Friday, February 22, 2019

The Perils of Trying to Host an Open Discussion about Our Culture Wars

Scott Alexander blogs about controversial topics. When his blog started to get popular he banished all commenting and arguing about these topics from his site and with some friends set up a Reddit thread (r/slatestarcodex) for such discussion; then they peeled off the Culture Wars stuff into a separate thread (r/CW) for people who wanted to argue about things like homosexuality and feminism. And some people have said that these were by far the best actual discussions of this stuff they had ever seen.

Now Alexander has given up on the thread and closed it down, and posted a long explanation of why. A sample:
People settled on a narrative. The Culture War thread was made up entirely of homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis. I freely admit there were people who were against homosexuality in the thread (according to my survey, 13%), people who opposed using trans people’s preferred pronouns (according to my survey, 9%), people who identified as alt-right (7%), and a single person who identified as a neo-Nazi (who as far as I know never posted about it). Less outrageous ideas were proportionally more popular: people who were mostly feminists but thought there were differences between male and female brains, people who supported the fight against racial discrimination but thought could be genetic differences between races. All these people definitely existed, some of them in droves. All of them had the right to speak; sometimes I sympathized with some of their points. If this had been the complaint, I would have admitted to it right away. If the New York Times can’t avoid attracting these people to its comment section, no way r/ssc is going to manage it.

But instead it was always that the the thread was “dominated by” or “only had” or “was an echo chamber for” homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the subreddit was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the SSC community was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that I personally was a homophobic etc neo-Nazi of them all. I am a pro-gay Jew who has dated trans people and votes pretty much straight Democrat. I lost distant family in the Holocaust. You can imagine how much fun this was for me.

People would message me on Twitter to shame me for my Nazism. People who linked my blog on social media would get replies from people “educating” them that they were supporting Nazism, or asking them to justify why they thought it was appropriate to share Nazi sites. I wrote a silly blog post about mathematics and corn-eating. It reached the front page of a math subreddit and got a lot of upvotes. Somebody found it, asked if people knew that the blog post about corn was from a pro-alt-right neo-Nazi site that tolerated racists and sexists. There was a big argument in the comments about whether it should ever be acceptable to link to or read my website. Any further conversation about math and corn was abandoned. This kept happening, to the point where I wouldn’t even read Reddit discussions of my work anymore.

Some people started an article about me on a left-wing wiki that listed the most offensive things I have ever said, and the most offensive things that have ever been said by anyone on the SSC subreddit and CW thread over its three years of activity, all presented in the most damning context possible; it started steadily rising in the Google search results for my name. A subreddit devoted to insulting and mocking me personally and Culture War thread participants in general got started; it now has over 2,000 readers. People started threatening to use my bad reputation to discredit the communities I was in and the causes I cared about most.
So that's why nobody wants to be associated with any actual discussions of controversial topics, and why most people limit their online activity to sites full of people who agree with them about everything. It's just too risky to be in any associated with opinions your allies might find offensive.


G. Verloren said...

By Alexander's own omission, a full 29% of people who responded to his survey held intolerant and bigoted beliefs. That's nearly 1 in 3.

That's more than enough to turn virtually every discussion on a forum into an unpleasant shouting match between the bigoted minority and everyone else.


The fundamental error that Alexander is making here, is that he mistakenly believes all viewpoints are equally valid, and that everyone deserves to have their voice and their message heard. He wants to have an "open discussion" about things which the majority of people feel don't deserve such consideration.

But not all viewpoints are equally valid. Everyone's already heard the salient arguments of Homophobes, Transphobes, and "Alt-Right" individuals. And their arguments simply don't hold water. They are fundamentally hateful, bigoted, destructive, violent viewpoints, and they don't deserve the time of day.

I'm sick and tired of well meaning liberals refusing to draw a line against monstrous behavior out of some misplaced sense of "fairness". We have no obligation to tolerate the intolerant, particularly when it is actively harming people. Rather, we have an obligation to protect the innocent from the intolerant, to draw a line in the sand and defend unoffending victims from their bigoted attackers.

Over and over again, we fall for the ploy of engaging in "open discussion", sitting down and trying to have a reasonable dialogue with fundamentally unreasonable people who are interested only in monologue. And this flaw of ours is not unknown to them - indeed, they recognize it and exploit it. They come to us in bad faith, pretending to want an "open dialogue", knowing full well that we will trip over ourselves to try to give it to them, and that our efforts to accomodate their request will be so distracting that we won't notice them continuing their abhorent behavior on the sly.

There is no rational defense for homophobic, transphobic, and "Alt-Right" philosophies, among others. They have no sound basis in logic. They are not reasonable viewpoints. They are superstition, hysteria, and cruelty writ large. They are fundamentally absurd positions. They are indefensible.

And yet, we insist not just on allowing them chance after chance to defend themselves, but also on going so far as to actually come to their defense ourselves! We tell ourselves that there must be some sort of common ground we can reach, and that we can somehow arrive at a fair compromise that all parties agree to, despite the uncompromising nature of their views. We tell ourselves that we simply haven't worked hard enough to understand these people, and that actually, doesn't that make them the real victims? Surely they wouldn't be so bigoted against innocent people if only we took the time to understand them!

Maybe it's just "legitimite economic concerns" of middle and working class whites that causes them to be intolerant of others! Maybe if we just let the Sudetenland be annexed and the German people be united under one government, then we'll secure peace for our time! Surely we can have an "open discussion" about it, and come to some sort of reasonable compromise? After all, once we made the effort to listen to and understand the argument that the Anschluss was just Germans walking into their own backyard, it all just seemed so reasonable, didn't it? We need more of that!


"With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost." - William Lloyd Garrison

John said...

I emphatically disagree. I think we need a lot more honest discussion of many topics that many people I know would simply never say a word about in public, lest they be seen as offensively intolerant. For example, should life-altering drugs be given to trans 12-year-olds? Should people with penises be allowed to dress in girls' locker rooms? What level of immigration should we support, and from which places? What weight should we give to family connections vs. skills? How would you define a refugee? What should we do about people who enter the country illegally? Why do so many women hate "feminism" and refuse to support it, and what might we do to win their support for non-patriarchal candidates?

I refuse to accept that "because people are racist and homophobic" is an explanation of anything. It just makes me ask, "Why are people racist? Why are people homophobic? What is it that they really want? And what might we do about it?"

And here's what I think is the real question: if you refuse to ever hold a discussion with people you disagree with, what is your model of how beliefs and attitudes will ever be changed? I answer that without discussion they will never be changed. If you want a world without racists, you MUST be willing to argue with racists. There is no other way, short of shooting them, and that I will not agree to.

There are probably topics and attitudes that we should not support debating, for example, I'm not for giving platforms to advocates for genocide. But I think many people hold beliefs because they have never in their lives heard an honest debate about them. Consider, for example, whether immigrants cause crime and disorder. If people who support immigration refuse to argue for it, and instead just shout at people who raise such questions and call them racists, that won't change anyone's mind about immigration; it will just make people who hate immigration hate liberals as well. I think the main reason Donald Trump is president is that tens of millions of Americans feel despised and snubbed for what they believe. And as long as we go on despising and snubbing them, we will keep getting leaders like Trump. Doubling down on hating rednecks will only cause them to double down on hating liberals, and so on. We need to climb down from this cliff we have end up on, not climb higher.

David said...


You ask, "Why are people racist? Why are people homophobic? What is it that they really want? And what might we do about it?"

Would you be as willing to extend the same sort of latitudinarian curiosity to SJWs?

Plus, don't a lot of these issues ultimately transcend verbal argument? On the right, one hears frequently these days statements that begin, "I just don't like . . .," and on the left, "I just don't want to see or hear any more of . . ." And don't both sides have a point in saying such things? How helpful would a discussion of "Should people with penises be allowed to dress in girls' locker rooms?" actually be? What do you expect would happen? Wouldn't it come down to a "I just don't like or trust transsexuals" camp and a "I just don't like or trust people who don't like or trust transsexuals" camp?