What is a boycott?
What is censorship?
What does a completely free market (FM) look like?
What does a completely free marketplace of ideas (MOI) look like?
Strap down, this is going to be a long ride and a lot of definitional stuff and background needs to be established at the start.
Over the last couple of days I’ve gotten into late night arguments over the interplay between the free expression of artists and companies (or other collective entities) to create material and the right of other individual and collective entities (such as activist or protest groups) to protest. It’s the old ‘freedom from’ versus ‘freedom to’ issue I’ve banged on about before.
A particular set of sticking points clustered around:
- The difference between exercising individual choice to buy or not to buy something versus an organised boycott.
- The concept of ‘violence’ as wielded by to silence or control others, going beyond actual physical damage or threats to reputational, emotional or fiscal harm.
- How threats etc distort both the FM and the MOI meaning that they can no longer be described as free.
This set of topics was particular difficult for me as I am a left-anarchist and pragmatic socialist, not a libertarian. I don’t not particular believe in the pure value of the FM or the impartial power of the ‘invisible hand’.
In fact, I think the FM as it is expressed in capitalism is often the worst possible choice as a way to run certain things. The classic example of a bad place to apply FM is in medicine. The aim of a medical system and a medical marketplace should be to supply the best possible care to the greatest number of people as cheaply as possible without harming them. In practice this only occurs in socialised medicine where triage is based on need, rather than FM medical systems where triage is based on the size of one’s wallet and people are often still ruined.
An argument can also be made, I think, that aesthetic goals are also not necessarily best served by a system that values profit and money above those goals.
The MOI is something I believe much more strongly in, but even there we have problems. The fact is that being correct, accurate and factual is no guarantee of the ‘fitness’ of an idea. A free market – whether capitalistic or noospheric – is supposed to be analagous to a Darwinian biosphere, where the fittest survive and thrive. The bot-fly in the cheek here is that bad practices and bad ideas can survive and thrive, despite the harm they do to the whole. In the FM this results in things like environmental damage, lying, cheating, stealing, fraud etc and in the MoI this results in things like fearmongering, lying, playing to emotions and people’s laziness and exploiting human psychological tendencies towards faith and groupthink.
Religions, for example, are fantastically successful memeplexes, arguably more successful globally than rationalism and enlightenment values, despite the latter being responsible for so much more that has benefited humanity as a whole while religions and cults such as Scientology or third-wave feminism (winky-face) cause nothing but harm and are very, very distant from enlightenment values of logic and reason.
So I found myself arguing for the ideal version of FM and MOI that I don’t necessarily buy into myself.
To further complicate matters I don’t particularly like arguing about boycotts, having been targeted by one that was particularly vicious and particularly dishonest. Its too personal and I don’ trust myself to maintain the kind of intellectual distance I normally try to muster around these subjects (though I sometimes play up the anger for effect on videos). Indeed, I did lose my rag late in the argument when it became apparent the opposition weren’t in it for a discussion, but for disingenuous ‘lulz’.
Alright, let’s move on to the definitions…
Boycott: “To withdraw from commercial or social relations with (a country, organization, or person) as a punishment or protest (OED).”
A boycott is an organised & directed (see below) attempt to censor or control via a threat of violence (see below).
Censorship: “Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups.” (ACLU).
Censorship is ANY act that silences or attempts to silence ANY form of expression. The true argument is whether an act of censorship or a form of censorship is justified or acceptable. To my mind the best test we have at the moment for that is a cost/benefit analysis derived from JS Mill’s ‘harm principle’. Does this action cause harm? Does it cause more harm than benefit?
Emergent: “In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.”
By way of example, flocking behaviour in birds is an example of emergent complexity. Each bird is acting individually, of its own volition, slightly influenced by its nearest peers. Each bird’s actions are individual and simplistic but the behaviour of the whole is something complex and wonderful that has the appearance of complexity.
Many human actions are emergent and it is a force in societal change, economics, traffic flow and many other aspects, including social trends, runs on the stockmarket etc. Evolution is an emergently complex system. With regard to these topics, genuine grassroots movements – such as Gamergate – are examples of emergently complex systems. People acting individually find themselves suddenly aligned and a new force emerges. Compare and contrast with directed.
Directed: “Controlled, operated, managed or governed” (OED).
Directed actions contrast with emergence by virtue of being hierarchical and intentionally organised and directed. They have leaders, firmly stated goals, brittle but forceful organisation and so on. This may be obvious – in the form of state or corporate hierarchy – or less obvious, as in the case of Koch brothers funding of the Tea Party as ‘astroturf’ (a directed group masquerading as an emergent group).
Groups like No More Page 3 and other organised and directed ‘activist’ operations are of this sort, rather than being emergent. Often a movement will transition from emergence to directed over time, though it can break apart under the strain. The Occupy Movement stands as a powerful example of the risks and problems of transitioning from emergent to directed and that shift is what killed it as an effective force. Gamergate probably needs to transition from an emergent mass-action to a number of directed groups with more defined goals over time, but it remains to be seen if this can or will happen.
Violence: To do violence is to: “Damage or adversely affect”.
My misguided anarcho-capitalist and (big ‘L’) Libertarian semi-comrades make great play of the implicit or explicit threat of statism. The state as an actor is backed by the ability to project force via its courts etc and at the end of all the veneer of civilisation it ultimately comes down to the capacity to force compliance by physical violence.
The state is not the only actor capable of violence in this broader definition. Companies can do violence by leveraging their market-share or buying power to cut out, buy out or marginalise competitors. Activist groups can do reputational damage in terms of public relations issues, they can lie, cheat, play to emotion rather than fact and can wear on the emotional health and sense of security of those they choose to pick on.
The threat of such violence need not necessarily be a bad thing. In a perfect world the threat of police violence helps to maintain a civil society and they act responsibly and in accordance with the proper ideas of fair treatment before the law. On the other hand, Ferguson.
In a perfect world everyone tells the truth and do not abuse the fervid atmosphere around sexual assault allegations for attention or to harass-by-proxy. On the other hand we have the UVA hoax scandal and the damage done by mobs willing to listen and believe, uncritically, and to act before the wheels of a supposedly detached and truth-oriented legal system could turn.
The Actual Argument – Censorship
Boycotts are censorship. They come about as an attempt to silence, control, remove or ruin. They are intended to force a change in behaviour or the removal of a product or form of expression and, as such, they are censorship. They can, confusingly, also be an act of free expression in and of themselves in that you should be able to express disgust, concern etc individually or collectively about a product or form of expression free of interference just as the creator should be able to make it under the same conditions.
The difference between a boycott and individual action or inaction with regard to speech or products is the organisational nature. If I choose not to by the new Thor comic (Ther) because it is poorly written femsploitation, that is me acting individually and not a boycott or an act of censorship or violence. It’s merely an exercising of choice. If you choose to organise a campaign to take breasts off page 3 of The Sun this is a collective action and is, indeed, censorship with an implicit or explicit threat of violence. Even many individuals, independently making the same choice not to buy is not the same as a boycott.
So the argument is whether such acts are justified, for which you need to look to the Harm Principle. Specific arguments and cases are beyond the scope of this piece and there are no hard and fast rules here. It’s an eternal debate but one that I personally would assess to be skewed away from the harm principle in most instances at the moment and instead to be in the realms of dangerous moral panic.
I will, however, note that it seems to be very difficult to get traction for a justified boycott of, say, Apple for their Chinese sweatshops and all too easy to get people worked up over a few lines of text hidden away in an obscure side-track of a computer game. Something is clearly out of whack.
The Actual Argument – Free Markets and Marketplace of Ideas
A truly free market or marketplace of ideas is a platonic ideal that probably cannot exist. There are simply too many things at work that constrict our ability to truly think freely or to operate a truly free market, unimpeded by outside forces.
That said, if you’re advocating a truly free market you cannot be arguing for boycotts, letter writing campaigns to advertisers or anything else that actively seeks to distort a free market. In a free market you would not boycott, you would make your choice and leave others free to make theirs, trusting to the individual actions of people to emergently form the success or failure of whatever it is you take exception to.
To take a case in point with No More Page 3 since it’s well known and provides a good example, the effort is made to distort the market by associating bare breasts in a tabloid newspaper with misogyny, ‘rape culture’ etc and to forcibly shame people into abandoning their patronage of the newspaper via bad publicity. As noted above, it’s the difference between the emergent ‘I don’t like this’ and the directed ‘You shouldn’t buy this’ and pushed forward via dubious tactics, pseudo-science and browbeating, rather than the harm principle.
Boycotts are deliberate and wilful acts to distort the market. The real argument is over whether they’re justified or not.
To use a different example from earlier of the medical system, in order to create a more effective and humane medical system we might want to eliminate the financial free market and replace it with a market that rewards efficiency, provision of care and medical success (low waiting times, high success rates etc) and this is what socialised medicine attempts to do.
When it comes to the marketplace of ideas, keeping a truly free and open mind is incredibly difficult. We are all the product of our upbringing and past influences and it is very difficult for people to give up ideas that they have become wedded to, even if they’re provably and demonstrably false.
This is reflected in the heritability of religious and political affilations (75% with modest defections in free societies) and in the criminal arena people’s unwillingness to admit they’ve been defrauded and continued vulnerability to fraud even after the fraud is revealed. This is how people end up hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt on obvious scams, they simply don’t want to admit they were fooled, or wrong, so they double down.
The argument over whether something is censorship or whether it is against free market or marketplace of ideas principles is separate to whether it is justified or the correct course of action – or ‘right action’ if you want to get Buddhist about it. There is no escaping the fact that if you’re trying to silence someone or something it is censorship. There is no escaping the fact that if you’re trying to strip individual choice of action away, you’re distorting the free market. The question – again – is whether it is justified or not.
Obviously, I’m involved in Gamergate and so lets wrap up by bringing it back to that.
Gamergate is an emergent system, a genuine grass-roots consumer revolt to reassert the desires of the majority market in games (and increasingly geek-media on a broader base) against the directed control of a minority voice that shouts loudly, but often aren’t even consumers of the media.
Some of Gamergate’s actions are censorious and some of them are anti free market.
Many, if not all of their opposition’s actions are censorious and against both the free market and the marketplace of ideas. Especially against the marketplace of ideas, revealed in a great unwillingness to debate honestly, if at all, or to examine their ideas. GG, for all its faults, is much more willing to engage and to thrash out ideas amongst itself.
There’s much that genuinely emerges from GG that I do not agree with and do not participate in, but I do not presume to insist others conform to my personal choices on these issues, nor do I withdraw my support from the overall aims (ethical journalism and anti-censorship) simply because I disagree with parts.
To me, GG is simply a necessary and long-needed counterbalance to the largely unchallenged opposition that has ridden roughshod over consumers and creators with insults, shaming, censorship and distortion for years.
And ye gods, that’s a long essay. Thanks for reading.