Sunday, June 21, 2015

And You Can Speak Your Mind, But Not on My Time

Saul DeGraw:

But boycotts are really one of the few ways for people to cause change, real change. You show your moral and ethical disagreement by refusing to support a business, regime, or conference with your money. There seems to be a basic free speech and association right by saying “I am not supporting this business or regime because of practices X, Y, and Z and I don’t think other people should either” or saying “Conference X invited this crank because of X, Y, and Z to speak and I think that is dangerous even if he or she is speaking on apolitical matters.” Then you have a fight or debate in the public sphere. The conference clearly saw that inviting Yarvin was a mistake and that many people thought he was odious.

This is why many people on the left see conservatism as being nothing more than a maintenance of privilege. The view is simply that liberals are not to do anything to voice their displeasure over anything because that means conservatives might have to do something.

So what are people supposed to do? Just boycott silently? Why shouldn’t they speak out?

In theory, that's all fine. In practice, though, most of these "boycotts" are nothing more than public temper tantrums. Twitter tempests in a 24-hour news cycle teacup. They involve no discipline, no strategy, no commitment. Nothing more strenuous than signing an online petition, retweeting your friends and yelling at some strangers. The point is not to change things, the point is to be seen loudly demanding that things change. This is why many people, not just conservatives, see the social justice left as being nothing more than a narcissistic exercise in virtue signaling. The view is simply that we're all supposed to run ourselves ragged responding to whichever irrelevant piece of infotainment has recently outraged them, even though their deficient attention spans will have long since fluttered elsewhere by the time we figure out what, if anything, can meaningfully be done. In many cases, there is nothing to do except punish individuals for voicing unpopular opinions, which strikes many people, not just conservatives, as petty spitefulness masquerading as high-minded principle. A focus on exiling "problematic" individuals from power and influence also incentivizes people to spend more time looking for trivial infractions to pounce upon, rather than working to create political coalitions to achieve more difficult structural goals, the kind which require a lot more than a judgmental attitude.

Now, lest you get the impression that I, like most people, am only angry when "they" use these tactics against "us", let me offer up a conciliatory example. I have as little respect for Peezus Myers of FreethoughtBlogs fame as it is possible to have. The man embodies the absolute worst aspects of social justice radical chic while practicing and encouraging the most corrosive habits of Internet dialogue. But I have also seen opponents of his who have allowed their hatred of him to start working its rationalizing magic on their own minds. Ferzample, he once made a harmless joke on his blog about having a dream in which his classroom got flooded with seawater, all his female students turned into mermaids, and, he implied, they then had an orgy. I saw people work hard to convince themselves, in all seriousness, that this was evidence of sexual depravity that should be reported to administrators at his campus. I saw them discuss plans to boycott conferences at which he and his allies were scheduled to speak, even when they had no intention of actually attending anyway. I saw them openly acknowledge their desire to use financial leverage to get social-justice atheists ousted from political positions within atheist/skeptic organizations, even though their opponents had technically done nothing wrong to justify losing their jobs. There was no pretense of fairness or objectivity. It was a spiteful desire for petty revenge by whatever means available. Sometimes you can only nail Al Capone for tax evasion.

That is the reality of what I've come to call "boycott culture". There is no careful consideration of whether this or that outrage truly represents a clear and present danger rather than a minor annoyance, and if so, whether an economic embargo is the best tactic to use in opposition. Kneejerk anger quickly turns into disproportionate punishment which breeds more of the same. What are people supposed to do? Acting intelligently and fairly would be a good start.

In a game that never ends and has no final score, the only thing that matters is how you play. Politics — the means by which people figure out how to coexist in society — is a neverending game. This attitude is what motivates my opposition to all "ends justify the means" arguments.

Yuval Noah Harari talks a lot in his book Sapiens about what he calls "imagined orders". He argues that the brute material facts of life, as far as we can tell, show that there is no inherent meaning in life beyond surviving and reproducing. Everything else, from art to morality to religion, is part of an imagined order, a story we tell to make our lives about something besides mere survival. He stresses that these orders aren't mere delusions — they exist as long as we agree on their rules and behave as if they exist. For our purposes here, it suffices to say that an expansive conception of free speech is one of those imagined orders that I consider worth defending. The miserly argument which is currently popular on the social justice left says, hey, all the Constitution allows you is the right to say what you want without official government interference. It doesn't say anything about you having the right to a mic, a stage, a P.A. system, or an audience. I say that this is true but unnecessarily stingy. I argue that we should strive to tolerate as much contrary speech as we can, even when it pains us, rather than seeking every available legal loophole to muzzle and exile our opponents. I am arguing for a shift of emphasis away from the paranoid, hypersensitive mindset which always takes the most uncharitable, restrictive view possible.

I recognize that many will see this as an impractical and naïve stance. In fact, the more observant among you will have noted that I am making a moralistic argument of my own to appeal to your conscience. I am even trying to shame you into agreeing that a more expansive conception of free speech is necessary. I make no apologies or excuses. Furthermore, I will intensify it by going all Old Testament prophet on you. If you are a supporter of this emotionally incontinent boycott culture, I say you are a stupid, shortsighted whore. Your cynicism has corroded one of the greatest imagined orders people have ever invented, and all for the cheap price of being allowed to claim the occasional meaningless, insignificant scalp of a tribal enemy. You can never "win" anything more than a temporary advantage with your disingenuous tactics. You have resigned yourself to the junk food equivalent of political activism, preferring the quick sugar high of judging and condemning "problematic" individuals to the long-term diet and discipline of working to create structural change.

Failings of personal character aside, there's a more sinister aspect to this belief in value-imposition through the supposedly neutral qualities of currency. As other critics have noted, this tendency to let the market referee our moral disputes is pure neoliberal logic, which you would think the left would be wary of endorsing. You would expect them to object to a standard where the people willing to throw their money around most aggressively should get to set the terms of debate and the moral agenda. After all, aren't we constantly being told that the rich are all right-wingers with more money than the rest of us put together? I'm sure they'll be quite happy to let you "win" by forcing some celebrity to grovel on social media, or by getting some speaker removed from an unimportant conference lineup, as long as they get to use the same "I'm a paying customer and I demand my rights!" logic when it suits them.