A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

The Problem with the Left-Wing Freak-Out Exemplified

6 September 2017 11:23 PM (society | politics)

Andy Wingo is a fine programmer. He has excellent intuitions on technical matters. As far as I can judge someone I've never dealt with personally, he is an all-around stand-up guy. He has also turned himself into an example of how those freaking out on the left-wing are short-circuiting people's ability to think.

First, let's get to the valid point he makes: people who believe that a large subset of their co-workers are incompetent and only there to fill some politically motivated quota are not going to be good cultural fits for basically anything. It's perfectly legitimate to probe their views on the topic as part of an interview and count such views against them. (Though I am against prospective employers being allowed to look through someone's social media account, website, or other personal activity, let alone base hiring decisions on what they find there.)

He also raises reasonable points on which there is disagreement. He makes the usual power related arguments against unrestricted speech. I don't agree with him, but I don't think the people who argue thus are bad people or even particularly foolish. I don't think it wise to give institutions that are structurally racist and oligarchic the authority to regulate the content of expression. I fully expect the neo-Liberal, capitalist order to act against the increasing drive for socialism; the government of Germany, within the last month, has shut down an anarchist and communist website.

Unfortunately, he then spends the rest of the post being a poster-child for everything wrong with the left-wing's current collective insanity. I, generally, do not call people fascist. There are several reasons for this. Outside of the history of the early 20th century, ‘fascist’ basically has no meaning. It has been so overused as a term of abuse and generic condemnation that nothing is communicated by it. Even so, it has enough emotional oomph behind it, especially now that people have been conditioned to believe in an impending ‘fascist’ takeover of the United States in roughly the same way that Trump voters were conditioned to believe that there's an unstoppable rising tide of violent crime, that it is an excellent way to jump straight past someone's frontal cortex and get them right in the amygdala. The same roughly goes for Nazi, although at least most people require some sign of racism before they'll start calling people Nazis.

You may ask (somehow having forgotten that semantic drift exists and echoing, with a remarkable lack of self-awareness, the arguments made by self-proclaimed champions of political incorrectness), “But, Azure, isn't it important to call things out accurately? isn't that a basic duty to truth? They're Fascists, that's what they are.” Well, first, if someone marches under a flag with the device of the fasces on it, I'll call them fascists. They're calling themselves fascists; it would be rude to disagree. However, apart from that, it is important to remember that having a duty to truth means competently communicating to the listener so that they gain a correct mental model of the world. If I call someone a fascist, the way the word has been used, I could mean anything from them wanting to replace democracy with an expansionist military state under an authoritarian dictatorship to them being an old, uneducated lady who believes that Jews run the world financial system. If someone advocates for an expansionist military state, an oligarchic dictatorship, or a white ethnostate, I have no need to call them fascist. That they advocate for an expansionist military state, an oligarchic dictatorship, or a white ethnostate is condemnation enough. A simple description of the goals they admit to is quite sufficient.

Mr. Wingo calls people fascist (actually ‘fash’. ‘Fash’ seems to be preferred by those who self-consciously identity with pseudoradical ‘antifa’ ideals) for having incorrect and harmful views of the relationship between physical sex and technical ability. These views are bad, but they have little to do with any system of government, predate fascism, and are largely orthogonal to it, except that historically the people who supported fascist regimes also liked traditional gender roles (but only if you exclude the Soviet Union under Stalin.) Worse, he calls those he identifies as ‘free speech fundamentalists’ (the ACLU?) ‘fash’, though in a later comment he clarifies that they are ‘collaborators’ rather than outright ‘brownshirts’. This is based on the idea that the kind of broad protections for free expression that some people support will be ultimately harmful to the cause of equality and human emancipation given the current power differentials. Again, while I don't agree with this argument against broad free speech protections, there's nothing wrong with voicing it.

The problem comes in identifying the people you disagree with as fascist collaborators who need to be excluded even on vague suspicion. There are several problems. One of the obvious ones is that this is symptomatic of the shrill keening of adrenaline telling people that “It's too dangerous to give anyone the benefit of the doubt!” (which I have heard many people claim and which is the kind of attitude corrosive to social trust that I think really does put us in danger of creeping authoritarianism.) The main one is that it treats your allies with whom you happen to disagree on one issue as enemies. I believe that the antifa idea of confronting those they call ‘fascists’ in the street and beating them down to make them afraid to express their ideas is harmful. Violent brawls in the street make people want a ‘strong leader’. It makes them more sympathetic to ‘tough on crime’ policies and causes them to tolerate greater power to surveil and detain even without reasonable suspicion. Historically, these kinds of violent anti-fascist actions (against parties that would later become the recognized historical fascist states), have aided the fascists.

It would be unconscionably stupid of me and outright incompetent to label anyone advocating for antifa ideas as a fascist collaborator or for me to attempt to exclude them or to refuse to work together with them on the common goals we actually do have. I can disagree with them, publicly denounce that policy and dissociate myself from it, but that's very different.

The worst part of the post is not actually in the post. it is part of a followup comment that reads: “Firstly I would note that I am very sorry to see that Arthur is upset by a description of bad behavior rather that the behavior itself and its effects on other people. This latter aspect is the root of the problem and it is useful to apply a name to actions that have anti-woman, anti-queer, and anti-black effects, even if those actions are "just" speech.” It is worth mentioning that we have words like ‘sexist’, ‘racist’, and ‘queerphobic’ along with ‘factually incorrect’ and ‘contributing to structural factors of inequality’ to describe the kinds of thoughts and actions that Mr. Wingo condemns. That is the least of the problems with this statement.

First, Mr. Wingo exempts himself from criticism of his speech while reminding someone that speech can be harmful. I may be one of the people condemned as a ‘free speech fundamentalist’ and thereby a fascist collaborator because I think hate speech laws don't actually accomplish much, businesses have no right to concern themselves with the personal activities of their employees, and ‘no platform’ policies are harmful, but this does not mean that I think all speech is equal or beyond criticism. As a simple matter of pedagogy, there are ways to explain things that work well and those that don't. I am generally opposed to racial slurs and denigration. I don't think you should be arrested for them, on their own, but I do think you should be fired for being racist or sexist at work, and I even support a more robust, content-neutral legal framework for harassment (which wold take racial abuse as well as other kinds of bullying into account and consider vulnerability and group status when investigating). If I, a supposed ‘free speech fundamentalist’, can recognize that there are better and worse ways to communicate a point, then Mr. Wingo who is, presumably, not one shouldn't find the idea alien.

Second, I am beginning to wonder if the entire left wing has forgotten that we, not too long ago, had a President named George W. Bush. He had this thing called the War on Terror and invaded Iraq for no particularly good reason. He was widely mocked for the statement ‘You're either with us or against us.’ When people condemned the war in Iraq, his apologists said things that sounded an awful lot like “I'm awfully sad that you have decided to condemn our response to terrorism rather than the terrorism itself that killed thousands of people.” Am I trying to make a moral equivalence between antifa rhetoric and the disastrous war on terror? No. Absolutely not. I am drawing a formal equivalence. For a computer scientist, comparing the forms of arguments should be first nature. It is obvious to the point of embarrassment that I can agree that something is a problem and still think that the way it was addressed was harmful and ineffective. Really, there are a number of formal and affective similarities between left-wing attitudes in the current political climate and the right-wing attitude during the war on terror: the appeal to urgency, the condemnation of dissent, the assumption that anything done in the name of safety and security is without cost and beyond challenge, and the unrealistic risk assessment based on the high salience given to events caused by an animate agent.

Third, if I believed in the antifa ideas that ‘fascists’ are sources of unquenchable memetic toxin that cannot be reasoned with, that only understand violence, that must be excluded from any discourse, and should be bashed into silence, then I would be even more reticent to call someone a ‘fascist’ than I am now, as I would be dehumanizing them and calling for their active excommunication from society. I would cetainly want to be very narrow and specific about what I tarred with the ‘fascist’ name. Unfortunately, self-described ‘antifa’ who make these claims about ‘fascists’ seem more willing than most to call anyone they disagree with a ‘fascist’. I don't think this is actual bad faith. When a term keys people's emotions up and makes them pay attention and side with the speaker, there's an unconscious pressure to apply the term more widely. Most issues are important, they deal with repression or oppression or inequity of some sort, and every little bit of persuasive power helps. Unfortunately, this has all sorts of downsides. In the short run, when you behave this way and disagree with people on your own side, they get lumped in with those actively inimical to all of your goals. In the medium run, the term degenerates into enough of an in-group signal that your out-group gains a mild positive orientation to it that they wouldn't have had otherwise. In the longest term, you end up eaten by a wolf[1] because when you shout that fascists are coming after you, everyone assumes that someone from the ACLU is asking you for a donation to their campaign to challenge the department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's human rights abuses.

Footnotes

[1] I apologize to any of my readers who may be wolves. Perhaps we should establish a fable about a boy who cried tornado.

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