What you can’t say to a sympathetic ear

Suppose we live in a society where it is strongly frowned upon to believe that an onion is a fruit. It is ok to disagree about what defines ‘fruit’, or what Allium varieties are onions. But none of this will get you off the hook—you had just better not suggest that an onions is a fruit.

You don’t think about the issue much yourself. If you had to, you would probably agree with the consensus view that the onion is not a fruit, given a few clarifications of the question. If you were allowed, you would probably admit that you don’t care much about the question. And that you would kind of prefer that it was possible to discuss the issue calmly and without accusations of transcendent evil.

However none of these things is relevant in the real world, because you daren’t even advocate for calmer consideration of the onion classification issue. People would infer that (in a sense) you don’t want to punish people who say that an onion is a fruit. And (in a different sense) not punishing it is much like endorsing it. Punishing non-punishers is an important part of cooperation.

Now suppose you and I are chatting over lunch in a work cafeteria, and I glance furtively around and then lean over to you with gleaming eyes, and whisper that I am making fruit soup tonight, and ahem, there are many people who would cry if they watched me cutting up the fruit for it.

You see what I’m saying. Nobody else seems to have heard.  Are you annoyed? Do you think worse of me?

My guess is yes, at least quite plausibly.

And you are not annoyed because you find my comments troubling in their own right. You disagree with them, but don’t find them intrinsically offensive. Outside the context of our society, you wouldn’t mind.

You might be offended that I am willing to suggest an onion is a fruit in your presence in spite of knowing that most people would be unhappy about this. But suppose that we know each other well, and you know I know you are hard to hurt, even with grievous categorization errors.

I think you still have a strong reason to be annoyed. Which is that I am intentionally taking an action that the rest of the world thinks you are strongly obliged to punish—for instance, by threatening to stop associating with me unless I have an amazing excuse for what kind of seizure took over my mouth. Which means you must decide on the spot whether to punish me (at a cost to our relationship) or implicitly collude a bit with my renegade controversial-thing-saying faction. At a cost to your relationship with the world, because if they learned of this, they would hate you.

This makes my implied classification of onions as fruit into an ultimatum: ‘Me or the rest of society?’ If it is intentional, then it is a test of our friendship, at your expense. It’s like randomly saying ‘ok, if you really care about our friendship then steal $10 from your grandmother to prove it’.

Saying that onions are fruit quietly to you is holding our friendship hostage unless you shift your alliances away from the rest of the world and toward me. Or, more likely, it is an accident that still puts you in this position.

And it is very annoying to have your valuables taken hostage, and even more annoying to be threatened on short notice, with a deadline, so that you can’t just put it at the bottom of your to-do list and deal with it another time.

I hadn’t explicitly noticed that this kind of dynamic existed before (and it may not), but I think it might play a large part in my own feelings, on both sides of situations that are a bit like this.

I am sometimes annoyed when people reveal disagreeable views to me, even if I don’t especially disagree with them. Which is a bit surprising, on the face of it. And other times, I find myself in the position of wanting to say things that may sound controversial, and feeling hesitant, in part for the other person’s sake. So I got to thinking about the possible ways that could harm someone. And imagining myself in their shoes, this is the kind of harm I expected. I have not much idea if others feel the same way in these circumstances, or would construe the situation similarly in terms of game theory.

This might all seem pretty unimportant, being as it is a speculative and hand-wavey analysis of an already obscure social situation. But the existence of multiple reasons to be offended by officially offensive statements—even if you are sympathetic to them—means that social bans on views should be more stable than you might think. It’s one of those things where even if everyone comes to privately believe that onions are indeed fruit, and also thinks that nobody should be punished for saying this, and they can all talk to each other, everyone might still end up saying that onions aren’t fruit forever.

This means sanctions on speech aren’t just costly because they make it hard for individuals to hear ideas that might turn out to be true. They are more costly than that, because even if every individual manages to hear the ideas, and they are good, still they might not be able to update their behavior or the social consensus. And if everyone has to talk and behave as if a claim is false, we have lost a lot of the value of knowing that it is true.

To successfully condemn a view socially is to lock that view in place with a coordination problem. We could all freely identify onions as we wanted, but we have to all at once decide to change the norms, or else we get punished. And changing the norms would be hard to arrange at the best of times, but is harder when trying to arrange it warrants punishment.

If this analysis is correct, I think this situation should raise the bar for condemning views, because it makes it even harder for future people to undo our mistakes where we have erred. Condemnation is more permanent.

ETA Sept 3 2017: I am on reflection happy for people to tell me their controversial views if they are interesting—I bring up my slight feeling of annoyance about it as evidence that it is imposing some cost. But I am usually willing to pay the cost.

20 responses to “What you can’t say to a sympathetic ear

  1. Interesting. I think/hope I probably have some kind of privilege here–people would reasonably expect that they could say to me in private that onions are fruits, and since I’m Eliezer Yudkowsky, I’m expected by anyone who knows me to not flip out about this because I make a big deal about epistemic processes. I was recently annoyed when somebody wanted me to actually pay attention to Pizzagate, but not because I felt required to condemn it. I already spent five weirdness points on being known to not join punishment mobs, maybe?

  2. For me (I’m likely unusual—I’m basically a free speech absolutist), in that situation, the only thing that could make me uneasy is if I was worried about someone overhearing our conversation (because then word might get out that I don’t punish heretics). When people reveal controversial opinions to me in one-on-one settings, my reaction is generally relief. It makes me feel I can trust them more: it shows they trust me, and, in case they learn any of my controversial opinions, it creates a little mutually-assured-destruction bond that protects us both.

    The only ways I could imagine the reveal being negative in a one-on-one setting are unrelated to the controversiality of the views: if they spend a huge amount of time talking about it and I consider the time wasted; if I think the views are wrong and update in the direction of my conversant being ignorant or worse; if the views are “You suck and everyone should inflict negativity on you”; etc.

    I think your analysis applies well to non-private conversations, though. And private conversations don’t do much to directly help everyone realize “actually we all think onions are fruits”. But, indirectly, they probably embolden some people to stand up and announce their views, and others to be lenient when that happens. How quick and effective are these processes? I have no idea.

    I certainly support conclusions in favor of less-restricted speech. I wonder if another lesson to draw is that private conversations are important to make time and space for, and *certainly* that no one should frown on people for going off into a corner to talk quietly to each other.

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  4. I agree with John, especially the part about making space for private conversations. This is why I have mixed feelings about workplaces with open office plans. I interviewed at one company where everyone on a team was basically at the same desk, arranged in a circle, but with their backs to each other so you could see everyone else’s computer screens just by turning around. It was a bit intimidating. Everyone also had a creepy fake smile which made it worse. Maybe you could do computer chat if you wanted a private conversation, but I also worked at one company where the boss had monitoring software installed and could see everything you were doing on your computer. I suppose something similar is true of the entire internet now. How many people are afraid to type things into a computer that they know are politically unpopular?

    In general though, I believe the only solution to this problem to to have people who are dedicated to speaking the truth, whatever the consequences. These people are my heroes.

  5. So, Katja, you actually allow yourself to be used as an agent for societal punishment? I do everything I can to avoid that mindset. Don’t ALL intellectuals consciously *shirk* their duty to punish dissent? I guess not.

  6. Do you make any distinction between 1) controversial opinions about morality and preferred social systems, 2) controversial opinions on preferred word-definitions (which the question of whether an onion is a fruit would seem to fall under), and 3) controversial opinions about potentially testable claims about objective reality which aren’t just a matter of differing definitions?

    I think people who see a lot of value in rational argument should make more effort to be tolerant of the third type of controversial opinion than the first–in the first case, unless two people agree on some basic moral framework like utilitarianism, it’s not likely any productive meeting of the minds is going to come from one person stating an opinion the other finds morally abhorrent, and there may be a case for sometimes using social ostracism as a way of decreasing the popularity of moral/social views that most people would find abhorrent.

    As for the second of the three types of controversial opinions, that one seems more context-dependent since there may be some controversial moral/social opinions opinion of the first type that motivates their preferred choice of word-definitions, but there may not be (even in the third case, a person’s factual opinion on some issue may be largely just rationalizations based on their moral/social opinions, but at least one can try to give counter-arguments based on objective facts, though this may not always be a valuable use of one’s time and so one shouldn’t feel obligated to rebut a controversial factual opinion).

  7. This dynamic makes a strong case that if you want to not punish thought-criminals sometimes, you should go all the way and never punish them. And since rationalists, in general, are disinclined to punish speech, we should all lean towards absolutism.

    This commitment is important to establish ahead of time. For example, once it became known at my job that I, an Israeli, don’t care to join mobs condemning anti-Semitism or BDS, people don’t judge me anymore for not joining other punishment mobs. I get a lot of people telling me really crazy opinions because they need someone to confide in, and I really appreciate it and feel like I have more close friends as a result.

    But joining the punishers even once ruins one’s ability to do that. I really think that most people have a grudging respect for 100% free-speech absolutists, it’s a simple ideal and it makes your behavior predictable and certain. But everyone hates the 90% free speech supporters.

  8. I think some polite fictions are kept around as way to distinguish formal from familiar relationships. Violating minor taboos can signal intimacy.

  9. An absurd belief is more costly and therefore makes a better symbol of tribal loyalty than a rational belief.

    I don’t know if anyone ever honestly believed in transubstantiation, but proffessed belief in transubstantiation makes an excellent group affiliation signal.

  10. I’m going to say an idea here that may be taboo in the rationalist community. ;)

    What if there really are certain ideas and beliefs that are so toxic and harmful that we actually do want to stop them from spreading? Racism may be an example here, if

    -having a belief in racism makes you treat other people worse

    -having a belief in racism harms your own ability to rationally process experiences

    -Even just hearing about racist beliefs may create negitive thought patterns in your own head which, even if you try to not believe them, may cause some of the above consequences

    In this sense, we’re talking about things that are basically “memetic hazards”; things that are harmful ideas which harm the person who has them, harms society as a whole, and tend to spread in ways that are both harmful and hard to contain.

    If things like that exist, then a lot of the behavior you’re talking about actually makes some sense, and banning it in all cases might not be optimal.

    • See memetic hazards, maybe?

      • Sorry, I didn’t read your comment all the way.

        What I meant to imply was that memetic hazards are known in the rationality community.

        • Yeah, I know. I’m just saying that memetic hazards may be more common then people realize, and that may justify the kind of tabooing of certain subjects that this article talks about.

          Not 100% sure if that’s actually true, to be honest, I just always try to think about why certain social rules may exist before trying to change them.

  11. So, it’s clear to me that social rules constraining speech exist for good reasons, but they aren’t for people who are trying to actually think, but for the much larger population who are communicating but who have already given up on thinking. Memes are important, but it’s not the normal human condition to be a festering pile of memes.

  12. This seems widely applicable to our politics if you consider that many voters in 2016 wanted to vote for trump but did not say this to pollsters, or alternately if you consider racial opinions before the election that were thought to be gone. Even now, it would be difficult for a college student, for instance, to say something that was right or far right in America, or far left in Austria. Stigma is a big part of politics.

  13. Pingback: Insightful articles on free speech & social justice – Julia Galef

  14. Martin van Paassen

    This view is extremely confusing to me, but strikes me as careful thinking.

    I think I would by default pay the social cost, but it depends on the social context too.

    Realistically what I would do is start coming up with ways in which onions could be considered fruit (of the earth?) and so defensively try to, in anticipation of potential attack on either our relationship or the necessity of being able to say controversial things, find interpretations which are defensible in the way that is likely to result in minimal cost (whether that be argument, emotional manipulation of the attacker, or any other thing short of actual coercion.)

    As Yudkowsky says, a lot of credibility can be obtained by knownedly being the sort of person that takes attacks on “rights to controversial thing-saying in private” seriously.

    In particular, if someone did comment you might asks why were they eavesdropping on a private conversation; this possibility to me immediately suggests a path out of the situation without paying any cost by making use of the context.

    Imagining myself really in this situation, making such a determination would likely take under a second due to knowledge of the context that I would have set up (otherwise we’re getting into impossible simulated situations again.) Then I would seriously say something like, maybe if you had planned to put on sunglasses you could have avoided both the potential social consequences and costs.

    “I’m going to make fruit soup with sunglasses on.” sounds relatively benign, as many people are “about that weird.” :)


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