What Ails our Discourse?
By David Ottlinger
Only recently, I was on a long drive through the Midwest visiting family over the holidays. Driving through the Midwest, of course, means driving through hundreds of miles of cornfields until the grinding sameness wears you down. Then you have to stop at a fast food chain or, if you are lucky, a Starbucks. And so, feeling drowsy, I stumbled into such a Starbucks, which could in principle have been any Starbucks, surrounded by cornfields, which could in principle have been any cornfields. Unsure of the hour or even of what state I was in, a middle-aged woman approached me. She wanted to compliment me on my shirt, which had “PETA” printed across the front of it. I told her to keep reading and in time she realized that the shirt I was wearing was not in support of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals but for the similar sounding, but quite distinct, People for the Eating of Tasty Animals. The back of the shirt reads: “I love cats but I can never finish a whole one.” (I should say that I cannot fully endorse the sentiment this shirt conveys. It was a gift, and I don’t love wearing it in public, but what is a man to do? Laundry? That’s no solution.) This realization cut short her warm endorsement. Feeling somewhat guilty at her embarrassment, I tried to engage her on what PETA — the real one — had right, including the ethical problems with factory farming, as well as what it had wrong, such as its tone and false moral equivalencies. She studied her shoes and slunk away.
By the time I got back to the car, I was more alert. This encounter set me thinking. Something about it seemed familiar. What kind of person wears a PETA parody shirt? It can’t just be people who are averse to doing laundry. Presumably they are bought and worn by people who have strong negative opinions about PETA and the animal rights movement. Who reacts to such shirts? In my experience it is people who enthusiastically agree, but one can also imagine a person who strongly disagrees stopping to ridicule a person who would wear such things. But most people are in neither camp. Most people have moderate views, in between those who have no concerns about modern factory farming and the group that invented the “Holocaust-on-your-plate” campaign.  But this majority doesn’t wear shirts. They know very well the potential abuse they can be put to by both sides and won’t risk raising the ire of either party. Only the strongly committed risk the potential abuse of expressing unwelcome opinions, and in time the forum becomes crowded with zealots and bereft of moderates. This may be fine for t-shirts, but too often journals of opinion strike me the same way.
In the past I have drawn on the theories of John Stuart Mill in discussing our current culture of free speech or lack thereof.  I held then, and hold now, that his work contains invaluable insights into our own situation. But at times it becomes clear that the state of affairs to which Mill was addressing himself was quite different from the state of affairs of our politics today. Mill was primarily concerned with a single, common culture of a strong majority suppressing any deviation from itself. He described a bleak landscape in which people “like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes.”  Of course our situation is quite different. We cannot say that either side of any debate, say left or right in politics, is suppressed given that we encounter so much of both. Nonetheless one still feels, as Mill felt, the “eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship.” Accordingly, if we are to say that we endure a regime of social censorship, we need a different picture of such censorship than the one with which Mill was working. I want to begin looking for such a picture in the works of the economist Glenn Loury and the philosopher Philip Kitcher.  Between the two, there develops an image of social censorship that consists not so much in the tyranny of the majority over the minority as the tyranny of the extremes over the moderates. For this reason, their work may go some way in explaining the blaring of the loudest voices of the far end of either side, which is such a mark of today’s discourse. This essay will be a treatment of Loury’s views. A forthcoming piece will explore those of Kitcher.
Loury sets out to describe a phenomenon which he terms, in keeping with the common usage of the time, “political correctness.” By this term, however, he seems to be suggesting roughly the same phenomenon Mill identified, which I have called “social censorship.”  Loury defines “political correctness” as “an implicit social convention of restraint on public expression, operating within a given community.” The means of this restraint include “social ostracism, verbal abuse, extreme disapproval, damage to reputation and loss of professional opportunity.” Mill was concerned with how the “moral coercion of public opinion” could stifle expression and debate. The means of this coercion included “social penalties” and “social stigma” enforced against those who deviated from accepted opinion. Both seem to amount to the same thing. A society suppresses the expression of views not by means of any state actor nor (except perhaps in extreme cases) by any implicit or explicit threat of violence, but by the exertion of social pressures on those who would express undesired views. A social cost is imposed on those who wish to express such views, taking the form of ostracism and other behaviors and attitudes not desired from one’s peers. Henceforth, I shall take Loury’s “political correctness” and Mill’s “tyranny of public opinion” to be essentially the same phenomenon and refer to it as “social censorship.” This term serves to highlight how an extra-legal force, separate from the state, can legitimately be thought of as censorship. It serves to suppress expression by purely social means.
For Loury, social censorship begins from the fact that in society we all have reason to behave “strategically.” Every actor has to be on guard against malicious actors and those acting against one’s own perceived interests. Every actor has interests, and when such interests inevitably conflict with others, each will have reason to see their own interests prevail. Every actor must be on guard against being deceived or manipulated. Every actor must also assume that other actors are similarly steeled against manipulation and deceit, and then must craft their own message accordingly.
Social censorship necessarily follows strategic speech, which creates a certain amount of opacity for the observer. Every speaker has certain motivations to dissemble (pretend to share a community’s values) or prevaricate, of which every hearer is aware. Furthermore, every hearer has to interpret every speaker in light of these possible motivations and try to discern if the speaker is dissembling or prevaricating, and if so, what they may be concealing and why. With this in mind Loury makes what he calls his “crucial syllogism.”
Loury asks us to suppose that:
“-within a given community the people who are most faithful to communal values are by-and-large also those who want most to remain in good standing with their fellows; and,
-the practice has been well established in this community that those speaking in ways that offend communal values are excluded from good standing. Then,
-when a speaker is observed to express himself offensively, the odds that the speaker is not in fact faithful to communal values, as estimated by a listener otherwise uninformed about his views, are increased.”
It is fairly clear how this dynamic can and often does play out. Some statements clearly support the values of a given community. Others may seem ambiguous or require interpretation. But all those that do not clearly and unambiguously affirm the values the community holds dear are prima facie suspect. They are things a dissembler might say. The perceived strategic interest of the community may encourage them to purge such a member. This member may hinder the cause, if he or she is not pulling with the group. A woman affirms feminist causes and acknowledges the oppression of women, but denies that pornography is necessarily immoral. Is she really with the cause? A man supports free access to firearms but supports mandatory registration and other limited regulation. Does he fully support the right to bear arms? These questions matter to groups with political goals. Those who do not share their aims may become a political liability.
It is worth pausing to note that Loury has, in some ways, a more nuanced attitude towards social censorship than Mill. Mill comes close to wanting to eliminate social censorship. Loury recognizes that this is impossible and perhaps to some extent even undesirable. Guileless and literal speech can have tragic consequences. Loury puts us in mind of Brutus, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. His plain and unrhetorical speech leaves him easily overwhelmed by Antony’s oratorical ability. (Cordelia learns a similar lesson.) This is not merely unfortunate for Brutus but for everyone in his party and everyone who valued the republic. The ability to persuade and influence people through one’s message is a necessary feature of politics. And this kind of strategic speech will always lead to a certain amount of social censorship for the reasons just explored.
To fully appreciate the consequences of this central argument, it will be important to clarify Loury’s notion of “community”. He gives several examples. Three are discussed at length. One concerns politicians and private citizens who fell prey to Joseph McCarthy’s targeting of suspected communists during the Cold War. Another concerns a politician in post-war Germany making remarks almost certainly well-intentioned, but interpretable as sympathetic to Nazism and anti-Semitism. In both cases, statements that were made which could be perceived even as slightly ambiguous in upholding the values of the community lead to significant social isolation and ruined political fortunes for persons later judged to be essentially innocent of the motives attributed to them. And in both cases the relevant “community” is a polity considered as a whole. In the first, the relevant community is the United States. During the Cold War most Americans perceived a need to reinforce the values of a democratic and capitalist society, and believed it necessary, with some justification, to expel and isolate those sympathetic to Communism or Communist countries. In the second, the relevant community is post-war Germany, which perceived a need — again with some justification — to strongly enforce egalitarian and non-racist ideas to move beyond its fascist past. In both cases these are “communities,” in the common sense of the word. They involve people living in a shared space and sharing a common government. These communities are relatively large — it would be more ordinary for the word ‘community’ to refer to a neighborhood or a town — but the principle is the same. Members of a country are bonded by various personal, civic and economic associations that arise when people share a common space. They are neighbors, friends, business partners and fellow citizens to one another.
The third example suggests a slightly different understanding of the term “community”. Loury considers debates on university campuses across America on the ethics of universities divesting from South Africa during the struggle over Apartheid. On Loury’s telling, healthy discussion never took place. Instead, those critical of the policy of divestment were suspected of racism and essentially drummed out of the debate. Here the relevant community is something like the total population of students, professors and university administrators. But as many people as that includes, it still only consists of a small sub-set of the polity as a whole, and the members share no common physical space and no common government. If Bowdoin adopts a certain policy, it will not really affect Texas A&M (except in the very loose way in which one institution’s adopting a policy could start a trend which might eventually put pressure on others). Further, the personal and professional associations that members of these communities develop will not radiate outward in the way they would in a polity. Scholars form important bonds with their counterparts at other institutions, but for the most part, members of a university will be most connected to colleagues and students at their own institutions. Academia is more of a confederation of small nested communities than the kind of large but continuous community of a polity.
This example suggests a different kind of community which we might call a “community of discourse.” What really connects academics in this case is that they are engaged in a shared political enterprise and consequently form a discourse necessary to coordinate and achieve those political ends. In this case, the end in question was effecting better racial justice in South Africa. Those who supported divestment sent a clear message of their support for the communal values of racial justice. Those who did not support divestment sent a more ambiguous message which, as is argued in the “crucial syllogism,” raised the possibility that they were not genuinely committed to the community’s values of racial justice, and they were shunned accordingly (or so Loury reports). The essential logic of social censorship is unchanged when it occurs within this looser kind of “community.” What social censorship requires is a group united around a common political aim, common values (usually conferred by the common political aim) and a discourse directed at putting those common values into action. Thus, even the more abstract associations qualify as “communities.”
Other cases bear this out. Loury gives the example of how a statement on the American-Cuban embargo would be received differently in two adjacent precincts in Florida. In a neighborhood populated by Cuban immigrants, extending an olive branch to Fidel Castro is wildly unpopular. In a nearby white neighborhood, wary of immigrants, the same statement meets with a warmer reception. Superficially, this seems to accord with the more customary sense of “community.” Both communities occupy different physical spaces and speaking to one or the other means moving from (or at least broadcasting to) one space to another. But on a closer examination, the physical locations turn out to be incidental. One would meet with the same change in reception, moving from one newspaper to another. In principle, the Cuban anti-Castro population and the white anti-immigration population could be distributed evenly through the same physical space. Still, both would maintain their distinct discourses, opinions and attempts at self-policing. Even the examples that concern America and Germany as entire polities really only extend to the entire, physical “community” when a historical event on the order of the Second World War or the advent of the Cold War shocks everyone onto the same ideological page. What matters for the examples Loury chooses is not that Germans or Americans shared the same physical space or everyday associations, but that their recent past and current political situation gave them all a common political aim.
The reason I lay such stress on this point is that it is quite clear that liberals and conservatives have their own communities of discourse. Subsequently they enforce their own censorship on their own communities. There are distinct liberal and conservative journals, newspapers, television channels and other organs of thought. They seem to form two distinct circles of media with distinct audiences. Not only do liberal and conservative intellectuals tend to publish for or appear on one or another, ordinary readers tend to read and watch one or the other. This bifurcation has become quite familiar: there is The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, The National Review and The New Republic, The Blaze and The Huffington Post. Much of the censorship we see is within each circle, with each side imposing a kind of orthodoxy on its own. For the reasons discussed above, these communities will favor clear and ringing endorsements of its own values but treat as suspect any statements that can be considered as ambiguous in upholding the community’s values.
It might seem odd to assert that we live in a society of social censorship, if one understands social censorship on the same model that Mill did, a model on which a large majority enforces its orthodoxy on all competing minorities. If conservative opinions are being suppressed, how is it that so many rabidly conservative news programs, periodicals and discussions manage to make it to the public square? And if liberals are meant to be the ones suppressed, we can ask the same question. But on this model, the censorship we should expect is not one of one persuasion suppressing all others, but each persuasion suppressing those who do not hold its own orthodoxy.
To be sure, there are social pressures which flow across different communities. The left and right launch screeds at each other like cruise missiles, and they succeed in doing some damage. For private people, the effect may be that identifying oneself as a liberal or a conservative may result in being unwelcome in certain social situations. If you are an avowed conservative, you may find cocktail parties in academia somewhat awkward. In some parts of the country, if you openly identify as a liberal and routinely go on hunting trips with committed conservatives, you might find yourself the object of mockery. For public intellectuals, the effect may be that choosing one venue means giving up another. If you publish in The Nation you are not likely to be published in The Weekly Standard. For many, this inter-community pressure may be enough to silence them altogether. If they are not sufficiently strongly committed to any communal values, they may prefer not to express any affiliation at all. The cost of whatever social alienation they would face for expressing their values might outweigh whatever obligation they felt to express them. But while this effect is not insignificant, I don’t believe this is what social critics are referring to when they call our culture censorious. Many people — I would hazard to say most — slough off these social burdens fairly readily. Most people are willing to identify publicly as liberal or conservative and risk some social ostracism. Most writers do not expect to publish in all journals of opinion. The main source of our political discomfort lies elsewhere.
The really pernicious social forces, I believe, are the intra-community forces, the social censorship members of a community enforce on their own. If the “crucial syllogism” is persuasive, each community will have reason to suppress moderate voices. Moderates are almost always suspect, because they qualify their commitment to the values distinctive of their community. If Loury’s model holds, we should expect to see staunch conservatives attacking moderate conservatives and staunch liberals attacking moderate liberals. And that’s exactly what we see.
Recent events exemplify this pattern. At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been on a tear excoriating everyone, including the most liberal candidate in recent memory, for being even slightly out of line —or out of what Coates considers in-line — on the issue of race.  Conservative politicians have been relentless in abusing anyone who favored any compromise on immigration as favoring “amnesty.” Moderate positions go noticeably missing. Note that this is not to say that the spectrum of discourse is pushed to further and further extremes. Indeed there are those who would claim that the spectrum of American political discourse is unfortunately narrow. The model implies not that the poles of debate will move out but that opinion toward the middle end of the spectrum will be suppressed. Explaining what fixes the poles where they are and what causes them to move again would require another theory.
All of the above is offered only as a hypothesis. I cannot claim acquaintance with all the models of public discourse from economists and other researchers. Yet Loury’s theory strikes me as being a very tight fit when applied to our situation, and one that deserves a wider hearing. Restoring discourse strikes me as the most pressing political problem of our time. Without healthy debate, deliberative democracies cannot function. We urgently need criticism of our current predicament. This essay is one attempt at such a critique. I hope that it may be followed by many more. Until we are able to give some account of how our current situation arose, it is unlikely that we will be able to regain the moderate, collaborative discourse we so desperately need.
 This, sadly, was a real thing:
 I discussed this here:
and especially here:
 All quotations refer to On Liberty, available here:
 The relevant papers are:
Loury, Glenn C. “Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of ‘Political Correctness’ and Related Phenomena.” Rationality and Society 6 (October 1994): 428–61
And (to be discussed in the future):
Kitcher, Philip (2006). Public knowledge and the difficulties of democracy. Social Research: An International Quarterly 73 (4):1205-1224.
 Also here:
 The relevant articles: