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).