I’ve missed you! I’m back, baby, with some thoughts on civil discourse.

Welcome new subscribers, and to the OG readers, I’ve missed you. Last week I was in Cleveland for Content Marketing World. So as I am a shithead and didn’t get ahead on work before I left, I definitely didn’t find time to newsletter. Sorry about that.

Live-tweeting the conference, I started paying attention to content marketing Twitter. I made a new list for content marketers I liked, if you’re interested.

Which reminded me how BORING marketing Twitter is, compared to sex work and politics Twitter, that is. The problem is that marketers aren’t there to be bombastic. Their bombast is carefully calibrated.

Which is what I thought about when I read Sam’s piece on civil discourse. I think Sam overestimates people’s capacity to think or speak untainted by strong emotion. First, because most people aren’t going to think or speak about anything other than that which stirs up intense passions. His example of a productive, civil discussion was between two policy wonks, people paid to think and speak about a topic long past their passions flared for it.

And his point contrasting Twitter with Genius kind of illustrates the point.

“When the medium does away with these forms of scaffolding altogether the results are predictably regressive. The incentives of Twitter, for example, seem if anything to discourage civility and amplify our sweet tooth for self-righteous indignation. The annotation service, Genius, in contrast, allows for long form, sentence clause by sentence clause deconstruction of arguments.”

But both Genius and Twitter can and have been used to harass writers (particularly female ones).

It’s true that the extent to which we can think rationally often diminishes the more agitated we become. But if the end goal is truth, and not dispassion, I think we focus too much dispassion as a tool for getting there.

When we talk about “civil discourse,” we mean a few things, potentially including:

  • Privileging evidence over rhetoric
  • Trying to overcome cognitive biases
  • Trying to avoid logical fallacies
  • Trying to avoid hostility to people

I guess what bothers me about focusing too much on these (laudable) aims is that sometimes a focus on civility is itself a barrier to truth-seeking.

There’s a personal cost to saying things that not everyone agrees with. There’s a greater cost to saying things that most people don’t agree with. There’s a tremendous cost to saying things that most people not only don’t agree with, but are viscerally upset by. You will lose job opportunities, friendships, networking opportunities, etc. for saying the wrong thing.

That publicly positing new, potentially offensive, ideas comes at a high personal cost dampens discourse. It actively discourages public truth-seeking. Going back to content marketing Twitter, that’s why it’s so boring. Content marketers are on Twitter to find jobs and promote their content, not to challenge dogma.

This is also true, though to a lesser extent, of journalists and even opinion makers. While the costs of challenging dogma are lower, and the potential rewards higher, at the end of the day, journalists are also on Twitter to find jobs and promote their content, not to challenge dogma. If you’re curious about just how narrow the band of acceptable ideas is for people literally paid to opine about controversial topics, just look at all the journalists fired over tweets.

This makes just about everyone who entertains any ideas outside that narrow band a little bit crazy. I don’t want to blame the media for the alt-right. But when no one with a “legitimate” platform is willing to discuss ideas that are important to you, you’re going to begin to resent the gatekeepers to legitimate media. You’re going to discuss these ideas elsewhere. Respectability is inextricably linked with “civil discourse.” People who value civil discourse offer more respect to ideas presented this way. But also we confuse respectable ideas and civil presentation. Technically, you can make a perfectly civil case for abhorrent ideas. You can make an evidence-based, cognitive-bias aware, fallacy-free, minimally personally hostile argument for racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. No one will applaud you for being civil while seeking truth. When you know you’ll be dismissed and derided (at best) by the people who control the platforms no matter how well you present your ideas, you begin to resent respectability itself.

Unfortunately, by-and-large people are unsophisticated, and they’ve reacted to real pressure to only present respectable ideas by doubling down on being offensive. And that’s the alt-right. Just like civility for civility’s sake dampens discourse by punishing people for presenting new ideas, obviously so does offensiveness for offensiveness’s sake. Particularly when the offensiveness takes the form of targeted harassment. Again, the alt-right.

The reason no one will applaud you for being civil while exploring abhorrent ideas is that people aren’t mostly rational truth-seekers. We’re cognitively biased, emotion-driven animals. No one explores any topic out of “pure” curiosity. And no one evaluates evidence from a pure cost-benefit standpoint.

A great example of this is is from my feminist reading of Milo Yiannopoulos. Here’s him at a talk:

“There seems to be an undercurrent in the modern progressive movement of men who are so desperate to get laid that they say literally anything,” he explained. “Some of those things can involve demonising their own skin colour, sexuality, and gender simply in order to get plaudits from some of the most awful women on campus.”

This is a classic cognitive bias! Thinking you think what you think because it’s right and true, and others think what they think to get laid happens is an example of Fundamental attribution error. You ran the red light because you made a mistake. The other car ran the red light because he’s a dangerous asshole. You are a male anti-feminist because you’re rational. Male feminists just want to get laid. It’s incredibly obvious how this flaw in thinking clouds your judgment, leading you to be less critical of your assumptions than you should be and more critical of your ideological opponents than is justified by the evidence. Because at the end of the day, who cares? Even if male feminists are feminists to get laid, that’s neither here nor there to whether feminism is useful for things other than getting laid by feminists. It’s lazy and superficial argumentation and it fucking works because people are stupid.

Milo has made an entire career appealing to emotion, cognitive biases, and authority. And if people who are more thoughtful and well-informed than him don’t employ the same tactics in our exploration of ideas, we are bringing a knife to a gun fight. Which isn’t really good for truth-seeking either.

Instead of focusing on the tactics of truth-seeking, I think a better way is to focus on the goal of truth seeking, and recognize there is more than one way to get to truth.

Or maybe I just don’t like it because a blog post on civil discourse sounds too much like a man telling me to calm down.

One Comment

  1. Joel

    Fuck! I’m a man about to post on civil discourse, but believe me, I don’t want you to calm down for a minute because I’m really loving your blog.

    I liked this essay, and I was with you 100% right until: “if people who are more thoughtful and well-informed than him don’t employ the same tactics in our exploration of ideas, we are bringing a knife to a gun fight. Which isn’t really good for truth-seeking either.”

    I get what you’re saying: the asymmetry between appealing to the mind vs appealing to the emotion does put you at a disadvantage. However, the sentiment here seems too cynical to me. My fear is that if we, the “good guys,” stoop to the type of tactics and style employed by Milo and the alt-right, discourse itself (civil or otherwise) will die, and the only thing left will be actual, unthinking and passion-filled, tribal violence.

    We are all irrational and biased SOME of the time, but many of us are not irrational ALL the time. The more we encourage and enforce the norms of civil discourse, we will, hopefully, increase the frequency of these, albeit brief, flashes of rationality in our own mind and in the minds of those surrounding us.

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