Saturday, July 25, 2020

Against Decimation

There's been a lot of talk recently about "cancel culture". To pick a prominent recent example, the firing of David Shor seems to have bothered almost everyone - even skeptics of the idea of "cancel culture" seem to mostly think that firing a data analyst for sharing a respectable academic study about how the public reacts to protests was awful. And this isn't the only one - there are lists of many dozens of well-publicized examples out there(here's the best such list I've come across).

This debate really stepped into high gear online with the release of an open letter in Harper's magazine, signed by over a hundred prominent people.  Since then, there's also been a poll of Americans which shows that there's real public concern, on all sides, over this issue. And there's cause for real concern too. A majority of people worry about expressing their views, a majority want to get other people fired for expressing opposing views, and there's a non-trivial amount of overlap between the two groups. And while the left seems somewhat worse, the right is still pretty bad.

Unfortunately, "cancel culture" is a pretty ill-defined term in many ways. Let's look at the Shor case. Is the key part the firing? The fact that it was a left-wing group that got him fired? Was the criticism he got before-hand "cancellation"? How about the part where he got kicked off an email list? That doesn't affect his livelihood, after all.

This is also made more complex because it doesn't take a lot of pressure to really clamp down on people's behaviour. Note that systems like China's "social credit" are largely about going after comparatively small parts of people's lives (buying train tickets, etc.) in order to keep minor dissent down. If you threaten jobs, you'll naturally get even stronger reactions.

If a view has 20% support, and you think people need to be fired for expressing it, you're advocating for 20% unemployment if people aren't cowed. This is awful, but it's also worth noting that it won't even work. You'll merely divide society between those who employ the left and those who employ the right. (This is a big part of why we have Fox News.) So you're basically just exacerbating tensions for no real long-term gain.


There's some real tension here, between encouraging speech but not encouraging toxic speech, advocating social consequences but not overly severe ones, and a host of other issues. And like all balancing acts, it's tough to get it exactly right. But I think I have a fairly good set of rules that would prevent the worst of it on all sides.

1. People are always allowed to disagree with anything you say, and you should expect them to do so. Simple verbal disagreement(even by large numbers of people) is not "cancellation", and should not be treated as a threat by itself. You need to be able to deal with it.

2. Violence in response to speech is always wrong. This includes inciting others to be violent on your behalf, or credible threats of violence.

3.  Getting people fired in response to speech that's not directly related to their job is usually wrong. In order to be an exception, I think you need to meet the following criteria:

a) The speech must be significantly unpopular. If you start firing people en masse for supporting Biden or Trump, you're basically trying to declare half of society anathema. I would suggest a rule of thumb of 10% support. This is well above the margin of silly responses on polls, so a view that hits 10% actually has real-world support, and it's above the level where the truly loathsome views get to (e.g., open neo-Nazis). But it's well below the level where you'd be opening mainstream views up for cancellation. It's also a convenient round number.

b) More specifically, it must be that unpopular at the time. Dredging up old people's letters to the editor from 1957 about how they were worried about interracial marriage does no good, because they've probably changed their opinions since then, and because you're punishing people for something that wasn't seen as wrong when they did it. There's a reason every decent constitution bans ex post facto punishment.

c) The speech must be truly offensive. Thinking that the world is flat makes you a crank, but it doesn't affect your ability to flip burgers or balance a ledger.

d) And, most importantly, the speech must be theirs. Don't go after people over something their kids or parents wrote - guilt by association is a terrible system.

4. Boycotting and ostracism over speech is often wrong. I won't tell you how to spend your money or who to be friends with, and I won't impose rules as strict as the above on who you ought to support. But stop and consciously consider whether the offense is large enough to justify the response. For boycotts in particular, remember that a firm keeping someone employed is not generally an endorsement of their views, unless they're the firm's spokesperson or CEO.

5. If you have to think about whether you're being a dick, you probably are. Stop and reconsider.

6. Be (sanely) courageous. If someone's speech is threatened, stand up for them if you think you can. This may come at some cost to you, but if nobody will pay that cost, we all lose.

It's important to note that these are not rules any societal agency can enforce. Government will pass no law on this topic, and despite point 6, employers will likely not save people's jobs based on this reasoning. These are rules of how you should act. And, more to the point, these are rules of how I will respond to your cancellation efforts, and how I will try to conduct myself.

That said, I think they're good rules. I haven't seen any better ones out there. And I'll encourage everyone to follow these rules. Stop trying to destroy the 10%.

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