Thursday, May 01, 2014

Who Is Passionate Enough When the Punishment Begins?

Kenan Malik:

The trouble is, whether certain ideas are odious or unacceptable is itself usually a matter for debate. Take the two cases here. Many people do not see Brendan Eich’s opposition to same-sex marriage as homophobic or Hirsi Ali’s opposition to Islam as Islamophobic. Even if you think they are homophobic or Islamophobic, there is no value in simply shouting ‘Oh but they are’ and proscribing such views. That makes no more sense than Hindus demanding that Wendy Doniger’s book be banned because it supposedly disparages Hinduism, or Islamists demanding that Maajid Nawaz be disciplined for supposedly offending Muslims.

There is a difference between creating a society in which we have genuinely reduced or removed certain forms of hatreds and demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to other people’s expectations of what is acceptable. To demand that something is unsayable is not to make it unsaid, still less unthought. It is merely to create a world in which social conversation becomes greyer and more timid, in which people are less willing to say anything distinctive or outrageous, in which in Jon Lovett’s words, ‘fewer and fewer people talk more and more about less and less’. The Culture of Shut Up fashions not a less hateful world but a more conformist one. And there is chasm between the act of conforming and that of transforming.

Ideally, it would be great if we could "genuinely reduce" prejudice and hatred without simply demanding that people shut up. Realistically, no matter how committed a society is to maintaining a healthy culture of open discussion and debate, there will always be a significant minority who can't be reasoned into agreement with the majority and will thus be intimidated into silence or ostracized. Eventually, they will accept that the social costs of being racist or homophobic simply aren't worth the open expression of the sentiment, and over time, people will adjust to the new consensus as they always do. However, it still doesn't feel right to endorse the intimidation/ostracizing, as inevitable as it may be. This is the part I wrestle with myself. I agree with the general point of Malik's post (and his stance on free speech in general), but I think he sidesteps this point and is left vaguely gesturing in the direction of a world in which no one is ever compelled into behavior without their fully conscious, rational assent. How do we realistically come to terms with the fact that a tolerance omelet may require a few broken Eichs? How much resistance do we offer to the latest trial-by-Twitter even as we know that, ultimately, societal norms always have and always will require a certain amount of non-rational social pressure to become fixed into place?

If we are forced to accept the inevitability of these social costs, perhaps the best we can do is to moderate their scope and intensity. In the cases of people like Eich or Justine Sacco, what exactly are we trying to achieve? Ferzample, I heard it said that elevating Eich to CEO of Mozilla was the step too far, that it was too close to the company endorsing his political views. Fair enough, but how much effort, in general, should be devoted to scrutinizing someone's political views or personal life? How far should we go in attempting to dig up dirt on them if it's not readily apparent? And how long do the punitive sanctions last? If Eich or Sacco land in new high-profile, lucrative jobs, will they attract more negative attention? That is, will they be perceived to have gotten off too easily and thus require more hounding? I just don't get a sense that most people have bothered to consider things like that. What concerns me is the ad-hoc nature of what constitutes justice in these situations. I suspect that a lot of people just want to enjoy judging and punishing (especially as social media creates the conditions where doing so brings status and other social rewards), and I worry about the possibility of the terms of punishment remaining open-ended and subject to extension.