Monday, September 18, 2017

Bubbles 10 - Both Sides

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Imagine you have a friend. Let’s call him Rick Reasonable.

Now imagine you have an enemy. Let’s call your enemy Bart B. Oilingwater.

Bart is a real piece of crap. Whenever he sees you, he throws boiling water at you. Usually you dodge it, but every once in a while, he catches you with a bit. You have some bad scarring on one arm, and a few places on your face and neck. And you have to constantly be on the lookout for Bart, because if you let your guard down, it’s scalding water time!

Rick is a good friend. He thinks it is really bad that Bart throws boiling water on you. He tells you this all the time. He’s written some letters to the newspaper about how bad Bart is for throwing boiling water on you. Sometimes he’ll even go out with you to watch your back. He’s got a popular TV show, and he’s gone on the record a few times that Bart is in the wrong for always trying to hit you in the face with boiling water.

Then one day you turn on the TV at the end of the day, and you see Rick has Bart on as a guest. Rick is arguing with Bart about whether or not it is good to douse you with boiling water at every available opportunity. Rick is … parsing things a little more than you’d like.

He wants to know if the water has to be boiling, if it can’t just be very hot. Bart says, no, no, it really does have to be boiling. But does it have to be water, Rick asks. Could it be something a bit easier to dodge, like molasses or tar? Bart thinks about this, and decides he isn’t sure. He’ll have to get back to Rick on that one—but really, he prefers water.

Rick wants to know if there can’t be days Bart could promise to not throw boiling water at you. Bart doesn’t really want to set that sort of precedent.

Rick would like to know why it needs to be you every time. Bart is shocked that Rick would suggest such a thing. He insists he doesn’t have a throwing-boiling-water-on-you-specifically bone in his body. He just believes in throwing boiling water, and you happen to be the one that’s there every time. He’d like to know why, if you apparently hate being struck with boiling water, you insist on being in areas where you know he will be throwing it. He suggests that Rick is really the one singling him, Bart, out, by being so intolerant of his rich cultural heritage of throwing boiling water on people. He hints that Rick’s constant scolding makes Bart want to seek you out specifically now, to throw boiling water on you, for daring to suppose such a thing of him.

Rick appears to have conceded that Bart absolutely does have a right to walk the streets carrying as much boiling water as he wants, in the long-standing tradition of our country. Bart appreciates Rick’s stance on the matter, and compliments him on his willingness to find common ground.

At the end of the segment, he and Bart agree to disagree on whether or not it is good to attempt to douse you with boiling water every day. Bart still thinks it is very good—though he insists it is not directed at you, but only at spaces that you happen to inhabit. He wonders, again, why you choose to inhabit those spaces. Rick continues to insist that throwing at the space that you inhabit is tantamount to throwing it at you, and that it is quite rude indeed. They shake hands. Then there is a commercial for Pepsi.

The next day, you confront Rick about this and he shrugs. “Man, I hate that bastard Bart,” he says, “but you have to hear both sides.”

You ask: “Can you watch my back today at least?”

Oooh, Rick says, he’d love to, but he’s busy.

How are we feeling about Rick?

Imagine it — the idea of watching your friend have a conversation—one about whether or not you should be allowed to be harmed or maimed or even killed—with the person who is actively trying to do it. Imagine it; the idea that your friend would be more concerned with appearing open-minded in public, than in defending your actual skin from scalding off your actual flesh.

Somewhere an idea took hold that one of the keys to being an open-minded person was engagement with every idea and giving each notion equal consideration. At some point we decided it was of primary importance to remember that every issue had two sides. At some point we decided that the recipe for fostering a civil society was this: to take both sides, and present them as equally valuable and equally worthy, for all to decide which should rise and which should fall. We teach the controversy, and let the conclusions fall where they will.

A marketplace of ideas, we call it. The underlying assumption to the metaphor being, I think, that a market never fails to select quality. Certainly, supposing we live in a society that believes profit is a foundational good, it would make a lot of sense we'd hold such an idea. And a marketplace for ideas might actually work, I think—provided all ideas were presented in good faith, each debater is interested in letting the best ideas rise, provided the customers are knowledgeable and unwilling to buy junk simply because it is convenient, or comfortable, or has a familiar brand, or just tastes right.

But this rarely happens.

Marketplaces are good, when prioritized correctly. Hear me: they are good. They provide significant value to people, and make up part an important foundation to most free societies. But they aren’t the most important thing—justice is. And, without proper metrics and safeguards, a market is always ready for the fleecing by those ruthless enough to fix it to their advantage, or to use it to perform atrocity.

Remember, there was a time in this country, not so very long ago, when you could buy a slave in a marketplace.

More recently, there was a time when those at the controls of our marketplace made a wager that they had grown powerful enough to rob the rest of us blind without consequence; that, once caught out, our system was too committed to profit as a first priority to allow them to have to pay for their crime.

They won that bet.

Remember, we have been captured by a spirit that has convinced us of terrible foundational lies. Our society believes that profit is the highest moral value. It believes that people must earn life. It believes we don't belong to each other. These assumptions inform all other aspects of our daily life, including our markets.

And with the marketplace of ideas.

It is going to become necessary, therefore, if we are serious about justice, to discern a person’s intentions before determining whether it is appropriate to engage with them in this marketplace of ideas—even before determining if the marketplace itself is appropriate.

Some people’s ideas are genocide and slavery. They don’t want to win a debate, they just want to be listed on the exchange. They don’t have ideas, as such. They have intentions. The idea is a seat at the table. They have an instrumental view of debate, not a philosophical one. You can tell this, because they will effortlessly change from one statement to a contradictory one, if it is useful in the moment to take a contradictory position in order to further that intention.

Lies are no longer lies. Facts are no longer facts. Lies and facts are just tools toward a desired intention.

You might even start to hear about alternate facts.

You might even start to hear that there are no facts any more.

Well, great. So if they’re all liars, we should be able to beat them easily, right? Why are we afraid to engage their ideas, if our ideas are better?

That seems like a perfectly reasonable question. The problem is, it’s entirely the wrong question. It’s a category error, because while you are debating, your opponent is merely using debate. The fact that you are engaging means he’s already succeeded.

Once you are willing to debate whether one group of people or another should be abused, then abusing and expelling people from society is something that is up for debate. It's on the table. It's listed on the exchange.

If we are debating whether there ought to be laws preventing trans people from bathrooms, then we’re already debating the wrong thing, and as a result, we have lost.

If we are debating whether there should be a Muslim ban, or whether or not health care should be kept from the poor, or whether gay people should be banned from marriage, or black people killed by cops, or if women should be paid the same or not, or if Native Americans and descendents of slaves deserve reparation for systemic and ongoing theft, or if hungry people should have food, or if thirsty people should have water, or if disabled people should have access to buildings, we have already lost.

Those things don’t go on the table. Because once they are on they are on the table, they have entered the realm of the things we consider. Then they enter the realm of the possible.

Debate them? OK, why not? They’re lying. They're wrong. You’ll win. Easy. Now debate again.

Again. Again.




Again. The idea of the lie is entering the public consciousness.

Again. The idea of lying is entering the public consciousness. The idea is taking hold, that debate is a thing where people argue by lying. They’re lying, you’re lying, but it’s all lies anyway, right? Both sides.

Again. The lies are getting thicker, but more hidden by their ubiquity. Again. The lies are getting better, more convincing. Again. They’re being focus-tested in the marketplace of ideas. Again. There are bumper stickers and signs. Debate again. You have to win every time, but why are you afraid to engage an idea? You’re in the marketplace. The best ideas always rise to the top. Right?

Again. There are protests in favor of direct and shocking action, premised upon the lie. Again. There are hats, red hats, a sea of them. Again. Again. Here are refugees stranded. Again. Here are raids tearing families apart. Again. Here is a mosque defaced. Again. A man in a turban attacked. Again. An elderly woman being run down by storm troopers in the streets. Again. More raids. Again.

Unthinkable. Except it isn’t. We’ve been thinking about the unthinkable, like very open-minded and reasonable people, for years.

Read 'em all.
Lies have been given the same weight and consideration as the truth. They have been for years. The marketplace is unbiased, it doesn’t judge, it doesn’t distinguish.

And really, don’t both sides just tell their perspective?

Both sides spin. Both sides debate.

Both sides. Those who want to exterminate masses of people, and those that don’t. Both argue and bicker. They’re just the same. Right?

We’ll report. You decide.

The implicit idea is this: whatever decision you make is a good one. After all, in a marketplace, the customer is always right. If enough of you exist who want to believe something untrue and unjust, then a supply will arise to fill the demand.

The ‘marketplace of ideas,’ unregulated, does not elevate the best ideas to the top. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

And all that suffering occurs, not only because there are those who intend that suffering, but because others, not wanting to seem irrational or close-minded, allow the debate in the first place, and thereby elevate it into the realm of the possible.

Oh look, he's funny now.
Let's state the obvious: People who intend to deliberately harm others lie to do so. They do so instrumentally, because lies are a useful tool. They debate instrumentally, for the same reason. They equivocate their lies as equal to the truth for the same reason.

Saying ‘both sides are the same,’ when one side is a lie and the other the truth, always promotes the lie and degrades the truth. Thus, attempts to create contexts in which both sides are essentially just opposite views of entirely equal value should always be understood as attempts to disguise a lie.

Put it another way: A ‘both sides are the same’ argument is never a neutral position. It is a false front disguising itself as a neutral position, and is intended, either with conscious intentionality or unconscious desire for comfortable ignorance, to elevate a lie.

Putting a lie in a headline without calling it a lie elevates the lie to the level of truth. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is completely improper for those of us who will not be harmed by the lie to entertain it in the name of open-mindedness.

Putting a liar on the TV with someone who is not lying elevates lies to the level of truth. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is completely improper for those of us who are not one of those the liar intends to harm to provide him with a platform in the name of open-mindedness.

Putting a charlatan on a stage with an expert elevates the charlatan to the level of the expert. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is our duty, if we think humans deserve to be educated with truth and not lies.

Interviewing a conspiracy theorist on a forum intended for facts elevates chicanery to the level of fact. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is our duty, if we care for the dignity and worth of those harmed by the lie.

Profiling a prominent white supremacist as if he were a sexy new pundit elevates him to that position. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is our duty, if we oppose genocide and slavery.

People do not have a right to a platform for their ideas. People do not have the right to a debate. However, people do have a right to not have to hear that their worth as human beings, their very existence in society, is something that is up for debate.

Do you see the difference?  Do you see how degrading it is for the person who is the subject of the debate to watch this debate? Do you see how much time that person now must waste in their lives, how much energy they need to squander, how much of their mental space they must now furnish their own oppressor, simply to prove, day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day, that they deserve to live equal lives, that they deserve to live at all?

Do you see how, by allowing the debate, which does not affect you, you are forcing them to have the debate, which for them is literally life and death?

Let us not suppose we are safe if we are not the target of the immediate lie. Any lie is a scorpion; it will invariably bite anyone it can. If we allow a lie to live, if we entertain it in the public sphere as one of two sides, the consequence will invariably affect us all.

But how to regulate a marketplace of ideas?

At this point you must be concerned that I’m advocating curbing free speech in some way.

I am not advocating that at all.

I am advocating that we use our own free speech to protest any of these horribly mistaken uses of free speech, wherever we see it, as a matter of civic duty—as a matter of justice, as a matter of love. We must recognize atrocious ideas that are gravid with vile intent, which are violence itself, and we must pitch our voices loud enough to make such ideas toxic upon the marketplace. We must drown out those lying and ignorant voices with our own. We must protest to those who own stages and microphones and cameras and printing presses, that these lies, while protected from legal consequence, will not be tolerated, and will be met with consequence should they be given platform. We must walk out of venues where they are celebrated. This is entirely appropriate and right. Human beings, after all, have the right to not hear their right to exist debated. Rather, they have the right to hear any suggestion they should not exist drowned out by a deafening chorus of boos and jeers.

And anybody who says that those boos and jeers are in some way harming free speech, or in some way degrading the debate, can go pound sand. Those boos and jeers are free speech. They are the only response a pack of toxic lies deserves, the only debate they should ever receive. We don't debate whether people are allowed to live as themselves. That doesn't go on the table.

There was a time when we could largely trust our journalistic channels to regulate the marketplace. Perhaps they would reflect the bad assumptions of the day, but they wouldn’t knowingly allow or promote an untruth, knowing that such a breach in integrity would ruin the reputation that was their very foundation. That time is gone. Our privately-held media has discovered a market for untruth, and, afraid to upset the profits that result from servicing this market (and profits are our foundational measure of morality), has become quite timid about reporting lies as such.

There was a time when we could trust politicians to regulate the marketplace, to a certain extent. Perhaps they would spin and dodge, but they wouldn’t tell a provable lie, because they would be immediately exposed and disgraced and driven from their power. That time is gone. Our politicians have drawn very specific boundaries for very specific voters, and have selected with a connoisseur’s precision the exact voters they know will accept any lie without question, provided the candidate establishes and demonstrates all the recognizable tribal shibboleths.

So, it's up to us. Let's get it done.

We must refuse, personally, each of us, to engage with arguments made in bad faith. We must recognize them where we see them, and decline them, as firmly as possible, and as politely as we feel the situation warrants.

How do we recognize them?  By remembering that we are framed upon justice.

Look for the argument that fails to recognize that every human being is a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying unsurpassable worth. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

Look for the argument that says we do not all belong to each other. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

Look for the argument that says that life is something you earn. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

Look for the argument that says that violence redeems. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

Look for the argument that says that humans must be profitable. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

And then remind them: Every human being is a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying unsurpassable worth. Let them argue against that, and in so doing let them reveal the un-artfulness of their positions. They'll try to dodge, and distract, and change the subject, but you know the subject is justice. Don't forget it. Stay in it. Hedge them into it. They won't want to go there. If they join you there, so much the better. If they won't, abandon it and them. People will notice the geography they refuse to vacate, merely by the contrast you provide, and you will have saved valuable time and energy.

A debate must be in good faith. Sometimes it is inappropriate to have a debate against someone who's intentions are not in good faith. Sometimes you have to change the locks. Sometimes it becomes necessary to simply say, “What you believe is that some people have less worth than other people, and I think that is an indecent position to take. As a result, there are no details you can present within that framework that interest me in the slightest, and I don’t see any point in any debate about those details.”

Will you convince them? It’s important to be open to the possibility, even if it seems unlikely. If they are convincible, the conversation can continue along much different lines. You will be listened to, you will listen. Ultimately, however, convincing them isn’t the point. The point was to decline a debate within an inappropriate framework. And it is likely they were never there to be convinced in the first place. They were there to put something grotesque on the table, so that your consideration of it might shine it up for them. They were there to waste your time, or to use your moral authority to force someone else to waste their time defending themselves. They were there to use you as leverage to cause harm and degradation to another.

And, there's this … you might convince and encourage others, who are paying attention without your noticing, to rise, to speak, to act. You might galvanize others, fatigued from the endless struggle of fighting for themselves, who thought there were none willing any more to fight for them.

There are those who believe that life is something you earn, that people must be profitable to hold worth, that violence redeems, that we do not belong to each other. There are those who believe that humans are trash, not art. These propositions are completely non-negotiable to such people. They’ve taken extraordinary power in recent days by being willing to fight, with all the energy they have, in service of them.

The opposite must—must—be non-negotiable to you, if you are serious about justice. You must be willing to fight for your framework. You must insist on it. You must not budge. Insist on your frame. Insist on it!

There are two sides to every issue? Yes. Right and Wrong are two sides. So are True and False.

I think it’s appropriate to point that out, as politely as it is within your power to do. (But remember, politeness is not  your frame—justice is.)

Is there no room, then, to convince and persuade? Is this all there is—just a big tug-of-war over the frame of the debate? I hope not. As I said much earlier, I don’t think debate is the vehicle for persuasion. I think persuasion is a matter of spirit. I think changing a nation’s spirit will require something like a miracle.

Or, perhaps, a story.

I think there are new stories we can tell to those with whom we disagree, to hopefully kindle a new spirit.

We can tell a new story, about who 'we' are.

We can tell them a new story, about who 'they' are.

And we can tell them a new story, about those who 'they' propose to harm.

We can reject, again and again, with all our soul and all our mind and all our strength, any status quo that falls short of that new story's purpose.

Remember, we're fighting the lie 'they' have believed. We're not fighting them. We're trying to change the orientation, the compass, the framework, the spirit. It’s not likely that we can merely change our destination to a justice-framed society through rules and laws until we change our spirit.

We need a new story.

As you probably expected, it’s now time to talk about Pulp Fiction.


  1. Julius Goat, your writing is an inspiration and has given me new energy. I am sharing as widely as possible. The "miracle" I hope for is that a multitude of people will absorb this philosophy (the whole series) and begin the hard work of making it the new framework for this experiment we call the United States of America. Serious people, elected people who can begin to work on legislation to at long last enshrine JUSTICE into law. Thank you so much for this series.

  2. So thought provoking and inspiring! This may have been written last year but it is still highly relevant!

  3. Startlingly relevant still. Excellent piece.

  4. tl;dr but the analogy at the beginning is juvenile. Most political ideas are not so cut-and-dry. Also, Rick is to blame not for having Bart on the show, but for being unprincipled in his stand against throwing boiling water. Would it not be better for Rick to have Bart on his show, and undermine Bart's position than to have Bart's ideas go unchecked, growing underground?

    The free-exchange of ideas is the cornerstone of a liberal democracy, and this article seems to suggest open dialogue is too risky. Debating someone is not "giving them a platform." Thanks to the internet, everyone already has one. Better to make them look like a fool and discredit them as was done to Ben Shapiro recently.


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