Thursday, August 17, 2017

There Is a Line

I don't know about you, but I've been thinking a lot lately about the ACLU's defense of the "Unite the Right" march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the general argument that tolerant people need to be tolerant of intolerance...that more speech is always better, no matter what it is.

My perspective (which I've touched on before) can be summarized in this illustration of philosopher Karl Popper's thoughts on the subject:

All of this thinking has reminded me of a section of Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature that I didn't manage to quote in my many posts about the book back in late 2011. In the chapter called Inner Demons, Pinker discusses the work of sociologist James Payne, who

documented a common sequence in the takeover of Germany, Italy, and Japan by fascist ideologies in the 20th century. In each case a small group of fanatics embraced a "naive, vigorous ideology that justifies extreme measures, including violence, recruited gangs of thugs willing to carry out the violence, and intimidated growing segments of the rest of the population into acquiescence (page 563).
Pinker combines that with the work of Michael Macy, et al., who explored the "Emperor's New Clothes" moment and the madness of crowds, which Pinker refers to as pluralistic ignorance. The necessary ingredient to keep it together is enforcement of the ignorance. In this scenario,
People not only avow a preposterous belief that they think everyone else avows, but they punish those who fail to avow it, largely out of the belief—also false—that everyone else wants it enforced. Macy and his colleagues speculate that false conformity and false enforcement can reinforce each other, creating a vicious circle that can entrap a population into an ideology that few of them accept individually (page 562).
In Macy's computer simulations of a society, there were
true believers, who always comply with a norm and denounce noncompliant neighbors if they grow too numerous. And there were private but pusillanimous skeptics, who comply with a norm if a few of their neighbors are enforcing it, and enforce the norm themselves if a lot of their neighbors are enforcing it. If these skeptics aren't bullied into conforming, they can go the other way and enforce skepticism among their conforming neighbors. Macy...found that unpopular norms can become entrenched in some, but not all, patterns of social connectedness. If the true believers are scattered throughout the population and everyone can interact with everyone else, the population is immune to being taken over by an unpopular belief. But if the true believers are clustered within a neighborhood, they can enforce the norm among their more skeptical neighbors, who, overestimating the degree of compliance around them and eager to prove that they they do not deserve to be sanctioned, enforce the norm against each other and against their neighbors. This can set off cascades of false compliance and false enforcement that saturate the entire society (page 563, emphasis added).
If those clustered true believers sound a bit like Trump supporters in red states... that may not be a coincidence. And the creation of online communities of white supremacists and "men's rights activists" has probably helped to create virtual versions of Macy's neighborhoods.

Disrupting this enforcement of ideology and refusing to go along with pluralistic ignorance is our duty. It is not tolerance to be tolerant of intolerance. As Son of Baldwin put it, "We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist."


Here's the list of my other posts about The Better Angels of Our Nature, all from November 2011 except the last one:

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

I saw the NYT article about the ACLU right before your post. Not one of their many, many e-mails has mentioned the organization’s part in events in Charlottesville.