A Denunciation of Denunciation

I’m going to keep this short, because it is a very simple idea.  This one falls into the category of “things you should not need anyone to tell you.”

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You should not “denounce” anyone, ever.  You should not “repudiate” anyone, ever.  That is a hard rule.  It applies to your hated political rivals.  It applies to the American Association of Puppy-Kickers and Baby-Stabbers.  It applies to the Nazis.

You definitely should not demand that someone else “denounce” or “repudiate” anyone.  If you do so, you are doing something terrible and you should feel terrible about it.

If you see a person demanding a denunciation/repudiation…

…or, worse yet, getting mad at someone for not spontaneously providing a denunciation/repudiation…

…or, worst of all, insinuating that a failure to denounce/repudiate carries important implications about someone’s thoughts, beliefs, or likely future courses of action…

…you should stop trusting that person.

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Denunciation is a practice that combines, and weaponizes, many of the most terrible failure modes of human moral reasoning.  That goes triple for trying to elicit a denunciation from someone else.

Affect heuristic thinking?  Check.  “Based on a single statement or event, we want you to decide whether someone is Generally Bad-and-Wrong, and should be henceforth associated with all other Bad-and-Wrong Stuff on every axis.”

Ritual purity thinking?  Check.  “You are close enough to this other person/group that you have been tainted by its foulness, and now the taint will creep forth to cover you in foulness too!  The only solution is to cast rhetorical spells, to issue statements that don’t actually say anything but that emphasize your separation from the uncleanness.”

Dominance power / might-makes-right?  Super check.  For the denouncer himself: “I am in a position of privilege and importance, so I can un-associate myself with this Bad Thing by pushing the association onto a despised inferior who will be the public scapegoat.”  For the person demanding a denunciation:  “Here’s a question.  There are only two answers, yes and no: any attempt at anything else (including nuance or clarification) will just look like weaseling and be worse than either.  If you say no and refuse to denounce, we will use affect heuristic thinking and ritual purity thinking to make everyone hate you.  If you say yes and denounce, the people you’re denouncing will hate you.  We can make you do this, because we’re big and strong and lots of people support our ability to make arbitrary rhetorical demands.”  Christ, this is the same sort of trick that fourth-grade bullies love to use.

And, of course, the denunciation dynamic ensures that disagreements will be maximally irreconcilable and maximally harmful on a personal level.  If you’re unlucky enough to be the black sheep of the moment — if everyone has to take a big public stand against you, or else be tainted with your impure status — then you’re going to be cut off from everyone very quickly, rendering your entire life terrible, and it becomes impossible for you to start making steps towards compromise.

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In its pure form, this is a claim about people.  Also maybe about groups of people.  But not about ideas.  If there is a contentious proposition at issue, it’s obviously legit to ask “do you agree with the proposition or not?”

But even there, you want to avoid setting things up such that anything other than a straight “yes” or “no” looks like weaseling.  Not letting people express complex layered thoughts is a good way to have a stupid and simplistic discourse.

And you really want to avoid asking people to agree-or-disagree with content-free non-propositions that are solely designed to trigger affect heuristic thinking.  “Is John McCain really a war hero?”  Why on earth would you ever ask that?  McCain’s war-relevant actions are all matters of public record, and sitting around opining on the meaning of “war hero” is a semantic game unworthy of college freshmen.  The whole thing devolves to “do you want to add to John McCain’s Bad-and-Wrong-ness or to his Good-and-Right-ness?,” which in turn is just a cue for McCain-supporters and McCain-haters to transfer some of that affect heuristic to you.  This is the opposite of reasoned debate.

If you see those things going on, you should be wary, in much the same way that you should be wary of denunciations.

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At some point, if you want the discourse to improve — if you want the world of ideas, and the political world, to be less full of gross stupidities and injustices — you’re going to have to put down weapons that could conceivably be used to further your own aims.  Because there are a lot of weapons available, and a lot of them run on stupidity and injustice.

Ritualized performative hate is pretty much the worst of those weapons.  I’m willing to say that we should maybe try dropping it first.

It is bad.  Baaaaad.  Baaaa-aaaaa-aaaaa…

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A Denunciation of Denunciation

10 thoughts on “A Denunciation of Denunciation

  1. Idomeneus says:

    So, there’s a lot going on in this post which appears to be simple at first glance. Obviously I agree very strongly with the overall position you are taking. But some questions.

    1. Does this apply to just people, or to denouncing actions? Denouncing people (and demanding they be denounced) is clearly much worse than denouncing actions, because people are complex and their moral worth comes down to more than their position on the controversial topic du jour, and because people experience pain when denounced (and because frankly, most of the time someone is denouncing another person over what they said, that person would say they didn’t even mean the interpretation that the powers that be read it as). But, you sound passionate enough that I suspect you think denouncing actions (and demanding they be denounced) would also disgust you. Can you defend that position? Is saying “I’m sure Aurelia is a good person in many respects, but it was wrong of her to kill Oresne no matter what the circumstances” wrong? Is demanding or asking other people to say that wrong? And if I misread you, what’s the relevant difference?

    2. The joke in your title. It’s a serious moral matter, much like “hey guys let’s bully the bullies”. Do you use dark magic to criticize and eradicate other uses of the dark magic? If so, what makes you better? If not, how *should* one deal when they see a denouncer and want them to stop?

    At the very least, depending on how you answer those questions, people can disagree, while still sharing disgust at 90% of examples of the dynamic you are talking about.

    (In the more abstract sense, I don’t think we should drop bad weapons because it will lead to better long term outcomes. I believe we should drop bad weapons because they do not reliably lead to better outcomes AND because they are bad in of themselves. You give nod to the pain this particular weapon causes, but I think that’s the primary reason it’s bad.)

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    1. 1.

      I think this is one of those distinctions that’s more relevant in theory than in practice. The key take-away is “the impulse to make people denounce, to ‘distance themselves’ from the Bad Thing, is an unworthy impulse that should be checked.” The denounce-the-person vs. denounce-the-action distinction is a nicety, the sort of thing that won’t ever come up with Right-Minded People…and if it *is* coming up, you’ve probably already lost, because in the arenas of rhetoric those fine lines are going to get real blurry real fast.

      That said, yeah, at least in theory it’s pretty different. Saying “Person X is bad” (because of Action Y) necessarily elides a gigantic storehouse of facts about Person X; saying “Action Y is bad” doesn’t. And, as you say, there are good reasons to be mindful about taking care of the sinner even if we hate the sin.

      But there is another side to this (on the theoretical level) — the affect heuristic is bad mojo regardless of where it comes in. Was Action Y really *bad*, as such? Well, it had Consequences H and J and K, and each of those needs to be judged independently…and it implies that the person committing it had Vice M but also probably Virtue N, so we need to evaluate those things on our virtue-ethical scales…and it quickly becomes hard and complicated, like everything does. “Snap judgment on this thing: good or bad?” is something we should not encourage. It is a bad way to think. It is not a good way to think. (Har har har.)

      2.

      Yeah, I recognize the irony. You sort of have to when you’re citing the Two Minutes’ Hate in your invocation against ritual hatred.

      Short version: this is a place where, joke aside, disagree-versus-denounce really does become important. Someone who calls for a denunciation is not necessarily a Bad Person, and the proper response to his bad behavior is not to shame him and declare him impure. (Or to use any other form of black magic.) We should simply recognize the bad construction for what it is, and not let ourselves get ensnared by it, and encourage others not to get ensnared by it either.

      The phrase “…you should stop trusting that person” was originally something much stronger and more moral. I changed it because, well, “not trusting that person” is exactly the right response; people who let their morality rest on bad reasoning shouldn’t be trusted to provide good reasoning. Anything more righteous would be, uh, improper.

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  2. John Doe says:

    Retribution and desert are stupid. But until your society gets pretty advanced any functional deterrence+incapacitation scheme ends up looking a lot like retribution. So there is a limited amount of crap that one can give people for engaging in retributive reasoning, because it’s not like it’s completely pointless — it’s this heuristic that used to be pretty good and is now sort of bad, and it’s not like we’re going to just ignore murderers and let them roam the streets, but we need to take the idea of retribution and translate it into the language of a better heuristic, which is of course independent of whether any particular person should be deterred/incapacitated.

    So while the language of denouncement and repudiation are bad, any request of that type probably contains some request for norm-enforcement that is not absurd on face. In particular, I don’t think there is anything wrong with people wanting to be in groups where group norm-enforcement inevitably intrudes on individual moral agency, just as I don’t think there is anything wrong with people not wanting to be in such groups.

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    1. Assuming that I’m correctly parsing your claim here —

      — and I’m not sure that I am, so feel free to correct or clarify if I’m not addressing your actual point —

      — there are some serious problems with this framing.

      The big one is that talking about “people wanting to be in groups” elides 90+% of the actual problem. Denunciation is not, mostly, an internal problem of social subgroups. Denunciation is a media tactic. It is employed, and demanded, in the most public forums; it is a rhetorical weapon employed in battles between groups, and in the sorts of common discourse that (theoretically) transcend any group smaller than an entire media market. I suppose that people get to go join communities that use vicious Stalinist methods of norm-enforcement, if they really like, but it’s a serious problem if they try to inject that into public-sphere conversations where the outcomes matter on a scale bigger than “escapable local preference.” I don’t really care how you run your Parrot Fanciers Club meetings, I guess, but I do in fact care how we handle campaigns for supreme elected office in our nation.

      But beyond that…on the deep moral-prescription level, the level where I do care what you get up to in your Parrot Fanciers Club meetings, just because you’re a sentient intelligence and I want your existence to be better and worthier…it’s important to remember that demanding denunciation is a bad norm-enforcement tool. Not in the sense of being ineffective, but in the sense of having horrific side effects. “Intruding on individual moral agency” is a big honking deal, and I’m not inclined to dismiss it, but that’s far from everything; it also, for example, serves to ensure that arguments and dominance-fights tend to be won by the people with the fewest scruples about hurting their fellow community members. Also it makes it very hard to use nuance or complicated logic in dealing with challenges to group norms, because denunciation is such a blunt yes-or-no weapon.

      I suppose, if you’re positing intentional communities with a strong principled commitment to the use of denunciation as a social tool, I react to them the same way I react to the American Association of Crystal Meth Enthusiasts. “It’s your life and you can do whatever you want with it, but I have no qualms about saying that the thing you’re doing is really stupid, and you’d damn well better keep your poison away from innocents who might get hurt by it.”

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      1. Clandn says:

        “I want your existence to be better and worthier”

        I just realized I can’t read such a statement from anyone without assuming hypocricy and ulterior motive.

        I don’t think there’s even one person on this planet who actually cares about making other people’s existence better and worthier, rather than being seen as caring, or worse, using it as an excuse to meddle in matters that don’t concern them. Where would this motivation come from, anyway?

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      2. Clandn —

        (I’m not sure why it’s not letting me respond directly to your comment.)

        These things are not incompatible with each other; there’s no dichotomy. I’d imagine that pretty much everyone has some amount of the thing that “cares about making other people’s existence better and worthier” — you might call it “sympathy” or “empathy” or some combination thereof, or even “aesthetic sense” if you’re colder-hearted. It’s the part of you that looks at drug addicts and elderly dementia victims, or other people with really screwed-up lives, and winces in mirrored pain. It’s the part of you that doesn’t like watching cute baby animals get caught in threshing machines. Plus some abstract moral reasoning built on top of that.

        Where would it come from? Something something mirror neurons something something instincts that evolved to help us cooperate and live in tribes. It’s the sort of thing developmental psychologists and anthropologists love to talk about.

        But I don’t even think you need an explanation in order to acknowledge your own feelings, or the feelings of the people around you. It’s not hard, or virtuous, to want the lives of others to be better and worthier. That’s pretty much what “not being a sociopath” is.

        …which is not to say that this motivation is necessarily pure, or even appropriate, in any given instance. As you suggest, it gets easily intermingled with moralistic status posturing, and it certainly drives people to meddle in things that they shouldn’t. If you value freedom, there are all sorts of ways in which it’s important to let people hurt themselves. But that doesn’t mean you can’t wish they wouldn’t. Total apathy regarding the choices of others is not an easy outlook to cultivate, nor (I think) a very helpful one.

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  3. Idomeneus says:

    This seems pretty close to another obvious thing that shouldn’t need to be said about norm enforcement: never do something to “send a message”. If you want to send a message about something, then _say it in words_, which can acknowledge the complexity, specificity, and ambiguity any thoughtful message should have. Whereas if you’re expecting your action will be read as a statement, people can easily read different messages from your action than what you intended (and of course, have the costs and consequences that any significant action has.)

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  4. Idomeneus says:

    Okay, sorry for the belated thought. But I can’t resist saying “the situation is more complicated than that.” (possibly elaborating on John Doe here.)

    So, let’s say your group of collaborators is sitting around arguing a subject in reasoned debate, and Alice makes a good point, to which Bob responds “Yeah but you’re just a dog-faced hick” and ignores her. Now, how does the group respond to this? You can say “everyone silently makes their own judgment of Bob and continues on” but… that’s extremely flaccid. Norms mean nothing if that’s basically your only level of consequence. And the psychic toll to Alice here is (to me at least) pretty serious. Alice will probably depart, and the group will come to be made only of people Bob does not slur. Or the non-Bob members of the group could leave and resume conversation without Bob. That may be reasonable, but acting without even saying something seems less reasoned than saying something first. So by and large, we expect someone to “call out” Bob’s inappropriate behavior, and I think this is for the good. If this becomes a round of denunciation where *every* member of the circle is called upon to denounce Bob, then yes that has all the dynamics you criticize… but no one at all saying something also seems pretty wrong. Or do you think no one has any obligation to comment on the action?

    I think we can see the same dynamic on the public square. If no one at all is criticizing a major action with controversial factors, then this usually is a sign of an unhealthy cultural atmosphere. In fact, one could probably make a reasonably morally serious life finding only viewpoints that have zero expression, and giving voice to them.

    There’s diminishing utility to the second person who voices this, and once it’s a viewpoint with significant following, pressuring other people to voice their denunciation is just social-manipulation as you say, with little healthy effect on the discourse. But there’s still a line there somewhere. And that’s a complicated question.

    The other question is “okay, let’s say there is a moral obligation that *someone* says something, sure… but who is obligated then?” Is it a diffuse moral weight that weighs heavily on no one? Is it a pressure to YOU as the moral subject, independent of everyone else? For once we go from “generalized obligation of someone to do something” to a specific person’s obligation, it enters the various problems raised in your post (“ensure that arguments and dominance-fights tend to be won by the people with the fewest scruples about hurting their fellow community members”), which we’d rather avoid.

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