The Forces of Blandness and the Disagreeable Majority

Link post

There are a few data points that have been mak­ing me see “the dis­course” differ­ently lately.

1. Large Ma­jori­ties Dis­like Poli­ti­cal Cor­rect­ness.

That’s the ti­tle of this At­lantic ar­ti­cle that came out in Oc­to­ber, and is based on this study from the think tank More in Com­mon which op­poses poli­ti­cal po­lariza­tion.

The re­sults of the 8000-per­son poll of a na­tion­ally-rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of Amer­i­cans are pretty strik­ing. About 80% of Amer­i­cans think “poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness is a prob­lem”; and even when you re­strict to self-iden­ti­fied liber­als, Democrats, or peo­ple of color, large ma­jori­ties agree with the state­ment. The study iden­ti­fies “pro­gres­sive ac­tivists” (8% of Amer­i­cans) as a younger, more ex­treme, more ed­u­cated, more poli­ti­cally ac­tive left-wing cluster, and even within this cluster, a full 25% agree with “poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness is a prob­lem.”

And lots of peo­ple who agree with state­ments about hate speech be­ing bad, white peo­ple start­ing out with ad­van­tages in life, sex­ual ha­rass­ment be­ing a prob­lem, etc, also think poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness is a prob­lem.

Be­ing “poli­ti­cally in­cor­rect” isn’t just a white thing, a male thing, or even a con­ser­va­tive thing. It’s a hugely com­mon thing.

2. Sup­port for free speech is com­mon, and grow­ing, not shrink­ing. And it’s not the most left-wing peo­ple who most op­pose free speech, but the mod­er­ate liber­als.

Poli­ti­cal sci­en­tist Justin Mur­phy has done stud­ies about this, based on the Gen­eral So­cial Sur­vey, a large poll on so­cial at­ti­tudes that’s been run­ning for decades.

Since the 1970’s, Amer­i­cans have be­come more tol­er­ant of al­low­ing peo­ple with con­tro­ver­sial views to speak in pub­lic — com­mu­nists, peo­ple propos­ing mil­i­tary coups, ho­mo­sex­u­als, and op­po­nents of “all churches and re­li­gions.” Racism is the ex­cep­tion to the rule — peo­ple haven’t be­come more tol­er­ant of racist speech, even as they have be­come more tol­er­ant of other va­ri­eties of speech.

Keep in mind that le­gal cen­sor­ship and cen­tral­iza­tion of poli­ti­cal speech were way more preva­lent in mid-20th cen­tury Amer­ica than they are to­day. Cable tele­vi­sion net­works didn’t ex­ist till the 1970’s. The Fair­ness Doc­trine didn’t end un­til 1987. Satel­lite ra­dio, which al­lowed ob­scene lan­guage that was reg­u­lated on con­ven­tional ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, only be­gan in 1988, Fox News was founded in 1996, and, of course, the blo­go­sphere didn’t re­ally be­gin un­til the early 2000’s.

Mur­phy notes that “ex­treme liber­als” are con­sis­tently the most sup­port­ive of per­mit­ting con­tro­ver­sial speech, and that in fact they have in­creased their rates of tol­er­at­ing even racist speech. Peo­ple who rate them­selves as “mod­er­ately liberal” and “slightly liberal”, how­ever, have sharply de­clined in their will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate racist speech. If there’s been a “back­lash against free speech”, it’s on the mod­er­ate left, not the far left.

3. Calls for speech re­stric­tions of­ten come from mod­er­ates.

Things like this es­say by Re­nee diResta, which I found chilling — a call for so­cial me­dia to be ac­tively reg­u­lated by the US mil­i­tary, which says we should treat peo­ple spread­ing opinions that weaken trust in “the le­gi­t­i­macy of gov­ern­ment, the per­sis­tence of so­cietal co­he­sion, even our abil­ity to re­spond to the im­pend­ing cli­mate crisis” as “digi­tal com­bat­ants.” DiResta says, “More au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes, by con­trast, would sim­ply turn off the in­ter­net. An ad­mirable com­mit­ment to the prin­ci­ple of free speech in peace time turns into a sucker po­si­tion against ad­ver­sar­ial psy-ops in wartime.”

Who is DiResta? She’s a writer, tech­nol­o­gist, ad­viser to Congress and the State Depart­ment, and the di­rec­tor of re­search at some­thing called New Knowl­edge, a firm offer­ing cor­po­ra­tions a new kind of ser­vice: us­ing al­gorithms to bury so­cial me­dia scan­dals that would make them look bad.

In other words, she’s an in­fluen­tial mod­er­ate; well-con­nected in cor­po­rate and gov­ern­ment wor­lds, and very trou­bled by the crisis of de­clin­ing trust in tra­di­tional in­sti­tu­tions that the open In­ter­net has en­abled.

An Alter­na­tive Paradigm: Moder­ate, Mea­sured Elites vs. The Chaotic, Offen­sive Populace

What if “free speech” vs. “re­stricted speech” isn’t a right-vs.-left thing at all?

Lots of peo­ple, who are by no means all poli­ti­cal con­ser­va­tives, want the right to say offen­sive things.

Ver­bal con­flict just isn’t that big a prob­lem to most peo­ple, ap­par­ently. And how likely you are to vi­o­late vs. ob­serve ver­bal taboos varies a lot based on per­son­al­ity and so­cioe­co­nomic class.

Swear­ing is an in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple of a ver­bal taboo that’s not es­pe­cially poli­ti­cized. So­cially low-rank­ing peo­ple swear more. Swear­ing is nega­tively cor­re­lated with agree­able­ness. Men swear more than women. Swear­ing is com­monly as­so­ci­ated with be­ing work­ing-class, though I haven’t found pub­lished ev­i­dence of this. Swear­ing is “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” in office set­tings, re­li­gious set­tings, or when­ever we’re ex­pected to be for­mal or re­spect­ful.

It’s of­ten cor­po­rate cau­tion that drives speech codes that re­strict poli­ti­cal con­tro­versy, ob­scen­ity, and muck­rak­ing/​whistle­blow­ing. It’s not just racist or far-right opinions that get silenced; me­dia and so­cial-me­dia cor­po­ra­tions worry about offend­ing prudes, ho­mo­phobes, Mus­lim ex­trem­ists, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, the US mil­i­tary, etc, etc.

Some peo­ple clearly do have strong ide­olog­i­cal opinions about what speech they want to see al­lowed vs. banned, but I don’t see that as the main driver of what rules ac­tu­ally get put into place. What I think is go­ing on is that de­ci­sion­mak­ers in me­dia and PR, and cor­po­rate and gov­ern­ment elites gen­er­ally, have a lower tol­er­ance for ver­bal con­flict and taboo vi­o­la­tions than the typ­i­cal in­di­vi­d­ual.

The growth of lots and lots of out­lets for more “un­offi­cial” or “raw” self-ex­pres­sion — blogs, yes, but be­fore that ca­ble TV and satel­lite ra­dio, and long be­fore that, the cul­ture of “jour­nal­ism” in 18th cen­tury Amer­ica where ev­ery guy with a print­ing press could pub­lish a “news­pa­per” full of opinions and scur­rilous in­sults — tends to go along with more rude­ness, more curs­ing, more sex­ual ex­plic­it­ness, more poli­ti­cal ex­trem­ism in all di­rec­tions, more “trashy” or “low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor” me­dia, more mis­in­for­ma­tion and “dumb­ing down”, but also some in­no­va­tive/​in­tel­lec­tual “niche” me­dia.

Chaos is a cen­trifu­gal force; it in­creases the chance of any un­ex­pected out­come. Good things, bad things, ex­is­ten­tial threats, brilli­ant ideas, and a lot of weird, gross, and dis­turb­ing stuff.

Some peo­ple like parts of that (it’s hard to like ev­ery­thing about chaos), and oth­ers find even a lit­tle chaos threat­en­ing. The most pas­sion­ate op­po­nents of chaos are likely to be pow­er­ful, since change can only knock them off their pedestals.

I think we’re cur­rently in an era of un­usu­ally large amounts of free speech that elites are start­ing to get spooked by and defend against. Most peo­ple have high, per­haps even grow­ing, tol­er­ance for con­tro­versy and offense, but some find it un­ac­cept­able, and these peo­ple are dis­pro­por­tionately in­fluen­tial.