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. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4] 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. [5] 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.”[4]

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. [6] 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.



[1] This, sadly, was a real thing:


[2] I discussed this here:


and especially here:


[3] All quotations refer to On Liberty, available here:


[4] 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.

[5] Also here:


[6] The relevant articles:









20 responses to “What Ails our Discourse?”

  1. David

    A lucid and engaging and (in my view) overly optimistic piece.

    “Restoring discourse strikes me as the most pressing political problem of our time.”

    Well (given that politics is the art of the possible) that assumes that ‘restoring discourse’ is possible. I can’t even imagine what such an activity might entail. Is it the sort of thing which one could do? One can certainly engage in moderate discourse oneself. One can certainly urge others to do so – but why would one expect others to act on one’s suggestions? One could set up a ‘moderate’ forum, but then how could one be sure that it would not go the way of other forums (which as you rightly say tend to exclude some and be suspicious of others)?

    “Without healthy debate, deliberative democracies cannot function.”

    I think I generally agree with you that healthy, polity-wide debate is in decline in many Western countries (I would say terminal decline). And I agree that this has negative implications for the functioning of our political systems. But maybe the systems need to change to reflect new social realities. (Arguably our societies are more culturally divided than they have ever been, and the old democratic models just won’t work any more. Fundamental, structural changes (e.g. some kind of radical decentralization of power) might be called for. Or a new view of democracy or political authority.)

    “We urgently need criticism of our current predicament.”

    Analysis, yes. We need to have a clear idea of what is going on. But I’m not optimistic that criticism per se is going to change anything. The problems are too entrenched.

  2. davidlduffy

    In a democracy, there is always a tension between disagreement and effectiveness of action, in that unanimity is often necessary for a policy to work, such as your example of sanctions against apartheid South Africa, or perhaps civil rights in the southern USA – as long as the minority of non-cooperators can be worked around in a civil manner. I think the peculiarity is when “correct” speech is the action that supporters wish to be effective, such as degendering speech to implement consciousness change.

    Politically, it seems logical to first recruit those closer in opinion to you – sometimes one gets a working coalition of extreme and moderate that sits intermediate in policy, even if the moderates are less motivated.

  3. Mark,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    I didn’t mean to imply that criticism alone would be enough to effect the needed change, only that it is a vital first step. Once the situation has been satisfactorily understood there is the pressing further question of what to do about it. That is not addressed here but I do feel its weight. That having been said I do not think rational appeals are without efficacy. Right now people engaged in social censorship meet with a lot of “You can’t do that because freedom of speech!” If instead of just chiding them the case were forcefully made that the means are not just not allowed for reasons that are usually left un-articulated, but self-defeating, that may make some difference. Worth a try.


    I’m not quite sure I understand your comment. Could you clarify?

  4. davidlduffy

    “Could you clarify?” – It wasn’t very deep. Just that censorship only seems necessary when speech is expected to be effective, perhaps magically so for material that disgusts some. Here in Oz, the federal government is to review an anti-school-bullying program mentioning LGTBI matters because one ruling party senator thought it “indoctrinates kids with cultural Marxist relativism”, and another thought it smacked of grooming (getting another headline). It is clear where they get their talking points.

    If you have the belief that speech is extremely effective, as in my example of gendering of speech, then the locus moves from the future actions one is espousing to the speech act itself. It is then ethical to oppose freedom of speech for its real or imagined harms.

  5. A worthy discussion of a pertinent topic. However, I’m with Mark here that, while we should always increase our understanding of the problem, that doesn’t mean we will ever be able to rectify it. The variable factors are too many, too historically entrenched; too many people are invested is the most troublesome of them.

    Two things to note. First, all societies engage in discourse management and limitation. ‘We don’t talk about such things;’ ‘a proper lady/gentleman would never use such language;’ ‘say that again, child, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!’ Such cautions were common in my youth. The free speech movement of the ’60s led to their eventual disuse; but they’ve been replaced by other cautions, motivated by different interests. Were these eventually discarded, they’d be replaced in turn. Social interactions, to proceed smoothly, must have some sense of boundaries that cannot be crossed. Some of these boundaries are rather obvious in a given context. (A white supremacist should probably not spew his racism when he’s in the midst of bloods in the hood.) Knowing such boundaries and maneuvering through them is part of the skill of speaking with others. An individual is his/her first censor, and should be.

    Second: America has never had only one culture. The hope for that was lost with the Louisiana Purchase. Throughout the 19th century, when people wrote of ‘American culture,’ they were actually talking about the culture of the Eastern seaboard. By the 1920s, this myth couldn’t be sustained, as emergent cities in the West began defining themselves, while regional politicians began stoking grudges born in the Civil War. Meanwhile new media were developing to record (and market) the culture of quite limited communities – think of the blues and early country recordings from various locales in the South. But also think of the Western films that memorialized the differences between the Eastern and Western historical experience. Finally, the influx of immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th centuries effectively redefined many of the cities of the Eastern seaboard. 1926 might find one reading The New Yorker, but just as likely, given one’s heritage, Der Groyser Kundes.

    In the ’60s, with television becoming our primary source for information, combined with the rapid increase in colleges (all sharing a similar curriculum), and the rise of national political movements, Americans deluded themselves into believing there was a national culture. But the social consequences of the ’60s included considerable fragmentation along regional, political, economic, ethnic lines, but also along lines of locally generated sub-cultures, some cultures of choice. Now when people refer to an ‘American culture,’ they are really only talking about the culture projected on television, since TV is the only source of information that most Americans share; but much of its ‘information’ is of questionable quality.

    This fragmentation is part of the back-story for the problems you’re considering. We can learn from this story, and analyze the problems it helped create. But that fragmentation can never be repaired.

  6. A note on what strikes me as the defeatism of some comments. I was not advancing any particular solution to the problems I am describing. Neither am I saying that describing them is sufficient to overcome them. BUT I do think public discussion and democratic action can be quite efficacious. In the nineteenth century there were significant problems with American journalism. Sensationalist “yellow” journalism in the hands of profiteers like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst propagated the spread of a lot of miss informaton. Early in the twentieth century Walter Lippman, Upton Sinclair and others called for reforms and helped to make a new more professionalized journalism. Now new corporate influences present us with new problems but the world may turn again. Cultures change. Reform is possible.

    “all societies engage in discourse management and limitation”
    Indeed. And I give a fair amount of space to Loury’s argument why this must be so. And in fact even in previous cases I thought Mill was somewhat naive in thinking we could or should get rid of all social censorship. But even if I am not against social censorship simpliciter, I think social censorship is remarkably over used.

    “America has never had only one culture”
    Of course and I wouldn’t want it too. I agree that demographics and cultures are always part of what is behind political divisions. But even accepting this we can work together better than we are now and we have in the past.

    If you think I am trying to abolish communities of discourse, I am not. It makes perfect sense that sooner or later conservatives and liberals (and other groups) should “talk among themselves” as they have their own particular agenda to enact. But these communities need not eat their young as they are doing now.


    There is something in Mill’s philosophy called the harm principle. It states that actions which harm can be proscribed but only actions which harm. This principle seems to capture some fundamental intuitions about the rule of law. But the more broadly you construe “harms” the less meaningful it becomes. I find the idea that advancing an unwanted idea “harms” someone ridiculous. As I have argued before, such a view ignores our autonomy.

  7. Hi David,

    There is no question that we have a major problem with political discourse in this country and that it exists not only across the liberal— conservative divide but also within each of these communities.

    As a liberal/progressive who tries very hard to keep an open mind and update my positions I certainly recognize the dynamic you identify. I have had conversations with family members who hold less moderate views than myself and they have not been easy conversations. I have family members that are part of the gay community, I have family members that are multi-racial, and I have family members that have devoted themselves to causes over many decades sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Some of the family members have experienced real harm with regard to the issues they advocate. I also have some very conservative family members. All of those I know who take strong positions on either side of the spectrum come from a position of perceived harm. As you might imagine when the family from the gay community married a long time partner there were major harmful negative effects that rippled through the family due to ideology.

    I say all of this because I think any improvement in the situation will need to take into account the real and perceived harms that are being felt. I am not a big fan of the current social justice warrior movement, but I do think there are real injustices behind many of the causes ( income inequality, racial injustice, general bigotry do exist ). The grievances I hear from the far right seem more vague to me or inaccurate ( loss of traditional values ? too much government ), and seem to come from a place of changing demographics where the harm is to an ideology. Of course with my stated political beliefs I may have my own blind spots.

    So yes there is some common dynamic that has the effect of stifling communication within each community and this makes discourse between the two divides near impossible. Add to this a culture where those who don’t pay a great deal of attention to politics are engaged in the TV and social media culture others have mentioned, and you end up with campaigns driven by negativity with little if any nuance.

    I don’t have an answer but I do try to express my concerns when I feel they might be received.

  8. Seth,

    “There is no question that we have a major problem with political discourse in this country and that it exists not only across the liberal— conservative divide but also within each of these communities.”
    This is very true and I am kicking myself somewhat for not highlighting it more. There is a lot of work yet to do to understand these communities. It is obvious that large umbrella communities like liberal and conservative break down into smaller communities. There is the Salon/HuffPo/Slate sub-community and the NYT/Atlantic/Nation sub-community. I would expect such communities to be porous at the borders and connected to each other. I’m not quite sure how to think about all of that yet. And yes there are communities that have nothing to do with conservative or liberal politics. I think this dynamic plays out in the Atheist/skeptic community as well with the rage against “accomodationism”.

    “I say all of this because I think any improvement in the situation will need to take into account the real and perceived harms that are being felt.”
    That’s quite true. I think this is a big part of what makes some of the atheist discourse so rancorous. A lot of people feel they were hurt by religion. (This was actually discussed a bit at MoL.tv) I’m not sure how to deal with this, except that I have some hope that it might help to make the case that if people want to help others in the same position, they will have to accept political reality.

    The MoL dialogue:

  9. Hi David, I agree with you about the mechanisms of social censorship, polarization (to which I’d have to add “relative”), and the problems of the “crucial syllogism”. Although I would be one to say this is hardly a extreme liberal-conservative divide, and there are still minorities being silenced (glad you mentioned that possibility).

    I guess I hold much of Mark’s scepticism/pessimism. And I agree with him that radical de-centralization would be useful for any potential solution to the toxic political atmosphere we currently have.

    While identifying the problem within communication might be useful, I am wondering if changing the nature of discourse (censorship) would be as useful as getting people to simply calm down… and so finding mechanisms to alleviate that tension.

    If we are like rats fighting each other in an electrified cage, we might be better served finding a way to pull the plug rather than reducing the severity of the bites.

  10. Hi EJ, did social fragmentation occur during the 60s, or were previously existing fragmented communities suddenly made aware of each other more explicitly? I tend to think the latter was the case, though I agree more splintering occurred and planned counter-cultures emerged from the resulting conflicts.

    I tend to think we are seeing the same thing happen again on a worldwide scale, with the invention of the internet.

    You mean people exist that actually believe X? That do Y? Well we can’t have that! Honest communication between communities (which are almost always lived at the local level, not nation-size) tends to result in shock and conflict.

  11. David, dbholmes,

    I see the sense we had in the ’60s of having a national culture as something of a collective delusion. The fragmentation is an on-going process – the tendency appears to be a function of Modernity, and we find it in play during the Reformation, as Protestant churches splintered off from each other due to (often violent) doctrinal disputes. This fragmentation is thus an on-going historical process; groups are formed in opposition to other groups, coming together over a perceived sharing of values, only for its members to discover that they do not share the same motivations, and are not unanimous in their interpretation of those values. The group’s discourse management strategies break down, boundaries get crossed, and group members break off to form new groups, and so on.

    ‘Well,’ the question may be asked, ‘why aren’t we simply a bunch of mutually suspicious, antagonistic tribes at this point?’ Well, maybe we are. However, we have, at crucial historical moments, developed bureaucratic institutions and organizations that suffer from considerable inertia; and these institutions and organizations are really what bind most of us together.

    I prefer Bernie, but I’ll probably have to vote for Hillary in November, because I share more values and interests with the Democratic organization than the Republican one, and the institution of the US government remains relatively stable, even though apparently incapable of needed reform. (But hopefully it would prove resistant to Trumpian subversion as well, should the worst come to pass….)

  12. Hi David,

    Great topic. Yes it really isn’t so much the formal censorship which moderates us most, but rather the informal censorship that we impose upon ourselves given the circumstances that we perceive. For example, how many “scientismists” drop by to chat with us here? None that I know of. Furthermore perhaps for various reasons many women feel less comfortable with us. Though often unfortunate, there should be various things which reduce diversity in this specific forum.

    From a very young age I was able to openly observe the social power of natural censorship, and for some reason tried to fight it as some kind of “individualist.” By not automatically accepting the views of whatever group I happened to be in, I believe that I was better able to preserve my own objectivity. (Furthermore in the interest of harmony, I could always keep my mouth shut or lie.)

    I agree with Mark English’s general assessment above on the apparent futility of somehow socially “restoring discourse.” But what I think we need to acknowledge most is that we censor ourselves out of personal interests — no one likes to be given too much honest opinion. What Glenn Loury any yourself are doing, or explaining associated dynamics, really does seem like the best way to approach this issue.

    Also consider the following scenario:

    You have some sort of product to sell, and so are hiring people to travel the country to get this done. At the very minimum you would want people who are highly self censored. In fact you may even want your staff to sense the temperament of your potential customers, and thus appropriately lie to them on your behalf in the quest to help them feel better about doing business with you. Good sales people don’t discuss the great liberties that they take with the truth, I think, because it doesn’t serve their interests. Unfortunately for me, perhaps, I am no salesman.

  13. db,

    ” I agree with him that radical de-centralization would be useful for any potential solution”
    What do you mean by “radical de-centralization”?

    ” I am wondering if changing the nature of discourse (censorship) would be as useful as getting people to simply calm down”
    It strikes me that that in itself would be changing discourse.I might be for that as well (depending on how it’s understood). Remember that this essay is not a complete theory let alone a complete plan of a solution for discourse.


    America never had and was never supposed to have one culture. It was always supposed to be a unity of states that were distinct but shared certain democratic values. E pluribus unum. Of course that was never perfectly achieved. Not vaguely. But it has been achieved throughout American history to an impressive extent and better than it is today.

  14. David,

    “But it has been achieved throughout American history to an impressive extent and better than it is today.”

    I agree to that. I just worry that there may be no improvement in the situation, given that this social fragmentation has effectively become the norm.

    Philosopher Eric,

    Intriguing comment; the rhetoric of our communications, and the kinds of self-censoring of that rhetoric we engage in, have much to do with this issue.

  15. Eric,
    “it really isn’t so much the formal censorship which moderates us most, but rather the informal censorship that we impose upon ourselves”
    I would say it is censorship we impose on one another.

    On your salesman analogy there are huge dis-analogies. It would not be appropriate for someone to thrust a debate on to a person at a time and place of their choosing. It’s not right to knock on someone’s door and debate them on their choice of wallpaper. But we are talking about goings on in journals of opinion which readers and writers come to expressly for the purpose of having debates. There is nothing out of place in a journal of opinion about debating values.

    Why the defeatism? You saw huge sea changes in culture in the 60’s and since. Reading history we know of many others. Why would the world not turn again?

  16. David,

    I would say it is censorship we impose on one another.

    I had to think about this for a moment. While I was working from the personal perspective of needing to censor myself in order to win the favors of others, you took the outside perspective. Thus a woman with a disproportionately large ass, censors me from making fun of her. I suppose she does (that is unless I’m drunk!).

    Regarding the sales team, I really only meant to imply that there’s a step well beyond self censorship. A good real estate agent, for example, may have the ability to quickly understand a given subject, and thus do/say the right things in order to become trusted and liked. This isn’t merely self censorship, but an active manipulation of others.

  17. Eric,

    “Thus a woman with a disproportionately large ass, censors me from making fun of her”
    No, that would indeed be self-censorship. I am talking about when groups of people establish a practice of shaming ostracisng and otherwise abusing people who violate certain norms of speech until no speech which violates those norms exists. The responsibility for that censored speech disappearing lies squarely with the censors and not with the people who balked at paying the demanded price.

  18. Gotcha David — I’ve been going on about personal censorship, which is generally good, while you’re talking about social censorship, which is generally bad. And though for some reason I haven’t balked at paying high prices to maintain my own independence, this doesn’t make it right for groups to charge such high prices for entry into them.

    So what can we do to lower these prices? I’d say that illuminating the issue, as you are doing here, is about all we can do. Obviously suggestions are always welcome however.

  19. David,

    Why the defeatism?”

    Well, I could respond as a Buddhist (“Life is disappointment,” the First Noble Truth); or I could write as a survivor of the ’60s, and witness to how so many of the efforts coming out of that era went wrong. But I haven’t much time this week, so I’ll respond with a single reference (not definitive, but indicative):

    Donald Trump.

  20. Hi David, why didn’t you ask Mark about decentralization? He said it first, and I was just agreeing. 🙂

    Ok, so what I am talking about is shifting away from nations (and aspirations of global communities) back to very local communities. Perhaps City States… maybe smaller?

    I understood your essay wasn’t a complete theory or solution, and I wasn’t trying to knock it. I just worry that emotional investment against “the other” and in “winning” may have to be addressed first, before people become reasonable enough to care about how the way they communicate is causing problems. Of course the two issues feed on each other.

    Hi EJ, your description sounds plausible and I found the concept of bureaucratic system inertia binding diverse (even warring) communities together intriguing.

    I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to vote (being an expat with no real home state). But I want to vote for Bernie. I loathe Hillary and Trump. If forced into a choice I might vote for Hillary but I’d be sorely tested to vote Green instead. My instincts say Hillary would be better than Trump (and a lot less annoying/embarrassing to watch), but she’s not different enough on what matters (foreign policy and economics). I can only hope if either make it in, they’ll be very different people than they’ve been up until now.