The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

On Language, Politics, and Why and How to Argue

| 49 Comments

Rhetoric.  Rhetorical devices.  Politics.

There’s been a discussion of free speech and censorship lately, falling into the usual camps of, “It isn’t censorship unless a government does it” (clearly nonsense), and overblown statements calling any criticism an attempt at censorship.  My issue isn’t with either of these, it is with the language used.

A few posts back I did a post in which I discussed various political camps using curing cancer as a metaphor.  Most people, I think, got what I was doing (a few didn’t, but that always happens). But when you do something like that, you aren’t trying to convince anyone of your position on the major issue. What I mean is, anyone who read that and had the reaction, “Oh, gee, he’s right. I’ll become a socialist now,” isn’t someone I want on my side.

The point of something like that is to draw some distinctions. Ideally, those who read it, while still not agreeing with me, went, “Okay, now I’m a little clearer on how he views the difference between a liberal and a pseudo-leftist.”  I consider that valuable. If someone who reads that finds himself, because of events in the real world, questioning his basic assumptions, then maybe some of that will come back and help clarify a few things.  And there’s a second purpose: to help things become more sharp and clear in my own mind.  And a third purpose: it is an argument with those who are in 95% agreement with me for the purpose of making it 96%.  (Also a fourth reason, because it made me smile, but let’s skip that one for now.)

The object of the exercise can be stated as follows: To make distinctions and differences in our minds accurately reflect, as much as possible, the differences and distinctions in the real world. I oppose liberals every bit as much as I oppose conservatives; but they aren’t the same.  I oppose pseudo-leftists as much as I oppose Libertarians; but the differences between them matter.

With that in mind, take another look at the second paragraph above.  In it, I say, “overblown statements calling any criticism an attempt at censorship.”  The trouble with that is, it is exactly what I ought to be showing, rather than simply stating it.  And by failing to do that, I pretty much remove all value from it.  The question is, where are the lines between criticism that attempts to clarify and sharpen issues, and an attempt to shut someone up, and when does the latter become censorship?  Now that is an interesting question, and one I’m going to ignore, because I want to talk about the more general case.

When does one refer to another by a derogatory label? That is, when is it correct to refer to someone as an imperialist, as a reactionary, as a pseudo-leftist? When two conditions apply: 1) it is accurate, and 2) the other is not whom you’re trying to convince of anything.

Were I to try to convince someone that his position was that of a pseudo-leftist, I would explain what I meant by the term, discuss the implications of it, and attempt to show how that person’s positions fit into that category.  When I, in another discussion, refer to someone as pseudo-leftist, I’m not trying to convince that person; my agenda is to make distinctions in the context of another discussion.  Does that make sense?

As part of the conversation mentioned above, some of the more extreme opponents of censorship (which is not, mind you, a bad thing to be) will refer to those who differ with them as “anti-speech” or “pro-censorship.”  What this tells me is, those people are not the intended audience. They are not who you are trying to convince of anything.  If your argument takes the form, “By taking position X, you lend support to excessive censorship because of Y,” then there is an effort to convince those people. If your argument takes the form, “The reason I object to the pro-censorship people is,” then you are attempting to make a different point, aimed at different people.

I bring it up because I sometimes see people using a derogatory label for positions they oppose, and then, apparently, trying to argue with those who hold those positions. This makes nothing more clear or sharp for anyone.  Following a friend’s Tweet, and then link to link to link, I recently came across some Men’s Rights Activists. Seriously, I have nothing to say to those people. I don’t want to convince them of anything. We have no common basis for action or discussion.  But if I did want to argue with them, I wouldn’t say, “The trouble I have with you sexists is…” because convincing them that that label applied would be exactly the goal.

Bottom line point: Do not enter into political discourse without knowing what you want to accomplish and why, after which you can give some thought to how.  “Because he’s wrong,” is not a sufficient reason.  Now, if I can just remember to apply that rule to myself, all will be well.

 

 

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

49 Comments

  1. Does something merit the label “censorship” if the objector lacks the POWER to make the speaker/writer shut up? And I mean to actually stop them from talking/writing where others can hear/read. I don’t mean “make them feel bad about continuing to communicate their viewpoint because they don’t like the labels people put on them when they communicate their viewpoint.” Because whining “You were MEAN to me” is soooooo going to persuade me that the viewpoint is rational, fact-based, and intellectually sound.

  2. Yup. Uh-huh. But I don’t think it’s calling names if you’re identifying a person’s position in the world, or your conclusion about what that position is,

  3. skzb

    It depends. I mean, it should be obvious that the “Free Speech Zones” and RNC here in Minneapolis were organized censorship; but sometimes it’s harder to say. The usual argument is, “Because you have offended me, I’m not going to give you this platform, and it isn’t censorship because I don’t HAVE to provide you a platform to say what offends me, it is MY platform.”

    In my opinion, that is something that needs looking at on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes a professor is fired for holding a controversial opinion, and I call it censorship. On the other hand, once, when I was politically active, we were having a meeting and a guy showed up and started spewing reactionary, racist filth and we threw his ass out (physically). If that’s censorship, I can live with it and I’d do it again.

  4. I would say that certain types of speech can be an attempt at censorship whether they succeed or not. For example death threats or rape threats or threats of other type of mayhem are clearly an attempt to shut people up. Sometimes they work too. Someone may decide the shit they have to put up with to participate in a conversation just is not worth it. That is an extreme case (though I can point you to bunch of people who receive rape threats and death threats regularly) – but it does make the point that you don’t have to be a government official to have to ability to censor. Mere critique of a point of view, or even name calling does not constitute censorship. But it does not require formal authority either. Power take many forms.

    And this was cross posted with SKB -his point is valid too – not every forum has an obligation to give space to every viewpoint. There are times and places where shutting people up is a valid action.

  5. skzb

    Gar: Very true. And, in our social circle, there is sometimes bullying and piling on against an unpopular opinion; and whether that is a deliberate attempt to shut someone up, or it just has that effect, it is still intimidating, and it is something all right-thinking people should oppose.

  6. We clearly need to narrow this.

    1. No one is saying private individuals have to give anyone a forum. So tossing out that racist ain’t censorship.

    2. The ACLU and others are saying private individuals and groups censor—my favorite example is the Norman Finkelstein case, but there plenty of them. Enough of them involve Muslims, critics of Israel, and LGBTQetc. folks that you’d think leftists would reject censorship out of hand, but clearly, that ain’t so.

    3. When people criticize what Resnick and Malzberg said, they’re engaging in free speech.

    4. When people say the Bulletin editor should’ve kept R&M from saying what they said, they’re promoting censorship. Or, at the very least, they’re asking for a change in the magazine’s agenda, which until now has not required conformity to certain sorts of language. I keep feeling sorry for Jean Rabe, because she was doing the job as she was told to by allowing f&sf writers write as they pleased about f&sf.

    I have noticed people delighting in the fact that Rabe resigned. It reminds me of people delighting when Hollywood blacklisted artists, and that bothers me. I don’t want bad tactics used, no matter what I think of the goal, because bad tactics will corrupt the best goals.

    Oh, and a side point. I think MRAs are as misguided as gender feminists, but in both cases, when they find something that’s true or interesting, I’ll happily share it, just as I’ll happily share something from the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Where would Marx and Engels have been had they refused to make use of the capitalist press?

  7. Gar, as someone who has gotten death threats, I have to say I never considered them a form of censorship. They were attempts to silence me, but they weren’t sent to the people who might’ve published me. But you may be right that simply targeting the speaker is enough.

    Hmm. In the case of the Hollywood blacklist, the studios did blacklists, but they did them because they caved to the pressure from private interest groups. So, for now, I don’t think death threats count as censorship. Well, unless they’re directed at editors, publishers, etc.–the people who control the platforms.

  8. skzb

    I hadn’t known that Rabe resigned. Crap. And no argument about using information from the MRAs, it’s just that that information led me to some web sites the sickened me.

    But the substance of the post isn’t about censorship, it is about how you refer to your opponents, in what context, and what that says, and when you should be doing what to accomplish which.

  9. Well, the issues of names is fascinating. On the one hand, I think you should refer to people as they prefer. On the other, people sometimes choose names that are lies—the National Endowment for Democracy has an astonishingly undemocratic history. So when I refer to identitarians, I’m not using a name that they would necessarily embrace, but I am using one that’s precise. It’s not designed to convince them, but members of extreme groups are rarely open to being convinced. When criticizing our opponents, we’re rarely speaking to them. We’re speaking to the people who’re already on our side and to the people who might be convinced to join us.

  10. skzb

    Will: And when you refer to people as “pro-censorship,” who are you addressing?

  11. Hah! Yes! If you want someone to rethink their beliefs, or at least change the way they express them, you don’t say, “You better check your privilege, because your (white/male/straight/cis) ass is showing.” When you say that, even if it seems to be said to the person you disagree with, you’re displaying solidarity with people who agree with you, not trying to change the mind of the person whose statement you object to. (Or you’re trying to change that person’s mind, but using really, really ineffective tactics.)

    And yes, I’m lazy. I used the generic “they.” Also sloppy generic “you.” Take it out on my next ms. *g*

  12. skzb

    Emma: Perfect example.

  13. I’m no longer convinced it’s possible to change anyone until reality has bitten their butt. To be more convincing, how should I refer to people who support censorship while denying that what they support is censorship? I’ll happily revise anything I’ve written if there’s any hope of accomplishing that.

  14. skzb

    If you are trying to address them, the point is not to use a term at all. The point is to demonstrate that their position ends up supporting censorship. It isn’t that hard. It’s why there are phrases like, “Where I disagree with some of you, is…” and, “It seems that the stand advocated by so-and-so would have the result…”

    Obviously, there is no reason not to use a correct descriptive term if either you’re talking about rather than to someone, or it is a term that the person wouldn’t have trouble with–most feminists, for example, have no objection to being called feminists, any more than I have a problem being called a socialist, a red, a communist, a leftist. “Cuz you ain’t done nothin’ if you ain’t been called a Red.”

    Now, that said, I am strongly inclined to agree with you about reality and butt-biting, so what I’m recommending is probably an exercise in futility.

  15. The whole subject of free speech (and related rights) is a horrible pit of contingent circumstances and ethical gray areas. Obviously as (culturally) liberal people we want to allow as much speech as possible. But we do reserve the right to ban some things for the public good.

    So check off yes or no votes for legal or ethical justification of censorship for a list like this one:

    * banning a false cry of “fire” in a theater
    * banning “real” child porn (using actual children)
    * banning simulated child porn (drawn or with adults)
    * banning “extreme” porn (law in the UK, btw, no definition of “extreme”)
    * banning nazi sympathizers in a private forum
    * banning nazi sympathizers on a public (government) forum
    * banning nazi sympathizers from wearing swastikas
    * banning nazi sympathizers from issuing their own private publications
    * banning liberals or conservatives in a private forum
    * banning speech by enemies we are at war with
    * banning speech by avowed national enemies during peacetime
    * banning speech by fugitive criminals
    * banning the dissemination of WMD instructions
    * banning the dissemination of 3D printed firearm designs
    * banning the dissemination of anything under copyright
    * banning false advertising
    * banning all advertising for certain products
    * banning all advertising
    * banning slander and libel
    * banning “hate speech”
    * banning insults to religious leaders
    * banning blasphemy of any kind
    * banning any speech that may distress a subset of the public*

    The order isn’t important here, but the point is for some you probably say “yes”, for some you say “no, but I can see an argument” and for some you say “if you do that you’ll be up against the wall come the revolution”. And the gray area between “yes” and “fuck you” isn’t all that wide at times, either.

    If you go through a list like this, the next step (at least if you have an AI background) is to generalize a reasonably terse rule that captures all your “yes” or “no” votes for censorship. For my own part I find this impossible to do in a way that doesn’t allow some grotesque counterexamples in both directions, but maybe someone has a nice short rule I can agree with?

    *This is actually a real law in some countries today, absurd as it may seem.

  16. @Will – “I’m no longer convinced it’s possible to change anyone until reality has bitten their butt.”

    I think this is a great point.

    If words alone can change someone’s mind, either the words are adverting to some powerful and traumatic real-world experience the belief-holder somehow hadn’t considered before, or else the person probably isn’t a belief-holder in the first place, but states some position by default or for convenience, not because they’ve ever really invested themselves in whatever it is.

  17. “And, in our social circle, there is sometimes bullying and piling on against an unpopular opinion; and whether that is a deliberate attempt to shut someone up, or it just has that effect, it is still intimidating, and it is something all right-thinking people should oppose.”

    I disagree. Sometimes a group of people is trying to reach agreement about a shared issue. When somebody comes in who has a different agenda and they find him disruptive, why should they let him keep disrupting them? He isn’t one of them.

    If they try to keep him from talking to the public elsewhere, that’s bad. But if they have their own little corner where they’re trying to solve their own problems, why should they let random strangers interfere?

    I felt that way here. I commented on a couple of topics and seemed to get a whole lot of disapproval, and you deleted the discussion on one of them. I think in one case it was about slavery, and the other about women and men. Eventually you decided to get somebody else to moderate because you weren’t good at it yourself. I naturally felt like my point of view was so useful that everybody ought to be familiar with it, but we’re living in a big world and it’s a luxury for people to understand each other.

    I’ve come back a little and I hope to make a few comments that further the discussion. If people get angry I intend to back off because I don’t in fact need to get my point across here. You won’t vote me off an island I need to be on, it does not affect my immediate survival.

    Free communication is voluntary for all participants.

  18. skzb

    Miramon: Well said.

    J. Thomas: No one went out onto the web in order to disseminate your email address (or, for that matter, your real address) in order to encourage hate mail be sent you. No one has made a point of writing blog posts talking about what a bad human being you are, and how everyone should automatically disregard anything you write about anything. In addition to death threats, these things have happened to Will. That’s the sort of thing I’m referring to–the attempt, through intimidation, to make someone afraid to express an opinion. It didn’t work in Will’s case. However much I may disagree with him at times, I consider that something to be proud of.

  19. “If you go through a list like this, the next step (at least if you have an AI background) is to generalize a reasonably terse rule that captures all your “yes” or “no” votes for censorship.”

    I say,

    1. There should be a way for people who like each other’s ideas to find each other and communicate and “proselytize”. If you try to keep them scattered and alone, that’s bad censorship.

    2. There should be ways for people who want to enjoy discussion with each other, to enjoy it without interference from people who unduly annoy them. They should also have ways to attract new compatible people to the discussion, so it shouldn’t have to be kept completely private or secret.

    #2 says it’s OK to censor some people some places. You don’t have to let anybody say whatever they want wherever they want.

    #1 says they are censored if they are denied access to the public, and members of the public who search for them can’t find them.

    So I say, if somebody wants to talk at length about how much they like to have sex with chickens, and they come into your space to tell you about it, you should have the right to tell them to go away. If they don’t go away they are wrong. They are annoying you.

    But if you hunt them down and tell them in their own space that they shouldn’t talk about sex with chickens, you are wrong. You are annoying them.

    Set it up so people can easily have their own spaces and invite people to join them. Have spaces where anything goes, and if you don’t like that then don’t go there.

    How about when somebody’s opinion is important to you. A judge. A tax assessor. A policeman. You can’t just live and let live. They are making up their mind and they give you no chance to present your case. Worse, if you try you will only annoy them. That sucks.

  20. “No one went out onto the web in order to disseminate your email address”

    Yes, exactly. Let’s say I got considerable evidence that I wasn’t welcome here, but not banned. That’s OK. It wasn’t necessary for me to communicate with the particular people who didn’t want to communicate with me. There’s a whole world of other people who might want to communicate with me, and people here were not preventing me.

    If I had gotten banned from here it might be called censorship, but I can’t call it a real bad thing. There’s a big difference between trying to shut somebody up lots of places to keep them from finding other people who want to communicate with them, versus shutting somebody up one place that’s yours where you want to accomplish your own goal.

  21. skzb

    Check. So far, in the (six? seven?) years of this blog, I’ve only had to ban two people. I think that’s pretty good. As most people here are, I think, fans of my work, I take it as a compliment that I don’t get the sort of people I need to shut up.

  22. For as often as the blog touches on history and politics, I think that’s an amazingly good track record.

    @Miramon: The only general rule for proper censorship I can think of is something coming out of Asimov’s original laws of robotics, which I always thought was an extension of the Hippocratic Oath and other, similar ethical teachings. The ethical essence of the three laws could be stated in a sentence as something like:

    “Neither do nor allow harm to oneself or others.”

    Seems like it clarifies, but I find it so vague in practice as to be nearly useless, because one can’t go about as some sort of caped crusader all the time saving others, nor would everyone agree what constitutes “harm” anyway, in many instances.

    Most of your examples have clear-cut victims (though I personally tend to think blasphemy is a victim-less crime if there ever was one). A modified version of the three laws summary sentence could be used to describe that set (the set of typical harm-causing language deemed worthy of censorship in many instances because there are obvious, “real” victims who need protection.) So:

    “Neither speak nor allow speech doing obvious harm to oneself or others.”

    Hm… I _think_ that brings it to a clearer level of vagueness, though not so sure about the word “obvious.”

    You still need the list, but the rule suggests how to derive and modify such a list.

    The general rule requires or presupposes the wisdom to know what constitutes a valuable part of your “self” and the “selves” of others. Not everyone is even moderately wise in what constitutes their own best self-interest, much less the best interest of others. But when it comes to the “verbal self?!”

    Basically you need the ability to know the future and the ability to read minds to follow these perfectly well, which Asimov eventually provided, more or less, with psychohistory and at least two different forms of telepathy.

    The word “obvious” is probably the most dangerous word there, much as the Zeroth Law was potentially the most dangerous addition to the original three laws. In the mind of an ideologue, it is so “obvious” that the world, and everyone in it, would be so much better off if they shared his/her view that any and all immediate harm (up to and including things like genocide or enslavement) done in the name of the ideological view is justified for a later, future “good.”

    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” but good intentions plus ideological delusions are more like a high-speed monorail to hell…

  23. In terms of rhetoric: discussion in a public forum is almost always aimed at the audience. Changing the mind of the person you are talking to is secondary at best. Further I would agree that argument alone seldom changes someones mind about anything that is a hard won fundamental belief for them. However when it comes to argument that is not the end of the matter when it comes to the kind of targeting SKB talks about. First, not only the person you are addressing but the larger audience may be offended and closed off if you start with name calling. Secondly, while you may not change the mind of the person you are addressing in the short run, you are also providing a store of facts and argument that will them be available to them if their life experience changes their mind. I remember as a kid by Dad arguing with friends neighbors, where he criticized the Vietnam was and they defended it, And a few years later when public opinion turned against the war, they proudly brought up the same arguments as something new they’d discovered, and forgot he’d opposed it all along. It was historical forces, not argument that changed their mind. But having heard those arguments provided a more coherent way of dealing with the change than if they had never heard them.

    I’m not against name calling on principle. Sometimes it is appropriate. But I tend to be very cautious about deciding that it is appropriate; if I’m going to be mistaken, I’d rather make the mistake of name calling too little than too much.

  24. By creating a rubric for reasoned discourse, you’re creating space to allow a move away from self-righteous indignation. Where’ the fun in _that_?!

  25. skzb

    ” It was historical forces, not argument that changed their mind. But having heard those arguments provided a more coherent way of dealing with the change than if they had never heard them.”

    That’s about as well as I’ve ever heard that expressed.

  26. @Brian –

    Yeah, another one of those terms old-fashioned AI people used to use a lot is “operational”, meaning that whether a definition is intensional or extensional, you still have to be able to do something with it. And unfortunately the golden rule, that excerpt from Hippocrates, and similar formulations are not “normative” because they don’t really tell you what to do: in every situation you have to work it out from scratch to determine if you are really doing harm or not, and how much.

    So sure, not doing harm is always good, except in the many situations in which you are balancing harm inflicted to one group with good done to another, or making choices about who to harm less or more. Unfortunately utilitarianism and the golden rule and such don’t provide you with an “evaluation function” to determine quantitatively whether the good outweighs the bad. You can use sometimes use decision theory to valuate various choices, e.g. with dollars or something like that, but those values are all subjective anyway, so in the end you are back in a moral fog with no way to definitively justify your ethical actions.

    I will now take my AI terminology and this deontology mashup and head back to the 80s….

  27. I’m not as much of a fan of Christopher Hitchens as, well, Christopher Hitchens’ fans are, but I think this quote’s damn fine: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind.”

    The Golden Rule, like all good general principles, fails when it comes into contact with “the literal mind”.

  28. Gar, I like what Steve quoted, but I also like this: “they proudly brought up the same arguments as something new they’d discovered”. I’ve noticed that over and over again. I’ll just say “sigh” because anything else would sound too misanthropic just now.

  29. @ Miramon-

    Yes… much too tired to dust off a philosophy textbook tonight (or even go Googling) so I could follow you better, but I imagine it still boils down (or up, with the moral fog metaphor?) to a strong need for telepathy and prophecy… er, “theory of mind” and “predictive reasoning.”

    Unfortunately there are more than a few people who are quite capable of convincing themselves they are reading God’s mind and definitively know the future. Or that other humans in funny clothes whom they’ve put their trust in are doing the same. (Not talking about cosplay… or am I?)

    Oh, and hey… when you get back to the 80s, can you tell them they should probably pay better attention to anthropogenic global climate change? Though if they weren’t listening to Benford and others the first time around…

  30. Maybe “there’s no such thing as a free intelligence?” I am afraid, from my observations, that there are no cures for the literal mind, though the symptoms, for brief periods, do respond temporarily to treatment.

  31. Said treatment being… anything that frees from fear. Art can do that, sometimes. Art, story, entertainments that charm and thus slip past the defenses a little… some just don’t respond to that treatment, though, or refuse or avoid it.

    I love when art can be therapeutic, or at least start that process.

    Does the art of rhetoric ever manage that, though? Can it be delicately- or deftly-enough practiced to help those who need help most in terms of at least gradually opening their minds? Can it convince such people one is a decent human being who happens to honestly disagree about certain things instead of a slavering demon from the fiery pits coming to drain their faithful loyalties away and consume the remaining empty husks of their souls and their children’s souls and their children’s children’s souls unto the seventh generation?

    Can’t say I’ve had much luck with it, but likely that’s just me and the soul-devouring vibe of my verbiage… >;^)

  32. “And a few years later when public opinion turned against the war, they proudly brought up the same arguments as something new they’d discovered, and forgot he’d opposed it all along. It was historical forces, not argument that changed their mind. But having heard those arguments provided a more coherent way of dealing with the change than if they had never heard them.”

    So, did it matter? Once historical changes change their minds, they would create any excuses that went along with what they intended to do, whether it made sense or not.

    The Nazis are an obvious example. Their reasoning did not make sense except on the most basic level of “I want success for my people and my culture, so I will fight whatever threatens them”. If the Nazis had had better ready-made excuses, more logical ones, more reasonable ones, what would it have changed?

    This assumes that having good theories doesn’t matter. People will do whatever historical forces require of them, whether they can find any way to make sense of it or not. That is your assumption. And we see many examples where that’s true. the dot.com boom of the ’90’s. People were ready to invest money in something that had no business plan, because they assumed it would somehow work out. And they had no better investment opportunity.

    The banking crisis of 2008. Everybody knew a crisis was inevitable but they kept right on doing the same things, because they could make a profit *today*, there was no profit in creating a soft landing, and anybody who got out of the business *today* would lose all the profits they could make before the crash.

    The invasion of Iraq. A whole lot of people pretended they believed that Saddam had something to do with 9/11. It’s understandable they’d believe he was building nukes with no evidence, it’s what they would have done in his place, but 9/11?. Their reasoning didn’t make sense, but that didn’t matter — they had already decided what to do and the excuses were only to placate people who hadn’t decided.

    Does that apply to us too? Do we blindly do whatever historical forces make us do, and then come up with rational excuses later? More important, if I’m so good at responding to historical forces, why ain’t I rich?

  33. @Emma

    “Take it out on my next ms.”

    Send me your next manuscript and I will!

    Okay, not at all relevant to the actual discussion at hand, but if I didn’t say it I’d have had esprit d’escalier all day.

  34. OK now, what the heck is it with esprit de l’escalier? I went an entire lifetime without hearing this phrase even once, and in the last month, a dozen times all over the place.

  35. Miramon, I guess it’s just steam escalator time!

  36. skzb

    Emma: I see what you did there.

  37. Bottom line point: Do not enter into political discourse without knowing what you want to accomplish and why, after which you can give some thought to how. ”Because he’s wrong,” is not a sufficient reason. Now, if I can just remember to apply that rule to myself, all will be well.

    This is a good rule. I need to keep in mind as well. Nicely put.

  38. Check your privilege! I’m not here to educate you!

    I say that in jest, but those sorts of tactics are surprisingly effective when employed on people who want to conform–and most of us don’t want to offend people.

  39. >This assumes that having good theories doesn’t matter. People will do whatever historical forces require of them, whether they can find any way to make sense of it or not. That is your assumption.

    I would describe that as a strong tendency rather than an iron law, but with that caveat, your description is fair. Only “making sense of it” is important because that can have a strong influence on whether a change sticks or not – or even if it does not stick whether it leaves behind a movement that can continue to exercise pressure or even influence. Take the Occupy Movement, which is by no means dead, but is nowhere near as influential as at its peak. It was very brave, and accomplished a lot including ending the taboo in day to day US discourse on discussing class. It is now socially acceptable to notice that classes exists and that some classes have power over others. That is a hell of a change in US society. Note that that is not the same as saying that this is universally accepted – merely that discussing class is no longer treated as the equivalent of discussing how to fend off the menace of a Martian invasion.

    But the Occupy movement mostly having to invent is analysis from scratch meant a large number of errors – including leaving people vulnerable to crackpot stuff like blaming our troubles on fractional reserve banking. It left people vulnerable to fetishization of consensus, and to creating environments that were often hostile to women. There was no way the Occupy movement could have avoided eventually moving on to a new phase. Eventually people have to go home, go back to work. But while the founders of the Occupy movement were a mixture of anarchists, Marxist and liberals, most of those who joined after the first month were not only new to political activism but had pretty much had very little experience with political argument or discourse. Everythign was new to them; had to pick among competing discourses from Marxists, anarchist, liberals, libertarians, PoMos with no really database in their heads about those positions – no previous knowledge. What occupy left behind would have been much stronger if people had been exposed to the arguments in the best – even ones I strongly disagree with. If they had not had to reinvent everything from scratch.

    There is something to be said for freshness of viewpoint. But i think it serves those in power when we make novelty and “innocence” too prevailing a value and refuse to give any weight to knowledge or experience. I’m going to take something Marx said and reverse the emphasis: Humans don’t make history just as they please, but they do make history. Historical forces may create a moment. But whether that moment is just a rise or a dip in the road, or whether that moment is a bend where the road changes direction is up to us. And, though far from the only thing or even the most important thing, argument and education is one of the things that helps determine that.

  40. “Only “making sense of it” is important because that can have a strong influence on whether a change sticks or not – or even if it does not stick whether it leaves behind a movement that can continue to exercise pressure or even influence.”

    I can think of various examples that did stick without making sense, but when it’s only a strong influence those can happen sometimes without it. So, agreed.

    “But the Occupy movement mostly having to invent is analysis from scratch meant a large number of errors – including leaving people vulnerable to crackpot stuff like blaming our troubles on fractional reserve banking.”

    This is a side issue here, but I’d like to explore it.

    I think that consideration of banking might sometimes be a useful approach. I can see that from a Marxist perspective it looks just crackpot, but consider — a lot of people *believe* in free markets. The reasoning goes something like this:

    “Free markets provide a feedback mechanism so that over time the economy responds to changes. Since the economy adapts, it does everything the best way that can be done. It is the best feedback mechanism and the only feedback mechanism. No other feedback mechanism can allow adaptation. Furthermore markets are the only moral way to run things. People will never make a trade unless they both benefit, and they trade only their own property which no one else has any say over, so every trade improves society. Whenever someone is forced to do something, it is bad for him or he would have done it voluntarily. So everything except free trades hurts somebody and often does them more harm than the good it does to the robber. There is no morality outside free markets. Everything bad in the world comes from force, and governments do nothing except force, a government can never create anything of value but can only take from people who create value.”

    Of course they don’t say it quite that explicitly.

    Now, when people believe this and then look at how fractional reserve banking works, they see that it does not fit that description at all. They may start to question their assumptions. Usually they decide that since banks get government charters and government regulation, that it’s all the government’s fault. That without government either there would be no banks or that free market banks would work perfectly. But sometimes they take it a step farther.

    The banking argument generalizes. If you buy stock from the stock market, presumably you want its price to go up so you can make a profit. But at any time your broker can take your stock without your permission and sell it on behalf of somebody who wants the price to go down. They do fractional-reserve stock brokerage. They have arguments why this is a good thing. When somebody wants to buy stock and there is none for sale, this increases the number of trades. (But if they offered you enough money you would have sold.) It decreases price volatility. (You wanted the price to go up — that’s volatility, when the price goes up fast.) Etc.

    Something that at first looks like a free market turns out to be rigged against you.

    With enough examples, some of these people may someday be ready to question their religion. They may demand an economy without bankers and a stock market without brokers. That may seem like a small step to you, but maybe this is a year for small steps.

  41. “If you are trying to address them, the point is not to use a term at all. The point is to demonstrate that their position ends up supporting censorship.”

    This seems very much like my own viewpoint, oft-expressed and just as oft attacked or ignored, that one should not label people, but rather their behavior. (Or, as you suggest, explain how their behavior–including speech and writing–tends to lead to a situation one can label.) If I think a person needs a label, I try to find the one the person uses, and I often include “self-identified” so there is no doubt that I am not applying my own label. For myself, I generally settle on either “leftover-’60s knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal” (which is not entirely accurate but gives the right general flavor) or “cranky old broad” (which is entirely accurate).

  42. >I think that consideration of banking might sometimes be a useful approach

    It was not the consideration of banking but of *fractional* *reserve* *banking* that was crackpot. Basically Fractional Reserve Banking means the bank lends some of the money out because all the depositors won’t need it at once. Without Fractional Reserve Banking, a bank becomes a sort of electronic mattress. I’d add that fractional reserve banking preceded banks. As soon as you have money or wealth that exists in the form of accounting entries rather than hard currency or so many sheep and goats, there is a huge advantage to not physically keeping some of what is being accounted for in a giant warehouse, but putting some of it to use until called for. If would say that a socialist society, or even a more progressive capitalist society where the banks were publicly owned would still take advantage of Fractional Reserve Banking. Money has a number of points. It is one instrument of power by one class over another. But it also is a form of information, and a tool by which humans can cooperate to create things. A better form of society (and I don’t limit the idea of social improvement to socialists, though i think we have the only answer that can work in the long wrong) would eliminate (or at least minimize) the first, but find the second and third too useful to do without. One of the few times Marx ever took time to write “recipe for the cookshops of the future” was his proposal for a labor currency. While I think the actual proposal was flawed, I think what we can get from it today is that it still was an attempt to maintain the advantages of money; an implicit recognition that there is real utility in being able to compare the value of dissimilar goods and services on a single scale. .

  43. Gar, thanks for that. It helps me clarify my thinking about this. In general, Marx thought people would use what capitalism developed, and the banking system’s no different. If you want to give to each according to need, being able to send someone an electronic check is mighty useful. Charities discovered that long time ago: in disasters, they tend to get donations of a lot of crap that rots in storage sheds–what they need are dollars that people in a disaster area can put to the right use at the right time.

  44. “Basically Fractional Reserve Banking means the bank lends some of the money out because all the depositors won’t need it at once.”

    Yes, but the implications are startling. Like, people think of money as a store of value. They think they can put their money in the bank and spend it later. But if you put a dollar in the bank it might get lent 5 or more times, and by supply-and-demand its value is much deflated. You try to save your money hoping it will be valuable, and the banks make a great big profit by inflating the money supply.

    Imagine that you were storing food, intending to eat it if there was a famine. But the storage facility sells food as fast as new people bring it in. “All the depositors won’t need it at once.” Then there’s a famine and you come to get your food and it isn’t there. The storage guys took what they could carry and ran with it….

    Mostly the banks make fine profits off the public. Occasionally they stage a crisis which the largest and luckiest banks survive. The survivors wind up richer than before. The government claims that they are now regulating things better than before, and people ignore it until the next crisis. Do we need this? Does it actually do us any good?

    If I print a $20 bill and spend it, that’s counterfeiting. All the other dollars are worth less because I add new ones. When a bank creates a $20,000,000 loan out of nothing and the money is spent, it’s the same thing — but they have a license to steal, and I don’t.

    I wouldn’t so much mind if it was the government adjusting the money supply to meet the needs of the economy, to prevent too much inflation or deflation etc. But it’s banks doing it for their short-term profit, with no foresight and no coordination except what the Fed gives them.

    It’s no good when anybody can start a bank, that’s like letting everybody counterfeit money. It’s no good when select banks get charters to do it. Make it illegal for everybody except the government.

    Give every citizen an official government debit card. When the government thinks more money needs to be in circulation, they can credit everybody’s accounts, or cut somebody’s taxes, or spend the money, or whatever they decide.

    There’s nothing that private fractional-reserve banks do for us that we can’t do better without private fractional-reserve banks. Except to make some rich people richer at — most years — little risk.

  45. Discussing this is kind of a derailment, but while we don’t need *private* fractional reserve banking, because we don’t need private banking we need at minimum *public* fracitonal reserve banking. Why? Because if we are going to create money we need some way of directing it where real corresponding value will be created. And that means not just big infrastructure projects of the kind we pay for with taxes, but lots of small things too. For example if Joe and Jill want to start a hot stand, they have to convince someone that there is a enough demand for hot dogs at that spot to justify devoting a building and equipment to that use. And that would be just as true under socialism as under capitalism. And there has to be some way of measuring that potential against competing uses. Under socialism, it might look very different (I don’t want to predict that level of detail) but the accounting is going to have to look at total potential resources (deposits and reserves) and utility – interest rates. Maybe under socialism it will be *only* an accounting convention (again don’t want to predict that level of detail) but at least the accounting will be needed.

    Incidentally, I don’t feel too bad about the discussion so far, since in a way it is an example of one of the type of discourses the post is about. On the other hand, maybe if we want to continue this discussion we should take it to email, because continuing might stop being an example and become a real derailment.

  46. “…we need at minimum *public* fracitonal reserve banking. Why? Because if we are going to create money we need some way of directing it where real corresponding value will be created.”

    I claim that the dynamics of private fractional-reserve encourage banks to be too liberal in their lending, right up until a recession. This is a historical accident that has strongly affected capitalism. Government doesn’t need reserves since they can create or destroy tokens at will. The idea that government should have to borrow money from banks is plain absurd.

    Suppose that we could separate investment versus money-supply management. When the economy expands and you want more money to circulate, the government can for example just give it to voters. The obvious way is a flat negative tax. Give each voter’s debit card the same amount, this week. Everybody has a little more money they can do as they want with. Or cut taxes by whatever complicated formula you come up with.

    Meanwhile there are lenders. If having $1 million means you can lend $10 million, you can take risks you wouldn’t if you could only lend $1 million. Ten times as many loans to spread the risks over, and much more profit from the ones that pay off. Lenders will be more cautious when the risks seem bigger, and I think that’s a good thing. Less leverage means milder booms and busts when people take their own initiative.

    The government can lend money rather than give it away or spend it, if it chooses, without needing fractional reserves. But there’s room for corruption….

    “if Joe and Jill want to start a hot stand, they have to convince someone that there is a enough demand for hot dogs at that spot to justify devoting a building and equipment to that use.”

    The way we do it now, if they start out with a push-cart and they make enough money at one location to rent a building, the landowner will track how profitable they are and will jack up rents to squeeze them. If he sees that it’s a great location for hot dogs he thinks his property is more valuable to sell, too. So they may do better to get a loan and quietly buy the building before anybody else sees how well they can do. But without a trial run they don’t know themselves how well they’ll do.

    The system is set up so everybody tries to keep secrets. The more others know about you, the more they can profit at your expense.

    If we could somehow have an economy where people don’t lose by sharing information, then Joe and Jill could persuade a lot of people their hot dog stand would be successful without so much worry that someone else would get funding first and move in ahead of them. If it’s a great location now, someone might share about planned changes that will make it worse. Maybe build a temporary structure they can transport somewhere else when needed. The less that needs to be secret, the better people can coordinate and the bigger the returns on average.

    Fractional reserve, with the details kept secret, is a scam that has occasional horrible results. Government is supposed to regulate the money supply while banks change it capriciously for their own profit, occasionally triggering recessions.

    Thank you for taking me seriously. If you’d like to go to email I will, or we can drop it.

  47. My email is glipow@gmail.com I will add that my use of “crackpot” was an example of what not to do if wanting to convince someone who holds the view being criticized. I think I assumed that no one on this particular blog, right or left, would hold that particular view.

  48. Somehow a lot of the people who disapprove of fractional reserve banking also disapprove of paper money and want us to switch to a strict gold standard to keep the government or anybody from trying to manipulate the money supply. They assume that anyone who tries to do that will do it for a bad purpose, and they don’t worry about people hoarding gold coins when gold coins are in demand.

    I don’t know why that is. I suspect that it’s easier to see the problems with banking when you think of money as a material thing, like a potato. From that perspective banking is clearly fraud, and so they are predisposed to look at the other issues.

  49. So, how does this discussion relate to the recent SFWA dispute?

    Resnick and Malzberg do say that their critics are trying to censor them. And in fact their critics are trying to get the SFWA to stop letting them publish in the SFWA publication.

    Their critics are calling them sexists, and appear to be making no attempt at all to communicate with them but only with other critics and with whatever the SFWA establishment is or will be. (The editor resigned, the president leaves July 1, etc.)

    The critics seem clear what their goal is — to prevent anything sexist from getting published by SFWA. I’m not at all clear about R&M’s goals. I think maybe they started out reminiscing about old times, and when they got intense criticism for it they wanted to prove to their own satisfaction that they were right. Neither of them seems to take a lot of interest in it all. I get the strong impression that SFWA is not in any way central to Resnick’s income. Maybe he got some egoboo from it for awhile. Malzberg I can’t tell much about, his Facebook page is mostly empty, his Myspace page is years old, he doesn’t seem to be publishing a lot on the net about how he feels day to day, or maybe it’s hard to find.

    R&M have published their column for more than 15 years. They seem to write a lot about nuts-and-bolts of successful writing.

    http://mikeresnick.com/?p=1544
    —————
    My advances went down. They didn’t nosedive, but they were cause for concern, because I hadn’t figured out what I was doing wrong. I was winning awards, I knew I was writing better books than I had a few years earlier, and I knew I was known and read by more people each year.

    Then I picked up some screenplay assignments, and because I was already working at capacity, I had to let something go, and I dropped the anthologies.

    And lo and behold, I sold as many copies of my 5 or 6 novels as I had sold of my 5 or 6 novels plus my 15 or 20 anthologies. My advances went right back up, and I realized that I had stumbled on a Hidden Truth. I didn’t *want* to compete against all my old titles.
    —————

    If I want to argue about all that, what is my goal? Who do I want to persuade of what? It isn’t enough to tell the truth of what I’ve found out, is it? Shouldn’t I decide who I want to convince of what, and then convince them as competently as I know how?

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