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Showing posts with label Discourse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Discourse. Show all posts
The left is probably going to lose on climate change - 5/16/17
Freddie deBoer has written a post taking aim at leftists who are "contemptuous of the essential work of persuasion but totally unable to articulate an alternative." To be fair, he specifically calls out Angus Johnston amid a debate over the Milo Yiannopoulos protests, and I'm not sure how far beyond that context his point extends. Still, this seems fairly sweeping:
Here’s the idea: we build a mass left-wing movement for change by persuading those who are able to be persuaded through appeals to their enlightened self-interest and their desire to build a better world. Then, we will have enough people on our side to take power through democratic governance and show the rest that our way is better for everyone. And we do all this through the slow, unsexy work of politics, which means going to meetings, walking picket lines, writing pamphlets, doing local radio, shaking hands, and yes, having a dialogue to convince others to join our cause. That’s it, that’s the only possible way to win.
On most political fronts, I think this is good advice - but there's at least one where I think it's dead wrong. And I think the left needs to understand that it's wrong, because as long as we keep thinking of the climate change challenge as one of mass persuasion, we're going to lose. Derrick Jensen:
It is our prediction that there will be no mass movement, not in time to save this planet, our home...If we had a thousand years, even a hundred years, building a movement to transform the dominant institutions around the globe would be the task before us. But...the usual approach of long, slow institutional change has been foreclosed, and many of us know that.
This is not the perspective of dilettantes who are averse to the hard work of persuasion; Jensen is writing on behalf of a group of seasoned and prolific environmentalists. And their conclusion is pretty defensible. Gwynne Dyer:
[I]t is unrealistic to believe that we are really going to make those [decarbonization] deadlines. Maybe if we had gotten serious about climate change fifteen years ago, or even ten, we might have had a chance, but it's too late now...To keep the global average temperature low enough to avoid hitting some really ugly feedbacks, we need greenhouse-gas emissions to be falling by 4 per cent now, and you just can't turn the supertanker around that fast.
If these voices seem a bit too radical, here's a conservative outlook from investment banker Carlos Joly:
[T]he needed wholesale transformation of energy, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing will not happen in time...The result is that we are only forty years away from disaster. In 2052 the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will be moving toward levels that will trigger irreversible large-scale damage.
Again: if we had even a century, I could see politics-as-usual making a difference. A kitchen-table conversation here, an election victory there, and maybe your liberal-left climate change plan has slowed emissions enough to buy your scientists enough time to invent a decarbonization silver bullet. If that's where we were, there would be a lot of sense in writing those letters to the editor and having those debates with your right-wing dad and doing "the slow, unsexy work of politics" that yields so much progress elsewhere.

One can even see Freddie's mass persuasion approach as a kind of damage control, a preferable alternative to a world where we do nothing whatsoever to mitigate climate change. But even in the most optimistic forecasts where civilization improves on our present efforts,
The negative impacts will be significant...there will be more droughts, floods, extreme weather, and insect infestations. The sea level will be 0.3 meters higher, the Arctic summer ice will be gone...Acidic ocean water will bother shell-forming animals. Many species will have died out. (Randers)
And these are just the first-order consequences, ignoring the cascading problems of crop failure, drought, mass migration, war, failed states, and so on. To head off the obvious question, I don't know what can be done to avert this, or if it can be avoided at all. But for people of conscience, this outcome should be absolutely unacceptable, and we should not resign ourselves to the damage control of persuasion politics.
Nazi punching probably doesn't matter either way - 2/3/17
Controversy over the ethics and politics of Nazi-punching continues - re-ignited, this time around, by the macing of a young fascist woman. Fredrik deBoer thinks that this was bad on the grounds that she is a woman. @ItsTonyNow has tweeted out a more common line of criticism:

Meanwhile, a pretty significant faction of leftists (and even liberals) continue to support Nazi punching as an unmitigated good no matter who the Nazi happens to be, a perspective that I'm personally sympathetic to but that I also suspect is beside the point.

The point I would make here is that it probably doesn't matter either way. 

You can make fun propaganda-of-the-deed type arguments that punching Nazis is a good way to make racists afraid again, but while that may work on the specific person you happen to punch, it's pretty unlikely that leftists will actually be able to successfully engineer an enduring national climate of effective intimidation against Nazis.

Similarly, you can make all kinds of arguments that Nazi-punching is counterproductive:
Want his ideas popular? Physically assault him in front of a camera. His support base will grow simply by people sympathetic to thoughtcriminals...[And] if there ever is a crackdown, the more people you attack for what they believe or say, the more supporters will claim you deserve every bit of the treatment the fascist state gives you.
But realistically, both of these consequences would probably happen either way. If you are seriously willing to entertain sympathy for a Nazi for any reason, it was probably just a matter of time until you found an excuse; by the same token, Trump is probably already begun drafting whatever draconian anti-left executive order you can imagine, and if he can get away with rolling it out, he will whether you punch someone or not.

To me, these attempts to justify or object to Nazi-punching on consequentialist grounds read like a proxy debate for what is really a disagreement about irreconcilable principles. If your real objection to Nazi-punching is that you are a pacifist, you'll probably need to come up with a different argument against it, since most people aren't pacifists; so you'll probably try to look for pragmatic or procedural objections to Nazi-punching instead. If on the other hand you think that discourse, argumentation, ridicule and such are inadequate mediums for vying with Nazis, then you are going to have trouble communicating with people who think that the discourse is basically adequate for dealing with them. In that case, you're going to be tempted to come up with additional rationales for punching Nazis, like the theory that you'll be able to intimidate Nazis into silence.

If there's any good coming out of Nazi-punching, it's the simple fact that we're having a debate about it: long-unexamined assumptions about discourse, violence, and power are very close to the surface right now, and I think that they deserve to be examined. But as far as practical and political consequences go, I don't think it likely that any of this really matters. This is mostly a moral debate, not a strategic one.
Liberals are talking about Gandhi again - 1/23/17
Friday's counterattack against Richard Spencer has prompted the usual recriminations from liberal critics of violent protest - and among them, Clare Coffey notes, are an unusual number of appeals to absolute pacifism. It doesn't have to be that way; the simpler thing would just be to say that this particular act of violence was ill-advised, which you can do even while leaving the door open to other acts of violence. Chomsky:
...should we take our guns, go out in the street and start destroying Chase Manhattan bank? Well, if you want to get killed in five minutes that's a good suggestion...are there circumstances in which it might be justified to take up arms to overthrow a repressive government? Yeah, sure. For example, I was in favor of the conspirators who tried to kill Hitler. I think that was a good thing to do.
This isn't a particularly ambitious line of argument; Chomsky just relies on principles that most people agree with, like "avoid inconsequential suicide", to advise against violence in a particular case. A liberal who wanted to make this kind of point against punching Spencer would still be wrong, but at least he would still be operating within the intellectual and moral framework of liberalism.

Instead, we're seeing another kind of objection entirely: grand philosophical claims like "violence breeds violence" that are decisively at odds with what liberals actually believe. This point is even clearer when we consider just how many liberals are appealing to Gandhi, who consistently grounded his objections to violence in radical Hindu mysticism. Consider four of the actual arguments Gandhi made about violence against Nazis - what liberal will openly endorse this?

1. Pacifism is such an absolute moral imperative that we should even be willing to accept the complete annihilation of an ethnic minority or target nationality. Gandhi, to the people of occupied Czechoslovakia: "If Hitler is unaffected by my suffering, it does not matter. For I shall have lost nothing worth. My honour is the only thing worth preserving." On the holocaust: "The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews...if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and the God-fearing, death has no terror." To the people of Great Britain: "You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want...If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allows yourselves man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them."
2. Pacifism is worth it if it makes murderous oppressors feel bad about what they did in retrospect. "The German Jews will score a lasting victory over the German gentiles in the sense that they will have converted the latter to an appreciation of human dignity."
3. Violent defense of the oppressed deprives them of the opportunity to experience the personal growth that comes from suffering, and also delays their entrance into the afterlife. "And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [the Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength...[Death] is a joyful sleep followed by a joyful waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep."
4. Violence is never justified because Hindu metaphysics teach us that there are no such things as facts. "Satyagraha...excludes the use of violence because man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth and, therefore, not competent to punish."

None of this is to contest Gandhism itself; if you buy into his metaphysics, it makes perfect sense. Similarly, if (say) you accept the Mennonite understanding of Jubilee as "a theological concept providing insight into the nature of God...[as] a guide for living which is to be observed in normal daily practice among believers" (Sloan, 297) then it might make sense to invoke John Howard Yoder or Menno Simons in your complaints about Nazi-punching. The same goes for pacifists from Tolstoy to MLK: in every case, their ethic is embedded in a broader intellectual and philosophical framework (often with religious facets) that has to be accepted or abandoned as a whole.

Suffice to say that almost none of the people who are invoking pacifist icons and pacifist slogans like "violence begets violence" actually take any of this seriously, or even aspire to apply these principles consistently. This is at the very least hypocritical; it represents a disrespectfully opportunistic and selective approporiation from the struggles and traditions of other cultures; and it reflects, in its motivated reasoning, the liberal fetishization of order and procedure that becomes indistinguishable, in its extreme, from the inhuman operation of fascism itself.
Gaslighting, ironyboarding, and the ideological privation of language - 10/23/16
A while back I noted a recurring feature of liberal discourse - one that appears most distinctly in the sociolect of semi-erudite liberal gamers:
Just as they've invented mostly absurd theories of "sealioning"...these people have also hijacked all kinds of legitimate concepts and critiques in some of the most ridiculous ways imaginable. For instance, gaslighting...This is an indefensible (and frankly disgusting) appropriation of a concept created to protect people who are subject to serious, often life-threatening abuse...[but] The flamewars of Gamergate were, for many...the worst thing they have and will ever experience, even when they were not actually subjected to anything actually qualifying as harassment...
Recently, this popped up on my radar once again when I came across their latest innovation: "ironyboarding". A close variation of this appeared earlier today on CNN's State of the Union, when former Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer attempted to defend Donald Trump from accusations of sexual assault:
Well...he's been waterboarded by these issues. It seems like it's been somewhat of a put-up impression on Donald Trump from all these people lining up. It's just unbelievable.
Conceptually, this rhetoric is pretty straightforward: both speakers complain about what they feel are unfair attacks from a large group of people, and both compare this experience to being tortured by waterboarding. And in both cases, the move is identical with what we saw before: the speaker takes a word that we would ordinarily reserve for a far more traumatic and painful experience, and uses it to suggest that they are going through something comparable.

This move is not unique to modern internet liberals. In fact, Barthes argues that it is in fact the defining move of "bourgeois ideology itself, the process through which the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature." (Mythologies, 140)

Barthes is using the somewhat dense and idiosyncratic language of mid-twentieth century radical French philosophy here, but one of its implications is quite simple. Continually, powerless people are coming up with ways to talk about their exploitation and oppression. This language and way of talking is directly rooted in history: it expresses the lived experiences of the powerless, which are often quite painful and horrendous. For the powerful, the ability that powerless people have to talk about their shared experiences is extremely threatening. There are all kinds of things they try to do about it, censorship being one of the most blatant and draconian examples; but under capitalism, a far more common approach is for powerful people to simply co-opt the language of the powerless. Since they control so much of our culture - our news sites, our book publishers, our television, our film, and so on - this is extremely easy to do: they just use the old words in new, less threatening ways, and insist that this is what the word naturally means. This is what Barthes means when he talks about the transformation of "History into Nature". Language loses its historical connection to real oppression and exploitation; it becomes abstracted into something less threatening to the bourgeoisie, who then deny the word's history and insist that it naturally always meant something like its new meaning.

Note that none of this implies conspiracy or deliberate Orwell-style language manipulation. All that matters are two things: first, people tend to use language in ways that they find personally convenient. And second, the people who are inclined to use language in a way that isn't threatening to the bourgeoisie are the people who happen to have the most influence in how our language is used. These are the people who write our books and produce our digital media, or who at the very least consume most of it. Together, both of these facts create a systematic tendency of our culture to neutralize language, to make it less threatening to the powerful and less emancipatory for the powerless.

Once we understand this property of language - what Barthes calls its privation - it's easy to see why liberal capitalist culture is so prone to the specific kind of hyperbole we see in the co-option of "gaslighting" and "waterboarding". Both terms were developed in opposition to quite specific afflictions of the oppressed; by their historical meanings, it is absolutely impossible to "gaslight" or "waterboard" someone on the internet. But with sufficient abstraction and generalization, privileged and powerful people can leverage their control of our culture to make it seem like they, too, are experiencing something analogous to the plight of the oppressed. Note that this is not simply a problem of "appropriation", as if all forms of linguistic borrowing are equally sinister; what makes privation dangerous, specifically, is the way that the people who control our culture can use this appropriation to disempower everyone else.

Unfortunately for liberalism, privation makes language an (at best) unreliable vehicle for political progress. It will always be impossible to develop a vocabulary of critique and resistance that the powerful cannot, eventually, neutralize and co-opt for their own ends; today's rhetoric of justice and equality will always be tomorrow's rhetoric of oppression and hierarchy.

Insofar as progress has anything to do with what goes on in the discourse, then, the powerless can really only rely on two things. First, on human creativity: on the amazing, infinite ability that we always have to find new ways of describing our world and talk about our problems - our capacity to develop a new radical language just as quickly as the powerful can co-opt the old one. And second, progress depends on critical thinking: on our ability to look past the mystifications of bourgeois ideology, its appropriation of language, and to pull back that veil of rhetoric and strike at the core of meaning underneath.
What is discourse gaming? - 10/17/16
A reader on that curious cat thing has asked me to explain what I mean by "discourse gaming". Normally I would leave this sort of message there, but I use the term often enough in my writing that it would probably make sense for me to lay out a brief little explainer here.

To speak generally, discourse gaming is the practice of trying to persuade people in ways that don't involve appealing to their discretion and judgment. The theory is that you can get people to think about things in a certain way - or make them more likely to think about things in a certain way - without their active intellectual consent. Contrast this with another style of communication, where you simply present information to people as clearly as possible and accept that they're going to interpret it and evaluate it in ways that you can't necessarily control.

Some important caveats. 

First, obviously, all kinds of things influence discourse. It isn't just some cut-and-dry process of exchanging and then actively, rationally evaluating information. On the contrary, discourse can be influenced by factors as minute and remote as how much sleep one had the night before, whether the speaker's tone of voice reminds one of one's mother, the personal associations one has with certain turns of phrase, etcetera etcetera.

Second, it's clear that we do have some ability to manipulate the things that influence discourse - to game the discourse, that is - in predictable and consequential ways. This is the scientific basis of all kinds of productive and important fields like marketing, public relations, and even psychotherapy.

When I object (and ridicule) discourse gaming, as I so often do, it's always for the same reasons. Usually, it's because people have absolutely unrealistic ambitions about what they think they can accomplish with discourse gaming. A great example is the guy from The Hill who thought that he would be able to manipulate Sanders supporters into backing Clinton by covering him favorably during the primaries and then backing her in the general. This is not completely crazy - people are usually more persuadable by voices they trust than by voices they have a combative relationship with. But here, the theory seemed to be that a few kind words about Bernie from an obscure journalist would somehow build enough affinity with readers to overcome the deep and powerful material / cultural forces pushing Sanders voters away from Clinton. That is completely ridiculous, insulting to the intelligence of his readers, and betrays a certain hubris about the extent of his influence.

If (say) this guy were to kidnap a Sanders supporter and spend several consecutive months ego-stripping him and engineering a deeply co-dependent relationship, perhaps the resulting emotional / psychological investment might be enough to overcome the victim's political sensibilities - but short of something along those lines, it's just extremely unlikely The Hill guy's plan would work, and the far more probable outcome is that Sanders supporters would simply start disagreeing with him once he pivoted towards Clinton.

In general, the sort of extra-rational dynamics that can consequentially influence discourse are often extremely hard to implement; the target has to be completely and constantly immersed in the new discourse environment, not just sporadically exposed to some clever trick of rhetorical framing or sloganeering.
Shunning is mostly performative and the left has usually opposed it - 9/25/16
Growing up in an Anabaptist community, I occasionally found myself in the middle of debates over the politics of shunning. For those who are unfamiliar, shunning is an old practice shaming and exclusion based on a few lines written by the Apostle Paul:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (I Corinthians 5:9-11)
In practice, this could have some pretty dramatic consequences. While the basic rules of shunning are fairly narrow - don't eat with the person, don't do business with them, don't accept anything from them, etcetera - and sporadically observed, the ostracization that it legitimizes could effectively shut the target out of social life and turn them into a pariah. Justifying all of this, of course, was an elaborate apparatus of theology that few outside of the Amish church would find compelling.

In addition to theological justifications, however, the community also developed various pragmatic rationales that the modern liberal-left will find familiar. "By shunning [the offender] in all social relations," Hostetler writes, "the community gives him a status that minimizes the threat to other members of the community." The Dordrecht Confession of Faith, a central text of the Radical Reformation, advocates shunning so that the offender "may be made ashamed, be affected in his ways." In other words, shunning was supposed to have two practical consequences: 1) to engineer wokeness in the community, and 2) to shame the offender into rehabilitating.


Both of these rationales emerge time and time again in modern liberal-left advocacy for shaming and ostracization as tools of social engineering and personal discipline. And yet strangely enough, anyone at all familiar with the standard left critiques of shunning should have rejected both long ago.

To take the second point first, there is little reason to believe that shunning actually has any kind of rehabilitative effect on its target, and considerable reason to believe that it can actually amplify the problem. Delaney notes that "the effects on the shunned person can be devastating...[and] akin to psychological torture." Tanaka notes research on shunning that
indicates a severe distortion of the self image, for example, 'I am a type of person that everyone hates'...This long-term effect suggests a huge impact on one's identity...[it] has a strong impingement on emotional development, which as Kahn points out is the essence of cumulative trauma. 
Tanaka goes on to add that as a defense mechanism, the target of shunning may "develop a victim's identity...[that] may fix and solidify further their negative identity." This should be an all-to-familiar experience for anyone who has tried to shame an offender, only to watch them double-down and embrace the attack. The point here is not to argue that shunning is simply mean - it's to point out that it's often directly counterproductive in terms of its supposed goal. Instead of rehabilitating the offender, it can just as easily harden the offender and give him a powerful psychological / emotional stake in continuing his behavior. As Massaro observes,
Psychological accounts of shame suggest that the behavioral consequences of this emotion are unpredictable, and may include anger and a desire to retaliate against the one inflicting the shame. The shaming advocates' relative indifference to these concerns suggests that they likely are not particularly concerned with rehabilitating the offender.
Massaro adds that this unpredictability also comes into play regarding rationale (1) - that we should shun people as an exercise in social engineering:
Both the psychological and the anthropological works indicate that the general deterrence and expressive effects of shame measures are likely to be highly contextual and unpredictable...shame penalties often will have multiple potential meanings, depending on the communities to which these expressions are directed, and thus will have an uncertain impact on the targeted audience's behavior. 
Again, this just confirms experiences that everyone is already familiar with. Efforts to shun someone may effectively remove them from discourse and community and attach a social taboo against their behavior - but it is just as likely to do the exact opposite. Frequent readers will probably recognize in this line of criticism frequent skepticism about discourse gaming. The implicit theory behind rationale (1) is that instead of reasoning with people, and persuading them to avoid certain types of behavior, we tactically use all kinds of psychological tactics, like shaming, to manipulate them into behaving appropriately. Say what you will about the ethics of this approach, but as a matter of basic pragmatism there's no compelling reason to believe that it actually works.


The psychology and sociology on shunning and its efficacy are all fairly straightforward - and yet, particularly among the liberal-left, the tactic is still fairly popular as a way to mediate social conflict. A few theories on why we're actually still trying this:

  • Often, we just adopt shunning as a default measure when other efforts don't seem to be working: "Historians and criminologists have noted the extent to which shaming and shunning sanctions emerge from the public's frustration with conventional punishment options," Miller writes.  
  • As Posner writes in Laws and Social Norms, shunning is often just an exercise in self-interested performance. People participate in exercises like shaming "to show each other that they are cooperative types" and because doing so "serves as an opportunity for everyone to signal his reliability...the chief motive for shaming is to enhance reputation, not to do justice."
  • Often, I get the sense that liberals in particular are operating on an essentially capitalistic, marketplace-of-ideas model of socialization where we can essentially boycott and blacklist problematic people out of business. Here, behavior is commodified as a product that we can either patronize or shut out of the market by manipulating demand, which means that sociopolitical relationships can be simplified into a kind of consumer activism.
  • Historically, as suggested above, shunning was often a decisively religious procedure, couched in all kinds of metaphysical beliefs about purity and holiness. Instead of shunning people in order to achieve politically or socially productive ends, one is simply honoring a deontological commandment; there is, that is to say, no theory of social or personal harm at stake if we don't shun people, just some rule that it's what you should do.
Needless to say, none of these motives are particularly compelling, particularly from a left-liberal perspective interested in substantive sociopolitical progress. Without laying out the case for it here, my personal position on the topic is that the best way to deal with people engaged in deviant or problematic behavior is often to present them with arguments on why they should change it. Often, it can also help to establish the kind of good-faith relationship with them where they see you as a constructive critic rather than an adversary - this is really just psychology 101. This sort of relationship isn't always possible, of course, but it's exceedingly rare that anything resembling constructive interpersonal influence appears without it.

UPDATE: Readers from Twitter will have recognized that this piece was written amid a controversy over a Lebanese man who tweeted a violent threat to an American woman. Specifically, however, I wrote it in response to a particular argument, floated by Daniel Sieradski, that one should not follow this user for the specific reason that doing so "confers legitimacy on him".

It seems obvious to me that one can criticize that narrow argument without dictating broader conclusions about the controversy at hand. One can for instance say that a Twitter follow does not confer legitimacy, but that we should nevertheless shun out of solidarity with victims, in order to make them feel welcomed and safe and so on. That's a justification, grounded in personal support for and empathy with the oppressed, that is entirely distinct from Sieradski's elaborate scheme of using shunning as a mechanism for social-engineering legitimacy and illegitimacy norms.

In an effort to focus my argument on that narrow point and disentangle it from broader conclusions, this piece avoids reference to the Twitter controversy entirely. I also rely on the example of the Amish community, not simply because it gives background into my own experience with the issue, but also because it largely avoids the considerations of solidarity that emerge when shunning involves a victim. My focus here is simply on the social engineering argument, for reasons that any frequent reader will immediately recognize: I have a longstanding interest with liberal-left ventures in discourse-gaming / social-engineering and am generally skeptical of their efficacy, a point I've written about at length on multiple occasions.

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of feedback I've received on this article has been positive, coming from readers (a majority of them women, incidentally) who recognize this narrow concern. Nevertheless, a few readers (almost all of them men, by the way) have read into this piece dispositive conclusions about the Twitter controversy and independent claims about solidarity. This reading has little to do with anything I've actually written here, for reasons given.
The liberal discourse-gaming argument against riots is pretty silly - 6/20/16
Rick Perlstein warns that Trump could win office by blaming the liberal-left for riots at his rallies: is the party to whom chaos appears to attach itself that the public tends to reject—especially if the leaders of the opposing party do an effective job of framing themselves as the quiet, calm, and centering alternative... What is the lesson for us? It’s most decidedly not to encourage chaos at Donald Trump rallies. This very act of encouragement, after all, clouds the story: it would make it credible to frame the Democrats as authors of chaos.
This might be wise advice if there were no way to identify who the "authors of chaos" actually are - but Perlstein is quite explicit on this point. "Trump is a fascist," he writes. "Trumpism leads to riots." Presumably, other people could arrive at this (obvious) conclusion the same way that he has - so why are we building our political strategy around the assumption that they might not?

The premise here - just below the surface, but always implicit in liberal discourse gaming - is that we get it but everyone else doesn't. We've been able to figure out that Trump is a fascist, and that fascism provokes violence, despite various attempts to "cloud the picture" and "frame the Democrats" - but the American people shouldn't be trusted to engage in the basic moral and political reasoning that has led us to these conclusions. For them, political "chaos appears to attach itself" to perpetrators in ways that evidently have nothing to do with who is actually responsible. Scott Lemieux says as much with startling candor:
We needn’t address abstract questions of when political violence might be justified to deal with whether to encourage violence against persons or property at Trump rallies...
To me, the "abstract question" of justification seems pretty decisive when one considers how responsibility for riots "attaches itself" to the parties. How do Perlstein and Lemieux suppose the proles are thinking about this? Is the theory that voters will just look at who has "encouraged" the riots when they're deciding who to blame, disregarding questions of justification entirely? Is there some kind of primitive points system involved where Democrats lose five every time Matt Bruenig argues that actually riots are good? Suppose that even if voters dislike it when anyone encourages riots, they also like it when fascist demagogues posture as a movement of unopposed militant strength - a political dynamic well attested in the literature. How have our liberals weighed these two problems against each other? What is the calculus by which they've concluded that the former is always a greater liability than the latter?

One way to approach the task of political persuasion is to assume that other people are able to think about things in much the same way that you do, and to proceed accordingly. If you think that riots are justified, or that Trump needs to be defeated even if riots aren't justified, this is an argument that you should be able to make and that other people should be able to understand. The alternative, ridiculous approach would be to pretend that riots aren't justified, even if they are, and even if we believe that they are, because something something framing something something optics. That kind of duplicity is usually baseless on tactical grounds, and usually a pretty good sign that your substantive position can't stand on its own two feet.
If you obsess over online discourse policing, you're probably a capitalist - 6/17/16
Twitter is an online platform that has been engineered to amplify our capacity for socialization almost infinitely. It takes advantage of telecommunications to allow people to communicate with each other instantly over vast distances. It allows us to do this with an essentially infinite number of people by creating massive and infinitely scalable "follower" networks. It centralizes and organizes this communication through carefully designed news feeds, and cleverly places a 140 character limit on message packets to enhance communication efficiency. It provides multiple tools for signal-boosting particular messages, such as RTing, embedding, linking, and so on, as a way to create "viral" dissemination patterns that expand exponentially. All of this is 100% deliberate, embedded into Twitter's business model and central to its value for its users.

The necessary and utterly predictable outcomes of this system: to create runaway viral dissemination patterns for tweets, and to facilitate and encourage interaction among massive groups of people connected only by follower networks. More often than not, these are exactly the outcomes we want. People use Twitter to expand the reach of their content and to interact with a much larger audience than would ever be possible otherwise.

Occasionally - and again, utterly predictably - this system creates outcomes that we frown upon. A message disseminates virally that we think probably shouldn't have got so much attention. The audience we interact with is one we don't want to interact with. Someone gets criticized, shamed, or dogpiled well out of proportion to what we think was appropriate.

Individualizing a systematic problem

When this happens, the sensible approach would be to recognize that the magnitude and proportion problems that emerge from Twitter are intinsic to the system itself. Twitter storms a-brew not because any particular user wanted it to happen or made it happen, but because the entire logic of the platform's architecture and operation was designed to guarantee this outcome. It is a mathematically complex system whose behavior is much greater than the sum of its parts. 

What often happens, however, is just the opposite. Instead of recognizing that there is something about Twitter itself that foments these outcomes, and developing a systematic understanding of how discourse works, we try to personalize it. We begin with the assumption that surely there is something that we as individual users could have done to have prevented the latest dogpile or shaming spectacle - and from there, we backfill ad hoc theories of influence or conspiracy meant to provide a chain of causality. In this way, we find a way to indict individual actors not only for their own (usually quite trivial) contributions to the Twitter storm, but for the storm itself, for its severity and magnitude.

Much of this second tendency, of course, is motivated by interpersonal / tribal rivalries and attempts - naively, or cynically - to lay blame at the feet of one's internet enemies. In these cases, there's rarely any serious or even token attempt to grapple with basic questions of causality or the minimal limits that we would, as a matter of common sense, place on burdens of responsibility; the goal, implict or explicit, is just to tie as much blame to one's opponent(s) as possible. The motives here are usually fairly transparent, and the tenuous see-the-patterns and connect-the-dots analyses not particularly difficult to poke holes in.

Only socialism can own the trolls

What I find more interesting is the way that this second tendency, in its attempt to individualize a problem that is largely systematic, replicates the ethic of consumer activism so central to liberal capitalist thought.

As Marx has taught us, many of the most notorious and destructive problems we experience under capitalism - the consolidation of power into fewer and fewer hands, the exploitation and immiseration of workers, the alienation of people from each other and from their labor, the commoditization of things we think should not be commoditized, the lies and distortions of bourgeois ideology, the proliferation of corruption and conflicts of interest, etcetera etcetera etcetera - these are all intrinsic to capitalism itself.

They should not, that is to say, be understood as mere incidental problems introduced into the system by individual actors, problems that we could eliminate or moderate if people would just behave themselves. Corruption in the financial sector, for example, is not something that simply comes from a few bad apples who haven't been arrested or educated out of their bad behavior; it some from things like the profit motive and our basically unlimited ability to create sinister financial instruments that work around any extant regulation. Homophobia at Chic-fil-A doesn't come from the personal failure of conscientious liberals to boycott the company out of existence; it comes (in part) from an economic system that foments bigotry as a way of dividing the working class.

Bourgeois ideology fundamentally rejects these systematic ways of thinking about power and oppression - whether on Twitter, or in our economy. Instead, capitalism fetishizes the John Galtian power of the individual to "stop the engine of the world" through sheer force of will and piety. If we can all just learn to be responsible consumers, and responsible managers, and responsible oligarchs, and - yes - responsible tweeters, we can make the system work.

The leftist solution to these kinds of problems is to acknowledge the minimal limitations of human agency and culpability, and to refuse to let individuals become scapegoats for problems intrinsic to the system itself. In my view, a great way to get rid of the meanness and bigotry we often see on social media is to change the toxic culture that it comes from - and that means, first and foremost, challenging capitalism. I also don't think that people should lose jobs or have their basic livelihoods threatened by things they say on social media, which is why I propose a universal welfare state that places into the hands of workers control of the means of production. These are admittedly extraordinarily ambitious goals, but I think they're also infinitely more plausible than this hilarious liberal fantasy that one day the trolls and haters will start behaving themselves.
Three critiques of liberal discourse - 5/6/16
1. The discourse is controlled by capital. Barack Obama, in The Audacity of Hope, articulates a vision of discourse that has always been central to liberalism:
After all, the Constitution ensures our free speech...[and] the possibility of a genuine marketplace of ideas, one...of "deliberation and circumspection"; a marketplace in which, through debate and competition, we can expand our perspective, change our minds, and eventually arrive not merely at agreements but at sound and fair agreements. (145)
The subtext here - that good and virtuous ideas will necessarily prevail in the public discourse, absent government censorship - dates back to at least the early seventeenth century. Then, we saw the sort of controversies that largely shape our ideas about free speech today. Milton, for example, in protest of a law subjecting any publication to Parliamentary approval, made just the sort of argument we hear from liberal rationalists today: "Let [Truth] and Falshood grapple...who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"

The left's critique of this intellectual tradition has always been that under capitalism there is no such thing as a "free and open encounter" of ideas. What actually happens, under capitalism, is that good and virtuous ideas get drowned out by people with large platforms and expensive megaphones. Even if the government protects "a genuine marketplace of ideas", it will not be a free market when capital gives some people louder voices than others.

It is easy to misunderstand this as a narrow point about what happens when say a poor person tries to argue with a rich person, or about how the rich can deliberately and actively use their wealth to propagandize society. Both of those are problems, but the bigger problem is how capitalism passively and systematically gives advantages to favored ideas. No matter how powerless and marginal I am, and no matter how idiotic and ridiculous the thing that I say is, if it is something that the rich find agreeable, I am far more likely to get a platform and a megaphone. This means that our entire intellectual climate is constantly shaped and dominated by the interests of the rich.

A leftist understanding of discourse, as Chomsky writes,
focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects...It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. (Manufacturing Consent, 1)
The media (which Chomsky specifically has in mind here) is the most obvious ideological organ through which capital controls our discourse, but it must also be emphasized that literally everything that exists under capitalism, and that is subject to the power of the wealthy, also becomes an instrument for controlling our discourse. These "Ideological State Apparatuses", as Althusser called them, also include our religion, our system of education, our family, our laws, our politics, our unions, and even our general culture.

For this reason, what liberalism teaches us to think of as the "marketplace of ideas" is almost completely irrelevant to the state and evolution of our discourse. The way society talks and thinks about things, the problematic tendencies and ideas that dominate our culture, the proliferation of microaggressions and bigoted narratives, the erasures and framings and subtexts that liberal discourse policing fixates on constantly - all of this largely expresses the power and preference of capital.

This is not an exhaustive picture of how discourse works; for example, there are also fundamentally bio-psychological factors, like instinctive tribalism and various quirks of cognitive psychology, that not even the power of capitalism can overcome in our discourse. But even in cases like this, liberal rationalistic discourse is largely irrelevant (instinctive bias for example can generally only be overcome through personal therapy, not through logical argumentation or deliberate norm-setting). Ultimately, the only thing that can meaningfully impact the discourse is to tear down the platforms and turn off the megaphones. Everything else is shouting into a fugue.

2. The discourse is not personal. Jacques Ellul put it best:
[T]he individual must never be considered as being alone...All are tied together and constitute a sort of society in which all individuals are accomplices and influence each other without knowing it...The current flows through the canvasser (who is not a person speaking in his own name with his own arguments, but one segment of an administration, an organization, a collective movement); when he enters a room to canvass a person, the mass, and moreover the organized, leveled mass, enters with him. No relationship exists here between man and man... (Propaganda, 7)
This is perhaps the most difficult point for liberals to grasp. When liberal capitalism teaches us that the discourse is a "marketplace of ideas", it also teaches us that we are discourse producers and consumers, and that the discourse is ultimately a direct expression of our individual contributions. Implicitly, we are all potential John Galts of the discourse, and through sheer individual wokeness, savvyness, and force of will, we can "start a dialogue" and "stop the engine of the world."

This might very well be true in a discourse that is not dominated by capital - but for all the reasons given above, our individual contributions just don't amount to much. If the rich are not behind you, then at the level of society, no amount of interpersonal policing you do will significantly "improve the discourse", and no amount of problematic behavior will significantly deteriorate it.

Obviously, to say that individual discourse has no significant impact at the level of society is not to say that everything an individual says is good, virtuous, or defensible. For instance, we can condemn bigoted slurs for all sorts of reasons. Interpersonally, they are cruel and unfair; symbolically, they are an offense to anyone who has ever been hurt by them; logically, they often function as ad hominem; psychologically, they often express infantile and primitive neuroses; and so on. We can find these things deontologically wrong ("just wrong") or wrong on other grounds without also insisting on some additional theory about how problematic individual discourse impacts society.

Here, the point is merely that there is no reason to believe that it's ever the individual that is "driving", "fomenting", "perpetuating," or "enabling" problematic discourse. As Foucault suggests, we should think about discourse
...not from the point of view of the individuals who are speaking...but from the point of view of the rules that come into play in the very existence of such discourse: what conditions...[does one] have to fulfil, not to make his discourse coherent and true in general, but to give it, at the time when it was written and accepted, value... (The Order of Things, xiv)
Those rules and conditions, of course, are set by the rich; they are the ones who decide whether discourse has "value" and who produce it and amplify it accordingly, again as outlined above. Discourse can (and I would say circumstantially should) be interpersonally policed for the sake of building and maintaining relationships, or as a matter of solidarity on behalf of people who are being victimized by problematic discourse, or simply for the moral and symbolic sake of speaking truth to power - but as a political project aimed at changing discourse on a social level, it is almost entirely impotent.

3. Most discourse is catharsis. Though the ideology of liberalism understands our discourse as a marketplace of ideas, and though elites in particular embrace this ideology (and are often even paid to do so), most people get the critique articulated thus far, at least intuitively. Most people understand that they are not and cannot be personally influential in our society - and for that reason, they get that anything they do to try to improve our discourse will be mostly inconsequential.

Nevertheless, most people still participate in our discourse as if what they say can significantly change the world we live in. How can we explain this? Here, I'll simply repeat the standard point of psychology that most irrational behavior is a form of catharsis. Human behavior can express coherent and logical reasoning, but just as often it expresses all kinds of internal drives and external stress. I think that Marx, when writing about another expression of human behavior that he considered irrational, gave us a good way of thinking about this: at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature... (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right)
Once we recognize the essentially religious grip that the capitalist "marketplace of ideas" ideology exercises on liberal society, it's easy to appreciate why people participate in it. Every day, people struggle with the powerlessness they feel under capitalism to improve their lives and make their world a better place. One of the few solutions to this that liberal society offers to us is the discourse: as Obama wrote, it is "through debate" that we may "eventually sound and fair agreements." People take liberalism up on this, not because they expect it to accomplish anything, but simply out of desperation, or to express their exasperation - and more and more, as a form of morbid gallows humor.

The real solution to this, of course, is to overthrow capitalism - and insofar as we suppose that we have any discursive agency whatsoever, that is what we should advocate, in order to prepare a world where "Truth and Falshood" can "grapple" in a genuinely "free and open encounter". There is, on the other hand, a significant tradition of Marxist thought which maintains that if capitalism is overthrown, it will be overthrown not because of the advocacy of some intellectual vanguard - but because the material progress of history has created conditions in which capitalism can no longer survive.

I think that latter point is more true than we are often willing to accept - still, either way, to understand how capitalist ideology works is to understand just how limited discourse is as an avenue of resistance and change. Moreover, to recognize the primarily cathartic role discourse plays within capitalism is to judge it in an entirely different light. Liberalism rarely engages with this perspective, for obvious reasons - but the Marxists did, and its poets probably appreciated it better than anyone.

...Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!

...There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure.
That was my hope.

...You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think -
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth...
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance,

For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.

- Brecht, "To Posterity (Excerpts)", 1939
The pseudoscience of liberal discourse gaming - 4/30/16
The prospect of influencing and even manipulating public opinion has attracted some fairly rigorous and sophisticated intellectual inquiry for thousands upon thousands of years. You can find early traces in works as old as the Bhagavad-gita (in asides about how it is a "restless man's mind" that can be "strongly shaken") that extend in a fairly straight line towards modern scientific research (empirical experiments on how stress impacts amenability to persuasion, for example). En route, we've developed a fairly extensive body of knowledge about what works and what doesn't spread out over multiple fields: marketing, public relations, political science, psychology, and so on.

As in most fields of empirical knowledge, it turns out that many of our assumptions and historical ideas about public opinion are factually incorrect. To pick a trivial example, we now know that ancient rationalistic conceptions of humans as the "reasoning animal" are plainly false, and that people are afflicted with all kinds of powerful and irrational cognitive biases. These biases are often extraordinarily subtle, counterintuitive, and can't be recognized through sheer conjecture; usually, they can only be teased out through elaborate, carefully controlled experiments. If you study the literature, you'll understand how this works; if you don't, you won't understand it, and you're likely to conclude that people are rational in ways they are not.

So it's immensely frustrating to see armchair liberal discourse gaming, where we get sage advice grounded in theories of public opinion that just aren't true, and that no one in the field thinks is true. For instance, Jill Filopovic writes:
I think we've seen evidence that shutting Trump down fires up the GOP base & potentilly makes white voters sympathetic to him.
This is an empirical claim. What evidence? Think of how you would even substantiate this:
  • One thing you could do is just ask voters directly how "getting shut down" affects their attitudes towards Trump, and look for some unique reaction among white voters. But self-reporting on this kind of question is terribly unreliable methodology, and in any case no such polling has (as far as I know) actually been done.
  • More likely, Filopovic is relying on the related and enormously popular pundit methodology of relying on a personal sampling of anecdotal evidence culled from the self-reporting of various tweets and talking heads. This places all kinds of similar problems: while I'm sure TrumpTrainDad88 definitely said "This makes me want to support Trump even more!" there's no reason to conclude that his outrage is either reliable or representative.
  • Another thing you could do is look for any appreciable change in general favorability polling before and after such an incident. This has all kinds of serious problems too, however, since such changes are overdetermined and express all kinds of different factors - but hilariously, even if we set aside this problem, the polls actually falsify Filipovic's claim. For instance, prior to the Arizona protests, Trump's favorability was at 43% among white voters; that number dropped to 39% after the protest.
The fact is, if you look at the data on this kind of thing, what you find is people respond unreliably and inconsistently to disruptive protests. When Filipovic says "I think we've seen evidence" on this, I can't imagine that she's actually looked for evidence in any kind of rigorous or compelling way. (She's shown significant difficulty in understanding even basic polling in the past). What's more likely here is that she has an intuition about how the discourse works, largely informed by her conflict-aversion and her reflexive preference for polite rationalistic discourse, and that she will now backfill all kinds of anecdotal and statistically unsound "evidence" to substantiate this.

When liberals call for "an exchange of ideas on the left about the most effective ways to counter" opposition messaging, this is fine - but that exchange of ideas should be at least minimally informed by our understanding of public opinion and how it actually works. The notion that these ideas can be grounded in nothing more than ideology and personal preference makes such calls for dialogue little different than the Creationist calling for "an exchange of ideas" about the origin of species.
Popular language use and the propaganda of isolation - 4/21/16
The past few weeks have provided two excellent examples of how ideology often relies upon the redefinition of words.

First, on April 12, columnist Jessica Valenti published an essay titled What do we mean by "abuse"? - a question one doesn't ordinarily ask about words that already have a popularly understood meaning. The new definition, we learn, includes a new coined category of "author abuse" - which refers to "demeaning and insulting speech targeted at the writer of [an] article" on public internet forums. This, I noted, is curiously identical to elite redefinitions of "harass" to mean the same thing - and both, certainly, are redefinitions of something we would normally just call "heckling" or "trolling". It isn't particularly difficult to see why bourgeois journalists would argue that they and their ideas are intrinsically worthy of respect, and that public ridicule should be necessarily understood as some kind of heinous "abuse"; the only interesting point here is that Valenti is explicitly redefining the word.

Then, on April 14, the Brookings Institute published a paper called The Five Evils: Multidimensional Poverty and Race in America. Arguments about poverty, they note, are "often restricted to a narrow, income-based conception of what it means to be poor". This standard use of the word is apparently a "problem" - but fortunately, since "there are hundreds of ways in which equality (or inequality) can be defined," they propose that we abandon "traditional, narrowly income-based" conceptions in favor of a "richer, multidimensional formulation". Again, it should not be particularly difficult to see what's going on here. There are obvious reasons why bourgeois economists might want to seize the word we use to refer to people who don't have much income and make it refer to other things. 


Language poses an intrinsic challenge to ruling elites: since meaning emerges from popular use, our vocabulary will always be fundamentally democratic. People will tend to use words in ways that they find useful, and will resist counterproductive attempts to change them; if they find it worthwhile to make a distinction between "abuse" and "trolling", for example, they'll keep doing so. And even if elites momentarily succeed in warping language, society will tend to rehabilitate it; for instance, if Brookings manages to co-opt our word for talking about poverty, people with low incomes will obviously just come up with a new one.

The work of propaganda, then, can often be understood as an attempt to overcome a powerful natural sociolinguistic force that fixes language to a democratic regime of meanings. This force is so overwhelming that some linguists have argued that it cannot be overcome at all; for instance, the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, wrote that
The signifier, though to all appearances freely chosen with respect to the idea that it represents, is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it...No invididual, even if he willed it, could modify in any way at all the choice that has been made...
Other linguists, like Volosinov and Chomsky, have suggested (on different grounds) that semantic democracy can be overcome, at least temporarily - but it is Lacan, I think, who offered one of the most important insights into how this actually works.


Lacan - to egregiously oversimplify a notoriously impenetrable writer - argued that language gets pinned to meaning through a foundationally psychological process, which he occasionally referred to as sealing. At an early age, toddlers are faced with a basic choice: they can express their desires through cries and babbles, and expect the world to understand them and give them what they want - or they can adopt the words that society already uses to communicate. The latter option, Lacan observed, was a profound act of personal submission: we abandon attempts to dictate to everyone else how to communicate and agree to play by their rules.

Crucially, we build our identity around this act of submission. We internalize the way that society talks about the world, and even the way that it talks about us; this language becomes a part of our default, unconscious perspective, and we can only escape it through conscious scrutiny. And when we become emotionally invested in certain ideas about the world, or about ourselves, that investment always takes place in a particular currency of language. In this way, words become sealed to meanings - not because of some fundamental relationship between the two, or because of some ongoing rational decision to participate in social language conventions, but rather because of a deep emotional inertia within every individual.

So it should be obvious why so many linguists regard as impossible on any kind of significant scale the sort of dramatic redefinition so often associated with propaganda. Orwell intuitively recognized what this would actually take, which is why so much of the brainwashing in 1984 turns on a protracted exercise in literal torture carried out on an individual basis through the deliberate infliction of overwhelming physical and psychological trauma. Even when this happens outside of fiction, it is rarely permanent; in Meerlo's classic The Rape of the Mind, he notes that white "It is now technically possible to bring the human mind into a condition of enslavement and submission" through torture, that condition tends to dissipate quickly after the torture ends.


All of this is why, contrary to popular belief (often built on a gross misunderstanding of Orwell), propagandists are typically not in the business of mass indoctrination through redefinition. It's a clunky, hamfisted persuasion strategy, and when writers try it they typically come off as iconoclastic sophists who are torturing the definition of words in lieu of torturing their audience.

As a rule, it is not the particular words that are in play, but rather (as Ellul put it) "the structure of present-day society [that] places the individual where he is most easily reached by propaganda." Since psychological sealing binds us so powerfully to the democratic language of society, propaganda must begin by removing us from society itself. Ellul continues,
If, by chance, propaganda is addressed to an organized group, it can have practically no effect on individuals before that group has been fragmented...Only when very small groups are thus annihilated, when the individual finds no more defenses, no equilibrium, no resistance exercised by the group to which he belongs, does total action by propaganda become possible.
Instead of breaking us psychologically, mass propaganda breaks us socially; it strategically severs our relationship with the linguistic community and locks us into shrinking echo chambers and tribal sociolects. Lacan's sealing mechanism binds our language use to society - so instead of trying to overcome that bind, modern propaganda simply re-engineers society. Isolation, not rational persuasion or clever sophism, is the foundation of the modern propaganda industry.

All of this is just a technical way of describing our scientific/theoretical understanding of ideas that everyone has long appreciated as a matter of common sense. Communities tend to have similar ways of thinking and talking about things, and it's often only by bringing people out of the community that you can get them to think and talk differently.

That's why one of the major challenges of the left is to resist the intellectual fragmentation and atomization of communities into isolated cliques who are vulnerable to elite coercion. First and foremost, this means insisting on dialogue among the working class despite and in defiance of bourgeois etiquette and civility rules. 
There's no good argument for the liberal prohibition of heckling - 4/16/16
Particular instances of heckling can certainly be reactionary, disproportionate, and unfair - but routinely, liberal discourse villifies heckling as problematic in general. Still, normative ethics typically rely on one of three kinds of arguments against this sort of behavior, and for the life of me I can't figure out how any of them can be maintained within the framework of modern liberalism.


A consequentialist argument would have to claim that heckling necessarily leads to bad outcomes. This is a difficult position to maintain if we are talking about first-order effects, since it's trivially easy to imagine trolling that just leads to funny outcomes, or outcomes in which the immediate good outweighs the immediate bad. For instance, when Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden recently attacked Bernie Sanders on Palestine, I pointed out that Tanden had serious conflicts of interest on this issue as revealed by recent email leaks. Practically speaking this jab probably accomplished little, but insofar as it has any moral weight whatsoever, it seems clear that the immediate value of exposing Tanden outweighs whatever discomfort the exchange made her feel.

To get around this, opponents of heckling usually starting dreaming up all kinds of second, third, and fourth order effects, and then insist that the heckler has a duty to prevent these outcomes. One common argument, for example, maintains that even if heckling Neera Tanden in this particular instance is warranted, this good act might inspire someone to commit the bad act of (say) heckling some undeserving third party.

The basic problem here is that this line of argument can obviously indict even the most benign and responsible criticism through all of the same vague mechanisms of "inspiring", "normalizing", "encouraging", and so on. The blanket condemnation of all heckling due to second order effects is too strong. You can only save legitimate criticism from its censure by introducing all kinds of considerations of probability ("is this likely to cause that?"), responsibility ("can we still blame someone for a third/fourth/fifth order effect?"), and proportion ("do all the good Nth order consequences outweigh the bad ones?") - considerations that, if we are being consistent, end up legitimizing some instances of heckling, too.

A second problem, pointed to in my consideration of proportion, is that post-first-order discourse effects are so complex, subtle, overdetermined, multivalent, prolific and unpredictable that they are basically impossible to evaluate in any kind of credible or morally compelling way. To make this sort of argument, what you would actually have to do is look at a given instance of heckling, figure out all of the Nth-order discourse effects (or at least a defensible set of them), and then weigh all of them against each other to decide whether or not it was justified. Otherwise, the argument just becomes an exercise in cherry-picking whatever remote possibilities helps make your case.

This, by the way, is the fundamental problem with a whole genre of liberal discourse theory. There are real-world situations where you can analyze second order outcomes in a way that's thorough and rigorous enough to draw compelling moral conclusions, and when we can we obviously should. But no one who has studied language, rhetoric, or sociology in any kind of serious way thinks that we can always do this with discourse. Most people intuitively get this, and center their discourse norms around the immediate consequences of what they say, only moving much beyond that in unusual circumstances. It's really only among liberal intellectual elites that one encounters these hubristic attempt to game the discourse like a butterfly trying to create hurricanes.


A virtue argument would have to maintain that heckling, in principle, reveals something bad about the heckler's character. This is what liberals are typically getting at when they suggest that heckling is an expression of personal bigotry, malice, dishonesty, and so on. Even if the heckling is somehow intellectually or pragmatically justified, one argues, it nevertheless reflects things about the heckler that we should condemn.

This, again, may very well be true in particular cases, but it's hard to see how the argument necessarily holds in principle. Once we accept argument (I) that heckling can have good outcomes, it follows trivially that heckling could simply express one's virtuous intention to do good. One can insist that this intention is necessarily misguided, but only by rejecting (I).

It's because (I) is so hard to reject (for reasons given) that the virtue argument against heckling usually leads to the assertion of ulterior motives. The heckler is accused of bad faith, of unconscious or unadmitted bigotry, of secret malevolence and sadism, etcetera. These sorts of motives are of course notoriously difficult to empirically establish even in a clinical setting, and online they usually just amount to the question-begging assertion that the heckler is evil because he has evil motives, with no attempt to ground any of this in reality.

Nevertheless, even if unvirtuous trolls exist (and they empirically do), this just means that some heckling is bad. Virtue arguments against particular instances of heckling may succeed, but once again the general argument clearly fails.


The deontological argument against heckling is paradoxically both the strongest and the weakest.

Suppose, for example, you are in a cult of personality centered around nineties pop folk singer Jewel, and take her song lyric that "In the end / only kindness matters" as some kind of divine mandate. If one accepts this, then there's probably no case that one can possibly make for heckling, particularly if we have in mind Jewel's civility-centric ideas about what it means to be kind. You can't at this point make consequentialist or virtue arguments for heckling, because the deontological prohibition rules them out absolutely.

This, it's worth adding, is the ideological basis for most in-principle opposition to heckling, even when that opposition gets rationalized with consequentialist or virtue arguments. In general, I suspect this is because most liberals are so privileged that the worst thing they typically experience is interpersonal conflict; this creates an extreme, instinctive conflict-aversion. For this reason, they're willing to sanction all kinds of injustice and suffering for others just as long as everyone around them is polite and friendly - and the easiest way to rationalize these kinds of priorities is just to insist that civility and interpersonal kindness are the most important things in the world.

This claim faces two major problems. First, no one actually buys it. Even the strongest proponents of a deontological prohibition against heckling are themselves hecklers on occasion - and when they justify it, they justify it with consequentialist or virtue arguments, not deontological arguments. (Though it would be refreshing to see a hypocritical advocate of respectability politics simply admit that it's definitionally okay for him to do it.) Outside of elite intellectual circles, most people have a more relaxed view of heckling, and see it as potentially funny and occasionally warranted; this is why (for example) an extraordinary amount of sitcom humor revolves around verbal sparring, scathing zingers, and bad / obnoxious people getting their rhetorical comeuppance.

The second major problem this faces is that in a pluralistic society people are allowed to object to the Jewel doctrine. If (say) I make a consequentialist argument for heckling Neera Tanden, and you simply reply by decreeing that heckling is Always Bad, you may very well in some real and completely legitimate theological sense be right; but it isn't something anyone should find persuasive or compelling, for obvious reasons. This is particularly true since, again, an absolute deontological prohibition of heckling is at the most a fringe view held by privileged elites, which escalates its imposition from the realm of "anti-pluralistic" into "blatantly anti-democratic".
On blocking and the pathology of feud - 4/13/16
A while back I wrote about a conference lecture I attended on Libertarian attempts to bring back feud culture in the modern world. Basically, Libertarians think that we can throw out most of our state apparatus of law enforcement and rely on a non-violent feud culture to adjudicate social conflict. Instead of attacking each other, belligerents would just sue each other, with the understanding that if they acted violently the state would no longer protect them from violent retaliation.

This is madness for all kinds of well-understood reasons having to do with basic anthropology and sociology. One major problem is that it seems like feud culture has to co-exist with a culture of avoidance; if people can't avoid each other, you get more conflict and a dramatically escalated risk of unilateral aggression. Feud culture is somewhat viable when relatively sedentary people spend their entire lives within a twenty mile radius and only ever run into a couple dozen strangers over the course of decades; it disappears as soon as you get cities and long-distance transportation.

A point I didn't bring up in that post, but that I'd like to consider here, is that avoidance doesn't just enable feud culture - avoidance encourages it.

As Freud argued in Civilization and its Discontents, social conflict is ultimately an expression of the fundamentally psychological drives that animate human behavior. It's only through our interactions with other people that we learn how to manage our infantile aggression, lust, and selfishness. Our relationships with our parents, Freud famously insisted, were the most consequential simply because they were the earliest and the most intimate - but this dynamic also holds at the broad level of society. Civilization is the process of people learning to peacefully interact with each other, directly and on a deeply interpersonl level; otherwise, psychological tensions go unresolved, and inevitably express themselves in aggression.

It's easy to see how avoidance culture can amplify this problem. People who don't interact with each other don't mature, don't develop their capacity for empathy, and don't broaden their perspectives. Avoidance culture doesn't just forestall conflict - it entrenches it through arrested development, epistemic closure and myopia, and atrophied tolerance. The institutions and customs we rely on for conflict resolution don't get built and maintined. Thus, when avoidance stops working, the stakes are considerably higher than they might have been otherwise, which is why feud culture provides little middle ground between avoidance and combat (and why the libertarian dream of civilized feuds is such a ridiculous fantasy).

Civilization, for thousands of years, has largely been a process of overcoming the feud/avoidance binary through the creation of all kinds of systems and norms that help humans live together. Our government institutions, our economic arrangements, our religions, our art, our entertainment - all of this contributes to that project. It's all driven by exponential population growth, the concentration of modern economies around cities, and the attendant increases in population density; all of these things shrink the world and force us to find ways to peacefully and sanely manage the fact that we're always up in each other's business.

So I think there is something genuinely new in the way that telecommunications has reintroduced avoidance culture into modern society. It facilitates not just the psychological process of socialization, but also the whole apparatus of attendant civilization - economic transactions, political negotiation, the dissemination of ideology, and so on - that sprung up precisely to mediate the kinds of interaction that came with the close proximity of dense populations.

But contrary to all of this, it also facilitates the kind of avoidance that is impossible in dense populations. You can now cut off socialization, economic interaction, political negotiation, ideological diffusion, and so on in ways that we haven't been able to for millennia - unilaterally, absolutely, and irrevocably. You can hang up phones, you can ignore emails, you can block social media engagement, and do all sort of other things to completely cut off and avoid interaction that you just can't do with people offline.

On one hand, then, things like astronomical population and economic growth, the rise of the modern nation-state and transnational institutions, the evolution of military technology and the explosion of income inequality mean that the potential and stakes of conflict are much, much higher than they were thousands of years ago. But on the other hand, civilization now facilitates, on a massive scale, a strategy of conflict management - avoidance - that we haven't seen in all that time, and that history and sociology tells us is inextricably linked with feud culture.

If this link is real, then much of our concern about the forces of alienation and atomization that characterize modern society may be too narrow. They aren't just personal problems that lead to things like loneliness and depression - they entrench us in ways of living and thinking that may be deeply incompatible with those of the people around us. Even as they sew anomie, they erode the social mechanisms we have to negotiate and reconcile divergent interests by attempting to finesse the problem through avoidance. This may work as long as controversies are purely digital, but when they have material implications, conflicts can't be finessed forever. Avoidance culture simply defers these conflicts, and guarantees that they'll be far more violent and powerful when they can no longer be avoided.

None of this is to say that (for example) blocking the trolls on the internet is something that necessarily leads to conflict. In some cases, it may do more good than harm. But when avoidance strategies become a crutch for large groups of people who want to avoid the hard and often unpleasant work of material co-existence, they are symptoms of a deeper pathology with clear anthropological implications.
How to social engineer women, pickup artists, and everyone you know - 3/28/16
I've been waiting for Amber A'Lee Frost's article on pickup artists ever since she teased it over beers a while back, and now that it's out one passage in particular set me to thinkin':
...when I did a return tour through the sodden pages of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, I was transported back to my job bartending in college towns, immediately irritated by memories of serving drinks to hostile frat boys. I remembered being stiffed, screamed at, shoved, and threatened, and once heading off what would have almost certainly been a date rape. No, I decided: I am not totally immune to disgust.
What I find interesting, in retrospect, is that from here my immediate instinct was to wonder what can I personally make these men stop these disgusting things?

First, I started thinking about all of the #problematic ways that I was contributing to the problem - for instance, years ago, I bought Neil Strauss's book The Game so that I could hate-read it, and more recently I watched a few episodes of The Pickup Artist when it was on VH1. These consumer practices, I thought, obviously have to go.

Then I started thinking about how my rhetoric and general behavior also facilitates pickup artistry. Should I even be laughing at these people, I wondered, as if they're a trivial source of amusement rather than a serious problem afflicting women every day? Perhaps the right thing to do would be to stop joking about pickup artists, and to even shame and pressure other people into not joking about them, either - I could try to create a culture where being a pickup artist is a grave, serious offense. But then, I realized, this might just politicize the problem, and polarize everyone into pro-and-anti-pickup artist camps. Perhaps, instead, we should create a culture where everyone ridicules PUAs? Maybe I should not only laugh at them, but get other people to laugh at them too, so that pickup artists are just too ashamed and embarrassed to keep up their schtick. But in that case, I need to push back against the humorless/pious types who are only empowering PUAs by forcing us to take them really seriously. But how can I do that? How can I make everyone adopt just the right attitude towards pickup artists so that they'll go away?

This is the sort of thing that liberals think about constantly. Incidentally, there's another group of people who think about how to manipulate other people in the exact same way: pickup artists.

Liberals as pickup artists

One of the more bizarre features of modern liberal discourse is the degree to which it depends on interpersonal social engineering. The basic premise is that through all kinds of influence tactics (example-setting, call-outs, signal-boosting, legitimizing / delegitimizing, enabling, and so on) you can get the people around you to behave certain ways. If for example I "normalize" something, I can in some real, empirical way actually get other people to behave as I want them to. Liberals call this "normalizing", PUAs call this "patterning" or "programming", but it's operationally identical. It assumes that people basically just mimick each other, and has its conceptual roots not in a scientific understanding of human behavior, but in pre-scientific theories of sympathetic magic. This kind of pseudo-science characterizes most of these theories of social engineering; they rarely have much basis in hard science, if any at all.

Let's dig into this a little: consider, for example, the liberal notion of "shaming". Though we usually take it for granted, there is in fact an empirical theory of behavior being stipulated here: if I give someone negative feedback, they will be less likely to engage in associated behavior in the future. Perhaps this is because I have intellectually persuaded them in some way; perhaps this is because I have made the behavior psychologically unpleasant, and they are simply avoiding negative stimulus; perhaps there is some other mechanism at work here - it doesn't really matter. For shaming to work, it's both necessary and sufficient that my negative feedback, for whatever reason, puts an end to undesirable behavior.

This, hilariously, is the mirror image of the PUA theory of "negging" - which stipulates that you use negative feedback to provoke desirable behavior. And it turns out that both theories fail in the exact same way: they don't consistently work. Shaming a bro who's using racial slurs may deter him from doing so in the future - but it might also get him to double-down and use them even more. Negging a lady might very well grab her attention and prey on her insecurities - but it might just make her mad enough to throw a drink in your face. These tactics both try to elicit a predictable responses from people through negative feedback, and they both fail because people are unpredictable.

And that's the standard failure of both liberals and pickup artists, isn't it? Liberalism proposes that I can make sexism go away by using gender-neutral pronouns - and then some sexist laughs at me for using s/he or zhe. Pickup artists propose that I can turn women on by using tons of double entendres - but watch what happens when you try one of these. These are all failures that come from trying to find simplistic ways to control people who are extraordinarily, almost unthinkably complex. They have nothing to do with a rational, empirical understanding of human behavior; they just reflect the will to dominate others, and the condescending belief that other people can be easily manipulated with simple tricks.

The left alternative

Fortunately, social engineering is not actually a lost cause. There are in fact things we can do to build a world where people have more progressive attitudes and behavior. These things are a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult than the interpersonal gimmickry of liberalism, but they do have the advantage of actually working.

Consider, for example, Katie J.M. Baker's now-classic Cockblocked by Redistribution. Here, Baker reviews the experiences of a semi-famous pickup artist named Roosh, and arrives at a remarkable observation:
Marginalized women who need male spouses to flourish might, indeed, find pick-up artists alluring. But women in countries that have gender-equalizing policies supported by an anti-individualist culture may not.
The implications here are quite direct: if you are a pickup artist who wants to manipulate women into fucking you, you should agitate for a government that is as economically inequitable for women as possible. Specifically, you should oppose free health care and education, generous maternity pay and parental leave, paternity benefits, universal child care, and so on - all policies that Baker identities as cultivating an egalitarian culture inimical to pickup artistry. Neurolinguistic-programming and elaborate kino strategies probably won't do much to land you a woman, but if you vote the right way, you can create a patriarchal society where you can get all the women you like.

Or perhaps, instead, you want to make people behave quite differently - you want a world where women can exercise greater autonomy, and where men stop behaving like pickup artists. There's a proven way to do this, too: it's called Denmark. Just ask Roosh. The liberal tactics I briefly considered, like shaming and ridicule, seem to be unreliable at best; but if you create a generous and egalitarian welfare state like the Nordic social democracies, it appears that you predictably create a more egalitarian society where pickup artists quickly become an endangered species.

Either way, note the profound difference between left social engineering and the liberal / PUA approaches we described before. To put it simply, leftists believe that you can only engineer widespread changes in behaviors and attitudes by dramatically changing the circumstances that people live in. This usually involves direct interventions by the state. Liberals and pickup artists believe that it doesn't take anything nearly this big; getting people to behave certain ways is just a matter of personally manipulating them the right way, through persuasion or guilt-tripping or inspiration, etcetera.

Leftist approaches to social progress are often accused of oversimplification, of "reducing" human behavior to economic determination - but really, the opposite is true. Liberalism is the truly reductive and simplifying ideology. It asks us to regard each other with absolute condescension, as if all it takes to change someone is the right persuasive or manipulative gimmick. Liberals are the people who tell us that Trump voters can be seduced with just the right John Oliver zinger, like Mystery getting a woman's number by using just the right pickup line; liberals are the people who, like pickup artists, always think "no" just means "try a little bit harder to persuade me". Leftism, however, respects the complexity and autonomy of the individual so much that it suspects nothing short of a political and economic revolution can fundamentally change the way people relate to each other - and that ultimately, we can only make this happen by working together. When's the last time a pick-up artist said anything like that?
Anti-harassment politics and the problem of co-option - 2/13/16
Cool dude Lowenaffchen posted a thing yesterday about the appropriation of anti-harassment rhetoric by elites against public criticism. He has several takes in here that I don't agree with, and IMHO, Ryan Cooper's critique was essentially right: the article's "overall point is obscured by a lot of extraneous claims," and a lot of them were just incorrect.

Here is how I would put it. Particularly during the last decade, the liberal-left has done an excellent job of popularizing a set of rhetoric meant to remedy (or at least counter) the harassment of oppressed communities. We recognize, for example, that women are exposed to more violent threats than men, that they are more likely to be victimized by people making good on those threats, and so on. We also recognize, for example, that men do not suffer from sexism as women do, so we object to gendered slurs against women in a way that we do not object to gendered slurs against men. In general, these discursive rules function (or at least aspire) to protect the powerless from the powerful; that is why they are good and justified.

Gaming the rules

The problem here is the same problem that liberalism always faces: powerful people are going to look for ways to game and co-opt the rules to their own advantage. This is what they do with financial regulations, this is what they do with international treaties, and this is what they do with discourse rules.

We all recognize how this happens in practice. The most obvious example is the phenomenon of so-called "reverse racism": white people invoke the language of tolerance and egalitarianism to insist that the greatest problem in American today is white people getting called crackers. Superficially, this grievance is playing by standard liberal discourse rules: all it does is extend the prohibition against racial slurs one step further. It is only when you drill down into questions of justification, and consider why we prohibit racial slurs in the first place, that it becomes clear why cries of reverse racism are so ridiculous: getting called a cracker is not an actual, consequential problem for white people.

Or consider Lowenaffchen's example of the James Woods lawsuit. Superficially, Woods is deploying all of the same rhetoric: he complains that his troll is guilty of waging "a malicious on-line campaign" and even appeals to the uniquely amplifying nature of Twitter, insisting that "using social media" allowed his troll to "propagate lies" to "hundreds of thousands of Mr. Woods' followers." But obviously, what is actually happening here is that a rich white man is co-opting anti-harassment rhetoric to perpetrate wildly disproportionate retaliation against a relatively powerless critic.

Obviously it is rude and uncivil to accuse James Woods of being a cocaine addict, much like it is rude and uncivil to call a white guy a cracker. It's also funny as hell, and more importantly, liberalism isn't here to make sure everyone is nice and scrupulously observes Emily Post's rules of etiquette or parliamentary debate procedure. Liberalism has zero stake in protecting the powerful from ridicule and trolling; it is here to protect the powerless, and it is only justified insofar as it actually does so.

Who has the power?

I don't think anything I've written so far is particularly controversial - but in practice, these issues get murky is when it is not entirely clear who the powerless and who the powerful really are.

Consider, for example, Hillary Clinton. Obviously she is rich, white, straight, and a boomer, a member of four of the most powerful groups in America today. If this is all we knew about her, the case for trolling her would be just as obvious as it is for James Woods: liberalism has no stake in protecting people of privilege from everyone else. It might be uncouth to call Clinton bourgeois scum, or a cracker, or a gross boomer, and this is a good reason to not invite the trolls to your dinner party; but this is not a problem that deserves a claim to liberal anti-harassment rhetoric.

The complication, of course, is that not only is Clinton rich, white, straight, and a boomer: she's also a woman. For that reason, despite her overwhelming privilege by other measures, Clinton's partisans routinely invoke liberal discourse rules in her defense. But to what extent is that actually justified?

The answer here depends on one's intersectional analysis.

Here, I see a continuum of positions. At one end, you could conclude that Clinton's wealth, whiteness, orientation and age all disqualify any claim to anti-harassment rhetoric that she could possibly have. She is a woman, but she is an extraordinarily powerful woman, and for that reason it's ridiculous to get worked up over even the most grotesque sexism launched her way. For reasons given momentarily I don't think this analysis is at all correct, but it's entirely possible that some of her critics have made this calculation.

Hijacking the Gamergate critique

At the other extreme, however, is the tendancy that I suspect Lowenaffchen has in mind: the conclusion that Clinton's gender gives her an absolute claim to anti-harassment rhetoric, even when it comes to critiques of her use of power against the powerless. By this logic, any criticism or ridicule of anything about her must, in some sense, be understood as an attack on women in general; and for this reason, all of the usual anti-harrassment rhetoric moves are justified in her defense. That is how we get ridiculous tweets like this:

Sealioning, of course, is a term that was coined "by anti-GamerGate Internet users to mock perceived online discussion tactics employed by GamerGate supporters". Specifically, men were harassing women by asking questions "in bad faith" as "a way to demean, degrade, or otherwise destroy" them. It's completely understandable that we would be wary of this phenomena if it becomes a way for powerful people to oppress powerless people, as was often the case when Gamergate partisans were harassing women.

But that is obviously not what's happening here. What's happening here is that a man is complaining about a general tendancy to ask questions - even obnoxious questions - about Hillary Clinton's foreign policy.

The stakes here are obviously a lot bigger than dumb video games. More to the point, one can obviously criticize - and even harass - people about Hillary Clinton's drone policy without doing it merely because she is a woman. Droning is obviously a hugely controversial issue that people are going to disagree about and argue about and even be rude about for reasons that have zero to do with Hillary Clinton being a woman.

What I see here is an attempt to co-opt liberal anti-harassment politics in defense of the world's most powerful military murdering its most powerless people. And like so many centrist nerds, Greg is specifically doing this by hijacking the arguments and rhetoric that were used by Gamergate critics. His invocation of "sealion" is neither liberal nor feminist; it is not even intended to criticize misogynists, which is why he says "sealion people" instead of "sealion women". It is solely being used to shut down political discourse that he finds unwelcome and rude.

Functionally, this genre of rhetoric occupies an extreme position that awards Clinton a claim to anti-harassment rhetoric even if it comes at the expense of the powerless. Because it equates incivility and even criticism about any issue with oppressive harassment, it sets up a massive discursive barrier around Clinton and her apologists and becomes the exact opposite of the Gamergate critique: a weapon of the powerful.

The intersectional position

We return, then, to the basic problem: how does one navigate anti-harassment discourse when the power dynamics are complicated and not entirely clear?

It seems to me that an intersectional answer to this question is going to have to strike a complicated and controversial balance. On one hand, it will push back against rude or critical discourse that is oppressive to women - but on the other hand, it will have to protect criticism (and even rudeness!) mobilized in defense of oppressed groups, such as people of color, the poor, the LGBT community, the young, and yes, even women who Hillary Clinton would attack.

The lessons of Gamergate cannot be used to justify sexism, but neither can they be used to justify cries of reverse-racism, or James Woods lawsuits, or drone campaigns. The balance one strikes here is always going to be political and controversial, because no matter how carefully liberals try to refine discourse rules, they can always be abused by the powerful. Suffice to say that Sanders-skeptic-Clinton-apologist video game nerds do not get to be the final word on what counts as harassment; thank god for that.