The Practice of Ritual Defamation

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” – Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s I used to closely track Laird Wilcox – an expert on extremist groups. I loved his even-handedness and commitment to free speech. I even called him once to ask him something, at about 5 am his time. Luckily he was up already and forgiving of my lack of consideration. I used to have a copy of his book on Free Speech, “Be Reasonable”, but seem to have lost it.

Wilcox’s essay on the eight elements of Ritual Defamation is a classic.

Defamation is the destruction or attempted destruction of the reputation, status, character or standing in the community of a person or group of persons by unfair, wrongful, or malicious speech or publication. For the purposes of this essay, the central element is defamation in retaliation for the real or imagined attitudes, opinions or beliefs of the victim, with the intention of silencing or neutralizing his or her influence, and/or making an example of them so as to discourage similar independence and “insensitivity” or non-observance of taboos. It is different in nature and degree from simple criticism or disagreement in that it is aggressive, organized and skillfully applied, often by an organization or representative of a special interest group, and in that it consists of several characteristic elements.

Ritual Defamation is not ritualistic because it follows any prescribed religious or mystical doctrine, nor is it embraced in any particular document or scripture. Rather, it is ritualistic because it follows a predictable, stereotyped pattern which embraces a number of elements, as in a ritual.

The elements of Ritual Defamation are spookily recognizable in our era of manufactured moral panics, altruistic punishment and social media shaming:

  1. In a ritual defamation the victim must have violated a particular taboo in some way, usually by expressing or identifying with a forbidden attitude, opinion or belief. It is not necessary that he “do” anything about it or undertake any particular course of action, only that he engage in some form of communication or expression.

The countermeasure is to robustly defend free speech and freedom of thought, with a particular focus on guarding against social tyranny.

2. The method of attack in a ritual defamation is to assail the character of the victim, and never to offer more than a perfunctory challenge to the particular attitudes, opinions or beliefs expressed or implied. Character assassination is its primary tool.

Again, ad hominem attacks and character assassination need to become intellectually embarrassing and shameful themselves.

3. An important rule in ritual defamation is to avoid engaging in any kind of debate over the truthfulness or reasonableness of what has been expressed, only condemn it. To debate opens the issue up for examination and discussion of its merits, and to consider the evidence that may support it, which is just what the ritual defamer is trying to avoid. The primary goal of a ritual defamation is censorship and repression.

This is a call to yet more speech. In the face of people trying to shut down a discussion, train them to recognize it is counter-productive.  Dive deep. Really explore the topic. Let attempts at taboo-making be markers for increased investigation. Ritualize the Streisand Effect.

4. The victim is often somebody in the public eye – someone who is vulnerable to public opinion – although perhaps in a very modest way. It could be a schoolteacher, writer, businessman, minor official, or merely an outspoken citizen. Visibility enhances vulnerability to ritual defamation

One of the oldest problems human’s face in our social societies is how to reveal and conceal our alliances. The silence of political elites in England about large-scale child rape and the widespread conspiracy of silence protecting Harvey Weinstein and other powerful sex pests shows that people are so fearful retaliation that they will not speak out even about things they know to be factually true and utterly morally repulsive. So it is no surprise people are easily intimidated into silence on intellectual or policy topics where one might be wrong anyway, and the consequences of even defending certain positions – not even espousing or supporting – may be ruinous. We need to find ways to create true intellectual safe spaces where any and all ideas can be openly discussed without fear of retaliation.

One solution is offered by the authors of Zero Hedge,  Pseudonymous speech responsibly used:

Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. it thus exemplifies the purpose behind the bill of rights, and of the first amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation– and their ideas from suppression– at the hand of an intolerant society.

The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse.”
Mcintyre v. Ohio elections commission 514 u.s. 334 (1995) Justice Stevens writing for the majority

Hopefully, the rally by forces of the Enlightenment will re-establish norms around genuine tolerance for heterodoxy and dissent.

5. An attempt, often successful, is made to involve others in the defamation. In the case of a public official, other public officials will be urged to denounce the offender. In the case of a student, other students will be called upon, and so on.

The best defense here lies in preparation. Agree in advance with colleagues and fellows what you will do when they come for one of you. Agree to the conditions for speaking out in unison. Isolation of the victim is key to the success of ritual defamation, so prepare to act in concert. Do not be picked-off.

6. In order for a ritual defamation to be effective, the victim must be dehumanized to the extent that he becomes identical with the offending attitude, opinion or belief, and in a manner which distorts it to the point where it appears at its most extreme. For example, a victim who is defamed as a “subversive” will be identified with the worst images of subversion, such as espionage, terrorism or treason. A victim defamed as a “pervert” will be identified with the worst images of perversion, including child molestation and rape. A victim defamed as a “racist” or “anti-Semitic” will be identified with the worst images of racism or anti-Semitism, such as lynchings or gas chambers.

Humanize everyone. As Hunter S. Thompson observed, “Even a werewolf deserves a lawyer”.  Find and accentuate the human in the story. Lampoon the labels. Subvert them. Look at how Jewish public figures cleverly embraced the anti-semite practice of identifying Jewish people by surrounding their names with brackets e.g.  {{{Sam Harris}}}. Or how Republicans enthusiastically self-identified as “deplorables”. 

7. Also to be successful, ritual defamation must bring pressure and humiliation on the victim from every quarter, including family and friends. If the victim has school children, they may be taunted and ridiculed as a consequence of adverse publicity. If they are employed, they may be fired from their job. If the victim belongs to clubs or associations, other members may be urged to expel them.

So this is Maoist/Stalinism 101targetingargting people through their innocent loved ones, but also show trials and denunciations by colleagues and children. With us or against us. These reductionist theatrics are the core of exercise: Demoralize your opponents and signal your allies. Humiliation is the salt that flavors the defamation. As a countermeasure, we ought to hit back in the defense of freedom of speech and thought by raising the costs for those who are disloyal to the defamed and act to punish without reasonable due process.

9. Any explanation the victim may offer, including the claim of being misunderstood, is considered irrelevant. To claim truth as a defense for a politically incorrect value, opinion or belief is interpreted as defiance and only compounds the problem. Ritual defamation is often not necessarily an issue of being wrong or incorrect but rather of “insensitivity” and failing to observe social taboos.

Big Brothers’ dictum was never right “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” should have been “Who controls the norms, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the norms”. Norms and their enforcement are foundations of human society. They are inescapable realities for all socially cooperative creatures. The question is how do we create, update, maintain and enforce norms fairly and with optimal outcomes for humanity? Any attempts to lock them down now, to declare the debate over and the matter settled is usually an attempt by the currently powerful to pull up the ladders after them. To cement their gains and freeze arrangements as maximally advantageous to themselves. Even if they are wise and norms fitting for the age and environment, it will lead to the stultification major religions experience due to being trapped trying to navigate a world with guidance thousands of ýears out of date.

Let’s go full Bayesian. Let us destroy the sanctity of “sensitivity” and anything else that prevents reassessment and reform.Mere ignorance and error must never be a crime, their recognition is a prerequisite for learning and development. The truth must always be an inviolable ultimate defense against any defamation.

Source: The Practice of Ritual Defamation – How values, opinions and beliefs are
controlled in democratic societies by Laird Wilcox

Read More , especially:

Political philosopher John Gray identified the common strands in liberal thought as being individualist, egalitarian, meliorist and universalist. The individualist element avers the ethical primacy of the human being against the pressures of social collectivism, the egalitarian element assigns the same moral worth and status to all individuals, the meliorist element asserts that successive generations can improve their sociopolitical arrangements, and the universalist element affirms the moral unity of the human species and marginalises local cultural differences.

21st Century Enlightenment

 In Defence of Enlightenment

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