Friday, June 12, 2015

Of Speech Exclusion and Tariff Wars

In the context of the Strangeloop contretemps, it is worth being clear about what the aim is (in my view).

I think it is a rhetorical mistake to call the aim here 'free speech', because this tends to get used to describe a number of disparate concepts. In particular, people have a tendency to mentally substitute the phrase 'free speech' for 'first amendment' or 'no government restriction on speech'. This is indeed one form (and a necessary condition), but not the main thing at stake here in modern America.

I prefer to describe the principle here as Thick Liberty of Speech. The basic aim is thus:

I want everybody to suffer as few negative practical consequences as possible for saying what they think.

Because when the adverse consequences are low, people have a real, practical ability to actually say what they think. That's the thick liberty part. By contrast, thin liberty is being theoretically or legally able to say what you think, although the price for doing so may be considerable.

You and I have the thin liberty to own a Ferrari. Elon Musk has the thick liberty to own a Ferrari.

'Freedom of speech', at least in the form of 'no legal restrictions on speech', is fairly easy to identify. Either you go to prison for saying things, or you do not. Thick liberty of speech, however, is more an aim, a statement of principle that puts social actions on a continuum.

In part this stems from the question of what negative practical consequences are under consideration. These can include a range of possible things, ranging from:
-Not associating with the person socially
-Not doing business with the person
-Firing them from their job
-Assaulting the person
-Imprisoning the person under a relevant statute

Below this is the pure speech remedy - just calling them an asshole.

Let's describe speech that doesn't directly advocate any particular action as 'bare speech'.

From this point, we can start to see what's obnoxious about the Moldbug case, the Dickinson case, and the Eich case.

A speech exclusionist is someone who reacts to bare speech that is perceived as undesirable by performing and advocating negative social consequences for the speaker.

A speech inclusionist is thus the opposite - someone who does not escalate a disagreement on bare speech to an insistence to retaliatory actions.

The reason I think this distinction is important is that it helps clarify what's wrong with a certain view of this type of disagreement.

Over at the discussion on Hacker News, the reprehensible Steve Klabnik showed up to defend his actions thus:
"As has been said many times in this thread, Yarvin is free to say what he believes, and I am free to say what I believe, and organizers are allowed to do what they want. This is how a free market of ideas is supposed to work."
But we're now in a position to see that the two types of speech are fundamentally different.

Moldbug's writings are classic bare speech: discussions of esoteric political theory. By contrast, Alex Payne and Steve Klabnik's were explicitly speech exclusionism. They advocated responding to bare speech with action.

So what's wrong with speech exclusionism?

Well, on twitter, Mr Klabnik was gracious enough to drop the pretense of 'speech, glorious speech!' and tell us himself:

Reader, I cannot think of a more concise statement of the path to totalitarianism than 'everything is political'.

Do you want to live in a world where every decision you make is political? You were about to go to the store to buy some milk, but then you remembered you had to check whether the 7-11 owner had donated to Obama campaign. You pulled out of your bird-watching group because there was a man there who was known to have attended a tea-party rally, even though he never mentioned it and the whole discussion in the group was only ever about birds. You made sure a subordinate didn't get the promotion he might otherwise deserve because he had a 'I support Hillary' bumper sticker.

That social arrangement has existed before. It did not end well.

I personally find this idea repulsive and insidious. There is more to life than politics. It is only monomaniacial fanatics like Steve Klabnik who think otherwise.

These examples are chosen deliberately, as nearly every one of the @$$holes advocating speech exclusion is doing so over political ideas. Big surprise, several of them are explicitly and openly communist. There are some minor aspects of exclusion that are probably inevitable - if you really hate somebody's guys, it's a stretch to insist that you have to invite them to your dinner party. But to respond to abstract political arguments by trying to get people fired is repugnant and unworthy of free-born citizens.

How should one respond to speech exclusion?

Supposing one opposes it, it is always appropriate to respond with bare speech. Steve Klabnik is a reprehensible worm who deserves to find out first-hand the joys of life under communism, ideally its brutal Stalinist versions.

But what else? In particular, is it reasonable to advocate exlusionism for those who themselves demand exclusion of others?

Here's where it gets tricky.

To me, the problem resembles that of tariffs. We'd prefer a world where nobody had any tariffs. But we don't get to directly determine other people's tariff policies, only our own.

If our trading partners are reasonable and can see the merit of trade in general, we can negotiate co-ordinated tariff reductions via a free trade agreement. But maybe they're mercantilists, and they think that tariffs are actually helping them. In other words, they're willing to have our tariffs at moderate levels as long as they can keep their own.

Sometimes, you can create change by a unilateral reduction in tariffs. Industry gets competitive, and you perhaps provide a moral example to others. Brendan Eich advocates this strategy:

In the language of the prisoners dilemma, Eich is always co-operating. Which is very noble, except that the thugs are always defecting, and this doesn't always provide a great incentive for them to change. Hey, I can exclude Brendan Eich and he'll actively dissuade others from excluding me back - score! In other news, Australia unilaterally got rid of its agricultural tariffs decades ago. If you see signs of the US Farm Bill and the EU Common Agricultural Policy disappearing any time soon, you have sharper eyes than I do.

Sometimes, what is needed are punitive tariffs. Under various free trade agreements, a breach of the rules by one party raising tariffs can be punished by a targeted punitive tariff arrangement from the counterparty until the original breach is rectified. Typically, these are designed to hurt one foreign industry at a time by large increases in tariffs that cut off the export market of the target ted firms.

To a game theorist, this is immediately recognizable as a version of tit-for-tat, appropriately adjusted for the slightly different context.

In other words, targeted exclusion of speech exclusionists, if done right, need not be either hypocritical or impractical. It's not ideal, but sometimes one has to use the tools that might work.

There are a couple of aspects here that are worth mentioning.

Firstly, it's very important that the other party be clearly and explicitly given a way out by permanently renouncing their earlier exclusionary demands. The aim here is to get rid of speech exclusionism overall - in other words, an ultimate reduction in overall tariffs, not an ongoing escalating trade war. As a result, if people like Klabnik drop their thuggish attitude and sincerely apologize, they should be accepted back into polite society. It's easy to forget the importance of carrots as well as sticks in this arrangement. David Cole makes the point about the effectiveness of this when discussing the way Jewish groups fight against Holocaust denial and revisionism
After I was “exposed” as David Cole in 2013, the “punishment and reward” thing showed itself in full force. Some members of Gary Sinise’s Hollywood conservative “Friends of Abe” group offered “rehabilitation” if I denounced my revisionist views.
And regarding Fritzsche’s point about hope versus fear, the Jewish method offers “hope.” You can always throw yourself on the mercy of the court, or plead insanity, or—as I did to get the JDL off my back—recant. 
Secondly, if you want to protest speech exclusionism, you have to practice it yourself. Steve Klabnik seems like a thoroughly noxious person, but neither his odious personality nor contemptible political views should be grounds for him being barred from tech. His insistence that other people get banned for their views, however, is entirely fair game.

Finally, you don't want to respond to someone else's punitive tariffs with more punitive tariffs, otherwise you end up getting dragged into the trade war equivalent of conflicts like World War I. In other words, only target speech exclusion that was itself aimed at bare speech. If someone else imposes punitive exclusion against other exclusion in a way you don't agree with, just let it slide, otherwise exclusion really does beget more exclusion.

I'm certainly not the first person to talk about this - Clark at Popehat got me thinking about it initially, and had a really good follow-up post.

But I think one thing that's missing is a concise label for exactly the type of bad behaviour we're trying to stamp out here.

The aim in all of this is tolerance, in the old way the term was meant - taking people as you find them, and accepting differences between people cheerfully and politely. The modern version of tolerance insists on cheerful acceptance of different races and sexualities. It also insists on a rabid lack of acceptance of any meaningful differences in political opinion. Modern tolerance today is everybody looking different, but thinking and speaking the same.

How dreary! How stifling!

Speech exclusion on political grounds is everywhere and always the hallmark of thuggish would-be totalitarians.

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