Monday, June 24, 2013

Confusion: Freedom, Divided

I'm not sure if it's a specifically American phenomenon, but, culturally, we seem particularly fascinated with stories of failure and redemption. And more often than not, that archetype is a very public one. A personal or moral mis-step can quickly start the timer running on an individual's fifteen minutes of fame. And when the public persecution has exceeded its welcome, we are left with a phoenix or a heap of ash.

Under one of those piles of ash lays a woman known as Paula Deen. Her old-school "homestyle" cooking has brought her to the fringes of public attention on a few occasions. But, for the most part, she is best known for her books and cooking show(s) - that is until she made the mistake of admitting to the use of racial epithets in the past. This, coupled with a couple of other incidents, has brought her back to the focus of public attention. With her fated cross planted firmly in the hillside and the public's torches well in-hand, Paula's future does not look particularly promising. But before we all watch her boat completely capsize, I'd like to take a moment to take the awkward position of defending both her supporters and detractors.

A fair amount of her supporters are haranguing her critics with appeals for freedom of speech. They believe that she has a right to say such things, even if they disagree with them. And many of her critics completely acknowledge this, but claim that she's not being censored. Instead, they say, it is just the free market at work. Her supporters, of course, claim that it is still a free-speech issue, and that punishing someone for their words by threatening their livelihood is a way of restricting free speech.

I think I want to say that both kinds of people are correct in some ways. On the one hand, of course we should all have the right to speak freely (even if that speech is detestable). And it's true enough that Paula's detractors don't seem to be calling for literal censorship. Is there, however, anything to the argument about how threats of boycott (or the organization of boycott) stand in the way of such freedoms as well? Well, yes and no. I think we can safely say that it's not a literal restriction of freedom. So it fails on its most base claims. On the other hand, it's fairly obvious that it's a form of social coercion of some sort. But whether such types of coercions are good or bad is a different story.

For instance, let's say we have a person that is very rude, obnoxious, and cruel. All of his social exchanges are inflammatory - that is to say, when is isn't just plainly ignoring the other individual(s). Let's say this man opens a garage service to the public. After more than four weeks, no customers have come into the shop.

What are we to think of this? We have good reason to believe that the reason he has no customers is that he's known as such an obnoxious person. In fact, even if he offers relatively good service, and is even nice to his customers, we could imagine that people will have formed opinions that aren't very flattering. Is this a free speech issue? If it is, who is violating his speech? Is it his would-be customers? Can we force people to purchase his services? What about their freedom to trade and associate with the people they wish? And if "would-be" customers are the violators of freedom here, then how should we sift them out? It would seem that we would need to actually determine their intentions to separate them from people that wouldn't have used his services regardless.

You can see why trying to talk about such things as actual violations of free speech is somewhat problematic. But does the accusation completely fall apart? I don't think it does. We are obviously concerned with others and their ability to be independent and to provide for themselves. And many of us believe that tolerance is an important virtue, especially when in the company of those we vociferously disagree with. If we all chose to associate only with those we completely agreed with, the world would be a very despondent place indeed. In this light, it's easier to see the point some of her supporters are making.

To a lot of people looking in on these two views of the situation, they see diametrical opposition. But I don't think the two views conflict. Although the sentiments seem contrary, I believe they are not. They are atached to two particular aspects of the same problem. In that way, each view certainly has pull on the other, but they need not lie in opposition. On the one hand, our freedom to associate with whom we wish answers the matter of justice...what we have the enforceable right to do more generally. The argument that with-holding our money or consent from someone is a violation of their freedom falls apart rather quickly as we've seen. We should not force people to associate in particular ways.

On the other hand, the moral question of social coercion and tolerance could have a completely different answer. We have the right to think, say, and do (or not do) things that other people find reprehensible. And other people have the freedom to change the ways in which they associate with us because of it. What determines the appropriateness of such actions and reactions may be more delicate and nuanced. But surely they should be predicated on the actual problem at hand.

In the case of Paula Deen, it hasn't seemed (from what I can tell) like an overt, continued, and purposeful indiscretion on her part. She seems convincingly apologetic. And while I don't know anything about her personally, the little I do know doesn't seem to command a complete castigation of her. Now, maybe we should be mindful of those past discretions. But maybe we should show enough moral fortitude to display the kind of compassion and understanding that wouldn't reduce us all to some miserable existence where we live in total fear of the slightest mistakes in life. Perhaps, socially speaking, we would do well to have our proverbial guns drawn (we sometimes need to use them), but maybe we shouldn't unload a hail of bullets on anything we see move.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Splitting Hairs

While I feel that these kinds of questions, ultimately, fall apart for similar reasons, it's worth pointing out that the questions are, in fact, different.

"If your shoes are so good, why do you have to force everyone to purchase them at gunpoint?" a little different than...

"If smashing your face in isn't a good thing, why am I doing it?"

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Path of Least Resistance

In recent years I've become more and more convinced that the soundness of particular arguments are more important than their rhetorical value. Unfortunately, in a world of soundbytes, memes, and an ever-shrinking fifteen minutes of fame, brevity is an increasingly important aspect in the world of swayed opinions. Arguments that essentially boil down to one-liners can be particularly powerful, much like the jokes of stand-up comedians. They can put forth what appears to be a casually obvious absurdity to prove a specific point. Of course, the problem is that when all its underlying assumptions are unbound, the line of thought often quickly falls apart. The truth is that, while the illustration of such apparent absurdities may take the audience captive, they are often imaginatively fragmented and unrealistic. And by dosing each other with such arguments, even if they offer us short term victories, we are simply teaching people to accept bad arguments in the long run.

What got my wheels turning on this was the Lind piece on Salon from a few days ago - "The Question that Libertarians Just Can't Answer". A question which, by the way, was not only irrelevant in many ways (to the greater argument for libertarianism), but was actually easily answerable without too much reflection. The burning question: "If libertarianism is so great, why hasn't any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?" Now, apparently, this is being seen as a quite damning question by most non-libertarians. The question was certainly rhetorically effective in that sense. But I felt it to be more frustrating than anything - in that, at its base, it seemed somewhat ambiguous, and even nonsensical.

For instance, this question relies terribly on a term which covers a pretty wide spectrum of ideas. A libertarian could be a minarchist, a liberal, a socialist, a classical liberal, a paleo-conservative, an anarcho-capitalist, a voluntaryist, a free-market anarchist, and so on. Some may quibble that such variance lies only in degrees but anyone familiar with these groups knows that there are substantive differences between them. And, depending on which group you subscribe to, you could make some pretty remarkable arguments that your ideas (or at least substantial parts of them) are certainly being incorporated in most Western societies at this point (especially if you fall within the first few groups I mentioned). So even from the start, we see this lack of defining in our terms.

What kinds of presumptions lie in such a question? It seems to make the implicit claim that if libertarianism actually "works" (whatever sense of the word one wishes to employ) that at least some national governments would have adopted such policies. But some conceptions of libertarianism see national governments themselves as the antithesis of libertarian ideals. From that view, the question becomes something like, "Why doesn't oligopoly dissolve itself?" - to which they might all heartily answer, "Haha!" This was essentially the overture Tom Woods made to the question. And it's a powerful one.

Another possible implicit claim in the question is that arguments about institutions are purely utilitarian - ie, the correct one is the the one that "works". Now, I think there is at least somewhat of a false dichotomy when it comes to utilitarian vs. deontological concerns, but I digress. To the extent that the argument for libertarianism is a seemingly non-utilitarian one, the question, again, fails to make any semblance of sense. We can view libertarian ideals as not necessarily just a means to a particular end, but part of the ends themselves. In a more straight-forward example, we could ask, "If killing and stealing didn't work, then why do so many people kill and steal?" Well, that's certainly a question worth entertaining, but is it really an effective argument against, well, killing and stealing? I'd venture to say it's not.

And this only begins to scratch the surface of how truly problematic the question is. Another implied assumption seems to be that the present is optimal, for lack of a better term. We seem to be fed a question of, "Look - if this thing is so great, why don't we see it?". But that's a silly kind of question on its face - one that could have been asked about anything we currently cherish at some point prior to its advent. We could have, for instance, asked the same questions about democracy or the abolition of slavery at various points. That the world was entrenched in a certain paradigm at one point does not speak to other paradigms it could employ, or the justness of the current one. It takes a keenly myopic view of humanity's historical progression to lapse into such frivolities - particularly when one's mantle is "Progressive".

I don't point these things out in an effort to just bash the people I disagree with. Libertarians use the same kind of rhetorically short-hand arguments all the time. And I'm just as guilty as the next guy of doing it from time to time. But I think it's good to make a concerted effort not to, even if you believe it gives those who do engage in it an upper hand. If you really think the best arguments should prevail, and you also believe you have the best arguments, then you should really try to foster that kind of environment whenever you can.