Free Speech, Terrible Ideas, and The Internet
The other weekend I wrote about the Trump Phenomena, and its connection to social media supplanting traditional media gatekeepers. An old colleague of mine shared it into his network on Facebook, breaking my filter bubble, and resulting in a spirited response from a Trump supporter, which was awesome:
[Outlandish Josh's] devotion to the First Amendment is really ankle deep. He likes free speech as long as the speaker agrees. Everything else, he's ok with suppressing...
What it comes down to is, "We can't rely on the establishment to silence people who don't agree with us anymore, so we'll just have to do it ourselves."
One of the things I appreciate about Trump is that he's forcing the liberal brownshirts to show their true colors.
Liberal Brownshirt! Amazing. It got me thinking about what I really mean by "stick a big fat stake into the heart of some of the most malignant political ideas that stalk the land." More to the point, how does this dialectic thing actually work, and what if anything does it have to do with free speech?
At the same time, there's also some Internet drama I'm casually following around a programming get together called LambdaConf, and whether or not a particular speaker should be invited to speak or not due to the fact that he's a foundational figure for a noxious bloom of reactionary thought known as "The Dark Enlightenment". I'll explain the details later.
I submit that these are not disconnected things. I see a through line — ideas, motifs, and maybe even literal people — from the dark trollish depths of 4chan to the online face of Trump supporters. I'm not the only one who sees it; the NYT is on the story too.
All of this is driving my contrarian train of thought about how the internet, instead of being humanity's best chance for global coordination and harmonious interoperability, might just ruin everything.
To recap: bullshit is easier to manufacture than to refute, and the web is nurturing the darkest aspects of our nature. In a world where the worst modes of social behavior (and associated ideologies which justify them) can find ample, anonymous soil, how can we expect liberty, equality, and solidarity prevail?
I'm still optimistic, but a bit more sharply so thanks to the headwind.
Free Speech as a Right
Let's warm up with a few easy layups. Speech as a right, by which I mean what we in the US enjoy as part of our Constitution, pertains to what the government can or cannot do to you as a result of what you say, and to a lesser extent what liability you might face in civil court if someone wanted to sue you. It's not an unlimited right. You can't yell fire in a crowded theater, traffic in child porn, or (probably) recruit for ISIS, but for the most part our government — the only entity that can detail or kill you under color of law — is pretty hands off when it comes to what you say. I think that's good. I think most people agree.
But with that off the table, there is no right to speak without rebuke, protest, ridicule, etc. The risk of being socially ostracized because of your speech is a critical part of how the whole deal works, as we'll see. People have the right to ignore you. People have the right to send their own speech right back at you. They have the right to shame you. Indeed, public shame is one of the most important non-violent ways in which a community enforces norms.
Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. At the extreme end of things, thanks to our free-market approach and the prevalence of at-will employment, people can and do get fired for saying stuff on the internet. This is often problematic, but it's part of the world we live in, and the legalities that permit this are interconnected with the same ideology of liberty that makes free speech a priority.
Also, beyond the issue of consequences from speech, there is no right to a forum, a hearing, or a platform. These are things one earns by winning over other human beings in the public sphere, or by creating ones own space. Not only is there no such thing as a right to an audience, you also cannot compel a venue to invite you to speak.
Finally, in any venue or forum which is governed by a community, the norms of that community will determine who is invited to speak, sometimes resulting in invitations being rescinded when new information comes to light. This is all normal and to be expected. It's not a 1st amendment thing, man.
Free Speech as a Virtue
Of course, "free of speech" is more than a legal right; it's also a value, a virtue, an ideal, even an ideology. That's what the debates are usually about when people talk about whether speakers are invited to campuses or conferences or the like: how well are we living up to the ideals of free speech.
What is to be done when someone holds dangerous or repugnant ideas? We can recognize the virtue of a diversity of opinion and political debate without having to invite everyone to broadcast their views. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it", is actually not a thing Voltaire ever said or wrote, probably because he was smarter than that.
Let's use White Nationalism as the example, because unlike that faux Voltaire quote, it is a real thing that's actually happening. There are people who are actively working at this, using their freedom of speech to create new, novel, modern justifications for racism, up to and including the need to exterminate non-white human beings.
These are Terrible Ideas. They're terrible because they have powerful negative real-world consequences, and the internet is helping to them to spread. Without websites like stormfront, it's far less likely that Dylann Roof would have killed those people in Charleston SC. The FBI refers to actors like this as "lone wolves", which sounds kind of awesome, but it's the same dynamic as people who "self radicalize" to the ISIS worldview.
Speech can drive terrorism. It can lead to violence. And obviously it can be harmful (e.g. harassment, bullying, etc) even if it never gets physical. What do you do with that? Not with the literal attacking, but the speech that creates a justification and worldview where that sort of thing is appropriate, even celebrated?
Potential Responses to Terrible Ideas
The first, easiest, and often best response to problematic speech is to ignore it. Don't feed the trolls. Wickedness poisons itself. In the micro/individual context, this is almost always the correct decision. However, this starts to feel like a poor strategy when you see the Terrible Ideas are spreading. Feels a bit like we're turning a blind eye, and at the risk of referencing another quotation of dubious origin, all that's required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
The obvious alternative is to engage your opponents, to try and change their minds directly. This can actually work as studies have shown. Something as simple as a human conversation can trigger a real change of heart. However, this is difficult to do at scale, and probably won't work as well if the opponent is hardened in their views.
So the next level of engagement would be to debate, to contest ideas where third parties can witness and therefore there's an opportunity to "defeat" the ideas in front of an audience, hopefully driving a change of heart on the part of those who witness. There are dramatic instances of this working, but these contests are far more often a split decision than a knockout, and still depend on good-faith participation from both parties, which is often hard to obtain from trollish types.
Another method is to declare the opponents unwelcome within your community, denying them access to a platform and any of its benefits. This is where there's a lot of debate on campuses. Personally I think it's unfortunate that the No Platform tactic is often framed in terms of a "safe space", which while laudable also lends itself to an infantilizing narrative, which is super-unhelpful for student activists.
The way I see it, non-violent protest — including strikes, boycotts, and blockades — are all legitimate tools in the interconnected marketplace of ideas. Organizing to deny Terrible Ideas access to a platform represent something much more than creating safe spaces. These are material contributions to the dialectic process. Students taking power in setting their community norms is the opposite of infantilization. Politics is the art of controlling your environment. Participate!
People can also go on the offensive, acting out as the aggressor, by protesting or otherwise trying to make things difficult for Terrible Ideas in other forums, maybe even taking it to their opponents' home turf. Again, boycotts and picket lines are the classic examples, but #BLM disruptions at Trump rallies fit right in here as well, as does shitposting in other peoples message boards.
This is one of the many places where the internet makes things tricky, demands us to think critically about the whole picture. Giving pseudonymous and anonymous speech equal power radically shifts the moral equation. It is known that human beings frequently behave very badly under these conditions, and this turns a lot of the classic assumptions about speech on their head, as we'll see.
On Defeating Terrible Ideas
So what was I on about with putting stakes through the hearts of ideas? I think it's the middle option: debate.
Defeating Terrible Ideas isn't silencing them. It's discrediting them. It is not just changing people's minds, convincing them they made a mistake, but getting people to recant, ashamed to have held the ideas in the first place. Terrible Ideas may require this kind of treatment to ever go away. It's why truth and reconciliation committees exist, for instance: to complete a process of contrition.
But ideas are really hard to defeat, particularly when their proponents are not interested in engaging in good faith. There's a reason terms like "recant" might feel a bit uncomfortable. I mean it, but it's a really high bar to clear. Vigorous opposition against ideas from a position of strength can easily turn to oppression, driving whatever it is underground, outside of "polite conversation", to places where beyond living on, it may in fact grow stronger and more virulent. The dark corners of the internet, for instance. We have the be vigilant against that.
This is the one upside of the Trump Phenomena: it's fair fight, happening in the open. For over 50 years one of the two major political parties in the US has had a coalition that has included not only overt racists, but nudge-nudge/wink-wink dogwhistle racial animus as one of the foundational aspects of their electoral strategy. As Clay Shirky points out in a great set of tweets, this is not new, but because of Trump this is finally blooming in public, and being recognized and reported upon.
The GOP has been gas-lighting white nationalists for 50 years, slowly turning down their ability to say what they want to say out loud.
— Clay Shirky (@cshirky) April 9, 2016
Trump is a terrible target as an individual, unlikely to ever personally provide the kind of ideological waterloo I'd hope for. The presidential debate process is far too flawed, and he's not going to engage in good faith anyway. But the fact that he uses a bullhorn instead of a dogwhistle, and has exposed the GOP party establishment in doing so, is bringing the whole complex of Terrible Ideas (and the fact that they have widespread support) out into the open.
That's what's awesome. It's doing more to drive an honest conversation on race and politics that even the election of the first Black President, which is saying something. It brings the Terrible Ideas to the fore, in a context where direct engagement is possible, and we "Liberal Brownshirts" have the rare opportunity to combat them directly.
It's important that this fight happens, because the prevailing mode in this country is to pretend like a lot of these problems don't exist. That's not unnatural, because humans tend to avoid conflict, and maybe that's even a good thing, usually. But it may not be the best when you have white nationalism festering in the system.
I don't think it's likely that the Trump Moment results in a knockout blow, but I do think there's a strong chance that Terrible Ideas get in the ring against milquetoast liberalism, and go down in an unambiguous defeat. Hopefully we can not only accomplish this, but also use the moment as a wake-up call, reassess our situation, and start representing our own side in a better, less milquetoastish way.
About That Conference Drama
Now I'm going to tie this into some nerdy inside baseball drama that won't ever make the evening news, but feels imminently connected to me, and also key in helping me reach a conclusion about what is to be done. It may not be your world, but it's still drama, so at a minimum it should at least be interesting.
So there's a conference for Functional Programming called LambdaCon. Compared to my world of web-makers, it draws a high-end crowd: people with advanced degrees in math and CS, working on things like AI and Big Data. Pretty heady stuff. Anyway, this year there's capital-d Drama because one of their speakers is Curtis Yarvin, who has written extensively and pseudonymously online about his Terrible Ideas:
Yarvin's online writings, many under his pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, convey blatantly racist views. He expresses the belief that white people are genetically endowed with higher IQs than black people. He has suggested race may determine whether individuals are better suited for slavery, and his writing has been interpreted as supportive of the institution of slavery.
More than just writing down a bunch of Terrible Ideas, Yarvin has developed a significant following. He's popular, a kind of founding father figure among the "Neoreactionaries" or those who delight in the "Dark Enlightenment."
As a result of all this, a bunch of people said he should't be given a platform, even on an unrelated topic. That's an strong position to take — it falls into the aggressive category to me, as it's not denying a platform for the Terrible Ideas themselves, but rather for the holder of Terrible Ideas more on principle. But one can imagine people feeling like someone with these views has no place in their community. That's a legitimate position.
However, LambdaConf eventually decided to keep him on the roster, which is also entirely their right. Their argument is that he's there to talk about his programming work, not his politics, and they don't want politics to intrude on their professional conference. Unfortunately for them, it's too late for that. They were not at all prepared for what they've gotten into. Here's one of the organizers on their rationale:
[The conference] organizers could not find reason to dis-invite him absent concerns that he would act violently. "I guess, by analogy, I wouldn't ban Muslims because other Muslims are extremists," she says.
That's a shamefully poor analogy. Really, just awful. Referencing "Muslims" in this way is the same as someone objecting to a speaker's inclusion based on the fact that he or she is a practicing catholic, and the IRA is a terrorist organization. A more accurate analogy would be to say you can't dis-invite a radical cleric who's published a number of fatwahs explaining why infidels are less than fully human, because he himself is a pious individual and not a violent man.
Whatever. I can disagree with their decision, and their half-assed logic about it, but that's their call as organizers, which is their right. But I don't think you can say it's crazy or fascist to think about not inviting him to speak, or to think about boycotting or protesting if he does. Absolute tolerance for all speech is a fairly extreme position, and this community is going through the social process of figuring out where they sit with that.
Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle. The troll armies are now organizing to go after individuals who spoke out against Yarvin:
However, I criticized @lambda_conf in public, and now I am targeted for harassment by white supremacists. This *is* real harm. @jdegoes
— mcc (@mcclure111) April 10, 2016
And so it goes. The organizers' desire to run a conference "free of politics" at this point seems hopelessly naive. Code is the new law, and you can't be neutral on a moving train. If you feel like your life is "free of politics," it's probably because you're at or near the top of the food chain and nobody happens to giving you any grief about it at the moment. Or you've found utopia. If the latter, send us a note so we can join you.
Ignorance isn't Bliss
I first got wind of this from one of my favorite tweeps, Jeff Eaton:
ATTN FRIENDS DO NOT GOOGLE MOLDBUG
— Jeff Eaton (@eaton) March 28, 2016
It's the classic "don't feed the trolls" response. And yeah, I mean, part of me wishes I never had to learn that this was a thing. But I don't think ignorance is bliss in this situation. The influence is real. Here's a shining example of humanity who showed up in response to those Clay Shirky tweets I referenced above:
@cshirky You've got most of this right. I laughed at the bit about the media's "studied neutrality". Read Moldbug to loosen your own biases.
— Not Sam Hyde (@OccultMemeKing) April 9, 2016
@cshirky I work a white collar job and live among progressives. I seem apolitical, because my true beliefs lie outside the Overton Window.
— Not Sam Hyde (@OccultMemeKing) April 9, 2016
As I said, there's a through-line between Yavin's white supremacy reboot, the nihilists of 4chan, the "Alt Right" of Breitbart Inc, and the current frontrunner of the GOP. I don't think it's a good idea to let this slide. It's bigger than some guy at a conference, and the first step to finding a solution is admitting that there's a problem.
Back to Virtue for a Second
There's an important point I want to make here that has to do with free speech as a virtue, and how that equation changes with the rise of anonymous or pseudonymous publishing online.
In the lengthy blog post from conference organizers outlining their decision, they included excerpts of correspondence between themselves and Yavin, in which he says something interesting:
My pen name has been “doxed,” but professionally I behave as if it was a secret.
First of all, he wasn't really doxed, but more importantly why does he behave as if his political writing were a secret? I think it's because he knows that if he had to actually stand behind his political beliefs, he would have a much harder time making his way in the world.
Likewise, the individual who responded to Clay with "My colleagues see me as apolitical because my views like outside the Overton Window." Sounds pretty edgy and cool, except what I'm pretty sure he means is: "my colleagues see me as apolitical because I do not express my views to them." Again, because his life would be made difficult and complex if everyone knew he was a white nationalist.
Everyone is the hero of their own story, and to these people the fact that they have to hide their ideas may actually make it all the more thrilling, like V for Vendetta or something:
His followers dwell in the shadows. They write under pseudonyms because they fear that their published thoughts will turn their friends, families, and employers against them.
There does feel to be a connection between the "reactionary" part of their beliefs and the thrill of transgression. Many of these writers make a point of saying how they are embedded within liberal enclaves (presumably because they enjoy the quality of life). This is an insidious part of how persistent Terrible Ideas like racial supremacy keep coming back and spreading. The whole, "you always knew it was true, but you just weren't allowed to say it" angle. Ugh.
Anyway, my point is about the Virtue of speech in an era of easy pseudonymity. I'll quickly stipulate that the ability to publish anonymously is really important. It's an release valve for civil society, an important check against institutional oppression.
However, these people aren't afraid of the gestapo. They're afraid of being pariahs. If you're afraid that having your name associated with your speech will turn your friends and family against you, maybe that's because your Ideas are Terrible, and you should spend some time reflecting on all of this.
To the extent that we are building a civilization together, it's very hard for pseudonymously published speech to carry the same Virtue as that which is made by a person, specifically because it's so easy to say off-the-wall things when your name isn't attached to it. It cheapens the act.
This gets back to the whole idea of Free Speech not being "consequence-free speech." People who advocate for radical or controversial ideas are investing their personal social capital in those ideas. They have skin in the game. Even if the Ideas are Terrible, there's at least an abstract virtue there.
If you can't put your name on your ideas because a global conspiracy will crush you, check yourself: you might be paranoid. If you can't do so because you're afraid your mom or co-worker will read them, you need to think about how much you really believe in this stuff.
History is full of intellectual iconoclasts who walked away from socially secure positions to move things forward. Half-assing it with some pen-name blog on the internet won't earn you very much respect.
My feeling is that we can't just ignore this stuff or laugh it off. The literal aims of Neoreactionaries (disassembling democracy) are not going to come to pass, but to the extent that they are cross-pollenating with the nihilistic troll brigades of GamerGate, and creating an intellectual foundation for White Nationalists to organize, and to the extent that all of these are a very real factor in one of the two major political parties in this country... well yeah. It's not funny.
So I have to take it seriously, at least for a minute. And to be honest, in digging around the edges of the Neoreactionary scene one of the things I felt was a kind of jealousy. The Ideas are Terrible, and the arguments are accordingly flawed, but there's a level of vigor that you don't see in mainstream politics or on the post-marxist left.
I think that's why their ranks are growing. I think there's something very important in this critique of the emerging progressivism:
At their worst, Progressives are intellectual bullies. They delegitimize rather than attempt to persuade those who disagree with them.
Which is very much the spirit in which that guy called me a "Liberal Brownshirt," I think. They have an overblown sense of oppression. One of the core (and also borderline paranoid) tenants for these people is that there's an establishment force they call "The Cathedral", encompassing popular culture, academia, and much of the government, that perpetuates Progressivism, primarily by condemning alternative viewpoints.
That's kooky, but there's a thread of truth in there. In particular the critique that liberalism lacks many strong positive voices, and often defends itself from critique through condemnation or delegitimization. This passing paragraph I read on Slate Star Codex sticks in my mind:
I mean, I’ve read a lot of articles condemning racism, and accusing people of racism, and being very upset about the racism inherent in society. But this might be the first one I’ve ever read to argue against it.
The emphasis is in the original, and this is kind of astounding — as is the Anti Racist FAQ being referenced; definitely zomething different — because it's so true. I think it comes from the fact that some of of the central tenants of Liberalism have become an accepted part of mainstream culture, so we don't debate it anymore.
There's a tendency to move on once you feel you've won. That's natural, but it's also risky in this case. I think we're seeing the downside of assuming that the moral progress made over the latter part of the 20th Century was a done deal. The arguments for universal human dignity, the moral imperative towards inclusion, the utilitarian case for diversity and egalitarianism... these are largely artifacts of history. We learn them in parable form as children, but rarely deeply enough to advance the case ourselves.
All of which brings me back to Trump.
Pointing out the weakness or lack of legitimacy in his proposals and positions will probably be more than enough to insure that he is defeated. It might be enough that he doesn't even get the nomination. However, it will not be an effective way to deal with the larger phenomena that he's tapping into, the shit he's stirring up, which was always there by the way. Terrible Ideas are a generational challenge.
In order to confront that, we need a renewed, vigorous argument for the precoious things we have now, and that we want from the future, things which make so much sense, but for which nobody (at least few in a position of prominence) seems to take a stand for, or articulate in a clear and compelling manner. This is everything from western medicine to scientific progress, to the broader cause of social justice.
It's probably not enough to mock anti-vaxxers, to condemn police violence inflicted on young black men, to agitate for divestment from fossil fuels, etc. These are all laudable things, but are they enough? Is it working? I don't feel confident about taht. But when we assume that the moral and practical arguments are a fait accompli, we may win a tactical battle but lose a more fundamental war of ideas.
In an earlier section of this admittedly overly long blog post, I ran through a spectrum of possible reactions to Terrible Ideas. The obvious missing tactic on that list is to counter-promote Good Ideas, and to do so in such a compelling way that they win out. For example, I think if we had more people making the clear, compelling case for an egalitarian society, we'd have fewer people falling down the rabbit hole of racial prejudice.
This seems pretty important to me — a way to move beyond the Smug Style in American Liberalism — and worth investing in going forward. More on this in the coming weeks.
Special thanks to Sam Boyer for getting me on this train of thought, plus Katherine Bailey, Nathaniel Catchpole, and Katherine Senzee for driving a lively set of threads on the Twitters. Also to John Cesario for breaking my filter bubble, and Jason Steiner for calling me a Liberal Brownshirt.