Category Archives: Current Events

Censorship, Free Speech, Social Media, and The First Amendment

According to the state action doctrine, only government entities can violate the First Amendment. Twitter, Facebook, etc, are not government entities. They don’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights when they take down posts or remove their accounts. That does not mean that Twitter, FB, etc, aren’t censoring speech.

Some worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc are monopolies, violating anti-trust laws and that they thus ought to be regulated as common carriers. This strikes me as pretty obviously mistaken. Not only are they competitors, but others have sought to compete with them (MeWe, Parler, etc) and nothing rules out others trying to do so in the future. Some also worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc might act in ways meant to curry favor with the Federal government and that if that is true, since its plausible that federal regulators know this and might thus signal their desires to these firms, really Twitter, Facebook, etc are agents of the state and so they can, after all, violate individual constitutional rights. This also strikes me as pretty implausible, both legally and morally. Whatever control would be present would be pretty tenuous. If it weren’t, it seems unlikely that Twitter would have closed President Trump’s account.

When Twitter bans President Trump from its platform, it prevents him from speaking to a certain audience, limiting his speech. It does not thereby successfully prevent him from speaking to everyone; he has other avenues of communication. Of course, if the government censors someone, they also will typically have other avenues of speech. Consider the Comstock Act of 1873; it made it illegal to send certain “lascivious” material through the mail. Those wishing to share (speak about) those materials with others, could still do so—for example, by walking to others and talking to them directly. More generally, any governmental act meant to silence someone will close some avenues of communication while leaving others open. The fact that a social media company only closes some avenues of communication to (i.e, only partially silences) someone it bans from its platform is no different than what government does. If the latter is censorship, so is the former. Or so it seems to me.

If I am right, “government censorship” is a specification of “censorship,” as is “parental censorship,” “school censorship,” etc. “Social media censorship” would simply be censorship by a social media company. If this is wrong, we need another term for what the other agents just named do when they limit speech. That’s fine, of course. It’s a mere conceptual matter, one we needn’t worry too much about—what we are really interested in, I think, is whether social media companies or other private agents should seek to silence anyone. Still, if this is not censorship because only speech limitation by government is censorship, then “government censorship” is redundant—and I do not think it is.

That I think social media companies sometimes engage in what is properly called “censorship” does not mean those companies do anything wrong. Free speech is valuable—and so, I think, the first amendment leaves the US more or less absolutist in forbidding government intervention in speech. But that doesn’t mean private agents can never morally limit speech. Of course they can. Of course we can. For example, I stop my son from using certain words that are not appropriate for polite society. I censor him. There are also certain speech acts I would forbid in my classroom if I had to, but thankfully don’t—they don’t ever seem to come up; that is, my students don’t use them (in the classroom, anyway). Similarly, book burning (in some circumstances) by private individuals and book banning in private schools are likely forms of censorship. They’re both legal, even if disturbing.

Some censorship is not only permissible, but expected and probably morally good—disrespectful speech in the classroom, for example, is something we do well to make unacceptable (through non-legal, social means). Is censorship by Twitter, Facebook, etc, of President Trump and his followers good? I don’t honestly know. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I generally agree that more speech is the way to counter bad speech and that airing all views is likely to leave the bad (morally and epistemically) views with fewer believers. And (on the same hand), I worry that people are too often attracted to beliefs they are told they shouldn’t have (the “taboo effect”). Certainly, letting people discuss racist and anti-Semitic views hasn’t (yet) stopped them from spreading and letting people discuss conspiracy theories about fraudulent elections—for which there is no evidence—hasn’t stopped them from spreading. On the other hand, I don’t have any significant doubt that President Trump lies and that his followers are mistaken about a number of important factors, including the supposed fraudulence of the election, and preventing the spread of those false beliefs seems worthwhile. And, I admit, I simply love that in our society government officials face limits imposed by private entities. Corporate CEOs can tell the President of the United States that he can’t use their service; this is not something one can say in Russia or China.

Conclusion: like it or not (and I am conflicted), Twitter and Facebook do not violate any constitutional rights by censoring the President and his followers. As I said previously, this is a matter of property rights. Twitter and Facebook own their platforms just as I own my home. Just as I can forbid someone from entering my home to tell me why Nazi’s were right—or anything at all that I don’t want to hear—Twitter and Facebook can forbid people from using their platforms to say thinks Twitter and Facebook do not like. Twitter and Facebook have the right to censor those using their platforms. Whether they should or not, I cannot presently say.

Moralism, Community, and Civil Discourse

I’ve begun to think that one of the largest problems facing society is moralism, in a variety of forms. I want to try out this claim here. For the moment, take moralism to be a commitment to the view that some acts must be forbidden, socially or legally, because they are (a) judged wrong by the general populace, (b) in some way opposed to the continued survival of the general populace, or (c) simply immoral even if no one is hurt by them. I expect to return to this in future posts, but here want to discuss a possible relationship between moralism and our problems with civil discourse.

There are at least three ways to get someone else to believe or act as you. First, one can use force or coercion on the other, perhaps yelling at or bullying them. Second, one can appeal to the other’s emotions, perhaps getting them to feel bad if they don’t accept your view or do what you want. Third, one can use reason, trying to explain why what you want them to believe or do is what they actually should believe or do. All of these are ways that people “argue,” though only the last is “argument” in the philosopher’s sense. I take it as obvious that we should reject the first (as it treats persons as non-agents) and prefer the third (it alone treats persons as what they are, rational agents). Philosophers would prefer only the third be used; we sometimes find it hard to accept how much more prevalent and successful the second is. Advertising, public relations, and politics all rely on emotional appeals far more than reason. In doing so—in relying on appeals to emotions—they treat persons as agents, but not rational agents. This is better than coercion, but not as good as reason.

One sort of appeal to emotions I see a good bit of is an appeal to community. If we care about our community, we’re told, we’ll do this. If we care about each other, we’ll do that. This can be turned into a rational argument, of course: community is important, so we should do X which is necessary for community. Even then, we are rarely told why community is important or how X is necessary for it. Still less are we likely to be told how the particular community in question actually has the qualities of community that give it value. (Community can be a real value even if this particular community is not.). In most cases, the appeal is a form of the second type of moralism, where we are supposed to believe that the community requires what the appealer says—that absent our acquiescence the community will be endangered.

Generally, when one appeals to community, the goal is simply to get other people to do, believe, or live as one wants. It’s community as the appealer conceives it. If the appealer wants help with child care, the conception of community will be one where child care duties are shared, including by those who did not wish to have children. If the appealer believes women are or should be subordinate to men, the sought after community will be chauvinist. If the appealer is egalitarian, the sought after community will be egalitarian. If the appealer thinks people currently in the community are of more value than those elsewhere, the sought after community will be anti-immigrant. If the appealer thinks allopathic medicine, western education in STEM fields, or the like are necessary for decent or good lives, the sought after community will be one where those things are provided or even required of all.

Here’s the thing: if one is willing to appeal to emotions in this way to convince others to do, believe, or live as one wants, one does not value the other as a person. While appealing to emotions may be better than coercion, it still treats the other as less than oneself. It is manipulation with an assumption that the other is no more than a being to be manipulated to get what one wants. It excludes belief that the other should be reasoned with, that their reason matters. It thereby excludes, in the instance, belief in rational discourse with the other.

I expect to be discussing moralism further in future posts, but here hope only to have shown how continued reliance on moralism of one form prevents use of rational dialogue. This should be obvious: if we are genuinely committed to rational dialogue with our fellow citizens, we don’t coerce them and we don’t try to suade them with appeals to emotions, even if designed to protect our community as we see it.

Section 230: Platforms and Publishers

There has been a lot said lately about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. President Trump had threatened to veto the defense budget unless it were repealed. Trump and others are upset with internet platforms Facebook and Twitter because of their censoring users—users that might propagate false claims about widespread voter fraud or foreign governments somehow hacking our voting system and users promoting false claims about COVID-19 being a hoax, for obvious examples. So what is the issue here?

Here’s the heart of the matter in §230: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  This does not mean the provider (the platform) can’t be sued; it means they can’t be sued for information (good or bad) someone posts on their site from another source.  In short, they aren’t publishers.  That all seems good to me.  It would also seem like a simple extension of everyday thinking about private property. 

Consider: if I install a bulletin board on my property (outside my house, near where people walk), I can post what I like on that board and I can allow others to put up posts as well. Intuitively, we wouldn’t think I should be held responsible for what other people post there.  One simple reason for this is that it would be too much to expect me to monitor everything. If someone posts something on my bulletin board—which, assume, I offer my community as a way to increase communication—and I can be sued for false claims they post, I am very unlikely to install such a board in the first place. I don’t have the time or inclination to check the truth of everything posted by others. Section 230 essentially treats internet platforms just like that, though obviously much larger, with millions of posts on their “boards.” If we want them to offer their means of public communication, we shouldn’t hold them responsible for the truth (or fairness) of everything posted on their service. This is why §230 treats platforms as good Samaritans rather than as publishers.

What seems to upset people, I should note, is the removal of posts rather than the leaving of posts that are false or unfair in some way. Consider my bulletin board again. While I am not to be held responsible for things others post, I can take things down as I please. What §230 makes clear, as I read it, is that since its my bulletin board, I can remove stuff you hang even if what I remove would be constitutionally protected if on some state owned medium. I can help you post stuff I like and I can remove stuff I do not. I’m not required to do either, but (because it is my property), I can do either.  Facebook, Twitter, etc, can do the same—remove your posts or help you post—as they wish. And just as my helping you post on my board does not mean I am responsible for your posts, Facebook, Twitter, etc are not responsible for what you post there.

In short, §230 treats firms offering platforms as providing a valuable service on their property that thus should not be overly burdened. Nothing in §230, so far as I can tell, gives platforms any special privileges such that they can reasonably be seen as an extension of the state (which would mean that posts would be constitutionally protected).

The only thing I might find worrisome is if a platform knowingly lied (or knowingly forbid true posts). In knowingly forbidding true information, a platform might cause actual harm. If that can be demonstrated, I might agree that there should be legal interference. Given, though, that users are voluntary participants, this seems unlikely—you can’t claim to be harmed if you are a voluntary participant. To explain: If you come into my house after I tell you I might lie to you when inside, on my view, there should be no legal interference. Of course, in such a situation, you shouldn’t visit me. Indeed, you’d be well advised to unfriend me. Similarly, if you think the internet platform is being dishonest in the way it censors posts, you should probably leave it. At least this is a reasonable response if you’ve given it serious thought and conclude that the benefit to staying is minimal. I would suggest that staying has a clear benefit: exposure to views one doesn’t know or agree with. That can help one improve if one is open to it. But though I think we should all be open to hearing rational discourse, I don’t know that anyone is obligated to do so.

Preferring Purple: Rules for Honest Conversation

My home state, Georgia, has now certified that its Electoral College Votes will go for Biden (as have other states that were in play). Even before the steps for certification were complete, many on the left were thrilled to proclaim that Georgia has turned blue. I think this wishful thinking on their part (and fearful thinking for those on the right). After all, both of our seats in the US Senate are still up in the air. More importantly, this sort of thinking—that the state is blue or red—perpetuates an us-them mentality that, I suggest, is the underlying problem throughout the U.S. right now. (“The state is Blue! I finally can call it Home!” Or “Oh crap! The state is Blue? Carpetbaggers!”) I prefer to say GA is purple. It’s not, of course, a consistent purple throughout the state (far from it). This does not strike me as a bad thing—different people have different views and are somewhat geographically divided. I’m fine with that—It’s hardly surprising and it makes the world interesting. The U.S. is purple in the same way. If we start thinking in those terms, we might get past some of the hostility we see now and see a more consistent purple throughout. Those who have read my previous posts on RCL will not be surprised to hear that I think the way we do that is by improving the way we talk with each other. To that end, here is my working list of rules for honest conversation. (These were started by looking at Braver Angels’ “Ten Principles for Productive Political Disagreement.”)

  1. Speak! Don’t be afraid to ask honest questions. Realize you can only learn from others—and they can only learn from you—if you engage with them.
  2. The Golden Rule. Be respectful and kind, just as you want others to be to you. This means really listening, not just using the time your interlocutor is talking to plan your next statement. What you say should genuinely respond to them. Otherwise you’re having competing monologues, not dialogue.
  3. Admit conflict. And commonality.  We learn by recognizing that parts of our beliefs bother others; those others aren’t likely to engage us if we portray ourselves as completely different. (And we’re never completely different.)
  4. Recognize your feelings. As motivations, not reasons. Relying on feelings in discussion is likely to shut down the conversation and “motivated reasoning” is unlikely to be honestly open. In any case, while you might feel offended, worried, or hurt, declaring that as if it is somehow decisive is asking others to accept your feelings as more important than their feelings and their reasons. Asking yourself why you feel what you do, on the other hand, provides you fodder for discussion and might even make you realize you have no reason for the feeling (and perhaps should try to change).
  5. Use shared terminology. This can be hard, but without it, you may just end up arguing past each other. Getting clear on the terms, though, may show you and your interlocutor that you don’t disagree after all.
  6. Recognize your fallibility. Be humble, open. Qualify your claims, admit nuance. You’re meant to be having a conversation after all and conversations necessarily have more than one view presented (you give a verse, they give a verse, together you converse). If you assume your view is completely right or that your interlocutor has nothing of value to say, you’re not really there for a conversation—and your interlocutor is likely to realize it.
  7. Question Stereotypes—yours and your interlocutors. This should go without saying, but if you don’t question stereotypes, you may as well go home and guess what your interlocutor would have said according to your stereotype of them. That’s not helpful.
  8. Respect the other, even if not their ideas. This is really important both because respect is a fundamental value and because it does not entail thinking all ideas have the same value. Lots of people far smarter than I think my views are wrong. I still benefit from conversation with them because they treat me with respect. I try to do the same.
  9. Recognize it may not be either/or. Sometimes what seem like conflicting views are not really conflicting at all. And sometimes, of course, both are wrong. (See cartoon below–someone posted it on Facebook.)
  10. Be specific about disagreement. You may disagree with your interlocutor about more than one thing, but concentrate on one at a time. Bracket the rest so you can make progress on something. It may be that as you concentrate on one thing, you realize the disagreement is really due to some deeper (or higher?) issue; if so, bracket the original issue and move to this one. You can return to the first when you and your interlocutor better understand the deeper point of contention.
  11. Realize when compromise or civil disagreement is needed. You don’t have to convince your interlocutor and you don’t have to be convinced by them. You can disagree and still respect each other. Indeed, respecting the other means recognizing you might disagree—it means they are as entitled to a view as you are. Sometimes, you’ll disagree but compromise. Sometimes there isn’t any way to compromise and you just disagree. The world is interesting.
  12. Keep the conversation going. When real friends get together, they “pick up right where they left off.” While we won’t develop that sort of intimacy with all of our interlocutors, we should want to be able to come back to at least some of them—and have them come back to us—to ask further questions, raise other points, etc.

If I was to boil all of that down to an overly simple statement, I would say “be rational and reasonable!” This requires being able to step back from one’s own commitments and it requires being fair—and perhaps working to appear fair—to one’s interlocutors. I don’t think there is enough of this today. Polarization pushes us away from each other, reducing honest conversation. Honest conversation, though, has the power to reduce polarization. Which is stronger depends on us.

Meanwhile, in a Parallel Election

I voted!

No, not in the u.s. election – Ἀθηνᾶ κρείττων!

Nah, I voted for which book we will read next in the Auburn Science Fiction and Philosophy Reading Group.

This was a more cheerful and civilised affair than the u.s. election in at least seven ways:

1.  Minority choices have no trouble getting on the ballot; any individual member of the group can nominate a book (or several), without having to collect multiple signatures on a petition.

2. The number of participants is small enough that any individual vote has an actual chance of making a decisive difference to the outcome.

3. Voting involves rank-ordering the candidates via an online Condorcet poll, so no one has to choose between voting for their favourite among the front runners and voting for their favourite absolutely.

4. We choose a new book every month or two, so there’s strict rotation in office with very short terms – no perpetually incumbent books.

5. The reading group is a purely voluntary association. If any members aren’t happy with the winning choice, and want to go off on their own to read and discuss a different book, the rest of us wouldn’t dream of trying to stop them, let alone telling them that by voting (or by not voting) they have committed themselves to reading the winning book.

6. All the books nominated look worthwhile, and I would be happy to read and discuss any of them.

7. Facebook has not been reminding me every few minutes to vote for the next book.

O idéal lointain!

Honest Dialogue Needed on Social Media

In my last post, I issued a plea for civil discourse. This post is something of a possible explanation for its rarity on social media couple with a further plea. Most people in the US seem to have chosen sides, picked a team. More than that, they seem to have made their chosen team a large part of their identity—who they take themselves to be. If they see someone post negative things about their candidate, they react against that person. If they repeatedly see that person posting negative things about their candidate (and perhaps positive things about the other candidate), they see the other person as attacking who they are. Or as completely fooled. This is, of course, polarization.

Here’s the thing: in reality, someone who posts only positive things about a candidate and nothing negative, is—at least in the US over the last several decades—not doing what is necessary to be rightly seen as posting truth. If what you believe to be true about the current candidates for president (and thus post on social media) is all one-sided, you’re almost certainly wrong. The duopoly candidates are all bad and have been for years. The truth is complex. Trump has had some good policies and done some good, but he’s also done some things badly and caused problems. The same would be true of a Biden presidency (judging from his history).

I agree that one of the candidates is better than the other. And I voted for that candidate. Honestly, I’ve voted in all or most national elections I’ve been eligible to vote in. I’ve always gotten a kick out of it. I did again this time, but I felt dirty in a way I never have before when voting. (Which is at least partly explained by having voted for third party candidates, skipped votes for some positions, writing in candidates, and never before voting for a whole party line.)

So what can be done? Here’s the plea: post honestly and recognize that if all your posts are pro-Candidate A and against Candidate B, you are not likely posting honestly. Civil discourse requires that interlocutors trust each other to speak honestly. If people see your posts as all one sided, they will rightly conclude that you are not being an honest interlocutor. There are at least 2 possible bad outcomes from that: your social media will become more of a bubble as people for the other candidate unfriend you or you’ll get into unnecessarily heated debates with people seeking to prove you wrong, no matter how futile that might be.

By contrast, if you are willing to see—and show that you see—the faults of the candidate you prefer (even if you think they are great!), you can invite and sustain honest dialogue with others. In all likelihood, you will discover that you have things in common with them even if you disagree about the candidates. The fact is we are all multi-faceted and not well represented by any single label. When we hide behind superficial identities or labels—or force others behind them—we fail to learn who our interlocutors really are. When we do that, we miss out on all there is to discover and make it more likely that we stagnate instead of growing. (For more on this, see Irshad Manji’s Don’t Label Me-CE*.)

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.

An Appeal for Civil Discourse

Humans were genetically inclined to be intolerant of difference.  They could overcome the inclination, but it was a reality of the Human conflict that they often did not.”  —Octavia Butler

I’ve been binge reading Octavia Butler’s fantastic fiction.  I can’t recommend it highly enough—its been a long time since I’ve so enjoyed an author’s work.  The above is from her Xenogenisis Trilogy-CE* (Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Amago) in which she presents a post-apocalyptic earth, where we find humans, alien Oankali, and human-Oankali hybrids.  The Oankali saved the humans that remain—absent Oankali intervention, there would be no humans at all.  That Oankali did not do this solely out of altruistic concern, but also so that they would have humans as genetic “trading partners.”  The Oankali are a repeatedly and intentionally evolving species—they evolve by mixing their DNA with that of other species.  Humans aren’t the first and won’t be the last.  Some in the tale appear unable to grasp the incredible benefit the Oankali offer and become “resisters” seeking to maintain their biological humanity at all costs.  They fear their species being lost completely.  Indeed, the Oankali have (reversibly) altered humans to prevent non-hybrid procreation because they see a fatal destructive flaw in human biology—so destructive that they believe that absent intervention, the human race will self-destruct, just as it almost did before they arrived.  The Oankali, though, offer what amounts to significantly improved and lengthened individual life for the remaining humans and their descendants, though not, admittedly, as biological humans.  

Fear of the new and different is natural.  Such fear can, of course, be life-preserving.  It can’t though, be one’s only guide.  Fortunately, fear never dominates everyone.  Perhaps not even most.  There are humans in Butler’s tale that live in peace with the Oankali with little fear.  Most Christians don’t fear Muslims, most Americans don’t fear people in China or Russia, and most rural folks don’t fear city dwellers—or vice versa (for each pairing).  Importantly, most democrats don’t fear republicans and most republicans don’t fear democrats.  But we can all be better off if we increase understanding across the partitions that divide us.

If we do not at least try to better understand those we disagree with, the social and political landscape will only get worse.  The last century and a half has been humanity’s most prosperous.  The vast improvements to human life owe much to greater freedom to trade with those foreign to us, geographically and culturally.  That trade was partly preceded by, included, and followed by, discourse.  Absent discourse, we separate from others, living in isolated pockets (or “bubbles”) with others like us.  That is a recipe for stagnation—a New Dark Age where there is little dialogue between individuals across party lines, political borders, religions, and cultures.  And with that, less trade and progress.  We need more discourse that crosses all of those lines—and that will only happen with civility.  Civil discourse may not be the engine of change, but it’s certainly a prerequisite thereof.  Let’s have at it.  Tell me why I’m wrong.  Don’t tell me “because the so-and-so’s are beyond the pale;” tell me what we can do that would improve things other than engage in civil discourse that improves understanding.  Don’t tell me I’m a so-and-so; tell me why I’m wrong about civil discourse, or what is needed for progress, or why we don’t need progress, or why we’re somehow better off without cross-border trade (geographically, culturally, religiously, politically). 

In addition to leaving the comments open here—my first time doing so on RCL—I note a great new national attempt to improve understanding through civil discourse by the Braver Angels organization.  For the last few years, Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) has been putting “blues” and “reds” in dialogue with each other to great affect.  They continue to do so, but have a new project meant to address the particular situation we now face.  When the 2020 election is over, many of your friends, neighbors, coworkers, and relatives are going to be upset.  Braver Angels hopes we can get reconciliation across the partisan divisions that have become so much less civil.  They seek to increase civil discourse by encouraging both sides to reach out to each other to discuss how we should all treat one other.  This can help us better understand each other—even those we vehemently disagree with.  I’d encourage you to take seriously the Braver Angel’s “With Malice Toward None” Pledge and, their letter rejecting election related violence. Sign both now.

*Thanks to Christy Horpedahl for helping me make this a better post than it otherwise would have been.

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.

Schools, Teachers, Parents, and a Bad Assumption

In my last post, I discussed the problems surrounding opening schools and, importantly, how we discuss them. In this post, I want to raise an issue about schooling more generally that is rarely discussed at all. I want to show how our current system encourages a false belief about parents and teachers that has pernicious results.

I begin by noting that my wife is a public school teacher and, given how Georgia is handling the pandemic, I have a clear preference for her to not teach in her school building. I also have a school age child who was, until a month ago, in a private school. The administration of that school is, I think, approaching the situation far better than most, but we still worry about both health and pedagogical risks. Thinking about both returning (or not) to school has me once again wondering about fundamental social problems—especially regarding schooling and parenting.

I think most of us are pretty bad at parenting. (Philip Larkin understood this well, but I should be clear that I think there are a huge variety of ways that we are bad at it—some are overbearing and some are entirely too loose, for opposing examples.) Worries about increased child abuse with school closures are therefore not at all surprising. On the other hand, I also think most K-12 schools are pretty bad at educating. Having served on committees for two charter schools and volunteered and watched at my son’s schools, I’ve been amazed at how unwilling school administrators can be to make use of evidence about best educational practices. (This is sometimes true even when they clearly know the evidence—in such cases, they tend to point out that they are constrained by budgets, politics, etc.) Schools don’t, in my view, offer enough music or art or time to relax, run, and breath outside. They also tend to start too early in the morning, foolishly insist children sit still and at desks, force students to maintain logs of reading, and even penalize students that read unassigned books at the wrong time. Worries about children being stifled and losing their innate curiosity because of school rules are therefore also not surprising.

Many parents are aware of problems with their children’s’ schools. Some even work to correct them. Most, though, seem to “mind their own business”—as if the education of their children were not their business. Indeed, many parents seem to think that because schools are provided and mandatory, they are themselves absolved of the responsibility for educating their children. (As schools feed and medically nurse children, parents may feel absolved of even more responsibility.) Even the best of parents tend to assume their children are being well taken care of at school. Unfortunately, too many parents assume their children are the school’s responsibility during the day. Interestingly, the pandemic helped some see that their school was not working for them. (See this interesting NY Times piece.)

I do not think any of this is surprising or unexplainable. We live in a society wherein government has encouraged parental abdication of educational responsibilities. Parents often rightly feel that they cannot opt out of government run schools. Where they can, they usually are constrained to choose either the local government school or a nearby private school. Only in some locales is there a simple and straightforward process through which you can legally educate your own child. (The option is, I think, available everywhere in the US, but with more or less red tape involved.) Encouraged is a belief that I suspect drives the problems that beset schools: that parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct and must be kept separate.

Our system of K-12 education relies on the idea that parents are not teachers. Indeed, some homeschooling parents have been condemned for thinking they could teach their own children. Parents, on this view, are supposed to feed, clothe, love, and maybe socialize children. Schools, on the other hand, provide teachers to educate children, too often including moral education (and might also provide food and healthcare for the children). And schools—or the administrators thereof (or, worse, politicians)—decide where a child will learn and how. A parent that tries to send her child to a better public school than the one closest may face jail time—because the school system decides, not the parent. (See this and this.) Parents, after all, don’t know about education.

Two problems emerge when people believe parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct. The first, I’ve discussed above: schools operate with a variety of problems and parents don’t work to change them or do so but face insurmountable difficulties in the attempt. When they don’t try, it is likely at least partly because thinking that parents aren’t teachers makes parents think teachers have an authority they do not. And, of course, they assume teachers run schools. The second problem is a corollary: because parents are led to believe schools and teachers have an authority they do not themselves possess, parents don’t think they need be active participants in their children’s education. In short, parents take less responsibility for raising their children, leaving more and more to schools. What society gets, too often, is school graduates who learn to do as they are told, conforming to societal requirements. If parents were more active, we’d get more diversity in how children are educated, resulting in many benefits (though admittedly also costs in terms of equity). I think we are seeing some of this already and hope to see more. We’d get more people contributing in more and more varied ways to society, creating more and more varied benefits for all.

In short, the all too common belief that parents and teachers are necessarily distinct lets parents off the hook for too much and grants schools too much leeway. Challenging that belief would encourage parents to challenge their children’s schools, thereby either improving the schools or having the schools lose students to other alternatives.

The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate many things. Hopefully, one positive outcome will be a healthier view of the relationship between parenting and education–one that emphasizes parental responsibility and acknowledges the limits of career educators (especially those in what might be called “educational factories”). One might even hope that this would help make parents better at parenting.

(Conversations with my wife and with Lauren Hall, JP Messina, and Kevin Currie-Knight inspired, and helped me with, this post.)

On School Openings

Back in April, I “predicted” we’d see 150 to 200 thousand deaths from COVID-19 in the US.  As we are now in that range, I’m hoping I was right and we don’t go past the 200,000, but of course this is so far outside my expertise that my guess means little.  But here we are and school openings approach.  Some seem deadly afraid of school openings and some seem deadly afraid of schools not opening. (I’m primarily thinking here about K-12, but much of what I say applies to colleges as well—and of course, high school juniors and seniors are more like college freshman than kindergarteners in terms of COVID-19 transmission and symptoms.)

Those conflicting views often accompany two others: that people favoring school openings foolishly think young children are immune to the effects of COVID-19 (or otherwise don’t understand the risks of reopening) and that people opposing school openings don’t care about education (or otherwise overestimate the risks of reopening).  

Meanwhile, I don’t believe any thinking person really thinks any children are immune to COVID-19, despite claims coming from the White House.  Of course, young children do seem to get badly sick from the virus much less than anyone expected back in March.  And there is no reason to believe that those worried about sending kids into closed buildings with hundreds of others don’t care about education.

My biggest issue with discussions about this—and many things—is that people seem unable or unwilling to keep the pros and cons in mind at the same time.  But schools are, by and large, run by groups of people that have to be able to do just that in order to make rational decisions about whether to open, close, reopen, re-close schools—sometimes despite political pressures by governing bodies, unions, parental organizations, and more.

This has to be a hugely difficult question and cannot be made without considering both the costs and the benefits.  At a minimum that includes the following assumptions (yes, I think both of these are true):

-if schools are open, kids and teachers are going to get sick (plexiglass around the kids, masks all day, etc, is not going to stop it). They will also bring the disease to their families, friends, and neighbors.  We’re likely to pass 200k deaths more quickly (and with more children) than we would if schools stay closed.

-if schools are closed, children of working class parents will suffer long term consequences.  Their parents can’t stay home with them and help them with their schoolwork.  Middle class and wealthier parents will hire tutors or join “educational pods” where parents pool resources to monitor children doing school work, but not those from poorer backgrounds.  (And as others have noted, there will be more cases of suicide and spousal and child abuse.)

There are further economic issues that would follow either decision as well, but I’ll not delve into those here.  What I want to urge now is simply (a) not demonizing those you disagree with about this and (b) bearing in mind both the pros and cons if you have decision making capacity here.  

I keep myself limited to those two points as I really don’t know what the best route is for any school (and, of course, different schools in different locales with different population densities and with different student bodies, will be different).  I suspect a lot of thought will be going into it, and not just from current school administrators and school boards.  (And parents—the topic of a future post.)

Hopefully, new ideas will emerge that actually bring new approaches and new institutions that do better for children than schools now do.  Smaller schools with more parental decision making, more variety of teaching techniques, and yes, better use of technology to not merely monitor children and allow for physically distanced communication, but also to spark curiosity.  I can’t predict the innovations; I remain optimistic that they will come and that innovators will consider the many concerns as they seek to appeal to a wide customer base.

This pandemic is going to have long term effects.  We are likely to see more work at home across the board and less use of commercial office space and that may bring new opportunities for housing, lower rents in some areas, and reductions of city populations.  Better systems of education responding to these changes and the above challenges would be a wonderful outcome of a bad situation.

(Thanks to Ronit Elk for the impetus to write this and to  JP Messina for helpful suggestions and comments.)

Social Media Censorship: Four Lessons from the Recent Suppression of Covid-19 ‘Disinformation’

On July 27th 2020, a group of physicians calling themselves “Frontline Doctors” posted a video to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The video displays licensed medical doctors in front of a supreme court building (1) advocating the reopening of schools, (2) suggesting that there are public health costs of lockdowns (e.g., excess suicides, cases of depression, domestic violence, and substance abuse) and (3) extolling the virtues of zinc and hydroxychloroquine (a drug whose robust supply is essential for managing lupus and other ailments) in treating and preventing COVID-19 infections. By the morning of July 28th, the video had roughly 14 million views and had been removed from every mainstream platform that had initially hosted it for violating their coronavirus misinformation policies. On the same morning, I became curious and watched the video elsewhere. It was not hard to find.

Lesson one: Despite claims that private social media companies regularly violate persons’ free speech rights, actions by private companies to censor content are much less worrying than similar actions by state agents. This is partially because it’s relatively easy to access content that private parties take down. Less so when the state does it.

On July 29th, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt ran a “morning briefing” indicating that the video had been removed for suggesting that hydroxychloroquine was an effective cure and that masks were unnecessary. The remark on masks was a mere snippet of the much broader message. “You don’t need a mask,” Stella Immanuel said, “there’s a cure.”  She herself admits to wearing a surgical mask, so presumably she does not mean that there is no reason to wear a mask in the absence of the drug’s widespread deployment. Other doctors who spoke at the event clearly advocate social distancing and mask-wearing practices.

But leaving this claim aside, there is at least some truth in the main of what these doctors were saying. The segment lasted over 45 minutes, only a small portion of which contained anything about masks and only some of which concerned hydroxychloroquine . Many of the group’s claims about the safety of reopening schools and the hidden public health costs of lockdowns are largely uncontroversial. Others, e.g., that Sweden’s response represents an alternative approach to locking down are likewise true, even if the results of Sweden’s alternative approach have been mixed. Labeling the entire segment false or misleading thus does disservice to what’s true in it.

Lesson two: John Stuart Mill was right that censored content that is false often contains important half-truths and that this matters when considering whether to suppress it.

In the same piece, Leonhardt claimed that confusion induced by social media platforms’ failure to aggressively censor content is among the most noteworthy causes of the United States’ comparatively bad coronavirus outcomes. (Leonhardt also cited Sinclair’s media network, which broadcasts content downplaying the risks of the virus.) Let’s leave aside the fact that the causal explanation of the U.S.’s performance relative to its peers is a matter of some complexity and focus instead on something striking about the causal claim he in fact makes: that social media companies’ lack of censorship deserves a large portion of the blame for these outcomes.

But notice that reporters like Leonhardt at mainstream media outlets have likely done more than any social media platform to spread this particular video’s message. Had the message merely remained on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook (as so much content does) I would not have watched it. The same is surely true for countless others. But because the video’s content, which might have otherwise maintained a kind of cult viewership, was covered by all of the major news outlets, lots of people sought it out. This is the Streisand Effect in action: very often, attempts to suppress information lead to its viral spread. This matters because there are in effect two possibilities: either the ineptly suppressed content is dangerous or it isn’t. If it is genuinely dangerous, then Leonhardt (and others like him) have acted irresponsibly by their own lights by drawing much more attention to it. If the content of the video is not genuinely dangerous, on the other hand, then the main justification for removing the content in the first place is implausible.

Now, you might say the way that mainstream outlets spread the speech was not dangerous insofar as it was framed explicitly as containing disinformation. The problem is twofold. First,  the current media climate is so polarized right now that even once reputable outlets like the New York Times are deemed untrustworthy by a significant subset of the population. (Some go so far as to claim that these outlets are anti-reliable.) When such outlets declare something to be disinformation, then, there is real reason to worry that people skeptical of the outlet will be more favorably disposed to the bad speech than they’d otherwise have been. Second, some research has uncovered an Illusory Truth Effect, according to which people are more likely to believe things that they hear constantly repeated, even if listeners know the repeated claim is false.

Lesson Three: If there’s dangerous content out there, it’s often better to ignore it than draw increased attention to it. Paradoxically, censoring content is among the best ways of promoting it. Given the newsworthiness of social media censorship, were these companies to do what Leonhardt wants them to do and censor content more often, the effect might well be that the allegedly dangerous content reaches a wider audience than it otherwise would.

None of this is to deny that some of what these doctors said sounds crazy. (Though, notably, for some of them, their professional views on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine are among their most innocuous.) Still, it’s important not to pretend that the coronavirus treatment science is settled—there is still much that we don’t know, and the mainstream medical researchers at least deem the hypothesis that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment worthy of study in high profile scientific outlets. Until these questions are settled, it’s important for professionals, even fringe professionals, to make their arguments without being dismissed out of hand and derided. Importantly, the arguments regarding hydroxychloroquine offered by the so-called “Frontline Doctors” are largely anecdotal, rely on small sample sizes (n=350), and are afflicted with other problems evident to anyone remotely well-versed in critical thinking. Were these arguments to become widely accepted, it would be important to recognize their flaws and to draw public attention to them. But to think that the conclusions of such arguments are beyond the pale—especially in the context of the broader pandemic, during which those insisting on proper data collection techniques have been derided for not acting quickly enough—is, frankly, not credible. Thus even if these arguments should be discredited and derided, it’s important to take care not to similarly deride and discredit those who argue for similar conclusions from more solid grounds.

Lesson four: If you must draw attention to a bad argument that someone makes on some important issue, focus on the argument’s substance, rather than discrediting what speakers say by taking small claims they make out of context. Doing so is a small first step toward establishing credibility with those who disagree with you. Again, there is no first amendment issue here, but even the most fastidious protection of our rights to speak against government interference is insufficient for ensuring a healthy atmosphere for discourse.