Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Bad but common arguments for free speech absolutism

"Freedom of speech" is, of course, an extremely important right. It's not, however, necessarily the most important right, and like all rights, it is not absolute.

The documented harm that certain forms of speech can cause - especially dehumanisation and other forms of hate speech - is serious enough for me to believe that it is proportionate to restrict it in these cases. Whether that restriction best takes the form of a state ban or private actions in the form of boycotts, protests or other criticism, will obviously depend on the details. (You might not consider the latter form a restriction on free speech, because it isn't, but see the "exaggeration of scope" section below)

Arguments against restricting freedom of speech in this way tend to mostly be based on a few extremely flawed themes. 1

The slippery slope

"If we criminalise a particular form of speech that we don't like, then we're giving power to the state to criminalise any form of speech it wants, and it won't always agree with us."

The first problem with this argument is that it can trivially be generalised to this argument.

"If we criminalise a particular form of behaviour, then we're giving power to the state to criminalise any form of behaviour it wants."

This is true, and there are various anarchist critiques of state power that are based around this (and I'm not addressing those here, because that's an entirely different argument - and a much more consistent one), but for non-anarchists, people who are quite happy for the state to criminalise murder or theft and apply a range of punishments for these crimes, but trust it not to extend this to criminalising "walking faster than 2 metres per second" or "owning a lettuce" or - more seriously - "being a member of the Opposition political party", there seems no real reason to treat speech with more cautiousness than physical actions.

The second problem is that the state already criminalises (or allows civil cases to be brought) for certain forms of speech and the vast majority of people are happy with this principle. Some examples:

  • Conspiracy to commit a crime.
  • Libel or slander (the UK laws do need a serious rewrite, but very few are arguing that it's a breach of free speech to have libel laws at all)
  • Knowingly or recklessly giving false advice on certain legal or financial matters.
  • Speaking via a megaphone between certain hours in residential areas.
  • Misuse of emergency services numbers.

The principle that the government can and should restrict or forbid certain forms of speech is well-established even in so-called "liberal democracies". There doesn't seem to be a particular risk of slipping into a totalitarian dictatorship as a result. Therefore we should be able to discuss exactly which forms of speech should be restricted or forbidden by the state without "all of them" or "none of them" being the only possibilities.

I do think we need to be very cautious about enforcing restrictions on speech, but that doesn't make them automatically wrong.

The marquee inconsistency

One of the major usability complaints about scrolling text banners on the web - bear with me for a moment! - is that they're inconsistent about importance. As the poster there puts it:

What information do you have that is not important enough to have a place on the screen at all times, but is important enough that a person will wait until it appears again if they missed it?

Arguments against restriction of free speech seem to fall into a related inconsistency. Restriction of free speech, it's accurately said, is one of the ways in which governments suppress criticism. Exercise of (certain forms of) free speech is powerful because it keeps the state accountable to its citizens and residents.

Having established that "the pen is mightier than the sword" and other such cliches, that speech is powerful and can have massive real-world effects, the argument that particular forms of speech should not be forbidden, restricted, or even particularly considered carefully by their users, because they can't be causing real-world harm, doesn't make a lot of sense.

(The argument that the real-world harm being caused to people who aren't the debater is a price worth paying to have free speech for other purposes, I think is just a variation on the slippery slope theme above)

Naturally this only seems to apply to speech that hurts the non-privileged. The harm caused by speech that hurts the default is well recognised and such speech is discouraged by various methods.

Exaggerating the scope

There are various forms of restriction on speech. One can, with varying degrees of difficulty - and I make no claims that this list is comprehensive:

  1. Forbid it magically and omnisciently.
  2. Forbid it to the full extent of the state's actual enforcement powers.
  3. Allow it under restricted circumstances but not more generally.
  4. Allow it under general circumstances but not in particular restricted ones.
  5. Allow it but with penalties for its use. (Non-state penalties, such as being boycotted, rather than actions via the civil or criminal law)
  6. Allow it but with situational penalties for its use.
  7. Allow it but disapprove of it.

It seems very popular to pretend that people suggesting options 5 to 7 are actually suggesting 2 (or somehow 1) and then argue against them on that basis, or to merge this with the slippery slope arguments and say "Well, you might only be recommending we disapprove of this, but that's the first step to throwing people in jail for it".

It's not an argument as such, but it seems a common overreaction to mild suggestions.


1 I'm not saying here there aren't good arguments against restrictions: I'm saying these aren't those arguments, and that they're commonly used enough to be worth noting.

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Sunday, 12 December 2010

Indiscriminate police violence

[trigger warning: especially for some of the links]

The recent anti-government protests in London were met with heavy violence from the police. Somehow, no-one has yet died as a result, though several people were beaten into unconsciousness and are lucky to still be alive.

The police and government claim that they made a proportionate response to violence from the protestors. As the links - let me repeat, may be very triggering - below show, though, this was clearly not the case. If you feel up to it, please read as many of the accounts as you can - what happened needs to be widely known:

One journalist struck with a baton and needing stitches while trying to report on the protests. Another physically removed from the scene to prevent her seeing what happened next. Someone dragged out of his wheelchair for being slightly too close to the police, and his friends prevented from helping him. Several people beaten into unconsciousness and concussion, at least one critically injured as a result, and the police then obstructing medical attention. Tens of protestors hospitalised, hundreds more - most of whom won't make the news - injured.

Smug Mr Cameron approving of all this police violence and praising their response, while describing the protestors as "feral". Dehumanise those you want dead, right?

I don't doubt that there were a minority of violent protestors throwing things at the police. It's also extremely clear from these reports that the police response was not directed at the violent protestors but at the nearest ones. In any other situation this would be clearly unacceptable. The justification seems to be that by being in the same protest as people who are being violent, you deserve whatever you get.

Of course, a lot of the violence only started when the protestors were being confined by the police. The descriptions from there make it clear that the confinement, the street imprisonment without access to food, water or toilets, had a definite effect on the mood of the protestors.

This will discourage some people, of course, from protesting further. That's, presumably, the idea. It will also make others more willing to come back and do more, be more determined not to silenced. The anti-government mood in this country is growing, and this sort of unjustifiable violent suppression of legitimate protest will only strengthen it.

From a pair of governing parties who got into power in part by outflanking Labour on civil liberties issues - which was a sadly easy task - it's not taken them too long to show their true beliefs.

This is only going to get worse. There will be more protests as the government's cuts start to take effect, and people see vital services removed, and the government will encourage more and harsher reactions from the police to "control" the protests. People will die before this is over, and we'll be told they had it coming, being at the same protest as someone who threw a brick.

How do you deal with a state that's so willing to use indiscriminate violence against its own?

A couple more links for further reading

If you're in or near London and have free time and energy, Friends of Alfie Meadows, the Middlesex student nearly killed by the police, have organised a "Kettle the cops" protest against police violence for 1pm on Tuesday.

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Friday, 10 December 2010

Friday Links

Not a happy week of links, unfortunately.

Some more links follow - all potentially triggering - about the recent news that a founder of Wikileaks is facing potential extradition over charges of rape and other sexual violence. Also, many of them do not have comment moderation policies that disallow rape apologism.

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Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Mathematical Morality

It seems that some people think that morality works on a numeric points basis - plus fifty points for donating to charity, minus ten points for queue-jumping, etc. - and then assess people or actions based on the perceived total score.

So, mathematical morality. There's three related applications of it that I've seen just in the last week, and they're all enraging and favourable to society's default people.


There seems to be this need to elevate heroes, and to stand by them right or wrong, and to use mathematical morality to justify this.

And they either think "Oh, X has got a score of plus one million, there's no way they'd ever do anything significantly negative" or they think "Oh, X has got a score of plus one million, and they may have done this bad thing, but that's only minus a few thousand, so they're still plenty in credit."

And of course, having convinced themselves that their hero is incapable of wrongdoing, they'll dismiss out of hand, with the most convoluted contortions, the possibility that they might have, or that it matters if they did.

So the people who don't get to be official heroes - and of course being a default person makes it much easier to become one in the eyes of the default-centric world - end up discarded to defend the hero.

I'm/they're not an X-ist

This sort of mathematical morality is also, of course, the source for a lot of the common "not an X-ist" arguments that get passed around. It's slightly more sophisticated than heroic maths - only heroes get to have their total scores aggregated - in that it gives points in various sections.

So, for a white person, "has black friends and is polite to them" gets plus 100 points on the "racist/not a racist" scale (it should just be part of the "meets minimum standards of decent behaviour" score, anyway, but...). Using a racist slur, well, that's only minus 20 points on that scale. They're still at plus 80, so they're not a racist. Incidentally, these scales also have low standards - for white people, anti-racist activist starts at plus one, racist starts at minus ten thousand, everything in between is "not a racist".

Of course, it doesn't work like that. Even the most committed activist is going to slip up sometimes, if they're working in an area where they have at least some privilege. Their high positive score might mean that the initial reaction to them is different - a friendly notice, a starting belief that it was accidental, etc. - than it would be to someone with a history of dragging their privilege around everywhere.

What it doesn't mean is that they can cancel things out. Their previous good work doesn't mean that they don't need to make amends for this one time they slipped up. (They may also need to tell other privileged people who are trying to be helpful by claiming this on their behalf to shut up, while they're at it)

Nor can they cancel out the perception of their mistake by doing other good work later but leaving the mistake unamended for.

Ends justify the means

This mathematical morality also infects actions, by letting the end justify the means. So the goal - winning a victory for their political team and keeping the other side out - is worth plus ten thousand points to them. That means, to some people, that they can do nine thousand or so points worth of negative stuff, that they'd disapprove of if it were someone else (like their opponents) doing it, as means of achieving that end.

Their opponents, of course, aren't allowed to use any. Them winning is minus ten thousand on its own. Any negative things they do on their campaign just put them even more into moral debt.

So we see just about every form of discrimination being used as a tool, from people who are allegedly against it, and who'll try to justify or minimise the collateral harm they're causing, while criticising the other side for doing exactly the same thing for the same reasons.

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Monday, 6 December 2010

Wiio's laws, and how privilege helps make them true

Viestintä yleensä epäonnistuu, paitsi sattumalta (Communication usually fails, except by accident)

Wiio's First Law

Wiio's Laws are unfortunately not generally well-known in English-speaking countries. Jukka Korpela provides an English translation of the laws and commentary on them, which is definitely worth reading.

I was reminded of them by some recent discussions, and so two related reasons for communication failure I want to highlight are privilege and "core assumptions".

Failure of communication due to privilege is commonplace, and the reason is probably sufficiently obvious to most readers that I won't spend much time on it. The nature of privilege is that it's difficult to notice when you have it, which makes it easy to assume everyone has it, which means that the usual pattern-recognition features of the brain go in the wrong direction.

This makes people immune to both anecdotal and systematic evidence. Anecdotal because the anecdotes, regardless of number, don't fit their personal experience, and so get written off as unusual occurrences rather than commonplace. Systematic because for any study you care to name, in any field beyond the highly obscure, there will be another study that contradicts it (and it doesn't matter if there's only a couple of contradictory studies to hundreds or thousands saying the same thing1).

Core assumptions are more generally important, though. The connection between core assumptions and privilege are many. You could define privilege entirely as a core assumptions problem, though to do so would ignore that fact that the core assumptions a person holds are often a consequence of their privilege: the whole thing is self-reinforcing.

I'm using "core assumptions" to mean the assumptions about the way that the world works that are so fundamental to a person's way of thinking that they're not (always) aware that they're making them.

For instance, a common (and generally harmless) core assumption is that effect follows cause, and not the other way round. If I attempt to present an argument that relies at some point on the cause being after the effect, regardless of how much evidence I provide that this was apparently the case, then if you share that core assumption you won't accept my arguments. If I hold the core assumption that cause and effect can come in either order, I probably also will find it difficult to understand why you don't accept my arguments. I've given you plenty of evidence that X happened because Y then happened; the fact that you consider this inconceivable will not occur to me. Almost everyone has been in plenty of discussions where the other party appears to accept all the evidence you present and then come to a diametrically opposed conclusion from it.

It's very difficult to have an ultimately productive discussion with someone whose relevant core assumptions are not compatible with your own.

Core assumptions aren't necessarily harmful - common ones like the nature of cause and effect, in fact, are generally helpful to the majority of situations because they provide a common basis for discussing the world2. The core assumptions linked to privilege, however, are harmful, because they make it difficult to get people to see the privilege.

Core assumptions aren't static - but if someone has a core assumption that is getting in the way of seeing privilege, it's very difficult to shift it. Conversely, if you can remove it, they might very quickly come the rest of the way into agreement on the basis of the evidence you've already provided.

So, the question is, how do you shift a core assumption? If you want to do this other than accidentally, the most important thing to do is to identify what the core assumption is. If you get this wrong, and argue against something that logically follows from the core assumption instead, then it will be an uphill struggle to get any evidence to stick.

Having identified it - and that's difficult in itself, because a person who doesn't consciously know they're making an assumption is unlikely to admit to it - you can then work directly on the assumption. Misidentifying it will often just lead to wasted effort.

(I'm writing this as applied to arguing against someone else's core assumption, but of course it applies without much modification to the extremely important task of identifying one's own privilege-influenced core assumptions so that you can stop assuming them and begin the long process of reconstructing your world view without them)

For instance, some people defending privilege will have the core assumption (and they might even be aware enough of it to state it explicitly):

"X and Y are different, and this explains differences in outcome without needing there to be discrimination"

There are studies carrying out controlled experiements to show that this isn't true, and discrimination is statistically visible across the population.

For other defenders of privilege, that won't be the core assumption. The core assumption will be "Y are inferior", and the assumption above will be a logical consequence of it. In that case the studies above will be useless. I'm not sure if there is anything that can be done to argue with such a plain assertion as a core assumption.


1 It's not necessarily true that the massively greater volume of studies is correct, because the studies are themselves made by researchers with varying degrees of privilege, and this can let core assumptions of the entire field be entirely wrong but remain unchallenged even in the face of strong counter-evidence. (e.g. most research on the "obesity epidemic")

2 There are of course plenty of core assumptions that are both extremely common and extremely harmful. "Gender is strictly binary and immutable", for instance. These core assumptions are very strongly self-reinforcing, because almost everyone acts as if it's completely and self-evidently true, which means most people never consider that it might not be (and dehumanisingly write-off any counter-examples).

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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Season's greetings

Season's Greetings! Early Northern-Hemisphere temperate winter to you all! I was expecting it to be January before there was any snow settling, so this has been a bit of a surprise.

The garden is covered in snow. There's almost a foot of snow fallen here, with more forecast overnight and later in the week. Other parts of the northeast are basically blocked off.

Heavy snow that settles to any sort of depth is a rarity in most parts of England and Wales, so the contingency plans for it are generally insufficient to keep all but a few main roads operating (because to do so would require spending money on buying, maintaining and storing lots of road-clearing equipment and supplies that would rarely be used). Unfortunately that means that when it does happen lots of people - not, in general, the default privileged ones - end up trapped in their homes.