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Reading Between the Barricades

Mark Mardell (a BBC commentator on American politics who I've always found interesting because he knows his history and approaches our politics from the outside) recently had some commentary I found provocative; it's on MSNBC's dismissal of Pat Buchanan over some statements in a recent book. (Note: these are musings. I have intuitions but not a firm conclusion)

Mardell believes that the particular passages that MSNBC found objectionable are on the topic of homosexuality and multiculturalism. Mardell is concerned over Buchanan's removal, worrying that it contributes to a polarisation of society and harms dialogue between two large camps in American society; the largely politically-correct, heavily multiculturalist-liberal left, and the conservative, christian right (presumably a complete model would include a number of smaller separate camps too, like the enlightenment-liberal left camp in which I reside, the religious-left, the libertarians, and so on). The notion of speech codes (visible or not) to quash dissenting views is easily found in practically every political/philosophical divide.

I'm not sure what to think about this. Let's first address a small point; is it appropriate to fire commentators for things they say outside their official role? Is it okay for jobs to carry with them a strong expectation of acceptable activities outside the workplace (e.g. is it ok for a teacher, in their time off, to go to a strip club, or for a politician to spend a few weeks on a luxury cruise)? Do we hire people for who they are or what they can do? And does symbolism figure into it (as a BP executive found while boat-racing during the recent oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico)? Are talking heads different? Are elected representatives likewise different? My initial inclination is to think that for most positions, a person's suitability for a job should be determined by skills and ability (and possibly trustworthiness), and not generally outside factors. I'm not sure how to figure talking heads into this, as one is going to them for a perspective, and one's accessment of that perspective reasonably includes things they say in their non-work life. We don't want them to feel stifled in their non-work life, but what they say there may reasonably be job-relevant. I don't have a solid conclusion here, but I do believe that this kind of uncertainty only extends to certain kinds of jobs; I would be strongly opposed to businesses having the ability to fire people for outside-of-work/unrelated-to-work statements if their jobs have nothing to do with image (I recognise that this means I am not comfortable with most interpretations of at-will employment).

Moving on, let's consider speech codes in general; a lot of businesses have them, some universities have them, and while they may be hampered a bit by notions of religious discrimination, they are often used for some kinds of social shaping. Some consider the taboo against censorship to be mainly or wholly about government censorship; others hold that the ability for businesses to set policy should not permit policies that are unjust and would extend such taboos there as well (somewhat supported as an intuition by employment, tenant-landlord, and other areas of regulation). Where do I stand? I am not a free-speech absolutist, but I am also very wary of regulation of speech. I believe that we can reasonably-cleanly carve certain types of speech (racial or gender-supremacy) away from the rest and apply mild regulation (deny permits for rallies/marches and impose punative tariffs for books/magazines/etc) to them to turn down their volume, while showing a willingness to use social services and flexibility in policies to attempt to break up communities that are notably and sufficiently racist or sexist, without using stronger measures. I am not generally comfortable with directly going after the act of speech-narrowly-construed (as in a person opening their mouth and speaking during their daily life) unless that speech is threatening violence-narrowly-construed (physical harm) or opportunity-loss-narrowly-construed (I won't work with you or hire you) or is in the context of prolonged harassment. I don't think Universities nor businesses should have the general ability to set speech codes in their places-of-operation, and should have even less ability to do so for conduct outside their places-of-operation (except generally in the scope of the exceptions I note above). But ... this is perhaps not relevant to talking heads given the nature of that profession.

In the two Universities where I spent much of my life (Ohio State and Carnegie Mellon), there were many instances where one community had difficult debates on whether to engage another community in a conversation on a difficult topic. One of these was between Michael Brown of Jews for Jesus and Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, on whether being a 「Jew for Jesus」 was sensible. Another (with different debaters) had Zionist and anti-Zionist jews debating Israel. Another had Jesuits debating Protestants debating Atheists debating Muslims on theology and prophesy. Or young-earth-creationists versus scientists. And so on. Sometimes the groups represented were of very small slices of American society, other times they were just groups that were not accustomed to frequent discussion over the lines that divide them. I recall the discussions over *whether* to have the debates were often more interesting than the debates; "do we want to grant them the recognition?" "what if they convince some of the audience?" "how do we handle this post-debate?". I sometimes wonder about the idea of debates; there are a lot of tricks one can do in a discussion, but even aside from that there's the wonder if careful debate is likely to bring us the best answer to questions. Sometimes we can do experiments, which are probably better when that's possible. What about when we're talking philosophy? Morality? History? We might easily either argue at the wrong level or insist that people "make more sense" than they actually do. Or we could get the abstractions wrong. We would be rightfully wary of anyone who were a masterful debator who sat in a room with a bunch of people and after years of discussion claimed to have invented a new physics that explains everything, even if said person's logic seemed watertight. I'm not sure this is a reason to close one's ears though, and the prohibition in some flavours of Judaism (and Islam) against learning about other faiths and worldviews seems pretty unhealthy to me.

Thinking pure tactics, if we're trying to get rid of really regressive (or crackpot) views in society, we may be able to sometimes preserve a lead in doing so by not engaging with them, provided they're very small. There are also topics where we might want to shape the terms of engagement towards things more proper than formal debate (e.g. scientific demonstration, or peer review for things about science or history). Academia has been dealing with the notion of being-qualified-to-speak-on-a-topic for many years and it does a good job at it. Sometimes a minority view is minority for reasons that are bad though (IMO, anti-Zionist Jewish culture is unfortunately very limited at present time because patriotism is a human weakness and it takes rare strength of character to oppose it). Is general engagement always a good idea? It probably depends on whether things are matters of truth, philosophy, preference, or something else.

And note that I think "standards of politeness" are only a little bit looser than things like speech codes. Social shaping of some sort is going to take place, and people are (reasonably) going to want to have a say in what is considered polite if they're going to be judged on it. There's no getting around the idea that social standards have force and bring about consequences. If person A believes it to be rude to say Y, and person B believes saying Y is fine and that grumbling about saying Y is rude, we have a conflict, with both standards of rudeness amounting to social shaping.