Monday, July 13, 2020

In defense of open debate

Recently, Harper's published a Letter on Justice and Open Debate. It's a rather boring defense of liberalism and the norm of tolerating differing points of view. Mike Masnick wrote rebuttal on Techdirt. In this post, I'm going to rebut his rebuttal, writing a counter-counter-argument.

The Letter said that the norms of liberalism tolerate disagreement, and that these norms are under attack by increasing illiberalism on both sides, both the left and the right.

My point is this: Masnick avoids the rebutting the letter. He's recycling his arguments against right-wingers who want their speech coddled, rather than the addressing the concerns of (mostly) left-wingers worried about the fanaticism on their own side.

Free speech

Masnick mentions "free speech" 19 times in his rebuttal -- but the term does not appear in the Harper's letter, not even once. This demonstrates my thesis that his rebuttal misses the point.

The term "free speech" has lost its meaning. It's no longer useful for such conversations.

Left-wingers want media sites like Facebook, YouTube, the New York Times to remove "bad" speech, like right-wing "misinformation". But, as we've been taught, censoring speech is bad. Therefore, "censoring free speech" has to be redefined to as to not include the above effort.

The redefinition claims that the term "free speech" now applies to governments, but not private organizations, that stopping free speech happens only when state power or the courts are involved. In other words, "free speech" is supposed to equate with the "First Amendment", which really does only apply to government ("Congress shall pass no law abridging free speech").

That this is false is demonstrated by things like the murders of Charlie Hebdo cartoonist for depicting Muhammad. We all agree this incident is a "free speech" issue, but no government was involved.

Right-wingers agree to this new definition, sort of. In much the same way that left-wingers want to narrow "free-speech" to only mean the First Amendment, right-wingers want to expand the "First Amendment" to mean protecting protecting "free speech" against interference by both government and private platforms. They argue that platforms like Facebook have become so pervasive that they have become the "public square", and thus, occupy the same space as government. They therefore want regulations that coddle their speech, preventing their content from being removed.

The term "free speech" is therefore no longer useful in explaining the argument because it has become the argument.

The Letter avoids this play on words. It's not talking about "free speech", but the "norms of open debate and toleration of differences". It claims first of all that we have a liberal tradition where we tolerate differences of opinion and that we debate these opinions openly. It claims secondly that these norms are weakening, claiming "intolerant climate that has set in on all sides".

In other words, those who attacked the NYTimes for publishing the Tom Cotton op-ed are criticized as demonstrating illiberalism and intolerance. This has nothing to do with whatever arguments you have about "free speech".

Private platforms

Masnick's free speech argument continues that you can't force speech upon private platforms like the New York Times. They have the freedom to make their own editorial decisions about what to publish, choosing some things, rejecting others.

It's a good argument, but one the targets the arguments made by right-wingers hostile to the New York Times, and not arguments made by the left-wing signers of the Letter. The Letter doesn't attack editorial discretion, but defends it.

Consider the recent Tweet from Pearl Jam:
This tweet is a lie. There were no "laws" back in 1992 that impacted Pearl Jam videos. It was MTV who censored them.

Then as now, cable TV channels like MTV are free to put most anything on the air -- because it isn't the public "air" but a private "wire". That tweet is not historically accurate.

Rather than the government, it was private parental groups and Christian churches pressuring MTV to alter or remove videos, like those from Pearl Jam.

According to Masnick, the word "censor" is wrong here. He says that if MTV chooses not to play a video (as it does every damn day) then it's not censorship, it's just editorial discretion.

This is a joke. Masnick actually said this about NYTimes. I replaced "NYTime" with "MTV" to demonstrate the real point that whether it's "censorship" depends upon whether it's the Christian churches attacking your speech, or you attacking the speech of Christian churches.

Even if you refuse to call such acts "censorship" now, we certainly called them "censorship" then throughout the 80s and 90s. This is profoundly portrayed in an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati that deals with a Christian group pressuring advertisers to force the radio station to remove songs from their playlist, like John Lennon's "Imagine" for being blasphemy. The radio station's program director exclaims "It's called censorship".

Those guilty of censorship in these situations are not WKRP, MTV, or the NYTimes. It's not them who want the content removed. It's not their editors who made this editorial decision. Those guilty of censorship are outsiders who pressured these organizations to make editorial decisions they would not have made on their own.

In the Cotton op-ed incident, those guilty of censorship are employees complaining they feel threatened, outsiders calling it inflammatory, readers canceling their subscription, and companies pulling advertising. The NYTimes sin is not in censorship themselves, but being too weak to stand up to censorship. Their sin is making it clear that they will easily cave to controversy. If the NYTimes were the bastion of liberalism that it claims, impartially covering news "without fear or favor", then it needs to stop responding to fear.

In other words, the "forces of illiberalism" mentioned in the letter are not the media platforms like WKRP, the NYTimes, and the Facebook. Instead, the "forces of illiberalism" are those pressuring platforms to censor content, like Christian groups and left-wing fanatics.

My point here is that every time those like Masnick claim that private organizations have the right to editorial discretion, they miss the point that it's not their own discretion. They didn't choose to censor content, they were pressured into it. Nobody is saying that WKRP doesn't have the right to choose which songs to play, they are saying that it should be WKRP's choice and not Christian groups.


Masnick repeats the common argument that free speech does not mean freedom from consequences. The Letter is not asking for freedom from consequences, but freedom from punishment.

Parents teach their kids not to touch a hot stove because the consequences are that they'll get burned. They also tell their kids not to get into fights at school because the consequences will be getting grounded for a week.

But the second thing is not a "consequence" so much as a "punishment". In the first case, the kid is responsible for the consequence of getting burned. In the second, the parent is responsible for grounding the child.

The same applies to speech. Consequences are when people stop listening to you, punishment is when you lose your job.

Consider Mel Gibson's antisemitic comments back in 2006 that damaged his career. Yes, the consequences of such speech means that many people will stop wanting to see his movies. It's right and proper that we speak out about what a bad person he is. That's not the issue. The issue is whether he should be blacklisted by Hollywood, whether people should boycott studios to prevent Gibson movies from being produced, whether they should be removed from catalogs so that people who still want to see Gibson movies are unable to do so.

One is consequences that Gibson is responsible for, the other is punishment the forces of illiberalism are responsible for.

Even then, we can still be concerned about natural consequences. Dangerous children toys like Lawn Darts are banned because the consequences are bad, and we want to avoid those consequences. Personally, I'm less likely to watch a Mel Gibson movie knowing that he's such an antisemite, but at the same time, I don't want him losing a career over speech.

Thus, while we should certainly not be defending his antisemitic speech, neither should causing more than the natural consequences in order to punish such speech.

Masnick is working forward from the illiberal right-wingers who want their speech coddled, protected from the least consequence, such as being blocked on Twitter. From that perspective, his argument is exactly right, the right-wing arguments are evil. But the Letter is working backward from incidents like Charlie Hebdo, where cartoonists were murdered as a consequence of drawing cartoons depicting Mohamed. Nobody is trying to excuse that incident as being "consequences of free speech" -- we deplore those consequences. We should deplore the consequences of losing ones job over speech as well.


At the heart of liberalism is the principle that reasonable people with good intentions can still disagree over matters of substance.

That means Tom Cotton's op-ed was well-meaning and reasonable. This is not saying that Cotton was right (I agree that he wasn't), only that he was reasonable. This isn't some fringe matter, but one of substance with reasonable people on both sides.

The cancel culture doesn't believe it was reasonable. They described it as inexplicable, threatening, offensive, inflammatory, dangerous, naive, reprehensible, hurtful, abusive, irresponsible, shameful, hateful, and so on.

That's the debate. One side sees opinions it disagrees with as being reasonable, the other side sees disagreement as illegitimate.

Masnick doesn't seem to get this. His piece describes the Letter as "bizarre" in the first sentence. Later, he goes off on a tangent about the word "censorious" to claim the Letter was ill intentioned.

I'm not accusing Masnick of being part of cancel culture here, but simply pointing out the irony. The Letter says "tolerate opposing arguments as being reasonable", and he counters with "that argument is not reasonable".

Privilege of Famous Writers

The title of Masnick's piece is "Harper's Gives Prestigious Platform To Famous Writers So They Can Whine About Being Silenced".

This misunderstands what's going on. These writers are speaking out precisely because they are the ones who can do so without getting silenced. They don't seek protection of their own speech, they seek protection for open debate in general.

The backlash over signing this innocuous Letter proves their point. The careers of less famous academics and journalists would not survive signing onto this letter. Rather than helping the careers of the signers, it's hurting them.

The issue affects more than just writers, everyone is under the thumb illiberalism. Few can express their honest opinion without a fellow employee at their company complaining to HR how it makes them feel unwelcome or threatened, thus forcing them into "diversity training" and silence.

This sounds like a caricature, but it's exactly what happened in the Tom Cotton piece. Cotton said federal troops should subdue rioters. The NYTimes writers union deliberately distorted this, claiming Cotton said to subdue protesters, and that this made them feel threatened. It's a pattern that repeats itself in HR departments around the country (well, at least the high-tech companies where my friends work, I can't speak for other companies).


If we ignore this debate over "free speech", we see that nonetheless, tolerating opposing views is still an essential characteristic of liberalism, and has been for centuries. We can show this by going back to the start of liberalism, such as Voltaire's comments on religious Tolerance in the 1700s. We can see that today in the fields like journalism and academic inquiry.

In 1896, among the New York Times says that it desires to be:
"a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion"
Inviting Tom Cotton to make his case was liberalism. The attack made by the writer's guild on the piece was illiberalism.

Even if the problem of people being silenced isn't as big as the Letter claims, the rise of illiberalism and intolerance of disagreement is still a huge deal. Even if you don't care about what famous writers have to say, look at your own social media feed. I don't know about yours, but my Twitter feed is a cesspool of intolerance and illiberalism.


Ninjinuity said...

This is an interesting take, and I agree with many of the points you're making here about how modern battle lines have been drawn and the ways that these distinctions have made it difficult to come to a consensus.

That said, I have a few pieces of your argument I did not find particularly compelling. In the interest of brevity, I will focus on only one.

I think the distinction you are making between "consequences" and "punishment" for speech is somewhat flimsy.

If I understand correctly, you write that "[c]onsequences are when people stop listening to you, punishment is when you lose your job." As examples of punishment, you also allude to "blacklist[ing], ... boycott[ing] studios to prevent Gibson movies, ... remov[ing movies] from catalogs". From the wider context, I think you're saying that the analogous actions of segments of the public directed at the NYT / MTV are similarly "punishments" for speech.

I think you're trying to draw a line here between different parts of individual's lives (e.g. Mel Gibson's antisemitism, and his artistic work).

From my perspective, it is not exactly clear what you expect it to mean for "people stop listening" to an individual.

Does it mean that in the future, others should think carefully about providing you financial means to broadcast more (potentially dumb, harmful, and distasteful) speech? Should it trigger a reconsideration about the ways in which bad arguments may have crept into a broader set of work? Would it be reasonable for individuals to avoid directly supporting and associating with people seeking to amplify bad statements?

Do individual rights extend to collective actions? I would expect so, since your original definition of natural consequences alludes to "people" (presumably collectively) deciding not to listen.

In short, I think that a natural consequence to offensive, poorly considered, and harmful speech is the use of individual freedoms of association, and further speech that unequivocally pushes back. I think you argue as much in saying you're less likely to watch a Mel Gibson movie. Others are entitled to the same discretion, individually and collectively.

Personally, I am inclined to think that the sort of "punishments" you allude to do not much resemble illegal and violent attacks on journalists ala Hebdo. To the contrary, they are very lawful exercises of peaceful free association.

Robert Earl said...
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