Little Judgment Machines

LAST EDITED APR 2, 2016

OK, cards on the table: I sense an overshoot in where the academic left is going with speech codes and safe spaces. Many do. Freddie deBoer has been on this beat for a while. His blog, which I finally got around to subscribing to, is great. In categorically imperative he draws several timely examples together to make the following point:

The basis of morality is discrimination — the ability to assess the evidence of a particular claim to offense or harm, apply your best moral reasoning, and arrive at a personal judgment about the truth or falsehood of the claim. There is no way for either an individual or a society to proceed with the work of life if they are not empowered to say to some “this claim of harm is legitimate and we must act accordingly” and to others “this claim of harm is not legitimate and we will not undertake the action you demand.” In a democracy, it’s politically suicidal to ask people to set aside their right to sort different claims of offense and call some true and some untrue.

In particular he calls out “critics of the critics” of a handful of Emory students who tried to convince university officials to identify and punish a Trump sidewalk chalker on campus; then he goes after the News Genius sub-controversy about whether people should be given a platform to annotate public writings without the writer’s permission (which sounds to my ears like asking whether the Internet should exist).

I agree that cases like these are evidence of overshoot. They disturb me. But I’m more worried about being wrong than about the dangers of such an overshoot crushing dissent or foreclosing public spaces if I’m right. Which is why the note of alarm deBoer ends on feels iffy to me:

There are other ways, and every day I see more people who are willing to insist that this way isn’t working and who are dedicated to building something better. I only hope that we can do so in time, before the silent majority builds a backlash the likes of which we’ve never seen.

A loud, radical minority is never safe from backlash. Wouldn’t that be a huge worry even if the academic left were perfect in its internal calibration of the politics of harm? If the actions of those who usually hold up We Are the Silent Majority signs tell us anything, protecting the broad plurality of ideas isn’t their main hangup. Anti-political-correctness, yes, but that’s less about freedom of expression than disgust at the material progress of other groups. Ask them if being called racist makes them fonder of the First Amendment or the Second.

My favourite sentence of deBoer’s whole post is “We’re little judgment machines.” So true. Humans won’t, shouldn’t, evolve out of that. Only remember that the machinery of moral discrimination can be impaired by a fucked up culture. The core components are especially vulnerable to damage. (Small example from my life: I find my social anxiety disorder is triggered less by people of colour. Like the part of my brain that wants to hide from other people’s interiority is applying a discount. Go nuts with that.)

By now Woke White Male Allies like me should get that white supremacism and patriarchy operate within us as much as in the institutions we may imagine we’re resisting. Of pain unknown to us, we have to be brought around to belief; of systems that invisibly privilege us, we have to be brought around to doubt. Reversing this pair of bugs in our judgment machines involves continual teardown and reassembly. I won’t pretend I have the energy to do that every time I judge an issue. Not even most times.

As a heuristic, it helps to think about issues of harm by, before anything else, listening to marginalized groups and believing the preponderance of experiences they describe. Then get down to claims and remedies. This second part will sometimes crash headlong into the first, as any ‘believe first’ rule applied too systematically will be exploited in all the ways deBoer points out. It has to take place at the level of one person thinking about problems. Even then it’s a pretty loaded heuristic: belief is personal, and marginalized groups are many and changing, not to mention contested. (If you want to see categories like “elite” and “marginalized” living in the same person, go to a university campus and look anywhere.) But there it is. Listen and believe first, reason second. An act of resistance, useful not for affective reasons but effective ones.

If a rule like that were etched into every glass conference room in Silicon Valley, I think we’d be a lot closer to having real anti-abuse software that lets people besides white men converse as publicly as they want to without having their attention ripped away by the worst behaviour on the Internet. Yes, there would still be plenty of grey areas, plenty of hurt feelings, and plenty of fevered egos abusing the anti-abuse tools to indulge their tendency to shame, litigate and censor — but that’s the crucible software is going to have to go through if it wants to keep eating the world.

Maybe there’s an intellectual reparations case to be made here. Tempering the human need to judge means giving up something you thought was yours. To get progress, you have to go some of the way towards the feared place where claims of harm are judged categorically and intolerant progressive monocultures stalk the earth. “Other ways” folks should speak up when the politics of harm and offense eats itself, as it will, but they should make sure the alternatives they supply are actual tools for change, not intransigence.

As for campuses, they’re places where ideas meet, so freedom of expression needs better advocates there. Campuses are something else, though: experimental zones of self sorting and group governance. It isn’t necessarily counterproductive for coalitions of groups to try radical experiments. Being big and pluralistic doesn’t mean campuses need to model democracy in everything they try. Same goes for Internet communities, really. News Genius is one platform among many with decisions to make about what norms it will legislate into code.

Freddie deBoer’s post is heavy with despair at the hardening of the two camps in this discussion, and I guess I can’t blame him. I can only caution against further driving apart the camps by imagining them as morally discriminating free thinkers vs. categorical conformists. Trouble lies that way. Asked in a recent podcast what he’d do if he were in charge of admissions at Yale, Jonathan Haidt said this:

That should be the top diversity issue, is intellectual diversity. I would stop admitting for social justice cred, in other words, if you say, “Oh, I started this protest group, and we got this overturned.”

Basically I think a lot of students know is the way to get into a top school is show your social justice activism. Well, top schools are now full of social justice activists, and they’re no longer places where people can say anything that contradicts the social justice activists. What’s that old joke? “Doctor, it hurts when I do this. Well, stop doing this.” They should stop admitting social justice warriors and start admitting people [who’ve] got the guts to disagree.

Let that sink in. Haidt wants one brand of anti-orthodoxy elevated above all other diversity criteria. He is using the feared place to argue for, in effect, reverse affirmative action. Those of us in the “other ways” camp might protest that Haidt is only a misleading caricature of our reaction, not an inevitable place it leads. The same is probably true of the worst instances of the other camp’s thinking we see: they’re unhelpful noise in a long argument worth having. And hopefully one that’s far from settled.