We’re all going to need safe spaces

by Henry on March 16, 2018

So I got muted on Twitter this morning by Jonathan Chait.


Riffing off this really fantastic essay on Jordan Peterson, I’d pointedly asked Chait whether he might reconsider his own position given Peterson’s guff about the deep commonality between trans activists and Maoist murderers of millions. After a grumpy back-and-forward he responded even more grumpily that he’d only ever said that identity politics people had borrowed Marxism’s critique of liberalism. I pointed out that he’d in fact also suggested that we’d all be marching to the gulags if the campus left got its way. After a couple more tweets, the ban-hammer descended. Finis.

Traditionally, a post like this would continue the fight by other means, likely (as a bunch of people have been doing on Twitter), by doing a tu quoque tying Chait’s habit of blocking or banning people on Twitter to his condemnations of campuses shutting out inconvenient voices. I don’t want to do that. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that Chait should mute or block me if he wants – I’ve occasionally done it myself to people who kept on trying to pull me into arguments that I didn’t want to be pulled into. Doubtless, those people felt aggrieved too that I wasn’t responding to their (in their minds good and cogent) points. Given the way that Twitter is set up, you sometimes have no other good options, if you want to continue to have the conversations that you do want to have, and not have them drowned up by the conversations that you don’t.

But there’s also a much bigger point there, about the kind of space that the Internet has created. Liberalism of the small-l kind goes together with a strong emphasis on free speech. The implicit assumption is that we will all be better off in a world where everyone can say whatever they want, to whoever they want, even if it is inconvenient, or wrong minded, or crazy.

However, this assumption rests on empirical assumptions as well as normative ones. And as speech becomes cheaper, it may be that those assumptions don’t hold in the same way that they used to (see further Zeynep Tufekci, Rick Hasen and Timothy Wu, as well as Molly Roberts’ forthcoming book).

There are two versions of the problem. First – speech doesn’t scale, and at a certain point, the scarce resource isn’t speech but attention. Even when people who want to argue with you are entirely sincere, there is a point at which you simply can’t pay attention to everyone who wants to talk at you on Twitter and still function. You need to make choices.

Second, speech is increasingly being weaponized to drown out inconvenient voices. “Flooding” attacks (as Roberts describes them) are making online political conversation more or less impossible in authoritarian regimes, as people have to deal with a spew of tendentious, irrelevant, and angry comments, what Adrian Chen describes as a “flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space” (in passing, I used to be very strongly in favor of anonymous free speech on the Internet; I’ve had to seriously rethink that).

In the standard shibboleth, the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have discovered is that the best antidote to more speech is bad speech. And while there is a lot of paranoia about Russian bots, there was, I think, a very real attempt to use these techniques to stir things up in the US election, and in Western European countries too.

These are problems that liberalism (including strongly-left-democratic versions of liberalism) are poorly equipped to handle. We don’t have any good intellectual basis that I know of for deciding the appropriate ways to allocate attention, since we’ve only started to have that problem in the very recent past. We also don’t have good tools for muting the kinds of speech that have been weaponized to undermine conversation, while preserving the kinds of speech that conduct towards it. Which is maybe all a long winded way of saying that I don’t particularly blame Jonathan Chait for wanting a safe space, and wanting to exclude me from it. We are all going to need safe spaces – and to start thinking systematically about how to build them while preserving conversation. Neither Chait’s version of liberalism, or the kind of left-democratic approach that I am more attracted to has any good idea of how to do this (or if either have, I’m not reading the right people and want to be pointed to them).

{ 123 comments }

1

JanieM 03.16.18 at 3:33 pm

Henry, thanks for this. It has clarified something that has been bothering me for a long time.

I’m reminded of something I loved and only knew from my early reading at Crooked Timber, and that’s Cosma Shalizi’s habit of adding a disclaimer before certain posts: “Attention conservation notice” or something like that.

2

EWI 03.16.18 at 4:02 pm

Traditionally, a post like this would continue the fight by other means, likely (as a bunch of people have been doing on Twitter), by doing a tu quoque tying Chait’s habit of blocking or banning people on Twitter to his condemnations of campuses shutting out inconvenient voices. I don’t want to do that.

But by pre-ambling the whole piece with a description of this spat, aren’t you doing that, intentionally or not?

I realise that there is a conundrum here for CT contributors in complaining about such, in that CT’s own ‘muting’ policy (comments just not being published) is entirely arbitrary and unappealable to any site editor. There is a world of difference between awkward questions and behaviour designed to spoil discussions, but CT itself recognises no such distinction in the comments policy applied here.

3

Phil 03.16.18 at 5:27 pm

Just had a look at the linked tweet, and I’ve got to say that if I had a whole bunch of (doubtless highly rational and intelligent) individuals posting variants on “yeehaw he got you there!” in the wake of each criticism by Professor H, I’d be tempted to make the problem go away by muting Prof H myself. A pile-on isn’t actually a flooding attack, but try telling that to the poor sod at the bottom of the pile.

Anonymity’s a weird one. A bit of mailing-list action aside, my introduction to social media was Usenet, and in particular two Usenet groups where real names were entirely normal. (And they were real names; people met, people got married, etc.) We got trolled and disrupted from time to time, sometimes quite offensively; the worst attacks came from troll[er]s working under what appeared to be their real names. I’ve mostly been ‘Phil Edwards’ ever since. Occasionally people do a bit of digging and throw ad homs at me (for someone who calls himself an academic etc) but really, so what? So I’ve never really felt that anonymity was all that important, either as a shield or as a sword. Perhaps the real harm of anonymity is the multiplicity of sock-puppets it makes possible, not to mention bots.

4

Phil 03.16.18 at 5:28 pm

(All the above is from the perspective of a middle-class White male in secure employment; my insouciance may not be widely generalisable.)

5

Mauss 03.16.18 at 5:32 pm

I have been unsure what to make of Peterson, having not read his books. The clarity and quality of what he says online is all over the place. The Current Affairs article is not tipping the balance in his favor, to put it mildly. That said, I think the article could be challenged in a few places. Example:

“Peterson … publicly opposed Canada’s Bill C-16, which added gender expression and identity to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed that under the bill, he could be compelled to use a student’s preferred gender pronoun or face criminal prosecution, and suggested that social justice activists were promoting a totalitarian ideology. In fact, there was nothing in the bill that criminalized the failure to use people’s preferred gender pronouns (full text)…”

–True, Peterson overstated the legal case for enforcing gender terms. But Regressive administrators wasted no time in abusing the law as Peterson predicted. The case was @ Laurier, in Waterloo, ON, where admins took punitive action against a TA’s discussion of gender pronouns. Part of the justification was that her actions were criminal by law. They compared her to Hitler (is that worse or better than Peterson’s maoist claims?). Again, it’s a stretch to read C-16 that way, but the real threat is that regressive idiots will, in fact, read C-16 in idiotic ways. These regressive ideologues are doing well in the age of social media. It’s unfortunate that Peterson is the big profile intellectual fighting for reason…

–The CA article is probably guilty of “iron manning” the arguments coming from trans/etc activists. Alice Dreger’s ‘Galileo’s Middle Finger’ shows how there are both regressive and progressive forces at work. I think there are good reasons to doubt that regressive liberalism is taking over campuses, but there is no good reason to doubt that regressive liberalism is having a negative impact on campuses.

Lastly, there is a sort of intellectual double standard. If Heidegger et al. are worthy of deep intellectual engagement, then adding Jordan Peterson to the mix doesn’t seem that unreasonable. It seems to contain all the necessary ingredients to be a welcome addition to the esoteric fringes of the arts curriculum. If I accept what my prof tells me, with a straight face, in my senior year, that Being and Time is the most important work of the 20th c, then I can’t very well get up-in-arms about Peterson’s esoteric work being that of today.

6

Henry 03.16.18 at 5:45 pm

Just had a look at the linked tweet, and I’ve got to say that if I had a whole bunch of (doubtless highly rational and intelligent) individuals posting variants on “yeehaw he got you there!” in the wake of each criticism by Professor H, I’d be tempted to make the problem go away by muting Prof H myself. A pile-on isn’t actually a flooding attack, but try telling that to the poor sod at the bottom of the pile.

In this particular case, the pile-on happened after the muting (the initial back and forth took place over a few minutes before I had to bring the dog on his morning constitutional) but the general point still stands, obvs.

7

engels 03.16.18 at 5:59 pm

the worst attacks came from troll[er]s working under what appeared to be their real names

That would also be a not unreasonable lesson from CT history iirc

8

NickS 03.16.18 at 6:00 pm

We are all going to need safe spaces – and to start thinking systematically about how to build them while preserving conversation. Neither Chait’s version of liberalism, or the kind of left-democratic approach that I am more attracted to has any good idea of how to do this (or if either have, I’m not reading the right people and want to be pointed to them).

I feel like the solution has to include some thinking about how “the medium is the message” plays into things. Off the top of my head, for example, any platform which is designed around instant responses is going to be a poor medium for engaging with thoughtful critiques (it might be a good medium to make somebody aware of the existence of a critique, but probably not the best way to think through and respond).

The golden age of blogging seemed like it supported a reasonable pace of conversation — people would sometimes respond to each other in the same day but it wasn’t surprising if somebody took a day or two to reply.

I’m sure it’s still possible to have those sorts of conversations today but I don’t know what in the social/media environment would encourage people to do so. To some extent what does Chait have to gain by taking a day or two, thinking about the question and crafting a more careful response? (I recognize that this is related but not the same sort of question as that implied by “the medium is the message”).

9

BruceJ 03.16.18 at 6:05 pm

In the standard shibboleth, the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have discovered is that the best antidote to more speech is bad speech.

This is not entirely correct. Both regimes take extensive measures to restrict and monitor speech (cf: “The Great Firewall of China”, and in Putin’s case, often simply jailing and/or murdering people with whose speech he or the State disagrees) and even so a better phrasing of the line is “…the best antidote to more speech is weaponized bad speech.”

10

engels 03.16.18 at 6:14 pm

you simply can’t pay attention to everyone who wants to talk at you on Twitter and still function. You need to make choices

This certainly isn’t the case for me, I only get a handful of messages each day. Is it possible what appears to a high-profile intellectual as a glut could be a maldistribution…

11

Layman 03.16.18 at 6:42 pm

Phil: “So I’ve never really felt that anonymity was all that important, either as a shield or as a sword. Perhaps the real harm of anonymity is the multiplicity of sock-puppets it makes possible, not to mention bots.”

You should try working for people who will fire you for your political, social, or economic views. Like the CEO who asked me if I could buy or build something to easily monitor the Facebook posts of all our employees.

I, too, started on Usenet under my own name, but there was no one there back then except we tech folks and the academics, so it was relatively safe. Eventually not so much.

12

clew 03.16.18 at 6:56 pm

I was a young woman in the Usenet/BBS/netnews days and it wasn’t so safe. I eventually had an identifiable name as flypaper (mostly for classmates who saw me in the terminal ward) and a pseudonym for real discussions.

13

Joseph Brenner 03.16.18 at 7:04 pm

Great piece, nice to see someone talking about the real issues.

You could say “twas ever thus” and the internet just adds some new wrinkles: science, scholarship, politics has always been about different kinds of “trust networks”– all voices are not given equal weight. As a practical matter we need filters to screen out the less promising– though I would also argue that these filters need to leak: everyone needs to spend some small fraction of their time looking for truth in unlikely places.

Like you, I’ve long since given up on the utility of anonymous, free accounts– clearly you need to know who the other person is for the filters to work effectively. Our present generation of “social network” sites may pay lip-service to verified identities, but the simple fact of the matter is they really need the traffic to sell eyeballs to advertisers: and so, a for-profit web site can’t be relied on as critical information infrastructure for democracy.

Swarms of hired shills are clearly a problem with the present-day web… and actually they’ve been a problem for quite some time, I used to call them “the rover boys” back when they seemed to be working for Karl Rove. That brings up another point: everyone is excited about the Russian invasion, but it doesn’t get any nicer if the attack is coming from a domestic source, like Hillary’s hired Brock-puppets during the 2016 primary.

But there’s still another difficulty: the left is attracted to the idea that money is the root of all evil, but there really are other sources of evil. A brigade of volunteer fanatics can jam up a conversation just as well– maybe better.

14

Layman 03.16.18 at 7:35 pm

@clew, yes, of course you’re right.

15

Phil 03.16.18 at 7:40 pm

A friend of mine used to post under a gender-neutral pseudonym; I assumed she was a bloke at first and was decidedly snotty with her in a see-here-sonny sort of way (not saying I’m proud of it), which changed when I realised she was a woman. She told me later that this kind of before-and-after was something she’d seen an awful lot from men, although usually the ‘after’ stage wasn’t so benign.

16

engels 03.16.18 at 8:20 pm

(By that I don’t mean ‘why isn’t everybody talking to meeee’ but that social capital is distributed highly unequally on Twitter and I would guess the embarras de richesses of candidates for interaction popular users experience reflects that. As in the material realm, it could be worsening inequality that creates the need for heightened security.)

17

Lee A. Arnold 03.16.18 at 8:30 pm

I only recently became aware of Peterson. Historians of religious ecstasy will recognize a person in search of transcendent experience who doesn’t realize that this experience is wordless in nature. He should get himself into zen practice immediately, and stop expostulating to the world. Otherwise this sort of thing usually ends in a heart attack.

I use Twitter more like an RSS newsfeed and don’t engage much in discussion, unless I have a technical question. But I think that “curation” will be big in the future. I remember years ago I predicted, here, that the editorial function would grow in importance on the internet. But maybe it won’t be exactly that — more like a combined editorial/educational/teaching function, involving both interlocutors. And we hardly know what that will look like. Meanwhile most people don’t know how to think, yet they are spilling it all over the place. Hairsplitting with words is NOT how to think.

18

M Caswell 03.16.18 at 10:27 pm

Imagine that tomorrow, for some strange, otherwise inconsequential reason, Twitter ceases to exist. How many people are sad? Isn’t this an awfully strange state of affairs?

19

LFC 03.16.18 at 10:44 pm

from the OP:

We don’t have any good intellectual basis that I know of for deciding the appropriate ways to allocate attention, since we’ve only started to have that problem in the very recent past.

Every time I decide to read article X instead of article Z, or book A instead of book B, or skim piece Q instead of reading Q closely, or look at blog G and not blog H, or look only at the front page (digitally or otherwise) of newspaper Z instead of looking at it more deeply — in each of these instances, the problem is one of “the appropriate way to allocate attention.” So the quoted formulation in the OP is, at a minimum, unhelpful, since the problem of how to allocate one’s attention has been around, assuming one was literate (when admittedly only a minority were), since the invention of the printing press, if not before.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about how Twitter works (couldn’t Chait have simply ignored Henry F’s replies instead of ‘muting’ him, whatever that means exactly?), but I suspect the case that Henry adduces of too many sincere people wanting to argue with him (or w some hypothetical person) on Twitter is more or less just a special case, w special features, of the more general problem, one that has existed for a long time and way predates the digital era.

We also don’t have good tools for muting the kinds of speech that have been weaponized to undermine conversation, while preserving the kinds of speech that conduct towards this.

That makes sense, but it doesn’t bear a lot of relation to the previous sentence about the allocation of attention, which is a problem that gets solved, to the extent it does, by people’s quirks and interests and what they happen to think is important, and also, to some extent, by the broader milieu in which they happen to live and the specific circles in which they travel (metaphorically speaking).

20

MisterMr 03.16.18 at 10:58 pm

“since we’ve only started to have that problem in the very recent past.”

In what sense?
I’m sure that irritating blokes existed throughout history, it’s just that most of them were forgotten a few decades after their death.

This reminds me of the fact that often 20th century totalitarianism are blamed on mass media, but if we look some centuries before the church had basically the monopoly of culture, and in fact probably pre-illuminism culture was way more totalitarian than fascism.

It seems to me that what the OP finds irritating are motivated attacks that are not a “constructive critic”, but rather a rethorical attempt to destroy the original argument from people who disagree on it on principle, or just dislike the speaker. But this is really part of the way humans debate and communicate with each other, high level debates in the style of Socrates are really rare, in facts they were clearly doctored by Plato with a preconceived solution, and Socrates didn’t end well anyway.

The aggressivity is part of the debate because we are not generally trying to reach a “truth” but rather to push our favored opinions, politics and values on others, which is in the end very natural and the final purpose of these debates.

21

Chip Daniels 03.16.18 at 11:08 pm

I decided, I guess about 2 years ago, to only post under my actual name. I discovered it made me more cautious and temperate in my words, less prone to a snide or caustic tone.

Sometimes, in the search for a way to deliver a sharp critique, I have had to erase and restart my words a number of times. But in doing so, often I just deleted it entirely, realizing that I don’t have to attend every argument to which I am invited, and not every discussion requires me to have the last word.

I had Twitter for a few weeks in 2010 before giving up on it, and just recently deleted Facebook altogether.
I’m honestly not sure if the immediacy of social media is helping our national discourse.
Part of me wants to imagine there was some golden age when people sat around having civil polite discussions in quiet rooms but I know that only happened when certain people were kept out of those rooms, or allowed in to serve tea silently.
I know that the great historical events like Vietnam, civil rights, the Cold War, and all the rest were argued in loud angry tones at bars and coffee shops, with stupid and absurd caricatures no different than Twitter.

So I am ambivalent. Even if the golden age never existed, I’m not sure that technology has elevated discussion by much.

22

Mario 03.16.18 at 11:26 pm

We are all going to need safe spaces where we can have thoughts for longer stretches of time, without those being corroded by hostile parties. It takes effort to defend your ideas from attacks, and it becomes impossible to think if you are constantly assailed.

I think that the fundamental problem with twitter is that, due to its format, it only allows incomplete arguments which, simply for being incomplete, are vulnerable. It’s really hard to make complete statements of positions in such a limited space, and hard enough it is, too, to mount a decisive attack against a position. There is always something missing, and that will be enough to keep the wheel turning.

Case in point: You seem miffed at the idea that trans activists and maoist mass murderers have much in common. As far as I understand Peterson’s argument, the point is that there are similarities of structure between the arguments and the justifications of certain actions, especially among the more radical trans activists. Whatever it is, the full argument will never make it to twitter, nor will a full debunking do. As a consequence, the matter can never be settled in any way.

So – any place away of twitter is already a (relatively) safe space!

23

nastywoman 03.17.18 at 12:00 am

Ups – I forgot for a second that you really take this Internetthingy kind of seriously – but that’s NOT what it was made for – and especially not ”Twitter”.

Twitter was made for anybody who wants to ”zwitscher”…

24

Mario 03.17.18 at 12:21 am

I don’t think you can understand the Jordan Peterson phenomena in isolation of the context within which it is happening. Sure, he says a lot of platitudes, but he says it because he feels they have to be said (so, in a way, they are no longer platitudes), and is proven right by the fact that many people feel a sense of relief when they hear JP say them.

Things like women and men being different. Or that biologically born men cannot become “real” women neither through surgery nor through any other means.

That critique of JP you like so much does not convince me. The article rips some graphs and quotes out of context and makes fun of them, denying them any meaning. It’s just a collection of ad-hominem fallacies, and, if you’ve seen material by him, it’s just not plausible on its face that he is a crank in the way portrayed. Certainly not in a world where Andrea Dworkin or Luce Irigaray are not cranks.

25

Collin Street 03.17.18 at 12:33 am

That would also be a not unreasonable lesson from CT history iirc

By-and-large, people do the things they by-and-large do because they’re comfortably satisfied that such a thing is just and reasonable under the circumstances. There are edge cases with addictions [chemical and mental-feedback stuff] and OCD-type problems and what-have-you, but generally what people do is what they think they should do.

A fortiori, people who do shitty things by-and-large don’t believe they’re shitty things. I mean, honestly/genuinely people think the vast bulk of what they do is OK. And if you think something’s OK you’re not going to hide it… unless you think:
+ that “society” doesn’t think it’s OK, and
+ that society will subject you to negative consequences if you’re discovered.

People who think that everybody else agrees with them won’t conceal their actions. People who think that a tiny powerless fraction of the population disagrees with them won’t conceal their actions. People who think that they’re beyond practical consequences won’t conceal their actions.

… people who don’t really understand their personal potential for error won’t conceal their actions either.

26

J-D 03.17.18 at 12:46 am

But there’s also a much bigger point there, about the kind of space that the Internet has created. Liberalism of the small-l kind goes together with a strong emphasis on free speech. The implicit assumption is that we will all be better off in a world where everyone can say whatever they want, to whoever they want, even if it is inconvenient, or wrong minded, or crazy.

There are two different issues confused there.

On the one hand, it’s generally a good thing if people are allowed to say whatever they want, and it’s usually (although not absolutely always) a bad thing if people are prevented from saying what they want.

But it doesn’t follow that it’s generally a good thing if people are allowed to say whatever they want to whomever they want, or that it’s usually a bad thing if people are prevented from saying what they want to whom they want.

If I choose not to listen to you, I am, in effect, preventing you from saying to me whatever it is you want to say. But I can’t figure how it’s supposed to be a bad thing if I have the choice of whom or what to listen to. If you want to say something to me, but I don’t want to listen, there’s no reason why, in general, your choice should override mine; on the contrary, in general my choice not to listen should carry greater weight than your choice to try to speak to me, because it may be your mouth but they’re my ears. My having the ability to choose whether to listen to you is, in general, a good thing; and that means my ability to choose whether to prevent you from saying whatever you want to me–not to prevent you from saying it, but to prevent you from saying it to me. If there’s such a thing as a right to open your mouth, it doesn’t include a right of access to my ears. Those are two different things, and you shouldn’t confuse them.

27

F. Foundling 03.17.18 at 12:57 am

As for the allocation of attention – I don’t know much about how Twitter works and how this apples to it, but as for other venues (e.g. here), I would have thought that the allocation of attention can happen by, say, not paying attention to whoever and whatever you don’t want to pay attention to. And if people do choose to allocate attention to someone or something, that’s their choice.

As for bad speech stifling free speech, I might be about to produce some bad speech stifling this freely made blog post, but the claims that Chen attributes to ‘Russian activists’ make little sense. If regime trolls are, indeed, easily identifiable as such, I don’t see how they can ‘seed doubt’. Or perhaps what ‘seeds doubt’ is encountering viewpoints different from one’s own? And sure enough, next I read:

‘One activist recalled that a favorite tactic of the opposition was to make anti-Putin hashtags trend on Twitter. Then Kremlin trolls discovered how to make pro-Putin hashtags trend, and the symbolic nature of the action was killed.’

So, when anti-Putin hashtags are made to trend, that’s a real and authentic democratic expression, but when pro-Putin hashtags are made to trend, that’s the devious work of regime trolls and ‘destroys the democratic space’. And they are complaining not of being prevented from expressing their viewpoint, but of the fact that another viewpoint is also being expressed! I’m sorry, but there seems to be a misunderstanding: you are *not* actually entitled to monopolise the public space, and you are *not* entitled not to encounter the expression of other viewpoints – that’s not how freedom of speech and ‘a democratic space’ work. Freedom of speech and ‘a democratic space’ work by different people’s being able to express different viewpoints, and then people’s being swayed by one or the other. Other people’s being able to speak freely does not constitute a violation of your freedom of speech.

Yes, it sucks if some of the people speaking are actually paid by someone else, and that makes the democratic space flawed – which is exactly the way capitalist liberal democracy has always been flawed, so it’s anything but a new problem. But blocking opposing viewpoints *for being opposing viewpoints* is not the way to deal with this. This really *is* like the misguided Leninist response – the capitalist so-called free press is actually the mouthpiece of its capitalist owners (which it is, of course – no less now than in Lenin’s times), so let us abolish freedom of the press altogether!

Also, since we’re hearing that Russia and China don’t primarily rely on traditional censorship, let *us* use traditional censorship instead! And while we’re at it, abolish anonymity to further increase possible negative consequences for undesirable viewpoints! Why not the secret ballot, too? Free speech and democracy used to be a neat thing for a few centuries, but let’s face it – whoever invented them had clearly never fathomed the possibility of such a thing as Russian trolls. Their mesmerising grammar mistakes seem to have a special hypnotising effect on Westerners, causing them to vote for Trump. Above all, let us not allow them to fill us with ‘paranoia’!

As for the actual situation in Russia (I don’t read Chinese), I was scared for a second that the liberals might have been ‘drowned out’ by Putinist commenters – or perhaps jailed and murdered as per BruceJ 03.16.18 at 6:05 pm – while I wasn’t watching, and that freedom of speech had perished completely in Russia, so I opened the comment sections of the site of Novaya Gazeta (https://www.novayagazeta.ru/) and breathed a sigh of relief – they’re still the overwhelming majority there, and everyone agrees that Putin is evil and did poison Skripal, as do the editors.

28

Nicholas Gruen 03.17.18 at 1:43 am

29

b9n10nt 03.17.18 at 2:02 am

RE: interchats:

Just as academic institutions support the arts, we can imagine a similar practice involving the curation of internet conversations as a discipline in which diverse peoples study and are trained in the field (a hybrid of language arts, communications, etc…?) and strive for mastery and excellence.

(Academic? Democratic?) institutions could host chat rooms in which curation is professionalized. Conversational parameters for inclusion and exclusion could be diverse yet standardized in a manner to likewise aid the public in its participation.

RE: Peterson:

He seems to have the fire (as most of us do, no?) to see Beyond, but has lost his way and will stay lost given all the positive social feedback he’s getting. The “you’re mao-ists!” shtick is the tell. Definitely agree with Lee A. Arnold @17 there. The Angry Father is an archetype whose usefulness has passed.

RE: zombies (“It’s in your heeeeaaad, in your heeeeaaaad”)

While constructing this post I argued with myself, “But there are no real barriers to chat room evolution. If the public really wanted a more lively and disciplined salon culture, they’d have it”. And then I catch it: there’s the free market free choice ideology, spillin’ out my brain!

We are the collective that we choose…or that we allow others to choose for us. We have not yet realized a democratic culture responsive to an un-manipulated and empowered public. Internet culture is like an abused pet that has been let off a leash.

30

Nicholas Gruen 03.17.18 at 4:58 am

Petersen isn’t an ‘intellectual’ unless Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are intellectuals. I mean pahleese. He’s certainly got a lot more to say than them.

He’s an upper middle brow preacher and a very good one. He’s got some heart. I enjoy him. I have to confess I dislike the way in which he’s amped up the Manicheanism – insisting that his enemies are evil and all the rest of it. Seeing only his own side of the story. I recall a rave of his on some podcast where he laments the failure of people to address their own issues – to clean up their room. Quite so. But that doesn’t mean that all people in trouble are just not cleaning up their room, or that we can base social action on the singular and individual effort of us all cleaning up our room.

Otherwise it’s all good.

But here I am getting sidetracked onto personalities, when I was earlier offering a positive prospect regarding the problem under discussion. We CAN develop online systems that do a tolerable job of selecting good from bad contributors – as I suggested in this post

http://clubtroppo.com.au/2014/07/30/from-knowledge-to-wisdom-or-at-least-knowledge-2-0/

31

ph 03.17.18 at 6:02 am

Chait would not be worth taking seriously were it not for the fact that so many clearly do. The same can be said for Dr. Peterson. The voluminous hit piece you link to confirms that Peterson has clearly gotten under Nathan Robinson’s skin. I very strongly disagree with your atypically facile reading of the piece in question, perhaps because you share a dislike of Dr. Peterson. I’ll get straight to my complaint.

Robinson makes ZERO effort to contextualize Peterson’s arguments within the discipline Peterson practices. Robinson writes: “Jordan Peterson appears very profound and has convinced many people to take him seriously. Yet he has almost nothing of value to say.”

This is a astonishing claim to make about a highly regarded clinical psychologist who has indeed proven that has something of value to say to a great many people, just not Nathan Robinson. And for that, it seems, Dr. Robinson so very widely-read, must be recast as a quack, or worse.

Nathan Robinson might easily have bolstered his shabby and frequently venal complaints had he taken the time to compare Dr. Peterson’s arguments within the discipline of psychology with those of other psychologists. The science of the mind is a notoriously nebulous topic when discussing behaviors. Neurochemistry is another matter. I’m entirely willing to accept that Peterson is vague and does repackage platitudes as wisdom, but he is no sense alone in this.

Wisdom has been packaged and produced in precisely these simplistic and easily accessible terms in parables and fables from the dawn of time. Peterson is accessible and has legions of mostly satisfied patients who attest to the efficacy of his methods and his work. Might he be Dr. Phil, or Tony Robbins? Perhaps so. Yet, millions find benefit from these as well. There are plenty of therapists who are nothing more than distributors for pharmaceutical companies. Peterson and other psychologists are not licensed to hand out pills, which I’d have thought would be a good thing.

There are a great many complaints to make about the discipline of psychology, but failing to compare Peterson with other psychologists, and instead to Socrates, or perhaps Einstein, seems a very poor form of analysis. As psychologists go, Peterson is fairly clear, easy to understand, and accessible. And his patients seem very happy with the results.

Robinson might simply have written: ‘the story of the fox and the grapes has nothing to teach me, and therefore anyone else.’ It’s shabby work.

32

ph 03.17.18 at 6:04 am

Significant error – ‘Dr. Robinson – so widely read’ should be ‘Dr. Peterson.’

33

J-D 03.17.18 at 6:28 am

Mario

I don’t think you can understand the Jordan Peterson phenomena in isolation of the context within which it is happening. Sure, he says a lot of platitudes, but he says it because he feels they have to be said (so, in a way, they are no longer platitudes), and is proven right by the fact that many people feel a sense of relief when they hear JP say them.

Things like women and men being different. Or that biologically born men cannot become “real” women neither through surgery nor through any other means.

I know that things like that are said. They’re said a lot, and not just by Jordan Peterson. But I can’t figure out any justification for describing them as things that have to be said. I don’t think the fact that you can get positive reactions from a lot of people by saying them makes them into things that have to be said. Indeed, on the face of it, the suspicious way in which you use scare-quotes makes it seem highly likely that you’re spouting rubbish. You need an excellent reason to use scare-quotes, and in this case none is apparent.

34

b9n10nt 03.17.18 at 7:39 am

pH:

I think the strongest argument against your @31 is the following back-at-ya’:

Both Robinson and myself would contextualize him as a wisdom celebrity for a new demographic (an Oprah for young college adults) whereas you contextualize him as a clinical psychologist. Whether or not he is a run-of-the-mill professional need not affect his benefit to society as a wisdom celebrity.

Any wisdom celebrity not saying “slow down, have some quiet time, form communities that support this practice” as their #1 pitch is…not helping. So he’s a distraction. Which means he’s not going to help, on the whole. Especially, I repeat, with the negative “maoists!” stuff. Rallying a bunch of young men around political fears of an Other is :

a) a great way to integrate individual male trauma into a pro-social identity

or

b). A historically dangerous practice.

The kids enthralled with Dr. P are used to being distracted with performances. But it generally takes a great deal of rest and quiet (& modeled self-compassion) to become conscious of and retrain inner stories that promote the apparent psychic suffering these beautiful young men are experiencing. Doing this work needs to be a Priority for young men and the society around them and if Dr. P isn’t pointing at that…

35

b9n10nt 03.17.18 at 7:52 am

Intriguing! hypothesis about “what’s wrong with men” (relative job market participation, educational performance):

They’re (we’re) experiencing gender equality. In many social contexts, fear and insecurity is socially apportioned through the medium of consensual stories about
What’s Happening. (“We heard a knock. My wife made me go take a look.”) So…

…gender-specific social fear and anxiety was like 70-30 put onto women and for a host of reasons its quickly evolved to 50-50. This gives gender-specific emotional/peformative momentum for w0men and against men, who are waking up to more social anxiety and fear at that same time that women are taking a load off.

It’s just a harder time to be a dude…but that’s a good thing, kinda.

Jeez it’s easy to be a pundit. If you put the spotlight on me, I’d start dancing too!

36

Brad DeLong 03.17.18 at 1:17 pm

At an individual level, it is easy…

My test is:

Is this person who has just shown up in my timeline the:

1. smartest
2. knowledgeable
3. well-intentioned
4. interesting

person who is right now writing about:

1. an mportant issue
2. that I care about
3. at a level and in a mode I can understand

?

(Some people would add “kind“, but I find that people who lean over to Fargo be kind call their punches and require one to spend too much work in Aesopian readings.)

If yes, read on. If no, skip. If no and they are annoying, mute. If no and they keep showing up in my timeline, mute. If they still keep showing up in my timeline, block.

This produces a very interesting and useful **individual** feed. By now the combination of my RSS and Twitter feeds is truly an intellectual Elysium.

The problem is that it does nothing to produce a functioning intellectual **community**. And that is what we really need: we are smart when we are part of a functional anthology intelligence. We are dumb when we are off on our own. And we are very dumb when we are part of a dysfunctional combination clown circus and shit show—and there are a lot of people speaking out there who get money or status or pleasure from trying to create dysfunctional combination clown circuss and shit shows.

No, I do not have an answer…

37

Z 03.17.18 at 2:20 pm

We don’t have any good intellectual basis that I know of for deciding the appropriate ways to allocate attention, since we’ve only started to have that problem in the very recent past.

Is that really true? Weren’t there tons of daily newspapers (local, national, union-based, faith-based, right-leaning, left-leaning…) in any European or American city already in the late 19th century? Far, far more than anybody could possibly read?

38

bianca steele 03.17.18 at 2:51 pm

I wonder how soon tech media will report that the “you can read Twitter even you don’t have an account” the company touts is no longer true—I can’t click through that tweet in the OP. I had an account for a few months and deleted it. It’s so bad I don’t even want to contribute to their user count.

The best way to not be harassed online is to have an Anglo-sounding male name. The second-best way is to follow people but not post anything yourself. The first time I got vaguely menacing off-list email from people I hadn’t even interacted with onlist should have been when I either got a screen name or logged out for good. (The couple of people (literally two, I think) here who know my real name, with a pretty common surname, may be surprised that when I stopped using it in 2003 you could still get my street address by searching for my name and state.) Try dealing with a troll with an Anglo real sounding name if anything about your real name or email ID looks exotic or “funny”.

39

bianca steele 03.17.18 at 3:03 pm

Addendum from someone with professional experience in the general area of platforms in the same ballpark, more or less, as Twitter: there seems to be an enormous appetite for software technology (including discourse rules) that will perform all the work of creating and maintaining communities, with no work on the part of the people in the community. Then when stuff happens, we hear that software corporations have to be made more sensitive to the needs of the community.

40

engels 03.17.18 at 3:20 pm

Petersen isn’t an ‘intellectual’ unless Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are intellectuals.

Whatever you think of Richard Dawkins it doesn’t make a lot of sense to claim he isn’t an intellectual.

41

engels 03.17.18 at 3:43 pm

One good thing about Twitter is letting people know about stuff like this
https://mobile.twitter.com/JohnClarke1960/status/974766676213420033

Is this person who has just shown up in my timeline the: 1. smartest 2. knowledgeable 3. well-intentioned 4. interesting person who is right now writing about: 1. an mportant issue 2. that I care about 3. at a level and in a mode I can understand? If yes, read on. If no, skip.

Iow only pay attention to experts. Which is fine because we’re definitely not living through a time when the antagonism between technocratic elites and the wider population has become political dyna… oh wait

42

engels 03.17.18 at 4:41 pm

Erratum: evidently the hat wasn’t photoshopped but imo the bias is still pretty appalling and the kind of thing that got far less attention pre-Twitter
https://mobile.twitter.com/WillWiles/status/975047105915039745

43

Landru 03.17.18 at 4:45 pm

It’s perhaps off-topic for this post, at least at first; but reading through the Current Affairs piece on Peterson it seemed to me that Robinson is rather burying his lede. Much more important than the content of one Canadian celebrity psychologist, is what the man’s rise to fame implies about our world:

And [Peterson] is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.

But here the left and academia actually bear a decent share of blame. … Some of it is just that self-help always sells. Another part of it, though, is that academics have been cloistered and unhelpful, and the left has failed to offer people a coherent political alternative.

These seem to me to be rather large explosive charges, especially here at CT the home — cloister? — of so many leftists and academics. Not just “failed,” but “failed spectacularly.”
Is this the argument that Robinson really wants to have?

Apologies if this is a de-rail, and might better be taken up in a different thread. But I’m not sure that it isn’t directly relevant: is Chait’s criticism of Henry at all akin to Robinson’s criticism of unhelpful academics? Or, how much of the general reader’s time is it worth to be parsing intra-left denunciations, which are hardly in short supply?

44

Donald Johnson 03.17.18 at 5:31 pm

I don’t see how this problem can be solved in the current environment until everyone agrees with me on everything.

I am half serious. We are all trolls in the wrong environment. I have had the experience of posting in various places and applauded in some (obviously perceptive sites) and ignored in others (didn’t see the pearls cast before them) and once in a while seen as a troll in still others. You just have to have a point of view which differs strongly enough from the local standard ( and it can even be one one narrow point because of the narcissism of small differences) and some people will see you as a troll. Of course it doesn’t help that there are genuine trolls out there stirring up trouble for the fun of it. And fiendish Russians stirring up division in our otherwise harmonious and pristine democracy.

Twitter seems especially designed to bring out the tribalism in everyone. I despised it when I first heard about it and now I have my favorite Twitterers, so I sold out, but it does more harm than good.

We could go back to the old model where a few TV networks and quality newspapers only allow for the self designated serious folk to have their say. Spaces as safe as could be. Short of government crackdown or corporate takeover of the internet, it can’t be done, so maybe it will be done. Problem solved.

45

Charlie 03.17.18 at 5:48 pm

I think your point is a fine one, so long as we don’t encourage companies like twitter to start adopting a similarly enlightened stance. Free speech has never included a right to be listened to, nor should it; mute whomever you want, or block them, for any reason or no reason at all. But denying someone an important public platform altogether on similarly broad grounds m—even if a private company’s doing the denial and the first amendment isn’t implicated—seems a little iffy to me. I’m not sure that I want twitter to be in the business of curating the speech I hear for me

46

engels 03.17.18 at 6:31 pm

On the general point, I think Henry’s discussion runs together two issues. One is limiting your interaction with hostile interlocutors and people who make you uncomfortable (iirc that’s what safe spaces are about, and what Chait is concerned about) the other is that ultimately you need to make choices about how to allocate your motors time and attention (I don’t think anyone denies that, nor has it ever not been the case).

47

Kiwanda 03.17.18 at 6:32 pm

Re the mute-inducing tweet: Chait’s

In the contemporary United States, these ideas are confined by the fact that only in certain communities (like college campuses) does the illiberal left have the power to implement its vision, and even there it is constrained by the U.S. Constitution. If illiberal ideas were to gain more power, the scale of their abuses would widen.

…is hardly a claim that “we’d all be marching towards the gulag”. That sounds like not letting accuracy get in the way of a good burn.

Re the “really fantastic essay”: it was curious to me that I got through almost all the first paragraph under the impression that I was reading another takedown of post-modernist bullshit factories: “restate your platitude using as many words as possible”, check; “as unintelligibly as possible”, check; “Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense“, check. “Never say anything too specific”, check; “if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite”, check.

Re bianca steele:

The best way to not be harassed online is to have an Anglo-sounding male name.

Not clear, according to Pew Research, at least with respect to gender. In 2017, 12% of men reported physical threats, vs. 8% of women, while 4% of men reported sexual harassment, vs 8% of women. Regarding physical threats and sexual harassment as equally “serious”, the total numbers are the same. Slightly more men than women received “purposeful embarassment” and “sustained harassment”, slightly more women than men received stalking. There was no data on “Anglo-sounding”.

Re: “Second, speech is increasingly being weaponized to drown out inconvenient voices.” It’s certainly true that professors like George Ciccariello-Maher are targeted. But apparently these days even Margaret Atwood is inconvenient, as is Carmen Aguirre, for supporting due process. And of course Rebecca Tuvel was inconvenient.

48

bianca steele 03.17.18 at 6:35 pm

@37

And there were things called “mailing lists” and “discussion groups” that allowed people to choose what they wanted to hear about and what kinds of discussions would be permitted. There were things called “blogs” and “online magazines” and “newsletters” that allowed groups of people to publish pieces and either make the choices themselves or delegate them to an “editor,” and sometimes allow for comment in their own “pages.” There were “phones” that let people send “text messages” when their cat did a cute thing they wanted to share with friends or they overheard a funny story in an overseas railroad station. There were “readings” where people who had published books gave a little talk and then hung out for a while to sign books that people had paid for. There were “cable stations” that helped people make videos and share them with members of the community who might be interested enough to overlook poor production values.

49

Henry 03.17.18 at 7:02 pm

is hardly a claim that “we’d all be marching towards the gulag”. That sounds like not letting accuracy get in the way of a good burn.

You appear to have missed the first part of the quote (and the preceding paragraph, which I include below, makes it even clearer).

Zimmer is articulating the standard left-wing critique of political liberalism, and all illiberal left-wing ideologies, Marxist and otherwise, follow the same basic structure. These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class. (Traditional Marxism defines these classes in economic terms; more modern variants replace or add race and gender identities.) From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.

It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag. The gap between Marxist political theory and the observed behavior of Marxist regimes is tissue-thin. Their theory of free speech gives license to any party identifying itself as the authentic representative of the oppressed to shut down all opposition (which, by definition, opposes the rights of the oppressed). When Marxists reserve for themselves the right to decide “which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t,” the result of the deliberation is perfectly obvious.

In the contemporary United States, these ideas are confined by the fact that only in certain communities (like college campuses) does the illiberal left have the power to implement its vision, and even there it is constrained by the U.S. Constitution. If illiberal ideas were to gain more power, the scale of their abuses would widen.

NB the link from “Marxist and otherwise” leads to another Chait piece on ‘political correctness.’ Chait is explicitly and unequivocally linking ‘all illiberal leftwing ideologies,’ including ‘political correctness’ to “the Gulag.” It’s a fair cop.

50

bianca steele 03.17.18 at 7:14 pm

Kiwanda,

Looking quickly I don’t see what they’re counting as “online.” I’m talking about forums like this one where opinions are given and discussed. It’s interesting if women are bothered less in groups like this one, because if that were so, I’d expect there to be more women here!

I’m not aware of any harassment (or even annoying behavior) at all on my husband’s Facebook page, on the other hand, which is made up mostly of work friends, relatives, and neighbors sharing their kids’ graduation pictures.

51

Joseph Brenner 03.17.18 at 7:21 pm

Lee A. Arnold@17:

But I think that “curation” will be big in the future. I remember years ago I predicted, here, that the editorial function would grow in importance on the internet. But maybe it won’t be exactly that — more like a combined editorial/educational/teaching function, involving both interlocutors. And we hardly know what that will look like.

Yes, that’s exactly it: we’re still missing an institution and we need it badly if the internet is going to be something besides a toy to goof around with. My take is that in the first ten years of the web we saw a lot of progress in developing “critical information infrastructure” (to stick with the phrase I used before), but in the second ten years it all went sideways and people chased bright and shiny distractions like “mobile apps”.

Meanwhile most people don’t know how to think, yet they are spilling it all over the place.

And that’s one of the issues, how do we all learn to think better? Myself, I think the stuff we usually call “education” is only part of the answer at best.

Hairsplitting with words is NOT how to think.

Oh yeah? What about that time when you said this five years ago? Ha ha, gotcha!

(Chait looks like he’s going down the David Brooks-hole: “How dare you take what I said seriously?”)

M Caswell@18:

Imagine that tomorrow, for some strange, otherwise inconsequential reason, Twitter ceases to exist.

It’s not hard to imagine reasons that could happen, it’s somewhat amazing Twitter has survived this long. It was a historic event when they announced a profitable quarter last month.

How many people are sad?

Actually, much fewer than you might think. If today, you tried to convince everyone that Twitter was an evil and destructive force and they should really do something else, they’d act like you were a mad man– but if (when?) Twitter falls over, you’ll see them all collectively shrug and move on to something else (probably something worse).

Isn’t this an awfully strange state of affairs?

I’d put that in my sigfile if they still existed (and if I ever used them).

52

Joseph Brenner 03.17.18 at 7:40 pm

ph@31 wrote:

This is a astonishing claim to make about a highly regarded clinical psychologist who has indeed proven that has something of value to say to a great many people, just not Nathan Robinson. And for that, it seems, Dr. Robinson so very widely-read, must be recast as a quack, or worse.

I think you’re using a different standard of “value”. Saying engaging things that make people feel better is something you might expect of a therapist, but it’s also something you expect of a con-artist…

The other day I pointed out to a renewables-enthusiast that they were exaggerating their case, and they responded something like “well, people need to hear positive stories”. If you wanted to take that in the worst possible way, he was saying that he wasn’t interested in truth.

It’s a very common idea these days (a “meme”?) that I see come up in multiple different contexts: “people aren’t persuaded by facts, instead we need to come up with a new narrative, a new story.” [1]

So do we care more about persuasive speech than we care about truth?

If you’re being an “activist” does that mean you have no intellectual integrity?

And this is another old one of course, going back to Plato and criticisms of “rhetoric”–

[1] George_Monbiot as an example, “Out of the Wreckage, A New Politics for an Age of Crisis” e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE63Y7srr_Y

53

Joseph Brenner 03.17.18 at 7:41 pm

Nicholas Gruen@28: “I wrote about this here”

Well sure, I’ve been writing about this for years, and talking about it to anyone who would listen, which is (perhaps ironically) not many.

I’ve got some material up here at my site:

http://obsidianrook.com/doomfiles/THE_TOY_WEB.html
http://obsidianrook.com/doomfiles/NERVE.html
http://obsidianrook.com/doomfiles/THE_ROVERS.html

And for a while I was working on a series at the dailykos:

https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2015/9/19/1423012/-The-Two-Gatekeepers
https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2015/8/29/1416163/-Thinking-Even-Slower
https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2015/11/6/1446086/-Anti-Nuclear-Amory-vs-Atomicrod-and-Other-Fun-with-Credentials

About your piece (Nicholas Gruen’s “The middleware of democracy”) from 2014:

http://clubtroppo.com.au/2014/07/30/from-knowledge-to-wisdom-or-at-least-knowledge-2-0/

There’s some good stuff there. Tetlock, et al, is one of the areas worth studying in this field — if you folks aren’t up on this: his cohorts have come up with a pretty simple set of principles and demonstrated that if you spend an hour studying the material you’re ability to predict current events improves by 10% (e.g. see the Appendix to “Superforecasters”). Considering Kahneman’s pessimism about training people to dodge epistemic biases, that’s pretty big news really.

I’m sorry I missed the “YourView” site: were they using any method of verifying identities? That’s the big thing that most such things miss: user-moderation schemes where the “users” may be an infinite supply of fraud accounts can’t possibly work for anything but a toy site that no one cares about much.

And as engels@40 points out “Whatever you think of Richard Dawkins it doesn’t make a lot of sense to claim he isn’t an intellectual.”

Sure, Dawkins counts. He’s the guy who put over the meme for “meme”– which a decade or two later evolved into meaning “image-hack joke”.

(Who invented the self-referential humor? Norbert Wiener?)

54

LFC 03.17.18 at 9:14 pm

The OP links to a paper by Tim Wu, whose capsule biography, given at the end of the paper, is, to say the least, impressive (professor at Columbia Law School, clerked for Judge Posner and Justice Breyer, author of two books, etc.) I have not read the whole paper, which no doubt contains ideas and suggestions worth taking seriously.

One of Prof. Wu’s assertions, however, namely that modern (i.e., early 20th-cent. onward) First Amendment jurisprudence presupposes an environment of “information scarcity,” seems overdone. If he means information scarcity compared to the current environment, that would be one thing. But that’s not what Wu writes; he refers to information scarcity, period. And that claim is a bit odd.

Wu writes:

Consider three main assumptions that the law grew up with. The first is an underlying premise of informational scarcity. For years, it was taken for granted that few people would be willing to invest in speaking publicly. Relatedly, it was assumed that with respect to any given issue … only a limited number of important speakers could compete in the “marketplace of ideas.”27 The second notable assumption arises from the first: listeners are assumed not to be overwhelmed with information, but rather to have abundant time and interest to be influenced by publicly presented views. Finally, the government is assumed to be the main threat to the “marketplace of ideas” through its use of criminal law or other coercive instruments to target speakers (as opposed to listeners) with punishment or bans on publication.28 Without government intervention [i.e. gov’t targeting of particular speakers], this assumption goes, the marketplace of ideas operates well by itself.

Each of these assumptions has, one way or another, become obsolete in the twenty-first century, due to the rise in importance of attention markets and changes in communications technologies.

Much of this could be kind of right, but it’s not easy to be certain. Take the statement that it was assumed that “with respect to any given issue … only a limited number of important speakers could compete in the “marketplace of ideas.”” You would expect his note 27 to support this statement, but it doesn’t; instead note 27 refers to a book about Holmes and notes that he never used the exact phrase “marketplace of ideas”. That has very little — actually nothing — to do with the assertion that it was assumed there cd only be a limited number of important speakers competing in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ on any particular issue.

Moreover, given the use of the word “important,” it cd be argued that if the assumption did indeed hold then, it still holds now. For example, take net neutrality, certainly an issue debated publicly in the ‘marketplace of ideas’. I’m sure that Henry Farrell and others assume — probably correctly — that there are only a limited number of important speakers who can compete in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ on the debate over net neutrality. The important speakers on the question basically are either (1) academic experts on the subject (of which Tim Wu happens to be one) or (2) people being paid by corporate or other interests to develop enough expertise about net neutrality to act as spokespeople for the interests that are, directly or indirectly, paying them.

The fact that anyone can start a blog or go on Twitter and start spouting opinions about net neutrality (or, for that matter, any other subject) — even if such person might happen to know something about the subject in question — does not nec. increase the number of “important” speakers competing in ‘the marketplace of ideas’ in the debate on net neutrality (or whatever the subject might be). Now if a foreign government, say, got interested in that debate and decided to flood Twitter w/ a bunch of fake accounts shrieking opinions about net neutrality, that might indeed change the picture, but afaik that hasn’t happened — not with the debate on net neutrality, and not w debates on a lot of other topics. (It did happen w/r/t the 2016 election though.)

So if indeed the assumption in the 1920s was that only a limited number of “important” speakers could compete in the marketplace of ideas on any given topic, a reasonable case could be made that, while the number of “important” speakers on any given topic has increased somewhat, it’s still “limited.”

IOW, operating, as is sort of unavoidable, without precise definitions of terms like ‘scarcity,’ ‘limited’, and ‘important’, one can prob. end up constructing pretty much whatever argument one wants: either that the environment has changed so much that the traditional assumptions of First Amendment jurisprudence have become obsolete, or that the number of publicly expressed opinions in the environment has increased but that that hasn’t changed things so much as to render traditional First Am. law irrelevant.

55

Ronan(rf) 03.17.18 at 10:13 pm

I’d extend the premise of the OP more explictly and wonder why so many still see Chait as worth engaging with. We’re living through a time of increasing ideological variety and the likes of Chait/Douthat et al offer very little insight into understanding it or contemporary politics. So much of this sort of mainstream opinion became stale very quickly over the past few years, so the question perhaps is how to engage with the new ideologues who are offering quite popular critiques of the status quo, and limit the pernicous analytical influence people like Chait have. Im not against him riding his hobby horse for the next two decades if he must, but there’s a need for a way to stop these talking heads diverting the debate down such stupid, tedious dead ends. We’re living through interesting times and they have literally nothing interesting to say about it.

56

William Timberman 03.17.18 at 10:32 pm

The trouble with Chait’s criticism of illiberal left-wing ideologies is that he fears the presumptive evil to come while ignoring the evil which already exists, a stance typical of certain members of his class, who are exempt by their status from much of that evil. If that’s an illiberal left-wing critique, so be it.

To quote Layman @ 11 (03.16.18 at 6:42 pm):

You should try working for people who will fire you for your political, social, or economic views. Like the CEO who asked me if I could buy or build something to easily monitor the Facebook posts of all our employees.

The point is that Chait doesn’t have to try, or perhaps has so completely internalized the fact that it’s in his own interest not to notice that he is, in fact, working for such people, that he isn’t even aware of how that limits the effectiveness of his argument. Bully for him. For those of us who do work for such people, or have worked for them, dreaming of Chait in the Gulag is indeed illiberal, but also somewhat titillating….

57

Kiwanda 03.17.18 at 11:05 pm

bianca steele:

Looking quickly I don’t see what they’re counting as “online.” I’m talking about forums like this one where opinions are given and discussed. It’s interesting if women are bothered less in groups like this one, because if that were so, I’d expect there to be more women here!

I’m not sure that you had specified exactly what you meant by “online” either, although a different Pew survey on “social media” mentions Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Youtube, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. With the exceptions of LinkedIn and Whatsapp, these are all to some degree or other “forums on which opinions are given and discussed”, clearly so for Twitter.

An older Pew Survey for 2016 says that more women than men use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest, particularly Instagram and Pinterest, and overall outnumber men on social media. The only platform mentioned on which men outnumbered women was LinkedIn, and there modestly. Following your reasoning, those monstrous women on Instagram and Pinterest must be driving men away.

58

J-D 03.17.18 at 11:51 pm

kidneystones
Nathan Robinson is taking Jordan Peterson seriously, and the reason he is doing so is exactly the one you refer to: because so many other people take Jordan Peterson seriously. He subjects Jordan Peterson’s output to close scrutiny; that counts, precisely, as one of the ways of taking somebody seriously. Having conducted his scrutiny he concludes that there is no merit in Jordan Peterson’s output, but the fact that he reaches such a conclusion is no evidence that he didn’t take Jordan Peterson seriously.

The fact that many people take Jordan Peterson seriously is no evidence that there is merit in his conclusions. There have been and are many quacks, charlatans, and frauds who have been and are taken seriously by many people, people who have accepted their conclusions. The way to find out whether a conclusion is justified is not to measure how many people accept it.

59

alfredlordbleep 03.18.18 at 12:03 am

LFC @54

Furthermore, Tim Wu makes the surprising and provocative statement just before his conclusion:

Congress might conclude that our political discourse has been deeply damaged, threatening not just coherent governance but the survival of the republic. On that basis, I think the elected branches should be allowed, within reasonable limits, to try returning the country to the kind of media environment that prevailed in the 1950s. (!)

I think this is mistaken and so must many. But I would enter a very large discussion to give the even larger related issues their due. I won’t attempt to overfill a margin (in this thread) to take it. Modesty forbids :-)

(Plus it’s a lot of writing that will remain in notes and in my head for a future draft)

60

Kiwanda 03.18.18 at 12:04 am

Henry:

You appear to have missed the first part of the quote (and the preceding paragraph, which I include below, makes it even clearer).

I didn’t miss the first part. Chait associates the Gulag with Marxism, and associates Marxism, via shared hostility to free expression, with the “illiberal left”. It’s not an *entirely* uncharitable reading to make that association transitive, but Chait seems to disavow that: “What I’ve written is that these arguments borrow Marxism’s critique of liberalism, not that they are Marxist.” Saying “the scale of their abuses would widen” is not “marching towards the gulag”.

61

Nicholas Gruen 03.18.18 at 12:37 am

engles @40

You’re quite right to pick me up on that throwaway line – I thought it was stupid shortly after I wrote it. It’s based on a kind of private definition of an ‘intellectual’ for which Dawkins doesn’t qualify because, though he might spend a lot of his time reading and writing about ideas, he’s obtuse on so much he debates – when it gets philosophical.

Ditto Sam Harris. It was also stupid when applied to Petersen whom I think is quite insightful, if long since given over to a kind of escalating self-certainty and one-sidedness about those whom he critiques.

62

Nicholas Gruen 03.18.18 at 1:21 am

Joseph Brenner @53

Thanks for your comments Joseph. Regarding the stuff of yours you’ve linked to, beyond diagnosing the problems which you have done far more presciently than most, I couldn’t find much that helps improve things – other than your attack on anonymous content. I’m broadly supportive of the idea, though surely you want to have pathways whereby people can build up pseudonymous IDs that gain respect and currency.

I don’t think YourView banned pseudonyms, but it didn’t last long enough for that to be much of an issue. I quoted Tetlock, but in many ways, his work is NOT a solution because, like Wikipedia, his focus is on what is (or will be) not on political discussion which is about what OUGHT to be – which is a much harder nut to crack.

I’ve looked round to try to make contact with you directly, but can’t find out how to do it. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to on ngruen AT gmail.

63

Omega Centauri 03.18.18 at 3:24 am

J-D @58 and others.
Of course there are different reasons to take someone (or institution seriously). Only one is if you think their arguments have merit. Another is that if you think they have influence, then you could take them seriously because you want to understand the effect they are having on the wider world. The second of these resembles my attitude toward religion, personally I think they are all bunk, but they have a strong influence on the actual world I live in, so I take having at least a basic understanding of the principle ones to be an essential part of being an informed human. And of course if you wish to counter the alleged harmful effects of the charlatan in question, there is the old adage “know thine enemy”.

64

J-D 03.18.18 at 3:39 am

Kiwanda

He refers, explicitly, to a ‘link’ with the gulag. If he meant some kind of link which is not ‘more power for these ideas will lead to the gulag, or something like it’, he could easily have made explicit what kind of link he had in mind. Since he didn’t, that is by default the most natural reading of the passage.

It’s like saying somebody had a link with John Gotti when what you mean is they bought their clothes from the same vendor. If that’s what you meant, you could say so; if you don’t, people are justified in making the more natural interpretation that you are referring to joint involvement in organised crime.

65

ph 03.18.18 at 3:45 am

Public intellectuals – the new mendicant order

The pious beggar Nathan Robinson rattles his cup:
“If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation or purchasing a subscription. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.”

Keith Richards observed that good bands do not need to seek audiences.

Some critics reject popularity as a metric of quality; not me. The fact that so many people line up to participate in an event I find strange, or inexplicable suggests that some highly-desirable qualities are present – just ones I don’t understand, or perhaps approve of.

Bad them.

66

Chuck Baggett 03.18.18 at 3:55 am

“drowned up”?

67

Nicholas Gruen 03.18.18 at 4:03 am

J-D @58

Is this the five-minute argument or the full half hour? I read some of the article on Jordan Petersen and it was obvious the author wasn’t taking Petersen seriously – he wasn’t trying to engage with what Petersen is getting at but rather taking potshots at what he’d said – which is an easy thing to do – everyone says things which you can, in your interpretation of them, make nonsense of.

He was pulling the old intellectual authoritarian trick on Petersen – demanding that his utterances be read as if they were a contribution to a scientific discussion with science being predefined in authoritarian terms – about falsification and all that stuff. Even though Petersen would, presumably, accept that plenty of stuff that he says is good to be judged in that kind of context, pretty obviously it’s going to be difficult to subject lots of what he has to say to those kinds of strictures. If one did that, his reference to archetypes and much of his advice to readers would have to read like the dullest, worthiest and most useless social science.

68

Tim van Gelder 03.18.18 at 4:25 am

Re anonymous content

Allowing unfettered anonymous posting has obvious drawbacks. Requiring true identities to be revealed has obvious drawbacks. Fortunately this is a false dichotomy.

YourView used a combination of a reputation mechanism plus simple anti-gaming techniques while allowing unrestricted account creation and pseudonyms. Such platforms do not need to eliminate the possibility of trolling, gaming etc; they only need to make it hard enough to do these things, or to do them with any impact, to make authentic and constructive participation the easier option. As they scale up and the stakes get higher, this becomes more of a challenge.

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Joseph Brenner 03.18.18 at 4:52 am

Nicholas Gruen@62:

Regarding the stuff of yours you’ve linked to, beyond diagnosing the problems which you have done far more presciently than most, I couldn’t find much that helps improve things – other than your attack on anonymous content.

True enough, I’ve got no magic formula– and even if one of the half-dozen or so site ideas I have turns out to be The One I wouldn’t know how to sell people on trying it out. There’s actually large numbers of variants out there that people try– most of them go the way of YourView pretty quickly, irrespective of their merits.

I’m broadly supportive of the idea, though surely you want to have pathways whereby people can build up pseudonymous IDs that gain respect and currency.

That was the old idea, back in the usenet days– in retrospect it was based on the idea that email addresses were difficult to get and roughly tied to a single individual. You could try to hack something similar using public-key encryption tricks to do digital signatures, the trouble there is a far-sighted agency that wants to game the system by having employees act like “sleeper spys”, doing relatively benign, positive things with the IDs until they’re needed for a propaganda campaign. There’s also a funny phenomena that arose with slashdot: low ID accounts are accorded a certain amount of respect– with a low number you’re not some late-comer little kid– so some people auctioned theirs off on ebay.

I’m afraid we’re stuck with anonymity of the “editorial from Mister X” sort, where you need to convince some other human beings to front for you and conceal your identity.

I quoted Tetlock, but in many ways, his work is NOT a solution because, like Wikipedia, his focus is on what is (or will be) not on political discussion which is about what OUGHT to be – which is a much harder nut to crack.

True, it certainly is– but I’m backing the belief that “the truth will out and justice be done”, or more precisely if the truth does go out, then justice will be done. E.g. without a believeable “skeptic” position, we’d be further along to a solution on global warming–

I’ve looked round to try to make contact with you directly, but can’t find out how to do it. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to on ngruen AT gmail.

My apologies, didn’t realize it was obscure: it’s doomvox@gmail.com or doom@kzsu.stanford.edu. I decided not to hide from the world some time back, and it hasn’t bitten me yet.

70

bianca steele 03.18.18 at 4:55 am

Kiwanda,

At this point I’m just curious whether you believe that “the best way to not be harassed online is to have an Anglo male name” is falsified by “more men than women report being threatened physically online.” I’m aware that being so blunt as that is considered gauche in online circles.

71

b9n10nt 03.18.18 at 5:41 am

@67

It would seem that the onus is on you to state what Peterson is getting at and then you will have shown that Robinson evades it.

72

ph 03.18.18 at 6:03 am

@63 Re: religious nonsense and charlatans.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place without the likes prayers and hymns such as ‘Amazing Grace’ and

And all those tedious temples? I mean, really. Couldn’t the money and effort have been better spent? Martin Luther? Dunce, and like Peterson – a tireless self-promoter with his own custom white rose TM; Northrop Frye? Who?; the Sistine Chapel? Yawn; MLK? another time-waster; All those pacifist monks lighting themselves on fire during Viet Nam? Showoffs. Homer? F-Homer. Milton – his pamphlets are fine, but Paradise Lost – please. Tasso? Another nobody. Northern renaissance altar pieces? A fine waste of good wood.

Theologies exist in many shapes and forms. Strip religion from culture and we’re left with shopping malls and statues of Lenin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein.

73

b9n10nt 03.18.18 at 6:10 am

OP:

We don’t have any good intellectual basis that I know of for deciding the appropriate ways to allocate attention, since we’ve only started to have that problem in the very recent past…We are all going to need safe spaces – and to start thinking systematically about how to build them while preserving conversation.

So…like always there’s been too much content & choice is necessary, but unlike 19th C urban newspaper culture, we no longer see ourselves as forming or preserving a shared identity that constrains and focuses our choices. We must construct collective goals and methods.

The theme returns again to the limits to liberalism as an indidualistic political and social philosophy

74

J-D 03.18.18 at 7:26 am

kidneystones

Perhaps you think there’s a good reason why all those people are admiring the emperor’s new clothes. There were people lining up to invest with Bernie Madoff, too.

75

J-D 03.18.18 at 7:42 am

Charlie

Free speech has never included a right to be listened to, nor should it; mute whomever you want, or block them, for any reason or no reason at all. But denying someone an important public platform altogether on similarly broad grounds m—even if a private company’s doing the denial and the first amendment isn’t implicated—seems a little iffy to me.

In general, it’s impossible to evaluate the merits of a ban without knowing the reasons the ban was imposed, and I can’t think of any reason for excepting bans imposed by Twitter. If Twitter has the power to ban people (and I assume it does), it is possible that it will use that power unwisely, but it is also possible that it will use it wisely.

76

J-D 03.18.18 at 10:05 am

Nicholas Gruen

I read some of the article on Jordan Petersen and it was obvious the author wasn’t taking Petersen seriously

It wasn’t obvious to me, and I read the whole article. The article used specific citations and quotations to make its points, which is a more serious approach than yours, in which you use no specific citations or quotations from the article. (It’s a small thing, but the article also took Peterson seriously enough to get the spelling of his name right.)

77

nastywoman 03.18.18 at 11:54 am

nastywoman – let me remind you again that you are banned from commenting on my posts.

78

Layman 03.18.18 at 12:06 pm

ph: “Strip religion from culture and we’re left with shopping malls and statues of Lenin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein.”

If I didn’t know you better, I would thought this was a sly bit of parody aimed at the offending Chait argument that launched this thread. I was ready to congratulate you on it, but then I remembered who you are, and realized that it wasn’t parody; that, probably, you actually believe this is a fair and compelling argument.

79

Nicholas Gruen 03.18.18 at 12:19 pm

J-D @76

It’s a fair cop. And here was I imagining JP had fine Scandinavian DNA :)

80

ph 03.18.18 at 2:19 pm

@77 I hope you won’t be too offended if I agree. I’ve no idea why anyone sensible would post anything on social media. Most people can be contacted by email and many will usually reply.

Which leads to Henry’s views on Twitter, which I suspect are widely-held. The illusion of control is just that. One can hope that one is not replying to a bot, but why work in a media where that’s a real issue. Blog comment threads are turbulent enough already.

I’ve taken a look at three, or four of the more popular forms of social media and can’t see any advantage at all. We spend too much time ‘plugged-in,’ as it is. When I go for long walks, as is my normal routine – never take any form of media. That leaves me free to muse over the myriad (ahem) knotty problems on my plate, and experience the flora and fauna – such that it is. I keep my phone turned off and stay in regular contact with those close. Others, professional relationships and such, are civil because I was taught that one’s smile and positive attitude in the workplace is part of the uniform. I share little personal information and prefer others restrict their conversations to the weather or sport. I’m not interested in their personal lives, or discussing work after work, or gossiping about colleagues. My experience is that virtually every after work event with co-workers ends up as an extension of conversations I never wanted to have in the first place.

Selecting input is one of the great freedoms and duties. I think Henry wrong about the times, but right about the specific problems with social media. There’s far, far too much of value to be consumed to worry about Chait on liberalism, or Andrew Sullivan on politics. I downloaded three complete books this afternoon from the Bnf. Google Books has a gigormous collection of fiction and essays available.

Dullards and dolts are easily ignored if one selects for quality. Pr. de Long is good on this.

81

Glen Tomkins 03.18.18 at 2:21 pm

Of course there are empirical rules for the attention allocation problem. They don’t constitute a complete and infallible system, but they are, as are all the rules we live by, good enough to get by with.

One very fundamental rule you violated by even reading anything written by Chait, much less engaging him in a back and forth, is that you don’t pay attention to arguments made by people whose word is not actually crafted to convey ideas, but to signal status, as everyone who has ever wasted time on Chait understands as his reason for writing. He has way more access to the machers than you do, Shlub Reader, and is way more clever than you are either, because he has found the Third Way between what he has to project as the positions of any two sets of mere shlubs grubbing it out in the arena of public policy.

What possible good could come of reading what Chait has to say? It no doubt is true that the machers will indeed talk to him and not to me and you, and understanding the powerful in our society is as important as understanding deadly microbial parasites, for similar reasons. But understanding the powerful is the least of the problems faced by the powerless. They are no mystery to us, we need no Virgil to guide us through the hell they have created. What Chait is there to do is to help distract us from the reality we know from experience, the boot grinding the face forever, with tales of intrigues of one set of rulers against another. You stop paying attention to Chait as the first step to paying the useful attention to the powerful provided by your own experience.

Okay, so this empirical rule of not paying any attention to the writings of courtiers, has this distinct advantage, it encourages the reader to pay attention to me. Read what Glen Tomkins has to say, and you are in no danger whatever of status signaling.

The rule you violated by engaging with Chait on Twitter is that at Twitter length, you can do nothing for understanding but harm. You can’t grapple with reality in Twitter-sized bites, any more than anything good can come of political debates as conducted in US presidential elections. People who actually suffer from mid-stage dementia do better in that sound bite format than people who are not impaired by any condition more serious than Potomac fever. You can undoubtedly prove that you’re more clever at repartee than your interlocutor at Twitter length, in fact, Twitter length or even shorter is exactly what that goal of writing demands — but why pursue that goal. What is it worth, to prove that you’re smarter than Chait? Or less bought than Chait? You think that needs any more proof than Chait supplies every time he takes pen to paper? You trying to replace him in his function in our society?

Okay, self-instantiation alert! What I had to say about paying attention to what Glen Tomkins has to say at least following the rule of avoiding status signaling, has to now be seen in context. You’re reading what Glen Tomkins has to say in a setting not much more expansive than Twitter, you fool. You’re thinking of engaging with him based on Twitter length statements, you idiot. (Okay, many of you are not at all tempted to engage, oh wise ones.)

That said, I will try to recover by insisting that what I write here has to be considered only as a small addition to the much, much lengthier — long enough to be true to the complexity of reality — expanse of the sum total of my internet writings. I won’t hear any criticisms of what I write that aren’t based on a review of everything I have ever written! So, google away before you even think of saying anything against me. There will be a quiz for anyone who dares to contradict me.

82

Kiwanda 03.18.18 at 4:05 pm

bianca steele:

At this point I’m just curious whether you believe that “the best way to not be harassed online is to have an Anglo male name” is falsified by “more men than women report being threatened physically online.”

I think that physical threats are a form of harassment. You do not, I take it? Note that in the Pew survey I mentioned the categories “sustained harassment” and “stalking” were separate, and in those categories men and women were roughly equal in being targeted.

You made a general claim, and so far have given essentially no evidence for it. I’ve found evidence (a couple Pew surveys) that, up to some conditions, contradicts your claim. Do you have any evidence? I mean, surely it wasn’t just a throwaway line disparaging a large group, for no reason?

83

bianca steele 03.18.18 at 4:36 pm

You’re evading the question. Do you believe that it’s impossible for “women and minorities are harassed more than white men” and “men are harassed more than women” both to be true? Because it isn’t. If you believe this, I don’t see why I should bother pretending that this is worth my time. If you don’t believe this and are pretending to, I don’t see why I should bother pretending that it’s worth my time. (On a second read, it’s clear you do think they are contradictory, so goodbye.)

You claim that your issue is that I was imprecise in my use of language? What gives you the right to decide on the proper degree of precision required here, and to choose whether to be polite and let it slide, or play language cop?

I was under the impression that someone earlier in the thread had used the word “harass” and they hadn’t, so I’ll take it back. But people had used the word “online” to mean places generally similar to a CT comments section, so what things are like for YouTube users seems not especially relevant. I made a claim based on my experience and observation and reading/hearing about the experience of others. What gives you the right to police my comments for what you apparently perceive as insufficient academic seriousness?

You apparently don’t like that I suggested women get treated badly at places like CT (including CT). You dislike it enough, it seems, to throw insults around. I suppose it’s possible that, in fact, the insults are all in fun, and you just want someone to play with. As long as you set the parameters for discussion. Its possible that you realize your bad arguments might look better if you word them not as “I’ve thought about this and it’s my opinion” but as “this chick here is being incredibly stupid.” Or it’s possible that you’re the kind of troll who thinks it’s hilarious to get people to type longer than he did.

84

b9n10nt 03.18.18 at 5:33 pm

Glen Tompkins (and nastywoman and ph @”turn the damn thing off and go for a walk!”)

First, the “boot grinding in our face” isn’t literal. The ways our lives are constructed for the increased power and status of ourselves and others (which is not identical to increased freedom and well being, of course) is subtle. The necessary unpleasantness of living is (often subtly) tied up with the unnecessary.

Second, emancipation won’t ever be solely individual, but social as well.

So, yes, we can be confident that paying attention to how we and others are communicating can have emancipatory lessons for us. You may not care for social media but social media cares about you.

Also, this:

The Facebook business model is mass behavior modification for pay. And for those who are not giving Facebook money, the only — and I want to emphasize, the only, underlined and in bold and italics — reward they can get or positive feedback is just getting attention. And if you have a system where the only possible prize is getting more attention, then you call that system Christmas for Asses, right? It’s a creep-amplification device.

Jaron Lanier

We can at least be concerned that social media structures are promoting “Christmas for asses”, right?

85

Tom Bach 03.18.18 at 7:34 pm

Not all men have Anglo names, do they?

86

steven t johnson 03.18.18 at 8:44 pm

Baffled by every comment in this thread, as the issue appears to be one of social etiquette: Does Jonathan Chait outrank Henry Farrell enough—in the eyes of serious people—to be entitled to publicly diss Henry Farrell, even though Farrell is a respectable name?

But if people insist on being irrelevant, I think most discussions of freedom of speech are severely constrained by ignoring the way speech implies conversation, which does mean the right to be answered. In this, the significant sense, only some people qualify for free speech.

Again,as a part owner of CT and an academic with a name, the presumption was that Henry Farrell did, but…did Jonathan Chait forget the real rules?

(Somebody or other was trying to remind people about parrhasia versus isegoria, but it didn’t take.)

87

nastywoman 03.18.18 at 8:46 pm

@77
”I hope you won’t be too offended if I agree.”

Not at all if we also agree why anyone sensible would erect a bunch of sick ”Tweets” – as President of the United States?

How did that happened?!

88

anon/portly 03.18.18 at 8:50 pm

Having safely established that Jordan Peterson is an intellectual fraud who uses a lot of words to say almost nothing, we can now turn back to the original question: how can a man incapable of relaying the content of a children’s book become the most influential thinker of his moment? My first instinct is simply to sigh that the world is tragic and absurd, and there is apparently no height to which confident fools cannot ascend. But there are better explanations available. Peterson is popular partly because he criticizes social justice activists in a way many people find satisfying, and some of those criticisms have merit. He is popular partly because he offers adrift young men a sense of heroic purpose, and offers angry young men rationalizations for their hatreds. And he is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.

I can’t recall ever agreeing with ph/kidneystones before, but I found the “really fantastic” essay appalling, and am amazed that HF recommends it. After spending 3/4 of the essay “establish[ing] that Peterson is an intellectual fraud” – I would say “proposing,” not “establishing,” and think the “chosen at random” thing is kind of schticky, but okay, what he proposes may well be true – what do we get after the paragraph produced above? Not a discussion of Peterson’s criticism’s that “have merit.” No discussion of how Peterson “offers young men a sense of heroic purpose” or “provides rationalizations for their hatreds.”

No, the rest of the essay is about the criticisms made by Peterson that don’t have merit! And whereas the suggestion was just made that “the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible,” it turns out to be blindingly obvious that Peterson’s criticisms don’t have merit. I mean, check this out this bit:

I think it’s worth remembering here what anti-discrimination activists are actually asking for: they want transgender people not to be fired from their jobs for being transgender, not to suffer gratuitously in prisons, to be able to access appropriate healthcare, not to be victimized in hate crimes, and not to be ostracized, evicted, or disdained. Likewise, the social justice claims on race are about: trying to fix the black-white wealth gap, trying to reduce racial discrimination in job applications, trying to reduce race-based health disparities and educational achievement gaps, and reducing the unfair everyday biases that make life harder for people of color. This is the sort of thing the left is focused on. Read the Democratic Party platform or the Black Lives Matter policy agenda.

I kinda like the Democratic Party platform, and guess that I would agree with much of the Black Lives Matter policy agenda. But the guy who wrote this is ridiculing someone else?

On the one hand, we should not see Peterson’s fans as “stupid,” we should see them as “desperate.” On the other hand, they are taken in by an “intellectual fraud” who combines “drivel and cliché.” On the one hand, “the left has failed to offer people a coherent political alternative.” On the other hand, all you really have to do to realize that your criticisms of the left are utterly without merit is read things like the Democratic Party platform or the Black Lives Matter policy agenda – everything the left stands for and is really trying to do is not only unobjectionable, but perfectly and instantly clear.

89

Neville Morley 03.18.18 at 10:55 pm

I find the idea of an attention allocation issue helpful, if we recognise – and this is a partial response to Z #37 and someone else (bianca steele?) above – that the ‘social’ element of something like Twitter does make a difference. There are, as there always have been, multiple opinions, cultural products etc clamouring for my attention, but I don’t on the whole feel a *personal* obligation to any of them. When someone engages with me on Twitter, however, I do instinctively feel an obligation to respond, as a matter of courtesy, even if my instinctive reaction is that they’re an idiot; it’s a situation somewhere between getting a question after a lecture (since it usually is in response to something I’ve chosen to put into the public domain) and getting buttonholed by someone in a pub, where the process of edging away carefully still involves a certain amount of engagement. They (generally) expect a response, I feel obliged to give one, because this is all about being social – and even at my sub-minnow level, it can be time-consuming and upsetting. But not engaging makes you the sort of person who considers themselves above engaging with hoi polloi. Newspapers don’t make me feel guilty for not reading them.

90

Faustusnotes 03.18.18 at 11:12 pm

Why should we assume Peterson’s fans are desperate? Maybe the left provided them other “a coherent political Alternative” and they decided they didn’t want it? Why assume they’ve been taken in because they don’t understand what we want, rather than that they reject what we want? Maybe Chaits bullshit about safe spaces is part of a coherent program to shut up those who articulate a clear left alternative because he doesn’t like it (or at least, some parts of it).

I don’t understand why people on the left create these complex false consciousness arguments to explain why not everyone agrees with them when there is a perfectly plausible simple interpretation of the facts in evidence, which is that lots of Americans like racism and are into racism and sexism. Why is this so hard for some people to believe?

91

engels 03.18.18 at 11:32 pm

92

Z 03.19.18 at 8:13 am

@Neville Morley When someone engages with me on Twitter, however, I do instinctively feel an obligation to respond

I see. I don’t use Twitter (and I have no intention ever to start), so I was not fully conscious of this dynamic. That being said, isn’t Twitter the absolute worse? It really seems to me designed to maximize everything that is wrong with human interactions (and for benefits that quite completely elude me).

93

Neville Morley 03.19.18 at 8:45 am

@Z: well, it’s better than Facebook, with its manipulative talk of ‘friends’… I find Twitter useful as a means of keeping up with global developments in my own discipline, what’s going on in other disciplines, and a broad range of perspectives on news and culture. It does take work to avoid getting stuck in different bubbles or sucked into “someone is wrong on the internet” obsessions, but it’s less bad than anything else I know of for achieving the same ends.

94

engels 03.19.18 at 8:52 am

That being said, isn’t Twitter the absolute worse?

Compared to CT comments (and the old ‘left-blogosphere’ generally as best I can tell) it seems less aggressive, less male/middle-aged/USian-dominated and less furiously anti-Marxist. The fact that people are forced to be brief and you can switch them off when they’re boring you to tears has a certain je ne sais quoi too.

95

J-D 03.19.18 at 9:05 am

Z
If Damon Knight tried to write ‘Babel II’ now, he’d have to come up with a different ending.

96

engels 03.19.18 at 9:29 am

It really seems to me designed to maximize everything that is wrong with human interactions (and for benefits that quite completely elude me).

I think it’s partly designed to foster large, shallow, sympathetic networks for exchanging information and it does that tolerably well (I agree it’s awful in a lot of ways)

97

Z 03.19.18 at 10:57 am

engels I think it’s partly designed to foster large, shallow, sympathetic networks for exchanging information and it does that tolerably well (I agree it’s awful in a lot of ways)

Probably, I’m missing on everything that is mildly good about Twitter and obvious for everyone who ever used it so never commented about, and just hear about the strikingly bad things.

…and less furiously anti-Marxist

OT, but you really find this comment section furiously anti-Marxist? I’d say Marx is moderately well-liked around here (I quite like him myself, I should say).

@Henry there was, I think, a very real attempt to use these techniques to stir things up in the US election, and in Western European countries too.

About that, there was a recent blogpost of Branko Milanovic (http://glineq.blogspot.fr/2018/02/fake-news-reaction-to-end-of-monopoly.html) that expressed my uneasy feelings about that topic. Historically dominant countries are experiencing for the first time what has been usual for less powerful ones: seeing their internal narratives being stirred and influenced by foreign point of views. I’m not saying that it’s good, but some people are used to it (admittedly, this explains why less dominant countries usually have a markedly different approach to freedom of speech issues).

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bianca steele 03.19.18 at 12:07 pm

@89

Neither do newspapers put a notice in the middle of one article per page, asking me not to photocopy and pass around their articles, because the beeps it causes in the newsroom annoy their writers, or tell me I can’t do the crossword until I’ve read another fifty articles by the most important writers in the country, all consisting solely of one quote from the president.

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bianca steele 03.19.18 at 12:30 pm

@96

Twitter isn’t “designed.” If it’s designed for anything, it’s to allow newspapers and organizations to publish information that can be passively consumed. User “engagement” is a matter of tapping the screen to indicate “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” (All of which is brought to the original writer’s attention as well as bringing him to the attention of your own friends, manifesting as a claim for attention, a kind of micro-publication, on your own part.) It permits a certain amount of amateur publication, as well, which operates on the same premise, and within narrow parameters, a set of individual publishers with both a well defined community and a large outside readership (for at least some of its members) to engage socially with one another.

There is a well known SF blogger who wouldn’t show up in my feed—she was the only SF writer I was following—until I spent a few days liking and retweeting everything she tweeted. And even then she disappeared from it after a month or two. So I followed a few people she’d retweeted and the problem was solved, except that I really only wanted to read the same pieces she’d forwarded on in the first place. So I muted them. (Which may have negated the effect of following them, who knows.) Then I started opening Twitter only one time a day, which resulted in getting an hour’s worth of the same stories I’d read the day before, often from “important” publications I didn’t happen to follow, before I could get down to people I was following, among whose posts the app chose only a subset of what it deemed “the best.”

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Faustusnotes 03.19.18 at 12:48 pm

I used twitter for a while to follow other people, but only tweeted once or twice. I got blocked by that idiot from the black swan book by pointing out to him that his response to Mary beard’s findings of black Romans in Britain would make a good case study for his book. It seems like very good for what Engels describes and very poor for interaction of any adversarial kind. Not that blogs or anywhere else seems better any more.

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AcademicLurker 03.19.18 at 2:31 pm

Compared to CT comments (and the old ‘left-blogosphere’ generally as best I can tell) it seems less aggressive

This seems like a pretty extraordinary claim. I’ve never heard of the CT comments section trying to get anyone fired.

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Henry 03.19.18 at 4:01 pm

About that, there was a recent blogpost of Branko Milanovic (http://glineq.blogspot.fr/2018/02/fake-news-reaction-to-end-of-monopoly.html) that expressed my uneasy feelings about that topic. Historically dominant countries are experiencing for the first time what has been usual for less powerful ones: seeing their internal narratives being stirred and influenced by foreign point of views. I’m not saying that it’s good, but some people are used to it (admittedly, this explains why less dominant countries usually have a markedly different approach to freedom of speech issues).

I think Branko’s take on this is right as far as it goes (I have written meself on the peculiar nature of the panic that is overtaking US debate, and will be writing more). But I do think that there is something different, and more specific happening, with how Russia and China genuinely do seem to have developed internal tools intended to prevent coalition building among potential opponents of their regimes, and how Russia at least is employing this externally too. There’s a difference between (a) different perspectives being shoved into a US debate that has been fairly comfortably imperialist, and (b) social media tactics that are deliberately intended to make democratic politics impossible, and I think that there is a fair amount of (b) happening. I cite Adrian Chen’s work in the OP – it is worth reading his piece through, but also this on how every point of view in this debate is being weaponized. Molly Roberts’ forthcoming book is very interesting.

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engels 03.19.18 at 5:08 pm

Okay, I over-generalised and I’m talking about my own experience obviously. Most of the interactions I have on Twitter are friendly conversations with like-minded people (I appreciate there’s a worry there about bubbles).don’t have s high profile so I don’t tend to get hostile responses. I appreciate that could easily change if I tweeted something that blew up my face.

CT comments seems to have moved left over the years and I think there several people who comment now (including Z) are in the same ballpark as me. Still imo there’s an pervasive atmosphere of nerdy competitiveness which means that any given comment is far more likely to draw pedantic efforts to shoot it (and preferably the author) down than engage with the substance of its ideas, let alone agreement. (I’m sure I’ve contributed to that at time’s.) And there’s no equivalent on my Twitter timeline to the ‘communism = pile of skills’ ‘argument’ that has been helpfully presented here at great length on a succession of threads with only a glancing connection to Marxism or socialism.

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engels 03.19.18 at 5:38 pm

The things I dislike most about Twitter are harassment (which hasn’t affected me personally as I said), the herd dynamics and superficiality (you can’t develop
arguments properly in 280 chars and most people who spend a lot of time on it wouldn’t be interested if you could).

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Mario 03.19.18 at 8:20 pm

Henry @102,

But I do think that there is something different, and more specific happening, with how Russia and China genuinely do seem to have developed internal tools intended to prevent coalition building among potential opponents of their regimes, and how Russia at least is employing this externally too.

I find this statement fairly strange. Because if you squint a little, it seems to be claiming that, up until recently, governments (of any kind) were not having any tools of manipulation of public opinion that could or even were used to prevent coalition building among potential opponents of the established order. That seems to me to be more than a bit of a stretch. Can you clarify?

It seems to have been largely forgotten, but our beloved west isn’t exactly innocent when it comes to internet-based mischief:

[…] these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

It is a bit strange that only Russia and China are charged with that kind of thing. On the other hand – perhaps it’s not strange at all, of course…

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bobbyp 03.19.18 at 8:35 pm

Please do tell me what this “twitter” thing is all about. Thanks.

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TM 03.19.18 at 9:11 pm

To me, the meaning of the internet (which by that time I hadn’t even thought much about) changed after 9/11, when a colleague forwarded all his colleagues the flight number hoax (also known as wingdings hoax) which he apparently had received from a credulous acquaintance. I was spooked – it looked so believable yet unbelievable. Then I entered it into a search machine (not sure whether that was already google). The internet passed the test with flying colors – within seconds I knew with absolute certainty that it was a complete hoax. But most recipients, including fairly well educated people, never thought of checking the claim.

Never in history was it so easy to access information, to look up large quantities data. Never was it so easy to satisfy one’s curiosity, to find answers to so many questions. Not just any answers but true answers. Of course the internet also allows people to publish false answers but provided one is really interested, it is rarely hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Anybody willing to spend a few minutes at most on internet research, to take the effort to check several sources, can almost always quickly identify which claims and sources are reliable and which aren’t. As is the case with all the hoaxes and conspiracy theories which are easily debunked.

And yet the fake news, the hoaxes and conspiracies seem to be winning or at least they prove immune from the truth. The internet has made us individually incomparably better informed than any earlier generation could even dream of, and yet as a society we are no better and arguably worse informed than our forebears. And it seems to me that nobody knows what to do about this paradox.

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TM 03.19.18 at 9:17 pm

Re Jordan Peterson: after reading up a few tidbits about him, I’m kind of heartened by the fact that I had never heard the name before.

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Kiwanda 03.19.18 at 9:47 pm

bianca steele

In an earlier comment, you mentioned Twitter, then said “The best way to not be harassed online is to have an Anglo-sounding male name.” And then mentioned some personal experiences that may be relevant to that claim.

I responded “Not clear, according to Pew Research, at least with respect to gender.”, and described some survey data about hostility on social media to men and women, such that, grouping together “physical threats” and “sexual harassment” (where these were distinct from “stalking” and “sustained harassment”), the numbers for men and women were the same.

You said “Looking quickly I don’t see what they’re counting as “online. I’m talking about forums like this one where opinions are given and discussed” And then mentioned apparent low female participation here, and your husband’s Facebook page.

I responded by noting another Pew survey that showed higher female participation in social media than male, apparently in all venues except LinkedIn.

You responded “At this point I’m just curious whether you believe that “the best way to not be harassed online is to have an Anglo male name” is falsified by “more men than women report being threatened physically online.”

This was an inaccurate description of what I said, but I assumed that you were focused on the distinction between physical threats and sexual harassment, so I asked whether you thought physical threats were not harassment.

You responded “You’re evading the question. Do you believe that it’s impossible for “women and minorities are harassed more than white men” and “men are harassed more than women” both to be true? Because it isn’t. “

So having given no evidence beyond invoking “my experience and observation and reading/hearing about the experience of others” (and little of that), you now want to argue that something you claimed (well, not quite what you originally claimed) is not logically impossible. Sure, OK, I give in, it’s not logically impossible. Do you have any evidence for this not-logically-impossible claim? Do you think that the Pew survey findings of roughly equal levels of general social-media hostility to men and women, and the greater participation of women than men in social media, in any way support my contention that your claim “The best way to not be harassed online is to have an Anglo-sounding male name” was “Not clear…at least with respect to gender”?

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Faustusnotes 03.19.18 at 10:53 pm

The latest revelations from the guardian suggest it’s not just social media campaigns- that Cambridge analytica uses more direct espionage techniques to sway elections and destroy candidates. They cited an example from eastern Ukraine that must have been done with Russian money.

It looks increasingly to me like the democrats loss in 2016 was a direct intervention by big money, and nothing to do with the Dems electoral appeal.

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ph 03.19.18 at 11:51 pm

@99 Twitter, FB and other data-harvesting corporate tools are most emphatically designed – as your experience with the ‘like’ button illustrates.

One of the most important design features is inviting the user to ‘simplify’ the user experience by asking permission to access other data stored on one’s device, which is then packaged and sold to corporate clients, or given away.

https://ijr.com/2018/03/1077083-ex-obama-campaign-director-fb/

That’s because the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the [Facebook-based app] gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists. In an instant, the campaign had a way to see the hidden young voters. Roughly 85% of those without a listed phone number could be found in the uploaded friend lists. What’s more, Facebook offered an ideal way to reach them. “People don’t trust campaigns. They don’t even trust media organizations,” says Goff. “Who do they trust? Their friends.”

The campaign called this effort targeted sharing. And in those final weeks of the campaign, the team blitzed the supporters who had signed up for the app with requests to share specific online content with specific friends simply by clicking a button. More than 600,000 supporters followed through with more than 5 million contacts, asking their friends to register to vote, give money, vote or look at a video designed to change their mind. A geek squad in Chicago created models from vast data sets to find the best approaches for each potential voter. “We are not just sending you a banner ad,” explains Dan Wagner, the Obama campaign’s 29-year-old head of analytics, who helped oversee the project. “We are giving you relevant information from your friends.”

We are living through the infancy of this technology. What happens when the state has access to all our data? The new Chinese laws on ‘social credit’ are instructive.

http://www.wired.co.uk/article/chinese-government-social-credit-score-privacy-invasion

Virtually everyone and everything connected with corporate data-harvesting is the product of design. The only individuals not given to much ‘design’ or ‘thought’ are the users or ‘tools’ passively allowing corporate and state actors into every nook and cranny of our lives and of those we care about.

I’m sure Henry’s links cited are instructive. On matters of social media I rely on simplistic folk wisdom: ‘Free is always the most expensive.’

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Chip Daniels 03.19.18 at 11:56 pm

I’ve read a few essays by young men, laypeople who are not trained psychologists, whose description of Peterson’s writing echo Nathan Robinson’s, in that there is this recurring theme of “you don’t understand Peterson- what he is actually saying is…”
Which is to say, that even to his own supporters, Peterson’s writing is cloudy, ambiguous and in need of interpretation like some scripture. But despite being cloudy and ambiguous, somehow when deciphered, will bring a rush of life-changing revelation.

Whenever academics write popularizing works that are embraced eagerly by laypeople, who then go around using literary references and concepts and jargon they haven’t personally consumed, it always gives me a suspicion that they themselves don’t understand the arguments presented, but rather, have their pre-existing inchoate beliefs ratified by someone whose voice booms with priestly Authority. And like Scripture, the words can be used to support almost any action the newly-converted wish it to.

I think this is why earnest young people in search of some totalizing Theory of Everything can just as easily latch on to radical politics of virtually any stripe or religious cults, because it just straightens out the world into a comforting order.

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F. Foundling 03.20.18 at 2:59 am

Re Henry 03.19.18 at 4:01 pm:
‘social media tactics that are deliberately intended to make democratic politics impossible’

Oh, where has it gone, our pure unmanipulated democracy of yore? Democracy in class societies has been manipulated by people hiring people and by people brainwashing and manipulating people in sophisticated ways since forever. It’s a miracle that anything even marginally democratic or approaching accountability occasionally results from the entire mechanism. The extremely clumsy and inefficient, according to Chen’s assessment in the second article, attempts at manipulation of Westerners by the Russians are nothing compared to the long-established, sophisticated manipulation of Westerners by their own establishments (Milanović has a point in that the establishment is indignant because its own monopoly on the brainwashing of the serfs/proles – is endangered, if only ever so slightly).

Really, people think RT is propaganda, but the media that prepared the Americans for the Iraq war is – a decent democratic media? There is a very well-functioning machine, including the media and the intellectual elite, that manufactures consent (as Chomsky put it some 30 years ago) by using its central positions of authority to spread propaganda, and where climbing towards success is based on internalising and uncritically repeating the propaganda. Ah, the good old days when speech wasn’t ‘cheap’, so ‘only a limited number of important speakers could compete in the marketplace of ideas’ and could be counted on to take only the ‘reasonable’ positions – and now, there’s this mess where all kinds of rabble can speak, and God knows what comes of it. Possibly even an absence of truly monolithic public support for our next coup, invasion or imperial manoeuvre? How dreadful.

Directly paid internet trolls are extremely inefficient (especially non-native speakers impersonating natives); a media establishment whose salary and career depends on parroting the prevailing narrative is infinitely more efficient, as is an intellectual elite where reputation within the cultural hegemony depends on the parroting it – preferably while *believing* it. Even the fiercest cold warriors will recognise that besides paid trolls, there are also people who sincerely believe in (some of) the positions that the Russians see fit to advocate or support. Those will be identified as the so-called ‘useful idiots’ – with the certainty that their positions are discredited and rendered illegitimate by the very fact that the Russians also support them. Yet when people happen to believe sincerely in the position promoted by the *Western* establishment on any given subject, that is not thought to discredit it in the least. Assuming that the Russians can occasionally win over a few ‘useful idiots’ on foreign soil, how come it doesn’t cross people’s minds that their own Western system might be turning *regularly* *the overwhelming majority* of its subjects into its own sincere, convinced, serious, well-meaning ‘useful idiots’ – and ones who take pride in their sophisticated critical thinking skills, too!

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b9n10nt 03.20.18 at 4:08 am

TM @107 And it seems to me that nobody knows what to do about this paradox.

Well, sure…we’ve culturally backed ourselves into a corner. We accept that citizens are to be manipulated by undemocratic institutions or, rather, we simply become used to it. Does not our situation have parallels with early mass consumerism, when fraudulent products were hard to distinguish from their opposites? If society priveleged an ethos of respect for both democratic and individual autonomy over the apparent right to manipulate, solutions would become apparent.

Re: hoaxes, frauds, and other forms of deception: Any attempt to give individuals information (advertising*) that they didn’t ask for and couldn’t easily unsubscribe from (as well as any organized attempt to deceive) could be illegal, a form of fraud. Sure, frauds would frequently be disseminated regardless, but even a dampening effect would be beneficial. Just as with tainted foods, any legal regime that had teeth would command the respect of the largest, most influential institutions.

Re: trolls: Above, I daydreamt of using academic institutions to train moderators and host chat rooms that professionalized/standardized diverse modes of internet conversations. Just as agricultural ministries “nudge” ag. institutions to adopt best practices by offering training, resources, and set an example, such a concerted effort to democratize and “civilize” on-line forums could be of value.

These are not pure solutions (& we wouldn’t want them anymore than we would want a crime-free society), but once we look beyond capitalist modes of production and consumption, we can use collective efforts to preserve and extend the free AND ethical flow of information. As a corollary: once we allow for great disparities in wealth and power, “free speech” devolves into the “freedom” to be manipulated.

*the internet has obviated the most convincing argument that marketers once had: “how else can we let customers know what we have to offer”.

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F. Foundling 03.20.18 at 4:16 am

@ ph 03.18.18 at 6:03 am
>Wouldn’t the world be a better place without the likes prayers and hymns such as ‘Amazing Grace’… etc.

Surely anti-Semitism and the brutal suppression of peasant rebellions can’t be that bad – after all, we know that the likes of Martin Luther were very much in favour of them. And can we really object to adultery, when MLK himself committed it? Monarchy is fine – it definitely looks like both Homer and Luther approved of it. Speaking of which, what would Homer even have been without war, which so much human art and thought have been devoted to? And slavery gave us Plato and Aristotle, as well as Athenian democracy and Roman law – do not malign it lightly.

Re statues of Hitler and Lenin, ‘Triumph of the Will’ is widely described as a great artistic achievement, if I’m not mistaken, and ‘The Eight Model Operas’ and ‘The East is Red’ are definitely very fine works that we have the Cultural Revolution to thank for. In general, you may do a search for renowned Communist and Marxist artists yourself. I’m sure that, upon appreciating the beauty of their work, you will finally reconsider your dismissive attitude towards Leninist revolutionary theory and precepts.

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Z 03.20.18 at 8:25 am

Henry with how Russia and China genuinely do seem to have developed internal tools intended to prevent coalition building among potential opponents of their regimes, and how Russia at least is employing this externally too

I think there is a very significant difference between the two clauses. The internal control of information (and general narrative) in Russia and China is a very important component of their respective regime. But the external efforts, and the fact that they arguably had a modicum of success, I see as symptoms much more than causes (and I think the pieces of Adrian Chen you link to rather agree with this assessment). In a robust democracy, troll farms don’t sway elections (as evidenced by the fact that Western European countries managed to be robust democracies while being subjected to much more intense propaganda efforts from both blocs during the Cold War).

The way I see it, the segmentation of the American society along extreme inequalities makes it impossible for this society to be politically responsive to the will of the people. The equilibrium that came to be attained (partially by design, partially in a self-feeding loop, partially by accident probably) was the dissolution of the people. If your entire social world view is predicated on the idea that the D candidate is pure, absolute evil, in essence fundamentally different from the R candidate well, what can you do?

Radiolab had an interesting interview recently of the woman who played the role of a caged Hillary in a flash mob organized by Russian activists in Florida. When directly confronted to the question whether she regretted taking part in this foreign operation, her answer was something like “well, this doesn’t change that we didn’t want to vote for Hillary.” Sure.

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ph 03.20.18 at 8:52 am

115 Very droll. I’m surprised you left out Eisenstein.

You raise an excellent point. The arts, as opposition to authoritarianism and empire, produce very fine works. I also think you draw some very fair criticisms of the banal self-imposed blandness of the arts in the democracies that seem very much to serve to further only a culture of consumption and existing social norms – hardly so surprising when the TV and print products are financed by P and G, Exxon, and the Ford (foundation).

My general point, hardly novel, is that we need belief systems even as we tell ourselves we don’t. My Chinese history professor argued quite strongly that the current leadership can be best understood as another dynasty, and the cults of leadership of very much resemble the magical man-gods of Rome. Belief? We’re kind of stuck with our, and let he/she who is without ‘it’ cast the first stone.

Let fly!

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Faustusnotes 03.20.18 at 10:29 am

As a follow up to z, consider the central figure of the Cambridge analytica revelations: a gay vegan anarchist punk who didn’t seem to have a clue for two or three years that he was a direct servant of a fascist plot. I don’t understand how anyone can be so stupid and immoral but he somehow managed it. Is this a critique of libertarian dudebros or a sign that north American political culture is now so agonized that a gay vegan anarchist would somehow conceive of working for the mercers as okay?

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Henry 03.20.18 at 2:15 pm

Kiwanda – this is demonstrably wrong.

I didn’t miss the first part. Chait associates the Gulag with Marxism, and associates Marxism, via shared hostility to free expression, with the “illiberal left”. It’s not an *entirely* uncharitable reading to make that association transitive, but Chait seems to disavow that: “What I’ve written is that these arguments borrow Marxism’s critique of liberalism, not that they are Marxist.” Saying “the scale of their abuses would widen” is not “marching towards the gulag”.

In the man’s own words:

The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. (For those inclined to defend p.c. on the grounds that racism and sexism are important, bear in mind that the forms of repression Marxist government set out to eradicate were hardly imaginary.)

American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state.

His ‘political correctness delenda est’ monomania is directly and explicitly grounded in the claim that “PC” is fundamentally anti-liberal, and would lead to a brutal, oppressive and murderous state, if it ever got the power.

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Guillermo 03.20.18 at 6:45 pm

He absolutely *needs* to tell you he is the one in power and therefore it is him – and not you – who is doing the break-up.

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engels 03.20.18 at 10:26 pm

A good, negative take on social media that I broadly agree with (in case my qualified defences of Twitter above sounded too upbeat):
https://www.patreon.com/posts/17665617

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engels 03.20.18 at 11:14 pm

“While Facebook presents itself to the public as a social network, when addressing the advertising industry, it is very clear about the fact that it’s a surveillance system.”
https://amp.theguardian.com/technology/2018/mar/20/facebook-is-it-time-we-all-deleted-our-accounts

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Nia Psaka 03.21.18 at 7:57 am

I don’t think you, Henry, and Chait are really that far apart. It’s no fun being shouted at by reactionaries and 4chan nerds. It’s also no fun being shouted at by the latest bunch of ‘mogai’ would-be progressives, being harassed online by self-diagnosed ‘neurodivergents,’ or any of the rest of it. Being on the cultural left in the age of Tumblr means getting to see the next generation denounce you as an archaic reactionary in only two years. In this way we may have some sympathy for right-wingers who were denounced as enemies of the people and excommunicated from the Grand Old Party because they wanted to maintain firearm licensing, or to permit legal abortion.

A general theory: It’s no fun being shouted at by college kids who think their vague theories of gender (or of other social issues they only glimpse dimly) are some radical truth, whichever camp they come from. They don’t have the perspective to realise yet that their passion is misplaced. It’s frightening in a greater way when it’s their elders, because they may just stay this way for decades.

And we get to be yelled at by a variety of groups for a long time to come. It’s not always easy not to yell back.

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