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Blog about a column about the Harper’s letter: Here’s some discourse about a discourse about what happens when the discourse takes precedence over reality

I read this op-ed by Tom Scocca and I have some thoughts.

To start with, as the above title indicates, the topic is very “meta.” Scocca’s article is a response to an open letter which is a response to criticisms of other people’s negative responses to other people’s criticisms.

As a statistician, I can relate to meta-style arguments, because statistics is itself very “meta.” We’re solving applied problems, while at the same time watching ourselves solving these problems. Formalizations of our solutions become workflows, then methods, sometimes even theorems.

I can also relate as a blogger. Blogging is all about links and responses and responses to responses. A regular feature in any blog thread is the comment mocking the blogger for spending so much time and space on some trivial topic, followed by a comment mocking the original commenter for bothering to waste time in the comments section, etc etc. It’s reply-all loops all the way down. Recall also the Javert paradox.

Here’s the story. Harper’s magazine published an open letter signed by 150 journalists, academics, and others, promoting open debate and “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society.” Scocca criticized the letter on three grounds:

1. He argues that the letter is “studiously vague about exactly what it meant to warn the reader against,” offering platitudes about free speech but not pointing to readily available specific examples of people losing their jobs or being stopped from doing their jobs because of employers stopping them from exercising their free speech.

2. He argues the letter misses historical context: “this pattern of targeted pressure and overreaction is not a new crisis. It has been established for years by now, in right-wing and left-wing outrage campaigns alike, and the fault lies with the institutions that still haven’t figured out how it works, not with the generalized, newly ascendant cultural revolution that the Harper’s letter or Trump wishes to raise the alarm about.”

3. The letter claims that “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” but Scocca points to recent history that action, as well as argument and persuasion, is one way that ideas, bad or good, get defeated. Scocca’s not arguing that you win by silencing or wishing bad ideas away; rather, he’s saying that exposure, argument, and persuasion aren’t enough either.

Here’s what I think. Item #1 is the kind of thing you’ll get from a mass letter. Not long ago I was asked to sign a mass letter (on a completely different topic, and I responded:

I’m glad you’re doing this. In general I don’t like signing this sort of group letter, in part because I feel like I can contribute more effectively with an outside perspective. Thanks for understanding.

I was kind of afraid that people would be mad at me for not signing, but they weren’t. They really did understand!

One reason I didn’t want to sign this recent letter (again, not the Harper’s letter, it was something different) was the experience I had a few years ago being on the committee for the American Statistical Association’s statement on p-values. There was disagreement on various points, but we were feeling a lot of pressure to just get the damn document out there, so I agreed to green-light the statement, with the understanding that the reservations by myself and others would be appended to the official report. Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. The ASA did publish my response, along with others, but these responses were not easily accessible if you went to the main document.

Anyway, my point is that, with rare exceptions, a letter written by committee will be vague and it will have problems. That’s just the way things go. A document with 150 signatures will be political, and it’s no surprise that it will be vague rather than specific and platitudinous rather than clever.

That is not to say that I oppose mass-signed documents. Indeed, I signed such a letter myself not so long ago. That one was a letter written by Valentin Amrhein, Sander Greenland, and Blake McShane that many people signed. That’s how I think it makes sense to do it: not a letter with 150 authors, but a letter with one author, or some small number of authors, and many people signing. Then the lines of responsibility are more clear: the authors are responsible for the details of the letter, and the others are expressing agreement.

Item #2 above (the lack of historical context) doesn’t bother me so much. There are lots of things to care about, and sometimes you have to bring up a topic when you have the chance to do so.

Item #3 above is more interesting to me. I agree with Scocca that the Harper’s letter is offering a false choice between defeating bad ideas by “exposure, argument, and persuasion” or “trying to silence or wish them away.” As Scocca said, there’s also political action, which doesn’t fall under either category.

One other thing. Scocca links to this news article by Tim Marchman, who writes that the letter “advanced the uncontroversial position that open debate is good.”

Unfortunately, “the position that open debate is good” is not at all uncontroversial!

The Association for Psychological Science doesn’t like open debate. If you engage in open debate with them, they’ll falsely accuse you of implying “that the entire field is inept and misguided.” The Freaknomics people don’t like open debate. Question them and they’ll call you a weasel. Cass Sunstein doesn’t like open debate. If you ask whether social science findings can be replicated, he just might compare you to the former East German secret police. This was an event that led to the following immortal reply from Nick Brown:

It’s a good thing the Stasi existed. Otherwise people who wish to draw absurd parallels between modest social or scientific movements and the secret police of murderous totalitarian regimes would probably have to use the Gestapo as an analogy, and that would just be tasteless.

And don’t get me started on David Brooks. Brooks was one of the signers of the letter, and he doesn’t like open debate either! He publishes false things, never retracts them, and never engages with his critics. “The position that open debate is good” is so controversial that it’s possible to sign a letter supporting this position and still not support it.

So, yes, I agree with Scocca that this particular letter has problems—problems that I’d say are unavoidable given the way the letter was prepared—I can’t agree with the claim that the points in the letter are empty. The world is full of Sunsteins: influential thought leaders who want to maintain their power by suppressing dissent, people who think they know best and you don’t. Supporting free speech is not empty.
Some more background on the Harper’s letter is here and here.

It’s strange to talk about this sort of issue, in comparison with something like “Retire Statistical Significance,” which was the petition that I signed. One one hand, free speech etc. is much more important that statistical significance. On the other hand, these policy and discourse issues are so vague that, as Scocca puts it, “Generalities can mean whatever a person wishes them to mean.” I’m generally opposed to the process by which discussions of substance get sidetracked into discussions of tone, but there’s no such thing as a tone-free discussion, so at some level, discussions of tone are unavoidable.

P.S. The New York Times article describes the signers of the letter as “artists and intellectuals.” Scocca characterizes them as “journalistic, academic, artistic, or literary figures.” The signatories also include some political activists, a labor leader, a retired diplomat, and a retired athlete. One question I have is: who did they decide to send the letter to? For example, the letter is signed by David Brooks but not Gregg Easterbrook. Francis Fukuyama but not Niall Ferguson. Steven Pinker, but not Cass Sunstein. Noam Chomsky, but not Marc Hauser. Malcolm Gladwell, but not Brian Wansink. Did Easterbrook, Ferguson, Sunstein, Hauser, and Wansink not agree with the petition? Did they agree but not want to sign? Or did nobody ask them? That would be kind of sad. Does that mean these people aren’t major public intellectuals anymore?

70 Comments

  1. > others are expressing agreement.
    My sense was that as signing I was suggesting the article was worth careful consideration as opposed to being ignored (or accepted as is). That was one of the things that was not adequately sorted out – each signatory should have chosen from a list of reasons for being a signatory.

  2. Shauna says:

    From the PS – Hauser is an odd example. Maybe they didn’t send the letter to him because he had to resign his position in disgrace after publishing falsified research findings?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well the big problem with spelling out a clear issue is that if you criticize any of the issues movements or individuals that are worth criticizing:

    a) you’re letter won’t be published;
    b) you risk provoking a major shitstorm
    c) you risk crowds in front of your home
    d) possibly even your job

    So that’s why we don’t have a clear pointer at something ‘bad’.

  4. Joshua says:

    > “Although I was not technically asked to sign the letter I’d still like to add my voice, and say that dissenting, sometimes unpopular opinions like mine are being silenced. And I can think of no better medium to do that than this nationally syndicated newspaper column which I am paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to write.”

    https://www.thebeaverton.com/2020/07/allow-me-to-use-my-nationally-syndicated-column-to-tell-you-how-my-voice-is-being-suppressed/

  5. Andrew:
    I had heard some murmurings about this issue, but hadn’t read any of it. I haven’t been keeping up my own blog these days, let alone reading others, but I had a quick look at the op-ed you discuss. Thanks for discussing it. Here’s the one fairly outrageous thing that jumps out thing that jumps out:

    Here is Scocca:
    “’The way to defeat bad ideas,’ the letter says, ‘is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.’ In the study of argument, this is called “begging the question”—assuming one’s desired conclusion as the starting point, a basic fallacy.”

    What? In the study of argument, providing reasons for a conclusion is invariably to beg the question or argue circularly? In a circular argument, the truth of the premises already assumes the truth of the conclusion (the point at issue). The classic (extreme) example is:
    The Bible is the revealed word of God. Therefore God exists. Since circular arguments fail to provide reasons for their conclusion (whether they are deductive or ampliative), they are bad arguments. But not all arguments contain premises whose truth already assumes the truth of the conclusion; they are not all self-sealing or circular.
    The supposition that to argue for claim C is already to assume C in the premises may be behind the fact that so many statisticians (not you, fortunately) accept Birnbaum’s (1962) argument for the Likelihood Principle for decades. I discussed this in Statistical Science.
    https://errorstatistics.com/2014/09/06/statistical-science-the-likelihood-principle-issue-is-out/
    Depending on how it is formulated, the argument is either circular or unsound. It continues to cause confusion in statistical foundations.

  6. John Williams says:

    “Item #3 above is more interesting to me. I agree with Scocca that the Harper’s letter is offering a false choice between defeating bad ideas by “exposure, argument, and persuasion” or “trying to silence or wish them away.” As Scocca said, there’s also political action, which doesn’t fall under either category.”

    I don’t think the signers of the Harper’s letter were arguing against political action, but if Scocca thinks that people are not trying to silence other people,sometimes by political action, he leads a sheltered life. This is not new. I remember that in the late 1960s, people in the Students for a Democratic Society and their allies were trying to regulate who could speak on college campuses. For example, they tried to keep the ambassador from the Pinochet government in Chile from speaking at Berkeley. Doubtless he was a despicable person, and handing out leaflets to people going to the talk would have been fine, but trying to keep him from speaking was not.

    There is a pragmatic reason why simply shutting people up is a bad idea. You don’t persuade anybody, not even yourself. Political action in the early and mid 1960s was mostly well argued out. The early Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee had a well articulated theory of action, and people joining their protests were expected to resist passively. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley debated issues at length, with emphasis on hearing dissenting views respectfully. In consequence, the experience made a lasting change in people’s political thinking, as reflected in the large number of us who came back for the 50th reunion.

    • Andrew says:

      John:

      You write, “if Scocca thinks that people are not trying to silence other people, sometimes by political action, he leads a sheltered life.”

      Scocca seems very aware that people are trying to silence other people by political action. See the very first paragraph of his article, which gives examples of this, and then he brings up other examples later on.

  7. Michael Nelson says:

    The degree of specificity of criticism in letters like this is inversely related to the preeminence and diversity of signers. The letter’s authors wanted to get a lot of attention and decided a good strategy was to maximize the number of preeminent names. And in order to create the appearance that their argument is universally supported, they wanted signers from all sides of all issues. Those priorities require an obscenely wide rhetorical net. In contrast, see the open letters from hundreds of former USDOJ officials to AG Barr, which target corruption generally but give very specific examples and make very specific demands, and which includes signers of different levels of prominence.

    Andrew, I see why your experience with the ASA would make you wary of contributing to committee reports, but not why it makes you apprehensive about mass letters. I haven’t read anything about this letter being written by committee–maybe it was edited along the way to get more people to sign, I dunno–but as I say above, I think the generality in this case wasn’t so much a compromise of intellectual integrity as a planned feature.

  8. Thank you, Andrew, for this response to the “Harper’s letter” and to responses to it. I appreciate your commentary, in that you don’t simply dismiss the letter–or the responses–but instead consider what they are saying. You recognize the need to defend free speech and free debate.

    One point of disagreement: You say, “I agree with Scocca that the Harper’s letter is offering a false choice between defeating bad ideas by ‘exposure, argument, and persuasion’ or ‘trying to silence or wish them away.’ As Scocca said, there’s also political action, which doesn’t fall under either category.”

    Much of political action does fall into one of these two categories. The kind that doesn’t–direct physical action, such as pulling down a statue or using violence against the enemy–can only go so far before relying on persuasion or suppression, or being challenged by one of the two. For any political action, speech comes into play, so it matters how this speech is handled.

    One kind of suppression takes the following form: “Because you said X, you are a Y, and because you are a Y, you should be shamed/shunned/shouted down/fired,” where “X” is anything deemed offensive, and “Y” is an associated undesirable identity such as “terrible person,” “racist,” “crazy liberal,” or anyone who, according to the judgment, does not deserve respect.

    There is a double fallacy here. Saying “X” does not make you a “Y,” unless the two are actually equivalent. They often are not. Nor does being a “Y” absolve others of the obligation to treat you with basic respect. Even if you are truly despicable in your words and actions, you deserve to be judged fairly.

    One of my favorite aspects of the Harper’s letter–which I am honored to have signed–is its support of strong and lively argument (as opposed to personal attack): “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

    The letter may err on the general side (understandably), but the issues it raises are real.

    • Andrew says:

      Diana:

      I guess Scocca’s point is that political action can facilitate persuasion (this is the “facts on the ground” argument), and that “trying to silence or wish them away” isn’t really the point.

      I’ve rarely had people try to silence me, but I’ve had lots of people who seem to want to wish me away, and I get very annoyed by people like David Brooks and Steven Pinker (two of the signers of that letter, by the way!) who have either tried to brush aside serious criticism (as when Brooks gave an award for a loud claim based on false numbers, and then refused to correct himself) or have promoted misleading attacks (as when Pinker supported an op-ed that bashed legitimate criticism of bad science). In Pinker’s case, I don’t think anyone was trying silence me, but they were trying to discredit my work for irrelevant reasons. I do know that other people have actually be silenced, or have had their platforms taken away, with the most prominent example being the people who wrote for Gawker. As Liebling wrote, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

      So, yeah, it’s an issue. I really have no idea what Brooks and Pinker think when they sign a statement saying, “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters,” given that their own behavior does not always reflect this attitude.

      One thing that bothers me about the “robust and even caustic” formulation is that it’s all about tone, nothing about content. If Brooks publishes false numbers in his newspaper columns, is that ok because he’s being “robust”? When people point out his errors, why doesn’t he appreciate this “counter-speech”? Brooks didn’t even appreciate the “counter-speech” of Sasha Issenberg who did some followup reporting on one of Brooks’s books and found some made-up stories there. And Issenberg wasn’t even “caustic.” Or, to get back to Pinker: my problem with the op-ed that he promoted is not that it was “caustic” but that it was misleading. Meanwhile, Pinker was opposing robust and caustic speech that was pointing out erroneous claims made in the psychology literature. I feel that there’s a real problem with contentless claims of support of free speech. Ultimately it often comes down to which speech you support. In Pinker’s case: speech in support of torture is ok, but speech criticizing bad science by people in his social group is not so ok.

      And, yes, I understand that the above examples are not mostly so important. Who really cares about a NYT columnist promoting antisemitism or a Harvard psychologist supporting junk science like the “critical positivity ratio”? Also, the signers of the letter can support free speech in principle, even if they don’t always follow these principles in their professional lives. Hypocrisy is the homage etc.

      So I guess I’m torn. On one hand, I agree with you that open debate is important. I think that suppression of free exchange of ideas is horrible, and I remain angry at what happened to Gawker, the way that our legal system was used to suppress the free press. On the other hand, I agree with Scocca that this letter makes me think of all the prominent people who seem to think that free speech is for themselves and their friends, and who turtle up or lash out when they or their friends are criticized. I think Scocca is also picking up on the way that a focus on tone can be a distraction from content.

      Anyway, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have signed the letter, even if it bothers me. What I am saying is that, rather than spending time on this letter, David Brooks could do much more service to the cause of open debate by admitting his own published errors and recognizing the many valid criticisms of his work, and that Steven Pinker could do much more service to the cause of open debate by considering that people who rage against himmicanes, the critical positivity ratio, etc., are doing so for reasons that are as good as those that he has for raging against “the blank slate.” I think there are similar issues with various other signers of that letter, but I’m focusing here on two examples with which I’m familiar.

      • Joshua says:

        +1

        Dude, you’re on fire.

      • Joshua says:

        Rather than simply feed into the dopamine mechanism of online interaction with an upvote – I’ll comment some on why I upvotted.

        I think that people who weigh in on this debate have an obligation to make sure that they maximize the extent to which their contribution can be positive towards achieving the ends they’re seeking.

        I’m sympathetic to the overall message of weighing in on the side of openness to “robust debate.”

        But this is all happening in a context. Specifically, the context is that one basic grouping of people who have been essentially denied voice and agency are now in the process of gaining voice and agency relative to a basic grouping of people who have had voice and agency all along. Sure, there is a variable and vague quality to how people are being grouped, but I think we can all recognize an relative outline.

        There certainly has been what I would call “overreach” with meaningfully wrong, and unfair impact on a non-negligible number of people, where that group that is gaining in agency and voice are transgressed what I would consider reasonable bounds.

        But I also believe that we could describe that a noise amidst the signal of the overall trajectory of more people gaining more access to a more level playing field than ever before. As such, we should have some allowance for overreach even if there is no justification for excusing specific incidences of overreach.

        The other basic problem for me is that this isn’t a “freedom of speech” or “censorship” issue. Even people who have been unfairly treated in these instances still have the ability to express their views. People should, IMO, be very careful of exploiting the issues of “freedom of speech” and “censorship” for the sake of advocating for lower-level ideological/social debates.

        IMO, people who engage in the manner of the Harper’s letter should proactively make it clear that they aren’t aligning on the rightwing ideologue side of this debate – where people deliberately ignore context and deliberately exploit issues of freedom of speech and censorship for the sake of political expediency.

        Yah, they have an obligation – not because they don’t have a right to have opinions in line with rightwing ideologues, but because they should recognize that lining up with ideologues – whether they are on the right side or the left side of these issues, have a particular type of contribution to these discussions. I don’t say that ideologues have zero value – as people at the extremes do contribute to the overall discussion and are part of the forces that result in the overall trajectory. But we should be recognizing the kind of impact that various elements play.

      • jim says:

        “As Liebling wrote, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

        Nothing wrong with that. The writers of Gawker are free to start their own media company and do whatever they want. It costs exactly zero to start a blog.

        • Andrew says:

          Jim:

          Sure, but Gawker was popular and was making money. Thiel et al. abused the legal system (in my opinion) to shut them down. It takes time, money, and effort to start over.

          • jim says:

            I’m not familiar with the details of the case, so I can’t say whether or not the legal system was abused.

            Every business has to make decisions about legal risk in its operations. In your opinion apparently Gawker was operating within legal bounds, but other people presumably say that Gawker was popular and making *because* it was operating illegally. The courts agreed with Theil et al. Apparently Gawker’s new owner thought it was better to pay $30M than to risk an appeal. That suggests the legal ice was thick enough to support the verdict.

            On the face of it to me it looks like the latter group has it right: Gawker hawked stolen property of private behavior to enrich itself. That’s illegal and rightly so.

      • yyw says:

        Your blog focused too much on the messengers instead of the message. I have no concrete opinion on the letter since I haven’t read it myself (not a fan of these petitions). Further, I could never understand why vacuous individuals like Brooks or Gladwell are deemed intellectuals, but frankly very few public intellectuals these days are not either vacuous or blatantly partisan.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        Andrew said,
        “I get very annoyed by people like David Brooks and Steven Pinker … who have either tried to brush aside serious criticism (as when Brooks gave an award for a loud claim based on false numbers, and then refused to correct himself) or …”

        I’m more familiar with Brooks than with Pinker, so I’ll limit my response to what you’ve said about him. You say that he has ” tried to brush aside serious criticism’ and “refused to correct himself”. I wonder how he sees these things? For example, does he see himself as having *deliberately* tried to brush aside serious criticism” (or even as brushing aside serious criticism) , and has he deliberately “refused to correct himself” or is it that he sees nothing that needs correcting? I don’t really know, but I can’t help but wonder if these things were not deliberate — but just knee-jerk reactions, or some kind of blind spot. In other words, he may be what I sometimes call “clueless that he’s clueless”. Or maybe the Chinese fortune cookie fortune I once got, that said, “In order to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you first have to take off your own shoes” applies here. I typically just can’t understand where Brooks is coming from — I don’t know if it’s that “I can’t take off my own shoes”, or if have no clue of what his “shoes” are. He seems to have some sense of “logic” and some sense of “reality” that are very different from mine.

        • Andrew says:

          Martha:

          My guess with Brooks is that he gets so much vitriolic criticism that’s empty of content that he doesn’t know how to handle actual factual criticism. When Issenberg pointed Brooks to places where his reporting was clearly wrong, Brooks responded with irritation. When I pointed Brooks to places where his reporting was clearly wrong, Brooks just dodged the criticism. It’s not that he thought these numbers were right; I think it’s just that the specific truth values of his statements didn’t really concern him, as he thought the underlying story (in one case, a Horatio Alger fairytale about American class mobility; in the other, an anti-Semitic formulation of some demographic trends) were true. These stories fit his worldview. I just think that Brooks doesn’t really care about facts: to him, facts are manipulable components to a story. And when people like Issenberg or me repeatedly point out where he gets his facts wrong, I think Brooks starts to think we have ulterior motives. And maybe we do—who knows! But I still think he should be bothered by putting false statements into the newspaper!

          As to Pinker: I think he gets into an us vs. them mentality. A laudable desire to support his friends leads him to poor judgment when supporting friends of friends (as with the Jeffrey Epstein letter and the support of the op-ed defending the critical positivity ratio and power pose). We’ve seen the same problem with the Freakonomics crew: blind support of friends of friends. It’s a concern. That’s one reason I’m wary of mass letters: sometimes it’s too easy to say yes. This also can happen with twitter mobs: people think, “My friend or some trusted intermediary hates person X, therefore I too should hate person X.”

  9. Gabriel Durazo says:

    Which was it for you? Were you not asked, or were you asked and didn’t want to? If the former, how could that be!? Surely you’re as much of a “public intellectual” as many of the signatories, and with a great blog to boot!

    • Andrew says:

      Gabriel:

      I don’t feel bad about not being asked. It seems that they didn’t ask Tyler Cowen either! Also, given that I’m on record as not liking to sign such letters,I wouldn’t see why they would want to ask me in the first place.

  10. gap says:

    I agree with the thrust of the blog; I wanted to add a short comment; not sure it is substantive. On Brooks, you write “And don’t get me started on David Brooks. Brooks was one of the signers of the letter, and he doesn’t like open debate either! He publishes false things, never retracts them, and never engages with his critics. “The position that open debate is good” is so controversial that it’s possible to sign a letter supporting this position and still not support it.”

    In not replying to criticisms, Brooks is not necessarily against open debate because of this. Paradoxically, a debate without an interlocutor is still a kind of debate! Because the debate really happens in the mind of the public, and the public has now seen a countervailing argument. In practice: criticisms to Brook will live forever, on this blog and elsewhere, and have had an impact on his reputation. To a laudatory comment on Brook, you and I can reply: “look at this substantive criticism. It’s there, it’s valid, and Brook wouldn’t/couldn’t refute it”. Now, I would say that Brook is *against* open debate if he contacted your employer to have you censored/fired/delete the blog post. And I know it seems crazy, but this is very much the type of minimal protection of open debate the letter refers to. If you don’t like my tweet, at least don’t write to my employer “come get your boy”.
    This leads to another other criticism, which I have read from the likes of Afua Hirsch and Ezra Klein: open debate favors the powerful, because they have a larger audience (or “platform”). After all, this blog reaches a handful of readers compared to a talking head like Brooks. Even if it is not in Scocca’s piece, I think it should deserve an audience. If I can try a very loose parallel: the amateur or unknown mathematician who publishes a proof of a century-old conjecture has no platform (other than ArXiv) and is often ignored. And yet, its very existence (“epsilon existence” if you will) is sufficient. It so happens that the consecutive prime distance conjecture or the gaussian correlation conjecture were proved this way and eventually accepted. Similar, a good argument against a bad thesis eventually (usually) finds its way. But, of course, this in itself is not a sufficient argument against Hirsch and Klein.

    • Andrew says:

      Gap:

      Fair enough. Neither Brooks nor Pinker nor any of the other people I’ve criticized in this space have tried to stop me from writing. None of them have contacted my employer or tried in any way to suppress my criticism. Even when people have lied about me, they did not try to get me fired or sanctioned. So, sure, all of these people might be supportive of open debate in the sense that they accept my right to write what I want to write. I don’t think that all these people actually like open debate—if they did, I assume they’d engage with criticism rather than ducking it or attacking the critics—but they are not questioning the right of dissenters to express their views. I got carried away when implying otherwise.

    • Joshua says:

      gap –

      > Now, I would say that Brook is *against* open debate if he contacted your employer to have you censored/fired/delete the blog post. And I know it seems crazy, but this is very much the type of minimal protection of open debate the letter refers to. If you don’t like my tweet, at least don’t write to my employer “come get your boy”.

      I find that I have a reflexively negative reaction to person A contacting person B’s employer to get person B fired because Person B expressed an opinion that person A didn’t like.

      But I’ve been wondering about this. What is the moral or ethical framework behind my reaction. I can certainly think of circumstances where such a response would be appropriate. The particulars matter. As such, I’ve been wondering how to articulate the moral/ethical framework. For example, is it as simple as “The Golden Rule”? But even there – how is that specified to account for context. And it seems to me that there are different cultural overlays over “The Golden Rule.” For example, in some Asian cultures there is often a paradigm where factors such as age, or relational status take precedent – for example in some cultures the mother and father of the first son married to someone are expected to be cared for by the wife of the son. There really is no expectation of reciprocity in the relationship between the daughter of the first born son and that son’s parents.

    • malcolm says:

      “open debate favors the powerful, because they have a larger audience (or “platform”).”

      I would agree with this, but doesn’t that only suggest that open debate isn’t perfectly robust? Deviations from open debate just seem to offer even more opportunities for the powerful to leverage.

  11. somebody says:

    > 3. The letter claims that “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” but Scocca points to recent history that action, as well as argument and persuasion, is one way that ideas, bad or good, get defeated. Scocca’s not arguing that you win by silencing or wishing bad ideas away; rather, he’s saying that exposure, argument, and persuasion aren’t enough either.

    At the heart of the issue in my opinion is the vagueness of terms like “free speech” and “open debate”. Their function in practice is that of positively-loaded suitcase terms, the specific contents varying from person to person, but with everyone in agreement that they’re good things. Someone in these comments has pointed out that this kind of vagueness is just a part of coalition building, allowing the letter to get broad support and prominent signatories, but in my opinion it also removes any persuasive abilities it may have entirely. Everyone can just the read the letter, nod their head that “open debate” is a good thing that should be defended, whatever that means, and come away with the same opinion they started with.

    I’m unambiguously in favor of the constitutional notion of freedom of speech. I think a nation-state using its ultimately violence-descended power to prevent any individual from speaking dangerous or subversive ideas on public property is wrong, at least as long as that individual is not immediately violating someone else’s rights. But that’s only the strictest possible definition of free speech, and most people, myself included, support a concept at least somewhat more expansive than that.

    But even so, it’s obvious that open debate isn’t always a good thing. If an anti-gay activist knocks on my door to proselytize, and I shut the door in their face rather than engage in a robust debate in hopes of changing their mind, have I committed an act against free speech? Have I stifled open debate? Further, would committing to such a debate even be better on my part? The notion that everyone is morally obligated to debate any idea at any time, or even that such openness can be held as an ideal, is an obvious absurdity. The real discussion is about contexts. When are we morally compelled to commit to discussion rather than reject it? When are we strategically compelled to debate rather than silence the morally abhorrent? When is it appropriate for a powerful institution to shut down a discussion within?

    These are questions of culture and virtue, not policy proposals, and as such I think open letters and petitions with lots of signatories are at best pointless and at worst deleterious. Considering the signatures themselves to be part of the letters argument creates an issue; on the aforementioned questions, the various signatories almost certainly disagree.

    Suppose signatory A thinks that it’s inappropriate for a private university to rescind a student organizations’ invitation of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer to campus, while signatory B is fine with that decision but signed the letter because they hate angry twitter mobs cancelling people for naughty jokes 10 years ago. But now the positions are entangled. Signatory A might write an op-ed attacking the university for the decision, cite the Harper Letter, and now the strength of signatory B’s name is attached to that argument.

    • Nick Adams says:

      I like the phrase “suitcase term” – a term which carries luggage but everybody’s luggage is different.

    • somebody says:

      To make precise exactly what I mean, I’ll trace through various backlashes to a single transgressive event, all of which have been called hostile to free speech, and guess at what the opinion of the letter’s signatories might look like. A hypothetical example:

      Suppose Troy has invited Milo Yiannopolous and Alex Jones to speak at a major public university. The backlashes include:

      1. Angry op-eds against the act of inviting them I think most signatories would agree that this is itself a form a free speech and fine, but many would consider it anti-free speech as it’s against the invitation rather than the ideas of the invitees.
      2. Protests outside the speaking event. Again, some would consider this anti-free speech because it’s not engaging the speakers ideas but rather expressing disapproval of the event itself. I think it’s a defensible speech act on its own, declaring that large numbers of people abhor the sort of hurtful ridiculousness the invitees stand for.
      3. Person attending the speaking event asks a question that challenges a point the speaker brought up. I think everyone would agree this is fine. I think it’s a silly thing to do. Frankly, it strains credulity that anything would come of an open debate with a self-described troll provocateur and an insane conspiracy theorist. I think even attempting a stunt like this https://youtu.be/ror9v2LwHoY, is actually worse than ignoring Jones entirely.
      4. Person attending the speaking event issues a moral condemnation of Milo Yiannopolous for things he’s said and done in the past. Many would consider this a failure to openly debate, and I would say it’s about as silly and pointless as trying to honestly debate the speakers.
      5. People attending the speaking event talk over the speakers. I think the moral reaction to this would be very similar to the reaction to 4, only more strongly negative.
      6. By-any-means-necessary antifa activists violently shut down the event by firebombing the venue and smashing glass. I think vanishingly few would defend this action, and I think it’s abhorrent.
      7. Other students on campus openly dislike Troy. I think some signatories would consider this “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” I don’t think anyone is entitled to be liked regardless of their actions, and I think it’s a reasonable conclusion that the act of inviting Jones and Yiannopolous was somewhere between antagonism for the campus’s minoritized populations and a contrarian cry for attention.
      8. Troy is rejected from a tech job he wanted. Some signatories would probably consider this “institutional leaders…delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments”. Again, I don’t think anyone is entitled to a job regardless of their actions, and I don’t think it’s in a business’s best interest to hire someone who deliberately antagonizes other people with no clear end.
      9. Any future op-eds Troy submits to the campus newspaper are denied. I think most signatories of the letter would consider this silencing. I agree. While I personally think the opinion section should be struck from every newspaper, as long as it exists I think Troy should be allowed to submit his articles for a fair consideration.
      10. An angry internet mob targets Troy, sends him constant death threats, makes him into an internet meme synonymous with ignorant racist, and brings this up every time he attempts to post a tweet. To be completely honest, I suspect this kind of behavior is really what the letter is about in the first place, and I doubt any signatories would defend it. While I share the abhorrence, I also question the wisdom of attempting to fight it with a letter. The internet has just been like this for a long time, and I suspect the solution involves a combination of learning not to take the supposed power of internet mobs too seriously and judiciously using technological tools for limiting exposure. There are high profile cases of material consequences to these mobs, such as James Gunn being fired for decade-old tweets, but all in all I think the real-world power of these witch hunts is much smaller than people think. In addition, while I doubt any signatories would defend such online harassment if named, there are least a couple of signatories who have unapologetically engaged in and encouraged it.

      Now, even with all this complexity unpacked explicitly, I still feel like the letter could be talking about any or all of the types of backlash enumerated. I am certain that any pair of the signatories would disagree on at least one of them, and I wouldn’t be surprised (or disappointed) if someone here disagreed with one of the personal opinions I offered.

      The only unanimity I expect is on the subject of online hate-mobs. If that’s what it’s really about, then just say that it’s about online hate-mobs and offer some examples of the consequences; it makes the whole exercise more persuasive and effective. Though I suspect the authors might feel a bit silly collecting signatures for a petition against twitter cancellations.

      • Joshua says:

        somebody –

        > but many would consider it anti-free speech as it’s against the invitation rather than the ideas of the invitees.

        Many would, but it’s not anti-free speech. No one says don’t let them speak in any forum. People don’t want them invited to an institution they’re affiliated with. I don’t agree with them – but it isn’t “anti-fee speech” and it’s bullshit to call it that. Doing so exploits and diminishes the real issues related to free speech.

    • Paul Hayes says:

      But even so, it’s obvious that open debate isn’t always a good thing.

      I think the root of the problem is that it isn’t clear to most people exactly why that is. People seem to be unaware of / show too little regard for the full set of moral principles relevant to [open] civilised discourse.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      somebody said,
      “The notion that everyone is morally obligated to debate any idea at any time, or even that such openness can be held as an ideal, is an obvious absurdity. The real discussion is about contexts. When are we morally compelled to commit to discussion rather than reject it? When are we strategically compelled to debate rather than silence the morally abhorrent? When is it appropriate for a powerful institution to shut down a discussion within?

      These are questions of culture and virtue, not policy proposals,”

      Yes, context, culture, and values are very relevant. Some of my thoughts (just scratching the surface):

      a. No one should be forced to debate against their will.

      b. People in positions of authority (e.g, parents, teachers) do in some cases have some responsibility to respond to challenges to their authority; open debate (or perhaps open discussion) between parties involved is often appropriate to carry out this responsibility — as long as the debate or discussion is conducted respectfully (e.g., no name calling; focusing criticism on behavior or assertions rather than on people).

      c. Giving one’s reasons and asking for an opponent’s reasons are legitimate (perhaps essential).

    • The terms “free speech” and “freedom of speech” do not appear at all in the Harper’s letter. Instead, there is “open debate and toleration of differences” (paragraph 1), “the free exchange of information and ideas” (paragraph 2), “experimentation, risk-taking, and mistakes” (paragraph 3) and “good faith disagreement” (paragraph 3). Yes, the word “freedom” appears in paragraph 3 as well, but I understand it in terms of these other phrases.

      • somebody says:

        I think all of those amount to the same thing, slogans that sound good but don’t mean anything in particular. Taking “open debate“ and “free exchange of information” as an example, the very premise of a classroom with a professor or a debate with a moderator is to restrict what can be construed as “free exchange of ideas.” If I were a professor teaching real analysis, and every time it was relevant a student decided to debate the intuitive appeal of the law of non-contradiction and the axiom of choice, I would eventually “silence” them. The fact is that all these terms you mentioned, taken literally, are good sometimes and bad other times, and the only real disagreement in the mainstream is what those contexts are, something the letter has no opinion of.

  12. David says:

    Someone emailed Chomsky about the letter. The response is in the twitter feed.

    https://twitter.com/UD880/status/1282311000285315075

    “The Letter”

    Question:

    Curious of your take on the aftermath of the Harper’s Letter. I’m surprised at how much controversy seems to surround it. Did you expect that result?

    Chomsky:

    You’re seeing half of it. The other half is a stream of letters from left academics and activists relating their experiences, but not wanting to be identified because of the toxic culture.

    The nature and scale of the reaction reinforce the message of the letter

    • Andrew says:

      David:

      Selection bias. I get tons of emails from people all the time telling me how much they agree with me. Sometimes people contact me with stories, and they want to keep their names confidential to avoid retaliation from their bosses etc. I’m glad that people feel comfortable sending me these emails, but I recognize the selection involved in who sends me emails in the first place.

      • David says:

        I of course agree with you. I just thought it would be interesting to give Chomsky’s reply and I *do* wonder what the population of people who are afraid to discuss the issue because of potential repercussions.

  13. NickMatzke says:

    I think discussions like these would be clearer if we deleted terms like “cancel culture” and “cancelled”, which are newish and pretty ambiguous in meaning, and just went with “bullying” and “abuse.” What is bad is when people respond to reasoned argument with bullying and abuse. This can take all kinds of forms, ranging from insults up to calls to fire someone, death threats, etc.

    When people respond to bullying and abuse with bullying and abuse, that is a different thing. I think that is one reasonable justification for protests against odious people/views.

    There are of course debated cases where one person says what they are doing is reasoned argument and another person says it is bullying/abuse and needs to be met as such. Resolution can be tough, and many features of online discourse, anonymity etc. pour gasoline on everything. I guess what I wish would happen more is that people try to think long-term. Does bullying someone into submission actually accomplish anything, or does it just lead to a short-term win that creates resentment and backlash and thus leaves your cause in a worse position?

    • Bob says:

      That gets you nowhere, because now you have to define ‘bullying’ and ‘abuse’. Every contentious issue is characterised by claims and counter claims of bullying and abuse. Now what do you do?

      One side is claiming that the answer is debate, the other that there should be no debate. One side wants to discuss, the other wants to get you fired.

      It’s all moot, the bullies will win, easy to see how when you get the kind of deflection you see in some of these responses (do I have to debate anyone who knocks on my door?? Jesus Christ!).

      There is debate and there is coercion. There are enough people who will dispense with any principle when they think the ‘correct’ opinion should carry the day. Sure, some of the protaganists will shift their position when the issue of the day changes, from say transgender rights to the gender pay gap, but the basic dynamic will be the same.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Nick said,
      “What is bad is when people respond to reasoned argument with bullying and abuse.”

      Bob replied,
      “That gets you nowhere, because now you have to define ‘bullying’ and ‘abuse’.”

      A problem I see: People don’t agree on what is “reasoned argument” and people also don’t agree on what is “bullying” and “abuse”. What some people consider “reasoned argument”, others may consider “bullying” or “abuse”.

      So I guess we all need to at least try to define our terms, and recognize that not everyone is using the same definition — so, for example, we sometimes need to say things like, “X considers this to be reasoned argument, but Y considers it to be abuse”, then try to work from there — although I can’t really say how to do this. Sometimes the best we can do is to just keep on trying to be aware of these differences in language/definitions. Not an easy task.

      • Paul Hayes says:

        I don’t see a particularly difficult problem there and I might suspect someone disagreeing with the definition of reasoned argument of a bully tactic! Of course if X’s argument is a reasoned one but Y considers it also to be abusive she may have cause (e.g. offensive language). But such problems shouldn’t be difficult to resolve so long as both parties are ethical arguers – here’s another important principle – as well as reasoning ones.

        • Bob says:

          But both parties are not ‘ethical arguers’. It is a feature of modern discourse that if you are an activist on social media for instance, you assume the worst motives for those who disagree with you.

          They don’t believe in ‘reasoned argument’, ‘reason’ is how the powerful perpetuate their own power against the ‘marginalised’.

          • Paul Hayes says:

            Of course and never mind social media activists, in my experience hardly anyone is. What I am saying is that that is the problem. Following NickMatzke’s wish that people would try to think long-term, trying to identify the problem to be solved.

            They don’t believe in ‘reasoned argument’, ‘reason’ is how the powerful perpetuate their own power against the ‘marginalised’.

            In that they are often half right. Of course it’s a serious error – and a missed opportunity – to reject reason just because a corrupted version of it (rationalisation) is presented in its stead but it’s an understandable one.

      • Bob says:

        The only way to do what you suggest is through a reasonable discussion though, so back to square 1.

        “Sometimes the best we can do is to just keep on trying to be aware of these differences in language/definitions”

        I think this is the heart of the matter. The problem is that there is always a cohort of people blissfully unaware that the definitions have changed, (“what’s the problem, just don’t be racist/ transphobic/ whatever”). Or that the issue is about inviting Nazis to speak at a campus.

        We have to wait a year or two for the penny to drop, but by then there’s a new cohort and the cycle starts again.

      • jim says:

        Martha said:
        “A problem I see: People don’t agree on what is “reasoned argument” and people also don’t agree on what is “bullying” and “abuse”. “

        Exactly! Thank you.

        For example, in my opinion, the ‘defund the police’ demand is not a ‘reasoned argument’. It can’t be responded to with reason because its proponents don’t accept reason. So I say the people who are promoting or considering the demand aren’t too smart. Now, some people would say that me saying so is abusive. But burning businesses and cars, rioting, taking over sections of cities is more than bullying and abusive – it’s downright violent. So I guess when you start burning cars or publicly supporting that kind of behavior I figure you’re giving up your right to be treated with reasonable courtesy.

        • I think there’s PLENTY of reasoned argument behind the “defund the police policy”

          I mean, “end the war on drugs” *is* a form of “defund the police” for example and there are decades of Cato institute articles on how terrible the war on drugs is and how much it costs and how bad that all is for violence and etc etc.

          So, are the rioters in the streets performing a “reasoned argument” no… but there are perfectly good reasoned arguments that still wind up at “defund the police”

          • Matt Skaggs says:

            “I think there’s PLENTY of reasoned argument behind the “defund the police policy”

            There shouldn’t even be debate about that, there are some very reasoned assessments of the concept and how it would work out there if you go looking for them. But it is difficult to give a reasoned argument against it if the information you are basing it on was contrived by Fox News.

            “I guess when you start burning cars or publicly supporting that kind of behavior”

            …is a statement describing exactly no one…not the sort of thing a smart person would write.

          • Bob says:

            What about ‘abolish the police’?

            • If I look for 15 minutes I’m sure I can find someone (many people) with a reasoned argument for “abolish the police”. I’m not saying it’s a correct argument, but it will be some kind of logic not a person with a baseball bat bashing in windows.

        • Bob says:

          They’re plenty smart. Their goal is ‘abolish the police’, they say so themselves. ‘Defund’ is a term to retreat to when on the defensive, they know there’s plenty of liberal pointy heads who will write their ‘well actually defunding the police doesn’t mean abolishing the police, it means social programmes blah blah’.

          There was a week of this in the media, until someone from the movement wrote in the NYT that actually they mean what they say. They are very clever in their messaging for numerous reasons, they know that most journalists will carry water for them.

          • Andrew says:

            Bob:

            I think there’s no single “they.” Any political movement will contain people with a range of views and tactics.

          • somebody says:

            Those pesky enemies of mine, they say one thing that’s clearly wrong, then beat a cowardly retreat by spontaneously transforming into a different person saying something that isn’t clearly wrong. I can’t grasp the existence of multiple persons saying multiple things, so I will treat it as one person arguing in bad faith.

            • Martha (Smith) says:

              ” I can’t grasp the existence of multiple persons saying multiple things, so I will treat it as one person arguing in bad faith.”

              Gee, this sounds like comparing groups by means rather than looking at the whole distributions. Now, why would anyone do that?

  14. Charles Carter says:

    I understand and agree with the Harper’s letter. I could not have less respect for Trump and consider myself a liberal. Turns out almost simultaneously a petition from the LSA was circulated to remove Pinker for its lists of Fellows and speakers. Jerry Coyne calls those circulating the petition the Purity Posse. Pinker and Brooks clearly don’t belong to it; and I suspect adequate scrutiny of most public figures would reveal room for improvement at one time or another. Yet because they’ve been wrong or made mistakes doesn’t mean they are always wrong. And it’s a sad fact that few adult professionals will retract or apologize for something in which they’ve invested time, effort and print. A not infrequent topic of yours.
    Those like Pinker and like JK Rowling, piled on on social media, will be fine. Yet others have jobs and careers threatened. Whether BLM, Anti-racism, progressive feminism, transgender issues (speech, sports, bathrooms; gender vs sex), there exists an element of “true believers” who brook no dissent. Such tactics are the height of illiberal. Scocca writes as though he’s oblivious, and I firmly believe that was the reason for the letter.

    • Bob says:

      JK Rowling will be fine, if you consider torrents of abuse for pointing out basic biological facts to be a relatively small issue. But she is very rich and is very valuable to her publishers. Not everyone else can say the same. I would have considered Stephen King to be in the same category, but he folded at the first sign of trouble.

      Even without succeeding with Rowling, you can be sure the message got across.

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