Discover more from Better Conflict Bulletin
Does Censorship Even Work? - BCB #75
Also: Blue bans speakers while Red bans books, and polarization reduces America's credit score
It’s probably not a smart idea to completely silence someone who disagrees with you, according to Rikki Schlott and Greg Lukianoff, authors of Canceling of the American Mind and Coddling of the American Mind:
Would being told to shut up ever change your opinion? We imagine not. Would their unwillingness to even hear you out make you even more sure that you must be right? Perhaps.
This is the modern manifestation of the anthropological phenomenon schismogenesis, which contends that group identity is formed in opposition to competing groups.
To be clear, these groups tout some despicable views. But has censoring them made us better off? No. In fact, it actually seems to have increased radicalization in these groups. When platforms “cancel” users based on their speech and beliefs, they quarantine them into circles with less viewpoint diversity.
As if on cue, The Guardian recently removed an old letter by Osama Bin Laden after videos discussing it went viral on TikTok, which only succeeded in massively boosting the discussion and fueling conspiracy theories.
Generally, we at the BCB support freedom of expression regardless of political opinion (as does the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). But tolerance is never absolute, and political stances leave open the empirical questions. Even when there is wide agreement that a certain type of speech is unacceptable – like inciting violence – it’s not clear how to respond.
In fact, some forms of censorship do succeed on their own terms. One study analyzed over 49 million tweets to examine the effects of deplatforming people on the spread of their ideas and the behavior of their supporters. Posts referencing each influencer declined by an average of 91%, and overall activity and toxicity levels of their supporters decreased. Still, this might just be kicking the can down the road, if the censored end up building grievance-based communities on alternative platforms.
This is the censor’s conundrum. Even if there is broad political agreement on the goal of suppressing a certain type of speech — and that’s a pretty big if — it might just make matters worse. However, the digital world adds new tools: there are now many choices between allowing speech and removing it completely. Twitter 2.0 leans more towards downranking rather than removal for issues like hate speech. Facebook employs a variety of approaches, including removing, reducing, and informing users about problematic content. These softer measures work by changing the allocation of attention (“freedom of speech not freedom of reach”), which may or may not trigger the same sort of backfire effects.
Nate Silver, using FIRE’s annual survey of 55,000 undergraduates across universities and colleges, highlights a decline in tolerance for speakers with controversial opinions, especially among Blue students.
FIRE asked about three controversial Red opinions including “abortion should be completely illegal” and three controversial Blue opinions such as “structural racism maintains inequality by protecting White privilege.” Blue students show high tolerance for Blue viewpoints but little for Red ones, while Red students were more generally tolerant.
The conservatives are actually quite consistent, with roughly 60 percent support for both liberal and conservative speakers. The liberal students have a relatively high tolerance for liberal speakers, but little tolerance for conservative ones.
Silver explores a few reasons for this, including the popularity of Blue ideas on campus, which are less tolerant of free speech than traditional liberalism, and a recent increase in concerns about misinformation. He also notes that younger generations might be more prone to thinking words are harmful to them, an issue common among young liberals.
On the other hand, it’s mostly Red activists who try to remove books from school libraries, according to PEN America, which tracks attempts to remove books from public libraries and schools.
During the first half of the 2022-23 school year PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles, an increase of 28 percent compared to the prior six months, January – June 2022.
This school year, instances of book bans are most prevalent in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina. These bans are driven by a confluence of local actors and state-level policy.
Overwhelmingly, book banners continue to target stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.
Credit rating agency Moody’s has shifted its economic outlook on the United States from "stable" to "negative.” They cited political polarization as one of two reasons for this move, along with fiscal deficits.
Moody's said "continued political polarization" in Congress would increase the risk of lawmakers failing to agree on a plan to mitigate the worsening debt, referring to the upcoming election year as a hindrance.
Any type of significant policy response that we might be able to see to this declining fiscal strength probably wouldn’t happen until 2025 because of the reality of the political calendar next year.
This matters because Moody’s is a leading credit rating agency that plays a crucial role in the global economy by evaluating the creditworthiness of borrowers, including the U.S. government. This downgrade could increase interest rates not just for the government but for U.S. borrowers, including on mortgages and consumer loans.
Quote of the Week
Censorship underscores the formation of grievance communities, and it doesn’t rehabilitate the people that have been censored. It tends to lock in grievances amongst people who are deeply committed, rather than actually rehabilitate them, and then, when those grievances reach a boiling point, it spills out into real world mobilizations, protests and violence.