The Convenient Squishiness of the “Social Penalty”

While his day job is teaching at the University of Illinois, Nick Grossman’s side hustle is being a senior editor at Arc Digital, where I’ve posted a few things. I rarely do so anymore as I write like a lawyer and that’s really not what Arc is about. I try to pick words with some precision, whereas the more philosophically-minded try to pick words they can easily weasel out of. I don’t want to play “Rhetorical Calvinball.”* Others hope to be Olympic champions at the game.

So when Nick wrote a post exposing the “real questions” about cancel culture following the Harper’s Letter, it received a very warm reception as being the most “fair” perspective. But after reading it, I had some issues.

Criticism, mockery, and charges of hypocrisy followed. Here’s Williams, imposing social penalty on someone in response to speech, the very behavior his letter claims “will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.” He was fully within his rights — freedom of association, private property — and exercising them in this manner was counter-speech. But as Elizabeth Picciuto points out, social media criticism, insults, demands to fire someone, declining to publish someone (perhaps in response to employee complaints), boycotts, firings, and other actions that cancel culture critics deride are also within people’s rights — freedom of association, at-will employment — and are also acts of counter-speech.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, an inadequately woke black man, kinda threw a person out of his house for going on a baseless rant about why Bari Weiss was literally Hitler. Now, Williams was only one of about 150 signatories to the Harper’s Letter, so his actions don’t impugn either the rest of the signors or the concept. Nor does Nick “interrogate”** whether choosing not to have a person in your home for dinner is comparable to getting them fired from a job and precluded from a future career. Then there’s the reference to Picciuto’s Arc post, which conflates social media criticism from burning at the stake, but left unmention is her insipid attempt to justify it based on “but my tribe is right and the other tribe is awful, so they deserve it.”

But the reason I’ve started with this paragraph is the nifty weasel phrase Nick stuck in there, likely to get lost in the sauce of the various other indulges in ad hominem, false equivalences, tu quoque and lesser logical fallacies. Did you see it? Did you notice the trick?

Social Penalty.

Getting called a mean name on twitter is a social penalty. Not being invited to dinner is a social penalty. Being fired from your job is not. Having a book deal killed is not. Losing tenure is not. Losing your law license is not a social penalty. Yet, by handy-dandy gloss, they’re all the same.

But Nick’s point is that the free speech promoters don’t get the objections, which isn’t so much about free speech in the legal sense, and he’s largely right about that as this is mob action, not governmental action, and so the First Amendment doesn’t kick in. Rather, it’s just nice folks deciding what speech they’re willing to tolerate. Hasn’t that always been the case?

Discussing this topic with The Ethics of Microaggression author Regina Rini, Oliver Traldi argues that the burden should be “on the people who would expand the exceptions to show that they do not infringe dangerously on the general principle.” But social justice activists are doing that, and free speech defenders aren’t responding.

I’ve done a few rounds on the twitters with Regina Rini, who is one of those philosopher profs who feels entitled to dabble in law, but without the undue constraints of facts, logic or any knowledge of law whatsoever. It’s like arguing with a precocious 12-year-old with an extensive vocabulary of meaningless words. But I digress; so what are social justice activists doing to which free speech defenders aren’t responing?

Activists have identified various expressions as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted and argue that treating those expressions as beyond the pale — like we treat overt racial slurs and Holocaust denial — would improve society by making historically marginalized people closer to equal. One could disagree with this line of argument, of course, but it’s been pretty successful, influencing various institutions and persuading many young people.

Here’s the crux of Nick’s point, although what he calls “this line of argument” isn’t argument at all. Rather, it’s someone (an activist, no doubt) deciding what words, phrases of ideas strike them at any moment as problematic, whereupon they scream as loud as they can “RACIST, RACIST, RACIST” at whomever they like.

The juxtaposition is that there are certain words, the “n-word” for example, and certain ideas, Holocaust denial, for example, that are “beyond the pale” for civil society. So why shouldn’t a handful of social justice warriors get to decide to expand the list by a magnitude of thousands?

There is a glaring hole in this attempt to relate the “n-word” to saying “America is the land of opportunity.” The former didn’t become taboo because a social media influencer decided to make it so, but because society organically accepted the norm that it was a word that should not be uttered.*** It wasn’t rammed down society’s throat, but rose from society’s gut.

As for Holocaust denial, there are pictures. It’s just factually inexcusable to believe otherwise, much as we now know the earth is not flat and anyone saying so wears a fashionable tin foil hat.

But that it’s been “pretty successful,” that a loud group of children with a highly-developed sensitivity to finding offense where none was intended and where the vast majority of society sees none, doesn’t create a legitimate and cognizable mass of words and ideas that demand a social penalty.

It’s true that some words, some thoughts, are “beyond the pale,” but that they’re determined, as is the “social penalty” to be exacted, is based on the success of the screamers “influencing various institutions and persuading many young people” is absurd. And yet, Nick’s post not only reflects his best efforts at being fair about why free speech advocates deserve everything they got coming, but was favorably received by every person vying for a place on the United States Olympic Calvinball team.

*Read this. Just trust me. I don’t ask too much of you.

**I hate the word used that way, which is why I use it in relation to Nick’s post.

***Terms and conditions apply.

18 thoughts on “The Convenient Squishiness of the “Social Penalty”

  1. Grant

    Nearly every post of yours has a line that I wish I were skilled enough to write.

    Today’s was, “It’s like arguing with a precocious 12-year-old with an extensive vocabulary of meaningless words.”

    Don’t post this because it’s a tummy rub.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m going to let the tummy rub slide because there’s a point in there that matters: Too many overly-edumacated people spewing pseudo-intellectual rhetoric are gaining traction with the useful idiots, and few people are either willing or (feel) able to call bullshit. It’s bullshit. If no one says so, then the idiots win rhetorical Calvinball, and I will not quit and give up the field.

      1. Grum

        It is not a modern phenomenon, and here is a perfect example from Beachcomber’s Lord and Lady Shortcake:
        “I trust my love, ” replied her husband with an old-fashioned inclination of the head, “I trust that my Lady Shortcake’s experience of is so negligible as to preclude the possibility of her being a competent arbiter in the matter”.
        “Vulgarity”, retorted my lady “cannot be cloaked by a spate of words”.

  2. Richard Kopf

    SHG, I read “Rhetorical Calvinball.” Professor Lutz, from Wuhan University no less, is bright and his essay is worth thinking about. Thanks for the required reading.

    Oddly, a commentator to the piece [Ed. Note: Link added to this comment because I can.] published in Persuasion felt required to add that white lawyers are good at argument, but that’s not fair. Indeed, that is a sufficient reason to “critique . . .objectivity and rationality.”

    The commenter wrote:

    “Some people have better skills than others in composing logical arguments. Lawyers, for example, learn in law school how to argue both sides of a case. This skill can be used to beat down someone who hasn’t had an opportunity to learn the skill but nevertheless feels deeply about her position. Out-arguing someone doesn’t necessarily make you right. And lo and behold, it turns out that the people best skilled in logical argument have tended to be white males and the less skilled people have been women and racial minorities. This is the sense in which I agree with the critique of objectivity and rationality.”

    There is no sense of irony in this comment to Rhetorical Calvin Ball–thus proving that being dumb is enough to win a game played with no rules.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      As so many white male lawyers have argued in summation, just because the undisputed facts prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is no reason to convict.

    2. DaveL

      I have to wonder, does this commenter imagine that when the Klan rode in to set fire to a sharecropper’s barn and slaughter his plow horse, that was it because they had had the opportunity to learn the skill of logical argument, or was it because they felt deeply about their position?

  3. Noel Erinjeri

    “The former didn’t become taboo because a social media influencer decided to make it so, but because society organically accepted the norm that it was a word that should not be uttered.”

    False dichotomy. Penalty. Foul.

    Counsel has failed to establish that social media influencers (and influencees) are not an organic part of society.

    No go to the song zone and sing the Very Sorry Song.


  4. L. Phillips

    “So don’t leave the field. Keep on arguing. Just remember to play by the rules.

    Matt Lutz is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wuhan University.”

    Am I the only one warped enough to think those two lines are funny as hell given the machinations around the present pandemic?

  5. Curtis

    I heard someone distinguish the culture of free speech vs. the law of free speech. We can keep speech legal while at the same time allowing only the proper groupthinkers to prosper.

    If society harshly penalizes unorthodox thoughts, all the laws are basically useless. You can say what you want but not on Twitter, your book will not be published by any major publisher, you will lose tenure and become a unemployed pariah but, don’t worry, you have free speech.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s a very hard line to see anymore, and it’s in constant motion with violation proving harsh, if not disastrous. The legal piece related to whether you have a cause of action against someone, but the concept doesn’t really change. The question is whether we allow the parameters of socially acceptable speech to be increasingly narrowed (meaning, narrowed beyond what society as a whole frowns upon) such that anodyne views become socially unacceptable and any views that challenge the ideology (capitalism is great!) are silenced.

      That’s when we’re deep into Orwell territory.

  6. The Real Kurt

    CalvinBall is certainly a standard, but I reach for the classics – “43-man Squamish”.

    Perhaps I show my age…

    The Real Kurt

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