This is a blog about “The Discourse”. About ‘free speech’ and persuasion. In my current work, I’m reading about the application of signalling theory to political science, and the theory and practice of cultural evolution. These disciplines make two core observations about political life in social species.
Firstly, a political strategy is comprised of two inter-related elements: behaviour and signal. A behaviour is simply an external action by an agent; a signal is a sub-type of behaviour which carries information content between one social actor and another. Of course, behaviour can act as a signal and a signal is a behaviour, but conceptually we can distinguish between those parts of an action which conveys information between agents and those parts that don’t. When it forms part of a strategy, sending a signal to another social agent has the objective of altering the beliefs of the receiver for the advantage of the sender. A corollary of this is that a signal is only that part of behaviour which is observable and comprehensible to the receiver - it does not include actions or motivations that are hidden from them. Through the written and spoken word, humans have unusually sophisticated ways of signalling one another, which the ‘Machiavellian hypothesis’ proposes was largely evolved for the purpose of manipulating others in social settings.
Secondly, in the sphere of cultural evolution we say that social agents learn by imitating the behaviour of other agents. We imitate the social strategies of others more successful from ourselves, in order to minimise the fitness difference between us. A corollary of this is that we copy pretty blindly - so that if our instructor includes additional steps or rituals which are empirically unnecessary humans will tend to copy those rituals too as if there were essential to the behaviour. What isn’t copied are the reasons or motivations for behaviour - whether our social models and celebrities are Machiavellian manipulators, religious fanatics or eccentric oddballs, if their social strategies work, then we copy them blindly. In other words, we buy the breakfast cereals recommended by our favourite celebrities, even if their choice of product as little or no bearing on their success as an actor, athlete or musician.
What these two observations lead to is this: signals (i.e. speech) can effectively change behaviour - in other words, be persuasive - even if the receiver of those signals does not understand why their beliefs have changed or why others wanted change to occur. By performing that social strategy themselves, and sending the same signal, they create a new social equilibrium without, in the main, conceptually understanding or agreeing with it. So for instance, socialists and Marxists have an enormous body of theory justifying and explaining their economic ideas but if they have only one signal which is persuasive - i.e. “Medicare for All” - then that slogan, that symbol, will be the vector that spreads socialist behaviours.
The more time that passes, the less individuals are likely to know the empirical reasons for the behaviour and the more they are likely to treat them as a given, as ‘common sense’. Liberal social contract rights such as universal suffrage and habeas corpus seem so obvious now that they hardly appear worth defending (often to our detriment). But several generations backs, these rights were hard fought gains that responded to very real systematic abuses. Over time, what was once sensible, necessary reform became symbolism and ritual, devoid of meaning - until the time we need to fight certain battles all over again.
This sanctification of politics is most visible in US political discourse, particularly around issues of race. The abolition of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were massive political achievements, hard fought and won with incredible violence. And yet a few generations later, major debates are occurring over the taboo status of particular words and behaviours. But the strength of the taboo is correlated first and foremost with the significance of the civil rights struggle - so much so that performing ‘black face’ can end careers - and not the behaviour itself, so that over time as memories of that struggle fade the ritual power of the taboo appears irrational and disproportionate.
We have seen this most recently in the centre-right (and corporate) response to Steven Crowder’s homophobic harassment of Vox journalist Carlos Maza - which has focused on the appropriateness of Crowder’s words (especially “queer”) and not on the behaviour behind it. What is objectionable about Crowder is the intent behind his crusade to dehumanise and harass another human being on the basis of their personal characteristics, and the broader social harm this causes, not the particular words, phrases and symbols used. The Right has become very good at disingenuously claiming that the signals they send are socially sanctioned - pointing especially to the innocuous use of those signals or symbols by others communities - knowing full well that the motivations behind their actions are almost impossible to prove.
The risk this causes for social progressives is that we might overly focus on the signal, not the strategy, for audiences that are not fully on our side, or theirs. The Right knows that when they use offensive language or symbols their signals have hidden structural meaning for their followers. And because we have studied our enemy, the Left knows what is motivating the right: when we say the Right is racist, homophobic or misogynistic, we’re not kidding. But for a non-informed audience who does not share the same social beliefs as us, we are limited to saying that certain speech has observable racist, homophobic or misogynistic consequences, or violates a social taboo. This then permits the Right to riposte with either ‘science’ (“You haven’t demonstrated the adverse consequences you claim”) or countercultural irreverence (“Stop being such a cultural regressive! It’s cool to rebel against taboos!”).
Early feminists and racial minorities fought for voting and legal rights first because that was the ground on which they could convince those with power in society of the rightness of their cause. And they won. But of course winning legal and political rights wasn’t at the root of their activism - economic and social marginalisation, endemic structural violence and oppression were. But when the newly empowered minority groups use their newly acquired rights to point the broader structural inequality out, the ruling majority says “Hey! This isn’t what we bargained for! We gave you what you asked and now you’re just asking for more [you ungrateful subordinate]!”. Backlash inevitably ensues, and so we keep fighting.
Sex and Gender
We have seen this process play out within our own lifetime over the issue of gay and trans rights. The progressive/liberal position on sex and gender is pretty straightforward: who and how a person has sex, and how they identify with and express their gender, are socially irrelevant facts and everyone should just be able to do whatever they want so long as it respects the rights of others. But as it turns out, you can’t create a social majority for progressive change with that argument - there are simply too many authoritarians who believe that people shouldn’t be able to do whatever they want, and too many social conservatives who believe that how and with whom you have sex are socially important facts.
So the version of the gay rights argument which was successful, and which spread most widely, was the version that appealed to the minimum necessary coalition to achieve social change, which was “Well, people don’t choose to be gay and you can’t judge someone on the basis of a characteristic they didn’t choose”. This argument lets you persuade a wider variety of choice liberals, and even religious individuals. Voila! You’ve changed society; the “Born This Way” narrative which supports the new equilibria isn’t everyone on the Left’s true posiiton, but it’s good enough, so it’s what we went with. But sexuality is fluid and complicated. Bi- and pan- people exist; experimentation and contextual homosexuality is a thing, and not every gay couple wants a marriage, kids and a picket fence. Some want to live in polyamorous, kink-friendly communes. The Left doesn’t care either way, but to the Right, this is just evidence of the Left’s bad faith and endless appetite for social deviancy - and why the Left should always be opposed from the outset.
The trans rights argument is playing out much the same way. This came up in a recent debate between the Twitch streamer Destiny and a self-described ‘gender abolitionist’. The accepted social signal in favour on trans rights mirrors the “Born This Way” argument: trans people are simply born into bodies of the ‘wrong gender’. This is not the position of everyone in the trans community or on the Left, but it’s the signal which is most effective in persuading a minimal viable social coalition. Of course intersex and non-binary people are a thing; individuals may have mixed reasons for adopting a particular gender identity or expression, and those reasons may change over time. The Left doesn’t care: you do you. But by using the metaphysical gender argument, we leave ourselves open to counter-attacks that the male brain/female brain dichotomy is empirically weak (the scientism rebuttal), or ontologically false (it’s just ‘gender ideology’). For the record, I agree with Destiny on this: we should adopt the strategy which is most effective in achieving our goals, and hide our true power levels. Aiming directly for non-binary, luxury gay space communism will get us precisely nowhere.
Social and Economic Justice
To be clear, the signal/strategy dichotomy does not merely apply to cultural issues: it’s also of vast significance in the way we argue about economic and structural inequality. If we make the claim that corporations - or the “millionaires and billionaires” - are uniquely bad and evil people and the working class are uniquely oppressed and virtuous, then our persuasion is exploitable by both empirical and ontological claims that this is untrue. Sadly, Destiny himself has fallen into this trap. For the Marxist leftist, the moral virtue of the capitalist and worker is irrelevant - these are classes performing social roles that are determined by a material structure. In other words, no amount of charitable giving can make the existence of billionaires just - any system which permits individuals and families to accumulate that much wealth off the backs of the labour of others is inherently unjust.
Climate change is another issue where I fear we’ve gone slightly off the rails. Of course, this is not just a left vs right issue - there’s a broad technocratic consensus that something must be done. But by focusing our signalling of the minimal viable level of persuasiveness (i.e. the men in white coats say the world is going to end), we’ve left ourselves open to dissension on grounds of both science (“some scientists disagree; 1.5 degrees isn’t that bad!”) and epistemology (“why should we trust the experts anyway?”). When the Right claims that the Left is being disingenuous about climate change, and thus should be opposed on principle, they have a point. Climate change is an inevitable by-product of the structure of capitalism, and for the Left climate change offers a unique opportunity to democratise and regulate how we produce energy. But if we said that, nothing would be done. So we hide and bide.
My point in bringing all this up is not to critique the way the left has done things. I am a Whiggish historian and generally do think the Left has won and will continue to win most of thesd battles. But I don’t think it’s sufficient for us to rebut the Right by pointing out that they obviously argue in bad faith, because on some level the Left is also acting in bad faith. By calibrating political messaging to appeal to a broader coalition than would actually subscribe to our underlying philosophy, we have to be aware that the hypocrisy is baked in. This creates two problems: first of all, when you’re trying to persuade another person of your position, don’t believe your own talking points. It may be that you are genuinely committed to those points, because you - although a committed and passionate progressive - don’t understand the full consequences of the position you’re taking. Only by immersing yourself in the theory can we recognise, and therefore own, our own bullshit.
Secondly, we should strongly resist the urge to moralise and ritualise our persuasive strategies. We should be aggressive as we possibly can be in convincing other people to support a new social equilibrium, but also flexible and acknowledge that these positions are often hypocritical and adopted in response to temporary political alignments that will continue to change in the future. Don’t uncritically defend the ritual and symbolic importance of certain words, because taboos are merely tools for a political end and their symbolic value is merely a social construct. What we really care about is the social harm that those words licence. Don’t bother debating Rights about the reality of sex or racial differences because these are not things that matter to us and wouldn’t change our position. Know how to argue the science, because we need to rebut our opponents and persuade those in the middle. But never engage the Right on them directly, because they’re not being honest about their true position and neither are we.