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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 5, 2022

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Topic: The disappearance of procedural rules of fairness as a public value

A gripe that continues to be articulated around these parts is that almost no-one seems to regard procedural rules of fairness as values per se. Most political actors seem to care only about their instrumental value and only insofar and as long their adherence helps their cause or tribe. Based loosely on Rawls' notion of justice as fairness, I define these rules of fairness as outcome-independent rules of play that bind all players equally. Examples include:

  • The free market place of ideas

  • Accepting the outcome of participatory events such as elections, polls, etc. as valid even if one does not agree with the outcome

  • Valuing facticity even when inconvenient

  • etc.

A commonly articulated hunch - one that I share - is that the political liberal left at least paid lip service to these ideals as values in themselves up until roughly 2010. After the woke capture of many cultural and political institutions, these values were discarded. I expressed this elsewhere:

Liberalism is everybody's second-best solution to everything. The best solution is of course to make everybody else live according to my preferences. The worst is that I have to live according to the preferences of my enemies. Under liberalism, we agree to an eternal truce where neither of us gets to dictate how the other person has to live (to a degree).

But now one side has the power to do exactly that and actualise their best solution with impunity. Most people aren't principled liberals. A ceasefire doesn't make sense when you can easily crush your enemies.

This keeps raising the following questions:

  • Has the appreciation of procedural rules of fairness in fact waned?

  • If so, when?

  • What made the political "left" shift from a celebration of these values to a purely opportunistic application? Was this always purely instrumental, as outlined above?

I would be very interested in how the above questions could be approached empirically. I know this is a sentiment shared among a lot of people here, but in the absence of serious research on the matter (or is there?), how can we actually test it other than through links to silly google search trends?

This is fundamentally a question about "What do left-wing people believe and why do they believe it?" To answer such a question, you need a qualitative appreciation of people's belief structure, rather than pure quantitative analysis of the type you seem to be suggesting.

As someone who watched the intersectional feminist critique of "liberal debate" developing in real time, I can give you some examples of the types of direct criticism of liberal debate norms that led to decreased appreciation for such procedural rules.

  1. Blog comment moderation. Early on, in the blogosphere there was a substantial (or at least noisy) "free speech" contingent that contended that all blog comment sections ought to be unmoderated for "free speech" reasons. Feminists frequently had bad-faith people showing up in their comment sections to deliberately troll; they were also frequently discussing delicate topics such as rape. Comment moderation of some kind or other was thus a fairly universal practice, and the conflation of "free speech" with being against comment moderation contributed to a decline in appreciation for the (broad, non-first-amendment version of the) concept.

  2. The devil's advocate. When someone says they are "playing devil's advocate," they're often asking people to debate them as an exercise without holding them responsible for any moral repugnance inherent in what they are suggesting. Feminists got tired of being asked to calmly refute ideas that they considered personally painful and morally unsupportable. They noted/claimed that there was often an inherent imbalance in who was being asked to "remain calm" while hearing something deeply threatening to them on a personal level.

  3. Tone policing. When speaking about an emotionally resonant subject, being asked to speak calmly can mean censoring yourself. Thus, while the previous two claims are about how liberal norms are too permissive, this one is about how they are too restrictive. Sometimes being visibly angry is the only way to truthfully express yourself. Intersectional feminists also claim that variation in the social norms applied to different groups of people will lead to greater tone restrictions on women (in whom anger is less accepted) and on black people (in whom anger is seen as more threatening).

  4. The ban on "emotion." If I may quote myself: "Disallowing "emotion" favours noncontroversial emotions over controversial ones, since noncontroversial emotions do not need to be vividly expressed in order to be understood and taken as meaningful." Feminists tend to believe that typically male emotions are accepted, where female ones are not, and thus that they will be disadvantaged as women under such a rule. Intersectional feminists take it further, and suggest that upper-class white male emotions are likely to be the noncontroversial, accepted ones that have weight without needing to actually be expressed strongly -- and which are therefore likely to carry the day under liberal "rules of debate."

I am personally very sympathetic to most of these critiques. Unfortunately, I don't think the most common solutions on offer actually lead to better outcomes overall. Nevertheless, my explanation of the trend that you identify would be that these liberal norms fell out of fashion because they genuinely were flawed, and that bringing them back will require re-working them to take some of these critiques into account while also preserving what was important about them.

In one sense these critiques have some merit, but in another sense they were broadly deployed in a way that was effectively "men are assumed to be wrong by default and aren't allowed to respond in their own defense," and that applies to every other category they were used on. Subsequently they were also used very hypocritically - stuff like "eliminate whiteness" was normalized in prestigious publications even though saying that about any other race would rightfully be perceived as a threat.

It basically just nosedived straight into tribalism; as a result, I don't think we can treat these discussion norms as legitimate, at least not until they're applied more fairly to humans generally rather than based on identity groups. We need a show of good faith that that's something that the left-wing can realistically achieve, rather than the natural slide downhill of this kind of norm that we would usually expect.

Yeah, I come down somewhere similar. It's not that there's nothing good about these critiques, it's that the solutions currently being deployed are far too tribalist to support proper discussion between people who seriously disagree.

None of these points is unique to feminism. If the reaction of "discarding all concern for fairness, reason, logic and impartiality" is unique to feminism, then that suggests a problem with the feminist movement.

  1. Have you ever looked at, say, rightwing twitter? The responses from progressives are remarkably devoid of any content beyond bad faith, insults, and sneers. Applying moderation at a level that seems standard for feminist spaces would delete approximately 99.9% of all progressive discourse, depriving us of countless arguments like "No bitches?", "Small dick energy", "Educate yourself!", and endless other three word posts that boil down to "You are stupid!" or "You are bad!"

  2. I think plenty of feminist and leftist positions are morally repugnant; you can't reasonably expect me to be calm about it, or to be responsible for my own emotional states or reactions. Many of these issues are ones that are personally painful and morally insupportable. You are threatening me deeply on a personal level. As such, if you respond to this post, I will interpret it as violence against me. If I wasn't being obvious enough, this is intended as an example of being on the other end of emotional blackmail. But if you reply, I will take is as an admission against feminism.

  3. So when do you validate the anger of non-progressives at the efforts to queer their children? Or is there a category difference, where you expect normal people to be able to control themselves, while giving feminists the general presumption for self-regulation we usually hold for toddlers? For the record, I think this is deeply misogynistic.

  4. Who decides controversial versus non-controversial? This comes off like a trick, to place one side's incoherent rage on the same level as the other side's reasoned argument. It's just the same old intellectually bankrupt monodirectional power dynamics. Have you ever bothered to engage with the possibility that emotionalism is, in fact, a bad thing? There are topics I get emotionally damaged about; I made a post about it a while back. But I understand and accept that my emotionalism on this topics is counter-productive. My feelings are not an argument, not a justification. They are an obstacle to understanding. If banning emotionalism and appeal to emotion and emotional blackmail is harmful to feminists, then maybe feminists don't deserve a place at the adults table.

I don't think the reaction of decreased respect for liberal norms is unique to feminism, actually. Certainly, many centrists seem to complain about illiberalism on the left and right. But feminism is the context that I, personally, can speak to with the greatest amount of personal experience, so that is where I have put my focus in responding.

I do not, as a rule, look at Twitter unless I have to. But of course I take your point that there are also trolls on the left.

If you were genuinely finding this conversation emotionally difficult and wanted to discontinue it, I would let you. I would also not hold it against you, nor consider that to be forfeiting your position. This is because I do think that everybody's emotions are worthy of respect. Yes, that includes when right-wingers get emotional about the possibility that their children might be harmed by the influence of liberal norms.

Have you ever bothered to engage with the possibility that emotionalism is, in fact, a bad thing?

Of course. I'm very interested in this topic. I don't believe in the existence of a single set of discussion norms that will work for every group of people on every subject, and I think that disallowing "emotion" really does disallow certain sets of facts about how people feel. Emotions matter. Sweeping them aside can be counterproductive, sometimes.

However, I do appreciate that sometimes a ban on "emotion" is a genuine attempt to lower the temperature of a discussion so that people with very different views can actually hear each other, instead of just shouting past each other. Whilst I prefer a co-operative appreciation for the emotions of both sides to a terse ban on all emotional acknowledgment, I realise that different norms can be a benefit in themselves, and thus that in some contexts a ban on "emotion" may still be a useful tool.

I am personally very sympathetic to most of these critiques.

I am not. I am quite familiar with most of these debates. To me, the position you describe seems to stem from a desire to declare one's arguments unassailable via fiat rather than testing their merit through open discourse. The first few items listed by that article you linked are rather telling here:

It’s with very real regret that we must inform you that your petition to play devil’s advocate has been denied. (...) We would like to commend you for the excellent work you have done in the past year arguing for positions you have no real interest or stake in promoting, including:

  • Affirmative Action: Who’s the Real Minority Here?
  • Maybe Men Score Better In Math For A Reason
  • Well, They Don’t Have To Live Here
  • I Think You’re Taking This Too Personally
  • Would It Be So Bad If They Did Die?
  • If You Could Just Try To See It Objectively, Like Me

The same is further evidenced by the fact that even the mildest and most factual critiques are banned on sight in feminist spaces, or how "sea-lioning" became a buzzword. We also see this when we look at why feminists flame out of discussion spaces like this one, where the biggest complaint almost invariably is that the powers that be do not sufficiently intervene to tilt the playing field in their favour.

It might very well be that women in general and feminists in particular have a harder time presenting their arguments in a calm and collected fashion. But that is not because the onus on them is particularly strict. It's because the most useful weapons in their rhetorical arsenal are emotional blackmail and performative pearl-clutching (i.e. un-personing the interlocutor as morally repugnant for the crime of disagreeing).

Intersectional feminists take it further, and suggest that upper-class white male emotions are likely to be the noncontroversial, accepted ones that have weight without needing to actually be expressed strongly -- and which are therefore likely to carry the day under liberal "rules of debate.

This is simply wrong if you look at the complete and total monopolisation of victimhood on behalf of women. Compare, e.g. how much societal ressources we spent on topics such as "How do we get more women into C-suites" vs. "Why are there so many male suicides?"