Free Speech Slip and Slide

In the past I’ve written at length about my concern that the newly invigorated attitude that we must outlaw, or at least severely socially punish the speakers, racist/sexist/etc.. speech is a mistake. I have doubts about the efficacy of such punishments and believe that pushing racism adjacent views into a hidden underground where they fester and mutate1 creates more hate. However, the primary thrust of my concern was the usual slippery slope argument (importantly serious harms arise as soon as well-intentioned people start to fear that an epistemic mistake could land them in trouble). Unfortunately, evidence for a steep slippery plastic slope with extra soap arrived all too quickly.

Superiority of Western Culture

First we had this really stupid opinion piece that I would have guessed was written by a machine learning algorithm trained on 1980s era conservative values pieces if it had only mentioned crack (still managed a shout out to the pill for destroying our perfect 1950s society). Personally, I thought it was just as stupid this time around as I did in the late 80s and early 90s except these authors should have seen how that went and known better. However, as far as offensiveness goes it rates as a “kids these days…have no … always on their..” but somehow it has become the subject of accusations of racism and the subject of serious controversy (yes, that last article is written by a friend of the original author so take its slant with a grain of salt).

True, there is no credible effort to have the author fired from her position in the law school but it has generated enough outrage for students to get up in time to picket Wax’s class as racist and its not just some hasty people with signs. At least a non-trivial segment of the Penn campus left is willing to call this piece racist, sexist or otherwise suggest it isn’t just dumb and wrong but deserving of open moral scorn.

While one might try and charitably reconstruct some argument based on the text of the oped2 what is going on is what is always going on with accusations of racism/sexism/islamophobia etc.. Rather than parsing the literal content of a piece and asserting those claims amount to racism (or providing evidence that the author was being disingenuous) people decide to call something racist if it feels like the things racists would say. In this case there is no doubt this oped has that feel. Indeed, it hits many of the points that one would expect from a racist dog-whistle: glorification of European/western culture, suggestion that something associated with whites is superior, a nostalgic comparison to the 1950s, reference to some aspect of black culture the author disapproves of (“anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks”) and even the obligatory focus on whites that have the traits you are criticizing.

The problem with taking this as grounds for accusations of racism is that it confuses being the sort of person whose strong affinity for traditionalism and reverence for long lived institutions and practices may make needed reform more difficult with actual racism. However, we are generally quite willing to let the earnest man who is such a strong believer in feminism that he frequently gives a piece of his mind to men who he views as pushing an aggressive male-centric approach on women and thereby does more to perpetuate the stereotype of women as unable to handle these situations than anyone he criticizes. This case is only different in that it is harder to imagine genuinely feeling that these old school conservative values are the secret to a better life and wanting to help minorities by sharing. Also in that often people who feel this way about morals and newfangled social innovations also feel this way about minorities but that’s just a stereotype.

Most importantly, it renders the standard for racism uselessly subjective. If it is no longer necessary to have overt animus or believe in some particular stereotype then it is insanely easy to apply the term to virtually anyone you want. Especially given that as the sphere of things that have been labeled racist expands fewer and fewer non-racists say anything in that sphere so just imagine the same dialog in 20 years about pieces supporting free speech. It would be something mostly racists talk about as a cover, anyone like me writing about it would explain that we believed in it for everyone (while detractors would point out that we kept focusing on the free speech of the racists as they don’t see it from the context in which that is the right place to make one’s stand), one could raise analogies to the contract rights arguments offered in the civil rights movement (yes its bad but the constitution…we just can’t do anything). The only thing this lacks is the subjective feel that comes from hearing lots of racists say something that sounds similar but we can’t cede to racists the power to decide what is and isn’t considered.

Also, as a practical matter this kind of use of the accusation of racism isn’t productive. The reason to use the term at all is to invoke our shared disapprobation of certain behaviors to change people’s behavior. Telling someone ‘suggesting that blacks only eat fried Chicken or look like Gorillas’ is racist usually results in an immediate change and the world is a better place but when you say that some vague thing about the gestalt I get from your article is racist doesn’t. If I were the author and was willing to sell out my views so I wouldn’t be racist how would I even know where to start?

Call these ideas out as stupid or even the kind of progress phobic thinking that perpetuates racism that’s great but its just not racism.

University of Tampa’s Impolitic Twitter Firing

Also, we have the University of Tampa firing a visiting professor for the following poorly considered and bumblinging inappropriate tweet

I dont believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.

This is obviously just a case of someone not realizing how what he said would be taken in context. When he did he apologized. That should have been the end of it.

While at first glance one might feel that this isn’t really relevant to the broader picture at the moment. However, while it wasn’t exactly an academic paper this tweet is fundamentally nothing but an expression of a political sentiment. Indeed, suppose the author really believed this was some kind of divine vengeance on Texas for voting GOP. Surely that is core political-religious speech if anything is so its hard to see how this is anything but a direct attack on the idea that Professors get to comment on current events and broader social issues without fear of being fired for controversial views (assuming they don’t bear on their academic qualifications…mathematicians probably shouldn’t say $\omega$ and $2^\omega$ have the same cardinality).

Mistakes

We need room for people to make mistakes! Even mistakes about what to believe on controversial issues because only when people feel they won’t lose their jobs or be shunned if they get it wrong can they allow themselves to explore the issue and reach the right conclusions.

I know its really hard in these discussions to imagine any other perspective than your own but rarely is it the case that someone just wakes up out of the blue filled with hate and the desire to see another race suffer. Sure, sometimes the reasons are just visceral (your gang is white they are black) but in most cases there is some chain of thought and emotion that made every step they took seem reasonable so if you suspect the target of your criticism of simply reasonless hate you should probably reevaluate that view.

However, that is what makes the situation so dangerous as well. Given that even racists think they have good and sound justifications for their beliefs an atmosphere which imposes severe penalties for even minor infractions allows only one safe response: parrot back the official dogma.

But, if we are going to fix the remaining barriers and harms inflicted by problematic stereotypes and structural racism/sexism we need to find them in non-obvious places and that takes open speculation. We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit so more looking for white or male ‘perpetrators’ (if it could have been fixed easily that way we would have) we instead need to look at the less examined reservoirs of stereotypes such as members of the group themselves or the well-intentioned helper3. That means we need to walk on the edge and consider possibly offensive or unpleasant possibilities if we are going to figure out what is really going on so we can do something to fix things.


  1. I’ve seen any number of scenarios in which the perception that certain topics can’t even be discussed doesn’t erase those ideas from people’s minds. Rather, it pushes them to form groups (the ones that go silent when a woman or minority comes by and we work so hard to eliminate) in which they feel they can comfortably express views they are sympathetic to but are too controversial for general consumption. Unfortunately, when people gather together for the purpose of feeling safe sharing controversial views creates a strong social pressure not to call anyone else’s views in that group out for sexism/racism/etc.. even in a polite friendly way. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly both such groups form and how quickly they descend to the lowest common denominator and serve as a breeding ground where hateful ideas can infect good people because there is no opportunity to apply the corrective of a good counterargument and criticism. 
  2. Taking their complaints at face value would seem to suggest the problem is that suggesting WASP culture (not so named) is superior is racist or at least unacceptable and bad. While those of us immersed in liberal sensibilities naturally flinch a bit when the suggestion is made that one culture is superior to another that doesn’t make the claim wrong or racist. Indeed, we all believe that, at least in the modern context, modern western culture is superior to the violent revenge culture in some New Guinean tribes all things considered (of course cultures have so many traits surely we could cherry pick a few improvements but the original piece doesn’t deny this). Hell, the very idea of tolerance and equality that those on the left are fighting for is a rare value for a culture to have and we are right to identify it as something good and important. But I think this “can’t say one culture is better than another” line isn’t a very charitable interpretation. 
  3. Everyone knows that a great deal of slut-shaming and outfit policing is done to women by women and we’ve learned recently that it is other women who do the majority of interrupting women and may very well be the ones preventing more competitive female involvement. This matches both my experience at caltech (women who had few if any female friends their whole lives were way more likely to just blunder in and shot their load on the conversation or dismiss someone else’s contribution as stupid) and what evolutionary psychology would suggest (men have little interest in policing women but each gender needs to police rivals). Of course, men aren’t on the hook they are just on the hook for something else perpetuating harmful male stereotypes which can harm women as much as they do men (say by men not being willing to become primary caregivers).