A little while back I fielded yet another attempt to bully me into censoring my comments pages. It was the same schtick as always. One of my commenters had expressed a point of view to which the would-be censor objected, and rather than being satisfied with presenting an opposing point of view on the forum for readers to discuss, the would-be censor wanted the commenter silenced. I get such demands routinely, and they always go straight into the trash. If someone urges me to censor other people, it seems to me, they’ve just given me permission to censor them, and I’m happy to do so.
As this suggests, I am not a free speech purist. The attitude I have on the subject of free speech is one that used to be standard across large parts of American society, and though it’s dropped out of fashion in recent decades, it still has a great deal to recommend it. Since it’s not something you’ll hear discussed these days in our public schools or our corporate media, it struck me that at least some of my readers might be interested in a discussion of that attitude—and of course it might also encourage other would-be censors to save the time they might otherwise waste in typing out denunciatory screeds that I’m just going to delete half-read.
The attitude I’m discussing can be summed up very precisely: I moderate conduct, not content.
Let’s take a closer look at this. Any verbal expression, be it spoken, written, printed, posted on an internet forum, or what have you, has two closely intertwined functions, which we can call informative and performative. The former is an abstract conceptual content; the latter is a concrete social action. In any actual communication both these functions are equally present, and yes, they intertwine in a galaxy of complicated ways. Drawing the line in practice is sometimes a complicated matter requiring personal judgment calls, but the distinction’s important.
Consider, for example, a series of words encouraging the listener to commit some violent criminal act. That set of words has the same informative function no matter what the context. On the other hand, if it’s the answer to the question “So what do you want me to do?” it has a very different performative function than if it’s the answer to the question “And what did the defendant say next?” In these two cases the distinction is obvious. Equally, I think most of us understand the performative difference between the words “I love you” meant as an endearment, and the same words meant as an attempted excuse for manipulation, bullying, or domestic abuse.
As this last example suggests, the performative function of a verbal expression can be a means of abusing and harming others. Our species being what it is, this sort of noxious misuse of language is quite common. As far as we know, it has been common since about fifteen minutes after we figured out how to use the usual anthropoid collection of hoots and grunts to represent our first vaguely abstract concepts. As with most of the bugs in Homo sapiens 1.0, we’ve worked out an imperfect but functional kluge to work around this problem, and the patch in the case we’re considering has a common name: courtesy.
Yes, I know, that’s a crashingly unfashionable concept these days. Most people, hearing the word, roll their eyes if they don’t denounce it in shrill tones. There’s a historical reason for those reactions, and we’ll get to it in a little while, but I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking about courtesy. What I’m proposing is that conversation is a commons, and courtesy is one of the ways that participants maintain the commons.
Let’s step back here for some context. More than half a century ago Garrett Hardin turned the certainties of half a dozen social sciences on their heads with a precise and unsparing essay entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In writing that essay he was challenging one of the most deeply rooted prejudices of economics, the claim—made most famously by Adam Smith—that if individuals freely pursue their own self-interest in a free market, the consequences will work out for the benefit of everyone.
Now of course there are problems applying that claim to the real world—starting with the fact that, as Smith himself admitted, free markets are as elusive as hippogriffs—but that’s not the issue that Hardin wanted to tackle. He wanted to show that even on its own terms, Smith’s claim was nonsense, and he did it using the commons as a model. A commons, in the language of economics, is a resource that is used by all members of a community but belongs to none. The classic example, and the one that Hardin used in his essay, is the common pasture of the European Middle Ages: a piece of grassy real estate set aside by a village of peasants to feed the villagers’ cows.
Pasturage is a renewable resource, but only if the number of cows pastured on it is kept below what ecologists call the carrying capacity. Below the carrying capacity, the grass grows as fast as the cows can eat it, and everything’s fine indefinitely. Above the carrying capacity, the cows eat the grass down to the bare roots, the grass dies, the soil erodes, and you don’t have a pasture any more. At least at first glance, then, it seems as though the villagers would all have a vested interest in keeping the number of cows on the commons below the carrying capacity.
Ah, but wait a moment, Hardin said. If the villagers act the way that today’s economists insist they ought to do, they’ll always choose to maximize their own individual advantage in every situation. In the case of a commons, that means adding cows to their personal herds even if that pushes the commons above the carrying capacity. Why? First, all the benefit of having extra cows accrues to the individual peasant who owns them, while the costs of having extra cows is divided among everyone in the village. Second, the benefit of having extra cows accrues in the present, while the cost of having those cows is put off to the future and is therefore subject to a partial discounting in terms of present value.
Furthermore, once one person starts pasturing extra cows on the commons, the maximizing of individual advantatge would require all the others to do the same thing, because otherwise they bear a share of the cost of excess grazing but receive no benefit from it. Thus the commons is doomed so long as it remains subject to purely economic forces, and Adam Smith’s claim that the individual pursuit of self-interest inevitably works out for the benefit of all goes tumbling to the ground like a poleaxed cow.
Though this is rarely mentioned by his critics, Hardin freely admitted that there are ways to help a commons survive these pressures. More recently, Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in economics for exploring exactly how a commons can be protected against the destructive process that Hardin anatomized in his essay. Her writings on the subject are well worth your while if you want to get deep into the theory of the commons, but they can be summed up quite easily in terms that make obvious common sense to most people: you preserve a commons by setting up formal limits on its use, and penalizing and excluding people who try to violate those limits.
Yes, it really is that simple. Let’s start with the common pasture as Hardin portrayed it, and imagine that the peasants in the village have some understanding of carrying capacity—most people who raise livestock do. Being proper Anglo-Saxon peasants, let’s say, they gather under the big oak tree at the center of the village and hold a moot, where the question is mooted about, fortunately without becoming a moot point. They consider the size and quality of the pasture and the appetite of the local breed of cow, and after much discussion agree that every family in the village shall be allowed to pasture no more than two cows on the village pasture. They furthermore agree that this rule shall be enforced by the village reeve, and that if anyone tries to pasture an excess cow in the village commons anyway, on the third such offense their cow shall be forfeit, and everyone in the village except the offending family shall enjoy a barbecue.
Notice how this changes the dynamic. With a formal limit on the use on the commons, and assurance that the limit will be enforced, no one will be saddled with costs in exchange for someone else’s benefit. Furthermore, since the sturdy peasants of the village all like the taste of barbecued beef, they have a robust personal incentive to help enforce the limit. This is why, as Ostrom pointed out, the best way to maintain a commons is to leave it in the hands of the locals, rather than trying to enforce compliance with the dictates of a distant government.
Now let’s take these same concepts and apply them to human communication. That’s also a commons, and one that is susceptible to abuse in exactly the same way that Hardin outlined. What we may as well call the conversational commons is owned by nobody and used by everyone who chooses to engage in communication. People can benefit from it in a vast number of ways, and people can also abuse it in a vast number of ways. “Courtesy” is one common English word for the rules that have been evolved down through the centuries to limit the possibilities for abuse. Like every other set of rules for maintaining a commons, the rules of courtesy have teeth to them: in social interactions governed by courtesy, the penalty for violation is exclusion. The man or woman of Victorian Britain, say, who gave the “cut direct” to cads and bounders—refusing to speak with them or even acknowledge their existence—was helping to enforce the rules that make civil conversation possible.
(Let’s pause here to deal with a common though fatuous objection: “But this can be abused!” Of course it can. So can conversation, as we’ve seen, and so can everything else human. The mere fact that something can be abused doesn’t mean that it has no value when used well.)
Look at the things that courtesy excludes and you can see the boundaries of the commons. The list varies from time to time and place to place, but one of the central principles was expressed memorably by one of the old men who taught me the art of discussion in fraternal lodges: “You criticize the idea, not the person.” That means avoiding ad hominem attacks and requiring discussion to take place within the boundaries of ordinary politeness. It does not mean, however, tolerating people who violate those principles. The essence of a workable commons is that they are open only to those who abide by the rules that maintan them.
Notice that courtesy specifically focuses on the performative dimension of verbal expressions rather than the informative dimension. It’s possible for two or more people to have a perfectly polite discussion about any subject under the sun, or over it for that matter, and it’s equally possible to turn a conversation about any subject you care to name into a brutal slanging match in which communication quickly becomes impossible. (Go to any unmoderated forum on the internet and lurk for a while if you doubt this.) The rules of courtesy thus focus specifically on the conduct of communication rather than the content.
Notice also what happens when you pry apart conduct from content, and impose certain necessary restrictions on the performative aspect of verbal communication. This makes it possible to broaden the range of content and include a much more extensive range of informative communication. That’s necessary, in turn, because millennia of hard experience have shown that restricting the informative aspecct of communication is a really stupid idea.
That’s what freedom of speech and freedom of the press are about: informative freedom, not performative freedom. History shows that the more freely people can choose the content of their verbal expressions, the more society flourishes according to every metric you care to measure. Literature, the arts, the sciences, economic life, political freedom—all these and more are fostered by freedom of content and are shackled and diminished once the informative dimension is censored. Censorship leads to cultural and economic stagnation, and eventually to getting stomped by some other country that isn’t so burdened.
It’s easy to see why this should be so. Any person who insists on censoring someone else’s ideas is by that action admitting that their own ideas will not stand up to reasonable debate. The current assault on free speech by wokester true believers is merely the latest in a long line of attempts to defend indefensible ideologies by silencing dissent. In every one of the cultural phenomena discussed above, reasonable debate is an essential factor—trust me, there’s as much of that in literature, for example, as there is in politics or the sciences; novels are very often arguments in a debate between authors, and it makes for good writing. Let reasonable debate happen and these things thrive. Choke it off and they wither.
But what about those ideas that most people consider Bad? Ahem. You can’t get rid of those by censoring them. That’s been tried, over and over again, and it always fails. What’s more, it quite often guarantees that the censored ideas become the cool new notions of the next fashionable counterculture. Decades of Victorian censorship of sex, for example, simply made the Decadent movement and the Sexual Revolution inevitable. If today’s woke ideologues want to make racism, sexism, and posthumous reverence for Donald Trump the foundation of the hot new avant-garde youth culture of the 2040s and 2050s, in other words, they’re going about it the right way.
That’s why freedom of speech has become widely recognized as an essential human right—but, please note, that freedom applies strictly to the informative dimension. The fact that you have the right to express an unpopular political opinion, if you happen to live in a society that gives you that right, doesn’t give you permission to barge into some stranger’s living room and insist that they listen to you rant. It means that you have the right to express that opinion in whatever performative venues your society provides for that kind of discussion. If you don’t have such a venue, unless you live in a totalitarian state, your society gives you options for creating such a venue and letting other people know about it—that’s how this blog came into being, for example.
Now of course the distinction I’ve drawn between the informative and performative aspects of verbal expressions is not one you’ll see or hear much of in today’s industrial societies. Quite the contrary, we’ve got people who insist that freedom of speech means that they have the right to make people sit and listen while they scream insults at them, and other people who insist that the fact that certain words and ideas can be used performatively in a way they find upsetting means that those words and ideas should be banned from every use irrespective of the performative context. There’s a history behind these absurdities, and a brief glance at that may be useful.
What happened is complex, but it can be outlined easily enough. After the Second World War, first in the United States and then elsewhere, the principles of courtesy were discarded in favor of “authenticity,” defined as expressing whatever you happened to feel or think irrespective of its impact on others. That gave certain advantages in the short term to those who adopted it, of course, and it made life difficult for those who didn’t, and who therefore had to bear their share of the costs of a degraded conversational space without benefiting from the process. In the long term, of course, the result was that a notional space that no one owned but everyone used was degraded nearly to the point of uselesness.
Yes, what I’m saying is that verbal communication in our society has suffered a classic tragedy of the commons.
The useful thing about this way of thinking about what’s happened to speech and communication in recent decades is that it provides a fairly straightforward guide to fixing things. Once you realize that you’re looking at a commons, and that it’s either degraded by abuse or at risk of being degraded, it’s not hard to figure out what to do in response. You just have to figure out how to create and enforce the necessary limits on at least some portion of the commons, and it will then begin to recover. It really is as simple as that—and that’s part of what I’m trying to do with the comments page of this blog.
I have some suggestions for anyone who wants to try the same thing online, or in some other setting where courteous communication can be fostered. The first requirement is a way to throw out people who won’t abide by the house rules. If your commons can’t or won’t enforce its rules, those rules mean nothing. Nor is it the case, pace the notions of a lot of well-meaning people, that if you just treat people nicely they’ll reciprocate. (Tell that to people who’ve tried to placate their domestic abusers.) You need to make the rules clear, and when people violate them—and they will—you need to be able to chuck them out the door.
Second, familiarize yourself with the subtler forms of performative abuse. The famous essay on how to disrupt online forums that’s been splashed over the internet is a good place to start, since there are so many paid influencers and rent-a-trolls on the internet these days, but you should also get to know the standard tricks of flamebaiters, concern trolls, entryists, and so on. Eric Berne’s useful text Games People Play is a good resource here.
Third, get familiar with the rhetoric that’s used to defend degradation of the conversational commons, and decide in advance how to respond to it. Moderating for conduct rather than content, for example, is denounced as “tone policing” by the woke these days. If somebody uses that phrase, you can be sure in advance that they’ll start bullying people the moment they think they can get away with it, so once you see the phrase you can be ready for abusive behavior from the one who used it. Learn the other standard catchphrases and thoughtstoppers, and you’ll have an easier time forestalling abusive behavior.
Fourth, enforce the rules fairly on all sides. Sometimes that takes gritted teeth. Do it anyway. That means permitting people to express viewpoints you detest, so long as they follow the rules of your forum; and it means deleting posts from people whose viewpoints you agree with, if they break the rules for conduct. I do both of those at least once every week.
Fifth, be willing to make mistakes. You’re no more perfect than your commenters. Don’t let that bother you. No one’s life will be blighted forever because you deleted a tirade they tried to post on your blog, or because you put through something that some busybody among your readers thinks you should have deleted. Relax, have fun, and know that for every denunciation you field, you can expect several dozen to thank-you notes from people who are delighted to have the chance to converse with others in a space where courtesy is the rule, unfashionable content is welcome, and the abusive conduct so common elsewhere online is stomped.