How Plato Foresaw Facebook’s Folly Technology promises to make easy things that, by their intrinsic nature, have to be hard

Good reminder that technology reflects both the people who develop it and use it, and that informed and meaningful conversation and dialogue are hard:

In ancient Egypt there lived a wise king named Thamus. One day he was visited by a clever god called Theuth.

Theuth was an inventor of many useful things: arithmetic and geometry; astronomy and dice. But his greatest discovery, so he believed, “was the use of letters.” And it was this invention that Theuth was most eager to share with King Thamus.

The art of writing, Theuth said, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.”

But Thamus rebuffed him. “O most ingenious Theuth,” he said, “the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them.”

The king continued: “For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves.”

Written words, Thamus concluded, “give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things but will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Welcome to Facebook.

The tale I’m citing here comes from Plato’s “Phaedrus”; the words, attributed to Socrates, are about 2,400 years old. They are apposite again this week thanks to a lengthy investigation by The Times into Facebook’s cynical and self-serving calculations as it tried to brazen its way through a year of serial P.R. disasters: Russian dezinformatsiya, Cambridge Analytica, and a gargantuan security breach.

Now we learn that the company also sought to cover up the extent of Russian meddling on its platform — while quietly seeding invidious stories against its business rivals and critics like George Soros. Facebook disputes some of the claims made by The Times, but it’s fair to say the company’s reputation currently stands somewhere between that of Philip Morris and Purdue Pharma in the public toxicity department.

To which one can only say: About time.

The story of the wildly exaggerated promises and damaging unintended consequences of technology isn’t exactly a new one. The real marvel is that it constantly seems to surprise us. Why?

Part of the reason is that we tend to forget that technology is only as good as the people who use it. We want it to elevate us; we tend to degrade it. In a better world, Twitter might have been a digital billboard of ideas and conversation ennobling the public square. We’ve turned it into the open cesspool of the American mind. Facebook was supposed to serve as a platform for enhanced human interaction, not atool for the lonely to burrow more deeply into their own isolation.

It’s also true that Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants have sold themselves not so much as profit-seeking companies but as ideal-pursuing movements. Facebook’s mission is “to make the world more open and connected.” Tesla’s goal is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Google’s mantra was “Don’t Be Evil,” at least until it quietly dropped the slogan earlier this year.

But the deeper reason that technology so often disappoints and betrays us is that it promises to make easy things that, by their intrinsic nature, have to be hard.

Tweeting and trolling are easy. Mastering the arts of conversation and measured debate is hard. Texting is easy. Writing a proper letter is hard. Looking stuff up on Google is easy. Knowing what to search for in the first place is hard. Having a thousand friends on Facebook is easy. Maintaining six or seven close adult friendships over the space of many years is hard. Swiping right on Tinder is easy. Finding love — and staying in it — is hard.

That’s what Socrates (or Thamus) means when he deprecates the written word: It gives us an out. It creates the illusion that we can remain informed, and connected, even as we are spared the burdens of attentiveness, presence of mind and memory. That may seem quaint today. But how many of our personal, professional or national problems might be solved if we desisted from depending on shortcuts?

To read The Times’s account of how Facebook dealt with its problems is to be struck by how desperately Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg sought to massage and finesse — with consultants, lobbyists and technological patches — what amounted to a daunting if simple crisis of trust. As with love and grammar, acquiring and maintaining trust is hard. There are no workarounds.

Start over, Facebook. Do the basics. Stop pretending that you’re about transforming the state of the world. Work harder to operate ethically, openly and responsibly. Accept that the work will take time. Log off Facebook for a weekend. Read an ancient book instead.

Stupid Is as Stupid Writes – Good writing advice

Not as concise as the classic Orwell piece, Politics and the English Language, but some good experiments that show the advantages in writing simply:

Most writing experts agree that “direct, declarative sentences with simple common words are usually best.”1 However, most undergraduates admit to intentionally using complex vocabulary to give the impression of intelligence to their readers. Does using complex vocabulary in writing actually increase the perception of higher author intelligence among readers? According to Carnegie Mellon University professor Daniel M. Oppenheimer, the answer is No.2 Oppenheimer’s 2006 article published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” effectively makes the case against needless complexity in writing. The paper includes five experiments: the first three show the negative influence of increased complexity on perceived author intelligence, and the latter two investigate the role of fluency (ease of reading) more generally on judgments about author intelligence.

Oppenheimer’s work provides valuable information on how to avoid the common pitfalls of trying to sound smart when writing. The research also provides an insightful framework to explore how needless complexity may be harming public perception at larger scales, such as the perception of academic journals and disciplines. In what follows, I will briefly outline the experiments and findings in Oppenheimer’s paper and apply them to academia to show how disciplines vary in the degree of unnecessary complexity. This complexity comes at a cost, and fields like gender studies are paying the price.

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Experiment 1: Does Increasing the Complexity of Text Make the Author Appear More Intelligent?

In the first experiment, Oppenheimer showed that using longer words causes readers to view the text and its author more negatively. Six personal statements for graduate admission in English Literature were taken from writing improvement websites that varied greatly in quality and content. Excerpts were taken from the six essays and three versions of each were prepared. Highly complex versions were made by replacing every noun, verb, and adjective with their longest respective entry in the Microsoft Office thesaurus. Moderately complex versions were made by only altering every third eligible word, and an original was left unchanged. Each of the 71 participants read one excerpt and decided whether or not to accept the applicant and to rate both the confidence in their decision and how difficult the passage was to understand.

The more complex an essay was, the less likely students were to accept the applicant regardless of the quality of the original. Interestingly, controlling for difficulty of reading nearly eliminated the relationship between complexity and acceptance. The opposite is not true, however, suggesting that differences in fluency are what cause the negative relationship between complexity and acceptance. Complex texts are rated poorly because they are hard to read.

Experiment 2: Is the Perceived Intelligence of the Author Affected by the Complexity of the Translation Used?

Even geniuses sound unintelligent when they use big words. Concerns about the word replacement algorithm in experiment one hurting the quality of the text due to imperfectly matched meanings led the author to a second, more natural test. One of two different translations of the first paragraph of Rene Descartes Meditation IV were given to 39 participants. Two independent raters agreed that one of the translations was considerably more complex despite comparable word counts. Participants read the text and rated both the intelligence of the author and how difficult the passage was to understand. In order to investigate the effects of a prior expectation of intelligence, half were told the author was Descartes and half were told it was an anonymous author.

Readers rated the author intelligence higher in the simple translation, whether or not they knew the author was Descartes. As in experiment 1, loss of fluency appeared to be the cause of poor ratings for the complex translation, but statistical significance was not reached for its mediating influence in this case.

Experiment 3: Does Decreasing the Complexity of Text Make the Author Appear More Intelligent?

Have a big vocabulary? Dumbing it down with this method might improve your writing. A dissertation abstract from the Stanford sociology department with an unusual number of long words (nine or more letters) was selected for the experiment. A simplified version of the text was made by replacing every long word with its second shortest entry in the thesaurus. The 85 participants were instructed to read one of the abstracts and rate both the intelligence of the author and how difficult the passage was to understand.

Readers rated the author intelligence higher and the difficulty of understanding lower in the simplified version. Again, fluency had the predicted effect, but failed to reach statistical significance. This supports experiment 1 by showing that a word replacement algorithm does not necessarily impair the quality of work and make it harder to understand. The message is clear—complex texts are harder to read and get rated more poorly.

Experiment 4: Does Any Manipulation that Reduces Fluency Reduce Intelligence Ratings?

This experiment is a compelling argument against using silly fonts (I’m looking at you, Comic Sans). Presenting text in a hard to read font is an established way of reducing fluency. The unedited version of the highest quality essay from the first experiment was given to 51 participants in one of two fonts: italicized “Juice ITC” or normal “Times New Roman.” See below for a comparison:

The participants were instructed to read the text and rate the author’s intelligence. All of the instructions and rating scales were written in the corresponding text to prevent readers from assuming the author had chosen the font, which could be taken as a hint about their intelligence.

Readers who received the “Juice ITC” version rated the author as less intelligent than those who read it in “Times New Roman.” This establishes the effect of fluency independent of complexity, and supports the idea that complex texts are rated poorly because they reduce fluency.

Experiment 5: Do Manipulations of Fluency Have the Same Effect if the Source of the Decreased Fluency is Obvious?

People tend to discount the role of fluency when it has an obvious source. For example, Tversky and Kahneman found that although people typically use fluency as a cue for estimating surname frequency, if they are in the presence of obvious causes for fluency (personal relevance, famous name) they stop using fluency and even overcompensate.3 To test this, 27 participants were given an unedited essay from experiment one that was either printed normally, or with low toner in the printer making it light, streaky, and hard to read. Readers were asked to decide if they would accept the applicant as well as rate the confidence of their decision and the author’s intelligence.

Participants who read low toner texts were more likely to recommend acceptance than those who read the normal version. They also rated the intelligence of the author more highly in the low toner condition. When the source of fluency is obvious, people become aware of their bias and overcorrect.

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The implications of the first four experiments can be neatly summarized: “Keep it simple, stupid.” As experts have long recommended, you should use short, common words and easy to read fonts. Someone who makes good points, but relies on complex words and jargon to do so, likely pays a price in terms of the perceived quality of their work and mind. Reading Oppenheimer’s paper made me wonder if the same rules hold true on the broader scale of academic disciplines. If a field tends to use needlessly complex language more than other fields, is it viewed as less credible?

To test this hypothesis I set out to compare the complexity of the top journals from various fields to their perceived credibility using average word length as a proxy for complexity and SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) as a proxy for credibility. Specifically, I chose to compare the top journal in astrophysics, biochemistry, sociology, and gender studies. To estimate word length I sampled the first five full articles from the latest issue of each journal and divided the number of characters by the word count. Each journal’s complexity score reflects the average word length of the five selected papers.

There was no relationship between SJR and complexity score (names of the journals and papers used for the analysis, as well as results, can be found here.) This could be for a number of reasons: the top journal of a field is not necessarily reflective of the field as a whole, average word length could be a bad proxy for complexity, SJR could be a bad proxy for credibility, small sample size, etc.

Or, could it be that I was confusing complexity with needless complexity?

The complexity score is similar for Gender and Society (5.5) and Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics (5.3), but is the difficulty of understanding for the underlying content the same? Almost certainly not. Previous research has developed a Hierarchy of the Sciences that uses objective bibliometric criteria to assess the “softness” of an academic field.4 Unsurprisingly, the ranks are as follows, from hardest to softest science: physical (physics, mathematics), biological-hard (molecular biology, biochemistry), biological-soft (plant and animal sciences, ecology), social (psychology, economics), and humanities (archaeology, gender studies). The authors state that as you progress from mathematics to humanities there is “a proportional loss of cognitive structure and coherence in their literature background.” In other words, Gender and Society uses equally complex language to describe “softer” phenomena. Therefore, the degree of needlesscomplexity is higher than in similarly complex texts where the underlying difficulty of the concepts is greater.

The point is clarified by the following examples taken from papers analyzed for this article. Excerpt 1 comes from an abstract in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics,5excerpt 2 comes from an abstract in Gender and Society.6

  1. In our modern understanding of galaxy formation, every galaxy forms within a dark matter halo. The formation and growth of galaxies over time is connected to the growth of the halos in which they form. The advent of large galaxy surveys as well as high-resolution cosmological simulations has provided a new window into the statistical relationship between galaxies and halos and its evolution.
  2. In Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification, James Messerschmidt provides a comprehensive and nuanced explanation of hegemonic masculinity, including the sociohistorical context of its development, and an incisive analysis of research that has utilized the tricky concept.

I applied the methodology of experiment 3 from Oppenheimer’s paper to both (simplified long words). Let’s see how they change.

  1. In our modern understanding of galaxy creation, every galaxy forms within a dark matter halo. The creation and growth of galaxies over time is linked to the growth of the halos in which they form. The advent of large galaxy surveys as well as high-resolution cosmological models has provided a new window into the statistical link between galaxies and halos and its evolution.
  2. In Powerful Maleness: Design, Redesign, and Expansion, James Messerschmidt provides a full and nuanced account of powerful maleness, including the sociohistorical context of its development, and an incisive analysis of research that has utilized the tricky concept.

In the first excerpt there were nine words that had nine or more letters, and four could be replaced with a shorter word without distorting the meaning. In the second excerpt there were more long words, despite the fact that the passage is much shorter (38 vs. 64 words). Of the 12 words that met the criteria in excerpt 2, nine of them could be replaced without altering the meaning. Therefore, the density of both long words and needlessly long words is higher in the second excerpt.

Does this needless complexity harm the public perception of gender studies? Yes. Good luck convincing laymen about the oppression of women using terms like “subalterneity” and “phallogocentrism.” It will be difficult to understand, and therefore judged negatively. Take, for example, a passage from one of the most influential works from arguably the most influential gender theorist, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” by Judith Butler.7 

“When Beauvoir claims that ‘woman’ is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman,’ to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project.”

The above is a reasonable argument for separate definitions of sex and gender that is totally obscured by jargon and wordiness. It could be reworded as follows without losing any meaning:

“According to Beauvoir, to be a woman is more than to be biologically female. It also involves behaving in the way women are expected to based on historical precedent.”

*     *     *

In summary, a lack of fluency (often caused by needlessly complex words) causes readers to negatively judge a text and its author. The degree of needless complexity varies across academic fields and this needless complexity likely harms public perceptions of the fields where it is most pronounced. All of this raises one last question: why do disciplines like gender studies insist on needless jargon? Three hypotheses seem most likely: historical coincidence, physics envy, and conscious deception.

The first two hypotheses suggest well-meaning authors. It is possible that the early writers of certain fields like gender studies set a bad precedent by coining long, unintuitive words that are now important to the field, while other disciplines were fortunate to have such tractable terms as black holes and dark matter. Alternatively, given the widespread attitude (at least in some circles) that the humanities and social sciences are softer, less challenging, or less valuable than other fields of inquiry, one could see academics in those fields internalizing a sense of inferiority. This attitude is known as physics envy. In order to prove their intelligence, to themselves and to others, they might be tempted to complicate simple ideas and use complex vocabulary to describe them—just like the Stanford undergraduates interviewed by Oppenheimer.

The third hypothesis, that they are consciously deceiving readers, brings us back to Oppenheimer’s fifth experiment. If you recall, participants in that experiment rated more highly the text quality and author intelligence of text printed with low toner. It was obvious to them that the low toner was biasing their judgements in a negative way, so they overcompensated. The question remains, what sources of poor fluency are obvious enough to hit the inflection point where instead of hurting perception they begin to help it? Does heavy use of complex academic jargon count as an obvious enough source and, if so, are writers incentivized to use it? If laymen are self-aware of the jargon reducing fluency, they may give the text and the author benefit of the doubt when it is undeserved.

Ultimately, this is an empirical question waiting to be answered. In the meantime, if the writers who are producing needlessly complex pieces are doing so to deceive the public, we can take solace in the fact that it isn’t working very well— there is only one sociology journal in the top 100 (Administrative Science Quarterly, #78), and one gender studies journal in the top 1,000 (Gender and Society, #975) of journals ranked by SJR.

Source: Stupid Is as Stupid Writes

Charlie Kirk’s Campus Battlefield—A Review

This is an amusing but pointed and scathing review of one the the young conservative entrepreneurs (could be applied to some others):

Charlie Kirk, founder and CEO of Turning Point USA, campus court jester, and pro-Trump parvenu, has a written a new book, Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can WIN the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters. As evinced by the title, Kirk purports to expose how colleges have become “leftist echo chambers” and explain what conservatives can do about it. It is a bad book, both in style and substance, failing as much on its own terms as any others. It’s not a book I expect too many to read, either, being a less-than-average offering in the already oversaturated, worse-than-average genre of nonfiction punditry.

Nevertheless, I do consider it a relatively useful book, at least insofar as what it augurs for conservatism, at present and going forward. Like it or not (and, I’ll disclose upfront, I do not), Charlie Kirk is a rising star within the GOP and American conservatism writ large. And he’s got the numbers to prove it: though only 25 years old last month, Kirk is a staple of right-wing nightly news and morning shows (“I’ve appeared on cable news shows more than five hundred times,” he brags in the book); boasts over 814,000 Twitter followers as of this writing (“I’m the second most powerful tweeter in conservative politics”); and, more importantly, he enjoys impressive access to the White House (“I have met with President Donald Trump more than fifteen times”) and first family—particularly Don Jr., who wrote the foreword to Campus Battlefield. Turning Point USA, the on-campus activism network Kirk founded in 2012, claims to reach over 130,000 students on more than 1,100 high school and college campuses and has raked in more than $30 million since its inception. Those curious about the next cohorts of conservatives—right-leaning students currently being reared in the age of Trump—should begin with Kirk and his organization.

What they find should concern them. Fundamentally unserious, unburdened with self-awareness, and gleefully engaged in stoking the fire of tribalism, Kirk is, above all things, a performer, peddling his own personal brand in the guise of training young conservatives and resisting liberal indoctrination on campus. It’s an act that’s had unsettling success in conference halls, on cable news, and on social media. But like most performances, it doesn’t work quite so well on paper. Campus Battlefield’s flaws are as apparent as they are numerous, and the book lays bare just how few clothes adorn Turning Point and its emperor.

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It should not come as a shock to those who follow him on Twitter when I say Kirk’s is a poorly written book. There are so many grammatical errors and incoherencies—never mind the logical or factual ones—that it would be kinder to assume the editing process was skipped entirely than that someone at Post Hill Press actually reviewed the manuscript. These errors begin immediately, with Kirk misusing “alliteration” in place of “rhyme” on the very first page of the introduction, and carry through to the end. Particularly notable, for instance, is the inconsistent formatting of “ex cathedra”: a Latin phrase meaning “from the chair,” which is italicized the second time it appears but not the first. One error among many, the scholastic Latin nevertheless stands out among Kirk’s otherwise prosaic diction.

Counting its brief introduction, the book runs only about 150 pages. No fewer than 19 of these prominently feature block-quotes pulled from Kirk’s Twitter account (all of which are helpfully sourced: “—@charliekirk11”), further reducing the already risible amount of effort evidently put into the work. That Kirk, proud as he is of his presumed online influence, included his tweets is largely unremarkable. More surprising, however, is that from the nearly 42,000 tweets he had to choose from, he selected for his book one widely mocked tweet wherein he quotes himself quoting a hoary proverb misattributed to George Orwell. Even so, it’s a revealing moment—combining intellectual laziness, unoriginality, and Kirk’s characteristic tendency to spout erroneous banalities as if they were philosophical profundities. It’s a tremendous, meta-textual “self-own,” something Kirk does with more frequency than perhaps any other public person, with the possible exception of Chris Cillizza.

Though short, Campus Battlefield is far from concise. Of persistent annoyance are the gratuitous interjections and rhetorical questions Kirk peppers throughout—sometimes both at once: “…a conservative faculty member (how rare is that?)…” Even some of his interruptions have interruptions: “Here I’ll break in to say that apparently, these college professors are so ignorant of history—not surprising these days—that they don’t know…” The incessant repetition is worse. Irony is an ever-present motif, for example, appearing nearly a dozen times in the slim volume. And like a poor comedian needing to explain his punchline, Kirk constantly reiterates lest the reader miss his insights: “How ironic that all those lectures about the desperate need for campus safe spaces and trigger warnings…come from the Left. It’s ironic because liberals are most often the aggressors.”

Habits like these would be easier to forgive, of course, if Kirk had anything to say. As he writes in his introduction, the nominal purpose of Campus Battlefield is twofold: to “examine how the Left has pulled…off” their institutional dominance of colleges and universities, and to explain “how we can resurrect the heart and soul of our universities as—yes—safe places for the teaching and expression of all ideas” (Kirk’s emphasis). Neither one of these goals is accomplished; in fact, the former is hardly even attempted. In place of causal analysis, Kirk offers perfunctory sentences like, “How this leftist escapism took root is lost in the fog of time.” Kirk prefers simply to list instances of “leftist intolerance” documented by others and to promote Turning Point and its websites. There is a whole chapter dedicated to extoling the virtues of TPUSA’s neo-Orwellian “Professor Watchlist,” for example, in addition to the book’s final chapter—dramatically titled “Join Us in Our Fight for America’s Soul”—which is the literary equivalent of exiting through the gift shop.

Indeed, contrary to aiding his argument, the continual asides, pleonasms, and nakedly self-referential marketing attempts all serve to illustrate Kirk’s lack of substance. To say this book even has arguments is itself being generous. What it has instead are statements—piled up, one on top of another, variously adorned with clichés, and presented as if the heap constituted something with persuasive force. Perhaps my favorite example of Kirkian tautology occurs early in Chapter 5, where a single thought is repeated in five successive sentences:

Notably absent from [colleges’] idea of inclusion, however, are conservatives. Inclusion for so many college does not mean tolerating or welcoming anything that does not pass the muster of the liberal inclusion patrols. Inclusion only admits to the sacred circle the products of liberal, progressive, or socialist thinking. Colleges claim the high ground of inclusion, but it’s only lip service. Only liberal views are worthy of being fostered and nurtured. It is high-level hypocrisy.

Assuming this point has been proven, he asks in the next sentence, “How has this happened?” In another book, written by another author, this would be a question worth raising; for Kirk, it’s throat clearing. His answer is not an explanation but a syllogism: “Because higher education administrators have allowed it to happen.” Well then, case closed.

This is Kirk in a nutshell: say a lot while saying nothing, turn the subject with a rhetorical question or non sequitur, and cap it off with a quip or platitude. Kirk fancies himself a debater; but while he’s cribbed Ben Shapiro’s style, he’s lifted none of the underlying intelligence. His Twitter account is filled with slick, branded clips of him “DESTROYING” an opponent—most often, a liberal college student or professor ignorant enough to think they could ask a question and get a straight response. Typically, what happens is that Kirk—perched on stage, armed with a microphone, headlining the event in question (not dissimilar to the “power relationship” between liberal professors and conservative students he decries in the book)—faces down some audience member and interrupts, pivots, or mocks until he’s able to deliver a line that plays well to his friendly crowd or on social media. A perfect example of this occurred last month in a “must watch!” videoposted to his Twitter account, wherein a Reconstructionist rabbi attempts to ask Kirk a question during a Turning Point event. I say attempts, because the rabbi never makes it to his query. Instead, Kirk tries first to feint with an obvious set-up question, and when the rabbi sidesteps the bait, Kirk proceeds to interrupt him with shouts, profanity, and mocking statements about his interlocutor’s religion—all to laughter and scattered applause. (“[A]t Turning Point USA,” Kirk writes in Campus Battlefield, “civility and respect are as much a part of our approach as is a command of facts.” Indeed.)

What the book makes clear, by virtue of its medium if nothing else, is just how few rhetorical tools Kirk has at his disposal—and how evidently they’re employed to distract from how little he knows. In a speech or question-and-answer exchange, the deflections, ripostes, and barrage of empty logic can be easy to miss if you’re not looking for them; written down, the patterns are obvious to the point of condescension. Even if you broadly agree with Kirk’s points (many of which I do, generally speaking), as a reader you can’t help but feel disrespected: Just how stupid does he think I am?

Quite, I’d wager. Or, at least, Kirk understands that his audience is not really paying attention. He’s probably right—or those who are don’t seem to care. Like the president whose wave he has ridden to national prominence, Kirk has a rather tenuous relationship with the truth. A quick scan through Kirk’s Twitter feed will manifest nearly as many factual errors as there are tweets, and Campus Battlefield is hardly an improvement on this front. Many of these are minor—Kirk anachronistically writes in Chapter 1 that the American founders “struggled to find a better way to govern than…the anarchy of [France’s] bloody Reign of Terror,” for instance. This error, like the apocryphal Orwell quote, could have been avoided with a simple Google search. Others—such as his unsourced claim in Chapter 3 that “professors have no problem with the standard practice of students grading their teachers on their colleges’ websites”—are perhaps less obviously wrong, but remain untrue nonetheless. What’s worse is how Kirk marshals these errors. For example, he ludicrously presents that last assertion as if it somehow invalidates academics’ criticism of TPUSA’s “Professor Watchlist” or justifies the list’s creation by an organization purporting to uphold “free speech” and the sanctity of the academic classroom, “the very heart of intellectual inquiry.”

Indeed, Kirk is repeatedly disingenuous to the point of mendacity. The most obvious example of this is his repeated obfuscation of TPUSA’s campus reach. He boasts in Chapter 2, for instance, that he hears often “from our more than one thousand Turning Point USA campus chapters”—only to clarify in Chapter 16 that, “We have launched more than 350 TPUSA chapters and provided 750 like-minded students groups with resources.” In reality, these “like-minded student groups” are not actually TPUSA groups at all, but rather independent campus organizations like the College Republicans and other student free-speech groups who simply accept TPUSA-provided products. Which is why Kirk is elsewhere careful to use dissembling phrases such as “having representation on over 1,100 high schools and college campuses” when describing TPUSA’s reach.

While he otherwise avoids telling outright lies, Kirk is as unreliable a narrator you’ll find. At one point, he chides the president of Marquette University for referring to a graduate student who taught classes as simply a “student,” calling it “disingenuous.” Fair enough. Yet, not four pages later, Kirk does the same thing in reverse—referring to a then-University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student who taught classes as a “faculty member” and “professor.” In the introduction, Kirk valiantly writes that cancelling an event in the face of protests “and letting down the students who came to hear me with open or supportive minds was not an option.” Naturally, he doesn’t tell you of the time in May when he and Candace Owens, TPUSA’s communications director, bailed out of an event hosted by the TPUSA student chapter at Virginia Tech at the last minute so the pair could hang out with Kanye West instead.

Examples abound. “How often do conservatives harass liberals as they try to recruit students to their causes?” Kirk asks in another passage. “Not often, if ever.” Except that on April 16, 2016, Kirk himself joyously announced on Twitter, “Next semester Turning Point USA will be doing a nationwide ‘violate a safe space’ day. Bring it campus liberals!” Similarly, Kirk writes of the “nastiness, dishonesty, and silliness that infects the campus left-wing establishment.” He’s right that those things exist within the campus Left, of course (something I have written about extensively). Nevertheless, it takes an impressive level of hypocrisy for Kirk to accuse someone else of “silliness” when one of his TPUSA chapters hosted a rally last October, at which members wore diapers to protest safe spaces—to say nothing of the “nastiness” and “dishonesty” that flows near-daily from Kirk’s and, particularly, Owens’s Twitter accounts.

An illustrative episode of Kirk’s self-serving facade occurred recently with DePaul University. Kirk and Owens were set to speak to the DePaul TPUSA chapter on October 16 as part of their “Campus Clash Tour” (a title just dripping with civility), but were prohibited by the university from holding the event on campus. On October 9, the pair criticized DePaul for the move, accusing the university on Twitter of cancelling the event over concerns of “potentially violent” language. “The Left hates the idea there are other ideas,” Kirk wrote. “Hey DePaul, your fascism is showing.” Owens went further, tweeting that “DePaul is enslaving black minds.”

According to DePaul’s student-run newspaper, The DePaulia, however, what actually happened is far less suitable to their narrative. While the official decision letter sent to DePaul’s TPUSA chapter did mention concerns over the potential use of “hate speech,” the event was primarily cancelled due to ticketing and marketing concerns. “There was nothing unfair in the [DePaul administration’s] processing or the deadlines or the timelines. I just want to make that clear,” DePaul TPUSA’s vice president Ema Gavrilovic told The DePaulia. “The primary concern was Turning Point’s headquarters started issuing tickets and advertising for an event that was never originally even confirmed.” In fact, Gavrilovic explained, her campus chapter “really had no control or no say for what headquarters at the national level was doing,” stating, “We understand the DePaul administration’s reasoning for this exclusion because this was a primary concern that was voiced in the rejection letter.” Further, The DePaulia’s reporting makes clear, “DePaul TPUSA was made aware of the event’s cancellation in mid-September,” despite the fact that Kirk and Owens’s statements about it were not until October 9. Campus Battlefield was released October 10.

*     *     *

A favorite recent conceit among the more self-satisfied portions of the Left is that campus free speech, academic free inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and the like are simply McGuffins, and those trading in such issues nothing more than grifters. By and large, this notion is obtuse and scurrilous, often cynically employed by those wishing to avoid discussing the issues themselves. But those that do care about these issues—about free speech, the pursuit of truth, and the vitality of academe—would be wrong to ignore the evidence that gifters walk among us. For conservatives concerned about the decline of American education, doubly so.

Well-meaning or not—and I genuinely think he may be—Charlie Kirk is one such grifter. Leveraging his youth, talent for public speaking, and access to the White House, he’s fooled conservative donors into thinking he’s helping the cause of freedom on campus. Likewise, he’s fooled restless high school students and undergraduates into thinking performative victimhood and petty partisanship are epistemologically satisfying. Neither is true. Whether due to ignorance or indifference, Kirk and, by extension, his organization are hypocrites, and childish ones at that. And this petulant hypocrisy undermines not just legitimate indictments of higher education, but the intellectual development of young conservatives. The great irony of Campus Battlefield is how thoroughly Kirk paints this picture in his own words.

It’s evident that Kirk envisions himself as some grand general, leading his troops into the culture war. In reality, Kirk is a band director: his thoughts unoriginal and motions rehearsed, he trains his ensemble to play along to the tune of the day—currently, that of “owning the libs.” After all, the band’s job is to help cheer the team on to victory—a role Kirk performs with relish. And so he goes from campus to campus, conservatism’s fresh-faced Harold Hill, peddling his siren’s song to the kids in town until something better comes along.

In his brief, day-after review, the Weekly Standard’s Adam Rubenstein wrote sardonically, “the book may not be Kirk’s best work.” With respect to my friend Adam on this point, he could not be more wrong. On the contrary, I would contend that Campus Battlefield is Charlie Kirk’s best work, because it makes abundantly clear that this is the best he can do. More than that, however, it exemplifies just what it is that he is doing. Whether written by Kirk himself or an idiosyncratically talented ghostwriter, the monograph is a true expression of Kirk’s shtick—the shallow, facile affectation that lies at the heart of TPUSA’s most puerile ministrations. It’s an act to which conservatives—and their allies in the fight against academe’s decline—should no longer give any credence.

Source: Charlie Kirk’s Campus Battlefield—A Review

Andrew Coyne: Political parties — not Statistics Canada — are the real bad guys of privacy invasion

Valid critique of the double standard:

For the past week, question period has been dominated by accusations from Conservative MPs that a government agency has been spying on Canadians — improperly gathering sensitive personal information, it is suggested, on behalf of the ruling party.

That shadowy cabal? You guessed it: Statistics Canada.

The Conservatives have invested much effort in recent years attempting to persuade Canadians that StatCan is their enemy: witness the campaign against the long-form census. The current hysteria was kicked off by a letter from the agency requesting Canada’s banks make available to it personal financial data from 500,000 of their customers.

The program is not secret: the agency briefed reporters on it a month ago. Neither does it apply only to banks. StatCan is reaching out to a range of public and private organizations, hoping to tap the databases they maintain. The reason? People aren’t filling out the surveys the agency has traditionally used to keep track of consumer purchases and the like in anything like the numbers they used to: the data is increasingly unreliable. Without access to “administrative data” to replace it, the agency would be stumbling in the dark.

Privacy concerns are worth taking seriously, of course. Canadians would be right to worry if StatCan were proposing to set up personal files in their name, or to combine bits of data collected from a variety of sources into individual profiles. Needless to say, that is not what the agency is proposing. And while data security is increasingly a concern, StatCan’s record in this regard is unblemished.

Indeed, of all the organizations that now monitor, collect and compile your personal data, StatCan would seem among the least threatening. Your cellphone provider, to take one example, not only keeps tabs on who you called at what hour and for how long, but where you were at the time — in fact, where you are at all times. In the wrong hands, that sort of detailed personal information could be used to manipulate, intimidate and defraud. Whereas the broad aggregates StatCan extracts from it are essential to good public policy.

And of all the wrong hands it is possible to imagine, among the wrongest are those of the political parties — the same parties that are so quick to mount the privacy soapbox when it comes to other organizations. It’s StatCan this week, but it was the big social media companies before and it will be somebody else next – everyone, that is, but the parties themselves. Yet the scale of what the parties are up to, and the potential for abuse — no, the reality of abuse — is far greater than anything StatCan might propose.

All of the parties keep detailed personal files on literally millions of voters. Unlike last year’s scandal over Cambridge Analytica’s use, on behalf of its political clients, of information illegally scraped off of Facebook users’ pages, the data here is acquired legally, which is to say the law has been written in such a way as to allow it.

For example, the parties all have guaranteed access to Elections Canada’s voter lists, though there is no obvious reason why they should. Combined with data purchased from private market-research companies and their own proprietary data collected from interviews with individual voters, the parties are able to assemble quite fantastically “granular” profiles of the voters they are trying to reach, with which not merely to anticipate their responses to events but to shape them, via the sort of highly customized, micro-targeted messages that modern media make possible.

All of which would be objectionable enough — there is, again, no need for any of it, and much reason to object to all of it — if it were subject to even the barest regulatory safeguards. But while government agencies like StatCan are covered by the Privacy Act and private companies come under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), the parties have taken care to exempt themselves from federal privacy laws.

And, what is more, they seem determined to keep it that way. Federal and provincial privacy commissioners have called for bringing the parties within the law; so has the head of Elections Canada; so, too, has an all-party committee of MPs. Yet Bill C-76, the package of changes to the election laws currently before the House, makes no requirement of parties other than that they should publish their privacy policies on their websites, with no guarantee they will even abide by their own standards, let alone the kind they impose on others.

Asked to justify this, Liberal spokespeople burble on about the need to “engage” voters. “Understanding the interests and the priorities of Canadians,” Liberal adviser Michael Fenrick told the Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee last week, “helps us to speak to the issues that matter most to them and in turn mobilizes democratic participation in our country.” Those hot-button fund-raising emails and Facebook ads that cater to your worst fears? That’s what he’s talking about, behind all the high-falutin’ language.

A Conservative official said much the same, adding that of course his party was willing to live with whatever Parliament decides, which is how an opposition party traditionally hides behind the government’s skirts. Only the NDP and Greens have publicly expressed support for bringing the parties under the privacy laws — though since neither is likely to be in a position to put this into effect, this, too, seems awfully convenient.

We’ve been this way before. The parties thoughtfully exempted their own solicitations from the do-not-call rules that apply to other telemarketers. Third-party advocacy groups are subject to much tighter election spending limits than those the parties apply to themselves. Corporate advertisers must conform to truth in advertising laws; not so the parties.

And now privacy. It’s tempting to say there’s one law for the parties and another for everyone else but, in this case, there isn’t any.

Source: Andrew Coyne: Political parties — not Statistics Canada — are the real bad guys of privacy invasion

The Right’s Reckless Racial Agitators: Noah Rothman

Good commentary by Rothman. Largely a “plague on both houses” on liberal and conservative hypocrisy regarding their respective extremists, he is particularly pointed in his critique on conservatives:

Like so many terrible things, it all began with a broken window.

Stewards of the historic Metropolitan Republican Club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side awoke on the morning of October 12 to see their institution vandalized. A brick had shattered two windows. The front locks were caulked shut. The entryway keypad was smashed. And the building’s two oversize wooden doors had been marred by graffiti—the anarchist’s wreathed “A.”

Source: The Right’s Reckless Racial Agitators

Alex Jones Was Victimized by One Oligopoly. But He Perpetuated Another

Good take on social media, free speech and Alex Jones (and others of his ilk):

This month, Twitter joined Apple, Facebook, Spotify and YouTube in banning the popular right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from its platform. Like the other bans, Twitter’s decision was announced as a fait accompli, with opaque justifications ranging from “hate speech” to “abusive behavior.”

The seemingly arbitrary nature of these bans has raised fears from all political quarters. Alexis Madrigal, writing in The Atlantic, cited the development as proof that “these platforms have tremendous power, they have hardly begun to use it, and it’s not clear how anyone would stop them from doing so.” His sentiments were echoed by Ben Shapiro in the National Review, who expressed alarm at “social-media arbiters suddenly deciding that vague ‘hate speech’ standards ought to govern our common spaces.”

Even some on the left displayed concern. Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker that “practices that marginalize the unconventional right will also marginalize the unconventional left,” and argued that we must defend even “awful speakers” in the interests of protecting free speech. Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union described the tech giants’ behavior as “worrisome,” and suggested the policies used to justify the bans could be “misused and abused.”

It is indeed worrying that some corporations now have the power to restrict how much influence someone can have on the marketplace of ideas. But what is more worrying, and what few people seem to be considering, is how Alex Jones was able to gain such influence in the first place. In my view, the ideological forces responsible for his rise are a greater threat to free speech than the corporate forces responsible for his “fall.” Principled defenders of free speech would therefore be unwise to rail against the former while ignoring the latter.

The reason tech giants like Twitter and Facebook are able to exert such worrying control over our speech is that they comprise an oligopoly, with no significant competitors. Such oligopolies tend to form in business due to the Matthew principle, which holds that advantage begets further advantage. If Facebook manages to get all your friends to use it, then Facebook’s chances of getting you to use it are drastically increased, because you want to be connected with your friends. This particular example of the Matthew principle is known as a “network effect.”

Crucially, network effects don’t just apply to free market economies; they also apply to the free market of ideas. Concepts that get more exposure will get more exposure. This virality can cause the arena of debate to quickly become dominated by an “oligopoly” of perspectives.

Hence, just as the free market of infotech is now dictated by the Googles and Facebooks of the world, so too has the free market of ideas come to be controlled by a few political narratives, particularly the social-justice narrative of the left and the anti-globalism narrative of the right. The social-justice left dominates among the cultural elite, including the mainstream media, the literati, the tech industry, Hollywood and academia. The anti-globalist right, meanwhile, is popular among the general public, as evidenced by the success of the U.K.’s Brexit campaign, and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and a host of nativist parties in Europe, such as Poland’s Law and Justice and Italy’s Five Star movement.

The story of Alex Jones brings these two strands together, because he has fueled the surge of right-wing populism in large part by leveraging the power of tech oligopolies. Far from being a “fringe” figure (as he is often portrayed), Jones is a key conduit of a popular narrative, broadcasting to over 3.6 million unique online monthly viewers, and apparently having the ear of the American president (which may help explain why baseless conspiracy theories about a “deep state” keep circulating around the White House). Jones, in short, is an ambassador for one half of an ideological oligopoly, which is just as hostile to competition as the tech oligopoly.

But how could this be? To some, the very idea of an oligopoly on ideas may seem bizarre; we are all free to believe whatever we wish. Unfortunately, our brains did not evolve to understand the world but to survive it. Reality is software that doesn’t run well on our mental hardware, unless the display resolution is minimized. We therefore seek out stories, not because they are true, but because they reduce the incomprehensible into that which is comprehensible, giving us a counterfeit of truth whose elegant simplicity makes it seem truer than actual, authentic truth.

A typical mental schematic that allows us to do this is the Karpman drama triangle, which divides people into victims, oppressors and rescuers. We have a tendency to view events using this cognitive compression algorithm because it simplifies reality into drama, offering not just clarity to the confused, but also belonging to the lonely, purpose to the aimless, battle to the bored, and scapegoats to the vindictive.

The social-justice left and anti-globalist right both fully embrace the Karpman drama triangle as a lens for looking at the world. In the social-justice narrative, minorities are the victims, the white patriarchy is the oppressor, and the social-justice activists are the rescuers. In the populist-right narrative, the silent oppressed majorities constitute the victims, the globalist elites are the oppressors, and certain maverick figures (such as Alex Jones and Donald Trump) are the rescuers.

Anyone who doesn’t neatly fit into a corner of the drama triangles will either be shoehorned in, or ignored. This simplification of reality into a dramatic struggle is what makes these narratives so hostile to competing ideas; disagreement is viewed not as a legitimate difference of opinion, but as an attempt at oppression. And when you feel you are being oppressed, you can justify the use of any tactic to fight it.

This is why we see those on the social-justice left using their influence in media, academia and the tech industry to forcefully suffocate the expression of alternative viewpoints — including by the firing of those with different opinions, or by shouting them down at universities, or by physically assaulting them.

And on the populist right, we see similar tactics of intimidation and ostracism, whether through the harassment of climate scientists, the denial of security clearance to former CIA directors who won’t toe the president’s line, or the demonization of conservative pundits who fall out of love with Donald Trump.

Alex Jones himself has been among the biggest instigators of right-wing intimidation. For years, he has concocted lies about those who don’t agree with his narrative, claiming they are agents of foreign governments, literal demons, or child molesters. He also has suggested that his followers should take up arms against the nonbelievers (which is why Twitter suspended him), and his conspiracy theories have led his followers to harass and threaten people with violence.

Unfortunately, this sometimes has led to actual violence. In 2009, Richard Poplawski, who regularly commented on Jones’ Infowars website, and cross-posted many of Jones’ articles on neo-Nazi forums, killed three police officers with an AK-47. The following year, Byron Williams, who cited Jones as an influence on his thinking, engaged in a firefight with police, injuring two. A year later, Jared Lee Loughner, who counted among his favorite documentary films the Jones-produced Zeitgeist and Loose Change, attempted to assassinate U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords, injuring her and 12 other people, and killing six. Later that year, Oscar Ortega, having watched the Jones-produced film The Obama Deception, shot at the White House. In 2014, Jerad and Amanda Miller, both regular commenters on Jones’ Infowars site, posted anti-government videos and then went on a shooting spree, killing three before dying themselves. Two years later, Edgar Maddison Welch, convinced by the Pizzagate conspiracy theory pushed by Jones, shot up the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in Washington D.C.

It is difficult to determine how much influence Jones’ views had on these atrocities. However, the link between hateful Infowars-style rhetoric on Facebook and hate crime was explored by an extensive study of 3,335 attacks against refugees in Germany, where the populist right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has developed a major web presence. The study found that such attacks were strongly predicted by social media use: Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by an average of 50 percent.

Violence is the most direct and dramatic way that the social-justice left and anti-globalist right censor speech. But it is just one tactic among many — including threats, doxings, firings, harassment, mobbings and demonization. This is why the radical left and right, led by demagogues like Alex Jones, represent an even greater threat to our speech than the tech giants. They are gradually turning the free market of ideas into a kind of ongoing hostage crisis, by which people are either afraid to speak their minds, or are doomed to have their words interpreted in the worst possible way when they do so.

I don’t want to make the same mistakes as Jones, so I should emphasize that these drama triangles that are so hostile to free expression weren’t engineered by a secret cabal of ideologues or tech CEOs. They arose organically, regulated only by laws of nature such as the Matthew principle, network effects, and the public’s demand for easy answers. Sure, there are individual Facebook employees who may be interested in pushing a political agenda, but Facebook as a business is not. It seeks to do what is best for profits: making its platform as inviting to as many people as possible.

That’s not to say it is successful in this venture. Corporations are ill-equipped to police the information traffic of millions of users, which is why they frequently get things wrong (such as censoring the Declaration of Independence as hate speech). And even when they get things “right,” they usually only end up benefiting their targets — as evidenced by the fact that, in the wake of Jones’ de-platforming by the major media companies, his Infowarsapp surged up the download charts. The greatest endorsement a conspiracy theorist can receive is censorship by authority figures. It’s a golden opportunity to portray themselves as the victim in their Karpman drama triangle.

So, if we can’t rely on powerful organizations such as governments or corporations to protect our voices from mob rule, what then?

In my view, it leaves only one real option: We must be the protectors of our own free speech, and habitually speak out not just against designated “oppressors” like the tech giants, but also against designated “victims” and “rescuers,” like Alex Jones, who seek to oppress by dehumanizing others as oppressors. And we must do all this without constructing our own drama triangle of oppression, or else we’ll become part of the very problem we seek to solve.

John Stuart Mill believed that in a free market of ideas, good ideas would naturally trump bad ones. But experience has shown that this won’t happen unless the marketplace is populated by those who actively seek truth and openness. Free speech is the foundation of all other rights. It is the seed of innovation, the wheel of progress, the space to breathe. It must therefore be protected at all costs — including, at times such as these, from itself.

Source: Alex Jones Was Victimized by One Oligopoly. But He Perpetuated Another

Inside YouTube’s Far-Right Radicalization Factory

Interesting study, symptomatic of the problems with social media companies:

YouTube is a readymade radicalization network for the far right, a new study finds.

The Google-owned video platform recently banned conspiracy outlet InfoWars and its founder Alex Jones for hate speech. But another unofficial network of fringe channels is pulling YouTubers down the rabbit hole of extremism, said the Tuesday report from research group Data & Society.

The study tracked 65 YouTubers—some of them openly alt-right or white nationalist, others who claim to be simply libertarians, and most of whom have voiced anti-progressive views—as they collaborated across YouTube channels. The result, the study found, is an ecosystem in which a person searching for video game reviews can quickly find themselves watching a four-hour conversation with white nationalist Richard Spencer.

Becca Lewis, the researcher behind the report, calls the group the Alternative Influence Network. Its members include racists like Spencer, Gamergate figureheads like Carl Benjamin (who goes by ‘Sargon of Akkad’), and talk-show hosts like Joe Rogan, who promotes guests from fringe ideologies. Not all people in the group express far-right political views themselves, but will platform guests who do. Combined, the 65 YouTubers account for millions of YouTube followers, who can find themselves clicking through a series of increasingly radical-right videos.

Take Rogan, a comedian and self-described libertarian whose 3.5 million subscribers recently witnessed him host a bizarre interviewwith Tesla founder Elon Musk. While Rogan might not express extreme views, his guests often tend to be more fringe. Last year, he hosted Benjamin, the anti-feminist who gained a large following for his harassment campaigns during Gamergate.

Rogan’s interview with Benjamin, which has nearly 2 million views, describes Benjamin as an “Anti-Identitarian liberal YouTuber.” It’s a misleading title for Rogan fans who might go on to view Benjamin’s work.

Benjamin, in turn, has also claimed not support the alt-right. Like other less explicitly racist members of the network, he’s hyped his “not racist” cred by promoting livestreamed “debates” (a favorite term in these circles) with white supremacists.

But the line between “debate” and collaboration can be indistinct, as Lewis noted in her study. She pointed to one such debate between Benjamin and Spencer, which was moderated by white nationalist creep Jean-Francois Gariepy, and which briefly became the world’s top trending live video on YouTube, with more than 10,000 live viewers.

“In his video with [Richard] Spencer, Benjamin was presumably debating against scientific racism, a stance he frequently echoes,” Lewis wrote in her study. “However, by participating in the debate, he was building a shared audience—and thus, a symbiotic relationship— with white nationalists. In fact, Benjamin has become a frequent guest on channels that host such ‘debates,’ which often function as group entertainment as much as genuine disagreements.”

Debates are often better measures of rhetorical skill than they are of an idea’s merits. A well-spoken idiot might stand a good chance against a shy expert in a televised argument. When they disagreed during the four-hour livestream, Spencer, a more practiced speaker, mopped the floor with Benjamin. The debate earned Spencer new followers, some of whom appear to have been lured in by the other YouTubers’ thinly-disguised bigotry.

“I’ve never really listened to Spencer speak before,” one commenter wrote. “But it is immediately apparent that he’s on a whole different level.”

And Benjamin has been willing to collaborate with further-right far right YouTubers when the circumstances benefited him.

“In many ways, we do have similar objectives,” he told the openly racist YouTuber Millennial Woes in one video cited in the study. “We have the same enemies, right? I mean, you guys hate the SJWs, I hate the SJWs. I want to see the complete destruction of social justice. . . . If the alt-right took the place of the SJWs, I would have a lot less to fear.”

“Some of the more mainstream conservatives or libertarians are able to have it both ways,” Lewis told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “They can say they reject the alt-right … but at the same time, there’s a lot of nudging and winking.”

Her report cited other instances of this phenomenon, including self-identified “classical liberal” YouTuber Dave Rubin, who promotes anti-progressive views on his talk show, where he hosts more extreme personalities, ostensibly for debate. But the debates can skew friendly. The study pointed to a conversation in which Rubin allowed far-right YouTuber Stefan Molyneux to make junk science claims unchecked. A description for the video encouraged viewers to do their own research, but provided links to Molyneux’s own content.

“It gives a generally unchallenged platform for that white nationalist and their ideas,” Lewis said on Tuesday.

YouTube’s algorithms can sometimes reward fringe content. Researcher Zeynep Tufekci previously highlighted the phenomenonwhen she noted that, after she watched footage of Donald Trump rallies, YouTube began recommending an increasingly radical series of white supremacist and conspiracy videos.

Lewis said YouTubers have learned to leverage the site’s algorithms, frontloading their videos with terms like “liberal” and “intersectional” in a bid to “hijack” search results that would typically be dominated by the left.

YouTube, which is built to keep users watching videos, might be a perfect recruiting platform for fringe movements, which want followers to remain similarly engaged.

“One way scholars of social movements often talk about recruitment is in terms of the capacity of the movement to bring in new recruits and then retain them,” Joan Donovan, a research lead at Data & Society said on Tuesday.“Social media is optimized for engagement, which is both recruitment of an audience and retention of that audience. These groups often use the tools of analytics to make sure they continue to grow their networks.”

Source: Inside YouTube’s Far-Right Radicalization Factory

Douglas Todd: Why say ‘inappropriate’ when we mean ‘wrong’?

Words matter. Sometimes appropriate may in fact be appropriate, other times stronger and clearer language is. Depends on the degree and context:

Anybody who feels repelled by the word “inappropriate” is a friend of mine.

It is an increasingly over-used term in public education, health and academia, a bit of bland jargon that is supposed to fill in for actions that used to be called “immoral.”

It’s fine to talk about how it is inappropriate for a man to don a muscle shirt for a gala dinner, since that is referring to mere etiquette. But it is not helpful to claim it is inappropriate to spread malicious gossip about a classmate, sell drugs tainted with fentanyl or wantonly pollute a creek.

Dennis Danielson, professor emeritus of English at the University of B.C., explores abuse of the word “inappropriate” as he builds a comprehensive case for bringing terms such as “right,” “wrong” and “should” back into the public sphere in Canada and the U.S., where such traditional concepts are deemed suspicious. If not inappropriate.

In a brilliant 80-page essay titled The Tao of Right and Wrong (Regent College Publishing), Danielson writes about how “natural philosophy” can move us beyond the core curricula in use in B.C., Ontario and most U.S. schools, which insinuate that students and teachers who have convictions about good and evil can be brushed off with: “But that’s just your opinion.”

Danielson begs to differ. And he offers “The Tao” as shorthand for the way to counter-act the confusing moral relativism that pervades secular education at virtually all levels. Danielson borrows the term, the Tao, from Eastern philosophy to describe the trans-cultural entity from which all moral judgment flows. He makes a convincing argument it’s real. And it matters.

It’s important, he recognizes, to have an ultimate ground for our ethical convictions, whether we’re trying to figure out how to treat strangers, to respond to climate change, to deal with global wealth inequality, to solve housing unaffordability or to combat racial discrimination and scientific data fudging. The Tao can provide direction.

But first, a few more words about the weasel word “inappropriate.” The literature professor considers it part of our “pale modern vocabulary,” which has infected the public realm, including politics, replacing words like “should,” “ought” and “good.”

Danielson, author of The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining The Universe From Heraclitus To Hawking, provides evidence from school curricula around North America that words such as “just,” “decent” and even “important” have been suppressed and replaced with pallid jargon, such as “appropriate.” Even vicious behaviour is simply described as “not up to expectations.”

Danielson, who has been receiving cancer treatment, said he recently went through education ministry documents from across Canada, such as Diversity in B.C. Schools. He found the “authors clearly desire to promote worthwhile things, but just can’t bring themselves to use scary vocabulary like ‘right’ (as distinct from ‘rights’), ‘wrong,‘ ‘good,’ bad,’ ‘evil’ or ‘virtue.’ Of course ‘appropriate’ is all over the place! There’s something pathetic about this.”

While Danielson doesn’t want to be seen as a naysayer — he respects how many teachers are trying to promote citizenship — he maintains in The Tao of Right and Wrong that the crucial piece many are missing is a sense of the ultimate reality that supports meaning and ethical behaviour.

That reality is pointed to in virtually all wisdom traditions, whether ancient Greek, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Confucian or Taoist. Even though humans will always be imperfect in their understandings of what Plato called “the right and just,” Danielson follows the lead of C.S. Lewis in using the concept of The Tao as a kind of umbrella term for the ultimate source of “goods and shoulds.”

He draws a parallel with mathematics to explain how we can commit to the “obvious” truth of universal admonitions, for instance, to treat others the way we would like to be treated, and to view all humans as brothers or sisters. Even though “obvious” can have a subjective dimension, Danielson cites how “most mathematicians agree that, once we thoroughly understand the terms of a mathematical axiom or theorem, its truth is self-evident, or obvious.”

UBC literature prof emeritus Dennis Danielson adopts the concept of The Tao as a kind of umbrella term for the ultimate source of “goods and shoulds.”

In this cynical era in which “values-free” educators teach that every attempt to define meaning is merely “socially constructed” — or, worse, an attempt to exert power over others — many will criticize Danielson’s approach as absolutistic or even black and white. But it’s not. It’s meaty and nuanced. He takes seriously that all human declarations are provisional, even while maintaining sacred values exist to which all can attune themselves.

What are some of those ultimate purposes, which used to be considered virtues? Danielson rightly promotes the classical values of courage, prudence, self-control and fairness.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see such virtues exhibited more often from trendsetting celebrity commentators, either conservative or liberal, who often lead the mob in trash-talking on Twitter, attempting to ostracize those who use moral reasoning to disagree with them? (The tragic irony of “values-free” education is it produces people with no skills in applied ethics; so when they do express opinions they often adopt a hectoring, self-righteous tone.)

I appreciate how Danielson, along with philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, places these classic virtues above what he calls “secondary” truths. And it’s no coincidence a key example of such secondary truths is something many multicultural Canadians contradictorily elevate into an outright absolute: Tolerance.

“Tolerance is clearly a virtue — until it is not. Innumerable codes of conduct across varying school systems — as well as government, law, health care and so on — today declare unapologetically that harassment, bullying, vandalism, violence, possession of illicit drugs, and the like ‘will not be tolerated,’” Danielson says.

“Well and good. But the problem is that teaching materials in those same school systems offer scant wisdom that might help young people or educators discern where the line should be drawn between virtuous tolerance and a principled refusal to tolerate.”

Why has Danielson felt compelled to write The Tao of Right and Wrong at this stage of his life? He believes the most important things facing the rising generation are questions of morality, meaning, virtue and purpose. But he believes many of the young are embarrassed to talk about them. “There are a lot of voices out there calling these things merely vacuous, ultimately made up, ‘constructed’,” he said.

“But with every fibre of my being I think that those things are real and significant — and when it comes down to it, are much more than just arbitrary or culturally specific. I think our future as a species very much depends on our treating them as real and significant. So, hoping to make a modest contribution to that recognition, I wrote this little book — and dedicated it to my youngest granddaughter.”

I could offer that I find Danielson’s motive for writing this new book to be quite “appropriate.” But I’d prefer to try to be true to the Tao and refer to it as right and good.

Source: Douglas Todd: Why say ‘inappropriate’ when we mean ‘wrong’?

Making society civil again

Good reflection on the need for civility. At the individual level, we all need to reflect on how we engage with others, in particular how we express our disagreements:

The United States media has been awash with debates about civility in recent months after a number of officials in Donald Trump’s administration have been heckled and shamed in public places.

Commentators have claimed the cause of incivility stems from everything from political orientation to Donald Trump’s leadership and the way we communicate on social media. The recent White House wavering on flag-lowering protocol following the death of Sen. John McCain has only reinforced the ubiquity of this issue, as did high-profile speakers calling for a return to civility at his funeral.

But eroding civility is not just a modern American affliction; Canada, the U.K. and others are not immune.

Respect and civility ultimately reflect our social competency. Their decline can be attributed to a number of factors in our modern world: Abrupt encounters between different beliefs (e.g., through immigration and refugee “crises”), the disbelief and denial that social inequalities still persist, social media algorithms that only expose us to beliefs that are similar to our own and the rise of both real and artificial online trolls.

The microcosm: Incivility in groups

Whether intentional or instinctual, human and non-human animals alike act in a way that ensures equitable exchanges within their group.

We seek balance. If we are treated in a respectful manner, we want to return the favour. If we feel slighted, we typically want reprisal. This is the catalyst for the spiral of incivility.

Incivility has become a persistent concern in workplaces around the world (e.g., U.S. and Japan). It reflects more general tendencies driven by features of individual psychology in group settings.

At work or at home, if we are treated in a respectful manner, we want to return the favour. If we feel slighted, we want reprisal. (Shutterstock)
Whether at work, at a restaurant, or at home, our expectations will ultimately depend on the kind of relationship we believe we share with those around us: Communal sharing in a family, equality with a co-worker, deference to a boss or even proportional cost and benefit in a market economy.

All of these expectations reflect possible models of fair interpersonal exchange that we might reference. Crucially, violating their norms can make us feel justified in engaging in verbal and nonverbal aggression.

Rather than being unethical or disrespectful, others simply might not share the same beliefs about what is appropriate in a given context: For example, as children grow older, the expectation of deference to a parent can turn into an expectation of equality — one that is not yet shared by the parent.

Civility requires that we make a concerted effort to understand each other. Despite our confidence in knowing the intentions of others, our accuracy can be quite low.

Depersonalizing ourselves, others online

All we truly know of each other are sundry fragments that are hastily gathered in a moment. Social judgments are made fast and furiously. Yet, understanding others is a multi-faceted competency that requires time to develop.

In an online setting, where many social cues are modest or absent, we are left with the written word. Without nonverbal cues discerning their meaning can be a daunting task. Online posts have become the Rorschach tests of our time. They are as ambiguous and equally inaccurate in predicting behaviour.

Making matters worse, when we feel like we are one of the crowd, we tend to misbehave. Anonymity, a lack of time, and stress can reduce helpful behaviour and increase antisocial behaviour.

In online spaces, we feel disinhibited. Online communities and dating sites are replete with uncivil behaviour. Rather than living in a community with repercussions, we practice avoidance. Rather than constructively confronting perceived inaccuracies we find in ourselves, we might run further away from one another and toward the fringes.

In the short run, we might preserve a fragile sense of self as a good and competent individual. In the long run, this isolation only reinforces perceived differences and places us in a bubble.

Losing contact with our leaders

Power can alter our behaviour. It can change what people want and how they attain their goals.

Leaders believe that they must symbolically represent the group and its values. If those with power feel it’s their duty to adhere to the values of the group, they will. If certain values are deemed irrelevant, they will be ignored: A leader might focus on a group’s finances and neglect its ethics.

Over the long term, leaders can trap themselves if these values are not realistically attainable over the course of their tenure. This moral hypocrisy places them in a precarious position. The higher the pedestal, the greater the fall. And people will push.

Wanting a world without ambiguity, followers often resort to rationalizing inconsistencies and can dismiss the proposals from those of other groups , something that can translate into real-world consequences.

Choosing the course of history

History is a willing tutor if we’re prepared to listen with a critical ear. When we come together to fight a common enemy, we can push back empires. When we lose common ground, our societies shatter.

A reading of the history of North America reflects an uneasy plurality. Whether historically or presently, evidence suggests that tensions can be reduced when faced with common threats. Leaders can and do manipulate this to increase cohesion within the majority. However, there is a price to pay.

In the Second World War, Japanese-Canadians paid the price. Now, an increase in hate crimes might suggest Canadian Muslims are footing the bill. The U.K. and the U.S. have their own variants.

Unless we want to become another failed stratum in the sediment of history like Rome, we must choose our responses wisely. When our barbarians are at the gates, will we be prepared?

The greatest threats are not as simple as identifiable countries or peoples. Instead, our common adversaries are largely self-made. Antibiotic-resistant diseases, climate change, workforces ill-equipped for seismic technological shifts and overly simplified rhetoric imperil us.

The endemic rashness of political discourse can no longer be tolerated.

Civility has a role to play here as we challenge ourselves and others. We must be humble with the limits of our knowledge. In an age when fact and opinion have become blurred for many, we must approach absolute statements with caution. This requires deliberation and respectful exchange. The more reasoned the arguments we take into consideration, the better off we will be.

Equally important, civility does not imply that all opinions have equal merit. Instead, we must invest time and effort in our response and avoid being stuck between reactive gut feelings and indifference. We must reflect on how we will be judged and remembered when the dust of history settles upon us.

In an irrevocably globalized world, civility is likely more important now than it has ever been.

Source: Make society civil again

The New Yorker, The Economist and Steve Bannon’s squad of useful idiots: Balkissoon

Find it hard to disagree with her fundamental points (although I have respect for David Frum):

Steve Bannon is going on tour, and venerable institutions are lining up to host him.

This week, the 93-year-old New Yorker and the 175-year-old Economist announced plans to have their editors-in-chief interview Mr. Bannon at separate live events this month. Organizers of the Munk Debates revealed that their first decade will be celebrated by having him debate “the rise of populism” with David Frum at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall in November.

Mr. Bannon is on the “pro” side: He’s a flashpoint figure in the populist wave washing over the globe. His past occupations include investment banker, vice-president of Cambridge Analytica, Donald Trump’s chief strategist and co-founder of Breitbart News, a web publication that he personally called “the platform for the alt-right” in 2016.

His White House appointment brought criticisms of anti-Semitism from the Southern Poverty Law Center. His time there included constructing the “travel ban” restricting movement into the United States from seven countries, most of them with majority Muslim populations. Just before his departure, the NAACP labelled him a “well-known white supremacist.”

To observers both inside and outside of the two publications, giving Mr. Bannon a platform was a bad idea.

Notable figures dropped off of both magazine agendas: At press time, The New Yorker had rescinded its invite, The Economist hadn’t and the backlash against Munk was just beginning. Tech entrepreneur Anil Dash said on Twitter that he’d still talk at the Economist event but would ditch his original topic to focus on “the consistent, immoral attacks Bannon has directed against the South Asian American community.”

Mr. Dash also said The Economist’s executives “are either foolishly getting exploited by providing a platform without any accountability, or are complicit in an awful agenda.” Let’s stick with the first idea today: that despite the big brains inside these institutions, they’ve become, in this instance, useful idiots.

The term refers to someone whose hubris prevents them from seeing they’re being used to spread the message of a nefarious actor. That’s always been Mr. Bannon’s goal – in February, he told Bloomberg News that he was never fighting the Democrats in the 2016 election. “The real opposition is the media,” he’s quoted as saying. “And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

It’s a dark plan, and it’s worked. Supposedly savvy outlets across the globe have been beaten at their own game by far-right propagandists time and again.

Richard Spencer got the left-leaning publication Mother Jones to call him “dapper.” Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie started out with gaming videos, got a Disney contract and evolved into a virulent racist: Although Disney dropped him, he hasn’t lost his popularity. Multipronged attacks by multiple extremists have made it so that journalists – including me – often seem to have no choice between ignoring them until something terrible happens, or helping to introduce their message to a new audience.

I’m not the first to say that the far-right onslaught is shaking the very foundations of journalism. This past May, the New York-based Data Society, which studies how new technologies affect culture, released “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists and Manipulators.” It’s a detailed, 125-page outline of how pillars including open debate, free speech and balance have been twisted to sneak hate into the mainstream.

Take the belief that a debate of reasonable ideas helps get us out of our echo chambers. No insular bubbles are being popped at these events: Mr. Bannon, Mr. Frum, New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick and his Economist counterpart Zanny Minton Beddoes are all Ivy League graduates. New Yorker tickets start at US$17, but The Economist is charging US$49, and Munk seats go up to $100. If populism is about the working class, it would be good to have them in attendance.

More to the point, racism and xenophobia are not reasonable. They aren’t ideas, but harmful actions, happening now. Ask the Latin American migrants still separated from their children, or the people in Puerto Rico mourning their 3,000 dead while living without basic services almost a year after Hurricane Maria.

A woman was killed at last year’s white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., and it was after repeated consultations with Mr. Bannon that Mr. Trump responded. The President eventually blamed “both sides” for the violence – a false equivalency that equates resisting violence with starting it, and manipulates the journalistic tenet of balance.

The world has “debated” hateful ideologies time and again – choose your genocide, and the “never again” declaration that came afterward – and letting them be revisited is, quite frankly, stupid. It’s not an opportunity for intellectual discourse. It’s allowing violence to go unchecked, to sweep up vulnerable people, and to grow.

Mr. Bannon knows it, so why don’t experienced journalists? The answer is ego: the desire to go head-to-head with infamy, the belief that their personal smarts can’t be outsmarted and the inability to admit when one is being used. Pride comes before a fall, and it’s revealing supposedly intelligent people as idiots.