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Sunday, 20 September 2015

Moderation Squared

Being Offended

If I have a general philosophy in life, it is "moderation in moderation". I believe that most of the time the middle ground is the safe, sensible and above all correct place to be. Occasionally, you've got to throw caution to the wind and go run naked through a field, or something, but most of the time this is a stupid thing to do. Unless you're a cat.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how this can apply to free speech. I make a point of trying to follow news sources which go against my own staunchly left-wing political bias, if for no other reason than to hear what evil schemes the other side are plotting. And recently it seems the political right has decided that the left, far from being the bastion of tolerance it so strongly professes to be, is actually a remarkably intolerant place.

Well, needless to say I don't believe that, but there are some things I'm concerned about.

The great paradox for toleration is how we respond to those who are themselves intolerant. It's generally reckoned that accepting people who hold discriminatory views is no real form of tolerance, but just a way of allowing their bigotry to flourish, a tacit agreement with what they say. At least that's the general mood of the internet.

And yet it's easy to accept people's views when you agree with them or just don't care. But whenever someone says something we genuinely don't like, there seems to be always a reaction from at least a few people that this is unacceptable*, regardless of whether it's an issue about toleration or not. The word, "increasingly" would fit into that sentence with tempting ease, but I'm not going to even try and analyse whether that's the case or not.

* A very interesting article though I don't agree with all of it.

Whenever someone says, "I find this offensive", I immediately think of Socrates. He would roam the streets of Athens being obnoxious and offensive to everyone he met. He would do this in the most obnoxious and offensive way possible : by telling the truth. In this case, Socrates was concerned that his fellow citizens were becoming lazy, arrogant, and above all, corrupt :
"My very good friend, you are an Athenian and belong to a city which is the greatest and most famous in the world for its wisdom and strength. Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul ?"
He also knew exactly how this would turn out, even in that most popular icon of freedom and democracy :
"Please do not be offended if I tell you the truth. No man on earth who conscientiously opposes either you or any other organized democracy, and flatly prevents a great many wrongs and illegalities from taking place in the state to which he belongs, can possibly escape with his life."
Just because you don't like something doesn't mean it isn't true. Then again, most people who are "speaking their mind" aren't great philosophers, they're just jerks (read that link, it'll take you 30 seconds and you won't regret it).

Being offended by something doesn't mean you're right to be offended by it. On the contrary, Socrates was particularly offensive because he told people truths they didn't want to hear. This is why if you want to go down the "I'm offended by this" route, if you want anything to actually happen as a result of it then you must also explain what you find offensive, what harm it's doing to yourself or others, and, most importantly, why it's not true. Because if you're offended by the truth, then that's just tough on you*.

* By which I mean, of course, not, "I'm offended by this horribly unnecessary injustice", but cases of, "I'm offended by this unavoidable fact of reality". We'll see some examples of this soon.

Being Free

Take the issue of gay rights. Those opposed seem to be under the impression that they are somehow being discriminated against because they don't agree with the (now majority) position that gay people are entitled to equal rights. Star Trek put this very eloquently :

"We have not injured you in any way". I have not heard a single (remotely credible) counter-argument to this. What exactly is it that gay people have done to straight people that causes such offence ? Answer : nothing. Game set and match - being offended by people being gay is manifestly stupid. The rights deniers are in the wrong, they are not being offended for any logical reason.

... but, on the other hand, the Kim Davis case has me worried. Not very worried, but a little bit worried. Kim was jailed for refusing to issue single-sex marriage licenses. We can't stop Kim from being offended (that is an impossibility), but it seems we can stop her from advocating her position. Now this is perilously close to violating the Takei principle of free speech :

The thing is, government intervention did happen in this case, albeit for actions rather than words. Sure, being offended by homosexuality is stupid, but... really, a jail sentence ? The internet has produced some quite wonderful memes, of which my favourite is this :

... but really an actual jail sentence ? For not doing her job ? It's not like she's a firefighter or an ambulance driver. She issues marriage licenses, for heaven's sake. Jailing someone because their religious beliefs prevent them from this, however stupid I might find those beliefs, does not sit well with me. It seems far too close to jailing people on the basis of their beliefs alone. Or to put it another way, if you don't let people say things you don't like, you aren't really advocating free speech at all.

I mean obviously if someone doesn't do their job, you fire them. In extreme cases you ban them from holding that job again. It's just a bit unusual that you jail someone as well.

EDIT : Important point of clarification. Kim couldn't be fired because she was an elected official. An elected official refusing to obey the law makes the case rather more complicated than I initially realised. Oops ! My mistake. Government intervention in this case was unavoidable. After aggrieved couples filed a successful lawsuit, Kim was found in contempt of court for continuing to refuse marriage licenses. So, the jail sentence is (arguably) another step removed from the root cause of the court case - of course, anyone can be jailed for being in contempt of court.

One could, however, still argue that her continued persistence in following her beliefs rather than the law resulted in a jail sentence. She couldn't have been fired, so the alternative was a fine (which was rejected as it was believed others would pay it for her), or she could have chosen to resign. She did not - so, essentially, she chose to go to jail for her beliefs, which is very different from the state deciding that this was the only course of action. That she didn't choose to resign ties in nicely with the next section.

This particular article, if you want an alternative viewpoint, argues that Kim couldn't resign because that would be like a mathematics teacher being forced to teach that 2+2 = 5. It isn't true, of course, because marriage more than anything else is a social construct, not an objective fact about the nature of reality. That it has historically been between a man and a woman has no bearing whatsoever on what society deems it to be today. Historically, slavery was deemed to be entirely natural. Kim was free to resign - but obviously that option does not leave her free to do her job, which I'll return to shortly.

The reason I'm only a little bit worried about this is that if we apply the classic "what if they were black ?" test, it fails. Individuals are no better or worse because they're gay or straight than if they're black or white, and if Kim had refused to marry a so-called "mixed race" couple she'd have been run out of town (or so one would hope). We'll get back to racism in a moment. Still, using just a little caution here seems prudent.

Then there are the more common cases where no-one was jailed, but forced by angry twitter mobs to resign for saying unpopular things. That worries me far more : a wider trend where freedom of speech results in very public humiliation and resignations. Do we really have freedom of speech if the consequences of that freedom are so extreme ? Surely we need more than freedom from jail sentences for people to express themselves. Yes, you should be fired for not doing your job, but surely not for simply expressing controversial opinions.

"Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences", as xkcd says - but that's only true up to a point. If saying certain things is a guarantee that you'll lose your job, then you're hardly free to say those things.

Social justice... or mob rule ?

The Kim case is only slightly worrying because this was a clear case of not tolerating intolerance. Time for some more examples. There was Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor, who wore a provocative shirt (perceived as, though not actually, demeaning to women) and was forced to profusely apologise. I've already covered that one in exhausting detail (skip down to page 3). More recently there was Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate who was forced to resign for making a stupid joke. You've probably heard that already. What you may not have heard is the full context of the joke :
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls ? 
Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me."
I refrained from commenting on the quote when it first emerged because we only had the first paragraph. Even then, I found it highly dubious whether this was a hanging offence. People fall in love in labs ? You mean people of similar interests working closely together ? OH MY GOD, THE HORROR !

Yeah, OK, the "when you criticise them they cry" bit is patronising and stupid, but as far as I can determine, in his subsequent interviews he didn't defend this or the (not serious) idea of separate labs - only his opinion that workplace relationships are a problem. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, but you could say the same about any profession. And to me it seems like one hell of a stretch from "workplace relationships are difficult" to "the lab is not a singles bar". Workplace relationships are going to happen whether you like it or not. Deal with it.
The #DistractinglySexy hashtag was funny but, I venture, somewhat cruel and a classic example of the internet leaping instantly to conclusions that are not really borne out by the facts (I recommend reading that link). 
It seems to me that this was indeed no more than an idiotic joke. Are we feminists so insecure that we cannot stand to have a prominent figure make a one-off* joke, however awful ? Seriously ? Is our position really that weak that we must silence not only the genuine hard-line critics (who are mostly deluded liars) but also those just, very occasionally, being a bit daft ? I hope not.

* This matters. Every single person alive, bar none, has said or done something they later regret. 

Then we have people being genuinely offended by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refusing to sing the national anthem. I mean, good grief, an agnostic republican refusing to sing a dull and dreary song about God saving the monarch ! Outrageous. He should apparently "learn to be a grown up", because obviously singing a song about a divine, possibly fictional deity he doesn't believe in, saving an 89 year old obscenely wealthy and powerful woman he's never met from a host of unspecified dangers, is clearly the only sensible course of action for an adult, responsible political leader who doesn't want to be seen as a raging hypocrite. What the hell is wrong with people ? This is a textbook case of people being offended not because something genuinely harmful actually happened, but because they are stupid.

Unless you think it isn't possible to stand in respectful silence ?

Yet of course there are examples of people saying truly awful things who, in accordance with moderation squared, deserve punishment. James Watson remains a horrible racist, despite the fact that the DNA he helped discover indicates that race is largely a social construct. So yeah, when someone like him says something appalling, I think we do have to respond quite forcefully.

The moderation squared approach compels me to tread very lightly. On Google+ I have blocked only 1 follower (out of nearly 1700 at the present time) in the four years I've been using it. That was for the exceptional comment about "black African males making disgusting animal noises". Now, I've got a lot of followers with whom I profoundly disagree about certain topics. I even follow some of them back. But then I've got real-life very close friends with whom I have strong disagreements. However such abject racism* is far beyond my tolerance threshold : if I let this person continue expressing themselves on my stream, I'll be guilty of letting them promote vile, hate-filled, completely disproven pseudoscientific nonsense.

* I am most definitely not talking about real controversies like positive discrimination here. There is a vast and clear difference between that and racial hatred.

But the m^2 approach tells me that I should be reluctant to limit someone's free speech in even this small way. Indeed, I didn't delete their comments. I simply don't want that person continue to spread their faeces all over my posts. Moreover, in this particular case, racism is such an utterly disproved notion that it's not controversial, it's just wrong, and I don't even have to mention how damaging it is. I do, however, keep in mind another quote from Socrates :
"You have brought about my death in the belief that through it you will be delivered from submitting your conduct to criticism, but I say that the result will be just the opposite... If you expect to stop denunciation of your wrong way of life by putting people to death, there is something amiss with your reasoning. This way of escape is neither possible nor creditable. The best and easiest way is not to stop the mouths of others, but to make yourselves as good men as you can."
All true, and yet I doubt Socrates would have approved of spreading messages of racial hatred had he lived through the twentieth century. The m^2 approach allows for these rare, exceptional extremes which require quite different treatment from normal criticism. With a force as destructive as racism, I have few qualms about censorship. There are rare times when freedom of speech is not such a noble virtue, and can even become a vice.

On the lighter and more bizarre side, recently there was a call to ban sex robots. Which are a thing, apparently.

Supposedly such robots are demeaning to women and damaging to relationships, despite the fact that they are not. I don't feel the need to explain why this is incredibly stupid, so I won't. Well, except to say that this is basically banning people from fantasising about sex*. It doesn't make any sense at all. But then, as with gay rights, for some reason people do love to try and legislate about what we can and can't do with our genitals. To which I say :

* I'll let you in on a secret : male fantasies don't tend to involve much in the way of fully-developed, loving relationships. GASP !

Slightly more seriously, there are examples of people actively seeking to accuse people of intolerance and radical beliefs as a sort of weapon, which goes far beyond the at least well-intentioned knee-jerk twitter responses to controversial comments. This is a problem which is far from unique to over-zealous feminists or the political left. Currently it's being employed with avengeance against Jeremy Corbyn, with articles featuring statements which are simply factually wrong.

Summary and Conclusions

It would be extremely foolish to say that there's an easy way to tell who's right when someone offends someone else. People most certainly can be offended by things they really shouldn't be offended by at all. The main lesson from "moderation squared" is simple caution and benefit of the doubt : are you quite sure that your opponent is wrong and promoting something that is harmful ? You are, and you can prove it ? Alright then, you may now try to stop them. You're not ? You have even just a little doubt ? Well then, present your counter-arguments, but don't petition for a ban just yet.

There are plenty of horrible people in the world, and social media is an incredibly powerful force for change. Like any source of power, it's dangerous. Is it not reasonable to suggest that when someone says something controversial, it might be better to wait until you have all the facts before jumping to a conclusion and attacking them in 140 characters or less ?

Individual tweets may not be damaging, but the collective actions of thousands can have a serious impact. It's rather disappointing that people are so quick to respond so forcefully to throwaway comments from people they've never even met. How they feel justified in claiming to fully understand people's motives so quickly without all the facts in hand is beyond me.

Three recent articles make some valuable points. The Guardian describes how having "freedom from" means that societies are safer but weaker. In the name of having "freedom from" terrorism, we're safer but easier to control  : governments can take away our "freedom to" express ourselves. The Atlantic has a popular article ostensibly about "trigger warnings", but more importantly about why shielding ourselves from unpopular ideas is self-destructive and dangerous. Finally, Spiked gets a little too cross with feminists, but makes the important point that women are being seen as incredibly vulnerable and in need of protection from even the most minor of misdemeanours.

The m^2 approach doesn't say we must never censor anything - just that we have to be very careful about it. I do not agree with every point in the articles linked throughout this post, but I am worried that censorship (or something close to it) is being used as a first response rather than a last resort. I do not think the left is so incredibly intolerant - but I do think there's a danger of that, and we're not examining our own behaviour closely enough. I'll give the last words to Socrates :
"This is the hardest thing of all to make some of you understand. If I say that this would be disobedience to God, and that is why I cannot 'mind my own business,' you will not believe that I am serious. If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me. Nevertheless that is how it is, gentlemen, as I maintain, though it is not easy to convince you of it."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I enjoyed your article. I believe in free speech.

    I think it is important to try and separate a person from their beliefs. We need to love people, even if we disagree with their point of view. Too often people are despised, hated, and rejected because of what they believe.

    You might find this link of interest:

    Kim Davis was acting by this principle: "Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it." Albert Einstein

    I wrote a fable about free speech called "The Sasquatch Who Spoke His Mind." If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback: