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Deadly speech

Eric Posner proposes a way to stop terrorism:

[T]here is something we can do to protect people like Amin from being infected by the ISIS virus by propagandists, many of whom are anonymous and most of whom live in foreign countries. Consider a law that makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions. Such a law would be directed at people like Amin: naïve people, rather than sophisticated terrorists, who are initially driven by curiosity to research ISIS on the Web.

It’s important to note that the “ISIS virus” he mentions is not actually a virus, but apparently consists in text on a screen. Nevertheless, folks are to be “protected”, being incapable of ever acting contrary to what they read. In a similar connection, you’ll note the profound numbers of folks who become card-carrying Nazis upon reading Mein Kampf, Hitler’s views on social Darwinism and racial superiority being irresistible and profoundly convincing.

Of course, acts of violence in themselves are often a sort of propaganda. So beyond banning unsavory words, we should ban all depictions or accounts of violence. The news shall be reduced even further toward entertainment, but now, it shall have to do with topics of no (as opposed to little) substance. Indeed, anyone who mentions unsavory acts should be summarily executed, for fear of poisoning fragile minds and informing them of their capability to do evil.

(They shall be summarily executed, because any proceeding would entail disclosing their offense, thereby making the account of such violence known. Others may be influenced by such accounts.)

On the other hand, Posner does acknowledge the absurdity of his argument, providing that a privileged few may be capable of rational thought:

One worry about such a law is that it would discourage legitimate ISIS-related research by journalists, academics, private security agencies, and the like. But the law could contain broad exemptions for people who can show that they have a legitimate interest in viewing ISIS websites. Press credentials, a track record of legitimate public commentary on blogs and elsewhere, academic affiliations, employment in a security agency, and the like would serve as adequate proof.

Accordingly, the Soviet intelligentsia is to be re-instituted inside the United States. The cabal’s selectiveness hinges crucially upon our notion of “legitimate interest”. Once, I believed that folks might have a legitimate interest in learning what they do not know, or in reading material published by those who’d like to kill us. However, I now understand that for my own protection, I should suppress my curiosity and mind my own business. I should just leave such matters to experts, and accept my own incompetence. I know not what I do, and I know not what I know.

None of this is without precedence in the United States. As Posner notes:

[Before the 1960s], people could be punished for engaging in dangerous speech. The U.S. government prosecuted Nazi sympathizers during World War II, draft protesters during World War I, and Southern sympathizers in the Union during the Civil War. It’s common sense that when a country is embroiled in a war, it should counter propaganda that could populate a third column with recruits. The pattern in American history—and, in the other democracies as well, even today—is that during times of national emergency, certain limits on speech will be tolerated.

Ah, the glory days where one could be prosecuted for sentiment!

Of course, all this word-banning is something that Posner would like to see in other areas outside of terrorism. Take universities for example. Posner celebrates recent accomplishments in ridding campuses of unpleasant words. According to him:

[T]he justification for these policies may lie hidden in plain sight: that students are children. Not in terms of age, but in terms of maturity. Even in college, they must be protected like children while being prepared to be adults.

Again, certain folks are understood to be incapable of rational thought. Posner, on the other hand, was always ordained with basic human capacities.

Indeed, others may even be unable to acquire such (innate) capacities:

It’s not just that sincere expressions of opinion about same-sex marriage or campaign finance reform are out of place in chemistry and math class. They are out of place even in philosophy and politics classes, where the goal is to educate students (usually about academic texts and theories), not to listen to them spout off. And while professors sometimes believe there is pedagogical value in allowing students to express their political opinions in the context of some text, professors (or at least, good professors) carefully manipulate their students so that the discussion serves pedagogical ends.

Teacher as propagandist; student as empty vessel to be filled with water. The Enlightenment be damned. And here, I thought I studied at one of the world’s preeminent philosophy departments where open discussion was our primary means of learning.

Indeed, human stupidity goes beyond words, leading up to actions, and knows no bounds whatever:

Youngsters do dumb things. They suffer from lack of impulse control. They fail to say no to a sexual encounter they do not want, or they misinterpret a no as yes, or in public debate they undermine their own arguments by being needlessly offensive.

Thus, in addition to prohibiting speech, we ought to excuse rapists. The common thread being, you see, that it takes consciousness to regulate one’s actions. And students — and probably others — lack it. Accordingly, to punish a rapist is to punish a person who couldn’t not rape. Something about their élan vital or élan rape perhaps. Enlightening.

Thankfully, I don’t think many people would agree with Posner on these principles. Not in the abstract. However, it seems to me that a growing number of people do believe they have certain rights, such as the right to not hear offensive or batshit-crazy ideas and words. Or the fear that a sizable group — of which they are invariably too intelligent to be a member — are swayed by mere rhetoric. In so doing, they implicitly believe that we all lack the right to espouse offensive or batshit-crazy ideas and words, or that only they reserve such a right.

Problem is, what is considered offensive and/or batshit-crazy is clearly very reactive to the times. So, at some time, suggesting a person of a different complexion might be human would have been considered “offensive”. And in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War, it was assuredly offensive to many people to propose that the United States might be anything other than an angelic force for good in the Middle East.

More crucially, even if a given view is considered offensive as a matter of fact, there are still plenty of good reasons to permit the expression of such a view. For one thing, I personally find my disdain for the Ku Klux Klan to be reinforced when they march about in their silly little robes and histrionic headgear. Hitler comes off as a blood-crazed sociopath in his speeches, which is fitting, given his status as a blood-crazed sociopath. And sexists — well, they never do sound quite as sexist as when they are spouting off sexist notions.

One of the great virtues of free speech is that you get to know who you’re surrounded by. Are you surrounded by aspiring serial killers? Astrologists? Folks like Eric Posner?

You see, it’s because of free speech that I can avoid these people. Without it, I should fear that I’m always surrounded by repressed Eric Posners who seek to kill people solely on the basis of their moon sign.

Paying authors by the page

Amazon will soon be paying authors that offer their books on Kindle Unlimited or in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library based on the number of pages that are actually read, rather than by the number of times their books are borrowed.

As Peter Wayner of the Atlantic notes, the policy may affect the content of the books offered:

For the many authors who publish directly through Amazon, the new model could warp the priorities of writing: A system with per-page payouts is a system that rewards cliffhangers and mysteries across all genres. It rewards anything that keeps people hooked, even if that means putting less of an emphasis on nuance and complexity.

The trouble here is that “cliffhangers and mysteries” are not suitable in every genre. Moreover, there are certain kinds of books — reference materials being an example — that will be doubly affected, as such material isn’t ordinarily to be read in full.

Consider also that non-fiction books that make extensive use of citations and resource materials may also be adversely affected, as readers commonly do not read such material, but for those that do they are often indispensable.

Apart from how books themselves may change, there is also reason to question the fairness of this program. While authors’ income will depend upon the “use” of their “product”, one wouldn’t expect — for example — appliance manufacturers to receive payment according to how often their products are actually used. Part of the reason involves the cost of materials, but it’s troubling to see abstract or intellectual works further devalued over material goods.

It’s also foreseeable that the author who writes more challenging material, and spends more time and energy doing so, will be rewarded less than the author who quickly churns out potboilers, self-help guides, and other work that’s both written and read with relative ease.

Our understanding of human nature

Noam Chomsky on our implicit understanding of human nature1:

[A]ny stance that one takes with regard to social issues … assuming that it has any moral basis at all and is not simply based on personal self-interest, is ultimately based on some conception of human nature. That is, if you suggest things should be reformed in this or that fashion and there’s a moral basis for it, you are in effect saying: “Human beings are so constituted that this change is to their benefit. It somehow relates to their essential human needs.”

The underlying concept of human nature is rarely articulated. It’s more or less passive and implicit and nobody thinks about it very much. But if the study of humans were ever to reach the point of a discipline with significant intellectual content (and we’re very far from this), this concept would have to be understood and articulated.

If we search our souls we find that we do have a concept, and it’s probably based on some ideas about the underlying and essential human need for freedom from external arbitrary constraints and controls, a concept of human dignity which would regard it as an infringement of fundamental human rights to be enslaved, owned by others, in my view even to be rented by others, as in capitalist societies, and so on.

  1. From Language and Politics, 2004.

You can drink on your porch

In a moment of clarity — or pronouncing the obvious — the Iowa Supreme Court overturns a lower court decision, and affirms one’s right to drink on their porch:

If the front stairs of a family home were always considered a public place, it would create “absurd results” and make it a “crime to sit there calmly on a breezy summer day and sip a mojito” or even grill with “bourbon-infused barbecue sauce”.

Thanks to Boing Boing.

Delinquent lemonade peddlers

A local station in East Texas reports that cops have put a child’s lemonade stand out of business. The seven-year-old delinquent is still trying to peddle her contraband:

We had kettle corn and lemonade. The lemonade was for 50 cents and the kettle corn was a dollar, but if you got both it was a dollar.

Of course, her mother is standing by the miscreant daughter:

A code enforcement officer and the chief, she called me to the side and said we needed a permit […] I think that’s ridiculous. I think they’re 7 and 8 and they’re just trying to make money for their own cause.

Chief Clyde Carter, who earned the worst score in the Milgram experiment, defends the police action:

It is a lemonade stand but they also have a permit that they are required to get. […] We have to follow by the state health guidelines. They have to have a permit if they’re going to do the lemonade stands.

As does the erudite drudge, Matt Novak, who helpfully points out that people contracted polio from a lemonade stand once eighty fucking years ago1:

I did a quick search through newspaper archives and found examples of lemonade stands getting shut down as early as the 1960s. There was even one case in the 1940s where a young girl was giving the whole neighborhood polio by the cup. Caveat emptor, amirite kids?

I’m not saying that you’re going to get polio if you buy lemonade from kids in your neighborhood, but you’re probably going to get polio if you buy lemonade from kids in your neighborhood.

True to Gawker style, he concludes that you shouldn’t really care too much because “[e]verything’s always been bad”, and anyway fashionable cynicism is more fun than thinking about stuff, a deeply profound argument that is not literally meaningless. He also manages to incorporate the illuminating Thanks Obama! doubly-ironic apology, helpfully defending someone who hasn’t killed that many people from a charge that virtually no one ever made.

  1. Linking to Gawker is about as bad as unpasteurized juice, so no.

In defense of pasteurization

I recently purchased a bottle of juice from Whole Foods, only to begin vomiting profusely several hours after drinking it. The juice, it turns out, was not pasteurized.

At first, I imagined that I had somehow found myself transported to an earlier century, where we lacked knowledge of the benefits of pasteurization, but the fact that my surroundings remained in full color disproved this hypothesis.

I then imagined that some catastrophic event had occurred and that fire itself could no longer be conjured. I ruled out this possibility once I successfully burned myself on a candle, which proved a useful distraction from the greater pain of discovering that my juice was left unpasteurized intentionally, and that this is evidently not a felony.

It turns out that there are people who prefer non-pasteurized beverages, and that I know (and even like) some of these people! I am unsure why they have such peculiar and masochistic preferences, but it appears that some people prefer non-pasteurized beverages because they supposedly taste better or because they contain certain nutrients that would otherwise be destroyed in the process of pasteurization.

Perhaps my tastes are unsophisticated, but it seems that pursuing a marginally better tasting juice at the cost of unnecessarily exposing oneself to a wealth of pathogens is ill-advised. Similarly, a minor nutritional benefit that may be obtained by drinking non-pasteurized beverages would seem somewhat outweighed by the mass presence of said pathogens.

I can only conclude, therefore, that those who prefer non-pasteurized beverages either actively enjoy pathogens, or live their lives in pursuit of taste and vitamins above all else. Perhaps more charitably, I can conclude they doubt the existence of pathogens altogether, and therefore believe pasteurization can have no beneficial effect, a position that is consistent if nothing else.

For my own part, I’ll keep to pasteurized beverages, which I generally enjoy, on the naïve assumptions that pathogens exist, that vomiting is undesirable, and that things originating from soil or teats are not always ready for consumption.

This post is dedicated to Louis Pasteur in the hope that wherever he is, he does not regret having saved lives with his superfluous process.

The Herd of Independent Minds

From Harold Rosenberg’s essay, The Herd of Independent Minds (1948):

The mass-culture maker, who takes his start from the experience of others, is essentially a reflector of myths, and is without experience to communicate. To him man is an object seen from the outside. Indeed it could be demonstrated that the modern mass-culture élite […] actually has less experience than the rest of humanity, less even than the consumers of its products.

To the professional of mass culture, knowledge is the knowledge of what is going on in other people; he alone trades his experience for the experience of experience. Everyone has met those culture-conscious “responsibles” who think a book or movie or magazine wonderful not because it illuminates or pleases them but because it tells “the people” what they “ought to know.”

I think the principle here extends beyond the mass-culture maker to include many mass-culture consumers. It’s a common sport to talk about what “the masses” think, feel, or do — often to the exclusion of what one’s self thinks, feels, or does.

Self-censorship and social media

Everyone has an experience of not saying what’s on their mind. We censor ourselves when we praise a friend’s terrible cooking, and also when we remain silent on matters of social injustice. Some people believe self-censorship to be in itself roughly neutral, having both positive and negative uses. On the other hand, I think it’s usually quite negative and should be exercised sparingly, only where telling the truth would have a harmful consequence, and where the underlying issue is trivial.

A couple of recent studies1 examined how self-censorship manifests itself in social media. The results aren’t very surprising: About 70% of Facebook users censor themselves. (We might imagine that the study’s methods are insufficiently precise to register the remaining users’ tendencies.)

Self-censorship appears most prevalent in cases where the user’s audience is broad or vague. For example, a person may be less likely to share radical political beliefs if they fear that their conservative uncle will stumble upon the post. The studies advocate relieving such worries by allowing users to more precisely target their speech.

It seems a very strange tack, if the goal is to alleviate harmful self-censorship. If self-censorship involves crafting some persona for social approval, this approach only seems to encourage people to construct ever more elaborate personae for the praise of ever narrower circles.

There is an alternative. The studies seem to assume the existence of the audience as a salient fact. When you compose a post, it’s assumed that you’re considering that it will be read by someone or some audience. This assumption seems harmless enough, and it’s probably fair in an environment so saturated by likes, comments, and pictures of your friends. However, there are kinds of social media where the existence of an audience is not very salient.

As I write this, I’m only reminded of an audience by consciously and deliberately thinking of that audience. Their faces aren’t plastered all over the place, and if I’m not preoccupied with my site’s stats, I could plausibly deny to myself that I have any audience at all.

Even if I accept that I have some audience, my audience here would seem to demonstrate some interest in what I have to say, as they must be somewhat more deliberate about finding these words at all. If I wrote this on Facebook, my audience would practically be forced to read what I say. As such, I can feel a bit more comfortable about sharing my actual self here, as it seems something my entirely hypothetical audience (you understand) just might want.

And here lies, as far as I’m concerned, the beauty of weblogs and blogging. The weblog carries with it hardly any more assumptions than paper. You’re completely free to turn it into what you like: A socially aware Facebook analogue, or a plausibly private and only incidentally public notebook. Or anything in between.

It’s part of social and antisocial media alike, and Facebook could learn a thing or two from this.

The ritual performance of democracy

From Lewis H. Lapham’s Feast of Fools, a fiery and honest essay on the “ritual performance of the legend of democracy”:

On political campaigns:

They stay on message with their parsing of democracy as the ancient Greek name for the American Express card, picturing the great, good American place as a Florida resort hotel wherein all present receive the privileges and comforts owed to their status as valued customers, invited to convert the practice of citizenship into the art of shopping, to select wisely from the campaign advertisements, texting A for Yes, B for No.

On faux-dissent:

The cable-news networks meanwhile package dissent as tabloid entertainment, a commodity so clearly labeled as pasteurized ideology that it is rendered harmless and threatens nobody with the awful prospect of having to learn something they didn’t already know. Comedians on the order of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher respond with jokes offered as consolation prizes for the acceptance of things as they are and the loss of hope in things as they might become. As soporifics, not, God forbid, as incitements to revolution or the setting up of guillotines in Yankee Stadium and the Staples Center.

On the most expensive dramatic productions ever:

Happily, at least for the moment, the society is rich enough to afford the staging of the fiction of democracy as a means of quieting the suspicions of a potentially riotous mob with the telling of a fairy tale. The rising cost of the production—the pointless nominating conventions decorated with 15,000 journalists as backdrop for the 150,000 balloons reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact. The country is being asked to vote in November for television commercials because only in the fanciful time-zone of a television commercial can the American democracy still be said to exist.

In defense of messiness

One of my favorite pastimes is to sift through the bowels of the Psychology Today archive and to debate the authors of select articles in my head.

The latest is one Dr. Pickhardt who wrote a charming, little piece entitled, The Messy Room: Symbol of the Adolescent Age. Perhaps more intriguing however is the ominous subtitle of Pickhardt’s screed: “The messy room is a small problem with big implications.”

Big implications, indeed. The essay begins with a messy room and ends with a caricature of some depressive teenager that presumably subsists on drugs and sex. The teenager is a caricature for obvious reasons, but must be so as Pickhardt’s essay is more suggestive than persuasive. Concerned parents are supposed to undergo a kind of gestalt shift where they forget they’re reading an article at all, but only bask in the glow of their own worst fears validated.

Alternative explanations for a child’s messiness are totally unexplored; we’re instead treated to what amounts to no more than the authoritarian parent’s folk wisdom on parenting. Such morsels include:

  • “By insisting on regular room clean up, you let it be known that your child must live on your terms so long as he or she is dependent on your care. She can live on independent terms when she is out on her own.”
  • “If your child knows you will keep after the small responsibilities, like cleaning up a messy room, he or she also knows this shows you will be keeping after big stuff like obedience to major rules.”
  • “The only thing you can’t understand is why your teenager left incriminating evidence so easily found.  The answer usually is that the she was desperate to be found out, but lacked courage to tell you directly.”
  • “Privacy remains a privilege, not a right.  So long as that freedom is exercised within the limits of mutually agreed upon responsibility, you will respect that right.” (Where “mutually” can only be understood euphemistically.)

None of these axioms are self-evident, despite their presentation as such, and couldn’t even be imagined to apply to the adults that enforce them. But they’re easy enough to enforce upon dependents, and for this reason alone, many parents would believe them true and their enforcement virtuous.

I wouldn’t claim to have any special advice for parents, but I don’t think these kinds of edicts can produce balanced human beings. What I can do, however, is provide some defense of messiness.

1. Messy people are messy because they do not anthropomorphize rooms.

Messy people do not believe in the intrinsic wisdom of rooms or workspaces. Unlike others, they appreciate that rooms are only a first approximation of utility. The kitchen is a place for cooking, but it is also a place for the Sunday crossword puzzle. The living room is a place for relaxation, but it’s also a place for nibbling. The bedroom is a place for sleeping, but many people also read there.

2. Messy people are messy because they do not force nature to conform to the unnatural.

It is only natural that the items one uses will collect in the places where they are likely to be used, and so perhaps the hot sauce on the living room coffee table might not be so heretical after all. Rather it could be seen as an opportunity for some enterprising person to devise some kind of holster that might allow the condiment to blend in with its more appropriate surroundings.


  • Ten books on a nightstand is really no offense if one is a bibliomaniac.
  • A bottle of Hendrick’s Gin at the foot of one’s bed can only be seen as convenient if one finds their sleep intermittent and superficial.
  • Everything conceivable belongs on a desk because it is the place where the modern person spends their entire life.

3. Messy people are messy because they are honest.

Messy people are considered a nuisance because they remind us of how we differ from one another. The person who likes to write while sitting on the couch can only sing the praises of a person who likes to keep all of their stationery on the end table. The person who confines such matters to the desk, on the other hand, has only contempt.

Can the messy and the tidy coexist?

The solution to all this is simple. The bedroom must become a miniature of the modern house with its own kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom. Current kitchens and living rooms can be repurposed as neutral territories containing nothing more than a few steel chairs and a furnace that automatically incinerates any foreign items that are abandoned for more than a few minutes.

Only then can there be domestic peace.