muhammad was a flawed individual whose example, rather than being deserving of emulation, is at best irrelevant to moral conduct and in some respects deserving of condemnation, rather impressively hurts the feelings of Muslims. It hurt the feelings of racists for it to be suggested that racial purity is a myth, that “race-mixing” is on balance beneficial, and that there is no intrinsic morally significant difference between their group and other groups.

        Today, we do not have to look very far to find examples of individuals subjected to meaningful punishment for holding the wrong views, under the assumption, taken as self-evident, that to say the wrong things in relation to designated issues is effectively equivalent to wrongful conduct. What’s not covered under the Golden Rule and “be polite” is necessarily vague, but those insisting on perfect clarity will often be found in clear violation of both.

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      • “the formula for the conversion of anti-bigotry into bigotry”

        If you think that considering terms like “nigger”, “retard”, “wetback”, “chink”, “faggot”, or similar epithets harmful to society due to the way they can be used in no way other than to intentionally demean targeted groups is “the conversion of anti-bigotry into bigotry” then we’re not going to come to any point of disagreement because I think you’re probably just one of those reactionaries discussed above.

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      • Your examples of free speech are interesting.

        You use examples that are well-trod and, for 21st century Americans, completely and wholly resolved issues; The Copernican system of astronomy, the divinity of Jesus, the reverence for Mohammed, the hatefulness of racism.

        Its remarkably easy and conveniently self serving for people like us to cast ourselves as the champions of unfettered free speech when all we really mean is “free speech for issues that everyone already agrees to.”

        What makes the PC debate, as well as the Charlie Hebdo issue interesting for me, is that the well-resolved and comfortable framework that we have established is being challenged, and challenged on terms that we are not accustomed to.

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      • Man, I can’t wait until we can say that people who are arguing for Free Speech by using Muslim outrage are disingenuously using well-trod arguments the same way that people who are arguing for Free Speech by using Christian outrage are being.

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      • The case study continues: Faced with disagreement, unable or unwilling to take the time to understand what is being said (in other words to have a discussion at all), the individual instead chooses to lump those taking another side (seen as one of only two possible sides) into a group – here labeled “reactionaries” – whose members along with anything they might have to say are to be shunned, in effect to be declared taboo. They are, to use the contemporary expression, “othered.” Not only are their statements undeserving of discussion, but, for that individual, to suggest any other possibility is to place oneself in that same group – and so on: Same goes, of course, for any suggestion that this pattern can be described as itself obviously “reactionary.” (The word no longer bears any meaning for the individual other than as a label – or “epithet” – for individuals and ideas to be presumptively excluded.)

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      • What makes this difficult for us, is that we don’t have anything that is sacred to us.
        Yosemite is important, but not sacred like Temple Mount; The Bible is important to religious Americans, but not sacred like the Koran. A man might object to being called a cad, but its different than slut-shaming.

        About the only thing sacred to us is individual freedom. We assume that is universally true, that it should be a norm respected by all, always and everywhere.

        So when our sacred norm is challenged or disrespected, we are bewildered, astounded that anyone could value the sacredness of a silly book over human life. I can’t come up with an analogous example in America. That’s the point- we don’t have any such totems so we can’t even grok the concept.

        I am NOT making the relativist argument here. Exactly the opposite. I am saying that the establishment of norms requires the acceptance and support of all the stakeholders.
        So as the world changes, we have new stakeholders- women, gays, Muslims and so on.
        They are insisting on having their voices heard, and want their sacred totems and concepts enforced.

        It doesn’t mean we simply uncritically accept whatever is suggested. We don’t need to let the loudest feminist voice dictate gender terms, or let any Muslim cleric dictate what gets published.

        But society IS a negotiation, a meeting of the minds and agreement about what we can accept versus what we must defend.

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      • Are there not social obligations relating to treating people with respect and dignity and such? I mean, most social obligations are ethical, not legal ones, and that’s the way they should remain, but they are in that sense obligations. Now, we can quibble about the circumstances under which a person or group of people (collective guilt!) no longer deserves such consideration, and therefore the obligation no longer holds, but I doubt anyone here would deny that, in the abstract, such obligations exist, or even that it is good that they do.

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      • “In this conversation, you’re the one dropping those words.”

        Importantly, I “dropped” those words in the context of pointing out that they are precise words not to be used, , words that are only used by the sorts of bigoted reactionaries that society has a vested interest in teaching to change their ways. Perhaps you were incapable of understanding that basic point?

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      • “I don’t understand the argument that respect for me entails respect of this dumb-assed idea I happen to hold close to my heart.”

        Let’s substitute a few things for “this dumb-assed idea I happen to hold close to my heart.”

        Let’s say that perhaps respect for you entails my not calling your mother a whore.
        Let’s say that perhaps respect for you entails my not calling your father a good-for-nothing bum.
        Let’s say that perhaps respect for you entails similarly not insulting other family members you care about.

        Let’s say that perhaps respect for you entails not making comments like “all people of a certain skin color are horrible people except for Jaybird, he’s one of the good ones.”

        Now let’s pretend that you’re a Catholic and respect for you entails maybe not, every day of your life, greeting you with “hey you papist traitor, good morning, how’s the boy-buggering church?”

        Are we getting warmer yet?

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      • Sure, if those dumbass ideas are so important to them that it’s difficult to meet your obligation without respecting the dumbass ideas. Once again, we can quibble over whether those dumbass ideas, by virtue of the harm they cause, release us from our obligation, but at that point we’re already discussing things in a world where we all recognize that such obligations can and do exist.

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      • Other than making a particularly inept and pathetic attempt to call me names, what are you trying to do, ? Am I being baited? I believe I was perfectly clear in stating that they were words that were harmful to use when directed at a person, and that my statement should be perfectly clear in discussing the words themselves as harmful.

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      • Maybe it’s not so clear. After all, we’ve decided that those are words that people who haven’t had those words used against them ought not use. And yet, you don’t seem to have a problem using them.

        So, unless you happen to be an gay Mexican Asian of African decent with a learning disability, I have to question your motives in using those words. Pretty typical behavior for a reactionary like you, though.

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      • Of course, “we” have such “sacred” symbols. Not to have them is not to be one of “us.” “Sacred” in this context means “authentically constitutive of group membership,” and such membership is itself meaningful or authentic to the precise extent that it potentially overrides “individual identity” – the same as saying that the individual identity depends on the group identity, in turn the same as saying it makes the sacrifice or taking of life rational or rationalizable. That we or some of us are not conscious of such bonds as sacred (sacrificial) only shows that we or some of us do not concretely experience them as under threat, that in our own lives we are not presently, or habitually, reminded or made aware of what is authentically sacred to us. Experience suggests that we can be so reminded, “in the moment of truth,” and that the revelation may sometimes be quite surprising, or anyway take entirely unanticipated forms.

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      • In this conversation, you’re the one dropping those words. What does that tell us about you?

        That he likes to drop those words in between bouts of making unsubstantiated claims about so-called reactionaries that are figments of his/her/its imagination?

        Hey, you asked.

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      • It isn’t your agreement of an obligation that is needed, only your acquiescence.

        One of the tactics of political battles is to refuse to participate in society. Not passively withdrawing, but actively blocking the peaceful construct. Things like protest marches, chanting, or constantly challenging and making things uncomfortable for the dominant class until they tire of it, and negotiate a truce.
        Feminists, gays, and civil rights forces used this until they won.

        It doesn’t matter that you think you have no obligations, or that you disagree.
        In order for the world we live in to work, all stakeholders need to reach a place where they agree to peacefully acquiesce to the group norms.
        Not agree- just peacefully acquiesce.

        The historic stakeholders in America- the major religions, political parties, social and ethnic groups- have long ago done this, so we see the norms as axiomatic and universal.

        But just as with gays and feminists, new stakeholders arise who challenge the norms, and after a time of disrupting the peace, they insert new norms and join the coalition of acquiescence.

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      • – it’s not that I don’t get what you are saying, but I think you slide too easily between the use of words (protest), and that of sticks and stones (and guns), on the part of the new “stakeholders” – and the tactics new stakeholders choose to make their voices heard, absolutely should help decide whether their norms should be accepted or not, in a pluralistic democratic society.

        Otherwise we open ourselves up to violent extortion, in place of negotiation.

        Is what happened at Charlie Hebdo like what happened at Selma or Stonewall?

        We’ve accepted, if imperfectly and ongoingly, the norms of those stakeholders.

        Or is it more like the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing?

        If we’ve accepted the norms of those “stakeholders”: we shouldn’t.

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      • I absolutely agree that we shouldn’t, as a moral norm, blur the boundary between acceptable protest and unacceptable.
        Which is of course, the norm of contemporary America. And one which is worth defending, by violence if necessary.

        Part of the process of reaching consensus with new stakeholders is compromise- to split norms which they will defend with violence, apart from those they won’t. This process also isolates and marginalizes those who will from those who won’t.

        The example of the Birmingham church bombings is interesting. While we have collectively rejected the norms of overt racists, I would argue we still, to this day, not completely triumphed over the defenders of the Confederacy. They still wage a continual guerrilla war to defend and exonerate in history books. Its a good example of how they as stakeholders continually demand inclusion of their norms into our society.

        I could, for example loudly announce a “Death To The Confederacy Day”, and stage a ceremonial burning and desecration of the Confederate flag.

        If I did this in Los Angeles, most people would shrug in bewilderment.
        If I did it in Alabama, there is a good possibility that violence would break out.

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      • Just in case there’s someone who honestly doesn’t get it: CIS is not claiming that he is racist, sexist, homophobic, etcetera. He’s trying to get you to admit that there’s Some Things You Just Can’t Say, at which point he says “ah ha, so it looks like there’s some things you’d rather be banned after all, despite your insistence that the right to free speech trumps people’s right to not feel harmed! You’re a hypocrite and I don’t have to listen to anything you say.”

        Or else he gets into increasingly horrible things, and you say “well, it’s just words, I don’t think that should be banned”, at which point he says “ah ha, so you think these awful things are OK to say, that must mean you agree with them on some level! You’re a horrible person and I don’t have to listen to anything you say.”

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  11. I want to publicly apologize to for my mini-outburst earlier. I was in a bit of a cranky mood — having just woken up after a poor night’s sleep — and conflated my disagreement with the content of his argument with other, unrelated things… namely his use of my comment in the OP here. He did my comment — and me — justice in using it and going off on that was improper and of little constructive value. So, Murali, my bad dude. Hopefully no hard feelings.

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  12. (TFICH)

    Honestly, I think everyone is just looking at PC wrong. It isn’t an attempt to apply coercion to control your speech, it’s an opportunity to improve your insulting game.

    “You throw badly” is a potential insult, but it lands more like a bland criticism. It’s doesn’t have the sting of a good insult.

    “You throw like a girl” carries the sting, but let’s be honest here, this is pee-wee league insulting. I expect this kind of trash talk from pre-schoolers. It’s imperative to nip this kind of lazy insulting in the bud early, don’t let bad habits form.

    “You throw like a quadriplegic” is a step up, but is kinda mean to quadriplegics, who have it pretty rough as it is compared to a normal person who can’t throw.

    “You throw like a Sea Sponge” avoids insulting any sentient group, except maybe SpongeBob, but just doesn’t really sting the way you want it to.

    “You throw like Russell Wilson” might have some sting, but really only to football fans.

    See, this can get tough.

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  13. It’s disheartening to come back to the conversation only to find a group of reactionaries patting each other on the back about how it’s so annoying to be told they can’t call chicks broads any more…

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  14. The problem with the half-way houses is they often don’t lead to a better kind of social morality, but people move in and live there. The question about making certain words taboo is does it really lead to a better kind of social morality or become a sort of pseudo-solution?

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