Insightful articles on free speech & social justice

This is a collection of articles that I think contribute some useful insight to the discourse on free speech and social justice.

I find that most articles on this topic only argue for the importance of the one good the author cares most about — for example, “Free speech is important because that’s how we get a marketplace of ideas,” or “Students should have the right to feel safe on campus.”

Those approaches tend to be unsatisfying to me. In this case, as in most cases, there are multiple, competing goods that matter. It’s not enough to simply argue that one of the goods is important — you have to acknowledge that a tradeoff exists (or alternately, make a case that it doesn’t) and argue for why your policy does a good job of navigating that tradeoff.

So these are all articles that I think contribute something useful to the discourse on free speech and social justice, by proposing a principled way to navigate tradeoffs, or by helping explain the dynamics that are producing our current situation. I was looking for articles that made me go, “Oh, huh, that’s a good point!”

Below, I’ve included a link to each article and a brief description of it. Note that in some cases I am quoting directly from the author, and in other cases I am trying to paraphrase their argument. Articles are listed in no particular order. I didn’t want to alphabetize or anything like that, because I’ll probably add additional articles over time and I want people to be able to just check the bottom of the list to see if there’s anything new to them.

Self-censorship in public discourse: a theory of ‘political correctness’ and related phenomena, by Glenn Loury.

If you express dissent with your political alllies, they will rationally increase their credence that you aren’t a true ally. And this phenomenon is self-reinforcing: the more that true allies avoid dissent so as to not be incorrectly deemed a false ally, the more rational it becomes for people to assume that dissent = not a true ally.

Sacred principles as exhaustible resources, by Scott Alexander.

“I think of respect for free speech as a commons. Every time some group invokes free speech to say something controversial, they’re drawing from the commons – which is fine… But if you draw from the commons too quickly, then the commons disappears. When trolls say the most outrageous things possible, then retreat to ‘oh, but free speech’, they’re burning the commons for no reason, to the detriment of everybody else who needs it.”

What you can’t say to a sympathetic ear, by Katja Grace.

Social sanctions on speech are even stickier than you might think, because of coordination problems. “Even if everyone comes to privately believe that onions are indeed fruit, and also thinks that nobody should be punished for saying this, and they can all talk to each other, everyone might still end up saying that onions aren’t fruit forever.”

Social gentrification, by Simon Penner.

Toxic cultures are analogous to gritty neighborhoods. They’re unpleasant and unsafe in a lot of ways, but they’re also places that people with very little social capital can call home. Pressure to “clean up” toxic cultures, and make them nicer and more welcoming, is akin to gentrification — it’s good for the newcomers who want to “move in” to that culture, but rough on the old-timer geeks who already have roots there, don’t have the social skills to adjust, and don’t have enough social capital to thrive elsewhere.

Safe spaces as shield, safe spaces as sword, by Ken White.

“This may come as a surprise, but I’m a supporter of ‘safe spaces.’ I support safe spaces because I support freedom of association. Safe spaces, if designed in a principled way, are just an application of that freedom… But not everyone imagines “safe spaces” like that. Some use the concept of “safe spaces” as a sword, wielded to annex public spaces and demand that people within those spaces conform to their private norms. That’s not freedom of association.”

Safe spaces and competing access needs, by Kelsey Piper.

Safe spaces are very important, but it is usually the case that the norms some people need to feel safe when discussing a given issue are incompatible with the norms other people need when discussing that issue. This doesn’t make either set of norms “wrong.” The internet, with its porous boundaries, makes it especially tricky to compartmentalize norms.

The moderator’s dilemma, by Chris Leong.

“Once you’ve intervened, your decision not to intervene in another situation will be taken to mean that you don’t consider a particular ideology hateful.” True not just for moderators of online communities, but also companies, universities, etc. In the comment section, some solutions to the moderator’s dilemma are proposed.

Tolerate tolerance, by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

It’s tempting to want to punish people for not punishing people we think deserve punishment. Think of someone complaining, “I can’t believe Bob still associates with John, a known bigot” (my example, not the author’s). But we should resist this temptation, because a norm of punishing non-punishers locks us into harmful equilibria.

Comments on a panel at Harvard, by Steven Pinker

There are some facts that are objectively true, but treated as unsayable by progressives because people could follow them to bad (and unwarranted) conclusions. But then the only exposure people have to those facts is from the alt-right, which does follow the facts to the bad and unwarranted conclusions.

The wonderful thing about triggers, by Scott Alexander

“Trigger warnings aren’t censorship… They’re one of our strongest weapons against the proponents of censorship. The proponents say ‘We can’t let you air that opinion, it might offend people.’ Trigger warnings say ‘I am explaining to you exactly how this might offend you, so if you continuing listening to me you have volunteered to hear whatever I have to say, on your own head be it.’”

The rules about responding to call-outs aren’t working, by Ruti Regan

“Privileged people rarely take the voices of marginalized people seriously. Social justices spaces attempt to fix this with rules about how to respond to when marginalized people tell you that you’ve done something wrong. Like most formal descriptions of social skills, the rules don’t quite match reality… ‘Shut up and listen to marginalized people’ isn’t quite the right rule, because it objectifies marginalized people, leaves us open to sabotage, enables abuse, and prevents us from working through conflicts in a substantive way.”

Is it possible to have coherent principles around free speech norms? by Scott Alexander

“Social norms about free speech risk collapsing into the incoherent Doctrine Of The Preferred First Speaker, where it’s okay for me to say that the President sucks, but not okay for you to say that I suck for saying that. This is dumb, and I don’t know if free speech supporters have articulated a meaningful alternative. I want to sketch out some possibilities for what that sort of alternative would look like.”

The enemy control ray, by Ozy Brennan

“Imagine your worst ideological enemy…  Now, imagine that a mad scientist has invented a device called the Enemy Control Ray. The Enemy Control Ray is a mind-control device: whatever rule you say into it, your enemy must follow… However, because of limitations of the technology, any rule you put in is translated into your enemy’s belief system.”

Who should be shamed, and who not? by Tyler Cowen

Not a proposal per se, but an observation that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of logic to which types of crimes we deem worthy of shaming someone for. Do we shame based on ideas, or behavior? Do we shame with the purpose of deterrance, tribal signaling, something else?

How I think about free speech: four categories, by Julia Galef

Indulging myself here, but I think it’s important to distinguish between different levels of “silencing” speech: no consequences, individual social consequences, official social consequences, and legal consequences. Different levels are appropriate for different kinds of speech.

Civility is never neutral, by Ozy Brennan

“There are a lot of people I know who say something like ‘the free market of ideas is really important and we need to seek truth… So what we’re going to do is not shame anyone for expressing any belief, as long as they follow a few common-sense guidelines about niceness and civility.’ I am very sympathetic to this point of view but I don’t think it will ever work… Civility norms will always be enforced disproportionately against viewpoints that the people in power don’t like.”

Be nice, at least until you can coordinate meanness, by Scott Alexander

“Society punishes people for crimes, including the crime of libel. Punishment is naturally not-nice, but this seems fair; we can’t just have people libeling each other all the time with no consequences. But what makes this tolerable is that it’s coordinated – done through the court system according to carefully codified libel law that explains to everybody what is and isn’t okay. Remove the coordination aspect, and you’ve got the old system where if you say something that offends my honor then I get some friends and try to beat you up in a dark alley. The impulse is the same: deploy not-niceness in the worthy goal of preventing libel. But one method is coordinated and the other isn’t.”