Sunday, December 18, 2016

How the rhetoric of denunciation distorts public affairs

During a post on how the US Democrats need to get their act together for the good of the United States, IT guru and long-time blogger Eric. S. Raymond makes the following observation about constant harping on about racism:
It is irrelevant whether an actual plurality of American voters actually are as racist and sexist as you think. They don’t think they are, and they’re fed up with being hectored about it. This isn’t 1965, and your ability to tap into a substratum of guilt by white people who deep down know they were in the wrong is gone. What that same move brings up now is resentment.
Quite so. That racial resentment is then characterised as racism (or a proxy for racism: see here) then generates a self-reinforcing feedback loop. 

The constant pointing-and-shrieking of racism!, sexism!, misogyny!, homophobia!, transphobia!, xenophobia!, Islamophobia! etc is what I have called the rhetoric of denunciation. It is based on what we might reasonably call the PC-principle: 
a person's moral standing is determined by their opinions
This is in contrast to the liberal principle:
a person has inherent moral worth and so should be free to express their opinions
The PC principle, or what we might call the grading-by-opinion principle, has various implications. One is "gotcha!". If a person's moral standing is dependent on their opinions, then any error or mistake is likely to be interpreted as a moral or character failing. If said words transgresses against the current opinion-grading norms (and so is subject to point-and-shriek), then their lack of moral character, their lack of moral standing, is taken as demonstrated and so profoundly contaminates anything else they have to say.

Another consequence is the downgrading of achievement. If moral standing is determined by conformity to opinion-grading norms, then past achievement is irrelevant. It doesn't matter if one was a pioneering voice in feminism, or of transgender film making, a prominent gay and civil rights activist, or was clever enough to land a spacecraft on a comet, or got a Nobel Prize in biology, or even if the original claims were false or misleading; all that counts for naught against (apparent) failure to keep up to current opinion status-grading norms.

A third is pervasive moral arrogance: both from the belief that one is entitled to grade people in such a way and in the belief that one partakes in a moral and cognitive understanding so pervasive that such grading is unproblematic. There is no place for Millian humility about truth being discovered through dispute. On the contrary, the sense of moral grandeur and entitlement is part of the appeal of the grading-by-opinion principle to adherents (and, conversely, what makes their consequent antics so infuriating to others).

Distorting information flows
But there will also be a range of (invidious) effects on the flow of information and opinion within the wider society and politics. Those who have views or concerns that fail to conform to the opinion norms (themselves set by those most willing to protest and vilify) and for whom vilification imposes relatively high costs (for instance, due to career or personal reasons), will be pushed out of participating conversations and debates; both personal and public. Their concerns and views will not disappear, and are unlikely to be changed, but will simply persist in a largely unseen fashion. So, all the problems of preference falsification begin to build up.

Those who dissent yet remain active in conversation and public debate will be those willing and able to put up with the vilification costs. Which will often be the more ideologically motivated. So, the paradoxical effect of trying to restrict diversity in opinion will to make the more stridently non-conformist more publicly salient. Worse, the more that the more ideologically motivated have a monopoly in expressing concerns prevalent among the reluctantly silent, the more capacity the ideologically motivated will have to build support among such.

Given that contemporary grading-by-opinion principle within the cultural "commanding heights" is profoundly progressivist, that will create a tendency to de-stabilise centre-right politics, as more moderate politicians are pushed into failing to respond to concerns among their voters, and so begin to lose out to less conformist political entrepreneurs. Conversely, the (quite accurate) sense of being ignored and hectored by arrogant and condescending elites will give the counter-identity of populism so much to work with.

So, the effect of conformity-enforcing pointing-and-shrieking, and the rhetoric of denunciation, of imposing social costs on dissenting opinion, will to increase polarising extremity in public debate.

Including via the effect on the proponents of the opinion-dominates principle. Both their sources of information, and their capacity to use information, will degrade. If transgressing the opinion norms determines your moral standing, then information coming from those deemed to lack moral standing will be massively discounted. The reluctant silence of those unwilling to bear the costs and risks of dissent will give a false impression of the actual patterns of opinion. Moreover, entertaining thoughts that might lead to oneself transgressing against the opinion norms becomes dangerous to one's standing and sense of identity, as does paying attention to any facts that might lead one to such thoughts.

The more one's social milieu is made up of people who grade people's moral standing via their opinions, the more opinion-conformity there will be within that social milieu, as the penalties of transgression mount, and the connection between opinion and identity increase. The increasing-conformity social mechanisms nicely set out in Cass Sunstein's Why Societies Need Dissent come into play. The effect will be to create increasing opinion "bubbles" where dissent will seem even more outlandish and aberrant and so even more subject to vilification and loss of moral standing. The "I can tolerate anyone except the outgroup" effect becomes that much stronger.

This is nowhere clearer than in the debate over political correctness itself. To claim that there is a problem with PC is to put oneself outside the cognitive tribe of those adhering to "proper" opinion; or, at least, to put one's tribal membership, as a person with good moral standing, at risk. Conversely, those most likely to publicly criticise the dynamics of PC are those mostly likely to already diverge from "proper" opinion, so be already discounted. So, "good folk" are blocked from listening to, or giving any substantive consideration to, such critiques.

Hence a feature of the debate, which is gay men in particular of a certain age (such as Andrew Sullivan, Peter Tatchell, Stephen Fry and David Rubin--Fry and Rubin discussed the issue together) being critics of PC. First, their being gay gives them some protection. Second, the dynamics of PC are essentially the same as those of the traditional gender and sexual correctness that they grew up being oppressed by: deriving from claims to be protecting the moral order against those who would destroy it, vilification of divergence, treating the divergent as evil in intent, suppression of inconvenient facts, being insulted by the notion that such "awful" people should be treated as having moral standing equivalent to "decent" folk (what I call the insult of equality), and so on. Both opinion-grading-conformism (aka PC) and traditional sexual and gender correctness are forms of moral bullying; and those who have no wish to be moral bullies themselves, but suffered from moral bullying in their own lives, are often more motivated to call it out when it comes around in a new form.

Decaying institutions
There are also wider institutional effects from the grading-by-opinion principle. If an industry which exists on conveying information (most obviously, the media) is increasingly pervaded by the conformist operation of the grading-by-opinion principle, then its members will increasingly become an unreliable conveyor of information--either due to suppressing facts, or suppressing implications. (Note that suppressing facts does not require lying: it just requires either not covering inconvenient facts or covering them in a way which discourages taking the "wrong" implications from them.)

A pattern which will become stronger, via the echo chamber effect (and the other social mechanisms nicely set out in Cass Sunstein's Why Societies Need Dissent), the more the norms of opinion grading become dominant in their organisation or industry. Which, as the alternative sources of information available to the wider public expand, creates a widening disconnect between the purveyors of information and large sections of their audience. The effect is likely to be particularly strong where the information content typically conveyed is lower (say, because the visual content is higher and pieces are shorter--i.e. TV media) and so remaining words have more potential normative weight.

Thus the effect of accepting opinion-grading norms, based on opinion determining moral standing, will be to depress the public standing of any information-conveying industry the more it becomes pervaded by it. Particularly among those most distant from the opinions within the industry.

Polarising opinion, growth of more "extreme" forms of political dissent, creating of opinion bubbles and loss of standing by mainstream media with rising populism. Does this sound anything like the world we live in?

Degrading democracy
A society where the costs of participating in public debate are extremely uneven, so preference falsification becomes increasingly widespread, is a society where basic processes of social bargaining will be damaged. This is very unhelpful for the long term health of any polity, but particularly democratic ones.

As the performance of democracies as vehicles for broad social bargaining degrade, and as the notion that citizens are people who are of inherent worth, such that they are entitled to express their opinions, becomes less and less adhered to (particularly among those who inhabit the cultural "commanding heights"), then one can expect that confidence in democracy, and adherence to democratic norms, will also degrade. As is happening.

The PC principle, the grading-by-opinion principle, is disastrous in both theory and practice. It is morally offensive to reduce the moral standing of a person to some subset of their opinions (in much the same way as it is to reduce their moral standing to their gender, religion, sexuality, etc). It is particularly meretricious to do so according to ever-shifting norms of acceptability.

Moreover, the patterns of thought and behaviour involved are deeply politically and socially corrosive. The deeply illiberal (indeed, incipiently totalitarian) nature and social dynamics of conformist grading-by-opinion dominating the information industries (media, IT, academe, entertainment) is not a minor issue at all, it is a very serious corrosive factor within Western democratic societies.

ADDENDA. And now Margaret Atwood, novelist and author of The Handmaiden's Tale, is being called "an enabler of rape culture". 

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]