Distilling thoughts on tolerance and epistemic censorship

This post was triggered by my reading the article Tolerance is not a moral precept several weeks ago. It is an unusually clear articulation of why “tolerating intolerance” is not feasible and requests or demands that anyone do so are false trump cards of a sort. You’ll see that recent equivocation between Fascists and Antifa, accusations of feminists or “SJWs” censoring Skeptics/Rationalists and Manospherians and Google employees obviously also feed into my thinking here. In a way the ideas I’m going to express have been culled from a lot of other places (too many to source even if I could remember them all) so I don’t pretend any of this will be original. Writing it out and actively put the pieces together is something I’m doing mostly for myself despite my choice to do it in a way that’s technically public.

In the linked article “tolerance” as a social/ethical policy is described as a peace treaty, which implies that those abiding by it are under no obligation to suffer those who choose not to; I think that this is entirely correct, or at least metaphorically apt. But my tendency is to take that comparison further and apply it not only to tolerance for other people’s actions (as long as they are discrete in their impact) and their ways of life, whether we would do or live the same ourselves or not, but to tolerance or basic acceptance of the potential validity of their viewpoints. I say “potential validity” because I’m not referring to the viewpoints themselves, which could potentially be intolerable (if they violate that peace treaty) or invalid (if they just aren’t justified or true), I’m referring to the possibility that they are true or meaningful and that their purveyor has as much access to reality and ability to interpret it as we do.

On a case by case basis that clearly might or might not be true, some people do seem to have better overall grasps on reality than others. And where group membership hinges on one’s performance in general or in a specialty area the rules change as well. But standardizing an assumption of parity of epistemic competence at the level of innate groups (groups we can’t help but be included in, performance aside) is much of what informs modern (progressive?) society’s wariness of discussing differences in cognitive abilities between said groups in language that is too careless or in contexts that aren’t carefully selected for that purpose.

At the scientific level I think very few people would say that conducting studies looking at the cause and effects of belonging to x,y,z category of human is something that shouldn’t be done as a natural byproduct or facet of our overall “search for truth”. And in fact anyone claiming that such science is being significantly censored has a lot to explain to back themselves up, since a cursory search on Google Scholar will find you fairly recent research on everything from what smells men like that women don’t to race and IQ. Researchers who want to research these things aren’t not getting published and then talked about (in some cases more than they probably should have been given the methodological limitations of their studies).

But there is a push to be careful when and how we use the material that’s there outside of a specifically scientific context. The push goes a bit beyond worries about poorly designed studies, sample sizes too limited to draw population level conclusions from, bad science writing and cherry picking — all of which are valid worries, since all of these things are demonstrable problems.

It exists because most people know that it’s naive to think that calling into question the relative abilities of a group (with studies to back you up or not) will have no impact on how people participating in the discussion weight the input, within the discussion, of members of that group. They also know that other people know this, and know that attempts at bringing scientific findings about a particular group into discussions is sometimes done specifically as a subtle and plausibly deniable means of undermining the claim members of that group have to epistemic equality. In other cases it’s accidental or incidental, but the result is the same: the very people being discussed, whose opinions should be valued uniquely (though not exclusively) as the most proximal to the issue, are placed on slippery footing in relation to other participants because the nature of the discussion calls into question their very ability to meaningfully contribute to discussions. The somewhat clinical language people like to use when discussing things “scientifically,” while purposeful in its usual placement, can further contribute to group members’ effective exclusion or soft viewpoint “censorship” (I don’t use the word literally here) by overemphasizing in group/out group distinctions and dehumanizing them, especially if they are not in the majority.

So in much the same way that those promoting intolerance create a situation where tolerating them is impossible by breaching a code of conduct that absolutely requires mutuality, people who make assertions about a group’s cognitive abilities without sufficient sensitivity for time, place and approach in the name of “discussion” create a situation where real discussion is difficult, since the ability of some (arguably important) would-be participants to participate on the same terms as other participants has in fact been hampered. Blowback from those people should be expected and in many cases has a healthy role in re-establishing a level playing field and re-enabling exchange, even if some people experience it as being “censored” (still not using the word literally), just as being intolerant of intolerance is key to enabling tolerance. When blowback doesn’t occur it’s frequently because those people who would offer it have just given up and opted not to participate, which I suppose is a win for people looking to establish exclusive spaces, but to me just signifies the loss of a perspective that sure, I might not have valued had it been given — but that I wasn’t able to vet myself because I wasn’t ever able to hear it.

N.B., I am aware that determining what constitutes sufficient sensitivity can be hard, but not everything has to be easy anyway. In my experience it depends on the exact makeup of the cluster of people you’re reaching with your words. The wider you’re casting your net / the more unfamiliar with the audience you are the more careful you need to be, mainly because you won’t be as easily able to predict how people who don’t belong to [group of people your discussion has implications about] will respond to the information. (Will they be able and willing to look at it in a properly objective light or will it feed their prejudices and undermine the participation of [people within the group]?)