Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Harpers Letter on Justice And Open Debate And What Followed. Act III.


For part 1 of this post go here and for part 2 here.


Finally, the last part of this post which I should not have framed as a play.  Perhaps as a metaphoric marathon crawl across silences of various kinds?




Anyway, this is the finale of this post.  I am going to begin with the reactions to the Harpers letter.  They are quite diverse, ranging from enthusiastic agreement (1) with the message of the letter to most adamant disagreement.    

Some responses aimed for an analysis of both sides in the debate, though not necessarily in a neutral manner, some saw the original letter as much ado about nothing, and several pointed out that the current voices accused of practicing cancel culture are also the voices which have traditionally been silenced (2), and that those who wrote the original piece as well as most of those who signed it are certainly not without a platform even if some of them have faced attempts of deplatforming (3).

So what is the overall conclusion from all this?  I don't think there is one, but that is partly because different writers chose to debate different issues.  It is, indeed, true that debates today are open to many groups which were previously silenced, and it is also true that most of the original signatories of the Harpers letter have no real risk of being pushed off their pedestals by the cancel culture or by deplatforming.  And having a wider arena for debates, with more participants, is something we should welcome.

At the same time, the form such interactions takes is of importance, and it matters that all relevant evidence can be discussed.   I believe that it is useful to keep our focus on that question and to try to keep it separate from the question who it is who today is mostly using the cancelling method and whether we like the political opinions of that group or not.  This is because the method itself has no political label and is 'inclusive' of all sides.



The second act to this post covered most of the extra influence anonymous online access has had on the cancellation phenomenon:  It has super-charged it.

But in this it has also been helped by many employers' greater willingness to fire workers whose online opinions, even private ones,  are seen as causing the firm awkward PR problems (4).  

The case of Emmanuel Cafferty might be one of the more extreme examples of what can go wrong when the accusers and the judge are essentially the same anonymous online presences:

What happened to Emmanuel Cafferty is an especially egregious example. At the end of a long shift mapping underground utility lines, he was on his way home, his left hand casually hanging out the window of the white pickup truck issued to him by the San Diego Gas & Electric company. When he came to a halt at a traffic light, another driver flipped him off.

Then, Cafferty told me a few days ago, the other driver began to act even more strangely. He flashed what looked to Cafferty like an “okay” hand gesture and started cussing him out. When the light turned green, Cafferty drove off, hoping to put an end to the disconcerting encounter.

But when Cafferty reached another red light, the man, now holding a cellphone camera, was there again. “Do it! Do it!” he shouted. Unsure what to do, Cafferty copied the gesture the other driver kept making. The man appeared to take a video, or perhaps a photo.

Two hours later, Cafferty got a call from his supervisor, who told him that somebody had seen Cafferty making a white-supremacist hand gesture, and had posted photographic evidence on Twitter. (Likely unbeknownst to most Americans, the alt-right has appropriated a version of the “okay” symbol for their own purposes because it looks like the initials for “white power”; this is the symbol the man accused Cafferty of making when his hand was dangling out of his truck.) Dozens of people were now calling the company to demand Cafferty’s dismissal.

By the end of the call, Cafferty had been suspended without pay. By the end of the day, his colleagues had come by his house to pick up the company truck. By the following Monday, he was out of a job.

Cafferty is a big, calm, muscular man in his 40s who was born and raised in a diverse working-class community on the south side of San Diego. On his father’s side, he has both Irish and Mexican ancestors. His mother is Latina. “If I was a white supremacist,” he told me, “I would literally have to hate 75 percent of myself.”

The point of that long excerpt is not to ask you to judge if the firm was correct in firing Cafferty (5), but to see why the most cost-effective alternative for any ordinary firm facing that same PR disaster just might  be to fire the possible culprit as fast as possible:  

The problem would go away (all those emails would stop), no customers would be lost to boycotts, and replacement workers willing to do the fired person's job are usually a dime a dozen in the labor market.  

This is especially the case when the presumed violation is one which almost everyone in the society deplores and when the trade union movement is weak or nonexistent.   

In these circumstances a firm stating that they are going to take their time studying the case would probably be accused of siding with the unpopular cause, and certainly so if the firm then declared the worker as most likely innocent of any wrong-doing.  In other words, all practical considerations would recommend speedy firing as the best way to sort out the PR nightmare the firm is facing (6).

But this, in turn, raises the costs of participating in online political debates and reduces the likelihood that debates will be open (7).  Thus, while one observer argued that the spinelessness of the institutional leaders is not the fault of those who have contacted them, the two phenomena (aggressive online pressure groups and leaders unwilling to take unpopular positions) work together to reduce the likelihood of truly open debates.



A fairly recent argument against speech which does not directly incite violence is that it can make individuals hearing it feel unsafe and should therefore be prevented as harmful.  

I saw this referenced in a few of the articles addressing the Harpers letter and its signatories.  The proposal that college campuses should be safe spaces to students (or at least to students from historically marginalized groups) is a familiar one to most of us (though I, for one, had not realized that it had migrated into the post-college world).  Thus, we might get a clearer picture on how safety concerns might operate in public debates by looking at the term inside its original home:  some progressive universities.

What does it mean to argue that speech is harmful because it makes those who hear it feel unsafe on campus?  Getting a precise answer to this question is tough for an outsider, as I found out, but some light might be cast by the following definition of a safe space:

A place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations … student volunteers put up posters advertising that a "safe space" would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting

Also, I found  these two different ideas about the concept of campus safe spaces thought-provoking:

What do we even mean when we talk about “safe spaces?” Today, it’s particularly difficult to have productive conversations <sic> safe spaces due to the term’s multiplicity of definitions. For example, a recent Slate article criticizing the UChicago letter explained that “‘safe spaces’ on campus typically describe extracurricular groups that are intended to be havens for historically marginalized students.”

That’s certainly one meaning of the term. Emotional refuges like OSAPR and Room 13 as well as cultural groups are often referred to as “safe spaces.” With this definition, “safe” denotes emotional protection. These groups provide students the opportunity to feel secure in times of distress and dysfunction, and they also provide a sense of community. Few would dispute the importance of these emotional spaces on campus. 


But there’s another different (but also beneficial) type of “safe space”: academic safe spaces. The idea of an academic safe space stresses the end goal of encouraging individuals to speak. In this type of space, people are still made to feel uncomfortable, yet it’s “safe” to take intellectual risks and explore any line of thought. Here, “safety” protects your right to make others uncomfortable with ideas and rational arguments. It’s important to note that in this setting, free speech is the end goal. This type of safety is commonly emphasized in in classrooms and discussion groups, where open dialogue is particularly valuable.

The author of the quoted piece suggests that the confusion over the term "safe" could result if these two definitions are fused together.  In other words, one type of safety seems to imply that debates should be limited while the other type of safety suggests the opposite.  Which of the two (if either) would better describe the concept of safety in current political debates, including the debate about having or not having debates in the first place?

My impression is that it is the first definition of safe spaces I gave above, having to do with emotional protection against potentially "threatening actions, ideas and conversations" (8), though other interpretations are possible.  For instance, what's called unsafe in some online debates could be a hybrid of these two concepts, mixing together the desire for emotional protection with the desire to have one's own framework of ideas centered or at least prominent within the debate (rather than ignored).

As I write in footnote (8), the idea of safety in open debates is well worth further exploring (9).  Nevertheless, as the concept is currently used it is likely to stifle debates.  

That's because there are no third party independent judges who would decide when a particular speech indeed is so harmful that it makes others unsafe well past some level of minor discomfort. Instead, the current setup gives the rights of defining what is harmful speech to one side of the debates (the one which declares that they feel unsafe).  This clearly offers opportunities for exploiting the concept in ways which can contribute to cancel culture and limit important speech, including in cases where rights clash and open debate about the necessary compromises is required.

My understanding of what the word "safe" might mean in this context is limited, because I am very much outside the sub-culture in which the term has flourished.  But it sounds to me a little like the way some right-wing religious people use their faith in political debates:  

Certain issues must remain outside any debate because bringing them into the debate would be close to blasphemy, in particular when an atheist addresses them.  One cannot criticize god or a believer's interpretations of what god wants, just as one cannot inquire what makes some speech so dangerous that hearing it makes someone feel fundamentally unsafe.

While it is possible to respect the reasons for such feelings, they nevertheless serve to close down debates.



This post has had such a long incubation period because it is about silences, and the more I tried to grapple with the topic the more quiet I turned.  I am not sure if the three parts of this post contain anything very useful for others, but they have clarified my own views about this topic.  

I believe in debates as a means of learning.  That learning is not limited to finding out what my ideological opponents are saying and what evidence they are marshalling in support of their arguments, but also extends to greater understanding of my own views about the topic under debate.  

I especially benefit from studying any information that the other side presents by going to investigate the original sources I am provided,  and also by going on my own hunting trips for evidence which the other side in the debate does not wish to be made available.

The process is not always pleasant.  In fact, the more threatening I find the topic the more uncomfortable the process is.  But then going to the dentist because of an infected tooth is not pleasant either, except in comparison to letting the infection continue unchecked.

But there is also always a certain kind of joy in learning more, even when the process is somewhat unpleasant, and at the end of all the work I do I get the rewards of knowing more about the issue being debated and having more trust in what I might be able to contribute about it in future debates.

It is for these reasons (which I believe have wider applicability) that I deplore the negative online influences on today's political debates.






(1)  As one might expect, the most enthusiastic agreement with the criticisms comes from the political right, both in the US and in the UK.  But if we were talking about the previous round of this culture the condemnation of it would have come from the left because that previous round was employed by the right.  Thus, purely politically motivated discussions of the issue are ultimately not very informative about the devices that cancellations use.  And let us not forget that Donald Trump is very much one of the major users of attempted cancellations against his perceived enemies.

I also think that what someone's opinions on this issue are is almost completely dependent on which particular examples that person has come across.  That subjectivity is something I noticed on my first reading of the materials and also something I pointed out in the first post of this series, because it is the way I approach the topic, too.  

It would be far better, of course, if we could discuss the cancel culture on the basis of some generally approved statistical surveys or studies which list frequencies, classify the cases in terms of relevant characteristics, and so on, and which also give us good general data on how common the most violent types of cancellations are.  But I know of no such study or survey.  Indeed, given the current ideology bubbles, I wonder if any such study would ever be accepted by all sides in the debates about debating.

(2)  This is an important criticism.  But I believe that the Internet offers those previously not allowed into the debating room other equally powerful tactics which also contribute their voices to the debates.  

This is not the case in all countries, particularly those where the government openly censors speech, but in the US, say, it is possible to create a platform for speech with very little money (if any) and it is also possible to vigorously comment and participate in existing online conversations and to create numerically large and therefore powerful online communities which can take political activism further.

(3)  The term "deplatforming" comes initially from universities or their student unions stopping  certain types of speakers to speak, thus denying them a platform. When universities do this they simply don't invite certain controversial speakers in the first place to speak on campus.  When students do this they lobby to get invitations cancelled, or if unsuccessful in that, try to disrupt the event.

The term is no longer limited to universities and other such organizations, but is now also extended to, say, the banning policies various social media sites use, including Twitter and Reddit.  (That Reddit has such banning policies is, of course, infinitely amusing from a different angle:  Its existence is very much based on misogyny and the objectification of the female body for porn purposes, and those two aspects are never ever banned away.)

Deplatforming, in my opinion, is not exactly the same as cancelling someone, though both tactics now use some of the same online methods such as doxxing.  

In its original form, when applied to campus speakers,  deplatforming meant preventing someone from speaking in a particular place when that speech itself was considered harmful by the group doing the preventing, while cancellations apply to the consequences of already delivered possibly harmful speech.  I doubt the distinction matters much in practice, though. 

 As an aside, I have always viewed deplatforming as one of those strategies which fall into the gray zone for me.  In my opinion most speakers should not be deplatformed, though some should probably only be offered a platform if an opposing voice is included in the same physical debate.  

But I do make a distinction about those whose speech has no other purpose than to incite violence (they should not be given a platform) and also about those "hate speakers" who bring no actual evidence to their arguments.   The former speech is actually harmful in a very real sense (check what happened in Rwanda) and the latter is a complete waste of everyone's time as well as being rather insulting to many in its audience.

I also believe that deplatforming can sometimes backfire on those who desire it: Trying to hide what someone says might make more people curious about learning what on earth that might be, and those people could then be led into sources where the criticisms that would have been presented in an open debate are not equally available.


(4)  The earlier examples of cancel culture which aimed at getting people fired appear to have focused on universities.  Often the targets of cancellation were professors who expressed far left opinions in a private capacity and the mobs hunting them consisted of right-wingers.  This is still the case, although both left and right wing views can make non-tenured professors vulnerable for being suspended and/or for not getting their contracts renewed.

What's different between that earlier case and the current events is that it is considerably harder to get, say,  a professor in a public sector university fired than it is to get a truck driver fired.  Professors there have First Amendment rights, tenure provides partial protection against attempts to fire them and  the American Association of University Professors serves in the capacity of a professorial trade union.


(5)  Cafferty's employer did state that they investigated the case against him but refuse to discuss the evidence which they decided was sufficient to result in his firing.


(6) Especially if the worker is an unimportant one.  The rules they are different for famous people, of course.

Ethics might direct the firm in a different direction in even the cases where an ordinary worker is accused of hate speech, and so does more daylight on the possible cases where innocents have been cancelled.


(7)  Imagine trying to learn all the banned hand gestures so that your fingers don't accidentally make them! Then imagine that you have to use the same kind of scrutiny in every tweet on all subject matters, trying to make sure that not a single person anywhere can misunderstand what you are trying to say.  Conversations become very porridge-like in their clarity.

(8)  Right-wing articles have used that to label progressive college students as fragile snowflakes who cannot take any kind of vigorous debate without melting.  That is a silly interpretation.  

To see why, consider this imaginary example:

A college invites a guest speaker to give a lecture on the topic of the intelligence of conservative students, and it is known that the speaker has argued elsewhere that conservatives are less intelligent than liberals.

Which group of students on that campus might now be made uncomfortable by that lecture?  Which group of students might find that (made-up and untrue) topic threatening?

The point of that example is that speech of the kind which would make any student feel uncomfortable does not fall out of the sky like snow, covering everyone equally.  

In particular, those most likely to call others names such as "fragile snowflakes" are also least likely to have, say,  their own basic worth questioned in such speech because they stand on higher rungs of the societal power ladders and controversial speech tends to be aimed at the lower rungs.

The above does not mean that we should never debate controversial topics.  But it is important to consider the differential impact such speech has on different sub-populations and to keep in mind that the two sides in a debate of this kind have very very different stakes in the game.

(9) And that exploration should also focus on all the other safety risks the cancelling of online speech can create:  That innocent people might be accidentally doxxed and then harassed, that misogyny, racism and other similar -isms can be used to cancel speech and that the chaotic online processes created by avenging angels sometimes overshoot their goals and end up punishing a person for a fairly minor infraction in ways which can destroy that person's life for years.