Saturday, May 3, 2014

Thick Liberty of Speech and Donald Sterling

The problem of me getting busy at work is that it seems to have coincided with a marked increase in the frequency of outbreaks of brown scare public hysteria at any deviations from the prevailing progressive orthodoxy. This creates the result that I seem to write about little else these days. Last time a guy got fired from the company he co-founded because he once made a donation to a ballot initiative opposing gay marriage. This time? Well, it's hard to improve on Jokeocracy's description:
a jewish guy told his half mexican girlfriend he doesn't like black people THERE ARE NO WHITE PEOPLE INVOLVED IN THIS STORY STOP BLAMING US
The 'Jewish guy' in question is Donald Sterling, current (and soon to probably be ex-) owner of the LA Clippers basketball team. His 'half-Mexican girlfriend' is named V. Stiviano (among other names). You can tell most of what you need to know about her by the fact that a) she's around 50 years younger than him, b) she's not his wife, and c) she's the kind of person who illegally tapes private conversations which mysteriously get leaked to the press at a point in a lawsuit where it might be convenient.

The conversations themselves can be found here. Steve Sailer's take on it seems about right - this was a guy objecting to his girlfriend bringing black athletes that she was presumably banging to his basketball games. Apparently their blackness was part of the problem (of all the problems in the situation, this seems like a jolly strange one to fixate on, but de gustibus non est disputandum and all that). It is worth noting, however, that it's her leading the conversation to the subject of their blackness. Frankly, nobody in this story comes out looking sympathetic. As Steve Sailer notes, Donald Sterling is hardly a likable figure. He also has a history of some comically underhanded tactics to avoid renting out his apartments to black tenants, including the following:
Even more bizarre but just as effective at driving away African-Americans and Hispanics, Beverly Hills Properties changed the name of the Wilshire Towers complex to Korean World Towers. A huge banner printed entirely in Korean was hung on the building, and the doormen were replaced by armed, Korean-born guards who were hostile to non-Koreans, again according to testimony given by multiple residents. In August 2003, during the Housing Rights Center lawsuit, a federal judge ordered Sterling to stop using the word "Korean" in the names of his buildings, but the damage had been done."
So in the 'Who? Whom?' view of this latest sordid tale, one scumbag golddigger managed to pull a fast one on a scumbag businessman. But then again, viewing matters simply in those terms may end you up at places you didn't want to be.

The outrage machine by this point is as dreary as it is predictable.

First we get demands for the offender's head on a stick - Donald Sterling is banned from attending NBA events, and may be forced to sell his team.

Next, we get the secondary boycott totalitarianism going, where people get fired for saying they support Sterling's right to free speech. No surprise, the purge was in a tech company. Paging Mencius Moldbug.

As part of both of the above, we get treated to

a) Furrow-browed insistence that we must all debate firstly, if not solely, the question of how deeply racist Donald Sterling and America are, and an implicit enforcement of the rule that nobody is allowed to make any statement of even lukewarm opposition to the Sterling lynch mob without first crossing oneself with the standard pieties about how terrible the statements themselves were. You want the crossing, future employers of the world? Fine, here it is: the statements were racist and regrettable. The world continues to be full of d***heads, perhaps this is more shocking to you than it is to me. Next question.

b) Clumsy defenders of free speech equating criticism of Sterling and demands for his ouster with an undermining of the first amendment (which prohibits only government restrictions on speech, not private restrictions)

c) Thin liberty pinheads laughing at group b), but immediately following this up with the equally stupid mistake of assuming that as long as it's not the government restricting someone's speech then everything is hunky dory and the whole case raises absolutely no moral questions whatsoever.

Because people have a tendency to mentally substitute the phrase 'free speech' to 'first amendment' or 'no government restriction on speech', I prefer to describe the principle here as Thick Liberty of Speech.

I want Donald Sterling, and Pax Dickinson, and everyone else, to be able to say what's on their mind with as few negative practical consequences flowing to them for doing so as humanly possible. I want the same thing for people whose views I find stupid or repugnant - "Stalin wasn't that bad" communists, kill-the-humans hardcore environmentalists, carpet-bagging race hucksters, humourless radical feminists, whatever. I want them to be able to express themselves unmolested either by the government or by offended grievance lobbies, regardless of whether they're from the right or the left, trying to get them fired or excluded from polite society based only on things they've said.

Why do I want this? Two reasons.

Firstly, I have a strong conviction that words alone are simply not that important. To put it in the language of economists, the outrage associated with unpleasant and mean speech is massively, massively overpriced compared with the outrage associated with unpleasant and mean actions. You know what's worse that saying nasty things about blacks in the privacy of your own home? To pick at random, drunk driving. That kills people every single day. Mean words uttered privately or on the internet do not. Strangely, society seems to be not very bothered by people who drive drunk. It's not enough to, say, stop you becoming President of the USA. Even if you actually kill someone by drunk driving, and show little apparent remorse over the matter, that isn't necessarily a barrier to high political office either.

Even in the current case, as Kareem Abdul Jabbar noted, Sterling had a documented history of doing equally racist things like excluding black tenants, but nobody seemed to much care. But if you say something nasty, well that's just unacceptable. In what rational ordering of human character flaws does this make sense?

In addition, the fact that other people are offended by said words is also deeply unpersuasive to me as a basis for going along with the mob. If people suddenly decide that it's a matter of deep social disgust to express a preference for blue coloured shirts, I do not feel any happier about a campaign to exclude the blue-shirt wearers because it's just fighting speech with more speech, and yay speech! It depends whether it is actually reasonable to be so offended at the speech in question that you start demanding complete social exclusion.

If you want a good rule of thumb here, you could do much worse than John Derbyshire's suggestion that we should endeavour wherever possible to not take offence unless offence was actually intended by the speaker. This is a pretty easy guide by which to judge a lot of cases, and makes for a tolerant society, in the true sense of the word.

The second reason, which seems to contradict the first one, but actually does not, is that freedom of conscience - the ability to to think and speak as one pleases - is an enormously important liberty that we should cherish and support as much as possible. Thin liberty says you have freedom of speech and freedom of conscience in theory, but if you try to exercise it in the wrong way, you suffer massive social consequences. As Moldbug noted, most of the practical restrictions during the McCarthy era were private restrictions on speech. Should I be happy that the media companies decided to ban Pete Seeger from television as long as they weren't doing it under government directive? Thick liberty says that you can actually say what you want, really truly ruly, without ruinous social or economic consequences.

But the only way to get to this point is to reign in the urge to form outraged mobs demanding action whenever one's feelings are hurt.

In other words, you only get to have a thick liberty of speech society if you accept other people saying things you don't like without firing them, refusing to do business with them, demanding others exclude them, etc. You can only say what you want as long as you let other people say what they want. I think you should be free to not listen to the person, nor should you be forced to subsidise by taxpayer dollars their ability to broadcast their message to a large audience. But to whatever extent possible, the exclusion should not be extended to other interactions where the offensive speech is not in question. Whether Brendan Eich gave money to proposition 8 or not has absolutely zero to do with the functionality of Firefox. If someone wanted to not invite Eich to a dinner party, that's fine. If they refuse to do business with the company he's employed by until they fire him, that is not at all fine.

But principles are for suckers. The left already gets to say what it wants, and it's only reactionary and conservative elements who can't. Back in the 1950s, the opposite was true. So much the worse for the 1950s. Not many people are really principled about much at all, but it doesn't change the point.

Reader, do you, like me, get tired of this nonsense? Does it both sicken and weary you at the same time? As Moldbug put it, is there anyone else in the room who's here because he's just plain embarrassed by the present world?

As in the OKCupid case, the only principle upon which I will engage in secondary boycotts is against those who escalate from speech to action in the thinning of liberty. If you respond to someone else's bare speech with hostile action, I will refuse to do business with you. And I do this grudgingly, hesitantly, and unhappily, purely because it is one of the few ways that businesses understand that there will be people who will defend thick liberty of speech, and will impose costs if it is restricted.

I cannot put the matter better than someone who knew intimately what it was like to be on the end of thin liberty lynch mobs:

I think as I please and this gives me pleasure
My conscience decrees this right I must treasure
My thoughts will not cater to duke or dictator
No man can deny, Die Gedanken Sind Frei
No man can deny, Die Gedanken Sind Frei
And should tyrants take me and throw me in prison
My thoughts will burst free like blossoms in season
Foundations will crumble and structures will tumble

And free men will cry, Die Gedanken Sind Frei
And free men will cry, Die Gedanken Sind Frei

Die Gedanken Sind Frei! Thick liberty, thick liberty, thick liberty for all!

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