Jordan Peterson’s new version of Gab will have all the same problems as Gab

I’m not sure I have to write a post to accompany the headline as I’ve encapsulated the main point in the headline.

The longer version is this. Jordan Peterson has announced his own social media platform “Thinkspot”

He described that freedom as the “central” aspect saying, “once you’re on our platform we won’t take you down unless we’re ordered to by a US court of law.” That will be a profound contrast to platforms that ban users for “misgendering” people who identify as trans, or for tweeting “learn to code” at fired journalists. The only other major rule on comments he mentioned was that they need to be thoughtful. Rather than suggesting that some opinions are “off limits,” Peterson said they will have a minimum required length so one has to put thought into what they write. “If minimum comment length is 50 words, you’re gonna have to put a little thought into it,” Peterson said. “Even if you’re being a troll, you’ll be a quasi-witty troll.” All comments on the website will have a voting feature “and if your ratio of upvotes to downvotes falls below 50/50 then your comments will be hidden, people will still be able to see them, if they click, but you’ll disappear.”

These are mainly features and claims offered by Gab or seen in other platforms. Gab, of course, descended so rapidly into nothing but Nazis, dodgy-porn, and dodgy pornographic Nazis that Vox Day found himself harassed off the platform by obnoxious Nazi trolls as if trying to embody the concept of “unintended irony”.

Peterson’s platform will have the added advantage over Gab in that there’s no shortage of Nazi-trolls who actively hate Peterson, so they’ll have an added incentive to destroy the platform intentionally in the same way the destroyed Gab unintentionally.

The only unusual feature mentioned is a minimum comment length. That will be very hard to beat I’m sure!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Peterson’s own pitch implies that they won’t ban users for harassment. This pretty much guarantees that people who don’t want to be harassed won’t use it (at least not for long) and the people who want to harass will.

Richard Dawkins saying poorly thought through reactionary things again

Oh dear:

And…

Alternatively we could not do anything like that because it is an appalling idea.

There are at least three levels of confused thinking here. The first is that in the past such attempts to ensure people were sufficiently ‘qualified’ to vote intellectually have been attempts to disenfranchise specific ethnic groups. When coupled with restricted access to education and with the test wittingly and unwittingly full of the biases of the more powerful ethnic group, such tests would be simply a way of creating a kind of apartheid electoral system.

OK, but what if somehow only people who could really understand the issues of the day could vote? Wouldn’t that be better? Isn’t it because of stupid people that we have Trump and Brexit? No or at least not ‘stupid’ as the term is usually used. Voting for Trump or falling for Nigel Farage’s propaganda are certainly daft things to do but a terrible secret of the world is that these are the kinds of ‘stupid’ that otherwise intelligent people do. There are connections between levels of education and political preference but they are neither simple nor straightforward. There is evidence of an ‘educational gradient‘ with how people voted in the UK on Brexit but that gradient does not account for other regional variations (e.g. Scotland). It’s also important to remember that any educational gradient represents people with quite different economic interests as well. Nor was that gradient as smooth as it might sound:

“So, based on the above, the Leave vote was not more popular among the low skilled, but rather among individuals with intermediate levels of education (A-Levels and GSCE high grades), especially when their socio-economic position was perceived to be declining and/or to be stagnant. “

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/brexit-and-the-squeezed-middle/

Blaming the UK’s current Brexit confusion on stupidity maybe cathartic but it provides zero insight into a way forward. Further it ignores that the architects of the political chaos are products of the reputedly the best education you can get in Britain. Boris Johnson is manifestly a buffoon but he is a buffoon with a good degree in classics from Oxford. The Boris Johnson’s of this world would waltz past Dawkins’s test.

US politics also has a complex relationship with educational attainment. Conservative views peak at mid-ranges of education (e.g. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/15/educational-divide-in-vote-preferences-on-track-to-be-wider-than-in-recent-elections/ ) People with college degrees and more advanced higher education are more likely to vote Democrat currently but in the past (e.g. 1990s) this was less so. The growing (indeed, reversed) education divide doesn’t account for differences among ethnic groups or between genders. Other divides (e.g. urban versus rural) may work causally in the other direction (i.e. different economic demands making decisions about higher education a different choice in rural v urban contexts but the underlying politics resting on other urban v rural differences).

Even if we imagine a Dawkins-dystopia in which you had to have a university degree to vote (a much more substantial hurdle than the demands of either the UK or US citizenship tests) the proposal falls into the political fallacy of technocracy as an alternative to democracy. By ‘fallacy’ I don’t mean that competence or technical understanding or evidence-based policy are bad ideas or things we don’t want to see in government but rather that is a reasoning error to judge democracy in principle as a process by which technically competent policy is formed.

Democracy serves to provide consent from the governed to the government. That’s its purpose. It provides a moral and practical basis on which there can be any kind of government that is even vaguely just. Logically, a vote doesn’t determine whether something is true or not (except in trivial cases on questions about ‘what will people vote for’). Consequently, it is always easy to attack democracy by setting it up AS IF that’s what voting is supposed to achieve. A referendum can’t determine what the smartest course of action is but then that’s not what a referendum or an election is supposed to do. Instead asking people to vote is a way of trying to establish broad social agreement on what a country will do.

Without that kind of broad social agreement a country has only two options: disunity or authoritarianism. Restricting the franchise along any axis will lead to overt authoritarianism. Paternalistic ‘benevolent’ authoritarianism is still a system that depends on brutality.

The shorter version: democracy is about consent of the governed not about how smart voters are. The political divides we currently have wouldn’t be solved by a test that high school graduate would pass. A nation in which only college graduates could vote would be a shitty one and politically unstable. Well educated people can and do advance bad ‘stupid’ political ideas. Come to think of it, there’s a great example here: Richard Dawkins is very well educated and here he is putting forward a stupid idea.

Exclusive: New Trump Approved NASA video of Moon/Mars System

We are very lucky to get hold of the latest break through in astronomical science for the Dear Leader and stable genius of the Greater United States. Hitherto, the connection between the Moon and Mars has not been understood by weaker minds but now the complex dynamic of the unitary Moon-Mars system can be shown using this hi-tech computer animation of the current leading thoughts on the matter.

The moon-mars ‘dumbbell’ breakthrough

5G phones, metonyms and fear

Following on from yesterday’s post about nations, governments and how we talk about them, I want to talk about 5G phone networks. “5G” is the term for an upgraded cellular network for mobile phones using higher frequency bands for transmitting data. It’s also the term being used for the standard hype from mobile phone companies who would like you to spend more money.

Just as the advertising recapitulates past campaigns for 3G and 4G capable phones, so to does the pseudoscience recapitulate past campaigns about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation. Fears about radio waves causing illness are not quite as old as anti-vaccine scare campaigns but they have been going on for decades. The fears and claims are the same but shaped to fit the actual changes to the technology e.g. 5G signals using higher frequencies.

How does this connect with yesterday’s post? News stories about the 5G roll-out have touched on the geopolitics of both the Chinese and Russian governments in quite different topics.

The Russia-related story has been the RT news network. RT has been running 5G health scare stories. A recent New York Times article says:

The Russian network RT America aired the segment, titled “A Dangerous ‘Experiment on Humanity,’” in covering what its guest experts call 5G’s dire health threats. U.S. intelligence agencies identified the network as a principal meddler in the 2016 presidential election. Now, it is linking 5G signals to brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors and Alzheimer’s disease — claims that lack scientific support.
Yet even as RT America, the cat’s paw of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has been doing its best to stoke the fears of American viewers, Mr. Putin, on Feb. 20, ordered the launch of Russian 5G networks in a tone evoking optimism rather than doom.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/12/science/5g-phone-safety-health-russia.html

The article is interesting and RT manifestly is a source of a huge amount of nonsense and misinformation. However, there are parts of the NYT article that worry me e.g.:

“It’s economic warfare,” Ryan Fox, chief operating officer of New Knowledge, a technology firm that tracks disinformation, said in an interview. “Russia doesn’t have a good 5G play, so it tries to undermine and discredit ours.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/12/science/5g-phone-safety-health-russia.html

On the one hand, RT definitely IS a source of dangerous nonsense targetted at gullible people on the other I find it implausible that RT pushing this specific health scare is some targetted piece of economic warfare. Given the range of nonsense it is pushing out, it would be surprising if they didn’t hit this particular spot. It is an example of the same kind of free floating fear mongering that anybody used to the British tabloid press will be familiar with, what Ben Goldacre described The Daily Mail as having: “an ongoing ontological program to divide all inanimate objects into ones that will either cause or cure cancer.”

Put another way, I can easily believe that RT is being used by Vladimir Putin to general stir-up fear and paranoia but I doubt that there’s specific agendas for each piece of nonsense, particularly when the nonsense long predates RT or Putin’s government. For example here is one such UK tabloid indulging in the same nonsense: https://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/1124956/5g-mobile-phone-4g-cancer-health-risk-conspiracy-theory

Of course, the ever horrible Express has its own long running right wing agenda but if you try and tie each piece of scaremongering to a specific agenda (except when it is obvious) you will end up with a pile of contradictions. The agenda is fear and insecurity in general and the more prosaic motive that alarm sells newspapers (or in RT’s case YouTube hits).

Meanwhile there is a different but still 5G related story about China. The tech companies Huawei and ZTE are now global players in telecommunications. Their prominence has led to fears that these companies might be exploited by the Chinese government to add surveillance features or backdoor routes through security systems in products in other nations.

These concerns led to Australia preventing Huawei’s involvement in 5G infrastructure projects in Australia.

A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told the ABC that while the Government recognised the opportunities 5G networks presented, it was also important to ensure that Australia’s information and communications was protected at all times.
“Following an extensive review, the Australian Government is advising the companies that will build these networks [network operators] that they must ensure the protection of Australia’s interests above all others,” the spokesperson said.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-07/why-is-the-uk-seemingly-not-as-worried-about-huawei-as-australia/10866848

The Trump administration has taken an even more draconian line on Huawei: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concerns_over_Chinese_involvement_in_5G_wireless_networks#United_States_allegations_and_responses

I definitely don’t want the Chinese government to be able to spy on my phone data but then again I don’t want the US government to do that either! The tangle of commercial rivalries versus government machinations makes it difficult to take any claim at face value. The US government’s policy is tied up not just with (possibly legitimate) security concerns but also with Trump’s trade war with the Chinese government.

It is noise in multiple senses. It is distracting and it makes finding actual information difficult or impossible. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-46465438

How to talk about Russia?

I’ll confess at the start that this post doesn’t have an answer to the question in it’s title. Also the title could have been “How to talk about China?” or Israel or the USA. I’ve granted myself permission to talk about Britain and Australia in any damn way I like 🙂 but they aren’t examples of the problem at hand.

I’ll skip to Australia and China first of all, because for many people this will be a more neutral example. During the recent Australian Federal election, one of the nuttier right wing parties was Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. Palmer is a Trump-like figure, an erratic businessman with political ambitions and like Trump, he is prone to wild speculation.

Part of his shtick was conspiracy theories about China. An airfield in Western Australia was supposed to be a secret bridgehead to a literal Chinese invasion. Anti-China sentiment and specifically anti-Chinese racism has a long history in Australia. In more recent times the xenophobic One Nation Party, these days more infamous for its anti-Mulsim stance, began as an anti-Asian immigration group. Without a doubt, Palmer was trying to manipulate deep seated anti-Asian prejudices in Australia to gain votes.

But. The current Chinese government is an authoritarian regime which really does seek to influence Australian politics. Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, described the issue in this way:

‘Let me make one thing clear. I am not in any way downplaying the seriousness of concerns that have been raised, both from inside and outside government, about foreign interference. They must be taken seriously. In our liberal democracy, there should – and there must – be debate about matters affecting the integrity of our democracy and the sovereignty of our nation-state. But there must be responsibility exercised in public debate. It is a dangerous thing to invite hysteria. It is doubly dangerous to invite anxiety about the Chinese party-state that may shift into animosity towards people with Chinese heritage. It is concerning to see sensationalism now creeping into mainstream commentary. Consider, for example, the references in Professor Hamilton’s book to “panda huggers”, to “dyeing Australia red”, to “China’s fifth column in Australia”, or to Australia being turned into a “tribute state” by a Chinese “silent invasion”.’

https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/news/opinions/chinese-influence-debate-must-avoid-racism

The issue is not just intended racism but the way a genuine story or issue can then feed into racist/xenophobic narratives. Take for example this story from New Zealand in 2017:

A China-born MP for New Zealand’s ruling party has denied being a spy after it emerged that he had spent years studying and teaching in universities with links to Chinese intelligence services.

“I am not a spy,” Yang Jian, the National party’s first MP born in mainland China, told reporters on Wednesday after a joint investigation by the Financial Times and New Zealand’s Newsroom revealed what they described as his hidden past.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/13/china-born-new-zealand-mp-yang-jian-denies-being-a-spy

I’ll take the guy’s word for it but whether the accusation is true or not, the story itself feeds into a classic racist trope that dual or foreign-born citizens or citizens of a given ethnicity or religion have divided loyalties. That idea has been used in many anglophone countries to attack Catholics in the past and is still used against Jews in public life.

In the US currently there is the issue of Russian attempts to influence the US election. I think the evidence that Russia was trying to get Trump elected is pretty strong, the evidence that Trump was actively cooperating with that effort is also strong but the evidence that it had a significant impact is less strong.

The discussion around Russian influence though, often plays on historical fears and rivalries between the USA and Russia/the USSR. Old racist tropes about Russia are all mixed up with genuine issues along with more hysterical conspiracy theories.

The core of these issues is there are different aspect of communication at play.

  1. Intent of the person communicating
  2. The factual content of what they are communicating
  3. The framing of the communication
  4. How that communication fits in aesthetically with entrenched prejudices

With somebody like Clive Palmer, it is easy to see how 1,2,3 & 4 are all informed by racism and the desire to manipulate racism. However, even if we do our utmost to expunge racism from 1, 2 & 3 when discussing world affairs, we personally have very little control over 4.

You can be very careful with your language and have the purest intent and frame what you are saying very carefully and still be switching on xenophobic lightbulbs on in people’s heads. The more deeply entrenched those racist tropes are within a culture, the harder it is not to play into the racism aspects of an issue. The anti-Asian racism within Australian culture (which is about as old as European culture in Australia) is an obvious example but so is anti-Semitism.

As I said at the start of this, I don’t have answer. People acting in bad faith will exploit silence just as much as they will exploit words to spread disharmony and hate. Nationalistic governments will often play into racism directed against their dominant ethnic group precisely to bolster their own support.

Over the years, I’ve tried to change how I talk about the USA, for example, from a broad brush anti-Americanism to less metonymic language that helps separate the actions of a government from a nation and a nation from a people and a people as a homogeneous group from the reality of a diverse collection of people. It’s easy to fall into language that helps bolster a nationalistic perspective which in turn enables the kind of deep cultural prejudices I’m discussing. It’s not enough though and the depth of the communication trap seems unresolvable.

On the Right & Civilisations

This is a rewrite of a Tweet thread that started here:

However, Tweets aren’t a great medium for the point I was trying to make, so I’m making it more essay-like here.

“Western Civilisation” or “Judeo-Christian civilisation” are almost content-free markers in right wing discourse these days. In both cases, there is a fundamental incoherence that arises from deep problems with how people like Shapiro think about the world.

‘Civilisation’ implies an ongoing exchange of ideas between people. A civilisation will manifest in many ways (politics, architecture, art) but the idea that these multifold things all connect together comes from people swapping ideas and concepts. However, the right wing rhetorical use of the term ‘civilisation’ implies the opposite: that somehow ideas cannot cross between ‘civilisations’ even though the very examples they use of the wonders of Western Civilisation are prime examples of a very fluid exchange of ideas way beyond the boundaries of the West.

Shapiro concedes grudgingly some maths from India, while ignoring the influence of that same maths in other parts of Asia, or its transmission to the west. There’s no sensible way of considering the cultural and philosophical history of Europe without considering its connection to the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, through migration, trade, war and general proximity. Shapiro cites Aristotle (who was neither Christian nor Jewish) and simultaneously ignores the role of Islamic Aristotelian scholarship on European thought in the middle-ages.

Obviously, the term “Western Civilisation” isn’t wholly meaningless as an idea in general but the alt-right uses it in a way that is little more than a marker for their racism. “Judeo-Christian” is used by sections of the right in a similar way to mask their hatred of Islam. It’s even more absurd as a term, generally only applied to Western European ideas (and often specifically Anglophone ones) while ignoring other cultures with a Christian background (partly out of habit of seeing Eastern Europe as a non-Christian ‘other’) and at the same time partly-ignoring non-Christian influences on European culture (pre-Christian Northern Europe, classical Greece and Rome) while co-opting those classic parts that have been Christianised (see Aristotle above). The “Judeo” part is strictly tokenistic: Maimondes is as likely to be ignored as Averroes.

That Western European thought was influenced by multiple cultures both as an internal dynamic (the many cultures within Europe) or an external dynamic (the many cultures Europe has interacted with by trade, war, invasion, migration, exploration, colonisation etc) is not something that can be admitted to because then any endorsement of the wonders of “Western Civilisation” would by implication be seen an endorsement of multi-culturalism.

Both terms as used by the right are bad history and in Shapiro’s example a bad understanding of how science developed. He actively obscures why Issac Newton did his work where and when he does, turning him into just some sort of brief expression of a kind of miasma of “Judeo-Christian” civilisation. The path that leads to the particular sweet spot that Shapiro seems to be pointing towards, where abstract philosophy meets empirical practicality isn’t something that just pops up if you believe in god in just the right way. If it where then we’d have far more Issac Newtons in Christian and Jewish history. Consequently Shapiro’s analysis (if that’s not too generous a term for it) makes it both harder to understand what was going on in 17th century England and also undermines what actually WAS special about it AND also undermines how Newton’s insights connect with his religious beliefs.

The halting steps towards the modern sense of scientific thinking, in which broad abstract principles are examined with an eye towards experimentation and empirical testing, was a long road full of missteps. It is one in which Aristotle’s work (as he keeps coming up) was both an aid and a hindrance and where contact (both good and bad) with other cultures and beliefs was vital. Religion is not irrelevant here and had positive and negative influences just as a figure like Aristotle had positive and negative influences.

Shapiro needs to set up the relationship as purely one way: that specific religious beliefs begat science because he also needs to hide the opposite effect: that religious beliefs changed because of scientific & philosophical ideas (as well as economy & politics & exploration & colonialism & empire etc) And also, that Islam, Judaism and Christianity kept changing each other over time and still do so. This is hard to accept if your view of religion is one where they are repositories of universal truths (or lies) rather than human attempts to grapple with those truths and as subject to human foibles and historical forces as any other human endeavour.

Instead Shapiro imagines religion as a kind of operating system for civilisation-machines rather than as ongoing dialogues people have with each other. Hence him tying himself up in knots in a manner that leaves him in a position where he cannot defend his analysis from the alt-right. His intellectual incoherence on this topic has multiple roots but one in particular is revealed in this particular topic of “civilisations”.

The wider discourse in the right for decades now has been one that can be characterised as scepticism about the existence of, or influences of SOCIETY. Exemplified most starkly by Margaret Thatcher but present across the board. Now, fair enough, sociology is not the most robust of disciplines but imagine trying to discuss sociological events, dynamics etc while being hostile to the very concept of society. It would be like trying to do macroeconomics while actively avoiding the concept of “an economy”

Racists are mainly racists for petty & cynical reasons but in addition, a discourse about sociological phenomenon without a concept of society is one in which racism or some other partisan essentialism is inevitable. Why are their broad, epiphenomenal effects in a collection of atomic individuals? How do such things exist if you can’t think in terms of “society”? The alternatives are conspiracies, religious allegiance, race or supernatural intervention & right wing discourse is full of all four.

Without a concept of society, it is inevitable that shifts in taste or widespread behaviour become blamed on conspiracies or hidden intentional forces. That and racism will only get you so far though. Any attempt to present a historical account of the world that at least has a patina of intellectual respectability is to find a proxy for society that can fill the conceptual gap. “Civilisation” is another way for right wing pseudo-intellectuals to try to talk about society & culture without conceding that either are powerful factors in our lives. Of course a concept of civilisation without sociological ideas is a vacuum.