Timothy M. Denton

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Why is freedom of speech becoming a conservative concept?

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We are living in an era that combines extreme psychological fragility where people seek the suppression of all opinion that fails to conform to the fragile consensus. Official thought is not just enforced through the state, but through the independent actions of content distribution networks. The censorship is now automated and largely invisible. The censors are proud of their work.

James Damore has sued Google in a class action suit. I know people who accuse Damore of creating a hostile atmosphere through expressing "stereotypes" . A mere glance at the pleadings reveal that Google was carrying on a species of harassment of white males that if carried on against any other conceivable group would have drawn the immediate and hostile attention of the state authorities. The transcript of the pleading is here. The goings-on resemble Mao's Cultural Revolution, but in this case the white males are made to wear the dunce caps in Google's struggle sessions. A short description of the Google situation is found here.

Today we learn of a video of twitter engineers and former staff describing its censorship methods.

  • Steven Pierre, Twitter engineer explains “shadow banning,” says “it’s going to ban a way of talking”
  • Former Twitter software engineer Abhinav Vadrevu on shadow banning: “they just think that no one is engaging with their content, when in reality, no one is seeing it”
  • Former Twitter Content Review Agent Mo Norai explains banning process: “if it was a pro-Trump thing and I’m anti-Trump… I banned his whole account… it’s at your discretion”
  • When asked if banning process was an unwritten rule, Norai adds “Very. A lot of unwritten rules… It was never written it was more said”
  • Olinda Hassan, Policy Manager for Twitter Trust and Safety explains, “we’re trying to ‘down rank’… (word censored by algorithm -ed.)  people to not show up,” “we’re working [that] on right now”
  • “Shadow banning” to be used to stealthily target political views- former Twitter engineer says, “that’s a thing”
  • Censorship of certain political viewpoints to be automated via “machine learning” according to Twitter software engineer
  • Parnay Singh, Twitter Direct Messaging Engineer, on machine learning algorithms, “you have like five thousand keywords to describe a redneck…” “the majority of it are for Republicans”.

The actions of Google and Twitter are symptomatic of a society that is undergoing a crisis of confidence in itself. Under the guise of censoring "hate", the real goal is to shut the ears against the possibility of robust contention by people of whom the censors disapprove  of views that the élites consider undiscussable. Liberal societies (as they call themselves)  seem to be particularly susceptible to this force.

 

Here is an example. A while ago I watched a CBC news show in which there were three spokesmen, the Conservative, Liberal and NDP. The latest advance of the leftist agenda was under discussion, and the reaction of the NDPer (the progressive vanguard) was “we shouldn’t even be discussing this”, repeated twice, emphatically for the suppression of all discussion on the subject.

This seems to be the standard reaction to all matters of political dispute these days. “It has been decided. We have received our orders from the Gramscian central party apparatus. This zone of formerly varied discourse, that zone of reasonably agreed social compromise, is abolished. It is now forbidden to discuss it and if you disagree you are a homophobic/islamophobic/climate change denying/misogynistic/fascist/racist/fill-in-the blank-ist.” With every passing day, less and less that matters to people is available for discussion of any kind. The people enforcing this suppression are proud of what they are doing; they believe that “we shouldn’t even be discussing this”.

Worse, the authorities will outsource the censorship to the large media companies. The Googles and Facebooks of this world will be obliged, under heavy penalties, to enforce speech codes, such as recently been legislated in Germany. That way the censorship will be automated, as much as possible, with a view to escaping the not always reliable review by the courts.

Have you noticed that Canada is now a “settler society”? Have you heard politicians and civil servants announce at the beginning of every speech that we are standing on territory claimed by the Huron/Haudenosee/Ojibway peoples and are conveniently to forget that the Haudenosee (Iroquois Confederation) exterminated the Hurons and the Neutral tribes in the mid-1600s, in a genocide, which was the usual form that tribal wars took. We are also standing on territory claimed by the Kings of France, too, but these have been terminated. Why are we even discussing this? you might ask. Because the goal of this kind of talk is the delegitimization of Canada, just as the goal is the delegitimization of the United States for other reasons, which my American friends will recognize.

“The issue is never the issue, the issue is the Revolution”, said the dark prophet, Saul Alinsky, whose devotee included Barack Obama and on whose writings Hillary Clinton wrote her thesis.

The point of using terms like “settler society” is to delegitimize Canada; it is not, as they claim, to recognize and uplift the downtrodden. The marginal groups of society are there to be used as mascots for the advance of the revolutionary project.

We are socially in an age of excessive compassion. The instinct to make everyone feel good, to be included, to do the right thing by people, is admirable. But distributive fairness is not the only virtue, nor the exclusive good. There is also a need to maintain standards, to assert that 2+2=4 even if some group of people, however identified, can not see the reason why.

One of my intellectual favourites is an American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He has been studying human differences for a long time, and I warmly commend his book  The Righteous Mind, which goes a long way to explaining political differences as outcomes of more fundamental attitudes towards risk, reward, sanctity, disgust, acceptance of change, and so forth. Political differences grow from more fundamental emotional stances, and moreover there are more stances than just procedural fairness and equality of outcomes. In Haidt’s view, the political left has focused exclusively on procedural fairness and equality of outcomes at the expense of other moral foundations, including a sense of sanctity and group loyalty. A good sample of Haidt’s thinking is his Wriston memorial lecture summarized here.

I have also been following Professor Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto. Peterson angered the Left because he refused to use made-up pronouns for the latest false issue, the “transgendered”. As it happened, our little social justice warriors at Laurier University likened the showing of neutral television show about that controversy as if the teaching assistant had shown a film of Hitler without a “trigger warning”. Thus Canada found its latest free speech incident in the official attempt by the university to shame and disgrace the teaching assistant, who emerged from it as a heroine.

To summarize,

1.      In the name of compassion, society seems to be trying to equalize conditions of all peoples, regardless of their past or present accomplishments;

2.      To justify this, the manifest differences of people and peoples must be treated as the results of previous and ongoing oppressions, and not – this is especially forbidden – any innate, biological facts, or cultural practices and beliefs, or lack of appropriate responses on the part of any group, which might tend to cause these conditions. That would be “blaming the victims”;

3.      To make it impossible to discuss these alternative possibilities is the supreme objective of the suppression of speech and thought which we are witnessing.

I expect that the level of repression will rise until it becomes insufferable. The repression is just getting started, and has a good way to go yet. It is being automated and outsourced from the organs of the state to profit-seeking companies.

These reflections on freedom of thought are not yet the common subject of office or dinner conversation, but increasingly when two or three are gathered together they are starting to notice the alarming increase of what have been talking about here. The purpose of all totalitarian ideologies is to make you feel that you are powerless and isolated, and that no one else feels or thinks as you do.

We are all tribal in nature; we belong to little groups and we fight wars with other tribes, as did the Iroquois with the Hurons, or the Athenians with the Spartans. Living in a post-national, multicultural society, as our elites would have us live, is not easily done. The science or art of maintaining a free and democratic society depends on people who are both free and democratic. Yet everywhere I observe that people are being told to shut up and obey, to put their trust in elites who have more knowledge and better values than the people they govern. Everywhere I observe people who believe they know best saying, in effect, “we shouldn’t even be discussing this”.

The result of en education in this thinking is a generation of people called snowflakes, each one precious, unique, fragile, who insist on their right  not to hear or see arguments that undermine their extremely fragile world-view. I used to notice how the immediate post World War II generation raised lots of kids, let them out to play unsupervized from after school until it grew dark, how they smoked and drank too much and treated every day without gunfire aimed at them as a good day. We have gone in three or four generations from people who bested Nazis and the Japanese fanatics in combat to people intolerant of any discussion that might reflect badly on their precious assumptions. Ironic is hardly sufficient to describe it.

My political teacher was Eric Voegelin, an Austrian Catholic refugee from the Nazis. He had a simple but profound view of what totalitarian society was like, having experienced both Nazi and Communist versions. He said: “Everyone is equal, and everyone is unequal. People are equal in interesting and important ways and they are unequal in interesting and important ways. Any society that forgets the truth of either of these two truths will end up in violence”.

All you have to do these days to become a conservative is to defend liberal principles. 

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PS: If you want to see where this is going, I recommend Emmanuel Goldstein's Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, or, for a novelistic treatment of the same themes, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson.  

We are closer to these states of life than we dare to imagine.

 

 

 

 

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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.

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Guest Monday, 22 January 2018
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