The Harper’s Letter and Idiological (sic) Purity

For a few years, several years ago, I played a lot of a game called Ingress. The details don’t matter here, but it’s essentially a game played on smartphones/tablets which is GPS-based and involves two factions–the Resistance (blue) and the Enlightened (green)–which compete for territory via the game mechanics. If you’ve played Pokemon Go, Ingress was sort of a basis for that, technologically. The game is played all over the world, and has a fairly complex story/lore involved which is similar to a lot of sci-fi, and over time (if you followed the lore) it becomes clear that neither faction is right nor are they wrong. One could make a rational argument for either side’s philosophy, goals, and actions throughout the games history.

But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that people on both sides of the game really hated the other side, and found ways to demonize other player based the fictitious lore and philosophy behind it. It led to real-life confrontations (including me being personally, physically, threatened by someone from the opposite faction which led to a police report being filed), enmity, and people switching factions purely based on in-fighting etc.

I have not played the game in a couple of years now, and while I enjoyed much about the game, I could have very well chosen the opposite faction and had a very similar experience, different friends, and a different narrative about the fights. Real fights, hatred, and silliness.

Over a game. 

One of my favorite TV series of all time is Babylon 5. This show is about many things, and is even prophetic in that it essentially predicts Fox News (in the presentation of ISN, the Interstellar Network News during one of the story arcs). I won’t spoil the details, but the show is largely about factions, wars, and narratives/propaganda, and there is one episode in particular–The Geometry of Shadows–which focuses on a one-off story which makes a point about factionalism exceptionally clearly and in a very amusing way.

Green versus Purple.

That’s it. No philosophical differences, no historical grievances, and no pre-existing political parties. Just randomly drawn colors which divides two teams who end up killing each other based upon what color they drew from a container. That was enough to create tribes.

So imagine what happens when the tribes do have actual, real, historical and philosophical disputes. Imagine how ingrained the enmity and desire to destroy the other team becomes when the stakes actually matter.

And then remember that no group, political party, philosophical school, religion, or organization has ever been completely right.

Further, throughout history, people outside of our in-groups have, of course, always been treated well and listened to. (That was sarcasm).

It’s ridiculous because no matter how just your cause, how right your ideas, and how good your people, there will always be valid criticisms from people outside your group. And many of those people are outside your group because of disagreements and because you push them away because of those disagreements. And if you view the world in terms of with us or against us, then any criticism makes you the enemy in some sense.

It is our human, all-too-human, unwillingness to hear criticism that prevents critics, in many cases, from being part of your group.  In many cases, especially because we tend to think tribally, this will push people to other teams when they would have otherwise been allies.

All over idiological (sic) purity.

Letters and Entitlement.

The other day, a group of people, some who are considered problematic (and many of them I don’t personally always respect nor agree with), signed a letter.  Here’s the text:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. 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. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Beautiful. And yet, somehow, people disagree. How? Why? Well, for all sorts of reasons.

Here’s Alexaxandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet which seems to be, at least in part, a response to that letter and the underlying point:

In general, I really like AOC, and want more people like her in positions of power, but I disagree with her here. The irony here is that she is distorting, probably unintentionally, the complaints about cancel culture and why a bunch of intellectuals, writers, etc would sign such a letter. She has been distorted by many political enemies in many unfair and often disgusting ways, but she, being human, is doing something similar.

In fact, the overwhelming number of responses from people responding to the letter have misrepresented the point of the letter, as if it’s about being silenced or ignored only (because that happens too). I don’t think they understand the point being made.

I think there is a miscommunication happening here.

And before we continue, I want to draw attention to what I just did there. I am disagreeing with AOC. I still like her, and I definitely still want her in her congressional seat. If I were able to, I would happily vote for her (I can’t because she’s not my representative). But I am now being critical of a point of view that she has, and I’m about to explain why. That’s all the letter is asking for; I disagree, I say why. You don’t have to read this, you don’t have to agree, but this criticism should be viewed as part of a healthy conversation. It should be welcome, even if it is ignored.

A lot of people don’t feel safe to voice disagreement openly, because of bullying tactics by people who self-righteously think they already have the right answer and are not open to criticism.

Let’s break apart AOC’s tweet, and see where we diverge.

The term “cancel culture” comes from entitlement – as though the person complaining has the right to a large, captive audience,& one is a victim if people choose to tune them out.

Disagree. This is not about entitlement. I’m not entitled to be listened to. Anyone may ignore me so long as they like. AOC is simply missing the point here by misrepresenting/misunderstanding the point of the letter. It’s not about being heard, and except in a few extreme cases, nobody is literally being silenced. People are definitely being put in a place to fear saying what they think, however. The issue is that people who may criticize or disagree with even a small part of some ideologies are being associated with their enemies, when in fact we just want the idea to be a valid target for criticism. And so many people are keeping quiet out of fear. The 150 or so people spoke up because so many people have been made afraid, by ideological bullies who might threaten their livelihood or standing in a community merely for voicing disagreement.

In what universe should it be acceptable to react to mere dissent with anything except curiosity, disinterest, or disagreement without consequence to group-standing?

Many are being labeled as a racist, a misogynist, etc if we don’t agree with every facet of a narrative of theories about racism, sexism, etc. When we look at what racism is supposed to be according to Ta-Nehasi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, etc and someone enumerates a set of flaws in their definition or solution, such people are shunted off to the same section of the universe as Stephen Miller or Richard Spencer, and people are being bullied, losing their jobs, or being vilified as an enemy rather than as a person who is also concerned with racism but who might have a legitimate criticism and are dismissed as problematic or told we need to account for our errors.

But they think that you are the one in error, and they are trying to explain why. What if they are right? What if you are wrong? What if neither of you is right? How would you find out?

The point is that dissent not only should be acceptable, but that it is essential for the strength of the group trying to solve cultural problems such as racism, sexism, etc. Such dissent, so long as it is in good faith, should be welcome. It’s not about being silenced, it’s about not being welcomed due to criticizing an idea. The fact that so many people think it’s good to label someone as problematic or even bad because they disagree with some part of your ideology is the problem.

AOC continues:

Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.

Maybe in some cases, this is precisely what’s happening. But if you treat people with legit questions and concerns the same way you treat actual bigots or people arguing in bad faith, you are effectively shutting down criticism. You are making your ideology sacrosanct in practice, even if not in theory. You may not think of your theoretical idea as sacrosanct, but if you treat those who disagree as problematic, you are doing something functionally equivalent.

And this is the issue that is being missed, here, By AOC. It’s not that we are saying you must listen to anyone, we’re saying that if you see what we say, don’t like what we said, and cannot treat criticism or disagreement any different than you treat actual bigots, then all you’re doing is chasing people who are trying to apply critical thinking to your worldview away from your in-group, and all that will remain are ideologues who agree with you, or who at least are willing to nod along with you while they might harbor some qualms but who will not speak them out loud. So-called yes-men (I suppose yes-people is better)

Isn’t that precisely the problem with the Trump Administration? All the people who openly disagree are pushed out. The only people left are the boot-lickers. And whetehr you like the comparison or not, that’s what your effort, in pushing people out for needing to be “accountable” or “likable,” is doing to your very tribe. The cronyism and corrupt people around Trump is the result of a similar process of you making people accountable.

You can make people accountable without dismissing or ostracizing them, let alone by threatening their job or making them feel unwelcome wuthin your group. It’s childish behavior and your rationalizing it as making people accountable does not come across as good faith. This is puritanism, whether done intentionally or by accident, and you need to be held accountable for it. The difference is that I’m not saying anyone is bad or needs to lose their job over it, I’m saying they also need to listen.

Because, again, you might be wrong, even if only a little bit. Your worldview might be mostly right, but maybe not all-the-way right. And if you dismiss, block, and demean those who are willing to challenge you, then all you are doing is making your echo-chamber more and more insulated and homogeneous. Is that your goal? Because if it’s not, that’s going to be the effect by this behavior.

The goal should not be agreement or ideological homogeneity, but a culture of accepting critics. You might frame it in terms of making sure that there are no bigots or dangerous people in your midst, but in practice all you are doing is demanding ideological purity in practice.

And I really don’t think that’s your goal. And if it is, then maybe you actually are the problem. Wouldn’t that be ironic.

A conflation

Sometimes, I’m on Twitter….

There are people who do have really bad ideas. How do we know they are bad? Well, we have used argumentation to identify actually bad ideas and those which are debatable. Of course, where we draw the line seems to be what’s at issue here.

It’s like the Overton Window, except where the edge is differs from person to person. For one person, acceptable criticism might be further afield than for someone else, and when we have a person, such as myself, who feels very strongly for social justice issues but might have some issues and disagreements with some of anti-racist theory, is my criticism, as a white man, valid?

To many, the answer is no. They think my criticism as a white man is not welcome, relevant, not appropriate under any (or perhaps they might say most) circumstance. To others, the answer might be yes. They would say that I have a right to be critical of a theory about race.

The problem of conflation arises when we start to identify different types of people who might argue that I have this right. Some of those who say yes will do so because they are actual racists themselves. But others who say yes, I do in fact have a right to be critical of some ideas about race, think so because they (for example) disagree with critical theory in general, and have a different approach to solving the cultural phenomenon of racism in the world. Both of these types of people will be dismissed, labeled as problematic, and ultimately conflated to the racist camp, when the basis for their opinions are vastly different. Both will be cancelled without much noise about how one of those groups is definitely on board with solving racism while the other definitely is not.

If you dismiss Coleman Hughes or Thomas Chatterton Williams (the man who spear-headed the Harper’s letter) in the same way you dismiss Tucker Carlson or Richard Spencer, then I’m afraid you have lost me. If you cannot distinguish between Sam Harris (who I have some personal disagreements with) and Ben Shapiro (I’m looking at you, Cody. Also, I actually really like Cody, so there’s that too….), then I think you are having trouble distinguishing between significant differences in criticism and worldviews. Theirs are not equivalent perspectives on the relevant issues, yet your dismissing of their criticism is functionally the same.

Coleman Hughes’ arguments against Black Lives Matter and anti-racism theories based in critical theory are not racist criticisms. Richard Spencer’s arguments are most definitely racist. Yet both are dismissed by those within the people who tend to do the canceling, and almost never even acknowledge that there is a difference between their disagreements.

We have to be able to recognize, by being fair, charitable, and steel-manning interlocutors’ arguments, the difference between an actual philosophical opponent to a potential ally that has some tough questions to challenge your worldview. And with few exceptions, that’s not what I’m seeing in the world.

We must do better, lest we be reminded of Nietzsche:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.


I’ve already been cancelled, so….

I’m an atheist, socialist, nonmonogamous, philosophocally-inclined, social justice-desiring, freedom-of-expression supporting, liberal, hedonist. And yet even I have to be quiet around many people in my life if I have a criticism of some of the Black Lives Matter ideology, because to do so is to be labelled a racist. It doesn’t matter that I think that the BLM movement is overall a very good thing, in terms of what it might be accomplishing and in terms of its ideology. I am genuinely afraid to voice criticisms in certain circles, because I value the relationships I have with many people (I’m guessing most of them don’t read my blog, but if they do….well, here we are).

No ideology should be beyond criticism. And this is what the letter in Harper’s is all about; we need to be able to criticize a movement based on the content of its ideas. No idea should ever be so sacrosanct as to be beyond criticism.

And while I have already named some people of color (and could name more) who are critical of some of the theories about race predominating news and books (especially of White Fragility, which I have found to be really really bad writing and logic), the fact that I would have to make this move is precisely the problem some of those writers, philosophers, etc have with the foundations of the idea of anti-racism at the ideological foundation of the movement. An idea is either flawed or it isn’t, and the fact that a person of color can criticize an idea about racism but I cannot is a flaw in the idea. If I’m capable of understanding an idea as being flawed, and my argument makes sense, why should it matter what the shade of my skin is?

I know I know…I’m expressing my white fragility….

I dream of a day when ideas will be judged not by the color of the advocate’s skin but by the strength of the content of their arguments. And this is one of the many reasons why this letter is important. Ideological purity is a dangerous foundation for a cultural movement, because any idea will be carried by a wave of tribalistic enmity of partisans, so if you start with purity as the foundation you have nowhere to go but authoritarianism.

Any authoritarianism, whether right, left, center, up, down, blue, yellow, small, grande, or whatever simply is a bad place to start.

For the 1/1000th time, Stop treating your beliefs as sacred. Nothing should be sacred.

And if I’m wrong, and you think me bigoted, racist, or whatever, then I suppose you can ignore me. But if you want to convince the world to change, then you’re going to do better than ignore dissent. You’re going to have to grapple with disagreement or be happy within your echo-chamber which will only change those who already agree with you, which seems like an ineffective way to achieve meaningful social justice.