The Forces of Blandness and the Disagreeable Majority

by sarahconstantinOtium3 min read28th Apr 201927 comments

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There are a few data points that have been making me see “the discourse” differently lately.

1. Large Majorities Dislike Political Correctness.

That’s the title of this Atlantic article that came out in October, and is based on this study from the think tank More in Common which opposes political polarization.

The results of the 8000-person poll of a nationally-representative sample of Americans are pretty striking. About 80% of Americans think “political correctness is a problem”; and even when you restrict to self-identified liberals, Democrats, or people of color, large majorities agree with the statement. The study identifies “progressive activists” (8% of Americans) as a younger, more extreme, more educated, more politically active left-wing cluster, and even within this cluster, a full 25% agree with “political correctness is a problem.”

And lots of people who agree with statements about hate speech being bad, white people starting out with advantages in life, sexual harassment being a problem, etc, also think political correctness is a problem.

Being “politically incorrect” isn’t just a white thing, a male thing, or even a conservative thing. It’s a hugely common thing.

2. Support for free speech is common, and growing, not shrinking. And it’s not the most left-wing people who most oppose free speech, but the moderate liberals.

Political scientist Justin Murphy has done studies about this, based on the General Social Survey, a large poll on social attitudes that’s been running for decades.

Since the 1970’s, Americans have become more tolerant of allowing people with controversial views to speak in public — communists, people proposing military coups, homosexuals, and opponents of “all churches and religions.”  Racism is the exception to the rule — people haven’t become more tolerant of racist speech, even as they have become more tolerant of other varieties of speech.

Keep in mind that legal censorship and centralization of political speech were way more prevalent in mid-20th century America than they are today.  Cable television networks didn’t exist till the 1970’s. The Fairness Doctrine didn’t end until 1987. Satellite radio, which allowed obscene language that was regulated on conventional radio and television, only began in 1988, Fox News was founded in 1996, and, of course, the blogosphere didn’t really begin until the early 2000’s.

Murphy notes that “extreme liberals” are consistently the most supportive of permitting controversial speech, and that in fact they have increased their rates of tolerating even racist speech. People who rate themselves as “moderately liberal” and “slightly liberal”, however, have sharply declined in their willingness to tolerate racist speech.  If there’s been a “backlash against free speech”, it’s on the moderate left, not the far left.

3. Calls for speech restrictions often come from moderates.

Things like this essay by Renee diResta, which I found chilling — a call for social media to be actively regulated by the US military, which says we should treat people spreading opinions that weaken trust in “the legitimacy of government, the persistence of societal cohesion, even our ability to respond to the impending climate crisis” as “digital combatants.” DiResta says, “More authoritarian regimes, by contrast, would simply turn off the internet. An admirable commitment to the principle of free speech in peace time turns into a sucker position against adversarial psy-ops in wartime.”

Who is DiResta? She’s a writer, technologist, adviser to Congress and the State Department, and the director of research at something called New Knowledge, a firm offering corporations a new kind of service: using algorithms to bury social media scandals that would make them look bad.

In other words, she’s an influential moderate; well-connected in corporate and government worlds, and very troubled by the crisis of declining trust in traditional institutions that the open Internet has enabled.

An Alternative Paradigm: Moderate, Measured Elites vs. The Chaotic, Offensive Populace

What if “free speech” vs. “restricted speech” isn’t a right-vs.-left thing at all?

Lots of people, who are by no means all political conservatives, want the right to say offensive things.

Verbal conflict just isn’t that big a problem to most people, apparently.  And how likely you are to violate vs. observe verbal taboos varies a lot based on personality and socioeconomic class.

Swearing is an interesting example of a verbal taboo that’s not especially politicized.  Socially low-ranking people swear more. Swearing is negatively correlated with agreeableness. Men swear more than women.  Swearing is commonly associated with  being working-class, though I haven’t found published evidence of this.  Swearing is “inappropriate” in office settings, religious settings, or whenever we’re expected to be formal or respectful.

It’s often corporate caution that drives speech codes that restrict political controversy, obscenity, and muckraking/whistleblowing. It’s not just racist or far-right opinions that get silenced; media and social-media corporations worry about offending prudes, homophobes, Muslim extremists, the Chinese government, the US military, etc, etc.

Some people clearly do have strong ideological opinions about what speech they want to see allowed vs. banned, but I don’t see that as the main driver of what rules actually get put into place.  What I think is going on is that decisionmakers in media and PR, and corporate and government elites generally, have a lower tolerance for verbal conflict and taboo violations than the typical individual.

The growth of lots and lots of outlets for more “unofficial” or “raw” self-expression — blogs, yes, but before that cable TV and satellite radio, and long before that, the culture of “journalism” in 18th century America where every guy with a printing press could publish a “newspaper” full of opinions and scurrilous insults  — tends to go along with more rudeness, more cursing, more sexual explicitness, more political extremism in all directions, more “trashy” or “lowest common denominator” media, more misinformation and “dumbing down”, but also some innovative/intellectual “niche” media.

Chaos is a centrifugal force; it increases the chance of any unexpected outcome. Good things, bad things, existential threats, brilliant ideas, and a lot of weird, gross, and disturbing stuff.

Some people like parts of that (it’s hard to like everything about chaos), and others find even a little chaos threatening.  The most passionate opponents of chaos are likely to be powerful, since change can only knock them off their pedestals.

I think we’re currently in an era of unusually large amounts of free speech that elites are starting to get spooked by and defend against.  Most people have high, perhaps even growing, tolerance for controversy and offense, but some find it unacceptable, and these people are disproportionately influential.

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(Epistemic Status: Quick brainstorm slash free form just-write-it exercise. This wants to be a post but want to throw it out as a comment quickly first and see if it sounds right.)

Could we tie this directly in with Asymmetric Justice?

If you are a big thing you are being evaluated primarily on the basis of what horrible things you've done, and reap little of the relative benefit from the brilliant things. If you're going to then enable many weird offensive things, that's a losing plan. Even if the group is a huge win on net, some of them will be bad and get you in a lot of trouble.

If you are a small thing, and want to do one weird thing as the only thing, you have a chance that it turns out all right at least with respect to those you are appealing to with your newspaper, blog or what have you. So you can gain the benefits of exploration, free expression, creation of knowledge and so on.

If you are a medium-size thing doing correlated weird things, which are weird and offensive in the same way, then again your risk is contained, because if they're sufficiently correlated, it's all one thing, so you won't reliably be evaluated as bad and can again get the benefits of your one thing. But it also means that in order to do that, you need to be consistent. No violating your group's party lines so they evaluate you as just. And of course you need to support free speech to avoid being shut down yourself by the "moderates."

So what happens? "The center" or 'moderates" trying to hold is the biggest thing, has to worry about all sides judging it asymmetrically, so it is forced to come out in favor of blandness. Since a big thing like capitalism or a major corporation or the government interacts with tons of stuff enough to get blamed for it they need to censor it in order to not be found guilty. Increasing polarization and uniformity on all sides.

And in parallel, as a moderate proposing policies and law, you can accuse a whole class of tings of being bad because one of them is bad with respect to one thing, and thus make the case that one must censor.

Which means this "moderate center" isn't actually anything of the sort. It's a third power with very little popular support trying to cram things down our throats, because they understand our point scoring systems better than we do - and only partly because they had a large role in engineering those systems. And they are responding to their own incentives.

You actually get the whole dynamic from first principles.

Individual people are small, can and want to take risks, feel increasingly censored for increasingly stupid reasons, and become more pro-free-speech. Large powerful things that want to appeal to multiple sides race with each other to be bigger censors so they can avoid being found guilty, and scapegoat the other moderate powerful things they're struggling with for power, along with everyone else who they can directly censor to gain the upper hand as a group. Ideally they'd like to censor any attempt to portray things accurately or create clarity or common knowledge at all, because the people hate the censorship and they distrust power and the more information they find out, the bigger the negative points they'll assign to every big powerful thing. This creates a tacit (at least) conspiracy of the powerful against all communication, coordination and creation of common knowledge on anything that might matter. A general opposition to reason and competence seems to logically follow.

Does that sound right?

I thought this did a good job of tackling the issue in an explanatory/model centered way.

(Relatedly, Sarah's posts in general tend to discuss politics in a way that is framed in an explanatory and/or model-centered and/or abstracted fashion, which is a good approach for discussion controversial things in a way that fits the frontpage guidelines)

It's not so much that big things are for blandness and censorship. They're for opacity. They are against being mappable. Blandness is boring, and being boring deflects attention. It makes it unrewarding to investigate things, to map the territory. Critics, unable to keep up, have to resort to criticizing the whole system.

"I know you're up to a whole bunch of bad stuff, even if I can't keep up with the particulars because you're actively hiding them from me with your gigantic budgets and political power" is not untrue. Also, "I know that I have an exaggerated notion of how much good you're doing, because you're using your money and power to spread propaganda and I don't have the capacity to distinguish your lies from the truth" is also not entirely unfair.

Hence, asymmetric injustice as a corrective to propaganda.

Of course, even if it's producing neutrality on average, the landscape is lots of regions of intense propaganda for or against the system. Work for a major corporation, and you're in a region of intense pro-corporate propaganda. Work for the Sanders campaign, and you're in a region of intense anti-corporate propaganda.

Material wealth just sits there, waiting to be consumed. It doesn't exist unless you make it. It's a thing: a bushel of wheat, an mRNA vaccine, a mile of water pipe.

Knowledge is fugitive. Have an edge in the stock market? Better hide it if you want to use it. Need to criticize your opponent but don't have any dirt on them? Make something up. Expert in your field? Better not exit the field, because your current skills and network will be obsolete in a year or two.

If you have a budget of time, and you're trying to invest it wisely, you invest in material wealth, technical skill, or political power.

Only giant institutions or deeply invested players can really afford to invest in serious technical knowledge about the political landscape. It changes too fast, and it doesn't produce anything of direct value.

Activists can't afford fugitive knowledge about fugitive knowledge. So they criticize the shell game of the whole system, and we get the results we observe. Particular examples aren't meant to be accurate, just illustrative.

Any activists who deviate from this and actually try to accurately model the current state of some political subsystem are building a form of knowledge that's only lucrative in terms of power or money from within that system.

They'll eventually either get tired or get hired.

Maybe there's a sort of "efficient market hypothesis" at work here? Anybody who understands the system well enough eventually does it for a living? So anybody who isn't part of the system doesn't have an updated model about it, i.e. doesn't understand it?

I worry that these studies in support of free speech are narrowly defining free speech as 'allowed to speak' rather than lack of social and economic punishment for speaking one's mind.

I also worry that the reason it looks like free speech looks supported in Murray's study is that he's asking about the things people wanted to censor in 1970, as opposed to the things they want to censor now. E.g. imagine the graph for someone against homosexuality, or in favor of religion, or for big crack-downs on communists. The consensus view on these now, among moderates, would have been subject to censorship in 1970.

I feel a lack of free speech on some issues, but actual zero of that is coming from the threat of government intervention or even corporate censorship, but rather worry about social, economic or reputational retaliation

About 80% of Americans think “political correctness is a problem”

And lots of people who agree with statements about hate speech being bad, white people starting out with advantages in life, sexual harassment being a problem, etc, also think political correctness is a problem.

How much of this is about the definition of political correctness? I haven't seen the term used positively since the 90s, while people only seem to care more about correct speech. I suspect many people who say they hate political correctness nonetheless support punishing a lot of kinds of speech.

I don't recall literally ever seeing the term unironically used positively, only the insinuation that someone else (usually on the left) thought it was a good thing. In the mid 20th Century the term was commonly used among leftists to make fun of party-line Communists, and in later decades, it was commonly used in ironic self-criticism on the left.

I have seen the term used positively in the Trump era. My guess is that this is a reaction to it becoming a rhetorical point that it is bad, which makes others respond that it is good.

Whereas before that, the term had been abandoned due to its negative connotations. Part of my model of this is that people support censoring specific things but are against censoring in general. Just like they say the government/corporation spends too much but are individually in favor of every government program and against firing anyone.

Since the 1970’s, Americans have become more tolerant of allowing people with controversial views to speak in public

The question of whether Americans have become more tolerant of speech is about recent changes, not changes since the 1970s.

There's also the problem of how speech is classified. Those figures show that the tolerance for letting racists speak has gone down recently, which may be concerning--but it's much more concerning if more things get moved into the "racist" category, which seems to be happening. Also, I don't see "sexists" or any other category aside from "racists" that is hated by the left, and it's quite possible that adding more such categories would show more downturns.

The growth of lots and lots of outlets for more “unofficial” or “raw” self-expression — blogs, yes, but before that cable TV and satellite radio, and long before that, the culture of “journalism” in 18th century America where every guy with a printing press could publish a “newspaper” full of opinions and scurrilous insults  — tends to go along with more rudeness, more cursing, more sexual explicitness, more political extremism in all directions, more “trashy” or “lowest common denominator” media, more misinformation and “dumbing down”, but also some innovative/intellectual “niche” media.
Chaos is a centrifugal force; it increases the chance of any unexpected outcome. Good things, bad things, existential threats, brilliant ideas, and a lot of weird, gross, and disturbing stuff.

The idea of an "anti-chaos elite" sounds fairly accurate to me, and it shows up a lot in the work of Thaddeus Russell, who wrote a book about American elites' history of stamping out rude/chaotic behavior and runs a podcast where he interviews a wide range of people on the fringes of polite society (including libertarians, sex workers, anarchists, and weird people with no particular political affiliation). It's not perfect from an epistemic standpoint, but it's still worth a listen from anyone interested in this topic.

I wonder how much of this is a consequence of the fact that in the offline world, rich people usually associate with rich people, and poor people associate with poor people (and when a poor person associates with a rich person e.g. in a role of a servant, the poor person must behave in a way that the rich person finds proper)... but in the online world, we all use the same Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc.

So now rich people have a cultural shock of meeting the unwashed masses who don't give a fuck about their sensibilities, and will even laugh at their faces, protected by (perceived) online anonymity.

It should be possible to create separate gardens for the elites. Like, make a clone of a famous website, but require e.g. $1000 yearly membership fees, and you get rid of the plebs. There already are projects like that. But as far as I know, they fail. On the internet people provide value to each other, so a website for the 0.1 % would have much fewer interesting stories, fewer cat videos, etc. It would be less offensive, but mostly because it would be dead.

It is probably also hard to find the exact line; I suppose the elites would prefer to avoid dealing with people too low below them, but would welcome the presence of people slightly below them -- they are not that difficult culturally, and because how the top of the pyramid is shaped, there are lots of them, which means lots of useful content.

So instead, the rich people are trying to kick out the plebs from the online places they like. Using politeness and other things correlated with social class as an excuse.

In the study cited in this post I see progressive activists as being the most politically correct by far, even though the post itself is claiming the moderates should have been on that spot.

In this study it does look like the moderates are more likely to disallow racist speech, but the very far right seems to be just as likely, and even more so than the far left, which really makes me doubt the validity of this one.

I don't know why there seems to be such a discrepancy between these studies, or why it looks like the far right is so anti-racist in the 2nd one, can anyone explain?

About 80% of Americans think “political correctness is a problem”; and even when you restrict to self-identified liberals, Democrats, or people of color, large majorities agree with the statement.

This is interesting to me because it's surprising: I'd expect a sharper ideological divide on whether PC is a problem or not. I don't think "PC is a problem" reliably means "I have a high tolerance for verbal conflict"; "PC is a problem" can be read as "people trying to enforce political correctness are picking fights for no good reason and escalating verbal conflict".

Americans have become more tolerant of allowing people with controversial views to speak in public

This is an old-fashioned "Who should be allowed to speak in a town hall meeting in favour of outrageous opinion X?" sort of question. Frankly, this is a pattern-matched answer: "Yes, we believe in freedom of speech". I'm not sure the answer would be the same if the question were "Social media is full of (highly persuasive) advocacy for outrageous opinion X - is this acceptable?".

moderate liberals... against free speech

Hm. Why? Some explanations plucked out of thin air:

(a) To oppose free speech, you have to have enough people on "your side" that you might *succeed*, or that your training/experience has been in a situation where opposing free speech might succeed. (Large concentrations of moderate-left-liberals on a campus)

(b) Groups who have decided that "too much free speech is a problem" come from some particular community incompatible with being on the radical left. You're not going to find many hard-left-wingers in the RAND corporation thinking about counterinsurgency strategy; a SJW memeplex sweeping across college freshmen is going to do better if the freshmen don't have to already be Marxist believers to partake.

I think I'm suggesting that there might be *confounders* on the political-spectrum/free-speech-advocacy graph: "being a campus liberal causes free-speech-opposition and causes moderate-left beliefs" seems much more plausible to me than "there's a spontaneous peak in censorship advocacy at this point in the political spectrum".

The most passionate opponents of chaos are likely to be powerful, since change can only knock them off their pedestals

Opponents of chaos will be people with something to lose or something to protect. The ultra-rich 0.01% have the endurance to ride out most consequences this side of Armageddon, and the more excitable ones might see the chaos as an opportunity, or as a necessary evil.

Following up on the Renee diResta piece, the DARPA program mentioned is Social Media in Strategic Communication. The manager of that program was Rand Waltzman, who currently works at the RAND Corporation. I think he makes for a much, much better source of information about the program and the role of propaganda management in government and the military.

A short summary of the program he wrote is here.

He uses the term cognitive security, and wrote a proposal for DoD funding of a center for it here.

He gave testimony to Congress on both the program and the policy proposal, found here.

The factual point that moderate liberals are more censorious is easy to lose track of, and I saw confusion about it today that sent me back to this article.

I appreciate that this post starts from a study, and outlines not just the headline from the study but the sample size. I might appreciate more details on the numbers, such as how big the error bars are, especially for subgroups stats.

Historical context links are good, and I confirm that they state what they claim to state.

Renee DiResta is no longer at New Knowledge, though her previous work there is still up on her site. I really like the exploration of her background. It might be nice to see something similar about Justin Murphy as well.

Swearing is negatively correlated with agreeableness

citation for this is in the link on the previous sentence; I might adjust the link so it's clear what it covers.

It’s often corporate caution that drives speech codes that restrict political controversy, obscenity, and muckraking/whistleblowing. It’s not just racist or far-right opinions that get silenced; media and social-media corporations worry about offending prudes, homophobes, Muslim extremists, the Chinese government, the US military, etc, etc.

This paragraph seems clearly true to me, but I'd prefer to see citations, especially since it's related to politics.

every guy with a printing press could publish a “newspaper” full of opinions and scurrilous insults

citation for this would be nice, or just a link to an example. Here's a discussion with sources.

I really like Zvi's comment tying this back to a more detailed model of Asymmetric Justice.

 

I really like this post overall; especially in the context of Asymmetric Justice it feels like something that's simple and obvious to me after reading it, while being invisible to me beforehand.

I use the phrase "The Forces of Blandness" all the time. The post was counterintuitive to me at the time, but it has helped me understand what's been happening to me in many situations — there's a set of 'elites' who don't have sophisticated and important perspectives, but just generically push for people to be less interesting, and less honest because it's friction. Paul Graham calls them the aggressively conventional-minded, but the forces of blandness has stuck with me as a phrase much more strongly.

I think we’re currently in an era of unusually large amounts of free speech that elites are starting to get spooked by and defend against.

I suspect this is explained sufficiently just by unusually large amounts of free speech. Speech is nearly free, nearly instant, and half the population of the planet now has global reach. I think of this as communication pollution.

I experimented with extracting some of the core claims from this post into polls: 

Personally, I find that answering polls like these make me more of a "quest participant" than a passive reader. They provide a nice "think for yourself" prompt, that then makes me look at the essay with a more active mindset. But others might have different experiences, feel free to provide feedback on how it worked for you.

(You can find a list of all 2019 Review poll questions here.)

I think we’re currently in an era of unusually large amounts of free speech that elites are starting to get spooked by and defend against.  Most people have high, perhaps even growing, tolerance for controversy and offense, but some find it unacceptable, and these people are disproportionately influential.

 

People always had a lot of free speech, it was just in unmediated human interaction. There was a lively civil society and people had closer relationships with neighbors and extended family and would naturally discuss things. This decentralized communication was a major way ideas and culture were shared. People suggest things like social media have widened the discourse, but ignore the fact that this kind of organic human interaction and community life has steadily declined (see Bowling Alone for more information). To some extent we have traded an unmoderated, uncensored private, in-person discourse for a heavily mediated, censored and monitored discourse. 

(I have been occasionally using the phrase "forces of blandness" with this reference link.)

Sorry, but: The thing at the top says this was crossposted from Otium, but I see no such post there. Was this meant to go up there as well? Because it seems to be missing.

Looks like Sarah took that post down from Otium. Will move it back into drafts until I hear back from her about what she wants to do with it.

(moved it back, Sarah says it's fine)

Renee diResta, ... chilling — a call for social media to be actively regulated by the US military, ... New Knowledge, a firm offering corporations a new kind of service: using algorithms to bury social media scandals that would make them look bad.

This seems a very uncharitable interpretation. Is it deserved?

I gotta love this quote from their website:

As the information war escalates, we believe more than ever that our responsibility is to provide an advanced, reliable disinformation solution to national security agencies, responsible leaders, and trusted brands.

The ambiguity between "solution to disinformation" and "solution in the form of disinformation" is delicious.

They say this is only to be used on manipulative or disinformation campaigns:

Based on data from our monitoring system, New Knowledge analysts provide the tools and support that companies need to disrupt manipulative online campaigns and maintain brand integrity. No system integration required. No private data collected.

I have no idea why what they are offering would be an asymmetric weapon. Nor do I think that 'get very good at detecting and understanding manipulative social media campaigns' is a strategy likely to lead to non-manipulative counter-strategies at a profit-maximizing corporation.

I can see why it might be better at disruption than creation, like many things. This might be one of the few places that makes me feel a little better.

Seems to be one of the least creepy things they are up to. They've been caught faking russian bot disinformation campaigns, engaged directly in disinformation campaigns themselves, and seem to clearly be engaged in attempting to sway mainstream political opinion into thinking this should be the new normal.

NYT has good coverage. When I merely google "new knowledge" two of the first page hits are wapo and BI, which whitewash them by only talking about the disinformation campaigns that they admitted to.

I think a large part of it stems from the dominance of marketing in our culture.  Our elites are fundamentally salespeople, and insulted customers walk away.  When the social justice movement made offense its cardinal sin, our leadership found a religion it could believe in.  The only irredeemable sinners are the working class, because they're too poor to be a valuable market segment.

The Myers-Briggs model always struck me as the perfect example of American culture.  There are 16 types , and all of them are wonderful.  You are encouraged to settle into the market segment that's right for you.  I suspect a Chinese discussion of the Myers-Briggs typology would start with which type makes the most money (INTJ, I hear), and the rest of it would be about how to become an INTJ.