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Freedom of speech and Godwin's Law

Peter A. Taylor
March 25, 2016

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

— Godwin's Law

One may question whether real civilisation is so safely afloat that we can afford to use our pens for boring holes in the bottom of it.

— F. L. Lucas

The subject of freedom of speech came up in a church discussion group recently. My view is that freedom of speech is under a great deal more pressure in the US than is believed by at least some of the other people in my group.

One of the issues is that our public servants in the government are under a different set of legal and, in my opinion, moral obligations than we are as private citizens. I'm interested both in the behavior of government employees acting in an official capacity and in the behavior of people who are not acting in an official capacity. But I'm mainly concerned here about non-official harrassment of unpopular political speech, because there seem to be fewer protections against it. Just because you can get away with it doesn't make it right.

The harrassment I'm complaining about mostly takes the form of name-calling. I'm part of the older generation that was taught to respond to name-calling with the line, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me." Name-calling shouldn't be that big a deal, should it? Just ignore it. If it's an ad hominem argument, simply point out that ad hominems are invalid. What's the problem?

James Lileks described the situation this way:

It's almost as if you have two options:
  1. I disagree with my opponent's position on taxation, and therefore I shall oppose it.
  2. I disagree with my opponent's position on taxation, and therefore I believe he has sex with goats.

The Option 2 example would be more realistic if it said "he is a fascist" rather than "he has sex with goats", but Lileks' example does a better job of making the point that the conclusion is unsupported by evidence. I will return to this point.

Let's look at what kind of fallacy Lileks is describing in his Option 2. My introductory logic textbook (Arguments, Arrows, Trees, and Truth, 2nd ed., by H. B. Miller) talks about several kinds of ad hominem (to the person) fallacy, but the kind that is relevant here is the "abusive" ad hominem. One of Dr. Miller's examples:

Dr. Zylec is a known Communist.
Therefore, Dr. Zylec is wrong about the cause of measles.

If Lileks had said, "My opponent has sex with goats, therefore his tax policy is bad", that would have been an abusive ad hominem. But that's reasoning in the opposite direction from what's going on here.

Another example of abuse from the internet (edited):

John Roberts changed his mind under pressure in an absurd and transparent way, therefore he is a (abusive slang term for) coward.

Again, there is name-calling here. The language in the original argument here is indeed abusive, but is it an ad hominem? No. An ad hominem would have been reversed: "He is a coward, therefore his decision is wrong." The original argument against John Roberts is valid (if not necessarily cogent); it is merely worded rudely.

An abusive ad hominem takes the form, "The person has bad moral character, therefore his logic is invalid." The anti-Roberts argument is of the form, "His behavior is bad, therefore his moral character is bad." The Lileks Option 2 argument looks more like the latter, except that (A) the evidence of wrongdoing is weak, (B) the criticism of the target's moral character is wildly disproportionate to the accused bad behavior, and (C) the criticism of the target's moral character has little or no rational relationship to the evidence presented.

Since the actual epithet that I am most interested in is "fascist", we need to consider what this word means and whether it is, in fact, being used as dishonestly as I claim. ("Racist" may be more common, but "fascist" is a greater insult. The words are used in similar ways.) George Orwell wrote in 1946 that "fascist" was one of those words that had multiple, conflicting meanings, and that people had already long ago abused it to the point that it had no reliable meaning1. Thus, it lends itself to fallacies of ambiguity. One of Dr. Miller's examples of this fallacy is:

No animals are allowed in grocery stores.
People are animals.
Therefore people are not allowed in grocery stores.

Sheldon Richman, at the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, gives an example of a very weak, old, economic definition of "fascist"2. By this definition, the US health care system is technically "fascist", and many if not most American voters are probably technically "fascists". But because of the NSDAP's behavior during WWII, the word is unbreakably associated with gratuitious mass murder. There are also many intermediate definitions, involving, for example, just a little too much nationalism among the "wrong" kind of people3. But as I understand it, the point of calling someone a "fascist" is that you're claiming to have a rational basis for believing that he is likely to engage in gratuitious mass murder. A typical argument seems to go something like this:

Swedish women don't like being raped.
The rapes in Sweden are mostly committed by immigrants.
Swedish women are suspicious of immigrants.
Being suspicious of immigrants is "nationalistic".
"Nationalism" is a defining characteristic of "fascism".
Therefore, anyone who opposes the Swedish government's "refugee" policy is a person of bad moral character, who can reasonably be expected to engage in gratuitious mass murder.

Closer to home, I see arguments that go more like this:

Senator X has millions of supporters.
At least one of his supporters is stupid and can be provoked into doing something really stupid.
Failing that, many of them will fight back when attacked at Senator X's rallies by supporters of Governor Y.
Therefore, all X supporters can reasonably be expected to engage in gratuitious mass murder.

Note also the "motte and bailey" version of the fallacy of ambiguity. Here someone defends a logically indefensible position by creating ambiguity about what exactly his position is. See Scott Alexander, Malcolm Pollack, and Nicholas Shackel, who apparently originated the term.

I conclude that Lileks' example of "I believe he has sex with goats" is a pretty accurate analog for the way people make accusations of "fascism." But we still haven't matched Lileks' Option 2 to any of the examples in Dr. Miller's textbook. Recall Option 2:

I disagree with my opponent's position on taxation, and therefore I believe he has sex with goats.

Let's compare this to the ad baculum (appeal to force) fallacy. One of Dr. Miller's examples:

You ought to vote for Senator Gulch, because if you don't I'll burn your house down.

This doesn't look like a very good match, in addition to not seeming very realistic, but let's consider some variations.

Variation 1:

Go along with what I say or else I'll hit you.

In practice, both Dr. Miller's example and my Variation 1 are legally actionable. You could go to jail for saying things like that. So people are obliged to be less direct than that. Let's drop the physical threat and consider something more subtle.

Variation 2:

Go along with what I say or else my friends who buy ink in barrels will conduct a massive campaign of character assassination and plausibly deniable slander against you, your family, and your employer.

This is a bit more realistic, but it's still not subtle enough. It's still an explicit threat, which looks bad even if it's not legally actionable. Let's try a veilled threat.

Variation 3:

"Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Nice reputation you have there. It'd be a shame if something happened to it...." Perhaps if the gentleman in question were to mysteriously find his horse's severed head in his bed? Maybe a couple of busloads of rent-a-thugs, with professionally printed signs, picketing his house? Or his children's school? Or his employer's house?

That's better, but it would be better still if it were not even a veilled threat, but an entirely implicit one.

Variation 4:

Instead of saying anything explicitly to any particular victim, just pick a few prominent heretics every once in a while and make examples of them by ... having people who buy ink in barrels conduct massive campaigns of character assassination and plausibly deniable slander against them, their families, and their employers. After enough James Watsons have been financially ruined, people will get the message.

So my position is that the name-calling in modern American politics is a problem because it is a symptom of widespread implicit ad baculum arguments: if not outright appeals to force, then at least appeals to massive dishonesty. And this is incompatible with freedom of speech. Thus we have Foseti's Law:

I automatically don't trust anyone writing under their real name. With few exceptions, they have to lie.

I also think that the burden of responsibility for this state of affairs is far more widespread than is suggested by the phrase, "people who buy ink in barrels", i.e. the news media. As Godwin's Law suggests, the reductio ad hitlerum is a feature of online discussions in general, not just professional writers. To use a military analogy, the news media and the other media high-rollers are the "officers" in the opinion-advancing army. But the people I am addressing here are the army's enlisted men, the sort of people I often encounter on Facebook, who promote wild accusations and innuendo at the squad level. It would be easy to say, "Well, I don't buy ink in barrels, so I'm not to blame", but the leaders can't lead if the troops don't follow. In the opinion-advancing army, the troops get to choose their officers, and choose whether or not to follow them.

And what are the consequences of widespread implicit ad baculum arguments?

As I write this, the principal target of "fascism" accusations seems to be Donald Trump. There are many reasons for not liking Trump, but how did he get popular as a political candidate? And what can the average person do about it? Let me gently suggest that you will find an answer to both of these questions in an old James Thurber story called, "The Scientist and the Lemming". The scientist in this story encounters a talking lemming, who gives him a lecture on the evils and stupidities of mankind. One of the things the lemming accuses humans of doing is "cutting down elm trees in order to build institutions for people who have been driven insane by the cutting down of elm trees." I suggest that much of Trump's support is coming from people who find that the Overton window is a strait jacket, and whose legitimate arguments and complaints over a period of many decades have been met with massive campaigns of slander and character assassination. For the first time in a very long time, these people have found a figure to rally around who, for all his faults, is at least willing to raise the middle finger to the thought police. Most of these people are Republicans, but a surprising number of them are Democrats. If you respond to these people with additional slander and character assassination for supporting Trump, then I suggest to you that you are "cutting down elm trees".


1. Orwell writes:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality....

  2. Richman writes:

As an economic system, fascism is socialism with a capitalist veneer....

Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society's economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners. Where socialism nationalized property explicitly, fascism did so implicitly, by requiring owners to use their property in the "national interest"—that is, as the autocratic authority conceived it. (Nevertheless, a few industries were operated by the state.) Where socialism abolished all market relations outright, fascism left the appearance of market relations while planning all economic activities. Where socialism abolished money and prices, fascism controlled the monetary system and set all prices and wages politically. In doing all this, fascism denatured the marketplace. Entrepreneurship was abolished. State ministries, rather than consumers, determined what was produced and under what conditions.

Or as Adolph Hitler reportedly told Herman Rauschning,

We don't need to take your cow so long as we own you. Who cares about whether we actually own the firm in name? So long as we have complete control over the people running it, that's good enough.

(I think this is the correct quotation.)

  3. As Mencius Moldbug put it,

It is good, very good, to be a black nationalist.... On the other hand, it is bad, very bad, to be a Southern nationalist.... Similarly, it is good to be a Vietnamese nationalist. It is still bad to be a German nationalist, or a British nationalist, or even a French nationalist. Germans, Brits, and Frenchmen are supposed to believe in the common destiny of all humanity. Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs are free to believe in the common destiny of Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs. (Actually, I'm not sure about the Czechs. This one may have changed.)

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