Monday, September 1, 2014

The Limits of Libertarianism don’t make it wrong (much less “a disservice to humanity”)

First, read this blog post.

I had a lot of fun reading it – the article was thoughtful, lucid, well written, and made some important points. I agreed with much of it. Were it phrased as a simple reminder to libertarians that our core ideology is not the be-all-end-all, discussion ending pinnacle of moral philosophy, I would agree with all of it. But it was not phrased this way, and unfortunately the author got a bit too overzealous in his claims.

Unlike the author of this piece (Will Moyer, I gather from the URL), I am comfortable calling myself a libertarian without being embarrassed by the narrowness of its applicability, much less thinking I’m doing a disservice to humanity by actively promoting it. As noted, libertarianism is merely a political philosophy. It is meant to set only the barest of rules for how people should interact with one another (or, more precisely, how they should not interact with one another), and to apply those rules to the field of government. I concede that this narrow field does not encompass the full spectrum of important moral matters. However, I’m not sure why observing this implies that affiliation with libertarianism precludes one from engaging with those other worthwhile ideas as well.

Moyer writes that after first becoming an anarchist:
“I still considered most of my beliefs to technically fall under the umbrella of libertarianism. But somewhere in the last few years even that association has faded. It took me a long time to articulate why, but that’s what I’m going to do now.”
The trouble is, what follows is not a good reason to stop considering his beliefs as libertarian, so much as an explanation of why they are not libertarian only. In alluding to a preference for left-wing libertarianism, or what he calls “libertarian socialism,” he does not argue that this set of beliefs contradicts more traditional right-libertarian beliefs. Instead, he merely explains that he has beliefs besides traditional libertarianism, on top of and in addition to it. The reader deduces that old-school, anarcho-capitalist leaning libertarianism is not the culmination of his rumination on opinionated matters. Not only is this unsurprising, I had thought it went without saying – even among avowed anarcho-capitalists.

Of course there are topics on which libertarianism does not opine. The author is correct that many of these topics are important; as he mentions, libertarianism says nothing about race, class, sexual orientation, or the patriarchy. But is this truly a weakness for an ideology that only claims to discuss politics? Must those things be considered inherently political matters? All ideologies have boundaries, and these mustn’t be confused with shortcomings.

Moyer seems to recognize this, conceding:
Granted, libertarianism – as a body of thought – doesn’t have to comment on every social issue. It can say nothing of race and gender and class. It can be silent on non-violent forms of hierarchy and inequality. But then it stands incomplete as a social philosophy.
But it is not a social philosophy – as the very libertarians he just quoted explained, it is a political ideology. So what’s his confusion?
That’s fine, especially if that is a conscious and intentional choice on the part of libertarians. We will focus our ideological work on this area and let other systems of thought cover everything else. But it certainly wasn’t something I was aware of when I considered myself a libertarian. On the contrary, I thought libertarianism offered a robust and complete analysis of society. I suspect others do, too.

I’m confused by the idea that any nameable ideology offers a “complete analysis of society,” or even that it could do so hypothetically. Society is a mighty big topic – do there exist even two people in the entire world with identical views on it? If the author really did expect libertarianism to answer every question worth thinking about in all of philosophy, he was not holding it to the same standard to which an average person holds comparable political philosophies. Communism may have class covered, but is it expected to thoroughly engage with questions of race and gender, in a way that’s uniform across all self-described Marxists? Feminism may have gender covered, but do all feminists have to agree on economic policy to share the title? For some reason, I doubt Moyer – well versed in the holistic spectrum of ideologies which combat entrenched authoritarian systems as he is – furrows his brow at feminism’s failure to come down on the morality of taxation.

But libertarianism is different, he argues, because:
Libertarianism is not understood as a specialized field like chemistry or biology. It is supposed to be an ideology that describes and prescribes human social behavior. But to that end, its core framework is inadequate.
Who said that’s what it’s supposed to be? It seems to me every one of the libertarians he just quoted said precisely the opposite – that it is supposed to be an ideology that describes and prescribes human political behavior. Chemistry and biology purport to be objective studies of physical things, which makes for poor comparison. Other moral theories allow better analogy, and within moral theory, there are varying ranges of specificity. A highly specific moral theory might be Originalism, which applies only to those political bodies entrusted with interpreting constitutions within regimes that meet a minimum threshold of legitimacy. A very broad moral theory would apparently be the author’s brand of “libertarian socialism,” which I’ll return to in a moment. And an intermediately specialized field of theory might be feminism, which offers important and broad-ranging implications for our everyday lives, but does so only in respect to one particular kind of human relations. Perhaps libertarianism also meets this same intermediate level of specificity.

Like libertarianism, feminism sees the world through a narrowed lens, and reproduces it as an incomplete, simplified, and truncated film. Does this mean feminism is wrong? Or might feminism be right within the portion of the story it attempts to explain? Are feminists doing a disservice to humanity by describing themselves as feminists, instead of humanists or intersectionalists or general, all-around do-gooders? Or can segmenting moral philosophy into topical subsections actually be productive to humanity’s overall discourse, by allowing those drawn to certain portions of the fight to specialize their advocacy and expertise?
Morality is an enormous and complex field that has conflicted brilliant people for centuries. Presenting digestible chunks of theory prevents us from biting off more than we can chew.

This is precisely the trouble with Moyer’s brand of “libertarian socialism”: it tries to swallow a set of topics so vast and controversial that few of its members can possibly agree on all of it, and so it chokes from the resulting internal discord. It cannot deliver a unified message. To see why, we need look no further than Moyer’s first alleged example of libertarian shortcomings: a neutral stance on children’s rights. Regarding child abuse, he writes:
[W]hat constitutes abuse represents a “continuum problem” for libertarians. Some attacks on children are okay but not too much. It’s a big gray area. It’s embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue.

I’m not embarrassed, for two reasons. Firstly, there’s nothing preventing a libertarian from coming to clear moral conclusions on the issue if they want to; it’s just that what a libertarian believes about spanking is wholly separate from the fact that she’s a libertarian. But secondly, I simply don’t think the issue is morally clear. Moyer lauds Jezebel for “taking a hard stance on aggression against children,” but the snippet he quoted left me thoroughly unconvinced of their position. I don’t think it is analogous to “legalized assault.” My parents spanked me as a child, but I never felt threatened or unsafe or abused or unloved. I’m not sure that my human rights were violated, or that others were bound to protect me from the treatment I “endured.” I also don’t think it was about making me into an “effective, obedient citizen.” As a libertarian, I actually became a somewhat disobedient citizen! I turned out alright.

I cannot know, of course, whether the spanking played any role in furthering or hindering my development. I’m no child psychologist, and I won’t pretend to have the answer. Maybe Jezebel is right, and there really is no positive outcome from “violence towards children” (even violence as relatively tame as a smack on the behind). But I think it’s at least plausible that Jezebel is wrong, that the methods practiced by parents for centuries to enforce consequences for misbehavior have some merit or effectiveness. I also think there’s some value to the principle that parents should have wide discretion in deciding how to raise their own children, whether or not some magazine’s editors approve of their tactics. There may or may not be a good type of spanking, but even if there is not, there may be a neutral kind, or a kind that is not so heinously bad as to become anyone else’s business (much less so bad as to warrant forceful outside intervention that breaks up a family).

Jezebel satirizes the apparent silliness of distinguishing between 10 and 11 strikes, but this only illuminates their own continuum problem; lest no physical contact at all be permitted, you do have to distinguish somewhere. If a 5 year old boy is wailing and throwing a tantrum in the supermarket, a mother is clearly justified in picking him up and physically restraining him from running into the next aisle. Of course, the mother would not be justified in picking up the 45 year old stranger next to her and physically restraining him, even if he were also throwing a tantrum. Clearly there is a disparate standard there: children do not have all the same rights as adults. If parents can wield some physical force on their children (as all agree), but cannot punch them unconscious (as all agree), there must be a dividing line which determines how much is too much.

The point you’d expect avowed libertarians to appreciate is that on morally subjective issues like this one, the line will be different for different people, and that as libertarians we’re supposed to be mighty tolerant of alternate views on questions of personal morality. Indeed, this “live and let live” approach to moral disagreements is one of the most appealing and central parts of the libertarian mindset. The human species has reached nothing remotely near a consensus on the issue of spanking children. The moral conviction that animates my willingness to incarcerate someone who punches a stranger on the street is nowhere near so strong or so certain regarding a parent who spanks their child. Intelligent people are likely to disagree about hundreds of things, so Moyer is entitled to his opinion and encouraged to express it as forcefully as he can. But part of being libertarian is that to whatever extent possible, we should each let others do their own thing. And if ever there were a morally subjective topic on which libertarians – and certainly the governments whose policies we seek to inform and reform – need not share the same opinion, that topic may be parenting.

Therein lies the wisdom of restricting libertarianism to the barest and clearest questions of universal moral tenets. The movement’s enforced neutrality on “aesthetic” issues is not intended, at least for me, as a dismissal of the importance of those issues. It is instead an attempt to preserve the purity of our brand by preventing its pollution with extra-libertarian theory. Those who preach divisive personal beliefs in our name misrepresent the ideas that truly unite us, and truth in advertising requires that we set the record straight.
So allow Matt Zwolinski, founder of Bleeding Heart Libertarians, to do exactly that:

“Libertarianism is not a comprehensive ethical philosophy. It does not tell us everything we need to know about how to be a good person, or a good neighbor. It does not claim that all actions that you should be free to do are equally virtuous, or even morally permissible. Libertarianism is a political philosophy. It is a theory about the proper size and scope of the state, and about the proper spheres of force and freedom in our lives. Accordingly, libertarianism as such has no answers for many of our most important moral questions. Rather, it holds that individuals should be left free, as much as possible, to answer those questions for themselves, in their own way.”

When properly understood within the field of study we endeavor to further, libertarianism’s contributions are incredibly valuable – with no scare quotes required around the word.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Does the rarity of false rape reports justify assuming guilt?

In the weeks that succeeded Eliza Schultz’s petition for reforming the campus policies on sexual violence, another excellent writer at Hopkins named Juliana Vigorito endorsed the policy in a mostly fantastic article she penned for JHU Politik. There was one excerpt, however, from this article that I disagreed with. I’d like to respond to it here.
Vigorito wrote:

“The current policy notes that an accuser may request a change in their housing or class schedule. This places the onus of uprooting one’s lifestyle on the presumptive survivor. The word “presumptive” is apt here, as false accusations of sexual violence are only as common as false reports of any other violent crime nationally–that is to say, such instances hover around 2%. Given the fact that roughly 85% of all campus sexual assaults go unreported, the so-called false reporting is a myth. When a victim comes forward, statistically speaking, we ought to believe them. So it seems appropriate that, rather than obligating a survivor to rearrange their life after trauma, our University should instead apply housing or curricular changes to the accused perpetrator. Forcing a student to choose between changing classes mid-semester and feeling unsafe neither sufficiently provides support nor promotes academic success at a competitive institution like ours.”

Let’s examine this logic for a moment. Vigorito argues that because the rate of false reporting for sexual violence is no higher than the rate for violent crimes of a non-sexual nature, it’s sufficiently marginal to be ignored; the likelihood of a false report is so low, she concludes, that we can safely presume anyone who alleges sexual violence is telling he whole and unbiased truth of the matter.

But even her statistics are true (which this post will not address), there are two problems with this argument:
1. Would it not follow from this argument that because the alleged rates of false reporting are similar, we can likewise cast aside the possibility that the accuser is lying
in any other violent crime? Are accusations of murder, armed robbery, assault, battery, and arson to be presumed true, simply because it’s statistically unlikely that the accuser would make it up? If so, doesn’t this turn the cherished American principle of innocent before proven guilty on its head? And if not, what distinguishes sexual violence – a crime which, by the author’s confession, is exactly as likely to be reported inaccurately as these other violent crimes – as an exception to that principle?

2. As a general principle, is it fair to make judgments about individuals based on broad social statistics describing their demographics? Statistically, a variety of socio-economic factors make it such that black people are far more likely to commit violent crimes than white people in this country. Suppose there is both a white and a black suspect in a violent crime. Would it be just to hold the black man to a higher burden of proving his innocence than the white man, solely on the assumption that “statistically speaking,” he was more likely to have committed it? Or ought we not speak statistically when we’re making life-changing assumptions about the guilt or innocence of individual people?

Belated response to Hopkins sexual violence policy reform petition

A few months ago, a Johns Hopkins student named Eliza Schultz drafted a petition (since endorsed by the SGA) proposing several reforms to the university’s sexual violence policies. When she walked up to me asking me to sign that petition one afternoon, I asked that she email it to me in full so I could read it and decide. She obliged. This is my response to her proposal:

“Hey Eliza, just got around to reading this - thanks for sending it and for having the ambition to spearhead change on an important issue. I agree with the first, third, and fifth bullet points enthusiastically and in their entirety (comprehensive definition, delineating the range of sanctions, and removing faculty peers from the disciplinary process). However, as you anticipated, I have some qualms in deciding whether or not to sign:

1. I’ve never heard of nonphysical violence before. I’ve heard of coercion, which is also a terrible and fundamental wrong. But some of your examples don’t seem to qualify as even that. Voyeurism should be illegal and severely punished, but to me, it’s a stretch to call it violent - maybe that falls under stalking? And prostitution is another thing entirely: a morally subjective personal choice that a lot of people think should be legal. Lumping pimps and peeping Tom’s in with rapists under the all-inclusive category of “sexual violence” confuses the debate by seeming to equate very different crimes. I will gladly join you in the fight against each of these things independently, but I won’t gloss over the differences between them.

2. I support requiring the perpetrator moving residences and changing courses - on the obvious condition that he or she has actually been found guilty of perpetrating, using whatever standard of evidence the university uses to ascertain guilt for any other alleged offense. If this is what you meant in your petition all along, great, but the way you word it makes me suspicious. You say “this should occur following an investigation by the University or police”, but don’t comment on how that investigation must conclude in order to warrant the requirement.

An investigation can have two statuses: it has ascertained that the person is guilty, or it has not yet concluded that. In which situation would the proposal make sense? If they’ve concluded the person is guilty already, he or she should be expelled and perhaps jailed anyway, making a housing change redundant. If they have not yet done so, it is unjust to punish them at all. I sympathize with how frequently the accuser is right in these situations, but no justice system worth its salt can levy punishment based purely on allegations - not for murder, not for child abduction, and not for sexual violence. So please clarify what you mean by this segment.

3. When I hear the term “zero-tolerance policy,” this is what comes to mind:


Zero tolerance policy for weapons: “In 2001, honor student Lindsay Brown parked her car in the wrong spot at her high school. A county police officer looked inside and saw a kitchen knife—a butter knife with a rounded tip. Because Lindsay was on school property, she had violated the zero-tolerance policy for knives. She was arrested, handcuffed, and hauled off to county jail where she spent nine hours on a felony weapons possession charge. School Principal Fred Bode told a local paper, "A weapon is a weapon."”

Again on weapons: “Four kindergartners—5-year-old boys—played cops and robbers at Wilson Elementary in New Jersey. One yelled: "Boom! I have a bazooka, and I want to shoot you." He did not, of course, have a bazooka. Nevertheless, all four boys were suspended from school for three days for "making threats," a violation of their school district's zero-tolerance policy. School Principal Georgia Baumann said, "We cannot take any of these statements in a light manner." District Superintendent William Bauer said: "This is a no-tolerance policy. We're very firm on weapons and threats."


You don’t have to support weapons or fighting to think that the enforcement of any policy labeled “zero-tolerance” sometimes gets out of hand. Can we pick different words to articulate the same concept? Maybe call upon the university to “immediately expel any student found to have committed a crime of sexual violence?”

Why conversations with your man could be even MORE instructive!

I found a feminist article that disagrees with the argument I laid out in my last two posts that social activists should speak differently to those who are not yet part of the movement than they do amongst themselves. Her post, titled “Occasionally Conversations with my Man Are Instructive” is structured as the transcript of a conversation she claims to have had with her male partner about the tone feminists use online. I’ll respond to certain excerpts below.

When the male partner observed “the way you express things sometimes, isn’t it just making it easier for men to get defensive?” our feminist friend replied:

“No. What we aren’t doing is taking care of them. Nurturing them. Putting their feelings first. Looking out for them, making things safe for them. We aren’t making them the center. We’re talking just the way we’d talk, the way we do talk, when y’all aren’t around.”

Well, I’d say what she isn’t doing is delivering an effective message to her audience. This is because talking the way you talk when others aren’t around is a really bad strategy when others are, in fact, around. When you’re trying to convince somebody of a thing, you have to make them the center, because they’re the one you’re trying to convince. You already get it, they don’t. But our friend continues:

"And you know sometimes that gets ugly, but the thing to do then is to remember: Everything else IS centered around y'all. Everything else--you guys got the talk radio to take care of you, the ESPN, the CNN, the New York Times, the advertising industry--you can't bask in all that adoration day in and day out and then pitch a fit because a handful of blogs on the internet don't recognize your awesomeness. Or I mean, you can pitch a fit, go right ahead, but it's not going to end with me bringing you your binky and kissing your forehead. It's going to end with my foot in your ass."

Well, no – it’s going to end with feminism’s failure to enact as much change as it could and should given the strength of its actual ideas. This is because human beings in generally unable to decenter themselves from their own opinions. If you think it’s sort of pathetic that people of all genders and sexes and sexualities are so self-absorbed that they need to make everything about them, you’re right. If you find it sort of irritating that human nature makes people more receptive to ideas they don’t feel threatened by, you’re right. If you find it inconvenient to baby people and hold their hand and constantly reassure them that we’re not attacking them and that they’re not a bad person, you’re right. But we should do it anyway, because we can’t change human nature and that’s how minds are changed.

To me, the willingness to do that is what separates activists primarily concerned with enacting change from those primarily concerned with self-affiliation, or manicuring how they themselves appear to their activist peers. In other words, those feminists who make a big, showy, condescending public stink about the not-yet-feminists who inevitably “make it all about them”…are in truth only doing it to make it all about them. They are gleefully gloating in their progressivism, hoping for social kudos and slaps on the back from fellow progressives, instead of being the bigger woman and explaining it to the ignorant person in non-condescending terms.

Our feminist friend counters:

"It's not as hard if you move yourself out of the center of everything, though. That's what I finally got through my thick skull. It's not ABOUT me, always.”

When you spend enormous portions of your time blogging about sex and race and privilege, and reading other people’s blogs about sex and race and privilege, it’s a lot easier to isolate yourself from the collectives being described. I know this because I too meet that description, and was able to do it. But both she and I must realize that the vast majority of people on the planet do not do that, and will never do that, and thus will never be able to isolate themselves the way we can. Look at it as a sort of feminist privilege: you, unlike those less educated than you, are adequately immersed in intersectional thinking that you can read scathing criticism of your demographic’s unjust and oppressive behavior without feeling personally resistant to the ideology driving the criticism.

What our ally calls “finally getting through her thick skull” is better described as training oneself to shut off instinctual defensive reactions that the vast majority of human beings on the planet – the exact same majority feminists must win to their way of thinking if they want change to occur – will never train themselves to shut off. Everyone in the entire world, regardless of their demographic or relative amount of privilege, puts themselves first. Everyone sees things from their own perspective, and filters things through the lens of “how does this affect me? What does this mean for me?”

Contrary to what our ally implies, this is not a symptom of sexism, or a byproduct of the patriarchy teaching men to make everything about them. The recent #solidarityisforwhitewomen infighting shows that women and blacks and homosexuals every other demographic does it just as much as guys do. It’s just human nature! We cannot change the way people naturally respond to various tactics, even if those responses are self-absorbed. But we can alter our tactics so as to produce a different response in other people, which is better aligned with our interests as social reformers.

You should do this not because you have to, but because you’re the one who cares. You’re the one who’s supposed to give a shit about the outcome of this conversation. You’re the one who should enter the discussion with the objective of a canvasser trying to get another signature on your petition. If it dissolves, and the other person shrugs and goes about their business having learned nothing about feminism except that its members treated him rudely, you’re still right and he’s still wrong – but you’re the one who’s failed.


Feminism’s fighting an uphill battle as it is, because the communication of its message is already impeded by sexism and misogyny. It is sad to see it further impeded, needlessly, by our tactics themselves.

In defense of tone tinkering


In the interest of furthering discussion on the issue, I’d like to preempt a few anticipated feminist retorts to the second half of my last post on how feminists can improve their tone.

Counterargument #1: Tone tinkering, or tone policing?

I’d first like to address the accusation that feminist readers of my last post were doubtlessly screaming into their keyboards in boldfaced caps-lock letters:

“STOP TONE POLICING ME!!!”

To the uninitiated, this is because what’s called “tone policing” is a nasty word in the feminist community. Tone policing is allegedly a diversionary tactic, designed to change the subject from something important (the issue at hand) to something unrelated (the manner in which that issue is discussed). It’s also viewed as a form of censorship. “Who are you to regulate how oppressed peoples express their frustration at being oppressed?” an indignant feminist might retort. “Men don’t get to control how women react to the patriarchy. I’ll say what I want, how I want, and you can get the hell over it!”

I agree with feminists that external tone policing is unhelpful in the context of a specific discussion. Calling out somebody else on the tone with which they address you is nitpicking, thin-skinned censorship, not to mention irrelevant to the topic at hand. All participants in a debate should remain on topic to the best of their ability. If you find yourself being derided or unfairly attacked, it’s generally on you to be the bigger person and address the issue underneath the derision.

But just because others cannot always expect you to speak to them nicely does not mean it isn’t wise to try.

Therein lies the difference, I argue, between tone policing – indignantly demanding that others be nicer to you in the midst of an ongoing discussion – and what I’ll call tone tinkering: a form of preemptive, strategic self-regulation designed to maximize the likelihood that the upcoming conversation will be productive and convincing. Tone tinkering is what I advocated in my last post, and what I’ll advocate with regard to feminism in particular in this post.

The unwillingness of most feminists to tinker their tones for anybody anywhere reveals a pretty remarkable double standard built into feminist thinking about the patriarchy: feminists get indignant when others tone police them, even as they vigilantly and unabashedly tone police others. If a man says something nasty and insulting to a woman, it’s seen as misogyny: a severe enough infraction to get him banned from the discussion. But if a woman says something nasty and insulting to a man, it isn’t seen as misandry (which, feminists assure us, “isn’t a thing”) – it’s merely an expression of her wholly justifiable frustration about misogyny! I lamented this double standard in an earlier post:

“[Say p]erson A and Person B disagree about something. Person A has less privilege, on net, than Person B. This incidental stroke of fate means, according to feminists, that Person “A can say whatever they like to Person B, no matter how offensive. They can scream, they can hurl obscenities, they can levy personal attacks, and they are freed from the necessity of making any sense as they do so, because they have a right to free expression and find it empowering. Any objection from Person B should be decried as “tone policing”. Any emotional reaction this produces in Person B should be scorned as making the discussion “all about them.” Any psychological distress this creates in Person B should be ignored or even ridiculed. In fact, Person B should be grateful for the knowledge which Person A’s obscenity laden rants have provided them.

Meanwhile, the only thing Person B needs to do to get removed from the group is express any opinion to which Person A objects. When this happens, the simple fact that Person A has objected is expected to change Person B’s mind, and produce an immediate, unquestioning apology.

I yearn for a feminism that was about eliminating double standards between men and women, as opposed to erecting more.”

Of course, to anyone who isn’t already indoctrinated into feminist ideology, this is just the sort of unworkable circular logic likely to make them roll their eyes and run to an MRA group.

As someone who mostly is indoctrinated into feminist ideology, however, I prefer to tease out the excesses from the good stuff. The logic underlying the feminist position on tone-policing is simply that sexism hurts women more than men. To many feminists, it follows that those discussing sexism must be remarkably sensitive to the emotional duress female participants, but need not be even remotely sensitive to the emotional duress of male participants. At times this is reasonable. For example, feminists rightly see an enormous distinction between the psychic distress that arises in women when they rehash unpleasant personal experiences with sexism, and the mental discomfort that arises in men when they have their privilege illuminated and challenged. The first perpetuates sexism, while the second combats it. Sensitivity is more justified in some situations than others.

However, we have to be specific about what those situations are, and too many feminists broaden the above distinction into an umbrella justification for vitriol. There is a noticeable tendency to purposely provoke and exacerbate defensiveness in male participants with aggressive rhetoric, an instinct to resort to tone #2 as the default in all conversations. This behavior may be therapeutic, but it’s also counterproductive. People are only convinced of something under certain circumstances, and those circumstances don’t change when the speaker happens to be systematically disadvantaged. Oppressed peoples are not exempt from the rules which enable productive discourse in every other venue of human discussion. One of those rules is that the manner in which a message is delivered impacts an audience’s receptiveness to that message. If feminists want to spread their message to as many people as possible, they have to recognize what I explained last post: different tones are better equipped for different situations.


Counterargument #2: What happened to free speech, dude?

If feminists who read my last post were shouting into their keyboards then, any who bothered to click on the hyperlinks I provided to earlier posts of mine about feminism are probably shouting even louder:

“This guy is such a hypocrite!”

This is because as recently as last week, I a series of posts passionately defending free speech, which included the following excerpts:

·         “I feel ideologically, intellectually threatened by the idea that because those conversations are likely to offend, they are therefore fruitless and a hassle and not worth the bother.”
·         “Even this post gave feminists more deference than is normal; that I had to fret so heavily and tread so lightly in phrasing my beliefs is itself an indication that other men feel pressured to do the same. This inhibits the debate by preventing many productive, change-inducing conversations from ever taking place. When the threat of scathing feminist call-out culture scares us away from your movement, it scares us away from learning about the topic at all.”
·         “the extension of the hypersensitivity one might expect at a rape clinic or PTSD counseling session to cover the entire universe, on the basis that every individual with an opinion has an obligation to present it (or not) in a manner that is “emotionally safe” for those the left has designated as amply oppressed….is complete bullshit, and I want to denounce it in no uncertain terms.”

So here I am, asserting my right to “offend” by “phrasing my beliefs” in a way that isn’t “hypersensitive” to people’s “emotional safety,” and now it seems I’m trying to restrict the ways feminists can express their opinions. What a hypocrite I am, right? At first glance, it would appear I’ve inverted the problem I described above: am I not suggesting that female feminists have should tone police themselves, but I need not do so myself?

Not quite. Here it is important to distinguish between two types of psychic discomfort: the cognitive dissonance that results from encountering information or argument that runs contrary to your beliefs, and the personal offense that results when that information or argument is presented in an abrasive manner. More specifically, there is a difference between the uneasiness that people feel when confronted with an idea they find incompatible with their previous beliefs, and the defensiveness that people feel when they are addressed in an aggressive, angry, accusatory or attacking tone. The most important of these differences is that the second can be avoided without sacrificing the vibrancy and progression of the public discussion. As a self-anointed steward of that discussion, my consistent position throughout all my recent blog entries has been that the first is okay, while the second is undesirable.

So yes, I have been imploring audiences to overcome that first type of mental discomfort, because it is not only unavoidable, but healthy and productive. We should encourage people to seek it out, wrestle with it, and ultimately get over it. At the same time, yes, I am also imploring speakers to avoid imposing the second type of mental discomfort, because it is not only unnecessary, but toxic and counterproductive. Those who truly care about spreading their ideas should avoid or minimize it whenever possible. Following both rules enables healthy, respectful, enthusiastic conversation that is neither polluted by emotionally reactionary personal attacks, nor hindered by the fear of inciting such attacks, on either end. That is what I’m after.


Counterargument #3: What about libertarians?

Admittedly, I don’t get off that easy. If tone tinkering is important for the effectiveness of feminism, it follows that it’s also important to the effectiveness of libertarianism. Accusing one movement without the other would be to apply a double standard rooted in favoritism for my original ideological roots. Do I have evidence that I cared about tone before feminism came into the scene?

The answer is yes. You can finds example of me chastising libertarians for unwise tone selection here, and here, and here. Lest you think I am some rare exception among libertarians, other libertarians do it too.

Additionally, I had planned another post that I did not get around to posting titled “To Win Respect, Libertarians must Profess Professionally.” It would be sort of redundant to post now, but the notes I had kept on a word document read as follows:

àcommon tactic of our enemies is to denigrate us with personal attacks without engaging our ideas, only way people will take us seriously is if we present ourselves professionally.

àif you want to win respect and consideration, the severity of your ideas must be checked by the moderate and rational air with which you carry yourself. The establishment is out to marginalize us, so we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard of debating conduct, professional and mature, no personal attacks, issues only.

àGive Dad’s advice about not labeling groups of people, because it makes people defensive, you can attack mindsets but don’t make the mistake of clustering that mindset with a demographic or you won’t convince that demographic, say “those of the more liberal mindset” rather than “liberals”, etc.

àperhaps frame it as a letter to other libertarians?

àPerhaps make it part of a larger post about “Strategies for Libertarians”, how we should present our message to maximize our appeal.
1. Part one is the above about being calm and rational,
2. part two is about never using the logical fallacies the other side uses, and calmly, politely pointing it out when they do,
3. part three is to be hopeful and optimistic, not so negative, speak in consequentialist terms about all the good that our policies can do


I continue to endorse these strategies, and urge my fellow libertarians to employ them. The heart of the matter is that we as social activists seeking support should speak differently to individuals who do not already hold our ideology than we do to one another – just as politicians seeking votes speak differently to independents than they do to their base or to the opposition in a debate.