[Epistemic status: idea for one’s toolbox of ideas; not to be followed off a cliff]
Commenters on this blog have sometimes tried to shame or attack other commenters for perceived misdeeds like sexual promiscuity. They tell people to their faces that they’re bad people and try to humiliate them.
When this happens, I ban the commenters involved.
And I get protests – what about free speech? What about the marketplace of ideas? Isn’t shaming sometimes a useful social mechanism? There are some norms we can’t or shouldn’t codify into law; shouldn’t violation of those norms be punished by shaming? Shaming can be very effective – for example, last week we learned the Puritans had a premarital pregnancy rate near zero because they publicly shamed anyone who departed from their moral standards. Might it not be useful to have something like that nowadays, either for premarital sex, or for other evils like homophobia and racism that we want to discourage? And even if I think we shouldn’t, is it really okay to ban the people trying, seeing as they were probably well-intentioned?
I think my answer is: be nice, at least until you can coordinate meanness.
A friend (I can’t remember who) once argued that “be nice” provides a nigh-infallible ethical decision procedure. For example, enslaving people isn’t very nice, so we know slavery is wrong. Kicking down people’s doors and throwing them in prison for having a joint of marijuana isn’t very nice, so we know the drug war is wrong. Not letting gays marry isn’t very nice, so we know homophobia is wrong.
I counterargue that even if we ignore the ways our notion of “nice” itself packs up pre-existing moral beliefs, this heuristic fails in several important cases:
1. Refusing the guy who is begging you to give his drivers’ license back, saying that without a car he won’t be able to visit his friends and family or have any fun, and who is promising that he won’t drive drunk an eleventh time.
2. Forcibly restraining a screaming baby while you jam a needle into them to vaccinate them against a deadly disease.
3. Sending the police to arrest a libertarian rancher in Montana who refuses to pay taxes for reasons of conscience
4. Revoking the credential (and thus destroying the future job prospects of) a teacher who has sex with one of her underage students
Sure, you could say that each of these “leads toward a greater niceness”, like that you’re only refusing the alcoholic his license in order to be nice to potential drunk driving victims. But then you’ve lost all meaningful distinction between the word “nice” and the word “good” and reinvented utilitarianism. And reinventing utilitarianism is pretty cool, but after you do that you no longer have such an easy time arguing against the drug war – somebody’s going to argue that it leads to the greater good of there being fewer drugs.
We usually want to avoid meanness. In some rare cases, meanness is necessary. I think one check for whether a certain type of meanness might be excusable is – it’s less likely to be excusable if it’s not coordinated.
Consider: society demands taxes to pay for communal goods and services. This does sometimes involve not-niceness, as in the example of the rancher in (3). But what makes it tolerable is that it’s done consistently and through a coordinated process. If the rule was “anybody who has a social program they want can take money from somebody else to pay for it,” this would be anarchy. Some libertarians say “taxation is theft”, but where arbitrary theft is unfair, unpredictable, and encourage perverse incentives like living in fear or investing in attack dogs, taxation has none of these disadvantages.
By the rule “be nice, at least until you can coordinate meanness”, we should not permit individuals to rob each other at gunpoint in order to pay for social programs they want, but we might permit them to advocate for a coordinated national taxation policy.
Or: society punishes people for crimes, including the crime of libel. Punishment is naturally not-nice, but this seems fair; we can’t just have people libeling each other all the time with no consequences. But what makes this tolerable is that it’s coordinated – done through the court system according to carefully codified libel law that explains to everybody what is and isn’t okay. Remove the coordination aspect, and you’ve got the old system where if you say something that offends my honor then I get some friends and try to beat you up in a dark alley. The impulse is the same: deploy not-niceness in the worthy goal of preventing libel. But one method is coordinated and the other isn’t.
This is very, very far from saying that coordinated meanness is a sure test that means something’s okay – that would be the insane position that anything legal must be ethical, something most countries spent the past few centuries disproving spectacularly. This is the much weaker claim that legality sets a minimum bar for people attempting mean policies.
As far as I can tell there are two things we want in a legal system. First, it should have good laws that produce a just society. But second, it should at least have clear and predictable laws that produce a safe and stable society.
For example, the first goal of libel law is to balance people’s desire to protect their reputation with other people’s desire for free speech. But the second goal of libel law should be that everybody understands what is and isn’t libel. If a system achieves the second goal, nobody will end up jailed or dead because they said something they thought was totally innocent but somebody else thought was libel. And nobody will spent years and thousands of dollars entangled in an endless court case hiring a bunch of lawyers to debate whether some form of speech was acceptable or not.
So coordinated meanness is better than uncoordinated meanness not because it necessarily achieves the first goal of justice, but because it achieves the second goal of safety and stability. Everyone knows exactly when to expect it and what they can do to avoid it. I may not know what speech will or won’t offend a violent person with enough friends to organize a goon squad, but I can always read the libel law and try to stay on the right side of it.
Likewise, in the Puritan community, I know exactly what things I have to do to avoid being shamed. Better still, I can only be shamed for violating one set of moral standards – the shared moral standards of the whole community. This isn’t true of random people shaming promiscuous people, or people with the wrong opinion on race/gender issues, or whatever, on a private blog. Not only do most people reasonably expect to be able to do those things (and/or talk about those things here) without being shamed, but there are too many conflicting standards to meet – plausibly somebody could be shamed by traditionalists for being promiscuous, and by free-love people for not being promiscuous enough. Since shaming is unpleasant and supposed to act as a punishment, this is the equivalent of letting anybody beat up anybody else if they think they’ve broken an unwritten rule. It probably results in a lot of people being beaten up for not very much social change.
The second reason that coordinated meanness is better than uncoordinated meanness is that it is less common. Uncoordinated meanness happens whenever one person wants to be mean; coordinated meanness happens when everyone (or 51% of the population, or an entire church worth of Puritans, or whatever) wants to be mean. If we accept theories like the wisdom of crowds or the marketplace of ideas – and we better, if we’re small-d democrats, small-r republicans, small-l liberals, or basically any word beginning with a lowercase letter at all – then a big group of people all debating with each other will be harder to rile up than a single lunatic.
As a Jew, if I heard that skinheads were beating up Jews in dark alleys, I would be pretty freaked out; for all I know I could be the next victim. But if I heard that skinheads were circulating a petition to get Congress to expel all the Jews, I wouldn’t be freaked out at all. I would expect almost nobody to sign the petition
(and in the sort of world where most people were signing the petition, I hope I would have moved to Israel long before anyone got any chance to expel me anyway)
Trying to coordinate meanness is not in itself a mean act – or at least, not as mean as actual meanness. If Westboro Baptist Church just published lots of pamphlets saying we should pass laws against homosexuality, maybe it would have made some gay people feel less wanted, but it would have been a lot less intense than picketing funerals. If people who are against promiscuity want to write books about why we should all worry about promiscuity, it might get promiscuous people a little creeped out, but a lot less so than going up to promiscuous people and throwing water on them and shouting “YOU STRUMPET!”
This is my answer to people who say that certain forms of speech make them feel unsafe, versus certain other people who demand the freedom to express their ideas. We should all feel unsafe around anybody who relishes uncoordinated meanness – beating people in dark alleys, picketing their funerals, shaming them, harassing them, doxxing them, getting them fired from their jobs. I have no tolerance for these people – I am sometimes forced to accept their existence because of the First Amendment, but I won’t do anything more.
On the other hand, we should feel mostly safe around people who agree that meanness, in the unfortunate cases where it’s necessary, must be coordinated. There is no threat at all from pro-coordination skinheads except in the vanishingly unlikely possibility they legally win control of the government and take over.
I admit that this safety is still only relative. It hinges on the skinheads’ inability to convert 51% of the population. But until the Messiah comes to enforce the moral law directly, safety has to hinge on something. The question is whether it should hinge on the ability of the truth to triumph in the marketplace of ideas in the long-term across an entire society, or whether it should hinge on the fact that you can beat me up with a baseball bat right now.
(if you want pre-Messianic absolute safety, there are some super-democratic mechanisms that might help. America’s Bill of Rights seems pretty close to this; anyone wanting to coordinate meanness against a certain religion has to clear not only the 50% bar, but the much higher level required of Constitutional amendments. Visions of more complete protection remain utopian but alluring. For example, in an Archipelago you might well have absolute safety. The skinheads can’t say “Let’s beat up Jews right now”, they can’t even say “Let’s start an anti-Jew political party and gradually win power”. They can, at best, say, “Let’s go found our own society somewhere else without any Jews”, in which case you need say nothing but “don’t let the door hit you on your way out”. In this case their coordination of meanness cannot possibly hurt anyone.)
I’ve said many times I find the idea of “safe spaces” very attractive. I think they can be understood not just as spaces that are guaranteed safe for one group, but as spaces that have coordinated meanness against anything that threatens that group – ie they’ve agreed to shame, shun, and expel people who violate group norms. Everybody knows the local norms, and if somebody gets kicked out they can’t say they weren’t warned.
This is the principle with which I deal with the blog comments I started off by talking about. Right now people come to this blog with a default expectation that people aren’t going to be mean to them or try to shame them for things, other than the things universally agreed to be shameful in these general circles (like trolling, spamming, and misusing one-tailed t-tests). I want to explicitly reinforce that expectation here.
If you support being meaner in certain ways for the greater good, either as a subculture or as a society, you’re welcome to try to use this blog to advocate for that policy (within reason), but you’re not welcome to enact that policy unilaterally.
So here are two previously implicit SSC rules, made explicit for your edification:
First, you’re allowed to make (polite) arguments for why we should try shaming certain groups, but you are not allowed to directly shame any commenters here.
Second, you’re allowed to (politely) express your philosophical disagreements with the idea of transgender, but you are not allowed to actually misgender transgender commenters here.