Social shunning promotes self-censorship

Adding his own insights to yesterday's post about authoritarianism, Sean Kinsell also defended me against a commenter who put words in my mouth. It is true that I did not say that social shunning was censorship, and sometimes I don't see why I should feel obligated to say "I didn't say that!" over and over. I realize I have done that in countless posts, though, and perhaps that's a mistaken approach. Anyway, I left this comment at Sean's blog:

When commenters put words in my mouth I often find myself having to say something like "I didn't say that." It not only sounds defensive, but it tends to draw me further into a debate with someone who has already shown himself to be unreasonable. And based on my experience, there is no point in debating people who have demonstrated that they did not come to the blog for fair or reasonable discussions, but to engage in dishonest partisan nit-picking.

My post (which I think was obvious) was not about direct government censorship, but the way left wing authoritarian types bully others into self-censorship.

Social shunning is, of course, one of their methods, and it is a very effective method, as people don't want to "lose friends."

Here's Sean:

Social shunning is less like censorship than, say, blocking the publication of a book. But your criteria for choosing friendships say something about your character, and it's not out of bounds to maintain that they say something about your political positions, too, if you're going to drop friends for their politics. At least when I was a boy, we were taught that it was practically a civic responsibility to assume good faith on the part of your political opponents and to seek out opportunities to get to know people with differing views. If someone shares your values about how to treat people--politeness, respect, consideration--and you otherwise have compatible personalities, I don't think it speaks well of you if you decide he's no longer worth breaking bread with because you disagree over politics.
I completely agree. I was taught to assume good faith, and one of the things that I will always be grateful to my father for was sending me to a religious school despite the fact that he was a fierce non-believer. (Atheists and fundamentalists would probably have called him an atheist, but he wasn't dogmatic enough to assert that his beliefs were the absolute truth.) He properly thought it was a good idea for me to be exposed not only to religion, but to other points of view. In those days, Republicans and Democrats (and yes, there were liberals and conservatives) could be and often were friends.

Believe it or not, my first memory of social shunning for political reasons involved guns. Toy guns. The wife of a wealthy and prominent Democratic neighbor (whose parents had been big New Dealers under FDR) had decided that "something had to be done" about guns in the aftermath of Kennedy assassination. Like innumerable boys, I had toy guns and played with them, and one of my friends was her son. She laid down the law with my mom, and told her that she should get rid of the toy guns (my toy guns!), and that until she did, she would not allow her son to come over to our house and play with me! I thought this was ridiculous. (Although it is fair to point out that like many other things people enjoyed in the old days, the toy guns I once played with are illegal today.)

Naturally, my mom was intimidated and humiliated by the woman's demand, and discussed it with my father over the dinner table. Always the diplomatic sort on touchy social matters, he was dismissive, but in a condescending sort of way, as if the woman was just being emotional. Which I am sure she was, but thanks to this gratuitous act of parent-dictated child-to-child snubbing, I "lost a friend." Or was he a friend? When you're eight years old, you're not really in charge of these things, but I remember how stressed my mom was. She was a people-pleaser, and feared social disapproval. Hardly an irrational fear, for social disapproval can have consequences. Not only might you not get invited to the "in" parties, but you might not get to join that country club to which you aspire, and in some cases, you might not get that promotion!

It's really easy for me to be dismissive of these things as a self-employed, 55-year old libertarian blogger, but I was raised to put myself in the positions of others, and I think I understand how they can be made to suffer.

If it could happen to my mom, it can happen to anyone.

Social shunning is not censorship, but it results in self-censorship, and I think the more people censor themselves, the more likely they are to want to censor others. That's because people who comply with "the rules" resent people who don't, and they become enforcers themselves.

Because those who conform resent those who don't, compliance with tyranny ultimately leads to a demand for tyranny.
Which is why today's social mores can become tomorrow's laws.

MORE: OTOH, there's always this approach. (And no, I will not reveal the identity of whoever may or may not have emailed me the link!)

posted by Eric on 04.07.10 at 11:20 AM


My aunt and uncle were Woodstock hippies, they didn't allow their son to play with guns.
We played together and I had a bunch of toy guns and army men and he couldn't play with them.
He did make a gun out of his hand occasionally (fist with thumb up and forefinger extended) which I always thought was silly, if you're going to play with fake toy guns, why not with real toy guns?

Funnily enough, he is a real POS kind of person.
I'm mean to mean people, he's a slimy ahole to everybody but himself and his girlfriend.

Veeshir   ·  April 7, 2010 11:59 AM

A few points..

1. Actually, you DID use the term "censorship" as in "As Theodore Dalrymple explains, politically correct censorship of writing works precisely in this way:". You did not put the word in quotes or otherwise do anything to indicate that you were merely quoting and not using the term yourself. Given the way you used it, it is not only legitimate but arguably correct to assume that you were also using the term and not just citing Dalrymple.

Anyways, even if you did mean use it as a quote only, it doesn't really matter to the larger point since your use of the terms like "coercion" & "authoritarian" are just as misplaced. Taking your stand on use of the particular word "censorship" seems like saying "I never called you a motherf**ker! I called you a c**ksucker. Don't put words in my mouth."

2. In my experience, libertarians have traditionally reserved the word "coercion" to refer specifically to forcible coercion - coercion that includes the threat of physical violence. I have never seen it used to refer to a person merely exercising his rights. Using it in it's broad meaning strips it of any useful meaning at all. If "coercion" simply means any and all means of pushing someones buttons to get them to do what you want, then we end up lumping together everything from "if you don't forswear opinion X, I will kill you" to "If you don't forswear opinion X then I won't be your friend".

Not only is this instinctively ridiculous, I would expect a libertarian to instinctively grasp the danger in such an approach. If we start claiming that threatening to kill someone and threatening to withhold friendship are in the same class of "coercive" behaviors, then it won't be long before some leftwing douchebag seizes on the chance to argue that this equivalence implies that the "right" to a supportive social environment is on par with the right to life. YAY!

3. The "marketplace of ideas" is a type of marketplace and what you call "shunning" is just a type of boycott. What is so special about "shunning" that makes it different, less legitimate, or more "coercive" than any other boycott? Is it "coercion" if I decide not to patronize a business that makes an inferior product? Is it "coercion" if I decide not to patronize a business that engages in practices that I strongly disagree with? According the the broad definition that you appear to be using, I think it would be. After all, if it is "coercion" for one party to threaten to withold friendship from another, then it must be "coercion" for one party to threaten to withhold something more important than friendship. If exploiting your desire to be liked by threatening you with the withdrawl of my friendship is enough to count as "coercion" then surely exploiting your desire to earn a living by threatening you with the withdrawl of my business must be "coercion" as well.

I'll follow up with a few more points later...

libarbarian   ·  April 7, 2010 3:58 PM

libarbarian, you're slushing together two parts of Eric's original post that seemed to me to be related but pretty obviously distinct. He used the word censorship not in relation to social shunning but in relation to exercising control over who can express which ideas for publication. I don't think he used the word coercion in that post at all, though a commenter did. (I also wasn't aware that "forcible coercion" had to be differentiated from a non-forcible kind.) He did call both maneuvers "authoritarianism," so if you want to take issue with his word usage, that's the one you should be aiming for, presumably, though funnily enough it's the one you didn't say much about.

Speaking of words, you arrange them very prettily, but at root you're just making the argument that it's all kinds of okay to treat a friend like a product you pick up at the store: the minute it doesn't meet one of your expectations, you trash it. Is that the way you live your life? Do you surround yourself with others who live that way?

No one is arguing (at least here) that you have a constitutional right not to be shunned. The argument--which I wouldn't have thought a difficult one to follow until a few minutes ago--is that something precious to a free society is lost if we all summarily drop long-time friends for no other reason than that we've discovered they oppose us politically. (Well, and that such moves are especially galling from leftists because they're so voluble about what lovers of freedom and diversity and tolerance they are.) Ideas are sharpened through debate, and it really is possible for smart people of good faith and goodwill to disagree on things.

Sean Kinsell   ·  April 7, 2010 5:50 PM

Yes, just as all censorship is the same, all forms of "coercion" are the same.

threatening to kill someone and threatening to withhold friendship are in the same class of "coercive" behaviors

Right. That's exactly what I said. Shunning is like threatening to murder someone! And an elderly woman pleading for food money is no different than a stickup man.

Why, I am shocked and mortified by my own outrageousness!

Thank you for pointing it out.

Eric Scheie   ·  April 7, 2010 5:54 PM

Darn! I forgot that power differentials can also constitute "coercion," which can transform ordinary sexual intercourse into rape!

"perceived power differentials may create an unintentional atmosphere of coercion."

Murder, rape, shunning, it's all the same!

Eric Scheie   ·  April 7, 2010 10:13 PM

Responding to libarbarian in any way except to point and laugh is pointless (heh).

It's not hear to do anything except disrupt intelligent conversation.

I'm still waiting for it to explain why all those leftists went to Tea Parties and started screaming racist statements.

Now, I understand we haven't seen video or audio of them doing it, but Occam's Razor said they did so libarbarian must explain exactly why they did it.

Veeshir   ·  April 8, 2010 10:28 AM

No one is arguing (at least here) that you have a constitutional right not to be shunned. The argument--which I wouldn't have thought a difficult one to follow until a few minutes ago--is that something precious to a free society is lost if we all summarily drop long-time friends for no other reason than that we've discovered they oppose us politically.


I didn't see anything that would lead me to believe the author was restricting his discussion only to the idea of dropping people who are already friends over some political issue.

I understood it him to be making a greater claim that it's "authoritarian"(*) to let's someones politics determine how we treat them socially. That would also include things like writing off a new acquaintance or social-but-not-close "friend" because of their views.

(*) (Actually, he's getting the definition of this word entirely wrong, but I understand what he means so its not worth fussing over)

libarbarian   ·  April 8, 2010 6:27 PM

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