Tentative Thoughts on Speech Policing

In my pre­vi­ous post, I briefly, in­for­mally ad­dressed the spe­cific ques­tion of which kinds of speech are harm­ful.

In this post, I now ad­dress the fur­ther ques­tion of whether speech polic­ing and de­plat­form­ing are ac­tu­ally good or bad.

First I make some as­sorted key ob­ser­va­tions and ar­gu­ments. Then I give my gen­eral con­clu­sions.

There are sys­tem­atic prob­lems in the way harm­ful speech is gen­er­ally identified

Speech-cops can have in­cor­rect views on the na­ture of bad speech

There are some cases where peo­ple’s philo­soph­i­cal views on defin­ing harm are in­cor­rect. They’ll fo­cus too much on their own na­tion­al­ity, race, gen­der, or species while ne­glect­ing broader so­cial im­pacts. Their views can also be dis­torted by non­con­se­quen­tial­ist or con­trac­tu­al­ist in­tu­itions about how to weigh harms and benefits for differ­ent peo­ple. Fi­nally, they can aban­don the idea of harm al­to­gether and in­stead make more philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ments about speech be­ing in­nately ‘prej­u­di­cial,’ ‘un-Chris­tian,’ ‘de­gen­er­ate’ or other things like that.

Speech-cops too read­ily as­sume that their opinions are right

Few speech-cops se­ri­ously take into con­sid­er­a­tion the ques­tion what if I’m wrong about the ac­tual is­sue? In some cases, like ter­ror­ism-and-Mus­lim-im­mi­grants stuff or the meta­physics of gen­der, a left-lean­ing per­son could rea­son­ably de­cide “even if my op­po­nents are cor­rect about the un­der­ly­ing fac­tual is­sue, we still ought to keep it hushed,” be­cause shar­ing the op­pos­ing ideas can lead to bad out­comes even if they are cor­rect. But in other cases, like the James Damore con­tro­versy, I have a hard time see­ing how you can jus­tify speech polic­ing with­out as­sum­ing that you are cor­rect on the sci­ence, be­cause they are ideas that – if ac­tu­ally true – would prob­a­bly be used to help achieve bet­ter ar­range­ments for so­ciety in gen­eral.

Of course, some­times it’s okay to as­sume that you are cor­rect on the sci­ence. How­ever, that re­ally re­quires ro­bust ar­gu­ments from mul­ti­ple lines of in­quiry. The­ory and em­piri­cism, per­sonal ex­pe­rience and sci­en­tific study, main­stream academia and the In­tel­lec­tual Dark Web, etc; if mul­ti­ple av­enues line up to a sin­gle point of view then speech polic­ing makes more sense. But on con­tro­ver­sial top­ics, I gen­er­ally don’t see peo­ple con­sid­er­ing that. Peo­ple have rea­sons to be­lieve that they are right, but there aren’t higher-level de­bates of “have we proven this to a strong enough level that we can re­ally as­sume that it is right?”

Speech-cops have not rigor­ously in­ves­ti­gated which kinds of speech are harmful

There is gen­er­ally not enough se­ri­ous dis­course and re­search on what ideas and speech acts are ac­tu­ally harm­ful.

And when some­one ar­gues that ap­par­ently harm­ful speech ac­tu­ally isn’t harm­ful, that in turn is some­times con­sid­ered harm­ful (or at least offen­sive) speech, as hap­pened with Carl (2018). This is a cir­cu­lar fal­lacy and can put so­ciety in an epistemic rut.

The re­sult: a good por­tion of tar­geted speech is prob­a­bly beneficial

When I look at in­stances of re­cent speech polic­ing, I’d say that a fair chunk of the con­tro­ver­sial speech is benefi­cial. Oc­ca­sion­ally this is just be­cause the gen­eral point of view of the dis­par­aged speech is cor­rect. More of­ten, it seems to be an is­sue where the facts are in dis­pute and so­ciety ought to hear things out bet­ter be­fore we can make a strong de­ci­sion. Rarely, it’s a case where the speech is wrong but it would still be healthy for peo­ple to hear the other side of the story and come to a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing.

Speech polic­ing tends to succeed

AFAICT, speech polic­ing tends to be some­what suc­cess­ful. Ban­ning peo­ple and ideas off so­cial me­dia and de­plat­form­ing them from col­leges is effec­tive. Aca­demic mob­bing lends fame and no­to­ri­ety to a par­tic­u­lar per­son and their views, but also sends a mes­sage to the rest of academia. When some­one is the vic­tim of an aca­demic mob, tons of al­lies line up to say that they defend their right to aca­demic free speech, but not many will ac­tu­ally come out and say that they gen­uinely agree with the con­tro­ver­sial state­ments. The point is not to con­vince a par­tic­u­lar per­son, but to keep their views marginal­ized.

A differ­ent pat­tern oc­curred in the James Damore con­tro­versy. Lots of peo­ple defended Damore by say­ing that his memo was cor­rect. How­ever, the con­tro­versy also placed a huge spotlight on crit­ics of Damore, who had a big op­por­tu­nity and a strong poli­ti­cal mo­ti­va­tion to say that his memo was in­cor­rect. There was more open dis­cus­sion and de­bate over Damore’s ideas, but it might have re­duced the pop­u­lar­ity of his views.

Most of the cases of speech polic­ing do not get much me­dia at­ten­tion or are not even known pub­li­cly. There­fore, it’s more effec­tive than you would think given the his­to­ries of a few high-pro­file cases in the news.

Ul­ti­mately, the win­ners of speech polic­ing are IDW types, “anti-an­tifa”, and oth­ers who fo­cus on defend­ing free speech. Ac­tual white supremacists and re­searchers of con­tro­ver­sial top­ics lose.

Much of the harm of speech polic­ing is a mat­ter of in­ci­den­tal damage

Da­m­aged or dis­torted careers

Can­cel­la­tion doesn’t just sup­press cer­tain ideas, it dam­ages whole ca­reers, caus­ing peo­ple to be fired or more sub­tly dis­re­garded. Thus, we lose some of their po­ten­tial con­tri­bu­tions to so­ciety. A wor­ry­ing ex­am­ple of this is the Maya Forstater case be­cause she worked for a global poverty think tank, as I noted in the pre­vi­ous post.

In some cases, in­di­vi­d­u­als ap­pear to gain from can­cel­la­tion, as they can go on poli­ti­cal and me­dia tours talk­ing about the ex­pe­rience. How­ever, this is not the same as a long-term ca­reer, and it’s not so­cially pro­duc­tive in the same way as their or­di­nary jobs.

Wasted time and resources

There is now a bur­geon­ing in­dus­try across me­dia and so­cial me­dia where peo­ple (me in­cluded, with this post) de­vote effort to­wards in­ves­ti­gat­ing or ar­gu­ing these is­sues. The out­rage on all sides of the spec­trum is a big loss of time. Imag­ine if peo­ple spent that time on their jobs, or their ed­u­ca­tion, or their per­sonal in­ter­ests, or their fam­i­lies. So­cial me­dia, pub­lished me­dia, aca­demic re­search, blogs, and col­lege clubs could put more fo­cus on more pro­duc­tive things.

The poli­ti­ciza­tion of everything

Speech-polic­ing con­tributes to broadly turn­ing more of our en­vi­ron­ments into poli­ti­cal ones. This wors­ens our qual­ity of life. Most peo­ple don’t want to think about poli­tics all the time. They want to do their job or en­joy their own in­ter­ests in peace. Pop­u­lar sup­pres­sion of cer­tain kinds of speech in­evitably cre­ates a threat­en­ing, dis­heart­en­ing en­vi­ron­ment for or­di­nary peo­ple who were just listen­ing. Chris Ar­nade sum­ma­rized it best – “leave peo­ple alone.”

Lost trust in in­sti­tu­tions

Speech polic­ing diminishes trust in in­sti­tu­tions. When in­sti­tu­tions po­lice speech, they are per­ceived as less trust­wor­thy by free-speech ad­vo­cates. When in­sti­tu­tions are ex­pected to po­lice harm­ful speech but they choose not to, they lose stand­ing among speech-cops. Fi­nally, when in­sti­tu­tions them­selves are con­sid­ered to have said some­thing harm­ful, they broadly lose pop­u­lar­ity.

Gen­eral loss of in­sti­tu­tional le­gi­t­i­macy is not a good thing. It in­hibits progress across hu­man­ity’s col­lec­tive pro­jects. It em­pow­ers pop­ulist out­siders in poli­tics, who tend to be worse (see ap­pendix). Peo­ple who want to pre­vent fas­cism or similar things should es­pe­cially fo­cus on main­tain­ing in­sti­tu­tional strength and le­gi­t­i­macy.

Many ar­gu­ments about speech polic­ing are flawed

The Para­dox of Tol­er­ance ar­gu­ment is of­ten misapplied

Pop­per’s ar­gu­ment is that tol­er­ant peo­ple have a right to be in­tol­er­ant of in­tol­er­ant peo­ple, lest liberal so­ciety be de­stroyed. It’s gen­er­ally used in defense of speech polic­ing. How­ever, it only re­ally ap­plies against peo­ple who are or­ga­niz­ing hate­ful or delu­sional ideas, like the alt-right and con­spir­acy the­o­rists.

In cases where a rea­son­ably ra­tio­nal and tol­er­ant point of view is be­ing sup­pressed, the ar­gu­ment should be ap­plied in the re­verse di­rec­tion. The mob or in­sti­tu­tion which sup­presses speech is the in­tol­er­ant side who is shut­ting them­selves off from ra­tio­nal de­bate. So they ar­guably should not be tol­er­ated.

Dis­mis­sals of ‘can­cel cul­ture’ miss the point

Many peo­ple think that none of this is re­ally se­ri­ous be­cause peo­ple like James Damore get so much at­ten­tion and sup­port af­ter­wards. But given the in­ci­den­tal harms pointed out above, this misses the point.

The slip­pery slope is real – but only in cer­tain contexts

At this point, I think it’s pretty clear that con­cept creep, the poli­ti­ciza­tion of ev­ery­thing, and vic­tim­hood cul­ture do in fact cre­ate a slip­pery slope in the pop­u­lar con­text of speech polic­ing. Speech sup­pres­sion by the left and the right have in­creased and got­ten more am­bi­tious. Fears of the poli­ti­cal-cor­rect­ness tread­mill have been gen­er­ally vin­di­cated.

How­ever, I don’t see any good ev­i­dence that gov­ern­ment speech codes are a slip­pery slope. Democ­ra­cies like Ger­many with hate speech laws do not show a slip­pery slope. Au­to­cratic regimes like the USSR have of­ten be­come more liberal over time. Nor do in­sti­tu­tions like com­pa­nies and uni­ver­si­ties go down a slip­pery slope de­liber­ately; rather, they are pul­led by chang­ing pop­u­lar pres­sures.

So the ‘slip­pery slope’ seems to be an out­come of dy­namic sys­tems with com­pet­ing ac­tors in cer­tain con­di­tions. It’s not the case that in­di­vi­d­ual peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions have a re­pressed ten­dency for au­thor­i­tar­i­anism that will get un­leashed when­ever they de­vi­ate from a hard, fixed rule.

Speech polic­ing could be pro­ce­du­rally im­proved in a few ways

Speech polic­ing should not be so per­son­ally disruptive

It seems clear that peo­ple who get can­cel­led for bad opinions should even­tu­ally be in­te­grated back into the same cir­cles, per­haps if they make a sim­ple re­trac­tion and apol­ogy. For some­one to lose their ca­reer or aca­demic sta­tus for decades is too ex­ces­sive. Yes, harsh norms can the­o­ret­i­cally provide a stronger de­ter­rent, but the effec­tive­ness of that is du­bi­ous. We gen­er­ally don’t think that lock­ing up minor crim­i­nals for decades is a good way to de­ter crime; we are be­gin­ning to un­der­stand that restora­tion is a bet­ter ap­proach to crim­i­nal jus­tice. The same should ap­ply here.

Ad­di­tion­ally, speech polic­ing should fo­cus more on sim­ple elimi­na­tion of par­tic­u­lar ideas and doc­u­ments, rather than try­ing to de­stroy peo­ple’s rep­u­ta­tions and char­ac­ters. It should be more about cen­sor­ship and smoke-and-mir­rors de­cep­tion, rather than mob­bing and out­rage.

Speech polic­ing can ac­tu­ally be bet­ter when it’s done by the government

Govern­ment hate speech laws have more le­gi­t­i­macy, pre­dictabil­ity, and due pro­cess pro­tec­tions. They don’t spark the same kinds of prob­lems and col­lat­eral dam­age as pop­u­lar mobs. In a democ­racy, they are much less ex­ces­sive due to the na­ture of the poli­ti­cal pro­cess. Of course, they are also much more effec­tive at con­sis­tently en­forc­ing the re­stric­tions, and can ex­act harsher penalties, which can be wor­ry­ing.

It would be bet­ter to just have gov­ern­ment sup­pres­sion of a se­lect few kinds of hate speech, rather than pop­u­lar sup­pres­sion of a broader set of opinions. If gov­ern­ment laws against hate speech en­courage ac­tivists and the pub­lic to calm down and worry less about offen­sive speech in gen­eral, then I think they would be a good thing. On the other hand, if such laws em­bolden par­ti­sans to go more harshly af­ter more and more kinds of speech, then they would be a bad thing. Un­for­tu­nately I have no idea which is the case.

We need fair backchan­nels for de­cid­ing which speech to suppress

De­cid­ing which speech is wrong or harm­ful should be in­sti­tu­tion­ally sep­a­rated from ac­tu­ally en­forc­ing the norms. If there were more hid­den ways for the most promi­nent offen­sive ideas to be freely dis­cussed by care­ful, eth­i­cal, ra­tio­nal peo­ple, then speech polic­ing would carry sig­nifi­cantly less epistemic risk. In­tol­er­ant views could be de­bated in a con­text where they pose far less so­cial risk. And speech-polic­ing might ob­tain more per­ceived le­gi­t­i­macy, as peo­ple would know that the sup­pressed ideas had at least been con­sid­ered some­what fairly by in­formed peo­ple.

This is some­thing that re­quires speech polic­ing to be in­sti­tu­tion­ally cen­tral­ized. Speech sup­pres­sion via pop­u­lar mobs is not amenable to it, as far as I can imag­ine.

We have too much speech-policing

Such im­prove­ments as the above are pretty un­re­al­is­tic in re­al­ity. We have to judge speech polic­ing at is, not as we wish it could be.

The best and most pop­u­lar tar­gets for speech polic­ing are white supremacism, Jihadism, and vi­cious racism in gen­eral. As­sum­ing the de­plat­form­ing ac­tu­ally works, it should con­tinue. Even an­tifa is okay, if it is effec­tive and chooses the real tar­gets with­out caus­ing much back­lash (I am per­son­ally skep­ti­cal).

So­cial me­dia cen­sor­ship on pri­vate plat­forms/​groups is com­par­a­tively be­nign and effec­tive, and can be worth ex­tend­ing over other harm­ful ideas be­sides out­right hate, de­pend­ing on the con­text.

Then there is always an op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple and groups to in­ter­nally ex­er­cise dis­cre­tion for ques­tions like “what re­search should I pub­lish?” and “which speak­ers should I in­vite?” It’s okay for peo­ple to re­strict more things be­sides proper hate in cases like this.

But gen­er­ally speak­ing, Amer­i­can so­ciety is go­ing much fur­ther than what I would recom­mend. We are erring on the side of too much speech polic­ing, and will con­tinue to do so for the near-term fu­ture. This in­cludes ex­ces­sive speech polic­ing on both the right and the left. We should broadly re­trench from these efforts. So for now, it seems fine to broadly pro­mote the “clas­si­cal liber­al­ism,” “free speech” ap­proach to con­tested speech, and to spread the ar­gu­ments of peo­ple like Steven Pinker and Peter Singer. They are not 100% right, but they are push­ing so­ciety in a bet­ter di­rec­tion on the mar­gin. And I find it highly un­likely that they will be so suc­cess­ful as to cre­ate a so­ciety where ac­tu­ally hate­ful views are met with open de­bate.

The side to worry most about is dis­abil­ity activism

The most con­cen­trated risk on this gen­eral is­sue is that dis­abil­ity rights ac­tivists can shut down re­search and di­alogue about treat­ments, cures and hu­man en­hance­ment, in par­tic­u­lar by weaponiz­ing the ac­cu­sa­tion of eu­gen­ics. Th­ese peo­ple also have a lot of an­tipa­thy for Peter Singer (for defend­ing a parental right to ter­mi­nate ex­tremely dis­abled ba­bies) and some­times even an­tipa­thy for Effec­tive Altru­ists by ex­ten­sion. This is more im­por­tant and more ne­glected than the fa­mous con­tro­ver­sies about race-and-im­mi­gra­tion, gen­der differ­ences, and so on. We need to find some way to en­courage in­sti­tu­tions to fund the rele­vant re­search and to sup­port peo­ple’s rights to freely mod­ify them­selves and their fe­tuses, while sep­a­rat­ing and jet­ti­son­ing more con­tro­ver­sial ideas.

Hope­fully there can be a mu­tu­ally satis­fac­tory re­s­olu­tion along those lines. It would be much bet­ter to achieve a pos­i­tive com­pro­mise than to have to go through the same kinds of pitched bat­tles that we see be­tween the IDW/​right-wing and the SJWs. Dis­abil­ity ac­tivists them­selves should greatly de­sire an early pos­i­tive com­pro­mise, be­cause many of the broader pub­lic are sur­pris­ingly open about sup­port­ing eu­gen­ics and in­fan­ti­cide, the hos­tilities and bi­gotries in­evitably whipped up by an IDW-SJW type war could be dan­ger­ous, and mil­i­tary-eco­nomic pres­sures will push states to take the side of hu­man en­hance­ment. I am op­ti­mistic that with pro­duc­tive di­alogue and lee­way on both sides, we can take a bet­ter path.