Laws as licensed political weapons

This was stuck in my drafts folder. I have published it on the date of creation. It is half-baked and unfinished, so forgive the roughness. 

Few argue with the stated objective of hate speech legislation, but it is widely abused for political means, interferes with free inquiry (needed for science and democracy) and is often counterproductive (inflames rather than reduced ethnic tension).

Countries like Australia are ditching it. We have ancient and effective laws against incitement that are enough to handle direct harms. Look at Sweden. It has the most draconian Hate Speech legislation and has an exploding problem with extreme far-right nationalism. A significant part of the problem is that honest dialogue is impossible because the laws are used a political weapon.

Here in Denmark where we have great free speech, we have no such problems. People speak freely, there is a marketplace of ideas, pragmatic and fair solutions are created where all stakeholders – including the often silenced minorities – are considered. This leads to increased social cohesion, not less.

In Europe, we waged a 1000 year fight against religious and state authorities to establish rights that you take for granted and are the underpinnings of liberal democracy. People are entitled to believe what they want, even if it is that certain groups are sub-human (Freedom of thought). They also have the rights to express those beliefs (freedom of speech). Those natural rights are, as you say, constrained by the harm principle (You should not hard others with your actions). The argument since WW2 has been what harms come from certain kinds of speech. We have gone from direct incitement (“Kill that man!”) to a situation where merely insulting people is now criminal.

In our desperate effort to contain the problems arising from mass migration and botched multiculturalism, we are destroying our rights. The second order effects are damaging to democracy and ruinous if not utterly destructive to minorities. We are like rats gnawing on the ropes that keep us from falling into the sea. In our short-sighted effort to address the symptoms of our problems (Hate speech, rising social tensions, erosion of democracy, radicalism) we damage the tools we will need to fix them (like freedom of speech).

It is impossible to explain the subtleties here, but please read the magnificent book Kindly Inquisitors by the gay rights activist Jonathan Rauch. It is one of the finest books on the subject.…/jonathan-rauch-reminds-us-that…/

Slavoj Zizek has a revealing take on  the role of racist jokes in the former Yugoslavia:

This tells us something important. When you silence the jokes, the satire, the free speech, you know the situation is really bad. Killing free speech and humor are the death signs of a stable society liberal order. 

Another example – from the Tito era – is the perpetuation of social and political silliness because people want to avoid offending other’s beliefs or are too scared to say things out loud. This wonderful RSA animated presentation by Professor Renata Salecl on The Paradox of Choice. Check out her description of people in Yugoslavia pretending to believe in Communism despite almost no one really believing it. 

On Law as a licensed political weapon
Laws are a weapon we voluntarily license to the state to constrain our freedoms, with our consent, for our collective benefit. If those weapons are used responsibly and achieve their stated ends (the spirit of the law) they ought to be kept.  If those laws are corrosive of the commonwealth or harmful, they need to be repealed. Hate statutes have failed this test on both counts. They have been used irresponsibly to prevent open discussion, not encourage it and this has, in my opinion, caused more harm than good. Large-scale migration, and how we manage it responsibly, are arguably the most important political subject of the era. It is an existential question for European culture. With a topic of such importance, pieties and possible harms are secondary to forging a workable politico-social response to this phenomenon.
The question is not how to stop it – it is effectively unstoppable in an unequal world – nor how to reverse it, that is barbarous and impossible without genocide. The question is how we can all live together forever. For 50 years we have trusted elite paternalism. We trusted the political classes to manage the problem and act in our best interests. The Financial Crisis has reminded us forcefully the elites act in their own interests, even to the point of fomenting ethnic tension to maintain disunity between groups who should be natural allies (US blacks, Hispanics, and the white working classes).
The largest social experiment in history – mass immigration managed by official multiculturalism with hate speech and obscurantism about the effects of immigration or the behavior of immigrants being central to the strategy (“Everything is fine here, move along, asking questions is racist”). The internet threatened that. If the masses could collaborate directly, it would undermine efforts to manage the message on the effects of immigration (the chief of which is diminishing social cohesion). This threat was neutralized by what the internet actually unleashed: A cacophony of disagreement and disinformation (as David Weinberger says “a tsunami of disagreement”).
Europeans and other populations being subjected to large-scale disruptions from immigration could not organize a cohesive response to try and stop it but could not even discuss how to respond to it beyond the state-sanctioned mandates of banning racism, insults, ethnic humor and effectively forbidding the discussion of immigration in terms other than the benefits of diversity and the enrichment of society.
This towing of the official line on immigration has seriously damaged people trust in politicians. The problems with immigration and immigrants are obvious, yet acknowledging them was ruinous to carers and in some cases illegal. Almost anything could be sacrificed to maintaining “community relations”. Riots in the summer of 2001 in the UK were blamed on the tiny and politically marginal British National Party (BNP) when after 9/11 it became obvious it was internal community radicals that were stirring up the riots. Those who said so at the time were branded a racist.
In the North of England gangs of British-Pakistani men groomed and systematically raped thousands of white children. The authorities knew about the problem for 10 years and did next to nothing due to being paralyzed by fears of being branded racists (thereby ending their careers) and “inflaming community tensions”.  This is just one of countless examples where mainstream political forces and civil servants toed the line on immigration and its effects, handing the role of truth-sayers to far-right populist parties and groups who were willing to acknowledge the truth (then offer a simplistic and chauvinist interpretations) and promised these disenfranchised whites something the lacked and craved – political representation.
Now we have a perfect storm for fascism. Weak and politically paralyzed western governments. Aggrieved minorities fed a relentless narrative of racist oppression and discrimination. Provocative terror groups “representing” minorities. High crime among some immigrants and minority groups fueling majority anger. Discrimination against the majority in law to help minorities. We also have growing working class political consciousness and awareness of the elite swindle as manifested by the populist surge. This is a recipe for revolution. Will you stop them with hate speech laws designed to suppress knowledgeable of real problems? Did not work for Soviets in the pre-internet era, it will not work where everyone has a video-capable smartphone phone either.
So what do we do then?
  • We protect free-speech as fiercely as we can.
  • Fist we believe we can find a political solution – no more fatalism and pessimism.
  • We do not leave this to the state, it has failed to manage this and cannot be trusted. We address it at a civic level.
  • We use the ancient tools of building trust: Honest dialogue, acknowledgment, the truth
  • We make it safe for people to speak up. We establish genuine politico-cognitive diversity
  • We (Europeans) accept immigrants as 100% equals as citizens and stakeholders (like in the USA)
  • We repudiate essentialism. You are defined by what you espouse and choose to support e.g. you may be judged for supporting slavery, not because you are white. 

ISIS Are Target Practice for Robots

Photo Credit: JimNtexas via Compfight cc

“In the long run, the so-called ISIS Caliphate is destined to become a walled-in training facility where the major military powers test their new weapons on live combatants. Wars sometimes have expiration dates, but training is forever. Expect the Caliphate to be a permanent war zone, by design.

Along those lines, see Putin’s comment about Russia’s escalation in Syria. He said, “It’s hard to imagine a better exercise (for Russian forces). So we can train there for a long time without any serious harm to our budget.”

…I can easily imagine a teen signing up for ISIS and the chance to change the world. But does anyone sign up to be the replacement targets at the all-robot firing range? We will find out. If you want to kill an idea, you have to go after it directly. That’s what Putin is doing with his comments about using Syria for military training.

Source: Target Practice for Robots | Scott Adams Blog

How to compose a successful critical commentary

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points, let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” –  Arthur Martine,  1866 guide to the art of conversation

In this everyone-is-a-critic culture, Daniel Dennet asks, “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

He offers what he calls “the best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a list of rules formulated decades ago by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-for-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

From the incomparable Brain Pickings

See also the superb:  A Code of Conduct for Effective Rational Discussion

Why Donald Trump Leads National Polls

Donald Trump

“The frontrunner’s support is built less on bigotry, than on his confident projection of executive intelligence.”

The always excellent David Frum explains where Trump is getting his political energy from.

The simple “xenophobes, bigots and old white people” trope peddled by his opponents does not explain it.

Frum argues it is a combination of his satisfying the deep hunger in the Republican base for leaders with “executive intelligence” and because “Republicans have come to fear that their leaders have turned anti-native”.

This aligns with Scott Adams’ assessment that Trump’s strategy is all about presenting himself as the only adult in the room, the only person with a plan (no matter how nutty) and the experience to deliver on it (Frum’s “Executive Intelligence”). The good news is that we can all blame George W. Bush for this.

Read it here: Why Donald Trump Leads National Polls – The Atlantic

Does Affirmative Action Work?


Affirmative action programs in Malaysia that set aside 70% of university places to Malays force many ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian Malaysians to study abroad. Photo Credit: amsfrank via Compfight cc

Foreign Affairs has a very good piece on Affirmative Action. The summary:

“Across the globe, the lessons from affirmative action programs are clear: they can occasionally help in the economic sphere, produce mixed results in improving social cohesion, and are an unmitigated disaster when it comes to politics.”

Here are some excerpts:

Differences aside, however, affirmative action programs around the world have enjoyed similar successes—and fallen prey to many of the same failures. Most succeed in reducing economic inequality, although often less significantly than policymakers hope. They have a mixed record when it comes to improving social cohesion: affirmative action policies tend to underscore ethnic divisions rather than reduce them, although there is some evidence that racial unrest becomes less likely as economic inequality ebbs. And their most negative effects tend to be in the political sphere: in many countries, policies intended to assist the disadvantaged have been corrupted by political elites who manipulate the system to their own advantage and block any attempts at reform.

Balancing this less-than-impressive track record is the fact that affirmative action has often played an indispensable role in nation building in multiethnic societies. In the West, nation building is usually thought of as something that happens only in postcolonial societies or in places recovering from recent periods of intense intercommunal conflict. Today, in fact, thanks to immigration, shifting demographics, and changing beliefs about identity and ethnicity, prosperous Western countries also experience a kind of slow-motion nation building, as ideas about what it means to be “American,” or “British,” or “Dutch” evolve. As a result, the role of affirmative action in creating national identities in places such as Malaysia and India may be more relevant to places such as the United States than most Americans realize.

For the benefits of affirmative action to outweigh the harm, however, the programs must effectively target the poor. Programs that lift only a select few out of poverty or become corrupted by elites will neither reduce inequality nor bolster the nation. At best, such programs will quickly lose popular support; at worst, they will fray the social fabric they were meant to strengthen.

It has not been very successful in South Africa:

In South Africa and India, the economic effects of affirmative action have been more mixed. When apartheid ended in 1994, the South African government instituted a policy of “black economic empowerment,” which promoted the transfer of stakes in white-owned businesses to black investors. The government hoped that change at the top would trickle down to the bottom, as black-owned businesses would be more likely to hire and promote other black South Africans. In fact, the program succeeded primarily in creating a coterie of well-connected black entrepreneurs.

The problem seem to be primarily about privileged elites coopting the programs.

If the economic and social impacts of affirmative action have been mixed, 
its political impacts have been almost universally damaging. In a wide range of countries, political elites and special interests have consistently exploited affirmative action programs for their own gain.

And reform is politically damaging for the reformers:

Even when reforms are clearly necessary, politicians often have a vested interest in keeping flawed affirmative action programs the way they are, or even expanding them. The equation is simple: more benefits to more people equals more votes.

So how do you make them work? This is an important question because once you start them they are nearly impossible to stop.

The successes and failures of affirmative action in India, Malaysia, and South Africa offer important lessons for the United States, where government agencies and other institutions have often struggled to define, justify, and reform their programs. The major lesson is that affirmative action policies work best when they target the poor. The “creamy layer” problem undermines the very purpose of affirmative action and makes such programs politically unsustainable. Indeed, interethnic support for Malaysia’s affirmative action program reached its peak in the 1970s, when it primarily targeted poor and rural indigenous groups, and began to drop as 
the program became a tool of the political elite.

In designing affirmative action policies that cannot be exploited by the wealthy or the politically connected, transparency is key, both in the rules of eligibility and in the awarding of benefits.

Instead of giving politicians discretionary control over the selection process, the government should award benefits by lottery or through a merit-based point system. Similarly, in the United States, policy­makers should craft affirmative action policies with benefits that are awarded according to clear metrics.

Above all, the success of affirmative action depends on preventing programs from outliving their economic and social efficacy.


Source: Does Affirmative Action Work?

Construal Level Theory

There was a lot of soul searching and anger around the time of the Paris massacre in November 2015 because the Paris massacre got so much attention whereas the Beirut bombing the previous day did not. Maybe Construal Level Theory explains it:

Construal level theory (CLT) is a theory in social psychology that describes the relation between psychological distance and the extent to which people’s thinking (e.g., about objects and events) is abstract or concrete. The general idea is that the more distant an object is from the individual, the more abstract it will be thought of, while the closer the object is, the more concretely it will be thought of. In CLT, psychological distance is defined on several dimensions — temporal, spatial, social and hypothetical distance being considered most important,[3] though there is some debate among social psychologists about further dimensions like informational, experiential or affective distance.

An example of construal level effects would be that although planning one’s next summer vacation one year in advance (in the distant future) will cause one to focus on broad, decontextualized features of the situation (e.g., anticipating fun and relaxation), while the very same vacation planned to occur very soon will cause one to focus on specific features of the present situation (e.g. what restaurants to make reservations for, going for a trip in an off-road vehicle).

Miller’s Law

From Wikipedia:

Miller’s law, part of his theory of communication, was formulated by George Miller, Princeton Professor and psychologist.

It instructs us to suspend judgment about what someone is saying so we can first understand them without imbuing their message with our own personal interpretations.

The law states: “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”[1] [2]

The point is not to blindly accept what people say, but to do a better job of listening for understanding. “Imagining what it could be true of” is another way of saying to consider the consequences of the truth, but to also think about what must be true for the speaker’s “truth” to make sense.

On Bullshit


[Update: After I posted this I came across a great study –  “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” [PDF] – freshly published in November 2015. Well worth a read. I also recently came across this old but great post from Scott Berkun “How to Detect Bullshit“]

Because I see so much of this  on Facebook, I wanted to post the classic essay “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt.

Here is Wikipedia on the essay:

“On Bullshit (2005), by Harry G. Frankfurt, is a philosophical essay that presents a theory of bullshit that defines the concept and analyzes the applications of bullshit in the contexts of communication. As such, bullshit can be neither true nor false; hence, the bullshitter is someone whose principal aim — when uttering or publishing bullshit — is to impress the listener and the reader with words that communicate an impression that something is being or has been done, words that are neither true nor false, and so obscure the facts of the matter being discussed. In contrast, the liar must know the truth of the matter under discussion, in order to better conceal it from the listener or the reader being deceived with a lie; while the bullshitter’s sole concern is personal advancement and advantage to their own agenda.”

Here are some quotes:

Humbug is not designed primarily to give its audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the topic, but that its primary intention is rather to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in the mind of the speaker. Insofar as it is humbug, the creation of this impression is its main purpose and its point.


Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” This is surely humbug. …the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false. Rather…the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him.


…Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth –  this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.


…The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say: It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.


Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words, upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended. The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit in that there is no pretence that this connection is being sustained. They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern with truth.


It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.


…Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.


One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.


Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled –  whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s  affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.


The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of scepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit  of an alternative ideal, sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.


Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.


See also

Wikipedia’s great article on Lies that described the many types of lies.

The BBC Ethics page on Lying

St Augustine on the 8 types of lie