Tag Archives: social media

Interpretive Charity and Heated Debate

I wanted to add to the discussion my co-bloggers have started on discourse norms.

Consider the following sample dialogues

1)
A: “I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B: “I think you’re mistaken about that.  Just as criminal background checks make good sense, so would some sort of red-flag or mental health history screening.  Indeed, since we already use criminal background checks, we could easily combine the two, plus it would help if there weren’t easy ways to circumvent the background checks.”

2)
A: “ I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B*: “That’s outrageous.  You think guns are more important than kids’ lives?”

3)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B: “I disagree.  I am not depending on any particular religious doctrine when I claim that human life begins at conception. It’s a developmental spectrum, there are no sharp dividing lines, so if we don’t respect the new life that the pregnancy represents as early as possible, it’s a slippery slope.  As to the reasons why women might want to terminate, sure, if there’s a legitimate medical rationale that the mother’s life is in jeopardy, I can see that, but I think a lot of what you’re calling psychological reasons could be addressed through counseling, spiritual or secular.”

4)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B*: “That’s outrageous. You think it’s ok to murder babies to preserve some illusion of women’s autonomy?”

————————

You may have noticed that dialogues (1) and (3) read very differently than (2) and (4).   That’s because in (1) and (3), the B character is responding to the A character’s arguments with different arguments.   In (2) and (4), the B* character does not actually engage with A’s arguments at all, but goes right for “baby-killer.”   Regardless of your view on either abortion or gun control, you should be able to see that in (2) and (4), B* is not arguing in a rational way, whereas B is arguing rationally in (1) and (3).   Does A actually hold the position that B* alleges?  Almost certainly not.  This is commonly known as the “straw man” fallacy; in this case augmented by an emotional appeal.  We know this because in the other pair of dialogues, B is offering actual counter-arguments. 

Why does this matter?   Because when people argue about these things, they have two sorts of objectives.  One is changing the mind of the other person, or perhaps onlookers.  The other is changing public policy.   But neither of these goals will be served with arguments that do not engage their opponents.  It’s totally implausible that A will respond to B* with “oh goodness, I didn’t realize I was advocating baby-killing, I hereby change my position.”  What happens instead is the discussion goes nowhere.

Sometimes we just get angry at people who disagree with us, and we are bewildered that others don’t see things our way.  But we should resist the temptation to straw-man.  If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to argue with people, you’re certainly not required to do so.  But if you do think it’s worth arguing about, then your objectives will be better served with interpretive charity.  What actually is the other person’s position, and why?  Why do they think your position is wrong?  Is there something that might be common ground?  Are you talking past each other?  Are you sure that your position is informed by facts and logic?  Do you have any talking points that might be misinformed?

Sometimes we never resolve disagreements on highly controversial issues.  But if you hope to get anywhere, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Georgetown University Does Not Have a Speech and Expression Policy

The following is a guest post by John Hasnas. Dr. Hasnas is a Professor of Ethics at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and Professor of Law (by courtesy) at Georgetown Law Center.

In 2017, to great fanfare, Georgetown University adopted a speech and expression policy that states,

It is Georgetown University’s policy to provide all members of the University community, including faculty, students, and staff, the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. . . . It is not the proper role of a university to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Deliberation or debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived.

On January 26, 2021, the incoming Executive Director of Georgetown law’s Center for the Constitution, Ilya Shapiro, expressed his disapproval of President Biden’s decision to consider only African-American women for appointment to the Supreme Court by tweeting: “Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identity politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman.”

On January 27, the dean of Georgetown Law published a campus-wide e-mail in which he called the tweet “appalling” and “at odds with everything we stand for at Georgetown Law.” On January 31, the dean placed the director on “administrative leave, pending an investigation into whether he violated our policies and expectations on professional conduct, non-discrimination, and anti-harassment.” 

On June 2, the dean published a campus wide e-mail in which he stated that Mr. Shapiro’s “tweets could be reasonably understood, and were in fact understood by many, to disparage any Black woman the President might nominate.” He went on to explain that 

In considering how to address the impact of Mr. Shapiro’s tweets, I was guided by two overarching principles. The first is the Law Center’s dedication to speech and expression. Georgetown University’s Speech and Expression Policy provides that the “University is committed to free and open inquiry, deliberation and debate in all matters, and the untrammeled verbal and nonverbal expression of ideas.” The second and equally important principle was our dedication to building a culture of equity and inclusion (emphasis added).

He then pointed out that the speech and expression policy states that “[t]he freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.” He further noted that speech that violates the University’s Policy Statement on Harassment is prohibited and that the Speech and Expression Policy does not supersede professional conduct policies or HR policies. He omitted the next sentence that states, “But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions not be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a free and open discussion of ideas.”

The dean concluded his e-mail by stating,

Georgetown Law is committed to preserving and protecting the right of free and open inquiry, deliberation, and debate. We have an equally compelling obligation to foster a campus community that is free from bias, and in which every member is treated with respect and courtesy. I am committed to continuing to strive toward both of these indispensable goals (emphasis added).

Apparently, Georgetown has equally compelling commitments to “free and open inquiry, deliberation, and debate” and “to foster a campus community that is free from bias, and in which every member is treated with respect and courtesy.” 

Combining these two commitments means that Georgetown’s policy is to provide all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn unless some members of the Georgetown community could reasonably understand what is being expressed as disparaging them or the administration finds the comments at odds with what Georgetown stands for. It means that Georgetown believes that it is not the proper role of a university to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive unless they offend some members of the Georgetown community. It means that members of the Georgetown community are free to express ideas that others find to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived unless students or administrators deem them too offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived to be permitted.

It means that Georgetown University does not have a speech and expression policy.

Editors note: Yesterday, Ilya Shapiro resigned his position at Georgetown, claiming it would be a hostile work environment wherein he was set up to fail.

Censorship, Free Speech, Social Media, and The First Amendment

According to the state action doctrine, only government entities can violate the First Amendment. Twitter, Facebook, etc, are not government entities. They don’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights when they take down posts or remove their accounts. That does not mean that Twitter, FB, etc, aren’t censoring speech.

Some worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc are monopolies, violating anti-trust laws and that they thus ought to be regulated as common carriers. This strikes me as pretty obviously mistaken. Not only are they competitors, but others have sought to compete with them (MeWe, Parler, etc) and nothing rules out others trying to do so in the future. Some also worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc might act in ways meant to curry favor with the Federal government and that if that is true, since its plausible that federal regulators know this and might thus signal their desires to these firms, really Twitter, Facebook, etc are agents of the state and so they can, after all, violate individual constitutional rights. This also strikes me as pretty implausible, both legally and morally. Whatever control would be present would be pretty tenuous. If it weren’t, it seems unlikely that Twitter would have closed President Trump’s account.

When Twitter bans President Trump from its platform, it prevents him from speaking to a certain audience, limiting his speech. It does not thereby successfully prevent him from speaking to everyone; he has other avenues of communication. Of course, if the government censors someone, they also will typically have other avenues of speech. Consider the Comstock Act of 1873; it made it illegal to send certain “lascivious” material through the mail. Those wishing to share (speak about) those materials with others, could still do so—for example, by walking to others and talking to them directly. More generally, any governmental act meant to silence someone will close some avenues of communication while leaving others open. The fact that a social media company only closes some avenues of communication to (i.e, only partially silences) someone it bans from its platform is no different than what government does. If the latter is censorship, so is the former. Or so it seems to me.

If I am right, “government censorship” is a specification of “censorship,” as is “parental censorship,” “school censorship,” etc. “Social media censorship” would simply be censorship by a social media company. If this is wrong, we need another term for what the other agents just named do when they limit speech. That’s fine, of course. It’s a mere conceptual matter, one we needn’t worry too much about—what we are really interested in, I think, is whether social media companies or other private agents should seek to silence anyone. Still, if this is not censorship because only speech limitation by government is censorship, then “government censorship” is redundant—and I do not think it is.

That I think social media companies sometimes engage in what is properly called “censorship” does not mean those companies do anything wrong. Free speech is valuable—and so, I think, the first amendment leaves the US more or less absolutist in forbidding government intervention in speech. But that doesn’t mean private agents can never morally limit speech. Of course they can. Of course we can. For example, I stop my son from using certain words that are not appropriate for polite society. I censor him. There are also certain speech acts I would forbid in my classroom if I had to, but thankfully don’t—they don’t ever seem to come up; that is, my students don’t use them (in the classroom, anyway). Similarly, book burning (in some circumstances) by private individuals and book banning in private schools are likely forms of censorship. They’re both legal, even if disturbing.

Some censorship is not only permissible, but expected and probably morally good—disrespectful speech in the classroom, for example, is something we do well to make unacceptable (through non-legal, social means). Is censorship by Twitter, Facebook, etc, of President Trump and his followers good? I don’t honestly know. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I generally agree that more speech is the way to counter bad speech and that airing all views is likely to leave the bad (morally and epistemically) views with fewer believers. And (on the same hand), I worry that people are too often attracted to beliefs they are told they shouldn’t have (the “taboo effect”). Certainly, letting people discuss racist and anti-Semitic views hasn’t (yet) stopped them from spreading and letting people discuss conspiracy theories about fraudulent elections—for which there is no evidence—hasn’t stopped them from spreading. On the other hand, I don’t have any significant doubt that President Trump lies and that his followers are mistaken about a number of important factors, including the supposed fraudulence of the election, and preventing the spread of those false beliefs seems worthwhile. And, I admit, I simply love that in our society government officials face limits imposed by private entities. Corporate CEOs can tell the President of the United States that he can’t use their service; this is not something one can say in Russia or China.

Conclusion: like it or not (and I am conflicted), Twitter and Facebook do not violate any constitutional rights by censoring the President and his followers. As I said previously, this is a matter of property rights. Twitter and Facebook own their platforms just as I own my home. Just as I can forbid someone from entering my home to tell me why Nazi’s were right—or anything at all that I don’t want to hear—Twitter and Facebook can forbid people from using their platforms to say thinks Twitter and Facebook do not like. Twitter and Facebook have the right to censor those using their platforms. Whether they should or not, I cannot presently say.

Fact-Checking and the Conditions of Responsible Citizenship

The history of classical liberal thought is replete with (empirical) arguments that run basically this way: If the government increases its involvement in X, then ordinary people will stop seeing X as their responsibility. Instead of being concerned about X and working to advance X, they will leave care of X to the state, which will do a worse job at it.

Perhaps the most frequent context in which this argument is invoked involves care for the less fortunate. To wit, if we take it that the government bears responsibility for caring for the poor and downtrodden, this will predictably (and unfortunately) undercut support for mutual aid organizations that can often leverage local knowledge to be more effective at alleviating problems than large, centralized bureaucracies like states. Here’s Wilhelm von Humboldt in a characteristic passage (from The Limits of State Action).

As each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens. This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive; or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits will be most likely to flourish at its liveliest, where the feeling is most acute that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that oppressed classes of the community which are, as it were, overlooked by the government, are always bound together by the closest ties.

https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/humboldt-the-sphere-and-duties-of-government-1792-1854

My fellow blogger Andrew (J.) Cohen recently advanced a similar argument in the case of state-provided education: the more we see the education of children as the state’s responsibility, the less we (particularly parents) see it as something that we ought to look after.

There are many worries one might have about such arguments. First, is the empirical claim that state solutions crowd out non-state solutions even true? Second, even if the empirical claim is true and private individuals and mutual aid organizations are more effective in some ways, still their help can be bad news for freedom insofar as it can be withheld unless recipients meet oppressive conditions. Third, decentralized efforts to address public problems lack mechanisms for ensuring competence and fairness. Even if fully supported, perfectly fair, and much more effective where they operate, such organizations may under-provide needed services elsewhere. And so on.

One thing my own work has forced me to think about lately are the increased calls for fact-checking and labeling of misinformation by social media giants.

My previous posts (here and here) have briefly touched upon reasons for worrying that social media censors and fact-checkers are bound to be fallible. (Indeed, fact-checkers have long shown troubling signs of fallibility, see here, here, here, here, here and here—though also here and here for some reasons for optimism that these shortcomings might be overcome by more thoughtful fact-checking strategies.)

But set aside these issues with the quality of the fact-checking and the political power it might or might not involve. Suppose that the fact-checkers do a decent enough job. Still, the old classical liberal argument above provides reason to worry that widespread fact-checking of this kind might undermine conditions of epistemic responsibility. In short, if we come to expect others to do the hard work of fact-checking for us, we will lose the skills and sense of responsibility for doing it ourselves.

Of course, fact-checking and labeling misinformation is often proposed as an alternative to outright censorship, and it’s likely that it is indeed better than outright censorship. After all, it allows individuals to access and assess the mistaken content for themselves, rather than blocking it from view altogether. Moreover, labeling false or misleading content in this way might well improve our epistemic situation by stopping the spread of misinformation that might otherwise “go viral”. But even if we accept that these benefits of the practice reliably obtain, they need to be weighed against its costs. And one set of costs I’ve heard little about involves those associated with the kinds of people an over-reliance on fact-checking might produce. I’m wary (I think reasonably, but maybe not) of anything that will encourage average people to be more lazy regarding their epistemic duties than they already are.

Now, social media giants are not states. Accordingly, it might be that their efforts to take greater responsibility for fact-checking the content they host is best-interpreted as an instance of voluntary organizations doing what the state is not now doing (better than the state could do), rather than a threat to voluntary solutions for misinformation. And it is clear to me that it is preferable to have non-state entities in charge of fact-checking than to empower the state to do it. In general, it’s healthy to have lots of different institutions with lots of different norms surrounding what kinds of content they tolerate in their jurisdictions.

Still, lots of people get their information on social media platforms. Many have argued this means that they have certain state-like powers. Though I’m skeptical of the strongest of these claims, it’s reasonable to be concerned that, under conditions of wide-spread fact-checking across platforms, users might come to be disposed to accept what they read in these spaces somewhat uncritically. After all, people might develop the reasonable expectation that someone is looking out to ensure that nothing misleading is to be found there. And even if we ignore the fact that, in practice, fact-checking will be “gappy” (with much factually inaccurate information making it through the filters) is difficult to overstate the dangers associated with allowing other people to do our reading and thinking for us.

It’s fair to object that, because the impetus for further fact checking is itself the fact that people are bad at processing information, likely to believe lots of foolish nonsense for bad reasons, and so on, there’s nowhere to go from our present situation but up. Still, this seems to admit that the root of the problem lies with how individuals are trained to evaluate information and its sources. Widespread, public fact-checking can at best ensure that the worst of the problem’s consequences are averted. But it does nothing to address the problem itself–and indeed, it may even make it worse.

In a provocative passage in The Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant reminds us that many calls to “take human beings as they are” rather than “good-natured visionaries fancy they ought to be” ignore the role that political institutions play in making people the way they are. The lesson is that, if we find that we are bad at discharging our epistemic duties, it is worth asking whether this because of the incentives we face or whether it is it a fixed feature human nature. If the former, then, other things equal, we should avoid strengthening those bad incentives and should rather work to improve them.

For various reasons, I suspect that the trend of increased reliance on independent fact-checkers is here to stay. If I’m right, we must take care to avoid a situation in which we become complacent, off-loading the difficult work of responsible citizenship to strangers with their own sets of interests (which might not track our own). It is true that this is demanding work. But if we can’t figure out how to do what it takes (or if indeed failure is inevitable given deep features of human nature), then it is harder to gainsay the increasingly popular (but in fact ancient) claim that there might be more attractive alternatives for governance than democracy (CE*).

(Thanks to Andrew Cohen for his thoughts on a previous version of this piece.)

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