RJ Zigerell (h/t Marginal Revolution) studies public support for eugenics. He finds that about 40% of Americans support some form of eugenics. The policies discussed were very vague, like “encouraging poor criminals to have fewer children” or “encouraging intelligent people to have more children”; they did not specify what form the encouragement would take. Of note, much lack of support for eugenics was a belief that it would not work; people who believed the qualities involved were heritable were much more likely to support programs to select for them. For example, of people who thought criminality was completely genetic, a full 65% supported encouraging criminals to have fewer children.
I was surprised to hear this, because I thought of moral opposition to eugenics was basically universal. If a prominent politician tentatively supported eugenics, it would provoke a media firestorm and they would get shouted down. This would be true even if they supported the sort of generally mild, noncoercive policies the paper seems to be talking about. How do we square that with a 40% support rate?
I think back to a metaphor for norm enforcement I used in an argument against Bryan Caplan:
Imagine a town with ten police officers, who can each solve one crime per day. Left to their own devices, the town’s criminals would commit thirty muggings and thirty burglaries per day (for the purposes of this hypothetical, both crimes are equally bad). They also require different skills; burglars can’t become muggers or vice versa without a lot of retraining. Criminals will commit their crime only if the odds are against them getting caught – but since there are 60 crimes a day and the police can only solve ten, the odds are in their favor.
Now imagine that the police get extra resources for a month, and they use them to crack down on mugging. For a month, every mugging in town gets solved instantly. Muggers realize this is going to happen and give up.
At the end of the month, the police lose their extra resources. But the police chief publicly commits that from now on, he’s going to prioritize solving muggings over solving burglaries, even if the burglaries are equally bad or worse. He’ll put an absurd amount of effort into solving even the smallest mugging; this is the hill he’s going to die on.
Suppose you’re a mugger, deciding whether or not to commit the first new mugging in town. If you’re the first guy to violate the no-mugging taboo, every police officer in town is going to be on your case; you’re nearly certain to get caught. You give up and do honest work. Every other mugger in town faces the same choice and makes the same decision. In theory a well-coordinated group of muggers could all start mugging on the same day and break the system, but muggers aren’t really that well-coordinated.
The police chief’s public commitment solves mugging without devoting a single officer’s time to the problem, allowing all officers to concentrate on burglaries. A worst-crime-first enforcement regime has 60 crimes per day and solves 10; a mugging-first regime has 30 crimes per day and solves 10.
But this only works if the police chief keeps his commitment. If someone tests the limits and commits a mugging, the police need to crack down with what looks like a disproportionate amount of effort – the more disproportionate, the better. Fail, and muggers realize the commitment was fake, and then you’re back to having 60 crimes a day.
I think eugenics opponents are doing the same thing as the police here: they’re trying to ensure certainty of punishment for the first offender. They’ve established a norm of massive retaliation against the first person to openly speak out in favor of eugenics, so nobody wants to be the first person. If every one of the 40% of people who support eugenics speak out at once, probably they’ll all be fine. But they don’t, so they aren’t.
Why aren’t we in the opposite world, where the people who support eugenics are able to threaten the people who oppose it and prevent them from speaking out? I think just because the opponents coordinated first. In theory one day we could switch to the opposite equilibrium.
I think something like this happened with gay rights. In c. 1969, people were reluctant to speak out in favor of gay rights; in 2019, people are reluctant to speak out against them. Some of that is genuinely changed minds; I don’t at all want to trivialize that aspect. But some of it seems to have just been that in 1969, it was common knowledge that the anti-gay side was well-coordinated and could do the massive-retaliation thing, and now it’s common knowledge that the pro-gay side is well-coordinated and can do the massive retaliation thing. The switch involved a big battle and lots of people massively retaliating against each other, but it worked.
Maybe everyone else already realized something like this. But it changes the way I think about censorship. I’m still against it. But I used to have an extra argument against it, which was something like “If eugenics is taboo, that means there must be near-universal opposition to eugenics, which means there’s no point in keeping it taboo, because even it it wasn’t taboo eugenicists wouldn’t have any power.” I no longer think that argument holds water. “Taboo” might mean nothing more than “one of two equally-sized sides has a tenuous coordination advantage”.
(in retrospect I was pretty dumb for not figuring this out, since it’s pretty the same argument I make in Can Things Be Both Popular And Silenced? The answer is obviously yes – if Zigerell’s paper is right, eugenics is both popular and silenced – but the police metaphor explains how.)
The strongest argument against censorship is still that beliefs should be allowed to compete in a marketplace of ideas. But if I were pro-censorship, I might retort that one reason to try to maintain my own side’s tenuous coordination advantage is that if I relax even for a second, the other side might be able to claw together its own coordination advantage and censor me. This isn’t possible in the “one side must be overwhelmingly more powerful” model of censorship, but it’s something that the “tenuous coordination advantage” model has to worry about. The solution would be some sort of stable structural opposition to censorship in general – but the gay rights example shows that real-world censors can’t always expect that to work out for them.
In order to make moderation easier, please restrict yourself to comments about censorship and coordination, not about eugenics or gay rights.
This suggests the slippery slope is not really a fallacy though its also not quite the right metaphor. There is a phase shift partway down the slope and if you pass it then the other coalition will win. Once they win you will be pushed into a new equilibirium where you will be supressed. This change can occur extremely rapidly. It is more like a balance than a slope. If you coalition loses the balance of power then things will rapidly shift. This matches my reading of history.
Yes – and critically, as the police / criminal examples should make clear, the balance of power doesn’t require Scott’s assumption that “one of two equally-sized sides has a tenuous coordination advantage” it instead only requires a loud / active minority coalition that can afford to put in effort when norms are broken. So if there’s an issue of censorship you care about, don’t assume it gets fixed on its own if enough others also care, or that it is hopeless to fix because of censorship. In fact, the smaller the minority enforcing a norm is, the easier it will be to reverse.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t just about censorship – it is very similar to many other areas of public policy, where a concentrated minority can wield out-sized influence compared to a dispersed majority. This happens in regulatory capture, in strong lobbies, and other places. But it isn’t necessarily going to be an unfair tyranny of the minority. In fact, it can be critical in preventing a tyranny of the majority by allowing small groups to wield outsized influence on the matters most critical to them – think the environmental movement, civil rights, stopping apartheid, or the gay rights movement.
A cynic would find beginnings of tyranny of majority in all of the above. More than traces, really, up to full armored Overton window in contexts like academia or corporate.
I would argue that tyranny of the minority and of the majority tend to be considered more dissimilar than they actually are.
Agreed. The identifying feature for both is tyranny. The tiny part of the discussion about the size of the group imposing that tyranny is mostly about how to prevent tyranny, not anything which makes the tyranny portion better or worse.
In terms of censorship, this is why the big Schelling point against censorship (or pro-freedom of speech) is important in this context, because if you don’t know if the “good guys” or the “bad guys” (however your team defines them) will be in charge of de-platforming, censoring, etc… next week, then allowing freedom of speech to become eroded is extremely risky for everyone.
In terms of the odds, I’d suggest that public choice economics principles indicate censorship by government actors is most likely to be to the overall detriment more than half the time you may otherwise expect, just due to the incentives involved. Similar to how incumbents tend to pass campaign finance reform laws which just happen to advantage incumbents (those with preexisting name recognition) in political races over their challengers.
Many arguments in the public sphere amount to slippery slope arguments. If we allow trigger lock requirements, they’ll surely take all our guns away in the end. If you decriminalize gay sex, the gays will want to get married and adopt children right after that. I think arguments in favour of free speech and arguments against eugenics are solidly in this category.
That the slippery slope argument is a fallacy is neither here nor there; it’s very powerful in both directions but especially powerful when one is defending the status quo. It’s important to have zero tolerance for any argument that might allow the sliding to begin.
In Scott’s metaphor we are policing a binary choice (to mug or not to mug) but I think it could be adapted to police a slippery slope too.
FWIW I no longer believe in the marketplace of ideas theory of free speech and think the German- and french-style prohibitions on certain categories of lies has better results but I do still fear the slippery slope.
It is not a fallacy. That is, there is a slippery slope fallacy, but there is also a slippery slope argument — it’s not necessarily valid or invalid from form alone.
This is actually true in general. Most logical fallacies are correct Bayesian inferences.
I think that deluks917 is right that the metaphor is not precise tho. A slippery slope brings to mind someone cartoonishly falling downhill, in a fast movement, while in reality the Overton window moves very slowly, perhaps across generations.
sometimes but not always. I think on certain issues things have shifted cartoonishly fast.
Trans rights are probably the most obvious example here. I think this is also an area where public opinion is probably pretty strongly against trans rights, but a small vocal group with a lot of media reach has managed to put together a coalition to basically censor anti-trans-rights views. (Thus, stuff like Twitter banning people for “deadnaming.”)
I agree with albatross11 that trans rights have moved fast in the last few years but:
-This is probably following a lot more years of hard work by lgbt movements
-social networks probably accelerate this kind of opinion change
from the outside, to me, I have to agree, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me this has been building up for a long while.
My guess is that one reason for the fast change in trans rights is that trans people care a *whole lot* more about the issue than anyone else. Many people find trans people distasteful or yucky, and some react violently. (As I understand it, transwomen get beaten up, threatened, or otherwise hassled quite often.) But hardly any non-trans people care as much about denying trans rights as trans people care about having them.
That seems unlikely since they make up such a small fraction of the population. You don’t get your way as a tiny minority unless a far greater group helps you. The people who get angry over the issue are mostly not trans.
I would argue that the issue is often used as a proxy to fight other fights. For example, to fight against gender roles/norms.
A complication is that many seem to do sex work. Sex workers get beaten up, threatened, or otherwise hassled more than other people. Studies also suggest that trans people have considerably more mental issues, which also correlates with victimization.
If you look at this list of murdered trans people, you can see that most victims were black. The article blames this on racism, yet all the perpetrators that are identified in the article are non-white. It may be that the already very high violence in black communities is disproportionately directed at trans people.
Black communities are socially conservative, so that may be a reason, but other reasons (like the ones I noted) may play a role as well.
You do if nobody cares to oppose you (or not until what you are asking for is already considered the norm by the mainstream, or the part of the mainstream that has heard of you). I think that’s why even many conservative countries legally recognize sex change: trans people asked for it, government accepted it, and they were too few for anyone to care to start a major public debate about it.
Plenty of people with rare diseases, or various other rare problems, get various forms of support from the government.
Yeah, trans street prostitute is probably a more dangerous profession than bomb disposal technician.
Bomb disposal units often use remote control robots for the dangerous bits.
Perhaps trans sex workers should also use remote control sex robots 😛
Re: trans rights, I think something that’s being overlooked (though JPNunez touches on it) is that trans people are part of a coalition, and that coalition has had great success in the last decade. Trans people kinda had to sit in the back and wait while the lgbt movement worked on marriage equality. Once that fight was won, I think that that coalition pretty much decided that it was now the trans folks’ turn. The shifts we’ve seen since then reflect not just trans activists efforts, but the efforts of most of the coalition that was fighting for marriage in the late aughts/early teens.
Perhaps “camel’s nose” is a better metaphor for the same idea: that if you give them any ground, they’ll only want more.
The substantive point is that the people defending the status quo are not opposing a binary choice (prosecute muggers relentlessly), they are opposing reasonable sounding, incremental changes because they may lead to less reasonable changes in the future.
Right, the slippery slope argument is a response to salami tactics, where you start out with (say) a requirement for an ultrasound and a 3-day waiting period for late-term abortions, but the end goal of the side proposing those is that abortions are in practice unattainable in the state of Alabama.
Not sure what “salami” tactics are, but is there a difference between this and someone who thinks abortion should be illegal, and is an incrementalist who believes we should work in that direction slowly to ensure no unintended consequences?
The slippery slope fallacy is only a fallacy in logic arguments, which is why people invoking it outside of that narrow realm are often wrong.
This is a quite general observation, which I support and want to bring out. There are lots of arguments that are not technically correct in a “would work in a mathematical proof” sense, but which are probabilistically correct, or otherwise correct enough to sensibly carry real weight. I could rattle off some examples, but they would be something of a distraction from the main point of the article.
I don’t even see why it is deductively invalid. It would be easy to construct a deductively valid argument of the slippery slope form. The premises could be things like a policy should be rejected if its aggregate harms exceed its aggregate benefits, and then construct premises showing that aggregate harms, including follow-on effects relating to other issues, exceed the aggregate benefits. I don’t understand how this would necessarily be a deductively invalid argument.
Many arguments which are claimed to be the “slippery slope” fallacy are actually reductios. “You claim we should engage in policy A because of principle B, but principle B also suggests we should engage in policy A*, which I find intolerable”.
Eugene Volokh wrote an article on other mechanisms by which the slippery slope actually does work.
I might just be restating Nybbler in my own words, but in the real world, “slippery slope” arguments often occur where one side cannot point to a limiting principle. Drug prohibition is often done in this way because there really are no principles outside the extremes. One side says, “well if alcohol is legal, why not weed,” and the other says, “why not ban booze and cigarettes too!?”
I’m surprise to see several people assuming that everyone would ordinarily view a “slippery slope” argument as fallacious. Could someone explain to me why? Here’s a form of the argument as I understand it: “If we allow x, then there will be no principled basis to oppose y, and the internal dynamics of the movement that today pushes for x is likely to move on to advocating for y once they have x in the bag. Whatever I think of x, I strongly dislike y. Moreover, there is a strong consensus against y that will be eroded once the x movement gets its way on the x issue. The danger of making y more likely thus presents an adequate argument against supporting x even if we might otherwise come out differently in the absence of the subsequent risk of y.” Sounds like a perfectly fine argument to me if the factual predicates were adequately supported, and if y is bad enough. Why would it be “fallacious” to take the risk of this sort of indirect effect into consideration?
People think it’s fallacious because it appears on many Lists Of Common Fallacies and there ain’t nothin’ a nerd likes more than a big list of rules to follow.
So if you do something that looks like something on the list, people start jumping up and down yelling “FALLACY, FALLACY” and then the whole discussion breaks down.
If you want to make fun of nerds, you’ve come to the wrong blog.
“There ain’t nothin’ a nerd likes more than a big list of rules to follow” isn’t the kind of fun a non-nerd makes of nerds. It’s the kind of fun a frustrated nerd makes of nerds, and that’s well within this blog’s scope: see for example everything Scott’s ever said about the New Atheists, the “Luna” cryptocurrency dating site, or Mencius Moldbug and friends.
*brandishes rolled up star trek poster*
Somewhat relevant: Edward Feser on “Meta-sophistry”.
Though he certainly describes a thing that happens in some cases, it falls a part for me a bit when he gets to his ultimate example. Essentially, Feser interprets the cosmological argument as involving the assumption that everything contingent has a cause, there are (allegedly) metaphysical problems with saying that’s the whole story, so there must be a non-contingent cause to elude the problems. So, indeed, the question of what caused God doesn’t make sense, if you accept the story of Feser and those he cites that God is this special thing for which questions of their causal origins don’t make sense. To anyone who hasn’t drunk the Thomist kool-aid, this sets new standards for special pleading, but Feser seems entirely incapable of understanding how his arguments appear to others.
I haven’t seen anyone making that assumption. If it appears that I have then I apologize for not expressing myself clearly as I totally accept your explanation of the structure of a slippery slope argument.
No problem — apologies if I misread you. I think you said above (quoting) that “the slippery slope argument is a fallacy” and the original commenter in this chain seemed to indicate that the slippery slope would ordinarily be viewed as a fallacy absent the special considerations raised by Scott’s post. But it’s possible I was over-reading these and similar comments.
It’s the same class as guilt by association. It’s probably true in many cases that people who hang out with criminals are at least peripherally facilitating their crimes, but you must prove it to be so in each case.
Slippery slope is blocking my ability to do X (which we all agree is benign) because you think it will be harder to block someone else from doing Y later. You’re basically saying X is guilty by association with Y, even though in isolation X would be fine. If Y is your hill to die on, go stake out Y, leave us X-ers alone. It may even be true that allowing X makes blocking Y harder, just as arresting all of a criminal’s friends and family might actually impede their ability to commit crimes. But it still isn’t justified.
The places where I see slippery slopes used in a proper (non-fallacy) way is with things like gun control. The argument usually goes “If this bill banning X passes this year, next year, they’ll try to pass a bill banning Y, and the year after Z, all with the goal of eventually disarming the populace.” Now I could see how someone says “But that’s a slippery slope! There’s no evidence that this law will result in Bill Y and Bill Z,” but I just point at the last 40-50 years of gun control laws and say “The law of straight lines says that unless we change the direction of gun control laws, that’s the inevitable conclusion.”
Slippery slopes like “Gay marriage is bad because we’ll end up marrying ducks (or whatever small animal it was)” are not of the same metric because there are no trend lines, but arguments with trend lines are not logical fallacies just because they follow trend lines to a logical conclusion. Of course, someone can always argue that they’ll “Stop when the ownership of guns doesn’t put children in danger” but that’s another fallacy, which is why people who oppose gun control don’t accept it.
I think it’s inherent in the “slippery slope” fallacy that all (to a nearest approximation) parties agree X is benign. In a gun control context, perhaps some people are strongly opposed to assault weapon bans on their own merits, but a larger group is only weakly opposed or indifferent to assault weapons, though strongly opposes a total gun ban. The first group might try to rally support amongst the second group by saying “they’re trying to take the guns we like today, but they’ll be coming for the guns you like tomorrow”. I wouldn’t classify this as a slippery slope argument. Another way to think about this is: “we must defend free speech for everyone, because once a censor is empowered to silence anyone, they very well could silence us.” In these cases, according to at least one side, the X condition is harmful: Creating a state censor with the power to decide who deserves the right to speech *is* the harm, even if it’s not immediately used against them. The Y case is simply demonstrating that harm to another group who might otherwise be indifferent to the harm X is causing to the first group.
It would be a bit rediculous if all parties agreed assault weapons were objectively bad for society, but one side was preventing them from being banned because “what’s next?”… In fact, that stance would probably lead the rest of society to deem that group crazy, and make them want to make sure they don’t have access to any kind of guns….. 🤔
That is true. Most of the time I see the accusation of slippery slope, however, someone is saying X is harmful, and it could lead to an even worse effect Y if left unchecked.
The issue you need to also consider with “slippery slope” arguments is that the “X” may be so ill-defined that it’s nearly impossible to articulate why “Y” wouldn’t be a next logical step. Your example of “assault weapons” is a perfect example: there’s no mechanical, bullet energy, or “tactical deadliness” reason for any weapon on the assault weapons ban list to be there. A list of features rather harmless in a civilian context were piled into a bill and used to ban a bunch of guns. For example, flash hiders are great for reducing the ability of an enemy to properly locate and determine the size of an attacking platoon when fighting at distances of 50-200 meters, but that’s not super useful for, say, a mass shooter. Similarly, mag changes generally aren’t a limiting step in mass shootings, so bans on larger capacities might make people feel good, but don’t significantly change the outcome once somebody has determined to commit one.
Other weapons that may have been deadlier weren’t affected so long as they didn’t have any features on the “scary list”, so literally the only commonality between “assault weapons” is the arbitrary definitions in the Assault Weapons Ban. Given that most people who knew something about guns could see this, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that the Assault Weapons Ban was intended for no other reason than to be the camel’s nose in the tent. I think that Popehat said it best when he used a notional proposal to ban “dangerous dogs” as an example of how incoherent the AWB was:
As the quote points out, when the first proposal “X” is so orthogonal to any problem it’s purporting to solve and mangles all of the rational categories of the thing its regulating, it’s hard to not see how it’s going to inevitably lead to “Y” if the people proposing “X” are allowed to have their way without a fight.
This might be off-topic, but what’s wrong with banning weapons (and weapon systems, such as “gun + tricky modification”) that can fire more than N rounds per minute, where N is, say 240 or so ? We can quibble over what N should be, but is the principle itself good enough ?
“We’ve established that it’s not a violation of rights to restrict the number of rounds per minute a gun fires. Reducing that number to 1 is thus also not a violation of rights.”
The U.S. has done that for a long time—fully automatic weapons are illegal except for people who have gotten a special license. The applicability to bumpstocks was unclear, but I doubt they would meet your 240 criterion anyway.
The ban on “machine guns” was never a quantitative limit, except insofar as “one” and “many” are technically quantities. But “one shot per trigger pull” is qualitatively different from “many shots per trigger pull” in a way that is more resistant to slippery slopes than “120 rounds per minute good, 240 rounds per minute bad”.
And, yes, even the formerly clear and qualitative barrier picks up some fuzziness due to weapons technology postdating the original law, but it’s still a stronger and more defensible line I think.
Not exactly. Fully-automatic weapons are legal for civilian ownership if they were registered with the ATF before 1986.
These weapons are very expensive and almost never used in crimes.
Mass shooters pretty much never use fully automatic weapons. In fact, the military also doesn’t train it’s infantrymen to normally use fully automatic fire, even though they hand out guns that have this feature, because in most situations it is worse than semi-automatic fire.
Spraying bullets typically means that you run out of bullets fast, not that you kill many.
Your idea and many others proposed by gun control advocates tend to suffer from a lack of understanding of how effectively limitations really are, in a practical sense. A semi-automatic gun always is ready to fire again sooner than it takes to accurately aim the weapon at a new target. The most effective way to kill unarmed people is typically to get fairly close and aim well…or if you have a lot of people close together, a (nail) bomb.
A typical way in which governments try to reduce the risk of mass murder is to limit magazine sizes, which seems to have little effect because a reload is really quite fast.
Ultimately, an issue in the US is that the constitution implies that citizens have a right to a weapon that is of contemporary military quality, yet any such weapon will be highly effective at killing lots of people.
The trouble with that is the people who do want Y, or even Z, and need X to be accepted first to pave the way. You only want X, you don’t care about Y, you might even be opposed to it. But the people who want Y will be right beside you supporting you about “Yes, let’s stand up to those horrible X-banning bigots!” and it’ll be no consolation to anyone afterwards when the X-ists go “But we never agreed to Y!”
It’s for the same purposes as paedophile groups tried very hard to infiltrate gay rights activist groups back in the 70s, and why some gay rights activists got caught up in the whole argument over the age of consent (which in Britain at the time was higher for gay sex than for straight sex) into accepting, defending and promulgating arguments like “Well the age of consent in Hungary is ten, there’s no reason we can’t lower it to be equal for gay and straight and indeed lower it a lot more than eighteen or even sixteen” (which meant an awful lot of back-pedalling, denial and embarrassment in the 80s and 90s when people quoted their stuff from the time back at them).
I’ll see your slippery slope and raise you useful idiots.
I’ve heard an awful lot of mockery of slippery slope arguments and then the things did come to pass as forecast but nobody ever rowed back on “Well, looks like we were wrong, it wasn’t the slippery slope fallacy it was correct forecasting”. So I’m not going to be too impressed by someone telling me my qualms are only a slippery slope fallacy, because that’s what they said the last ten times.
but you must prove it to be so in each case.
Depends on the case.
You must prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to put them in jail, and by a preponderance of evidence to win a civil suit, but less formal matters a blanket rule against known associates of criminals is just fine.
It seems to me that slippery slope arguments often go through against exceptions. The argument for making an exception is usually, “It’s good that we have a rule against X, but we can see that in this particular case X would actually be good, so we should make an exception to our rule.”
That doesn’t work. No matter how strongly you stress that you’re doing this on ONE OCCASION ONLY, it’s obvious that you’d do it again if the same circumstances recurred. Therefore making one exception admits the existence of an exceptional class (including at least all cases as extreme as the first). Having admitted that, every man and his dog will argue that they fall within the exceptional class, and you’re then in the position of deciding each case on its own merits, so you no longer have a rule. At best you have a heuristic predicting that X will usually fail on its merits.
The argument becomes a lot more fallacious when it takes the form:
“You want to allow X. But if you squint, Y is kind of a more extreme version of X, and Y is something neither you nor I nor any sane person would want. If we allow X, then soon after, we’ll have Y! Are you crazy enough to want Y?”
“The form of the argument as you understand it” is not the Slippery Slope Fallacy. You laid out a very reasonable argument.
The Slippery Slope Fallacy is “If we do x, then y will INEVITABLY follow”.
You couched the process in probabalistic terms. The Fallacy does not
The simple truth of the matter is that some slopes are more slippery than others. The fallacy then is to ascribe slipperiness to one which doesn’t have it. Let’s pose the concern thus: if one alters a parameter, in addition to altering it one also puts in place a precedent that it can be altered. If you fear the consequences of future alterations, enabled by your precedent, more than you desire the alteration in the first place, then you shouldn’t make it. Those list-addicted nerds shouting “fallacy, fallacy” and flecking their macbooks with soylent and quinoa are only right in what they say if you refuse to act, citing fear of the precedent, when there is in fact no room for this precedent to bring about any future unintended consequences.
I think it is that ‘slippery slope’ is sort of a catchall.
Like, say there is an arsonist philosopher Z. Say his incendiary teachings have had past success, and I want to protect our society from them.
I say that we should censor all of Z’s writings, and extend that censorship to anyone who quotes his works, follows his ash strewn path, or looks approvingly upon those who do.
Well and good, you might say, but if we agree with you, then what about the slippery slope?
Here are a few things that you might mean:
1. If you let me ban Z’s works I’ll soon be after Y’s, then W’s and so on.
2. If you let me ban Z’s works then I will stuff everyone in the world that I don’t like into the Z shaped hole.
3. Now that banning has been permitted in this one case. Other people, unconnected to me, will point to this as precedent in their attempts to ban unconnected things.
You can no doubt think of more besides.
So when someone says that we can’t do X, because slippery slope, you don’t yet know quite what they mean. Similarly, when someone says that the slippery slope argument is fallacious, you don’t know exactly what THEY mean. The term just kind of generates a cloud of ‘knowingness’ around any debate, without actually clarifying anything.
The ‘slippery slope fallacy’, much like ‘begging the question’, has been twisted beyond all reason.
It has never been fallacious to point out that walking near a greasy incline is dangerous – in fact even a dry incline or slippery floor can be hazardous. The fallacy is in failing to demonstrate a link between the proposed course of action and the supposed hazard, and occurs in conversation much more rarely than anyone wants to accept.
I think you’re overestimating how intellectually consistent people are and underestimating how much the framing of a question can affect responses.
Yup, was going to say this. Remember compartmentalization! I suspect most people just have cached that “eugenics is bad” without carrying that badness through to the actual referent. If the survey questions don’t explicitly use the word “eugenics”, many people won’t notice “oh wait, this is eugenics, which I is bad”.
you may be right. I don’t think people consciously group all actions that constitute eugenics under the mental category “eugenics”.
Chatting to a friend who, a few minutes earlier, had been talking about how eugenics was inherently evil:
me: “oh ya, apparently the parents of Yao Ming were both very tall people the chinese state offered money to if they’d have a kid together”
him: “oh wow, weird”
me: ” ‘course that’s technically eugenics.”
him: “huh, I guess so, but not like …. coercive evil-eugenics ”
I think there’s a lot in there about broad categories and people don’t tend to think much about the fine details.
I mean I’m pretty sure I could get a figure of 40% of people supporting “murder” if I used a broad enough definition of “murder”, had people watch “shaking hands with death” and asked people whether someone like that should have the right to choose how they die.
And taking advantage of those broad categories seems to be part of the coordination issue.
If you do build a strong coalition who punish all defectors you’re going to get parasitic groups who want to use your power for themselves.
So you start with a group defending something easy to coordinate over. No stabbing people to death in the street etc. That’s an easy, low conflict group for your no-murder coalition and lots of people get behind you and help punish defectors brutally.
But there’s some groups who feel strongly about things that are a little bit like murder but aren’t as staightforward as stabbing someone in the neck on the street and, depending on how you define the term, falls under the word and they’d really like to have a well-coordinated group of people pushing their extension to the norm.
This works ok while the subsections aren’t too far from your original version of murder and most people agree.
But roll on a few centuries and now you’ve got some people trying to use your existing anti-murder coordination to attack people who have some goo in a pietri dish that they’re going to autoclave.
On the other side of the street you’ve got elderly people being told by another parasitic group that they can’t avoid dying slowly and painfully acording to their own wishes because that would be murder too.
Similar happens with eugenics as the fringe try to insist that kids with genetic disorders should be left to die because gene therapy is “eugenics”
Or who start with the “no murdering or sterilizing the disabled or unpopular minorities” and few decades later are screaming that parents shouldn’t be allowed select for embryos that don’t carry deadly genetic diseases.
And gradually you get a buildup of people who keep looking at the fringe parasites and losing their support for the coalition.
If your core is strong enough then your coordinated coalition isn’t going to shatter, murder isn’t going to suddenly be made legal .
But if your coordinated coalition is built around an already somewhat weak issue…. those parasitic groups around the fringes may end up destroying the whole thing on you.
Imagine your town with muggings and burglaries and the anti-mugging drive has worked…. but now John Smith the apartment manager turns up insisting that the 3 cases per week of delinquent rent are *actually a form of mugging* under the special extra-broad definition of mugging he’s been pushing in the local paper for the last few months.
John alone can’t punish more than 1 of the 3 cases per week… but if he can co-opt the existing anti-mugging structure….
other people take notice and lots of them have their own pet issues….
Roll on a few years and the definition of mugging in the town starts to look extremely absurd and broad until so many trivial things are covered that the anti-mugging enforcement mechanism becomes vulnerable to random perturbations in the system and suddenly you have a collapse of the whole edifice.
Some words have “badness” built in their definition. Murder, from your example, is defined as killing that is bad. ISIS fighter would not say they are murdering infidels or homosexual, pro-choices would not say they support murder of fetuses etc. Racism is probably another word, people accepted in their heart that racist beliefs are wrong and inaccurate, therefore beliefs about racial difference they believe to be right can not be racist.
In the same spirit eugenics is perhaps one of such words.
In practice you see a lot of word games, where people picks their words or even define words to tailor their morals, rather than use a more objective definition.
So the murder they like is then not called murder, but punishment for a crime. Racism they like is not called racism, but affirmative action. Etc.
Another such word: “censorship”.
I don’t think the word “censorship” has always had an inherently negative connotation. It used to be pretty well accepted in most parts of the world that “censors” were people with an important job to do, namely upholding public morality. They could go too far, in which case they would be denounced with appeal to phrases like “burning books and burying scholar.”
Which is to say, sometimes it’s the intellectual climate (in our case of a strong presumption of at least paying lip service to free speech) that makes something sound bad, not the word. See e.g. Marxism, communism, and socialism in most of the US (though some are recently trying to rehabilitate the last term, ironically by accepting the critics’ broad definition).
Indeed, New Zealand has an official with the title of “Chief Censor” to this day. He’s been in the news lately.
Also if I(an American) was involved in wartime examination of soldiers’ mail to ensure they were not unintentionally reveiling military secrets like where we were, I would call myself a censor engaging in censorship without shame.
If any of you folks are interested in some history of censorship, I highly recommend Robert Darnton’s Censors at Work. It looks at censorship during the Enlightenment in France, during the British Raj, and communist East Berlin. Really interesting and somewhat humanizing look at the censors themselves.
The officials tasked with keeping order amongst the students at Christchurch College, Oxford are called the Censors.
Which, if true, signifies instantly that people don’t actually think eugenics is bad, but they think they believe it based on their cached position.
I’m impressed at how explicit the survey questions were, though. I was expecting to read the paper and agree that it was all about indirect questions, but I don’t know how much that argument holds when the question is “should we sterilize prisoners?”
Then again it’s MTurk too.
I think a lot of people are keen on the idea of sterilization of sex offenders, particularly pedophiles.
Less sterilizing than castrating. Removing the ability to reproduce is just a side effect of removing the sexual desire, not the goal.
That may be; I assume that when people say eugenics is terrible, they’re talking about Nazi sterilizations, not paying teenage girls a dollar a day to not get pregnant.
But I think the general point is reasonable. Pick a position that’s mainstream today, e.g. women’s suffrage, and consider the time when it was just beginning to be debated. Back when the first few firebrands were agitating for suffrage and being excoriated, it’s likely that a lot more people supported the cause privately (if weakly) but were unwilling to get yelled at for promoting it.
The problem is, that reasoning is ex post facto – I only assume that women’s suffrage had a lot of private support because it went on to become very popular. I don’t know how you’re supposed to tell whether a currently-unpopular position that seems, according to a poll of Mechanical Turk users, to have some level of private support, is actually on the cusp of wider acceptance, and hence worth censoring. So, even if Scott’s theory is definitely something that happens, I don’t see how it tells anyone anything actionable.
What is interesting is that female voters initially were much more conservative than male voters. This is why in some places, opponents proposed to have a referendum on the issue that included women, under the (probably correct) assumption that this would result in a much more negative result than when the issue was to be decided by male politicians elected by male voters.
This means that for some time after women’s suffrage was made into law, conservatives profited from having these new voters and thus had a pretty strong reason to rationalize it as not so bad or to prioritize other things.
There is also the issue that people tend to have trouble doing something and then also rejecting it, as it causes cognitive dissonance. But of course it was not an option for the opponents to boycott (if they were female) or have their partner boycott the elections, because it would make them lose.
Note that back then, both the proponents and opponents of women’s suffrage tended to have what we now consider to be very anti-feminist beliefs: that men and women had separate duties and responsibilities. The arguments that people currently tend to use to explain why women’s suffrage is good would not be shared by many suffragettes.
Even nowadays, many women support ending women’s suffrage*
* Video of female students signing a petition against women’s suffrage, presumably because they mistake suffrage for suffering.
This reminds me unfortunately of a piece I read about the situation with the Rohingya Muslims in Burma. It argued that previously, when the military dictatorship was at its most controlling, it was very hard to know what public opinion in the country really looked like – there was no electoral politics, no real freedom of speech, no credible opinion polling. Since things have since loosened up, we now know: a lot of people really hate Muslims, and groups starting to co-ordinate on this issue was (it is argued) a major driver of the recent round of attacks.
I posted a comment making a similar statement but it keeps disappearing.
the TLDR is people are being asked how they feel about innocuous sounding policies (may or may not be innocuous in practice) and aren’t being primed to think of the much harsher radioactive umbrella term that was used to describe much harsher and radioactive actions taken in the past.
I’m not sure if the implication is that it’s good we have these kinds of equivocations and taboos IRL b/c the innocuous policies are actually not innocuous, or that the broader definitions are useful because they provide ‘defense in depth’ against the non-innocuous policies.
I’m generally against these kinds of umbrella taboos, if one feels compelled to engage in guilt by association it’s probably because the thing you are trying to taboo was not and cannot be engaged on its own merits.
I also don’t find the defense in depth argument convincing, as being overzealous with what gets put under the umbrella leads to mission creep, collateral damage, martyrdom, and then backlash. It can encourage overzealous and non-innocuous behavior that can merely form the basis for another taboo.
Agreed. Ask people how they feel about “eugenics.” “Bad!” Ask people how they feel about aborting fetuses with horrific deformities/genetic illnesses. “Well…”
Either I’m misunderstanding or I disagree. If there’s something horrific that we all agree is terrible, it makes sense to give it a name and have a strong taboo against it. If the name that gets chosen happens to have a broader definition that includes other things, that’s an unfortunate semantic accident, but the solution is to disambiguate the terms for those things, not to avoid umbrella taboos.
If someone were trying to tar some innocuous policy by trying to add it the definition of eugenics, I agree, that’s guilt by associate, or a motte-and-bailey, or something like it. But this seems to be the opposite – some practitioners of eugenics were so notably bad that the whole word has a negative connotation.
‘Umbrella Taboo’ just means taking something restrictive that you have a strong consensus as being wrong and having it apply to the surrounding adjacent things, and then the things adjacent to that, and then so on and so on wider and wider.
Some idea or action that’s several steps removed from the core of the taboo couldn’t be argued against by merely describing it as it is, it needs the association.
A real-world example of this appears in restrictions on marriage within families imposed by various societies. I think there was a time when even second or third cousins might need special permission to get married.
The starting taboo (probably biological in origin) is against sleeping with siblings or parents or children. But you can expand this so that you’re not allowed to marry/sleep with your first cousin, or second cousin, or even more distant relationships. I think in some societies, they end up having quite elaborate rules about who can marry whom, and you might have a substantial fraction of the women you meet who are off-limits to you, basically because the incest-taboo got expanded to cover these fairly distant relationships.
A problem is that the few terrible people who actually did or wanted the original awful taboo thing are clearly incentivized to refer to it as something broad and innocuous that also includes noncontroversial or good things. “We’re not committing genocide, we’re just trying to implement a eugenics program for the betterment of humanity! You wouldn’t want our descendants to be riddled with inferior genes, would you?” Of course, the result of that is quite clearly that the entire field of eugenics (including the innocuous e.g. embryo selection or paying teens to use birth control) gets tarred with the associations of the murderers who tried to shield themselves with the broad term in the first place.
Sure, but that goes both ways: “we don’t want to disallow scientific inquiry, just science that will inevitably be used to oppress people” has resulted in false allegations of oppression that in turn are used to advocate & implement discrimination against the alleged oppressors.
Are you familiar with Timur Kuran and his work on preference falsification? He addresses this kind of coordination problem. Check out Julia Galef’s podcast: http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs-198-timur-kuran-on-private-truths-and-public-lies.html
How much of this can be explained by strength of preferences? I doubt many of the 40% in favor of non-coercive eugenics have particularly strong feelings about it. At least, I suspect a far smaller proportion of them do than those on the against side.
Perhaps that’s consistent with your model if we treat the strength of anti-eugenics preferences as a result rather than a cause of the coordination you describe. If so, the anti side would in a sense be feigning disproportionate outrage about something they care no more about than the pro side (and perhaps after enough feigning genuinely adopting that level of outrage). But I don’t find that particularly plausible.
It does seem plausible that the anti side cares about preventing non-coercive eugenics more as a means of ensuring a strong stand against coercive eugenics than out of caring about non-coercive eugenics for its own sake. But that’s a different model than yours. In this one the anti side really does care a great deal about preventing what they see as the long term consequences of allowing non-coercive eugenics. It is not just that they are acting as though they care more than the pro side.
To add to that, I have a hard time imagining there arising a similar taboo against expressing anti-eugenics positions even if the pro side had 70% support and the conflicting taboo were absent. There’s just not enough passion to create such a taboo.
[The gay rights example is different but has its own problems. Support for gay marriage only reached the 40% level within a decade of it becoming law of the land.]
Is there any example of the sort of dynamic you describe arising without such an imbalance in strength of preferences?
(Sorry if this counts as a comment about gay rights and eugenics rather than about coordination. I took you to mean commenting on the object level goodness of those things, not on whether they best fit your model or conflicting models. Feel free to delete this if I’m wrong)
I suspect that many people react with outrage to any eugenics policy labeled as such, because they know (have learned and heard all their lives) that it’s bad and so will condemn it.
That’s what I think is the explanation, too (along with the issue of whether it’s labeled eugenics). In more detail, we choose which politician to vote for on the basis of many issues, and we put different weights on different issues. If we only weakly care about an issue, we may be willing to vote for a politician we disagree with, if we agree with him on issues we care about more. So politicians take a side which has the strong support of a minority over the one which has a weak support from the majority.
Then the positive feedback kicks in, where someone who speaks for the position which usually gets people shouted down has no one to defend him. Another positive feedback is that opponents of the mainstream position are much more exposed to arguments against their views than supporters of the mainstream position, and they tend to be less confident. It would be weird to say that the mainstream position is beyond the pale.
I think this phenomenon is also behind the long-term left-wing shift on race, gender etc. issues. Those who are left-wing on these issues think that those who are to the right of them are racist, sexist etc., which they consider to be an instant disqualifier from political positions (or sometimes even having a job). Those who are right-wing consider these just one of many political issues. This is why when affirmative action is put on a referendum, where people only vote on this issue and the strength of one’s preference doesn’t matter, it usually loses.
I don’t think Scott’s explanation in Contra Caplan… was correct either. It would imply that everyone who opposes Jim Crow actually opposes immigration laws as well, just preferred to focus on one thing at a time for strategic reasons. Or that everyone who wants zero tolerance on sexual harassment actually wants zero tolerance on other forms of assholery as well. I don’t think this is true. I think there is an actual difference in the strength of opposition for various reasons, not only a difference in enforcement as a strategy.
I think you could hypothetically drum up pro-eugenics fervor if framed properly. E.g. “Those lunatics want to sentence our children to live with horrible deformities and all manner of preventable disabilities!” While that obviously hasn’t reached taboo-creating potential in our society today, I don’t see why it couldn’t at some point.
Distantly related: usually pro life people want to force other people into parenthood, whereas pro choice want a “choice”, an option only for people who do not want to be parents. However, I remember feeling outraged about a case of a woman, who decided to carry to term her pregnancy, expecting a baby, where the prognosis was to see the child die at cca 2 years, with a lot of surgeries and hospitallisation in between. So, I know the forced abortion is politically infeasible and it would be hard to admit my feelings publicly, but I really felt like this woman should not have had the right to have her baby.
It’s obviously relevant to Scott’s point that censorship/demonization on this subject was not as strong in the past, but that those (the Galtonians) who didn’t censor their intellectual rivals wound up being crushed by those (the Gouldians) who did believe in censoring their enemies.
Completely agree with this as an example of how what people think is much, much more diverse than we ever realise. So on questions where a spectrum of opinions are known to exist, there are a lot of people at all points on the spectrum, even when the publicly acceptable position is well-settled. And on many questions where we haven’t even realized there can be a spectrum of viewpoints, there are also a lot of people with views we haven’t considered (and they don’t think of themselves as odd, and may not even realise they are not mainstream).
You can play the game with any big positive or negative concepts.
Democracy – I’m certain that many, many people don’t really think one-person-one-vote is the best way to settle social questions.
Justice – There are many people who would rather have efficient or non-disruptive outcomes over just ones. There are many people who think procedural justice is silly.
Hate – There are many people who think that hate is a really good organising principle for the world, because knowing what you don’t like is the first step toward staying safe.
And so on…
While I remain a fan of free speech, one of the arguments for free speech is the “marketplace of ideas” concept. I don’t really think that works at all. It supposes that people can/do assess ideas and make an effort to select the best ones. But most people aren’t very good at assessing ideas; and most people are very susceptible to pressure to conform. So the marketplace of ideas is really just an invitation to form gangs, as Scott suggests.
(Incidentally, this ties in with what I think about markets in general, which is that they need strong rules to work well. Marketplaces of ideas with strong rules – like academic publishing and broadsheet newspaper publishing – can work well. Marketplaces of ideas without rules, like YouTube, are much less likely to surface good ideas.)
This doesn’t make sense to me. The opposite to the marketplace of ideas is (allowing) strong enforcement of taboos in expression. Taboos are easier to coordinate when you can punish dissenters harshly.
The marketplace of ideas is akin to policing gangs. Compare the situation in (most of) the US to countries where the police has been heavily corrupted and/or is very ineffective. In the US, few companies face attempts at extortion and if they do, refusing to cooperate and going to the police is a viable option. In some other countries, extortion is common and refusal is a death sentence.
You still have gangs in the US, but their existence doesn’t mean that policing hasn’t worked. I think that you are mistaking a lack of total success for total failure, which is a big mistake.
Thanks, Aapje. I don’t think I disagree with you! I think your analogy to policing works, and I agree that a marketplace with good policing works well. In fact, as I understand it a well-regulated market is the best economic model that has ever been tried.
What I’m saying is that many free speech arguments emphasise the freedom of the speech (which I agree is necessary) and neglect the part where that speech is judged and regulated. In fact, I quite often see claims that certain regulation of speech is an attack on free speech. I just think that’s wrong.
So, for example, academic journal editors are fierce gatekeepers, who don’t allow publications that don’t meet certain standards. That’s not an attack on free speech, it’s like policing gangs: it makes freedom possible for other market participants.
The difference between this “policing” and what you call “enforcement of taboos” presumeably lies in the legitimacy of the police/enforcers. Academic editors are explicitly named and can be changed. Enforcers of political correctness (either the classic liberal version or its evil twin conservative version) are not elected or accountable, so they lack legitimacy, and that’s why their enforcement of taboos can be a problem.
I would argue that the pro-marketplace position when it comes to academic journals would be that:
– journals should judge papers on the quality of their methodology and such, as well as the topicality; but not on the (perceived) morality of the hypothesis or findings.
– people should be free to create new journals on whatever topic they want.
This is akin to it being very consistent with a pro-marketplace position to have a forum that censors personal attacks, low quality arguments, etc, or to restrict the discussion to a certain topic.
Unfortunately, our language doesn’t make it easy to distinguish between tabooing ideas/arguments/etc that are considered to be politically immoral vs tabooing incivility and such. Of course, these don’t neatly separate out anyway.
In the US you might decide that walking around with your arm hair exposed is sinful, you might even get a big group of people to agree and you might try to enforce it in your town.
But then the cops show up and rather than help you, they lock you up.
Because there’s a larger and more powerful coalition protecting the norm that it’s fine to walk around with your arms exposed in the US.
In the US, the norm adopted that people are enforcing was a strong taboo against restrictions and regulations on speech by the government.
As such when you, or your group try to inflict novel restrictions or regulations on free speech in the US and try to leverage government resources or power to do so…. you come up against a much larger, much older, much more powerful coordinated group who have decided you are very very much wrong when you say “oh but surely we can just add this one little extra regulation and restriction!” because they know very very well that behind you there’s a million other people with just one little extra restriction and if they let you get away with it without a long and brutal fight then their coalition fails and free speech in the US gets hollowed out.
So, movie ratings like NC-17 are totally not a thing in the US, right? Obscenity laws don’t exist? Terrorism advocacy is fine? The Comics Code Authority (CCA) wasn’t a thing? The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) wasn’t actually passed?
Yes, the US has a strong free speech tradition and a larger contingent of free speech absolutists than elsewhere. At the same time, there always were and still are many exceptions, in some cases like the CCA the restrictions were even removed by newer coordinated groups while the older group tried to keep them.
So far, the existing regulations and restrictions have not lead to tyranny, the same can broadly be said about slightly different regulations and restrictions in other western countries. Societies will from time to time reassess these restrictions and regulations and change them based on a host of factors, including, but not limited to the strength of their free speech tradition.
They have no force in law.
If you’re running a play house you’re perfectly free to declare that only people over 35 are allowed into a particular show.
Or you might mark a movie box as for vegetarians only.
You can, but it’s not a legal regulation, it has no government backing.
Obscenity laws are one of the extremely few, extremely thin, extremely well delineated exceptions and are not a carte blanche to go “oh well now you have that exception I can put whatever random crap I want in”
“See, I drilled this first hole in the bottom of the ship, we’ve not sunk yet, the room is barely knee deep in water! So I’ve just got a few dozen more holes I want to drill and anyone who objects must be wrong”
Restrictions on free speech, historically have been a part of the rise of many many oppressive regimes. You don’t get to just wave generally at the world and pretend they didn’t happen.
“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”
Yes, repressive regimes restrict free speech as a means of solidifying power. That doesn’t mean that every restriction on free speech is being used by said repressive regimes to tear down democracy.
How many counter-examples of times when freedom of speech has been restricted in specific instances and it hasn’t caused the ship to sink would you need before you reconsider your extreme position? Off the top of my head I can think of: the american examples pointed out above, the german restrictions on nazism/holocaust denial and any number of country’s restrictions on hate speach.
Restrictions on hate speech are routinely abused to suppress conservative views. What world do you live in?
“Obscenity laws are one of the extremely few, extremely thin, extremely well delineated exceptions and are not a carte blanche to go “oh well now you have that exception I can put whatever random crap I want in”
I would have to disagree with this. Obscenity is not delineated at all, it’s exceedingly vague. But it’s not enforced except in the rarest of circumstances where someone has special reason to believe that enforcing it will work,as proven by the existence of the majority of the internet. The obscenity exception was a relic of a different time, when free speech had not yet reached its modern understanding. No judge will openly speak out against it (excluding Justice Black, whose dissents were very influential in shaping the modern understanding of free speech) but the kind of people who would be inclined to enforce obscenity laws don’t usually want to take the risks of reminding courts that they exist.
“Terrorism advocacy is fine? ”
Abstract advocacy of terrorism is perfectly legal. To be illegal you have to threaten or incite imminent lawless action.
“The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) wasn’t actually passed?”
Commercial speech has never been subjected to strict scrutiny, true. It might not make sense, but it’s sort of viewed as outside the main meaning of “free speech” by the dominant perspective. That, and children aren’t usuallly viewed as quite the same thing as people.
So if we elected people to decide which books to ban, and what ideas people could be jailed for supporting, that would be just fine? That’s the logic of your argument.
The issue, in my view, isn’t democracy but freedom. A democratic society that makes it illegal to publish arguments against current orthodoxies is just as wrong as a dictatorship that does so. The reason the journal editor is not wrong is that he isn’t preventing other people from publishing things, he just refusing to help them do so by publishing them in his journal.
To be honest, I support free speech instrumentally, rather than fundamentally. Even in developed countries with strong free speech traditions, there is still a fair bit of censorship. Mein Kampf cannot be published in a number of European countries. When I was a kid, hardcore pornography was not legal in Britain. These were clear cases of censorship, and they don’t seem to damage their polities very much.
Having said that, it seems to me that free speech is better than any other option, so I would happily support a strong norm disallowing governments from banning any speech absolutely.
When you say “freedom,” I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. For the most part, personal freedom and censorship don’t collide very much. The average person is affected strongly by the speech rules at their school (not a censorship issue); much less by any censorship applied by the government.
Case in point: I live in China, and the government’s censorship here doesn’t affect me directly very much at all. It has plenty of pernicious effects – an impoverished literary culture and lack of accountability for politicians – but the effects on freedom are very indirect.
I’m not talking about the downstream effects of censorship on freedom, I’m talking about what is wrong with censorship. Making it illegal to write or say something is a restriction on my freedom. The JPE rejecting my article because it had no empirical test of its theory reduced my ability to get what I wanted, just as someone refusing to give me a thousand dollars does, but it didn’t restrict my freedom.
Again, you wrote:
That appears to imply that the enforcement would be legitimate if the enforcers were elected, that the problem with restriction of free speech is only that it isn’t democratic. Is that your view?
If Trump had a majority in both houses and a friendly Supreme Court and the result was that anyone who argued for positions he opposed could be arrested and jailed, would that be legitimate?
I’m not sure I understand your reading of what I said. Why are you imagining that PC enforcers impose an absolute ban in all situations? They obviously don’t! And the fact that I named two different versions of PC, which both exist, demonstrates clearly that neither form has the kind of absolute power you seem to be imagining.
When PC enforcement happens in a particular space (say, on Twitter), it is analogous to journal editor enforcement: you don’t get to say what you want to say in that space. It’s different to journal editors, in that journal editors are appointed to police their own space through well-defined processes that have public buy-in; PC enforcers aren’t.
I think that’s what is confusing this issue: you imagined that I was comparing a limited speech control (journal editor) with a universal censorship (PC). I wasn’t. I was comparing a limited speech control (journal editor) with another limited speech control (PC).
So much for what I wrote originally. Now onto your (separate) question: my view on censorship. From your tone, I would guess that I’m not as anti-censorship as you are. As I said above, I support free speech. But I don’t really see it as a fundamental right. I can name lots of instances of government censorship that don’t seem to have caused a lot of harm, and I’m basically fine with them – as exceptions to the general rule. I view goods like avoiding violence and fairness as much more important than free speech – but there is rarely conflict between them. Free speech is usually a very important factor in achieving the goods I think are most important.
If I’m reading you correctly, you seem generally in favor of or at least unopposed to governmental restrictions on speech, presumably of such categories as “grossly offensive” or “hate” speech. The United Kingdom has relatively strong laws against “malicious communications” (defined as anything “indecent or grossly offensive”) carrying penalties of up to 6 months in prison. Do you think such laws are just or acceptable?
If so, what do you make of the specific case of Mark Meechan? This is the guy who trained his girlfriend’s dog to respond to Nazi slogans and posted a video of it to YouTube. He was arrested for breaching the Communications Act, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to pay an 800 pound fine. It seems fairly clear that the video was meant as a joke and not actual endorsement of the Nazis. Do you think the arrest, legal battle, and threat of jail time for this man was a fair application of government censorship?
You do read me correctly. In general, so long as there is a strong general presumption of free speech, I’m not too worried about those exceptions around the edges.
True story – my brother is a professor of education, and wrote a paper in which he argued that patriotic education was a form of indoctrination, and should not be practiced in British schools. He caused a mini-stir, and even had a question asked about him in Parliament (“Why are our universities breeding these damn subversives?” kind of thing). His university very stoutly defended him against all attacks, and he ultimately suffered no negative consequences. So my view is that at the moment free speech is quite robustly protected in the UK. Another example is the Brexit debate – it’s dragged up all kinds of muck, but I have not observed any suppression of debate anywhere.
The Meechan case is absurd, but to my mind it’s one of those unavoidable absurd fringe cases that every law throws up. Just as Les Mis is not a good argument against theft laws, the Meechan case is not a good argument against suppression of Nazi propaganda.
There may be other arguments against censoring Nazis – certainly some free speech advocates make very good cases, and I am open to changing my mind on this. But when you’ve got Anders Breivik massacring people for white supremacy in Norway, that idiot in New Zealand, and Britain’s first political assassination in decades by a white nationalist, I feel like there is in fact a good public security argument for censoring white nationalist speech. The same goes for violent jihad screeds. It doesn’t feel to me like censoring those things is harming Britain’s public square. The same goes for porn.
In my country a prominent politician was executed by an ‘anti-racist.’ Does that mean that anti-racism should be banned too?
Furthermore, feminists used to commit terrorist acts in Britain. Does that mean that they should have banned feminism?
It’s certainly not as simple as “someone commits terrorism therefore their ideology should be censored,” but basically, yes. I’m not worried about your reductio ad absurdum, because the ends are not absurd.
Anti-racists are fundamentally unlike white nationalists and Nazis. It may be true that anti-racists have committed terrorism/murder. (Geert Wilders?) But they just don’t do it very often. It is no mistake that Gandhi and Mandela are anti-racist heroes, and Hitler is the white nationalists’ hero. The same goes for feminism: If the day comes when women are in fact widely espousing a murderous ideology, and have committed many acts of terrorism, then yes, I will very happily say say, “It would be reasonable for the state to consider censoring feminist hate speech.”
I don’t think your argument is big and clever. If you really can’t tell the difference between the anti-racists and the racists, that isn’t a smart gotcha that would make me question my views on censorship. It just makes me think you haven’t got a very clear grip on what’s right and wrong in the world.
How do you feel about banning speech by communists? Or animal rights activists?
Pim Fortuyn. Geert Wilders has not been killed, fortunately.
I’ve seen anti-racists advocate racial segregation.
I’ve seen them argue that society should be majority non-white. See Joe Biden. If you merely replace ‘non-white’ with ‘white’ in his statement, it would be a white nationalist statement.
I’ve seen them argue for violence against whites.
All three of the BLM founders said they were fans of Assata Shakur, whose words frequently get spoken at BLM protests. She was a member of a terrorist organization whose goal was to murder cops.
Micah Xavier Johnson killed 5 cops in 2016 and said that he was inspired by Black Lives Matter.
Quite a few anti-racists seem to organize to use violence against those they deem to have the wrong opinions (antifa).
Are you sure that your tolerance of them is not a matter of your own biases, making their extremists seem less evil to you because their opinions are more like your own? Could you see peaceful white nationalists are more dangerous than peaceful anti-racists because of your biases, rather than their actual dangerousness?
Classical liberalism suggests that we should distinguish between what we consider right and wrong & what should be disallowed.
Political (and democratic) tolerance is when you allow people to advocate and vote for what they believe in, even if you find it noxious.
“Are you sure that your tolerance of them is not a matter of your own biases”
It’s got something to do with my own judgments, absolutely. Once again: If you’re going to tell me that because there are people who support both anti-racism and racism, that means we cannot as good democrats distinguish between these two positions, then I am going to tell you that you’re an idiot.
Flat earthers are wrong, creationists are wrong, and racists are wrong. I have no qualms about stating these facts with absolute certainty, and of course these facts affect political matters.
It will never be a goer to ban all anti-racist speech, because most anti-racist speech is very sensible stuff. But all racist speech ultimately ends up in a discourse of power and violence, because that’s what racism is. Therefore it is always more likely that racist speech will become the kind of security threat that might justify government censorship. This is not certain: censorship should never be done lightly, and it is of course possible that people might become extremist and worth censoring even in good causes. But there are clear differences between ideologies, and it is always going to be more likely that a violent ideology will breed violent speech than a non-violent ideology.
If you’ve had bad experiences with anti-racists, I’m sorry about that. If those experiences have led you to think that anti-racism is the moral equivalent of racism, you’re just wrong.
“Classical liberalism suggests that we should distinguish between what we consider right and wrong & what should be disallowed.”
Absolutely. Racist speech shouldn’t be disallowed because it’s wrong. It should be socially shunned because it’s wrong, and government action taken against it IFF it becomes a serious threat to public safety.
“Political (and democratic) tolerance is when you allow people to advocate and vote for what they believe in, even if you find it noxious.”
I actually don’t believe in this – I think it’s a common misreading of political history. The institutions of bureaucracy and justice seem to me to be at least as important as the institution of free speech, though of course they always come hand in hand. In practice, I think the way it happens is that procedural rules develop in the justice system, the markets, and the administrative state, and the wider implications of these rules are only gradually worked out. For example: the founding fathers didn’t want an established religion to prevent catholic/protestant pogroms. I’m sure they had no inkling that it would end up as arguments over school prayer, but that’s what they got. The recent expansion of the institution of marriage is another example: strip away the sexist rules that surround marriage, and suddenly there’s no reason for marriage to be exclusively heterosexual. You will note that the U.S.A. had free speech in the 1950s, but gay marriage was not on the table then. These processes take time. And that means that if free speech became a threat to good institutions, I would take the side of the institutions. If you force me to choose between a functioning court and free speech, I’d choose a functioning court system. I recognise that you may not agree with this, and am open to arguments, but this is a sincerely held position with some thought behind it.
Anyway, that’s all a bit off-topic. The main point I want to emphasise is that we agree on most things. I support free speech. I guess, from this conversation, that I don’t support it quite as strongly as you do, but I do support it. I’m your ally. I hope you can accept that, because there’s precious little point in us fighting when there are real threats to free speech out there, like an American president who literally calls the press the enemies of the people.
I don’t think this conversation is well served by you thinking up more exciting groups for me to comment on. If you have some views, please do give them. I’ve stated mine at length!
Can you give a clearer definition of what you mean by “racism”?
In the U.S. at present, a public figure who stated that he believed that Africans were, on average, less intelligent than Europeans, would be accused of racism. Does that fit your definition?
Define racism? Not really, no. I feel like this conversation has exhausted its usefulness for me. I’ve written pretty clearly what I think, and now I’m just getting people asking what feel like gotcha questions, as though they might be able to catch me out in some contradiction.
You know what? Keep pushing hard enough and I’m sure you will discover some contradictions. My political views aren’t perfect! But they are reasonably well thought-out, and apparently a bit different to yours. That’s OK. I hope you will still view me as an ally, because I still believe in things like free speech and the market economy – topics which some of my interlocutors seem to hold dear. If I don’t believe that those things are *the most important thing!* then that’s something we’ll all just have to live with. As I said in my first reply here, what I like best about Scott’s post is that it reminds us of belief diversity – many people who seem to be very similar to us, and even support the same things, actually have radically different beliefs once you dig under the hood. Successful political movements are those which can accommodate many people working for a common goal for very different reasons.
@Phil H It’s not just a nitpick. Racism stands out in your list compared to flat Earth and creationism in that that the other two are more-or-less clearly defined categories of views about factual questions, while the definition of racism is vague and contentious, and many of the views that are filed under racism are not about factual questions, and thus can’t be wrong in an objective sense. (Though arguably some forms of creationism are also not factual statements about the observable world.)
If we decide it’s OK to ban racist speech, or even just severely ostracize it, then everything even distantly related to what was originally called racism gets shoved into that category by those who oppose it, and want to have a bludgeon against those who say it.
The fact that you can’t even define racism (which is understandable given its vagueness and contentiousness) suggests that you shouldn’t be too confident about your statement that [everything in the category of] racism is wrong. Of course you can say that racism is wrong because you only define as racism views that you consider wrong. However, once society decides, with your support, that it’s OK to ban racist speech in some circumstances, the society/government who decides what counts as racism may use a different definition from you.
Another difference is that Twitter has an almost-monopoly on that flavor of microblogging (and other social media flavors are also dominated by almost-monopolies).
Thanks 10240. That’s a good argument, and I recognise its importance.
I understand that you feel like it’s important to stand up against any encroachment on free speech, particularly one that, as you say, would be potentially unbounded. I think I agree with that.
Which is why – and this is the vital point – I have not said anywhere in this thread that it would be OK for a government to censor racist speech on the basis of its being racist. I don’t think that. There may be people out there who do, and your response would be a good argument against those people.
My claim is about violence and public safety. (1) If a government believes that a certain kind of speech is strongly associated with violence and harm, I think it is reasonable for the government to *consider* taking action to ban that kind of speech. ((2) That kind of speech is much more likely to be associated with racism than it is with anti-racism.)
My (2) is in parentheses because it’s not actually relevant. The relevant consideration is (1): security. (2) is just a contingent fact about the world today.
Now, breaching rights in the name of security is also a notoriously slippery slope, and it is possible that I’m ultimately wrong about this. But like I say, my home country has some of these restrictions. It has a reasonable Supreme Court keeping an eye on them, and public discourse doesn’t seem to have suffered much. So I’m not convinced there is a good empirical case that minor restrictions on speech for security reasons do much harm.
One reason why the definition question is important, and not just a gotcha question: When you talk about banning racist speech, the impact of that depends pretty heavily on what you categorize as racist speech. Does that mean _The Bell Curve_ is banned? Does it ban opposition to affirmative action policies? Both of those have been defined as racist speech by pretty mainstream people, so it’s not a crazy stretch to imagine that they might be defined that way by the censors.
If Alice argues that the higher arrest rate for blacks relative to whites is due to police racism, and Bob argues that it’s due to blacks committing a lot more crimes per capita, does Bob have to worry about getting into trouble for saying that?
If Alice argues that the disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel prize and Fields medal winners is due to a culture that values learning and education, and Bob argues it’s due to high average IQ of Jews caused by genetic differences, does Bob get banned?
Quite a few people believe that having a dominant Western culture in Western countries is inherently racist, although ironically it is multiculturalism that seems to encourage race essentialist beliefs. This goes beyond mere freedom of speech. Lots of people encourage migrants to not adapt to the society they migrate to and when friction inevitably happens due to clashing cultures, to blame the white man (often literally).
From my perspective, the ‘anti-racist’ movement strongly tends towards, if not mandates, beliefs that I see as very racist:
– that ‘white’ society is rich and dominant due to colonialism and slavery
– that exploitation is uniquely part of ‘white’ culture
– that it is (nearly) inevitable that people with white skin get encultured into ‘white’ culture (and thus tend to exploitation), while people with dark enough skin (nearly) inevitably don’t (so skin color then equals culture)
– that all bad traits of non-white cultures are because ‘they made me do it’ (due to racism, colonialism, slavery, etc)
I believe that there are very strong counter-arguments against these beliefs & that these beliefs are extremely abusive towards white people, by presuming they are to blame for all societal problems (directly or indirectly).
I don’t really understand this comment. It looks to me like you interpret “gangs” as meaning “organized groups of violent criminals”, whereas its sense in the comment you’re responding to is just “organized groups”.
In the Phil H model of the world, as far as I understand his comment, US society has already been completely dominated by two gangs, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. This was exactly the kind of thing Chinese emperors worked hard to prevent under the name “factionalism”.
Yes, thanks, Michael. What you said is basically what I meant. And that this domination of public discourse by two (or a small number of) correlated constellations of ideas does not really reflect anything about the views of the population (which are very diverse). It just reflects the way public discourse works.
I took his metaphor and ran with it, to make a point.
Phil’s argument seemed to be that forming ‘gangs’ is human nature and thus cannot be prevented by norms/policies/laws that favor a ‘marketplace of ideas.’ My claim was that while gangs are inevitable, we can nevertheless choose to have norms/policies/laws that either weaken or strengthen gangs & that we should seek to weaken them.
Academic publishing in particular has a specific goal in mind and so it requires policing in order to remain within that context, but that doesn’t mean that this is some universal principle we should apply. Society doesn’t have a unified goal, so a currated market in the society wide context will always serve a subjective interest.
Good for who exactly? Trying to find the best ideas in a vacuum isn’t meaningful. “Gangs” in the overbroad sense are baked into reality, because people are different, have different cultures, classes, races etc, and so the least dissimilar will ally against the most dissimilar. There’s plenty of rational empirical argument to be had about objective reality, but values still get a seat at the table. Don’t so trivially throw the “is-ought” problem aside.
If it was that easy, we’d just get the smartest people to find what the best ideas are, and politics would be a true science. We’d have a government run by scientists who found the “best” ideas through empirical examination, while censoring the actual process for the masses. In the real world, moral questions aren’t like this. Gangs are an essential part of morality, and nobody trusts anyone claiming that they can banish all gangs and lay down a universal solution at the hands of experts, because they are correctly percieved as another gang.
We can trust an aeronautical engineer because our planes stay in the sky, and expert opinion is also important in politics when it comes to addressing factual questions, like what the effect of certain policies might be, but that doesn’t mean you should replace the free marketplace of ideas across society with a currated one. I trust that there are men smarter than me, but I don’t trust that they have my interests in mind.
Hi, Forward. Thanks for the reply.
I’m not sure I understood all your points, but there are certainly a couple of things in there that I absolutely disagree with. I’ll try to explain why!
“If it was that easy…politics would be a true science. We’d have a government run by scientists who found the “best” ideas through empirical examination, while censoring the actual process for the masses. In the real world, moral questions aren’t like this.”
I don’t think this is right – I think in the real world moral questions are exactly like this. I think you’ve been blinded by the luxuries of our age to how much moral progress we’ve made.
The short version of my argument is: see Steven Pinker.
The longer version says: We live in a world of unimaginable *moral* luxury. In the developed world we are protected from many moral harms – disease and hunger – by technology. We are surrounded by people who operate with a level of moral probity unheard of in human history. It’s quite likely that you don’t know anyone who’s killed a person deliberately. I don’t think I do – and I have family in the military! This has never been seen before.
We live in the West in societies that (almost) never torture, and many never even execute the very worst criminals. We prefer to let criminals off rather than punish the innocent. Our governments are unlike any that have ever existed – they serve the people rather than exploit them. These are very new developments. Even 100 years ago, the British royals were still contemptuous bloodsuckers. Today, they have no power. The British PM at this moment is acting somewhat incompetently, but entirely honourably, in an attempt to prevent a significant economic harm to the country, even though she literally had to promise to end her own career to do so. This kind of “public servant” ideal is a wonderful thing. It was obtained not exactly through science, but through empirical practice.
And what Scott’s example (and Brexit) reminds us is that most people don’t hold the beliefs necessary to enforce or reproduce these wonders. They are enforced and reproduced by a “scientist-like” caste of politicians. And they are censored for the masses: this is how representative democracy works. In the case of the justice system, one of the most directly moral arms of the state, only highly trained people are allowed to operate the system. It is absolutely the case that much of modern morality is no longer administered by the masses.
“…that doesn’t mean you should replace the free marketplace of ideas across society with a currated one.”
My argument is that there is no such thing as a “free” market. If it’s really free, it gets taken over by the biggest bully or the guy with the most money, or in the ideas space, the guy with the loudest voice. The whole definition of a market is a place with rules. Contracts need to be enforced; rules of argument need to be respected. Otherwise the market simply doesn’t function any more. You can either leave the market rules up to chance, or you can try to engineer them a bit.
The decline of violence represents progress that most people in the Western world, and perhaps the world at large, would consider a moral victory. 99.9999% of people agreeing that not dying horribly in a primitive deathmatch is morally excellent, does not reflect some underlying truth about the universe that can then be extrapolated to more subtle moral questions in which there is far more disagreement. Social animals must evolve a moral sense, but the entire history of our species attests to this not being homogenous and universal when it comes to what the moral foundations actually are.
Politics simply doesn’t revolve around things the majority of people agree on, but around the things that they do not. An expert can provide an objective answer to the question of whether cars being allowed to exceed 100mph causes more road deaths, but they cannot, even in principle, determine what is the objectively correct trade-off between road death statistics and how much fun people have driving sports cars.
Yes, it’s true that something like direct democracy (one alternative to representative democracy) would be awful, but that’s not because politicians are “scientist like”, but mostly because direct democracy is underdefined to begin with, and the more direct it was, the more chaotically it would swing between fleeting majorities. This doesn’t reflect representative democracy being more objective; it reflects representative democracy being more stable and well defined.
Representative democracy is nonetheless a system that allows for characters like Donald Trump and Alexandria Cortez. The mass popular ideologies exert their pull. Populism could be rising because people don’t know what’s good for them, or it could be they have a definition of “good” that’s not identical to your own.
I’m not sure what the “biggest bully” looks like in this context, but yes, of course people with money can spend more to spread their ideas. The thing is, when it comes to values, nothing is new under the sun. It’s not as if restricting the billionaire funded think tanks would quieten down the organic cacophony of political vloggers on Youtube. The major ideologies of the left and right rest on relatively simple propositions that are endlessly rediscovered by individuals.
The marketplace of ideas is not directly analogous to a capitalistic market in which property rights must be well defined and regulated legally. It’s one thing to set rules that stop corporations dumping toxic waste into lakes, because almost no one holds a value system that says getting poisoned is awesome, but if you are going to restrict ideas then you have to make sure that they are radically unpopular, not merely factually incorrect. If you built up enough expertise to go as far as to objectively determine morality, you’d necessarily butt up against the disunity of mass popular ideology, and if you tried to lay down a decision on whether, say, conservatism or progressivism was correct, then you’d likely end up with mass unrest.
No one would actually trust that the ruling was objective and driven by expertise instead of values.
Thanks, Forward. I appreciate your arguments, but I have to say, I still disagree with pretty much everything you’re saying! It feels to me as though you’re talking from a rather theoretical perspective. I think it’s really useful to tie arguments down to concrete examples at every step.
“Politics simply doesn’t revolve around things the majority of people agree on, but around the things that they do not.”
This doesn’t seem to be right. Most political *arguments* revolve around the things we disagree on, but that’s mostly just noise. The important politics, the stuff that makes a difference to people’s lives, ultimately, are the political institutions – the courts, the government – and what they can and can’t do. That’s why the constitution is so revered in the USA – because it’s really important!
“An expert can provide an objective answer to the question of whether cars being allowed to exceed 100mph causes more road deaths, but they cannot, even in principle, determine what is the objectively correct trade-off between road death statistics and how much fun people have driving sports cars.”
This is not true at all. The trade-off has been calculated. It is against the law to drive that fast on any public road in the USA or the UK. You may disagree with that judgment, but it very definitely has been made.
“It’s not as if restricting the billionaire funded think tanks would quieten down the organic cacophony of political vloggers on Youtube.”
Again, this is just incorrect. Many political vloggers are funded, and even those who aren’t are generally don’t have many new ideas. They often repeat lines that can be traced back to influential think tanks.
“…if you tried to lay down a decision on whether, say, conservatism or progressivism was correct, then you’d likely end up with mass unrest.”
There are two errors here. (1) It’s untrue as written – these decisions get “laid down” all the time. In my lifetime opinons on what is acceptable to say about the opposite sex, other races, the economy, and major political figures have changed radically. Those decisions got made. Somehow.
But I think the real problem comes because (2) you imagine a person making those decisions. Like one day some guy made a “ruling” that it’s now OK to call the president an asshole on mainstream TV. That’s not what happened, and it’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the mechanisms and rules that govern discourse, and whether they produce good outcomes, not in specifically what outcomes they produce. That’s why I talked about the rules of academic journals and the rules of quality journalism. I’m not sure online discourse has many set rules yet, but some features have become apparent: clickbaity headlines rule; passion sells; memes can frame a debate.
I worry about those features.
You two are talking past each other; that a trade-off has been made does not imply that it is the objectively correct one, nor that such a thing even exists.
You can drive faster than that in Germany, I believe.
That’s obviously false. However loud my voice, it doesn’t prevent other people from having conversations in places not close to me. However much I can spend on ads for my ideas or hiring people to write books defending them, that doesn’t prevent other people from advertising their ideas and writing books in their defense.
And it isn’t true of markets in general. Natural monopoly is a pretty rare phenomenon outside of very small markets, and due to well understood causes.
Yes, I felt that we weren’t talking about the same thing. The point I wanted to make there was that I’m not interested in some metaphysical “objective” truth. This kind of choice generally has to be made, and is going to be made by some process. Some form of order will emerge on the roads, either spontaneously (based on the social norms and specific features of road infrastructure) or externally enforced. There is no option for “not deciding”. So the only question is: Do I participate and try to shape the decision process?
“Natural monopoly is a pretty rare phenomenon”
Sure. I’m talking about *unnatural* monopoly. Those rules of the market are what stops someone using illegitimate means, e.g. violence and lies, to put their opponents out of business. Earlier in the thread we were talking about gangs and police. What’s the defining feature of gang-dominated drug markets? Ongoing violent strife over the right to monopolize. That’s the state of nature. Our laws and rules create the market, because a market is where two or more people doing the same business coexist peacefully in the same space.
“However loud my voice, it doesn’t prevent other people from having conversations in places not close to me.”
The point is, many conversations only happen in one place. Important ones. If the conversation is on how legislation should be passed, and all the editors of the national newspapers take one particular view, alternative voices in alternative publications may not do any good. One of the narratives of Trump’s election: Facebook is a big and important enough space that anyone who took an unfair advantage in that space would win the election. (I have my doubts about that account, but I can’t disprove it. A similar story is told about the Brexit vote in Britain.)
Chomsky is the granddaddy of this argument that I’m making – he says that all of the media in the US (and UK) follows a capitalist, statist ideology, and that limits our ability to understand many issues objectively. It’s like being inside China’s propaganda bubble, with no VPN to a better news source outside! I don’t know how right he is, but it’s certainly true that you sometimes see all the different channels in the US saying identical things.
Excellent comment—these are all key considerations and you articulated them perfectly.
I think this metaphor is causing serious havoc in our society. People think it means you have to think every idea is valid or that, as you said, people will eagerly seek the one of the “highest quality”, whatever that is, instead of passively accepting the first one they run into that feels right. To the average person, both these ideas seem like a dangerously naive mockery of their intelligence. Those things are transparently not the case. I would argue it is more like the “insurance policy” concept with elites being decent to the masses to keep themselves from violent revolution. When they forget why they are doing it, and see it as a charity to the masses, they don’t think the masses deserve it, not realizing it is there for their own protection as much as anyone else’s. It’s not charity to unpopular people, nor is it an intellectual quest for hidden truth or an exercise in devil’s advocate—it is really the only way to function. Once you start trying to draw lines, you will have to police the matter 24/7 without satisfaction. And it is way too powerful a weapon to hand to anyone at all—if you can shut down one idea, someone can do it to you. While something might be “clearly beyond the pale,” there is no clear line, and perhaps most importantly, the same words can mean wildly different things in context. While many people might be in agreement about banning certain claims like “[Horrible person] was a great role model who everyone should emulate!” that will quickly devolve into debates over making that statement as part of satire, sarcasm, mockery, joking, exaggeration, intellectual exercises, fictional characters, etc. We need to tell people that tolerating any conceivable “speech” is a necessary evil instead of a wonderful benefit they get from free society.
I know in a higher sense, it shouldn’t be called a necessary evil—the marketplace of ideas concept has its place, in terms of intellectual and critical examination—nothing can really be off-limits, realistically or desirably. There’s a reason freedom of speech is taken so seriously as an ideal in itself—it *is* quite an achievement of free society. But that’s not the discussion most people are looking to have.
ETA: This also addresses the “gangs” issue–if you point this dynamic out, people will realize they are competing with other gangs and shouldn’t be too quick to give up control to a higher authority. The expectation that the system is going awry if it isn’t generating good ideas is one of the sources of confusion—human nature suggests it will lead to more bad ones, but the possibility of a few good ones is very valuable—it is quality over quantity. And a lot of ideas vary over time in whether they are good or bad, so they need to be floating around somewhere.
“tolerating any conceivable “speech” is a necessary evil”
Yes! I think I first came across this idea in economics: markets, with their obviously wasteful duplications of products and zero-sum advertising, can be accurately seen as a cost that we have to accept in order to get the benefits we want – sufficient choice and better quality.
In free speech, we’re all familiar with the idea of known bad ideas as a cost – you have to let the Nazis march, because we need that free speech absolutism to stop tyranny when it raises its head. But perhaps more of a waste are all the dross ideas that contribute nothing and waste everyone’s time. Like… oh, power stances, and the problem of “redefining marriage,” and new country, and machine translation (personal gripe!). They’re all cost. And the whole exhaustion with Twitter thing is a part of it – on Twitter you get slammed with all the bad ideas of the world all the time, and the cost becomes more apparent.
Which is why we love curated spaces like this blog. Thanks Scott!
Yes, thank god for places like this! Thanks Scott!
I used to be a news junkie and generally tied to my computer (and then my iPhone), but the dominant conversation has become, as you said, exhausting. I could call it many other things, but exhaustion is where it ends. I unplugged from as much as I could, and barely watch news or use social media, but you can never get away from it. It’s not the incivility or the polarization or whatever that bugs me—it’s that it wastes so much time and everyone’s time. Nothing comes of it or can come out of it on these terms, stuck on marketplace of ideas mode. It causes the people in power to aim to monopolize the market, to get those other ideas out of the way! And maybe for a while they are, but we’re stuck in a situation where the only game in town doesn’t have to do anything to get our business.
I think your description of it in market terms is accurate, but I think the concept is more fundamental and essentially social. It happens from this type of exhaustion. At some point, a lot of people just don’t think it is worth fighting over all the time. They agree to live and let live with the local antagonist, maybe a different religious sect. They don’t accept or like or respect the other side’s views, but it is better for everyone’s kids if they can just stop it and leave each other alone. This is kind of a pendulum. The reason for this seeming “submission” is forgotten, leaving the other side alone is seen as doing them an unwarranted favor, and the issue is relitigated until the next point of exhaustion. I’d really like ours to wear out soon. I’m hopeful in the sense that I absolutely do not believe this grating insanity can last much longer, but I don’t know what the collapse will look like.
I saw someone pretty intelligent post this week that they’d always believed in the marketplace of ideas, but that idea always had the implicit assumption that a meaningful exchange was going on, and he’d learned in the last year that this was shockingly not true and that some people would continue to hold bad ideas. 1) No, that is not an implicit assumption of free speech, but that metaphor makes easy to think that, and 2) *The last year*–Really?!? These adults truly did not have an inkling that not everybody agreed with them until 2018? He had given up on free speech due to these new and apparently historically unprecedented developments. That marketplace metaphor just messes it up–the first amendment was passed to prevent the government from censoring people (and it often censors people whose beliefs are considered radical or inappropriate), not to secure charming parlor conversation. It wasn’t done for the purpose of individual exchange.
Basically, so much of what people yell about in terms of free speech is “which beliefs held by 50+% of the population are completely unacceptable?” If we’re going to draw lines there, then we need to give up the pretense that we’re a country, because you can’t shun half the population or more! That discussion is the biggest waste of time imaginable. Maybe emphasizing the necessary evil stuff will cause a few to reevaluate what is going on –if they don’t think it is necessary and are willing to try a new system, then they need to look in the marketplace of ideas for a new system of governance. The existing one simply cannot function on this basis.
Update to my own post:
I realize this post may sound like I’m saying people should not discuss and battle over these things. To clarify, that is absolutely not what I mean. I’m talking about furious value debates, intellectual exercises free of any correspondence to action, that deflate the society. There’s nothing wrong with martyring yourself, and some people are needed to have speak truth to power or to break the status quo—-but no society does that for decades unless they’re in an unhealthy spiral. It is more or less a religious war at that point—only makes sense if you truly believe life on earth is meant to vindicate heavenly beliefs. That doesn’t mean you give your beliefs up, or, more importantly, that you adopt or concede to the beliefs of others. You just leave the task of arguing about words all the time to a few representatives. I’m not talking about people who disagree vehemently, even violently, with 50+%, but people who seem to think can pretend 50+% of the population does not exist because it doesn’t meet their standard. That the matter can be “won.” That is not reality, and a waste of time. The at least temporary “wins” come on the political/social level, and are affected by these higher level arguments. But the higher level arguments do nothing themselves, and can never be won.
I assume “new country” refers to defining a genre of country music, but I don’t know. That is what I’m talking about—music critics can have a very valuable intellectual debate about that, but it would be strange if 95% of people devoted their time to screaming about how to define it. It’s a real issue worth discussing, but if it became that significant, the debate would be aiming at something other than addressing reality. It is not something that can be “won.”
The problem is getting distracted by signaling and engaging in what people more or less understand is a choreographed debate not expected to go anywhere, often done for amusement and self righteousness. This isn’t wrong in itself, and it is inevitable, but it is usually a waste of time, and when it is a huge element of the national conversation, something is off. But it’s not about any one issue or approach. It’s a dynamic.
There are those who would like to close down places like this.
Haha, yeah, the new country thing was a joke, really. But you’re right: getting hooked up on definitions is usually very unhelpful. Thinking about the effects on real people is the way to ground arguments and remain kind.
There’s an argument going on about trans people at the moment, where some feminists think that it is harmful to allow trans women to be defined as women. I have some intellectual sympathy for the “radical feminist” position, as it’s known, but all my human sympathy is with the trans women. I can’t ultimately see any human value in excluding them (more than they have already been excluded). I think that’s the argument you were making, and I think that’s how it cashes out in real life.
I see it more as built in redundancy.
Wait, what? Are you saying that all of those things are useless types of speech that you’d be fine to see banned (setting aside secondary effects)?
And I’m not quite understanding what particular speech you’re referring to. Are you trying to condemn:
People taking strong stances on issues to counter rival stances
One? Both? sides of the “marriage is between a man and a woman” / “love = love” debate
No idea what you mean by “new country”
Anything that’s been translated by machine (???)
New country is a genre of music. It’s like country and western, only a bit faster. It’s exactly as horrible as it sounds.
Power stances is the idea that if you stand in a “powerful position”, you can change your state of mind. It was proposed in a self-help book. The research that backed it up has since turned out to be not very strong.
“Redefining marriage” was an argument against legalizing gay marriage. It was a stupid argument.
Computer translation is a field that irritates me intensely because computer nerds on a regular basis put out press releases declaring that my job is/very soon will be obsolete because of computers. It’s based entirely on a very silly misunderstanding of what language and communication are.
Excluding secondary effects, absolutely, I don’t think banning any of these kinds of speech would diminish the world in any way. They are all kinds of speech that lack any value.
Of course, we can’t exclude secondary effects, and it would be absurd to try to censor these specific topics. They are also all fairly harmless, so I wouldn’t want to see any resources wasted on banning them. That wasn’t my point.
I’ll say that again, just to make sure I’m not misunderstood: I do not wish to see any of these topics censored. I also do not “condemn” them.
My argument was that these, and many other topics, lack value. E.g. every single moment of time that was spent making a “redefining marriage” argument during the gay marriage debate was time wasted.
Recognising that helps to give us a better perspective on this “marketplace of ideas” that we all inhabit. Just because someone’s selling an idea, doesn’t mean it has real value.
The marketplace of ideas actually works out very well. While a lot of the population is stupid, a lot of the population also doesn’t matter. This is actually one reason why capitalism is useful – it acts as a powerful counterveiling force against one person, one vote. By making it so that people wield economic power proportional to their ability to generate value, you make it so that society isn’t just run by a tyranny of the majority, and you also disempower the least valuable members of society, who strongly correlate with those who are not intelligent enough to make important, valuable decisions.
Thus, because the smart people wield most of the power in society, they’re much more capable of broadcasting good ideas, which means that better ideas end up winning out not so much because they’re popular but because it’s impossible to consistently mobilize stupid people against them en masse.
It does work well, but I think the metaphor itself is one to be avoided. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but your description brought it home for me.
If people think it is a market place of ideas where the smart people who matter win, most people will naturally assume they are in the group of smart people who matter, and will be very offended if they don’t “win.” To not win in that situation is utter humiliation and therefore unacceptable.
If people see it as a necessary evil, they can tell themselves they are tolerating their opponents’ nonsense on principle while they carry on their clearly superior argument. The same people might be winning, but the rest can at least believe they have the high ground.
My strong impression of the current rise of ‘populism’ is that most of these people are fully aware that they are not the smartest and are not demanding that they ‘win.’
What they are demanding is not losing, especially in an unfair way, which they perceive is happening.
Discouraging procreation by criminals doesn’t mean that the person supports eugenics and believes that crime has a genetic component. They can also believe that crime is learned and that children of criminals will (much) more often learn to be criminals.
It seems to me that it is quite unfair to say that people support eugenics when you believe that the policy they support is eugenic, but they don’t.
Yeah, or maybe they have unconscious set points about the ideal number of kids per family/the ideal range of resources per kid/ideal family circumstances.
It’s easy to conveive a mental arithmetic that goes:
“Poor criminal families tend to have 2 kids more than the family size I think is ideal while having less money in total and definitely per kid; poverty, incarceration of parent/single parenthood and the kind of family life that comes with being in a criminal environment have negative effects on kids AND on crime; ergo, maybe if they had a couple fewer kids that would be good for everyone.”
“Intelligent people (or rather ‘highly educated people who have careers instead of jobs’) tend to have 2 kids less than what I think is ideal even though they have the money to afford them and can offer a stable family life that would probably result in decently adjusted, happy citizens. Perhaps they could stand to have a couple more kids.”
Not a single gene involved.
I had totally missed this perspective, but you both make a good point. I feel extra silly because whenever I take a survey I’m paranoid I’ll be misconstrued.
There are two couples, Alice/Bob and Carol/Dave. Alice and Bob met in grad school, and got married just after she finished her cardiology fellowship and he finished his first molecular biology postdoc. They like to run marathons together for fun.
Carol and Dave met when Carol’s brother, the bail bondsman, bailed Dave out for another drunk and disorderly arrest. They work together now as janitors at the local factory, and have managed to keep those jobs despite Dave’s alcoholism and Carol’s poorly-controlled depression. They mostly like to get drunk or stoned together and watch TV for fun.
Intelligence, personality, and mental health are largely heritable and somewhat dependent on upbringing and early childhood environment.
In world #1, Alice/Bob have one child and Carol/Dave have three. In world #2, Alice/Bob have three children and Carol/Dave have one. Which is likely to be the better world?
That factual question doesn’t tell you whether you favor a given policy to move us toward world #2, but I suspect the great majority of people would agree that world #2 is better than world #1. And I suspect variations on that same reasoning led to a lot of the survey results as reported.
I bet Carol and Dave are more fun to be with.
Probably not. Drunks are frustrating to talk with, and depressed people are depressing.
1) sorry for talking about eugenics, but it’s your core example and it really feels like a noncentral fallacy. Say “eugenics” and people think “literal nazis” not “maybe criminals shouldn’t have so many kids”. (Aside, only 65% of people who believe that criminality is completely genetic agree with “encourage criminals to have fewer kids”? That seems way too low.)
2) if 40% of people believe in something yet get ostracized for voicing it (even by other secret believers)… that seems like a really crappy outcome regardless of how you spin it.
If 51% of people held a system of belief where they would be justified to sterilize or otherwise breed out traits from subpopulations they thought were evolutionarily unfit (whether low IQ, “behavioral tendencies”, hair color, etc etc), would they be in the right to enforce that belief system on other people?
A belief in the desirability of eugenics doesn’t require a belief that sterilization is a justified policy, nor does disbelief in eugenics mean that people oppose forced sterilization in all cases.
Many people who seek to control birth rates, of specific groups or in general, try to do so without forced sterilization or rapes (in the case where they want to boost birth rates).
Conflating support for a goal with support for noxious policies that could be used to achieve that goal, is a common way to vilify the goal, but this is often based on false claims about the policies that other people support.
I’m not sure where you’re getting that from my argument? I’m pushing back at the idea that a very sizable minority should have their views suppressed by enforced taboo. That is, I’m explicitly against 51% “enforcing their belief system” on the 49%. If 49% believe it, it’s definitely a viewpoint that, even if it didn’t win the last election, should not be forcibly suppressed.
In some cases unequivocally yes.
For instance, I support a system where serial killers go to jail.
I don’t support forced sterilization, but I support a system that does not allow serial killers to reproduce while in jail.
If that puts me in the same category as the Nazis, I’d imagine the problem is with the word.
I think the issue here is why you support that position. If your objective is to make it less likely that the next generation will have heritable characteristics associated with being a criminal, then it’s eugenics. If not, not.
Reminder: Scott specifically asked us not to turn this into an object-level discussion of eugenics, so maybe we should move this discussion to the open thread.
But openly discussing a subject The Man doesn’t want you to is about censorship, which he does want discussed /s
The problem is that the Nazis were the noncentral example of eugenics. The eugenics movement in America, (I don’t know about the rest of Europe) had things like Buck vs. Bell, which was very much about sterilization, and controlling reproduction in less murdery fashion. Herding the disabled into camps was probably never in the cards in the US, and probably not what the anti-eugenics movement was trying to stop, though they certainly would have taken advantage of eliding the Nazi eugenics with the more “moderate” version proposed by Sanger, et. al. to get their policies in place.
So if people are against eugenicist policies only if they look Nazi, it might be fair to say they’re not “actually” against eugenics as that term was used in the US.
NB: Since this is the world we live in, I don’t support eugenics, Buck vs. Bell, etc. But I do think it’s important to not slam everything together into a convenient bucket in our minds (here, eugenics==Nazi), because that’s how you lose historical perspective.
Sure. I’m not saying Nazis should be a central example of eugenics. But that’s the valence the word has these days.
Point is that I think a lot of people the study IDs as “supporting eugenics” would not themselves identify as holding that belief, and that’s a problem for the conclusion.
On the one hand, this all proves that the taboo against “eugenics” is indeed quite strong, but I’m not so sure it means that similar ideas rebranded could be as successfully repressed.
Is that because they are not in favor of eugenics (earlier examples offered of people who supported something for reasons having nothing to do with heritability of characteristics) or because they are in favor of eugenics but associate the term with undesirable mechanisms for eugenics.
Consider what I think of as libertarian eugenics, a system described by Heinlein in an early novel. The technology lets people select individual eggs and sperm, thus letting parents choose, among the children they could have, which ones they do have. Nobody is being oppressed, nobody’s choices are restricted, not even any abortion required. But my children don’t get my gene for a bad heart, do get my wife’s genes for musical ability.
That’s clearly a form of eugenics, but I don’t think many thoughtful people would oppose it.
The obvious solution is rebranding:
Getting rid of disease and disabilities
Disallowing prisoners to have sex on the taxpayer’s dime
If it were simply a matter of first-strike coordination, then the successful censors at any particular moment would be censoring on behalf of a more-or-less-random selection of positions on which the holders of those positions happened to have had first-strike coordination advantage at some point. It would follow that most people would feel censored about at least some things, and it’d be easy to generate a popular consensus around freedom from censorship, by appealing to their desire to express the opinions (different for each person) that censorship forbids them to express.
In practice, however, coordination advantage is correlated with various kinds of societal power, and therefore tends to cluster among the holders of that power. And those people tend to possess common interests, and hence share common opinions. The result is that censorship overwhelmingly favors the powerful as a group, because they’re the ones who have the advantage in imposing it, and can thus choose what to impose it on.
America has, as democratic countries go, a relatively deep cultural commitment to freedom of expression, so it takes a pretty confident, firmly established ruling class to overcome that cultural commitment and come out strongly in favor of censorship. (And in addition, American ruling classes are much less stable than in most other countries. That may be what allowed this pro-free-speech consensus to form in the first place.) It’s thus a mark of the duration and apparent resiliency of the current ruling class’ tenure that they have lately begun to feel comfortable openly voicing disdain for free speech and support for unapologetic censorship of challenges to their rule. My guess, though, is that their dominant position isn’t nearly as rock-solid as they believe it to be, and will weaken substantially before their forays into censorship have a chance to do too much damage to the country’s vaunted spirit of freedom of expression.
It’s pretty obvious to me that having power tends to be inversely correlated with a desire for tolerance. A large part of the support for tolerance seems to be merely instrumental, not principled.
In general, I think that people think that they are far more principled than they actually are (with principles that people claim to have, often being merely rationalizations in service of desired outcomes).
Isn’t the possible minimum difference two people? The tyranny is the same either way but the minority/majority is a matter of numbers.
I think having power is inversely correlated to idealism in general; getting and maintaining power almost always requires some sacrifice of principle. It could be that for someone who desires power, tolerance might be the one principle they won’t sacrifice, but they’ll have marginally less power than they would if they sacrificed all their principles.
That doesn’t mean that one can’t gain power by advocating for a principle; I think this is what you are saying when you say people support tolerance for instrumental reasons. They don’t actually want tolerance, they think supporting tolerance will lead to them gaining power, such as the support of those that want tolerance on principle. The reason hypocrisy is such a powerful allegation is that it reveals that someone’s support for a good thing is actually instrumental to their desire for power or other personal gain.
No, I meant it even more simply. People want to live their (sub)culture, say their piece, etc. If they are out of power they need tolerance by those in power to have those things. If they have power they don’t need tolerance by those out of power.
The result is that those who gain power often become enlightened: they realize that while tolerance is a beautiful thing, their opponents actually want things that are so horrible that they cannot be tolerated. Yet when the intolerant lose power, they also tend to learn an obvious truth: that tolerance of those who you strongly disagree with is crucial to a have a nice society.
This reminds me of Paul Graham’s classic essay about taboos. Basically, he argues that taboos result when a tribe has social power, but is not secure in it. Worth a read: http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html
That (like many Paul Graham essays) is excellent and very much worth reading.
Another aspect of the taboo is that it removes arguments from the public sphere. There are lots of good arguments against eugenics, but because no one ever publicly advocates for eugenics, there is no use of those arguments in the public sphere. It’s been several generations since eugenics was an acceptable thing to publicly debate, so very few people around now are familiar with the reasons against it beyond ‘the Nazis did it so it’s bad’. So when the survey questioner doesn’t use the words ‘eugenics’ or ‘Nazi’, but rather ‘encourage’ a lot of people don’t connect it to the taboo right away, and don’t have any underlying understanding of the issue and why it is actually bad because they’ve never heard it discussed.
Timur Kuran’s book, Public Truths, Private Lies addresses the topic of preference falsification with a lot of depth. He uses case studies from the caste system in India, the fate of communism in eastern europe and the spread of political correctness and affirmative action in the US.
It is–or nearly so. If you ask people “Do you support eugenics” you will get four answers, roughly in order of how many people will answer that way:
* What is Eugenics?
But people weren’t asked if they supported eugenics–which most people (who have some idea of what it is) think is something like ‘making sure the “unfit” don’t breed’ where they know that “unfit” is code word for the out of favor minority of the day. They think of it as forced sterilization of the mentally retarded, blacks, immigrants, poor people etc.
And it would have never occurred to me that “encouraging intelligent people to have more children” would be considered eugenics. I am all in favor of intelligent people–even progressives, as their children may grow up wiser–having more kids. Someone has to run the internet after my generation retires.
I’m willing to bet the more *specific* you get about who and what the fewer people you’ll find in favor of it. (other than the more smart people thing.)
On a bad day I’m in favor of making parents take parenting classes and pass a test before their (implanted at puberty) birth control is deactivated. On *NO* day would I trust *ANYONE* but me to who gets to pass that test.
And if you trust ME…you either know me really well, or you’re a fool.
And really, who doesn’t want fewer criminals? If you believe that criminality is *completely* genetic why WOULDN’T you want convicted criminals to be “encouraged” to have fewer children? “forcibly sterilized” is another matter question, but “Here’s 20k a year for the rest of your life to have your vas deferens seperated and cauterized”. They still get to have sex, but no little criminals running around. I mean, it’s tempting. But then you realize that most communist countries have something like “Malicious Hooliganism” or “Pissing off the Communist Party” as a criminal act and you realize who’s seriously running for president and you think again.
No, the strongest argument against censorship is *why* all beliefs must be allowed to compete in a marketplace of ideas.
1) The only way to find the truth, to understand the problem and the solution is to subject the ideas to rigorous examination and debate.
2) Even after a rigorous examination and debate you can *still be wrong*.
3) Even if 1 and 2 aren’t wrong every place that has or has had a significant amount of censorship is or turned into a shithole for people who weren’t significantly high up the hierarchy.
Absolutely. I wrote a long common on this and then deleted it because it veered from censorship, but the same basic thing applies in all these debates that have built in practicality issues and fundamental conflicts. Lots of people think certain rather major rules should be enforced, and their reasoning is often quite understandable, but they are imagining a world in which they can make every decision in accordance with their individual judgements and exceptions, adjusting for matter of degree and all other circumstances. This is simply not the case—nowhere near it. So they will have to back way off, because as desperately as they desire to tell other people what to do, the micromanagement pitfalls will become appalling even to them once they have to try and implement or enforce it. These things aren’t simple, and because most things can’t be dealt with on a completely case by case basis, we have to take some really broad guiding principles or set a reasonable standard for everyone and then stop there. 40% of people want to do a lot of things, but if asked to implement it, they would hit a wall of practical concerns and get uncomfortable. On these issues, it is unlikely more than 5% of people could get on the same page. If the norm starts shifting on this issue, I have a feeling it will be due to an entirely new coalition, not the creeping growth of this 40% mindset—a chunk of the other 60% will start seeing merit in a more practical and subtle set of policies, and some of the 40% will join them.
Exactly. This is basically the whole argument on such matters, whatever we might intuitively wish would happen, a discussion in which we carefully sift personal preferences and justifications is beside the point and is part of the problem. It’s not about what any one person thinks would be nice–we generally agree on things like “I wish violent criminals did not have a bunch of children,” or at least understand the reasoning–it’s that it is not something that can be done based on one person’s opinion of an ideal world. Some people will argue otherwise, but it is not because they suddenly had a revelation that they were not in favor of violent criminals having lots of children. It’s because they believe they have the right to coerce people into line with ideas that have been obvious to everyone for a long time. The problem is we focus on a “bad day” comment, and try to vigorously argue how beyond the pale the idea is. Then the person naturally defends themselves because the idea isn’t absurd or demonic—but the question isn’t whether there is some justification, but whether they have any desire to literally act on it. The answer is usually no.
Yeah, I think the obvious issue of “people don’t think of asking smart people to have more kids as being eugenics” is really something that has to be accounted for before we start using the data the way Scott seems to be.
Public attitudes to smoking followed this pattern. It went from “rude and selfish to ask people not to smoke around you” to “rude and selfish to smoke around other people” within 5 years or less.
I didn’t see coordination at the time, but suspected it, as every workplace in town seemed to ban smoking on their premises at the same time. (It looked like public attitude change came after the rules changes, where I was, not before.)
What I’m wondering here is the effect of general/legal toleration of doing something (or not tolerating it) on the attitudes of the public to those who do it, while staying off the probably-more-hot-button examples used in your post, as requested.
Since after all, there are 4 states:
– X may not be advocated
– X may not be done, but may be advocated
– not X may not be done, but may be advocated
– not X may not be advocated
[Edit: and of course, “X is done constantly, but only in secret or with plausible deniability, with the same people publically condemning it”.]
My observations about the changes in attitude to smoking were much the same as yours, and I think there’s a much more parsimonious explanation than invisible coordination: Power.
In which case, the four states are only theoretical possibilities, and in reality, they quickly collapse to two states:
– X may not be advocated
– X may not be done, but may be advocated – not X may not be done, but may be advocated
– not X may not be advocated
This conclusion seems a bit depressing, but it reflects how politics is done, doesn’t it?
I don’t quite follow. Are you saying non-smokers gained power during the five-year phase transition DinoNerd describes?
Yes. A law was passed enforcing non-smokers’ habits across all indoor spaces. That’s a massive power shift.
I feel as though extramarital sex (sometime not in the last fifty years in the West) provides a counterexample: in many places and times, people were quite clear that this is a super bad thing, but people (sometimes the same people) did it anyway. I don’t think this was even hypocrisy in the sense of deliberately preaching one thing and doing another—people just really like sex.
I think this oversimplifies the long war against tobacco that has been waged for decades. In my mental model, a bunch of these battles have been preceeded by scientific studies pushing one way or another. Remember how tobacco was promoted by doctors in publicity long long ago? Then studies linking it to cancer started to surface, tobacco companies tried to counterattack, and eventually they had to admit the cancer link, then we had warnings on cigarrette boxes, then we started seeing studies on second hand smoke, etc, etc.
If anything, the explanation may be the word Awareness. When people were presented with solid scientific studies linking tobacco to cancer, they slowly changed opinion.
This initial acceptance took a long time, but had the effect of priming the public to believe additional bad things about tobacco.
So the next time studies came up with the result that second hand smoke was shown to have similar effects to directly smoking (I think in the 90s?), people were easier to convince this time. But even that was a slow movement before banning smoking in the workplace. Maybe people didn’t know what to do about it. Until -I assume- some company looked at the amount of people who smoked in their premises, saw it wasn’t they didn’t have that many smokers, and decided to take the plunge and ban smoking. Since this didn’t trigger the apocalypse, other companies followed suit, and everyone fell in line like falling dominoes, since everyone already agreed that second hand smoke was bad, they just didn’t have a good practice to counteract it.
I don’t think the initial company actually had that much power. Obvs it has the power over its employees, but it wouldn’t have been able to use it instead to, say, lower taxes on itself. They only found an acceptable and easy way of wielding the already omnipresent social awareness of SHS.
So the model is:
1) X may be done and advocated.
2) X may be done but advocacy will meet resistance.
3) X may be done but (almost) everyone agrees it’s bad. No advocacy.
4) Someone finds a way Y to restrict X that leverages this agreement.
5) Society agrees Y is acceptable and now X may not be done. Maybe Y is enshrined in law.
I think the marketplace of ideas happens in (2), and by (3) the taboo is in place, but it is not necessarily useful.
Something I have argued in the past is that there is a feedback loop going on here. When we think of it in reverse, taboos are an easy heuristic for conclusions that we have already reached about things like “Is smoking healthy?”.
In order to break the taboo around discussing smoking, you also have successfully argue that smoking is not harmful. Think about items like homosexuality or marijuana use which did successfully manage this. Think about advocation for pedophilia, which has not cleared this first bar.
Whereas when a taboo is not in place, the onus is on the people arguing against smoking. They have to constantly relitigate against the assumption that smoking is fine (or there would be a taboo in place).
So, saying the taboo is useless is incorrect. The taboo is serving as a means of defensive bulwark.
I dunno if you’ve looked into it, but the studies on second hand smoke haven’t aged super well.
My general read on the situation is that the anti-smokers decided to brand their opponents as child killers, and did so successfully, then handily won a public relations battle against people selfishly arguing for their right to give kids cancer.
Typo: “since it’s pretty the same argument” -> “since it’s pretty much the same argument”
At this point I have the following stance on censorship: The state doing it should be reserved for the very most dire cases only – because anything the state censors looses all legitimate avenues of expression.
And private venues of discussion ought to censor with a freely applied iron fist in a spiked steel gauntlet, because every discussion venue I have ever seen that fails to do so eventually drowns in trolls. Knitting? Trolls. Python coding? Trolls. Anything remotely political? So. Many. Trolls.
This is actually a problem, because it makes discussing any and all even slightly political issues fraught – You can keep the python-code-tricks community healthy by just bringing the hammer down on people who go off-topic, but if you want to discuss economics, the quality of the moderation suddenly becomes enormously important – Academic journals mostly handle this by only allowing what amounts to “Massive Effort-Post”, which filters out most trolls just because they are too lazy, but for more casual discussion, that is.. well, logically impossible.
This is an argument in favor of Elsevier-tier “You must pay us to publish your research” racketeering which I’d never considered before.
Elsevier doesn’t put up barriers for publishing, but for subscriptions.
It’s the pay-to-publish open access competition that is pay to publish.
That still leaves a question about what standards for censorship/moderation are appropriate, and also leaves a question of how we should deal with the case where a smallish group of people has a concentration of power in deciding what may be read/heard in public.
No, because I also, in general, am deeply in favor of trust busting and the vigorous smashing of monopolies. If any private actor has sufficient reach that its decisions have the same kind of reach as those of the state, it needs turning into a bunch of baby bells.
I would agree with pragmatic opposition to eugenics – who’s going to enforce it, can they be trusted, do we have means and would people be OK with being barred from procreation?
But moral opposition to it never seemed right to me. If I start running around making cripples both mental and physical out of already living people, I would go to prison in no time. How comes making brand new cripples is OK? Perhaps it would make sense from hardcore pro-life perspective, but not from much else.
Two reasons off the top of my head.
A government eugenics policy that acknowledges, tacitly or explicitly, that cripples are bad and we should have less of them would be seen as a “kicking while they’re down” of current cripples, whether their crippling came from birth defects or accidents. “We don’t even want people like you to be born” runs rather contrary to the recent penchant to try and rebrand the disabled as “differently abled”.
Difficult to put a Schelling point anywhere. How crippled does the kid have to be before mom gets a mandatory trip to the abortion clinic? Quadriplegic? Paraplegic? Thalidomide arms? No fingers? Four fingers? Six fingers?
Then I tell you that the kid’s the result of years of very expensive IVF and is the aging mother’s last hope of having a biological child, etc. etc…
This sounds like the object-level discussion of eugenics Scott asked people to avoid.
You are using “eugenics” to mean “producing eugenic results by compulsion.” But there are things that are obviously eugenic that involve no compulsion.
A real world example is the attempt to prevent tay-sachs disease among ashkenazi Jews by letting people know whether they are carriers and check whether a potential spouse is a carrier. If carriers never produce children by carriers, no babies are born with tay-sachs. No compulsion involved. I described a much more powerful fictional example in an earlier post.
Strictly speaking, I don’t think the Tay-Sachs strategy is eugenic. It would eliminate the Tay-Sachs phenotype but leave the Tay-Sachs allele frequency unchanged.
Maybe it wouldn’t increase the frequency compared to the previous generation, but it would increase the frequency compared to the counterfactual of carrier marriages.
On the contrary, it increases the frequency of the allele compared to permitting carrier marriages.
A carrier marriage will have fewer reproductively successful children, because a quarter of the children (on average) will be homozygous for the gene, and so unlikely to survive to reproduce. That eliminates some alleles from the gene pool.
But the gene is only deleterious if it’s homozygous–I wouldn’t be surprised if the heterozygous form had some benefit, as in the analogous sickle cell case. So arranging things so that only the heterozygous form appears in the population is genetic improvement, although of an odd sort, since it isn’t reducing, indeed is increasing, allele frequency.
On the one hand, you said don’t talk about eugenics, but on the other hand(s) the sentence I’ll quote ended in a question mark AND my answer is one of ‘the perception of eugenics’, not ‘eugenics’, so no b& plz.
1) Allies won WW2, so
2) History-written-by-the-victor incentivises remembrance of the German regime as Maximal Baddies
3) A regime that had n+1 bad flagship policies is more bad than a regime that had n bad flagship policies, therefore every flagship policy the German regime had must be bad
4) Therefore eugenics is bad
5) Arguing for A Bad Thing makes you look bad
6) Therefore the anti-eugenics bloc has a head start on coalescing their taboo than the pro-eugenics bloc
Which circuitously, but unironically, makes the answer to your question “The Battle of Stalingrad”
(Personally I think the weak link in this chain is 2, as one could equally say “History was written by the victors in the 2003 Iraq War too, but nobody thinks Ba’athist flagship policies are maximally bad”. I therefore submit the above model as an unfinished theoretical work, not something I will defend to the death.)
Baathism was literally the party that got formed when Arabs read Mein Kampf, liked what the saw, but were Muslim and nonwhite. There can be only one maximally bad thing, but no one familiar with Baathism who thinks Nazism is maximally bad doesn’t think Baathism is pretty bad.
I’m not convinced that that’s how it usually worked historically, though. I think views about marriage changed because the liberal side got stronger, not because conservative opposition weakened.
@DinoNerd brings up an even better example: Smokers didn’t decrease their pro-smoking propaganda; anti-smokers just started a successful campaign in the other direction.
Maybe you’re right as a matter of historical prevelance, but that still doesn’t make Side X’s reluctance to relax unreasonable.
Rome burns if Hannibal gets 10,000 more men OR if Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus gets 10,000 fewer men.
The problem with the police parallel is that making an opinion taboo does not make it nonexistent, just not made public but still discussed in private. And one thing I would like to point out is how we read the past.
Like you read books from older, sexually more prudish periods of history. It does not mean they did not have extramarital, premarital or all other kinds of sex. They just did not talk about it in public. It was not put into the books.
Something similar with atheism. Lots of people had no faith, but paid lip service to religion anyway as a social thing.
So don’t think of people of the past as very alien. But more like us, just behaving in public differently, because different – perhaps more – taboos.
Also. Today, in most places smoking pot is illegal and everybody piously saying in public that drugs are bad. In practice, it is widely tolerated and no college student ever expects to get in trouble for it. Musicians do it openly on stage.
I think it must have been like that with gays for at least certain periods. Publicly condemned and illegal, privately few cared. Look at the famous cases.
Turing’s case very much like going to the police and reporting some dude stole your pot and insisting even when they tell you to knock it off or they will have to prosecute you for possession. Wilde’s case very much like someone insults you in public calling you a pothead and you sue him for libel so now he has to prove it is true.
Why would highly intelligent men be so careless? Because they rationally expected no trouble. Why? I think simply because nobody ever gave them any trouble for it.
I think this is a very good but (for me, at least), weirdly easy to miss point, namely that the size of the gap between practice and preach is historically quite variable, not only on particular issues, but maybe in a more general sort of way, with premoderns being generally more accustomed to/accepting of a wider gap.
An example of what I see as a more “premodern” approach would be the Japanese approach to censoring porn (which they seem ironically not to have censored in the Edo period, if shunga are anything to go by). I think they are technically not allowed to sell porn without pixelation or otherwise blurring/obscuring the naughty bits. But if you’ve ever seen such porn it’s still… incredibly obvious what is meant to be going on, only now there is “lightsaber dick” instead of a more clearly visible penis. It is hard to imagine what possible benefit this could provide to morality: you may consume porn but it must be slightly less enjoyable than it would be if you could see clearly? Yet also no one wants to run on the platform of “let’s finally allow people to see the privates clearly.”
The general gap between the “front” and the “reality” is called “tatemae” and “honne,” the existence of which well-known terms seems to indicate that culture’s greater acceptance/awareness of such a gap. I suspect maybe it is also typical of a lot of premodern cultures in general.
It think you are overstating it. I’m pretty sure premarital sex and atheism were less common than today, though more than publicly admitted.
Classic case of preference falsification. As Kuran wrote, “In the presence of preference falsification, private opposition may spread and intensify indefinitely without any apparent change in support for the status quo.” Hence things that are popular and silenced.
And it is the expectation of norm enforcement that does the trick…until it doesn’t, and then you have a rapid shift in public opinion.
The other possibility is employing trusted, expert arbitrators capable both of censoring and of explaining his decisions to the satisfaction of 80% of people.
That has been the Chinese solution for 2200 years and it still works well. China’s media are the most trusted on earth. They have a much clearer picture of what’s happening in the world than we do–and that’s killing us.
>China’s media are the most trusted on earth.
I widely hear that no intelligent person in China ever believes the media and constantly discussing what is true and what is not. They tunnel through the Great Firewall, they get opinions from friends living abroad.
Godfree Roberts has been making positive posts about China for a while. It’s kind of funny.
What ever gave you that belief?
From colleague visiting china, one of the slightly surreal experiences was seeing the news claiming international support that didn’t actually exist.
A lot of news would have snippets thrown in claiming that “the british government supports china in X” or “America supports china in Y”
basically playing the game of implying that everyone else believes X.
when anyone from outside china knows damned well that it’s fiction and may be exactly opposite to the truth.
From talking to chinese grad students the news is generally considered as fiction or a joke there except by really die-hard partyists.
The officials whose title is usually translated “censors” were not doing what we refer to as censorship–their job was basically discovering corruption in the bureaucracy. What part of the Imperial system are you referring to, and can you point me at your references?
I bet if you asked an average Chinese person whether he trusts the Chinese media, he’d say “yes” — then maybe launch into a soliloquy about how the Chinese media is the best possible kind of media and how much he enjoys watching it all the time and how much he loves hearing about the victories of the Communist Party… you know, just to make sure. One can never be too careful, after all.
The right question and definition can show high support for anything that we deem bad/opposition to things we deem good.
So, if you ask a pro-gay rights activists something like “Do you want 4-year old kids to be taught specifics about gay sex and to show them gay porno”? They will say not just no, but hell, no. Because the whole concept is just ridiculous.
What does discouraging criminals to have kids mean? Does it mean not allowing conjugal visits in jail? Does it mean reducing welfare? Paying drug addicts to get a vasectomy/tubal ligation? Teaching them about responsibility, councelling them so they spend more efforts on each kid, where they get visits by some volunteers to teach them how to teach their kids to read? Talking to them about responsible sex, offering them free contraceptives?
For a mild enough form of discouraging, anybody would agree.
It would be amusing if the true result of this study were “40% of people have underactive imaginations.”
That opposite world is the actual past. Not even the super distant past; there are still people alive today who lived through the switch from “eugenics is good” to “eugenics is bad” in the US.
The tl;dr is that the pro-Eugenics group was the first mover, way back in the 1880s, possibly inspired by a clumsy and motivated reading of “survival of the fittest”. At its height the eugenicists enjoyed broad popular support and had the laws of 30 US states on their side; their sterilizations programs are even believed to have directly inspired those of Nazi Germany. The censorship flip occurred after the Holocaust; not just because of government censorship via anti-Nazi propaganda, but because lots of soldiers saw in stark terms what those policies really meant when the GIs freed the Nazi camps. But it makes a fascinating case study, because despite the censorship flip in the mid to late 40s, and an official US condemnation of eugenic sterilization in 1978, individuals have continued the practice in the US in secret for decades and it’s alleged that it still happens today. It’s one of the reasons the IRB exists, despite its (previously discussed) failings.
I think that the public discourse matters, but that censorship doesn’t always make the problem go away, which is why I struggle with the idea of censoring hate speech.
And for extra fun, I think the internet has dramatically changed this process at all levels: imagine that there’s a belief Foobar that offends some people: it’s now easier for everyone offended by Foobar to find that some people believe it (and to come to believe that Foobar belief is widespread enough to warrant a crackdown) and to coordinate an anti-Foobar crackdown. Then, by the same token it’s easier for Foobar’s adherents to coordinate an anti-anti-Foobar breakout in response or even coordinate just continuing to do Foobar in secret.
Widespread support for eugenic policies existed, as you say, in the early 20th century, and was shared pretty much across the political spectrum. The main opponents I know of were the Catholic church and some English classical liberal types.
But the “opposite world” would be a world where people who opposed eugenics were threatened and prevented from speaking out and that, so far as I know, did not happen outside of Nazi Germany.
My wife kindly explained the concept of social amnesia to me earlier: the way in which we change our priors and might be aware of this change but can’t say how it happened. This seems to be a way of dealing with individual reception of changes in what is acceptable. The use of amnesia here seems to be deliberate; it is a psychological concept that aims to delimit (not account for) the divergence between understanding what is socially allowable and the actual views on component elements, such as Scott’s eugenics example here.
But this should flag up a concern. Scott is suggesting a top-down model of social creation of acceptable expression of views. This seems fine as far as it goes, but it remains top-down, and therefore to anyone who sees humans as both social animals and individual actors it looks incomplete. We can understand the creation of an Overton window through this mechanism, but it tells us nothing about the individual acceptance of the views within the window. Scott’s eugenics example shows that mild statement of views that fully-formulated are socially unacceptable are common, so the victory over eugenics may not be complete, but that a call for eugenics as a policy is unlikely to succeed. Yet there is an unresolved tension here: people are aware that eugenics is bad, but that there are sensible things that can be done to improve society which they support . What makes people prioritise the acceptable views over the sensible measures? And more importantly, what makes them prioritise sensible measures over acceptable views when the Overton Window breaks? It’s all very well understanding how what can be safely put in print or tweeted is determined, but note the relatively small nature of such communities does mean that even our willingness to live with social amnesia has limits and if a definition of what is acceptable changes to the point it conflicts with too many sensible measures then the population at large are likely to start to reject the Overton Window in that area in its entirety as something elite and inapplicable to them. How does this rejection of an attempt to change what is acceptable at.either a personal or.a.social level fit?
On reflection this is obviously true. Good post.
So I know the author said not to talk about eugenics…after arguably redefining eugenics…but without a conversation at the object level it’s impossible to point out someone switched definitions on you in such a way that undercuts their point, so here goes:
There is no pervasive accepted taboo on Scott’s definition of Eugenics
If we include in the definition of Eugenics the claim that ‘individuals with qualities we claim are undesireable should experience social pressures to have fewer kids’, it becomes readily apparent that people advocate for this all the time.
Just two examples:
1. ‘Welfare traps’. Frequently on fox news you see someone making the argument that certain social redistribution policies allow/encourage single parent households with more kids than would be otherwise economically viable and this is bad. This is not primarily met with the cry of ‘Eugenics!’
2. Parts of the pro choice movement think it’s important to be able terminate the life of fetuses with significant genetic deformities. The pro life movement fails to enforce the Eugenics norm against this, and their main argument is ‘sanctity of life! (a new argument, not a universally accepted premise)’ not ‘eugenics is taboo, remember?’.
If things are not recognized as the taboo, which we know because the main counterargument to these controversial things is not first and foremost ‘you are violating the taboo!’, then pointing out that people support these things privately is not evidence the taboo is important. Because they already advocate for them publicly!
For point 2
The pro-life movement which hold the premises A it its impermissible to directly seek the death of an innocent human being and B Human fetus’s are human being and rarely commit crimes in utero, so it internally opposes directly seeking the death of human fetus’s even if they are diseased. Given these premises that proliferes opposes abortions of fetus’s with disabilities is entirely unsurprising. But what is weird is that they are able to get extra support for opposing the abortion of fetus’s that are disabled based on the eugenics taboo. This support is not not huge but getting swing votes is crucial. Thus the abortions that, if opposition to eugenics and abortion are in fact unjustified, would be the most logical, have the highest rates of opposition.
For #2 You need a certain amount of clout and reverberation for a taboo to stick, so pro-life has accused pro-choice of being eugenicists and racists in the past and continues to do so, but their accusations are not authoritative or actionable.
There are historical incidences where people feared accusations from their neighbors like in Salem or in the cultural revolution but modern taboo enforcement is somewhat more centralized.
The problem is that Eugenics is poorly defined.
We were talking about tobacco use and second hand smoke elsewhere, and Second Hand Smoke is something concrete. Hell, you can point at it with your finger. With eugenics you have to call something eugenics, then have a logn discussion whether it is right, and whether stuff similar to whatever you are discussing has been accepted in the past, etc, etc.
Yeah, I agree that this is an issue.
There is a set of policies which might plausibly be labeled as “eugenics” and roundly condemned by reflex if proposed by a politician. Some of those are genuinely horrible crap like forcibly sterilizing people some bureaucrat in Social Services thinks is bad stock. Others are sensible policies with a possible slippery slope danger like paying drug addicts to go on long-term contraception. Still others are good things that hardly anyone actually opposes, like genetic screening of parents and sperm/eggs to avoid having children with serious genetic disorders. And some stuff is harmless but eugenics-adjacent, like sperm/egg banks whose donors are selected for IQ, health, appearance, height, etc.
Problem #1 is that the term “eugenics” plausibly incorporates both the horrible stuff and the sensible/good stuff. Problem #2 is that the reaction to eugenics is mostly knee-jerk–we’ve all been told eugenics was evil forever so we all know we’re supposed to hate it, but that means we mostly don’t think our reaction through once the label is invoked.
In general, magic word arguments (“That’s eugenics!” “That’s communism!” “That’s racist!” “That’s unpatriotic!” etc.) mainly serve to shut down thinking instead of to encourage it.
It’s a nice model, but you’re missing the elephant in the room here.
Eugenics is associated with Nazi atrocities, and Jewish people are understandably quite wary of it for that reason. Jewish people are also far and away the highest income and wealthiest religious group in the world, with several-fold overrepresentation in professional fields like journalism and law as well as a five-to-tenfold overrepresentation in the number of billionaires. That’s likely due to innate ability and not due to a nefarious conspiracy but the end result is that the American upper class has a strong vested interest in cracking down on would-be eugenicists.
It doesn’t matter if 40% of citizens weakly support eugenics if the 2% of the population which constitutes the most accomplished and influential citizens strongly opposes it.
Missed the edit window, not sure if this runs afoul of talking about eugenics on the object level or not. From my POV it’s one meta level up but feel free to delete my original comment if it’s not meta enough.
Are you aware that this reads a bit like an anti-semetic conspiracy? Rich Jews are controlling our national discourse…
I also think it’s untrue, simply because the same situation with regard to eugenics applies in the UK and we don’t have a Jewish lobby with the same level of wealth and influence.
Yes, which is why I explicitly stated that I don’t think it’s a conspiracy.
Exceptionally intelligent people finding their way into positions of authority is understandable and expected. People whose ancestors were murdered or tortured in the name of eugenics opposing eugenics is also understandable and expected. So when you have an exceptionally intelligent group of people whose ancestors were murdered and tortured in the name of eugenics, it is understandable and expected that authority figures are going to be wary of anyone talking about eugenics.
This is my right brain talking, I don’t have any math/statistics, but I think a lot of people are reflexively opposed to things the Nazis were in favor of. It’s not that a small subset of people really, really don’t like Nazis. Everyone does.
I think the simpler, correct explanatory model is ‘Nazis are associated with eugenics, the vast majority of folks dislike eugenics as a result, and some people like things that Scott thinks of as eugenics-weak but was not the Nazi version and most people don’t think of as eugenics’.
I mean, I can’t think of a specifically Nazi policy, a thing the Nazis did that was in particular a consequence of their ideas about nationality, race, and so on, that was worth saving. “Build highways” or something, sure, but literally every kind of government does that if it can afford to.
I can’t think of a single issue on which, if a Nazi Party ran against a normal party, I would say “okay, well on this issue the Nazis are the better choice.” The only things they didn’t do wrong were things nobody does wrong except the kleptocrats and some of the anarchists.
So “don’t do anything the Nazis would have done” strikes me as a pretty good heuristic for most issues that are in any way central to Naziism (nationality, ethnicity, race, whether or not to invade people, etc.).
And I’m not Jewish.
I don’t know enough about you to know how much you actually know about the Nazi Party, nor about how much of their platform you agree with.
I can say that if you took a decent chunk of their platform and presented it to a large proportion of the population as contrasted with the Republican Party platform on the same topics (or to a lesser extent the Democratic Party platform) and asked them which they prefer, there are a lot of people who would prefer the Nazi platform. Maybe not a majority, but for sure double-digit percentages on many.
I’m thinking of things like expanding old age welfare, nationalizing industries (more popular before than it is after recent events in Venezuela), redistribution (sharing) of wealth, common nationalized free education for all, the state should provide a livelihood for all, etc…
You may respond that none of those things were “central to Naziism” compared to your list, but then I’d say your list was maybe determined by the things some people already don’t like which are part of the Nazi platform, rather than the totality of what they actually stood for at the time they were elected.
And I am Jewish, sort-of (two actual Jewish grandparents, from different sides of the family), at least technically Jewish enough for the Nazi’s to have thrown me in a concentration camp under their legal definition.
They were definitely extremely nationalist, especially compared to the internationalists of the time, but that’s not all they were.
Except almost all the things you list:
-Expanding old age welfare,
-Common nationalized education for all
-State providing livelihood for all
-Nationalizing industries (which can work fine, it just works very badly if you’re as crazystupid as the people who’ve been running Venezuela lately, but then so does *everything else*)
…Yeah, none of those are unique to Nazism. that’s kind of my point. None of those things are things that make Nazis *Nazis,* as distinct from other political parties at the time.
If the Germans had just wanted to nationalize some industries and expand their welfare programs, they could probably have accomplished that more effectively and without getting bombed into the Stone Age by just electing some Social Democrats or something.
The things that are central to Naziism as a distinctive ideology pretty much all revolve around their ideas on nationalism and race.
It’s like, maybe fascism will make the trains run on time, and maybe it won’t, but fascism isn’t about making the trains run on time.
It’s about resurrecting the heroic spirit of the mythologized racial memory and embodying it in the person of a beloved leader whose face gets plastered on buildings five stories high and then giving the works to all those tricky sneaky bastards who keep depriving your country of its rightful glory.
If you’re a single issue trains-on-time voter, you should probably not vote for fascists, no matter HOW many times they promise to make the trains run on time. Because their usual gimmick in that situation is the same as that of the Bolsheviks: the trains don’t run on time, but it’s illegal to complain, so everyone pretends otherwise.
I think historically, a major selling point of fascists was that they were in favor of those things, but were also opposed to communists.
> None of those things are things that make Nazis *Nazis,* as distinct from other political parties at the time.
At the time?
Aren’t we slightly suffering from 20/20 hindsight here?
Don’t you think that if in the fateful 1932 Weimar election the NSDAP party platform program had spelled out, I dunno, “ensuring that those who later stand in our way get to experience mysterious meetings with long knives”, or maybe “mass-murdering every Jew, including non-Jews with some Jewish ancestry just to make sure”, that a tad bit fewer than 37.3% of voters would have given them their vote?
In other words, if they had spelled out what your hindsight is now qualifying as “the things that make Nazis Nazis”?
People were voting on the platform & propaganda as it was back then, resulting in a vote of 37.3% National Socialist, 21.6% Socialist Democrat, 14.3% Communist, 12.4% Centrist etc. Meaning, Communists got nearly half as much votes as NSDAP. Now, if there’s a voter with certain policy preferences, and (as in your example) both NSDAP and Social Democrats propose such policies, but
a) say that a focus on national identity does not represent a put-off to him
b) say that he really doesn’t like Communists, and really doesn’t want to see the party he voted for to cut deals with Communists later (for parlamentary reasons)
it’s quite possible that this not particularly rabid voter shall cast the vote for NSDAP, sealing Germany’s fate.
The things that the NSDAP did later is largely a matter of hindsight, while the profound animosity between NSDAP and Communists was well known at the time.
Politics are more complicated than your one-sided example is making them to be. We know that Fascism isn’t about making the trains run on time, yes, but we also know that Communism isn’t about putting the working class populace at the helm of the country.
I think you underestimate how central those things were to their identity. At the time, the big political divisions were between the national socialists and the international socialists. They mostly agreed on the socialist portion of the platform (it was a popular movement in most of the world at the time), so sure, you can say that didn’t make them “unique” in that way.
But if you aren’t on the side of the international socialists in their argument with the national ones about who will be in power, you might step back and recognize that both of those political movements resulted in massive war, civilian deaths, and all sorts of other just horrifying stuff. At that point trying to choose between what made the Nazi’s distinct from the Communists at the time seems a bit irrelevant. In reality, if you look at Spain, Italy, etc… it was mostly about who would be in charge.
The more relevant issues to look at are the areas where they were the same, because its a lot more likely that’s why they both ended up with the similar results they did. When multiple countries use the same ideas and end up with the same results, then maybe it’s actually the ideas (as publicly predicted by contemporaries at the time), not something special about one particular country or movement.
@MostlyHamless The topic we started from was not whether Nazis could get elected, but whether people tend to oppose policies (such as eugenics) that are considered to be associated specifically with the Nazis.
@10240 is right. I’m not trying to craft a heuristic that would work if I were magically erased of all knowledge of post-1933 world events. I’m trying to craft a heuristic specifically in light of post-1933 world events.
“Avoid doing the kinds of things a Nazi party will enthusiastically do” seems like a pretty good heuristic that way. Because I’m thinking in light of just how horribly “do the things a Nazi party likes to do” turned out for everyone involved.
Yes, hindsight is involved. That’s a feature, not a bug; I’m updating my priors. “Danger, historically this policy was most enthusiastically followed by a group of people who turned out to have an astounding anti-talent for policy.”
In and of itself it doesn’t prove the policy is bad. But it’s a bit like finding the skulls of those who went before you littering the road to the Fortress of Ambiguity. Sure, it’s possible they were all killed in unrelated incidents and this isn’t relevant to your current situation. But it sure doesn’t say anything good about the wisdom of continuing down the path to the aforesaid Fortress.
The “national socialists” were so radically separate from the “international socialists” on important core ideological principles (‘which is more important, class or ethnicity’) as to constitute a very significant difference.
Furthermore, there was always the third option- liberal democracy, which can often accomodate socialists, and can usually accomodate conservatives as long as they don’t decide to embrace fascism in order to destroy the socialists.
But this isn’t really relevant to “The Nazis had such a prodigious anti-talent for policy and did so many appalling things that if the Nazis did something… And few or no others did to anything like the same extent… It is a bad idea to do that thing.”
> “Avoid doing the kinds of things a Nazi party will enthusiastically do” seems like a pretty good heuristic that way.
Yes, but what exactly would those “updated censoring heuristics” be?
Where would those heuristics classify, say, modern-day Antifa?
It is indeed irresponsibly lazy to not update your censoring heuristics after observing how many dozens of megadeaths were caused by the “nationality-affirming” Nazis, and how many by the “nationality-erasing” Soviets. And just as lazy to consider “nationality-affirming” and “nationality-erasing” as their most relevant characteristics.
Post-WWII, there was a short “McCarthy era” where everyone with a “nationality-erasing” rhetoric could get routinely branded as Communist. It was followed by a much longer, and still-enduring, liberal era where everyone with a “nationality-affirming” rhetoric could get routinely branded as Nazi. (or, if lucky, merely get branded as a “demagogue” or “populist”, with an unspoken presumption of leftist movements not being that).
Both the above-described heuristics are lazy. Such brandings intend censoring — so they function as proxies for censoring heuristics. And as “thought-stoppers”, in LW terms.
I mean “intend censoring” as opposed to “intend dialogue”. An actual dialogue between left and right is becoming nigh impossible in today’s climate, except in a precious few places like SSC. And what makes SSC itself possible, is not a lack of censoring (no forum could really survive that), it is Scott having far more sophisticated censoring heuristics.
For me, the more correct post-1933 censoring heuristics would not look at the “nationality axis”, but rather to be seriously wary of thuggish tactics — wary of organized violence for political ends.
Following that heuristic even back in 1932, would have safeguarded against the ensuing Nazi nightmare. Realizing that today’s brown-shirts, beating up Germans in the street when they express different opinions, will — upon seizing more substantial power — become tomorrow’s long-knives, knifing off some hundred Germans while sending a poignant message to all others who would even think of opposing them. (including the “Beefsteak Nazis” in their own ranks). With things very predictably going downhill from there.
The same heuristic could have safeguarded against the Communist nightmare as well.
I stress the ORGANIZED violence angle of this heuristic. It is not a good heuristic to merely go after the “violence” angle, as each side’s newssources inevitably will in the wake of each lone-madman incident on the other side. The heuristic which looks at “violence” detached from “organized”, would also have stopped women’s voting rights as based on a string of lunatic acts by certain suffragettes.
This is how, to some who updated their censoring heuristics to post-1933 experiences, Antifa is the paragon of what modern-day society needs, because Antifa is a censoring force that stands on the other end of the “nationality axis” from the Nazis.
To me Antifa triggers the “ORGANIZED violence for political ends” warning — or in your words, Antifa does “do the kinds of things Nazis would enthusiastically do”.
One obvious problem with that heuristic is that most modern societies are nationalist—most obviously including both England and France.
“Wogs start at Calais.”
Or, for a more attractive version, lots of Churchill’s wartime rhetoric.
> Wogs start at Calais
Isn’t reducing nationship to casual xenophobia — while ignoring its positive historical roles — a bit strawmanish?
The “nationality-erasing” Soviets did not need to denigrate Ukrainians and Khazaks as “wogs”, to have killed them by the millions even before Hitler had assumed control over Germany. Some other ideology-based terms (denigration of “kulak”) had done the trick just fine.
Pinker — whom I’m most willing to take as a steelman for progressive positions — speaks at length of “positive-sum benevolence”, his term for what LW circles commonly call “Prisonner’s dilemma cooperate-cooperate gains”. Pinker asserts it is possible to magically establish “positive sum benevolence” on a full global scale through application of progressive values, but history does not back him up.
Societies are subject to mass-scale prisonner’s dilemmas on a wide number of fronts, each roughly breaking into
1) the mass-cooperate unstable equilibria, the summit for whichever society is able to achieve it
2) the mass-defect stable equilibria, the default and globally most widespread state
3) the part-cooperate part-defect transition, which almost always works out as a “blink and you’ll miss it” transition from 1) to 2)
In contrast, the transition from 2) to 1) is seriously, seriously hard.
Which forces have a historically proven track record of being able to maintain those mass-cooperate unstable equilibria for a significant timespan?
Religion and nationalism.
Nationalism has in fact emerged relatively recently, pretty much in the wake of religion getting mercilessly bashed in by enlightenment, science and other modern forces. Because people needed a force capable of maintaining all those various mass-cooperate unstable equilibrias — a service hitherto provided by religion — and therefore nationalism emerged to fill that role.
Progressives see nationalism as an obstacle to the global domination of their preferred system, without much of a historical proof that their system is able to provide the same level of mass-cooperate cohesion within a given society (and much proof that it isn’t).
Both religion and nationalism have the “competitive advantage” of being rooted in parts of human psychology that have been around since the time of Neanderthals, if not longer. That’s why they do work. (as long as no-one is working their tuchus off to undermine them). Progressivism has nothing such, nothing beyond wishful thinking and detrimental real-world consequences.
I’m sure you can disagree with the above view — just as I can agree that progressivism would be nicer, if it worked, which it doesn’t — but I think that censoring off nationalism as mere xenophobia is shallow and lacking in perspective.
I think the change in acceptability of eugenics, if there really has been a change in attitude, has to do with a couple of things: first, the answers seem to be along the lines of “in favour of eugenics for them but not for me or society-wide as a whole” – people are saying “yeah criminals shouldn’t be having kids”.
Secondly, eugenics back at its height involved, a lot of the time, doctors dragging you against your will into court where the judge ruled you should be sterilised against your will and the cops brought you to hospital against your will to have this done, and all the great and good congratulated themselves about how great and good they were for pushing this. That’s not the situation today; birth control is more widely available, acceptable and much more efficient, so people think about “criminals not having kids – just use condoms or go on the pill or something!” Even operations like vasectomy would be more voluntary rather than compulsory (and more easily reversible nowadays), I doubt the people answering “yes” to “criminals should have fewer/no kids” are in support of rounding them up and sterilising them by force against their will.
So I think the matter under consideration may not be “eugenics as such is good/bad” as it is “the methods of carrying out eugenics are good/bad”. I think that a proposal about involuntary court-ordered sterilisation would still be resisted more than a programme of ‘pay them to be voluntarily sterilised’.
I love the pun at the end. Is pun the right word? Meta reference?
Scott can only moderate 10 comments a day. There are usually 30 comments about censorship and coordination that need moderation per day. There are also usually about 30 comments about eugenics or gay rights that need moderation per day. Scott is declaring that eugenics and gay rights comments will be the hill he dies on so he can work on the censorship/coordination comments.
Don’t know why I’m sitting here explaining the joke, but I just really enjoyed it.
I missed it, and so I thank you for your post.
Somehow missed Scott’s request to not talk about eugenics. Comment withdrawn.
If people tend to go for the status-quo, wouldn’t you expect to get something like a sigmoid curve for acceptance? That is, when something is socially unacceptable, most people will reject the idea, and when something is socially acceptable most people will be okay with it. Wouldn’t the result of this naturally be the culture war? Your group would attempt by-hook-or-by-crook to get your favored policy position enacted into law so that status quo bias kicks and in people accept the idea?
[SORRY, DIDN’T FOLLOW DIRECTIONS – BUT I THINK MY POINTS BELOW ARE POTENTIALLY RELEVANT]
Not the main point of the post, but I think you may be oversimplifying the “practical” objection to eugenics.
First: people who think criminals should have fewer children may not be thinking about genetics at all, but about the welfare of children born to criminals and the broader social effects thereof.
Second: even if you are confident that certain negative traits are 100% genetically determined, the practical realities of implementing a eugenics program to target these traits quickly reveals eugenics as completely unworkable. Consider a steel-man version on the pro-eugenics argument: you’re targeting a serious genetic disease caused by a single gene mutation, and you’ve been given authority to go full Mengele on the population to achieve your goal. Furthermore, unlike the Nazis, you have access to modern genetic testing and the resources and authority to ensure 100% compliance. EVEN THEN, it’s going to require testing your entire population (hope nobody slips through the cracks, and that the labs don’t ever make a mistake!) and I suppose sterilizing anyone who is a carrier for the gene mutation, preferably as a child. You’re also of course going to have to restrict immigration and border crossing, and require genetic testing of all newcomers, with of course sterilization as a condition for entry, even on vacation (hope nobody sneaks over the border and that the travel authorities never make a mistake or take a bribe!). And you have to maintain these restrictions FOREVER. Fun! Remember: that is a best-case scenario. Now imagine you’re trying to breed your human livestock for a trait like higher intelligence, which appears to involve about a thousand genes, maybe more, we’re not sure yet. Good luck with that!
My point is that belief in heritability of certain undesirable traits != belief in the feasibility/desirability of eugenics.
100% certainty is pretty much never required in anything, and topics we aren’t supposed to talk about in this thread are not an exception.
Sure, my bad. Scott, feel free to delete.
In such scenarios, the censored group can always resort to subversion.
A case in point for eugenics is the 2006 movie “Idiocracy”, the Mike Judge movie in which USA proceeds on its dysgenic course, until five centuries later, everyone’s IQ having been savagely decimated, Americans elect a boorish porn star for president.
Some hold that “Idiocracy” is a critique of present-day America. And it is that, in part. (although Judge could not have known that IRL, ten years later, Americans would elect a boorish reality TV star for president)
But only in part. Point is that, even back in 2006, “Idiocracy” was a frontal assault on anti-eugenicism, being delivered in a climate where no-one could openly hold a pro-eugenics position. I mean, not openly hold it and still survive in a society that lazily conflates “eugenics” with “coercive eugenics”, due to historical precedents.
“Idiocracy” is thus able to evade the mud-slinging that contemporary society directs at anything even remotely smelling of eugenics — it doesn’t mention or imply that taboo word even once — all the while ham-handedly satirizing a future that has allowed dysgenics to prevail. In line with Scott’s reported poll, it seems possible that 40% of Americans would agree “Idiocracy” kind of has a point.
In a broader perspective, this kind of subversion seems historically common. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a much more refined sample of the species. It packs a hefty amount of critique of [Cervantes’ contemporary] society, while evading all the [contemporary] censorship which would otherwise land on him as a ton of bricks. And still, even to Cervantes’ contemporaries, it was quite clear what the book was about.
Generally speaking, that kind of subversion is a crucial component of how the entrenched censoring positions do get to be changed over time.
You can go back further than 2006, to 1951 and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons, where the vast majority of the population are literal idiots and only the select intelligent few do the real running of the world while notional governments and officials have the titles and jobs.
But they’re not bloated dictators living in luxurious decadence, no, they’re hard-working folks run ragged by trying to keep the idiots from obliterating themselves. They need a solution, and luckily they find one: a man from the twentieth century who, due to a dental accident, was put into suspended animation. They revive him, explain the problem to him, and he comes up with the solution that they are too
squeamish moralpractical to execute (and execute is the word) – reduce the population to a manageable level by killing off the dummies.
(The story is interesting in that it is chock-full of the attitude of the 40s and 50s; the Smart Guys try to stop people having babies by making propaganda movies about not having babies, but it doesn’t work because you can’t get rid of sex. Methods of birth control disseminated in the environment don’t seem to have occurred to Kornbluth, even though his future world is very sexualised, because he’s still operating under the mental limits of the social attitudes of the time).
Now, how the human race is going to be revived after the Smart Guys implement the solution and kill off the five billion morons was not very apparent to me, but luckily it seems like there is just enough of a sizeable breeding population of Smart People to repopulate the emptied Earth:
And Kornbluth gets to eat his cake and have it, because while he’s lambasted the smart people of the twentieth century for not having kids and letting the future of humanity fall into the laps of the breeding billions of morons, he still gets to let his Smart People be the moral ones (even though they agree to the mass extinction of the five billion) by making the twentieth century guy the real villain, up to and including invoking Hitler (Our Hero copies Der Fuhrer’s methods in keeping the masquerade going) and kills him off painfully in the end.
Eugenics works, kids, as long as you have a sucker to take the fall for you!
If there are 3 million smart people and 5 billion literally morons, and your only objection against killing them is literally “the streets would be full of rotten corpses”, here is how you solve the problem:
* Make a territory where only smart people are allowed to enter. At the beginning, it can be a size of a village, or even a single house. Regardless of the size, you protect it absolutely: fences and guns at the border. But if the outsiders are literally morons, you could just make up some story why they should stay outside.
* Outside the territory, do whatever you used to do before; preserve the status quo. That means that most smart people will have to live outside the territory. Perhaps make a rule that for N weeks spent outside, you are allowed to spend 1 week inside.
* Gradually expand the territory. Add another house on the border, another field. Perhaps start a new bubble elsewhere. Keep the size proportional to reproduction of the smart people, otherwise the defense becomes impossible. It may be strategic to conquer small islands first, because they will be easier to defend.
Assuming that the smart people are able to increase their population (otherwise, humanity is doomed regardless of what you do), this is a long-term plan to take back the whole planet. If your opponents are literally morons, it would be difficult for them to stop you.
Also, instead of sterilization, give them sexbots, or put something in their food that reduces sex drive or fertility. Actually, this step alone could be sufficient to solve the whole problem, without violence.
Now, for extra points, let’s do this invisibly. We’ll create instutitions called “universities”, “technology companies,” “government research labs,” “consulting companies,” and “financial companies.” We’ll give everyone disguised IQ tests (we’ll pretend they’re tests of scholastic aptitude) and use the results to filter people into universities, and from there into these other institutions. The selected high-IQ people will mostly meet their mates in those institutions and marry and have kids. Those kids will tend to be smarter than average, but not as smart as their parents thanks to regression to the mean, so we keep giving each new generation these tests of “scholastic aptitude” that really kinda turn out to be IQ tests given shared educational background, and filtering them into the high-IQ institutions. Occasionally, people will marry outside these institutions, but not so often.
Of course, if you really want this to work, you need to push hard for a 50% male/female workforce in these institutions, and in particular in the most IQ-selective parts of the institutions. You really want half the math and physics grad students to be female, to max out the selective breeding effect. Probably, to do that, you’d need a massive publicity campaign and public shaming of anyone who argued that women didn’t like some of those fields or weren’t suited for them on average.
Of course, all this would be evil terrible eugenics, and so it will never happen.
But the whole strategy falls to the ground if those very smart men and women meet, marry, … and then fail to have any kids.
Utopians always make a fatal mistake, right?
The really unrealistic aspect of the story is the existence of the endogamous caste of people very smart relative to the morons. There is no endogamous very smart caste today and little indiciation one will develop in the future.
I haven’t read Kornbluth, but from what you write, it’s not exactly a steelman for the “all eugenics is presently being censored due to the historical wrongs of coercive eugenics” viewpoint. First, on context level, the year was 1951, eugenics in US was not being censored then; on the contrary, coercive eugenics — which would later make the entire topic of eugenics radioactive — was being actively practiced. Second, on content level, Kornbluth’s fictional eugenics certainly looks coercive.
My comment was not solely aiming for the “object-level” of eugenics, it was aiming for the “meta-level” of how do entrenched censorship positions — certainly a powerful tool to enforce a set of viewpoints across a wider population — get to change over time. I was underlining the fundamental role of cultural subversion. In line with LessWrong’s mantra of “name three examples”, I have named “Idiocracy” for the [article-related] area of eugenics-censoring, and “Don Quixote” for another era and area. (OK so, for the thrid example, “Gulliver’s travels”).
I’ve qualified Quixote as “refined” (ditto for Gulliver), and qualified Idiocracy as “ham-handed”. I’d also qualify Idiocracy as grotesque and whatever, but not as “wrong in essence”. All three are examples of cultural works that successfully evade contemporary societal censorship, while clearly undermining the related taboos.
This post showed up in my notification system as “Social Censorship: The Ten Ninja Model”; I’m really curious what that version of the metaphor looked like.
If they’re skilled ninja then you will never see it in action.
An earlier version of the post contained a story about a hero with only a single bullet left in his gun, being attacked by ten ninjas, and warding all of them off by threatening to shoot the first one who makes any kind of attacking move.
Not sure why it was removed; it didn’t seem particularly offensive to modern sensibilities, and it gave a useful extra illustration of the concept.
BTW, I’m pretty sure I first encountered that story in a David Friedman book; probably Hidden Order.
Possibly, but it first appeared in Price Theory.
My version used arrows not bullets, and the hero had multiple arrows, just fewer than the number of pursuers. That made it possible for him to demonstrate his strategy.
First you shoot the one in front. Then you shoot the one in front. Then you shoot the one in front. Then they all run slower.
He probably remembered the Inverse Ninja Law and realized they weren’t a credible threat in his example.
On the eugenics paper: only a single question was given a reasonable control, and on that question the outcome was opposite the “eugenic” position:
Lots of people think poor people and criminals should have fewer children for reasons other than eugenics.
There is nothing in the paper that implies “much lack of support for eugenics was a belief that it would not work.” None of the questions asked were about efficacy.
I think in general you jump way too quickly to “censorship” explanations and aren’t thinking hard enough about alternative possibilities.
[voluntarily moved to open thread due to note at end of post.]
> I was surprised to hear this, because I thought of moral opposition to eugenics was basically universal.
The surprise strikes me as odd, as I have very little confidence in what the majority actually believes about practically anything. In general, how does one know when a belief about the beliefs of others is justified? That is, if one is in a society where public support of X is strongly socially stigmatized, how best does one estimate the real level of support for X?
The simplest approach is inferring that the support is low simply because it is forbidden. If the support was high, disagreement would not be disallowed, ergo support must be low. This argument has the problem that it equates majority opinion with power, and neglects the possibility that a minority position might have the power to create social law. It also assumes that opinion is unchanging over time. Despite these problems, I think this approach is quite common.
A second level would be to survey people who you trust to provide their true opinion despite the social stigma. If people privately admit to an unpopular opinion, this probably works in the direction of disproof, but lack of discussion probably can only be weak evidence of of true belief. Perhaps one is not actually trusted as an insider, or perhaps the stigma is so strong that even private discussion would be unwise. And even when this approach otherwise works, it requires assuming that the surveyed population is representative.
I’d guess the most common approach is purely internal. One looks inwardly at one’s own beliefs, and speculates whether it’s likely that others share this same belief. A complicated chain of logic (even if provably true) is unlikely to be followed to the correct conclusion be a majority. A simple but erroneous logic is probably more likely to shared. Like the survey of the trusted, I think this approach only produces a correct answer if one happens to be representative of the population, and even then it doesn’t give an estimate of the variance.
So what’s a better way? An anonymous survey where the respondents have no fear of repercussion seems like a good start. There’s still lots of room for bias in the presentation of results, and for question creation that encourages answers in a particular direction, but if the survey is representative, it seems like it has a good chance of giving the correct answer. Can one do better?
Yeah, I don’t know how to deal with this either. It’s very clear that references to “public opinion” are mostly sweeping assumptions, often motivated ones. You also have the whole “outrage over X!” when 5 people are outraged. This sort of thing is not a new or totally avoidable problem, but I’m writing something that relies on newspaper coverage, and it is just clear that the claims of what everyone thinks are just echoes of their own beliefs or the elite DC-crowd beliefs.
Yet to claim I know otherwise is rather hard to justify, especially when faced with a bunch of headlines declaring this was so. We all know this stuff is sensationalist, but it is really hard to get a good read, as the loudest and most extreme are who you see. And many people have no opinion at all on certain controversies. Sometimes there are polls or actual events things that give a pretty good idea of how the public generally feels. But the term public opinion is used to refer to something very different at least 90% of the time, and this has a huge impact on society, especially when done on purpose to declare someone un-electable or ruined or whatever.
Clearly the last few years of American politics should have made this misreading crystal clear, but it was just a very visible, significant manifestation of a common dynamic that rapidly intensified in the political/media environment of the time. But it doesn’t seem to be sinking in, and I feel ridiculous saying “oh, yeah, I know that’s the headline, but nobody really cares about that.” But “public opinion” is the authority for and justification of so many major claims in life that it really matters if we know what it is, and if it is consistent enough for us to define one to begin with.
On the subject of semi-stable equilibria between two powerful opposing forces: this story on lobsters and whelks is instructive (and horrifying).
My standing assumption has always been the opposite of this — that the existence of a taboo implies that the people in power are afraid of the idea, presumably because it has a lot of (potential) support.
Of course, it could also be a legacy taboo (reflecting *past* support levels); which might be the case with Eugenics.
Yeah, sometimes taboo/socially enforced censorship is an indication that there’s a current battle going on about it, but other times, it’s an indication that the battle happened awhile back and now the winning side is going around bayonetting the survivors from the other side.
That metaphor about police kinda bugs me because it seems to detached from actual reality. I get that it’s just illustrating a principle, but I think you can do better. Can I suggest an alternative?
It seems to be a common pattern in military occupations. You take over some city, and then what do you do with it? Everyone there hates you. And you can’t keep your whole army there, that would be too expensive and you still need them to fight the actual war. So instead you station a small occupying force there. They march around in plain sight, and crack down very hard on anyone who shows signs of resistance. In theory the city could overwhelm them easily if they all coordinated, since the soldiers are so outnumbered, but the citizens never get the chance as long as the soldiers beat up everyone who looks to be starting trouble.
A note on Taboo: I really like MacIntyre’s After Virtue anecdote about taboos in Polynesia. He defines a taboo as a cultural practice or rule for which the original context no longer exists. This shows why changing the cultural taboo from one side to the other makes little difference. What matters is how much the rule still relates to its original context in which it was adaptive.
A norm against censorship is important, but part of the purpose of the soft censorship of culture is to ensure that people don’t promote ideas or actions which will destroy society or the people who hold them or some class of weak people who need protection. In Antifragile Taleb reminds that in the marketplace of ideas, it is not the ideas which survive, it is the people who hold them and pass them on. So there can be a local equilibrium in which some very wretched ideas will continue to exist, because the people who hold them have found a livable niche. The options for dealing with the antisemites and violent anarchists and extreme nationalists are either 1) destroy them, 2) try to shrink the ecological niche they occupy, or 3) let them be. Option 2, I think needs further investigation, since the 1s and 3s hate each other for their opinions of either war against bad ideas or complacency (complicity!!) regarding bad ideas.
I think you’re reading way too much into 40% support. Take a goal that has near universal support like people not dying because of lack of access to healthcare, opposition to kids being shot in schools, and people not being poisoned by the air they breathe and the water they drink. Then turn that into a real practical policy and you easily lose 30-50 percentage points in support. 40% of support for some goal probably means 10-20% support for any actual policy that might advance that goal. Which is well below the level where it makes no sense to even bother talking about and the point where no politician is going to get close to it.
The media are probably not that representative of the general public. People are reluctant to speak out against the taboo of the day because the media is a powerful enough force of conformity that it gives people a false impression of how many people agree or disagree with a particular idea. This in turn leads people to be much more tentative about their support for such ideas unless they can be sure they have anonymity. The massive retaliation is a real and present phenomena.
There’s also an all pile on mentality. When someone breaches the taboo they mark themselves as a safe target, and may be attacked for other reasons. This is very bad.
Some of their attackers agree with them, but can gain social status by being convincingly outraged. Some of their attackers take this as an opportunity to settle scores even. To use the police metaphor, the first mugger gets ratted out by other muggers for a “get out of jail free card” or gets ratted out by the guy who’s parking space he stole.
Also, there is a tendency to attack the taboo breaker for other reasons. Once someone is attacked for breaching the eugenics taboo they may be safely attacked for some borderline racist/sexist comments they made previously. To use the police metaphor, the police will charge for drug possession they would have normally ignored.
I wrote a long comment and then realized it talked way too much about eugenics in order to make my point—-the dynamic discussed here is very real, but nothing can be held down by censorship forever, especially a counter-intuitive norm like absolute opposition to anything that could be considered eugenics (Quick clarification, hoping this is not too much discussion: I don’t think most people have ever had strong feelings in the abstract/principled sense about this, as the ability to effectively control reproduction itself–as opposed to just trying to get rid of a whole group altogether–in any way, is a pretty modern development. The idea of respect for individual human dignity has certainly been a popular discussion and encompasses this, but was generally the result of strong religious training that has become much less common–it is something most people need to be taught). The average person will have some thoughts about how other people should behave absent an ideological framework, and some level of conversation will occur naturally before they get the warning.
You can delay the reverse by cracking down (though that may sometimes speed it up) and perhaps find a new strategy to control the issue, but even a well-justified crackdown on things that “need” to be censored will not last. Trying to suppress something instead of engage it is a recipe for disaster in the long term, but in the short term it can seem like the only right answer. That is a normal societal tension. People think martyrs and fanatics cause controversies, but they eventually rise naturally in response to existing controversies and bring them to a head. Then the issue will be re-fought and the pendulum swings. There’s no easy answer.
As others have noted, this dynamic makes possible sudden shifts in the social consensus if a suppressed faction grows large enough. I’ve just read about one such shift, the 8 times growth of the Sweden Democrats over 10 years and the normalization of attitudes that are a lot less favorable to immigration:
“The more basic problem is that the established parties have been deaf to the preferences of their own citizens. Even while popular opinion polls indicated significant dissatisfaction with these policies, all seven established parties supported the so-called, “open door,” policy. Indeed, the Swedish political and cultural elite has been essentially unanimous in support of former Conservative Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt’s famous “open heart” policy. Anyone who questioned this policy – from within the established parties, the media, or academia – was instantly tagged as reprobate or racist and pushed to one side. Swedish voters who wanted a somewhat more moderate refugee policy (perhaps something like that followed in Norway or Denmark) had no party to turn to – except the Sweden Democrats.”
Of course, this is a situation where the people driving the change have a much stronger personal interest in the policy decision than do most people in a less-than-Nazi-level eugenics policy.
An example that would be interesting to see analyzed is the banning of polygyny. People note that taboos tend to favor the powerful groups in society. But polygyny is good for the most powerful males (and bad for the rest). Nonetheless, polygyny has, over the past few hundred years, become tabooed in almost all of the wealthy societies of Earth.
What do you mean by “powerful” ? One could argue that whoever manages to impose their will on the rest of society is “powerful” by definition, which would make the statement “taboos tend to favor the powerful groups in society” a tautology.
If me and my 9 friends manage to coordinate social ostracism on Twitter to, say, taboo the wearing of sandals; then the 10 of us are pretty powerful, and all of you despicable sandal-wearers are weak, even if there are a million times more of you.
In this context, the argument is that men who are powerful in general (i.e. the wealthy, holders of political office, and celebrities) benefit from legally being able to keep multiple wives. Since they do have multiple forms of power, you’d expect them to be able to parlay this power into a “breakout” in which it becomes socially acceptable for men to have multiple wives.
But this doesn’t happen in Western society, @Worley notes, presumably because everyone else in society (women and lower-status men) sees an equilibrium where powerful men keep harems of wives as a bad thing.
I would argue counter to this:
1) It has remained socially acceptable for powerful men to have mistresses, to visit brothels, and to otherwise indulge in extramarital sex. While individual men who get caught breaking this taboo get in trouble, they aren’t exiled from society, and tacit agreements to keep such arrangements quiet were very common until recently and probably still are.
2) This reduces the desirability of having multiple wives relative to other options- because “multiple wives” isn’t the only way to get “have as much sex as I want” for rich men.
3) In many of the societies where rich men DID keep harems or otherwise indulge in polygyny, they did so as a status symbol. Even the most lustful prince’s sex drive is almost certainly NOT high enough that he actually has any “need” for more than two or three women, given that he can probably select at least one or two of them from among the most beautiful and libidinous women in the land. If the prince has a harem of twenty or thirty women, then that isn’t because the prince wants a lot of sex; it’s the prince’s way of saying that he’s so rich he can keep twenty or thirty women, and their servants, and their guards, in semi-palatial style, and block off all access to them.
4) In a society where “has a harem” does NOT automatically confer status and having a bigger one doesn’t confer greater respect in and of itself, this is just a huge unwarranted expense. It’s why most male birds don’t have peacock tails- for the good and simple reason that with the conspicuous exception of pea-hens most female birds don’t have a tail fetish, so there’s no advantage in having a giant tail to show off to them.
5) In conclusion, high-status men in Western society have little incentive to stage a breakout against the polygyny taboo, at least as a class.
This model of social pressure assumes that the validity of issue itself is completely irrelevant. It doesn’t mean if X is good or bad; it only matters which side (pro-X or anti-X) is better at coordinating their social alpha-strikes. In fact, given the effectiveness of social coordination, the validity of X may be literally unknowable, since it is impossible for anyone to study X scientifically. Sure, one can always perform some experiments in one’s basement, but sharing one’s results and subjecting them to peer review is prohibitively difficult under such conditions.
Lately, I’ve become increasingly convinced that this is, in fact, the world we live in. Obviously, one way out of this trap is to de-normalize censorship; however, “we shouldn’t censor people” is a social issue; and, as such, subject to coordinated alpha-strikes… and it’s too late for anyone to counter-strike, IMO.
Okay, mayyyyyybe. But even if so, look at history. Culture changes all the time. Power structures flip, norms shift, old regimes decay. If there’s a norm you don’t like/belief you have you think might be censored one way or the other, you can do your part to gently push the limits. To the extent that truth is Some Signal, enough people may gently push the limits to change the norm. Also we live in the internet age where forming communities free of social pressures is easier than ever. Cheer up!
Yes, maybe the places with the most rigorous peer review are not the above, but you don’t need an institution to centralize research you really can just find smart people to collaborate with.
Discussions like this one are basically about the meta-level “should we support/oppose various kinds of private censorship” question.
I mean, I appreciate the sentiment, but your reply is kind of all over the place.
True; this usually happens due to war, revolution, or some other extreme violence. On occasion, it happens due to social pressure, as per this article.
My point is that the signal strength of truth is vanishingly low; it cannot be otherwise, as long as you’re talking about humans.
This is what Scott’s article explicitly denies; gentle pressure gets you nowhere as compared to coordinated strikes.
This may be true in theory, but not in practice, since social media networks are tools that greatly amplify social pressure.
I guess that depends on what kind of research. If particle physics was deemed to be taboo tomorrow, then it would stop, because no one can afford to build an LHC in their back yard. And if I’d discovered some new form of inertialess drive, and wrote a paper about it, and showed it to two of my best friends who secretly agree with me… then chances still are that I’m just a cook, and if the scientific community could read my paper, they’d quickly find the holes in it. Even if, somehow, I turned out to be right… so what ? Physics is taboo, so how am I going to tell people, “hey guys, I made this breakthrough in physics so now we can go to Mars !”, without immediately getting shut down ?
It’s not that this mode of social pressure doesn’t care whether ideas are true or false. Quite the opposite.
The best time to take advantage of this mode of social pressure is if you’re sure that it’s a bad idea to do whatever the target of your pressure wants to do.
We have a very strong taboo against speaking out in favor of cannibalism for the good and simple reason that most of us don’t want to be eaten when we die. The best way to ensure that never happens is to make it impossible to normalize cannibalism in our society. Even if there’s a minority of 10-20% that would be fine with cannibalism, the contrary preferences of the majority and the desire to avoid any risk of cannibalism becoming normalized argue in favor of a taboo enforced by disproportionate retribution against the first violator.
This mechanism is simply how society enforces norms that hold supermajority support. It breaks down rapidly if the underlying supermajority support breaks down, and is not stable when enforced by a small elite against a large population that’s all secretly convinced of something.
This is why, for instance, totalitarian police states bother with propaganda. If the majority of the populace becomes convinced the regime is bad, just repeatedly shooting the most uppity individual member of society won’t be enough to prevent dissent and uppityness.
If a position actually has supermajority support, then it is in no danger of being eroded even if its opposite is not taboo. Except of course if its opponents actually have some decent arguments that would convince some people who are currently in the supermajority. However, you should consider the possibility (assuming you are in the supermajority) that you are actually wrong, and you would get convinced if it was possible to argue against the supermajority position.
Of course everyone assumes that he is right, and that it’s other people who would be swayed by the taboo position (and they would be wrong). This implies that either some people are overconfident, or they are wrong that a significant number of people would get convinced by the taboo position if it wasn’t taboo.
Is that how people are convinced ? My impression is that most people — including myself — don’t have time to research every issue in depth. Instead, we rely on public consensus; individual charisma; the opinions of our friends and relatives; and other components of that “gut feeling” that tells us what to believe. Now, obviously, if we had access to some kind of omniscient perspective, then the truth would be paramount; as things stand, though, its influence is barely noticeable.
Still, it’s pretty weird to say “I believe A right now because it’s the consensus, and I’m afraid that if we allowed people to say not A, then some charismatic not A supporters might convince me and others, but that would be terrible, because A is right, because it’s the consensus right now”. If you admit that you mostly rely on consensus and charisma, then you shouldn’t be too worried about the possibility that not A supporters convince people, because you can’t be too sure about who is right anyway; and if you think A is certainly true even though you actually mostly rely on consensus and charisma, then you are overconfident.
I think that’s overstated, though the issue you are talking about exists.
Other possible exceptions that are more important and desirable to hedge against:
1) Your society may transform in ways you are uncomfortable with. For instance, if it turns out 10% of society is fine with practicing cannibalism, they may not be able to turn everyone else into cannibals; they may not be able to turn *anyone* else into cannibals- but 10% of people practicing cannibalism is still a lot more than the current percentage, and leaves a lot more room for plausible bad outcomes. Especially if now that 10% of the population all *know* one another are cannibals and can coordinate freely and exchange recipes.
2) Remember the “Murder-Ghandi” argument. Accepting changes to your mindset (or your society) that make future changes along the same lines more likely CAN be a slippery slope. If you take a pill that lowers your inhibition against arson by 1%, it may well still seem like a good idea to take a second pill that does the same thing. By the time you’ve taken enough pills that you’re seriously considering burning down a building, by definition you no longer consider arson to be a bad enough thing that you’re going to feel any strong incentive not to take the pills. And the next thing you know, everything is on fire.
Sometimes, the only way to win a game of “hey, let’s keep modifying ourselves in this direction and hope nothing bad happens” is to decide not to play, or to erect a Schelling fence and refuse to cross it.
Or, more to the point of this subject of discussion, to erect a Schelling fence and say “so help me God if one of you tries to cross this fence I will shoot them dead in their tracks.”
Both (1) and (2) explain a lot of the really intensely taboo subjects in our society.
However, you should consider the possibility (assuming you are in the supermajority) that you are actually wrong, and you would get convinced if it was possible to argue against the supermajority position.Yes, but you should also consider the possibility that a minority with good PR, or a minority with access to the highest circles of power, might win a collective social argument despite not being in the right in the first place.
Sometimes, the people who are in the wrong during a given debate nonetheless win the debate. Logically fallacious arguments can get you surprisingly far on the campaign trail. Having a lot of pull with the special interest groups that donate to Congressmen is often more important than having the facts on your side.
So sometimes I have to face a situation like: “Okay, I am 95% sure I am right about this issue. And the odds of the side that’s in the right losing the long-term social debate over whether or not to do something on a fifty-year time scale are about 10%. So fifty years from now, there is:
1) An 85.5% chance that people will still agree with me because I was right.
2) A 9.5% chance that people will have come to disagree with me despite me my being right all along:
3) A 5% chance that I *was* wrong, further subdivided into a 4.5% chance people disagree with me, and a 0.5% chance that they still agree with me.
If we look at the cases where future people disagree with my present stance, under this probability breakdown, we see that I’m staring down the barrel of a 19/28 chance that even though I was right, society will have changed in such a way as to make my worst fears come true. And a 9/28 chance that I was worrying over nothing or actively wrongheaded.
Depending on the consequences of being wrong on whatever the issue du jour is, it may be a very, VERY good idea for me to hedge my bets today by trying to taboo discussion of the topic.
Like, if Eliezer Yudkowsky thought he could successfully turn “thou shalt not attempt to develop AI without a way to prove it is Friendly” into a taboo, like, he could try this and it would actually work and people would start honoring that taboo… Would he do it?
I am guessing “probably.”
Because he strikes me as being well over 90% confident that developing unfriendly AI is a Very Bad Idea, but nowhere NEAR that confident that he will successfully use reasoned arguments to persuade everyone of this fact, even given that he is correct.
[This is not directly a comment on AI risk, it’s just a fairly safe assumption that everyone reading this knows who and what I’m talking about, so it makes a goodish example]
If you think there is a 99% chance that you are right, but only a 90% chance that the public will become convinced, or remain convinced, of your opinions… You have an incentive to deliberately shift the tone of public discourse in favor of enforced certainty.
Or, as noted in (1), they are worried about even a minority of people being publicly free to act on the consequences of “not being convinced.” For instance, it doesn’t really matter if Eliezer Yudkowsky convinces 80% of humanity that developing unfriendly AI is a terrible idea, if the other 20% happens to include all the AI researchers and the people who make their funding decisions, and if the other 80% don’t actually stop them from continuing to fund unfriendly AI. Similarly, it doesn’t really matter if 95% of the human race remains convinced that pedophilia is disgusting, if the other 5% contains all the pedophiles and pedophilia is no longer being punished.
Or as noted in (2), they could be worried about social change proceeding in unfavorable directions that accelerate over time. If society becomes 1% more okay with paying homeless people to fight to the death on live TV, that’s probably going to make it easier to persuade everyone to institute changes that make it even more socially acceptable to stage lethal homeless person fights. So it’s better to agree that if anyone televises a homeless gladiator death match, we will land on them like a ton of bricks no matter HOW good their ratings are and no matter HOW convincing their arguments are.
Because sometimes a very very persuasive person is just very very good at tricking you, rather than being very very correct.
One difficulty here is that once you’ve suppressed the other side, your probability estimates about whether you are right aren’t very good, because nobody is allowed to make strong arguments for the other side, produce evidence for the other side, etc.
But wait, I thought we were talking about speech being taboo (such as advocating cannibalism), rather than the actual action (such as practicing cannibalism). If a supermajority agrees that no one should practice cannibalism, then they can keep cannibalism illegal or ostracized, without making it a taboo to argue that cannibalism should be considered legal and acceptable.
I agree with considering certain actions or policies unacceptable, including for slippery slope reasons, but that’s different from considering it unacceptable to even argue in their favor.
If you are among the stronger supporters of the status quo, it may be rational on your part to try to keep advocacy against it taboo. However, if you are among the weaker supporters, and you are relatively open to potentially changing your mind in the face of opposing arguments, then you should oppose the taboo.
Unless it’s inimical to their interests, politicians in a representative democracy approx. tend to support the position that has more support overall, weighted by the strength of each person’s preference. (This is because people with a weaker preference on one issue are more likely to decide their vote on the basis of other issues.) I think tabooing works similarly: something will be a taboo if there is more support for making it a taboo than opposition, taking strength of support or opposition into account.
Model 1: Let’s say that x fraction of the population strongly supports the status quo, for simlicity with 100% certainty (so they are never going to change their minds), and the strength of their support for the status quo is a. The number of people who oppose the status quo is currently negligible (though they may try to convince others if it’s not taboo). 1-x fraction of the population weakly supports the status quo with strength b, and there is a probability p that they will all change their minds to opposing the status quo with strength c, but only if it’s not taboo to argue against the status quo.
If the latter group actually ends up changing their minds, then policy will only change if xa<(1-x)c. If xa>(1-x)c, then nothing will change, whether there is a taboo or not. If xa<(1-x)c, then strong supporters of the status quo should support tabooing opposition with strength pa, since with probability p it prevents a policy change they would oppose with strength a. Weak supporters should oppose the taboo with strength pc, since with probability p it prevents a policy change they would support with strength c if they were allowed to hear the arguments in favor of the change. Thus having the taboo should have weighted majority support if and only if xpa>(1-x)pc, which is equivalent to xa>(1-x)c, so not if there is actually a possibility of policy change. ❑
Model 2: Let’s say, in the absence of a taboo, everyone will, independently of each other, support the status quo with strength d probability (1-p), and everyone will oppose the status quo with strength e with probability p. If opposition to the status quo is taboo, then no one will oppose it. If there is no taboo, policy will be changed if and only if (1-p)d<pe.
In this situation, currently everyone should support the status quo with strength (1-p)d–pe. That is, if (1-p)d<pe, then everyone should oppose the status quo on the net, and oppose the taboo with the same strength. ❑
In these models, Eliezer can only manage to create a taboo against advocating for creating an AI without safety proofs if it’s unnecessary to do so, or if he has no reason to do so. I think the reason taboos exist, and sometimes actually prevent policy change that would otherwise occur, is that those who weakly support the status quo don’t oppose the taboo as strongly as they should. Yes, people are not rational, but it’s weird that people trust their own future judgment less than their current judgment.
I’ll think about whether there is any situation where a taboo can arise if people trust their own future judgment (at least as much as their present one), people are correct about the probability distribution of they or others changing their minds, and decide whether to support creating a taboo rationally. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was possible to prove that a taboo either doesn’t affect anything, or cannot have weighted majority support under these conditions.
Once again, you are talking about a taboo on actions, rather than speech. However, this suggests an exception on my above arguments: If it may be impossible to enforce a ban on actions (e.g. because anyone with a computer can try to develop an AI), it might be useful to have a taboo against advocating the actions, as an increased (though minority) number of people who do the action is more likely to cause a serious problem. On the other hand, this is a highly unusual situation in policy discussions. And if enforcing a taboo on the action is impossible, chances are that trying to enforce a taboo on advocating it is futile too, anyway.
Strictly true, and a good reason NOT to do this on just any old issue.
The reasonable case for exceptions to the rule is best made in situations where, if you are right, the consequences of people incorrectly deciding you are wrong would be truly disastrous. It is of course hard to examine this question without bias, but I can empathize with the view that sometimes one has to try, in certain cases where the consequences of everyone jumping on the wrong train are disastrous enough.
Enforcing this distinction sometimes turns out to be harder than you’d think.
Moving away from cannibalism as an example because it starts to break down here due to the nature of the act…
For instance, our society frowns on rape. We could imagine saying “it’s fine to argue that rape should be legal, but not to actually do it.” The problem is that a large group of people who have gathered together to argue for why rape should be legal, and who compare notes and coordinate, are also disproportionately likely to include actual rapists. And people who become insensitized to the idea of rape and thus start to be more interested in trying it themselves.
And the next thing you know, the “we just argue for it, we don’t do it” community has spawned a sub-community that DOES it and swaps tips for how to do it more aggressively somewhere on the dark web. And they met and quietly exchanged the original links via private message… in the “argue for legalized rape” group.
The line between speech and action is clear and bright as long as you can keep watching someone to make sure they don’t act. It becomes blurrier when we integrate over long time periods and consider the impact of privacy considerations.
As of the point where you said this, you’d missed part of my analogy, but largely picked it up later.
The point of the Butlerian taboo in this instance is to effectively mobilize a large majority of the population into deterring extremely stupid or evil action by a small and deeply misguided minority. Or to deter them from kicking loose the pebbles that would later trigger an avalanche.
Sometimes, in highly specific cases, preventing active, organized, large-scale discussion of a an epic-tier Terrible Idea may reduce the risk of the Terrible Idea ever being implemented, in a way that merely banning the Terrible Idea directly could not do alone.
It’s the difference between locking the door and welding it shut. Even welding the door shut won’t stop a sufficiently determined person from unsealing it and finding out what’s inside… but it significantly increases the barrier to entry that must be crossed before anyone can get inside. Sometimes that’s enough.
I don’t think that’s weird. The collective madnesses of crowds are well documented. Large societies are a bit like addicts in that they will sometimes have moments of clarity in which they are capable of reasoning better than they normally can. And also in that they will sometimes have moments of weakness in which they reason far worse than normal.
One of the keys to recovering from or coping with an addiction is to plan ahead for these moments. Either by creating situations that will render one’s flawed future judgment moot (throwing out one’s stash of drugs, shutting down groups that COULD conceivably be used to convince a plurality of society to start pushing Jews into ovens again)… Or by creating taboos that will prevent us from doing anything REALLY stupid even if we’re feeling really stupid that day.
But what if this taboo is anti-slavery, anti-colonialism, people being openly gay, freedom of religion, etc? History is filled with majorities believing that they are opposing a small and deeply misguided minority, while we now consider that minority to be in the right.
Your model requires a belief that the majority is very good at distinguishing the good from the extremely stupid or evil, even while they are not actually allowed to debate the pros and cons of censored ideas. How does this work? Is it a ratchet where you can only ever taboo things and never un-taboo them? Or do you expect people to discuss things secretly, avoiding persecution by debating in smoke-filled cellars, rather than in newspapers and such?
Restricting free speech may not prevent, but actually increase radicalization. The Weimar republic had laws against anti-semitism and prosecuted Nazis. This didn’t prevent their rise to power and arguably offered them munition for their conspiracy theory.
I think it’s more that Eugenics has a bad, Hitlery name. Nobody is really against it in the weaker senses. If you like how humans have evolved – or even if you don’t like it but think it might be worse – you favour eugenics in a way.
Why are you censoring comments about eugenics and gay rights?
Because there are already other threads for discussing them.
This is a thread for discussing the nature and mechanism of censorship.
I’m not going to comment on censorship and coordination, because I don’t think that the model of censorship you’re describing here has anything whatsoever to do with the phenomenon you’re describing of societal attitudes towards eugenics. It appears to me that you’ve entirely misunderstood the nature of what socity sees as the problem with eugenics, but evidently I can’t discuss this because it would be offtopic, though it seems to me it’s far more basically on topic than anything you do want us to discuss.
This sounds very much like “how to prevent an information cascade”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_cascade
I’ve also seen discussions of eugenics like topics discussed in some far left circles. The idea is that policies should be enacted to help those that are genetically inferior. But, I reject that claim as it violates values such as personal accountability, the dignity of the individual, and is racist. Very scary to see socialism and racism become more prevalent in leftist circles. Reminds of National Socialism (i.e., Nazi’s).
Lefty discussions of Eugenics: WARNING the below article link is evil and racist IMHO
It’s also possible that people are just extremely gullible, and or very easily persuaded when it comes to issues they hadn’t even thought about or considered before/are not central to their identity.
So a pollster asks them some issue, and they give their preference, buts its a very weak spur of the moment preference, and can be overturned quickly, especially in light of new emotions, new tribal identity, or new evidence, new social dynamics, etc.
I think support for selling organs in any form is in the single digits, yet I can generally convince people to support it (usually be just adopting a regulation that would totally eliminate whatever objection they had).
Of course, people I talk to about this are hardly a random sample, and the people may just pretend to persuaded to shut my whore mouth, but I’ve always been heartened by my success in having conversations about issues that are obscure wonky and none polarized, even with normal(ish) folk who aren’t epistemology weirdo nerds. .
It’s also possible that people are just extremely gullible, and or very easily persuaded when it comes to issues they hadn’t even thought about or considered before/are not central to their identity.
So a pollster asks them some issue, and they give their preference, buts its a very weak spur of the moment preference, and can be overturned quickly, especially in light of new emotions, new tribal identity, or new evidence, new social dynamics, etc.
I think support for selling kidneys in any form is in the single digits, yet I can generally convince people to support it (usually be just adopting a regulation that would totally eliminate whatever objection they had).
Of course, people I talk to about this are hardly a random sample, and the people may just pretend to persuaded to shut my whore mouth, but I’ve always been heartened by my success in having conversations about issues that are obscure wonky and none polarized, even with normal(ish) folk who aren’t epistemology weirdo nerds.
No comments on eugenics or gay rights? Not even a little?
That’s a bummer….
Okay, I’ll bite.
Suppose homosexuality is somehow genetic. If that is true, then the massive decrease in social stigma against homosexuality, and the huge increase in acceptance, probably functions as a eugenics program for the elimination of homosexuality. Instead of confused young men / women following their dictates of their society, getting married young, and then realizing that their preferences weren’t just a phase after all after they’ve had a couple kids, nearly all homosexually inclined people will just realize they’re gay and never look back, thus never leaving any offspring.
There’s something perversely entertaining about this idea.
 There are good reasons to think this shouldn’t be true, and I think homosexuality has pretty low heritability in twin studies.
Your argument works for a while, but how long will it be before even an mm couple can produce their own children through the marvels of biotech and a rented womb–or, eventually, an artificial one?
ff couples, of course, can produce children from one of them with no need for new technology, and once it becomes practical to create sperm from cells they could have children by both of them.
There is also the not necessarily coordinated, perhaps even unintentional, silencing of ideas snd opinions I observed after 9/11: the media, early and often, talked about how “fragile” “everyone” was after the attacks. This allowed a single narrative to take root without being challenged.