Interview with Author Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford’s (@Metamagician) new book is The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism.

Do you think partisan news networks and Google/social media sites, which algorithmically cater to the political preconceptions of their users, are largely to blame for PC outrage?

Partisan news networks have undoubtedly played a role over the past thirty years in increasing political polarization in the United States and elsewhere. In The Tyranny of Opinion, I particularly discuss right-wing outrage media in the US, but I also comment on outrage media more generally.

I don’t know a lot about the workings of, say, Google’s or Twitter’s algorithms, so I won’t pretend to. However, you’re right that Google’s algorithms adapt to the interests of users, so they may have some effect in reinforcing users’ preconceptions. That point aside, social media sites often operate (not by deliberate design, but in practice) to encourage political tribalism and polarization, to the detriment of nuance and worthwhile discussion across political divides.

What’s the impact of helicopter/participation-trophy parenting on PC culture?

I should clarify that I don’t see The Tyranny of Opinion as book about “PC culture” or “political correctness.” It’s not the sort of book that might have been written by Dinesh D’Souza, for example. It’s a defense of liberal ideals, such as free inquiry and discussion, and a plea to tolerate non-conformists. More generally, it’s about social and political conformity, whether imposed from the political Left or from the political Right, or simply by general social expectations and attitudes. As part of that, I criticize left-wing ideological purity policing, which is one possible meaning of the term “political correctness.” All the same, the term means different things to different people, so I find its use more a barrier than a help to communication. I specifically distance myself from the term “political correctness” in Chapter 5.

There are broad questions to ask about the widespread urge to demand and police conformity in our speech and expression and in how we choose to live our lives. This urge has roots that are far deeper than current anxieties about helicopter parenting. I’ll come back to this in a minute. Note, though, that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have recently published a useful and well-written book about coddling, as they call it, which includes helicopter parenting (The Coddling of the American Mind). Your readers might enjoy it.

I don’t discuss helicopter parenting in The Tyranny of Opinion, but I’m not a fan of it. It could be a recipe for producing very entitled young adults who might have little tolerance for experiencing ordinary difficulties in life, or for expressions of disagreement with their views of the world. If so, it could help explain cases of extreme intolerance of different views on American campuses, as seen with the ill-treatment of Erika and Nicholas Christakis at Yale in 2015. I emphasize, however, that this isn’t something I’ve personally researched. It’s just an observation of how things appear to me, and nothing in The Tyranny of Opinion depends on such a thesis.

All that said, we should think in terms of a system of causal contributions to any social situation that we face, rather than attempting to identify what might be “the” cause of a situation. Once we move beyond the specific situation on US college campuses, and consider more general human urges to conform to the tribe, and to demand and enforce conformity, we can see causal contributions from deep in our civilizational history in the West, and from tendencies in what appears to be universal human psychology. In a nutshell, we are conforming animals, and we are animals who tend to demand more conformity from each other than is actually needed or helpful for the good of our societies.

Facebook just banned 810 political pages and accounts, in its latest crackdown on liberal and conservative content. Considering social media has become the default forum for public discussion, should social media networks be regulated as public utilities to preserve users’ 1st Amendment rights?

I doubt that what you’re describing would be constitutional in the United States. Even if it were, I’m always wary of solutions that give the government more power. At the same time, I share the concern that a small number of social media sites are becoming very powerful, and we must, as a society, hold them to account in some way for the decisions that they make. I’d like to see more transparency from Twitter about what speech gets banned and why. I think Twitter should be very slow to impose permanent bans on accounts, and it should only be for quite persistent and abusive behavior.

As an aside, some of the truly objectionable behavior on Twitter would be very difficult for the company to control. For example, I’d shed no tears if all the people who dog-piled Justine Sacco or Tim Hunt – in those notorious cases – were banned from Twitter, but I have no illusions that something like this would be practical. I’m not seriously suggesting it.

Before we get to your next question, I should respond to your mention of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The Tyranny of Opinion is not aimed solely, or necessarily even mainly, at an American audience. I am Australian and the book is published worldwide by a publishing house based in London. Many of the situations and cases that I discuss in the book are, in fact, from the US, but many relate to other countries, including the UK, Australia, Germany, and India. Although First Amendment issues come up for comment, I’m more interested in a broader issue that applies to all countries: freedom of inquiry and public discussion (and, more generally, freedom to live our lives in individual ways).

‘On Liberty’ by John Stuart Mill. 112 pp. Dover Publications

Like John Stuart Mill, in his great book On Liberty, I’m at least as worried about social pressures of a whole range of formal and informal kinds as I am about the actions of governments such as official censorship. Keep in mind that the First Amendment creates a limitation on government power – originally on the power of the federal Congress, but now interpreted and expanded to include all branches and levels of government within the US – to impose burdens on “the freedom of speech,” however that is interpreted. (For example, “the freedom of speech” was not historically interpreted as including freedom to defame other individuals for their private conduct.) Thus, various branches and levels of government in the US cannot take actions that abridge “the freedom of speech”; however, this falls a long way short of providing US citizens with a more positive freedom of inquiry and discussion, enforceable against private individuals and companies, let alone against society as a whole.

How should fake news be regulated, since many news stories are very open to interpretation and many “true” news stories can be refuted in the future (WMDs in Iraq)?

Here’s a case where I’m tempted say, “I don’t know.” More precisely, I doubt that government regulation is the answer here. There are great dangers in attempting to restrict political speech, even the sorts of atrocity propaganda and fear-mongering that are used as excuses for going to war. In some countries, legislation that tried to prevent these forms of political propaganda would be unconstitutional. Even if it were constitutional, political parties of almost all flavors like to indulge in such propaganda from time to time, so I can’t see attempts to ban them, or restrict them, obtaining much political support.

Ideally, fear-mongering, warmongering, dubious atrocity narratives, and the like will be scrutinized by rival political organizations and by the news media. In practice, however, that does not always happen. Even supposedly liberal news outlets are often all too willing to disseminate warmongering propaganda and to support questionable military adventures.

It follows that I’m pessimistic about controlling the sorts of propaganda used to advocate war. This doesn’t mean we’re completely helpless. Much can be done to teach the public about propaganda of all kinds, especially demagogical fear-mongering. We can try to give a higher profile to the problems created by propaganda. I’d like to see far more attention paid to this issue in our public debates and discussions, and in what we teach to children and young adults in schools, colleges, and universities. I’d like to see more explanation – in educational contexts and in public discussion – of the features and methods of propaganda, and allow me to note that I make a modest contribution to this in Chapter 6 of The Tyranny of Opinion.

In answering this question, I’ve focused on the sorts of propaganda that are used by warmongers. Other kinds of propaganda and “fake news” may be more amenable to solutions. For example, we have laws against defamation of individuals. Then again, these also have problems. On the one hand, defamation law can chill legitimate public debate. On the other hand, it is too expensive and cumbersome for most individuals to use even in cases where lawsuits would actually be justified.

How should society define and regulate hate speech?

Only with great difficulty. I don’t believe that laws against hate speech have worked particularly well to date, and there’s an argument that they are more trouble than they are worth. I do support narrowly crafted laws to protect individuals from attacks that might be seriously defamatory and/or invasive of their privacy. However, “hate speech” usually refers to speech that expresses or incites hatred toward entire demographics, often (but not always) those based on racial or religious-ethnic background.

The worst kind of hate speech overtly or covertly incites violence and other persecutorial treatment against a group of people. Under modern circumstances, the incitement need not be painfully explicit. To give an example of what I mean, one form of speech that is used to incite violence, even genocide, is along the lines of, “They’re all snakes, rats, and cockroaches. Exterminate them!” In the real world, with all its complexities, the last words – “Exterminate them!” – may not be necessary to convey the implication. In a particular social environment, the incitement may be clear enough.

This is the kind of language that I think governments can legitimately seek to prohibit or restrict, provided that there are safeguards built into the law. I wouldn’t want to see people dragged into court for angrily cursing a particular individual as a pig (for rudeness) or a rat (for treachery). Beyond a certain point, though, the state has a role in disrupting propaganda campaigns that use dehumanizing language to incite, or prepare the ground for, violence and genocide.

And yet, drafting the law to catch only the worst kinds campaigns of hate propaganda is not straightforward. Lobby groups press for laws that do far more, legislators are often quite pleased to accommodate their wishes, and courts are often willing to interpret legislation broadly, even to the point where it captures more than could reasonably be demanded and starts to chill speech that has some social merit.

In many countries outside the US, the appropriate struggle is not to get laws against dehumanizing hate propaganda on the statute books. They are already there, and the priority is to ensure that the existing laws are not used oppressively. This might require injecting narrower drafting into them.

In the US, by contrast, this is largely a non-issue, so long as we are talking about laws (not the speech codes of private companies, for example). It’s been clear since the 1990s that laws against hate speech would have little chance of surviving constitutional scrutiny under US Supreme Court doctrine.

Should government agencies such as the FCC censor profanity? One can argue that censoring black people or gay people who are reclaiming words that were traditionally racist/homophobic slurs effectively disenfranchises them. Or that censoring common profanity is effectively sanitizing part of the human experience.

Perhaps there are details that are worth discussing, such as what sorts of material should be viewed easily by children, but I’m not generally supportive of this kind of censorship.

In a post-Citizens United America, what limits should be placed on corporate election campaign advertising and lobbying?

The short answer is “I don’t know.” This is a fairly technical issue that has constitutional peculiarities in the United States (and different legal peculiarities in other countries).

What I can say is that there are important issues about whether, or in what circumstances, corporate political speech can drive out non-corporate political speech (or at least render it ineffective by simply swamping it). In that way, it might distort political debate. We’d want to be careful before relying on an argument like that, though, for reasons that I hope are obvious. Justice Kennedy’s much-maligned opinion in the Citizens United case is worth reading on this.

‘The Tyranny of Opinion’ by Russell Blackford. 256 pp. Bloomsbury Academic

To the best of my recollection, the defense of the impugned legislation in Citizens United litigation was not argued on the basis of preventing distorted political debate from corporate speech. Perhaps more accurately, the Obama administration largely ran dead on that issue, when the case reached the Supreme Court, and relied on more technical arguments about corporations.

Apart from issues about direct expenditures by corporations on their own political speech, there is the issue of corruption of the political system as a result of corporate donations to political parties and candidates. American law does deal with this, while other Western countries tend to have other and more elaborate restrictions than the US. For example, in 2015 the High Court of Australia upheld a law specifically forbidding political donations by property developers. I expect this would have been unconstitutional in the US.

According to the US Faculty Termination for Political Speech Database, way more professors have been fired since 2016 for making liberal political statements than conservative political statements. What do you make of this data?

It’s an interesting point. Very few academics are fired for their speech in the United States, which is not surprising. Tenured academics in the US enjoy an extremely high level of job protection. Academics who are not tenured can usually be gotten rid of in other ways than outright firing them, such as allowing fixed-duration employment contracts to run out and not renewing them. If we were going solely on the number of people actually fired, we’d see there’s not that many of them, so we’d conclude that American academics are under no great pressure to conform.

But that’s not true. For academics, especially those with tenure, the pressure to conform does not come mainly from the possibility of being fired. There are numerous signals within academic (and other) cultures as to what views can and cannot be stated without social repercussions, which can range from raised eyebrows, through being isolated professionally and ostracized socially, to having a difficult time in getting research published (whereas more politically acceptable ideas might be treated leniently, even when pushed to ridiculous extremes).

Unfortunately, all of this is difficult to research in a quantitative way. Nonetheless, people within a particular social or professional milieu soon come to understand what sorts of ideas can be freely expressed (and perhaps treated leniently), and what sorts of ideas are personally and professionally risky to express. The result in academia may not be (only) discomfort for, say, conservatives. People in academic, or literary, or artistic settings who have good liberal credentials (in any sense of the word “liberal”) are often self-censoring because they differ on various specifics from the ideas they hear around them. They may regard some of those ideas as silly, extreme, defended on the wrong basis, and so on, but they don’t risk saying so. Many people have confided in me about this, after feeling me out, and after becoming aware that I was writing a book about social and political conformity.

In short, the people who are self-censoring are sometimes the very people who largely agree with the local tribal view – but also think critically and independently. There’s a considerable body of psychological research to support this point.

Getting back to academics being fired for expression of certain views, I think we’d want to know a lot more about exactly what views they expressed and how they expressed them. In any event, let me make three final points here:

  1. It’s no part of my thesis in The Tyranny of Opinion that the Left is somehow worse than the right in enforcing conformity. Historically, the opposite has been the case, as I state in the book. However, I’m not retreating from the view that academic departments, disciplines, and social groups, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are likely to enforce political conformity from a leftward direction. But what if it turned out that there is also some enforcement on campus from the other direction? That would not shock me, especially on deeply emotional issues such as the situation in Israel. Some academics, such as Peter Singer, argue for views that attract unpleasantness from both the Right and the Left, so the situation is even more complicated. In any event, note that many examples in my book are of people experiencing bad consequences for broadly left-wing speech, or speech that angers the Right. For example, I discuss Scott McIntyre, Munroe Bergdorf, Lisa Durden, and Lindsey Stone.
  2. The problem I have with much of the operation of what currently counts as “the Left” is not that it is worse than the Right. It’s that it has evolved in such a way that neither side of mainstream politics can now be relied on to take a liberal approach in the traditional sense, i.e. one that favors open, fearless discussion of ideas. Someone like Erika Christakis or the philosopher Rebecca Tuvel can make statements that are well within the bounds of legitimate social and academic discussion, only to find themselves punished from a leftward direction (despite being on the political Left themselves).
  3. For what it’s worth, the available figures for US academics who are actually fired don’t suggest that a random right-wing academic in the US is safer from being fired than a random left-wing academic. Keep in mind that the percentage of American academics who are left-wing or “liberal” in the fields where people are likely to make controversial public statements is immensely greater than the percentage of right-wing academics in those fields. Once an appropriate statistical adjustment is made for this, the picture will look very different.

According to a 2017 Knight Foundation Free Expression on Campus survey, Democrats have felt much more pressure to self-censor on campus than Republicans since Trump’s inauguration.

Although, such surveys contain much interesting data, it is open to interpretation, and even the people reporting the results are often tentative in interpreting what is going on.

One thing that’s clear is that many Americans on the Left are deeply worried about what actions the Trump administration might take that will reduce protections for such things as freedom of speech and especially the freedom of the press (however they understand this). I think that confidence in the security of liberal democratic freedoms has probably crashed within the American cultural, academic, and political Left as a result of Trump’s election. From their point of view, this was a shocking defeat. Conversely, we should expect that Trump’s election would have some effect in giving Republicans more confidence in the future. They were suddenly the winning team. The 2017 survey that you’ve referred to is consistent with all this.

More generally – not just in the US context – I sense a deepening worry on the Left that certain rights and liberties, such as freedom of the press and rights that go with separation of Church and State, may now be in danger as a result of the rise of right-wing populism. I share some of that worry. Note that the issue of separation of Church and State does not get a lot of discussion in The Tyranny of Opinion because I’ve written so much about it in the past, as I have about various other right-wing threats to our liberties. This time, I’ve changed the balance a bit. Even so, much of The Tyranny of Opinion is devoted to expressing my own concerns about right-wing populism and to considering how it is best fought.

Getting back to the 2017 survey, I don’t see anything about Democrats saying they felt more pressure, let alone much more pressure, than Republicans to self-censor on campus. What I do see is Democrats expressing more worry about the future security of liberal democratic freedoms in the US more generally. That’s to be expected for the reasons I just discussed.

The figures do show somewhat more (63% to 53%) Democrats than Republicans observing some chilling of campus speech. This reversal of the situation only a year before must have resulted from the election of Trump. But I also see that college students were asked about their perceptions as to whether different political groups were free to express their views on campus. In that respect, both the Democrats and the Republicans who were surveyed overwhelmingly thought that political liberals had more freedom to express their views on campus than political conservatives. For Democrats, the margin was as follows: 92% of Democrats thought political liberals could freely express their views on campus, but only 67% thought political conservatives could. For Republicans, the margin was similar: 93% of Republicans thought political liberals had that freedom on campus, but only 68% thought political conservatives did.

It would be interesting to know more about how students made their judgments on this. Why did so many think students, including Democrats, think that conservatives were the ones who were not able to express their views freely on campus? You’d want to probe much more deeply to get an idea of how they were reasoning.

Near the end of Ch. 4, you write, “It seems that more and more people, especially in younger generations, now support substantial legal and other formal restrictions on speech that they dislike.” However, a 2016 Knight Foundation Future of the First Amendment survey found that high school students have, since 2007, steadily become more tolerant on whether “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions” and whether “musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics others might find offensive.” What evidence is there, besides a handful of anecdotal reports on ultraliberal college campus protests, that young people are becoming more intellectually intolerant?

There’s a misunderstanding here, and I acknowledge that it might result from some clumsy wording on my part. I hope it’s the clumsiest bit of wording in the book! I was not referring to children (or very young adults) in high school. I meant people in the “younger generations” of those making laws and shaping the cultural environment. This would be, roughly speaking, people in their 30s and 40s, and maybe some in their 20s. I think there’s plenty of evidence that people in those age cohorts are more supportive of the new style of formal restrictions on speech than the older generations of people who are still shaping the cultural environment, such as Baby Boomers.

Going into all this would be tedious for your readers, though, when it’s a very minor point and we were at cross-purposes. Also, to be clear, I was thinking mainly of nations such as the UK and Australia, which have many formal restrictions on speech that would be unconstitutional in the US.

However, to look briefly at some people a bit younger than those I just mentioned, and to get some US input, consider the 2017 Knight Foundation survey, which covers American college students aged from 18 to 24. Those students gave support to the abstract idea of free speech, but they also showed very significant levels of support for such things as speech codes, safe spaces (where certain otherwise-legal speech is not permitted), defined and controlled free speech zones, and exclusion of the press from demonstrations in some circumstances. The reported levels of support for such initiatives would have been unthinkable when the Baby Boomers were college students and were fighting against restrictions on their speech. This is a huge generational change.

In addition, and without going further with generational comparisons, 30% of American college students surveyed in 2017 thought that offensive political views (whichever they are) should be restricted on campus, 64% thought hate speech should not be protected by the First Amendment, 60% thought colleges should be able to restrict wearing “stereotypical costumes,” 37% thought it was sometimes justifiable to shout down speakers or try to prevent them from talking, and 10% of students thought it was at least sometimes acceptable to use violence to stop a speech, protest, or rally.

Some of those figures are difficult to interpret because the questions were not clearly worded, but overall I find them worrying. Such percentages of the college student population in the US translate to very large numbers of people.

Should social media networks be held liable for not taking down doxxing and threats of violence?

It’s difficult to know where to draw a line in public policy. I think we should consider placing more responsibility on social media networks, bloggers with comment threads to their posts, etc., to remove plainly abusive speech, such as clear-cuts threats of violence and incitements to specific acts of violence. That extends to other kinds of abusive speech such as gross violations of individuals’ privacy. These kinds of speech are quite different from free discussion of ideas.

Is Internet callout culture that bad, considering most of the targets are either extremely powerful (politicians, celebrities) or abhorrent (someone who shoots an unarmed man in the back)? The court of public opinion occasionally mobs innocent people or banal offenders, but it also holds people to account, who because of their positions of power, get away with actual crimes and immoral acts.

In its day-day functioning, as I’ve seen it and experienced it, call-out culture primarily affects people who say things that are risky to think and say within their own groups. It affects others in the group who respond by self-censoring. Even if you’re thinking of the high-profile Twitter shamings, as opposed to the daily practice of calling people out for saying things that are “problematic” or “not cool,” many of the victims have been neither powerful nor abhorrent. Tim Hunt, for example, was (and is) a distinguished scientist, but as it turned out he wasn’t really very powerful. Nor was he abhorrent, even though he was treated as if that were the case.

I wouldn’t brush this off as happening “occasionally.” It happens often enough for people to take note of the possible consequences if they don’t self-censor what they say and how they say it. I should add that even when powerful people say or do bad things, there are problems with trial by media, including (perhaps especially) trial by social media. The problems relate to the fairness of the process and to the unpredictable, often disproportionate, nature of the punishment.

Should legislation be passed that bars employers from firing people for offensive (but not violent or libelous) social media posts?

It might not be workable to frame legislation in quite those terms. Still, there is scope to frame legislation that protects workers from unfair dismissals from employment – and for this to cover many dismissals for, say, political comments on social media. Many jurisdictions already have legislation that could be used in this way. The usual test in Australian unfair dismissal law, historically, was “a fair go all round.” Plenty of case law accumulated over decades to interpret what that seemingly vague phrase might mean in practice. It could mean, for example, that employers would not have to reinstate or compensate workers who’d been fired for speech so extreme and reckless (even if not violent or libelous) as to tend to bring the employer into disrepute. As you might expect of someone from a working class family in Australia, I don’t favor the (mainly American) legal doctrine of at-will employment.

Do you think political correctness will become a bigger or smaller problem in the future?

If by “political correctness” you have in mind the general pressures, exerted from all sides, for political conformity, we’re talking about a permanent problem that requires permanent resistance. People like me, who are liberals in the traditional sense that we value liberty and individuality – and particularly free inquiry and fearless discussion of ideas – have work to do. We will have to go on putting the arguments, and trying to attract support for values and principles that stand in opposition to enforced conformity. There’s no guarantee of success, because most people don’t find traditional liberalism, particularly defending people’s rights to advocate ideas we disagree with, very intuitive.

If you’re thinking, more specifically, of ideological purity policing in left-wing circles, the answer might be different. The intensity of zealotry in this area changes over time in unpredictable waves. It would be interesting to attempt a more detailed historical study of this than anything I attempted in The Tyranny of Opinion. Neil W. Hamilton’s Zealotry and Academic Freedom is one useful resource, but it needs updating. At this stage, I think, tentatively, that critiques of this kind of zealotry are worthwhile.

I’m not in the game of making predictions, since there are so many seemingly random unknowns that can affect the directions of societies. I can only say that I’m hopeful that writing a book like The Tyranny of Opinion is not a waste of time. That remains to be seen.